“Merdre!” exclaimed Papa Ubu in one of the most scandalous openings in the history of theatre, upon the stage of the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre. Of course, scandal is a necessary part of theatre especially in the French context, where many examples come to mind — Cid, Hernani, for instance, or the various contestations and controversies surrounding Ubu Roi — and, in a sense, this should come as no surprise since good theatre tends to be both moving and titillating, affecting the sensibilities of the audience in a variety of ways. We could say that all the mentioned controversies were those of rationality, of a Logos preoccupied with textual dramaturgies. As opposed to such a narrow viewpoint, something changes over the course of the 20th century. This change is linked to one name in particular: Antonin Artaud, who introduced the concept of a theatre based on a corporeal affectivity involving all the senses. The Artaudian Theatre of Cruelty is capable of reducing the spectator’s response to anguish, by eliciting intense, physical feelings of disgust, queasiness and abhorrence.
Traditionally, the history of theatrical reception has focused on the visual faculty, as the etymology of the word theatron, which designates a “place for viewing” (from the Greek verb theasthai, “to see”); the theatron is where presentation and representation take place. Nevertheless, another theatrical history could also be written: the history of theatre as obscenity. In all ages there have been scenes and sights that were excluded from the stage — the place of exposure and nakedness, vision and uncovering. There are always aspects of life that must remain hidden, invisible, out of sight. The ob skena of Greek theatre, the region beyond the stage, was the space of violence and bloodiness, phenomena which could only be shown to the audience after the event; according to the classical rules of theatre, Oedipus cannot blind himself onstage, although he most definitely can step back onto the stage with empty and bloody eyesockets. In the language of eighteenth-century French theatre, the obscène denotes all heterogeneous elements that cause offense to the eyes of the audience, all objects and behaviors that scandalize. Obscene objects pose a threat to both corporeal and moral sensibilities. Twentieth-century theatre entails a radical departure from previous methods of warding off this threat, and stages come to be filled with scenes similar to Pasolini’s depiction of Oedipus the King, in which the hero, upon seeing the hanged body of his mother on the stage — or rather, on the screen, onscene — gouges out his eyes. Such representations no longer adhere to the rules of Sophoclean dramaturgy set out by Aristotle in his Poetics; rather, they more closely resemble the crude, even barbaric theatre of Seneca, which was an important historical precedent for Artaud, as he himself wanted to stage Thyestes (“The Sufferings of Tantalus”). In the final scene of this play (which is widely considered to be unperformable and is, indeed, rarely staged) there is a feast at which Thyestes feels a queasiness in his stomach, even before he discovers what he has just eaten: “Uh! My stomach’s churning… heaving… The food’s lying heavy on me… It jerked… moaned!” On discovering that he has just consumed his own children, the downward motion of digestion is suspended: “What I did gobble down…their flesh…that horror inside me…it’s writhing, trying to escape!” This indigestability of human bodies (which, incidentally, originated from Thyestes’s own body) is a punishment for the main protagonist’s sins. At least this seems to be the message to be gleaned for the play ends at this precise moment.
This cannibalistic scene strongly informs the only theatrical performance that Artaud realised: namely his staging of Shelley’s The Cenci. At the end of the first act, Cenci, played by Artaud himself, celebrates the death of his son’s enemies by drinking with his guests (among them, the mourning father), as if the liquid were the blood of the dead. The monstre Cenci is not nourished by ordinary meals, but by the blood of victims.
Let’s return to the topic of the feast. At the end of the twentieth century with the demise of the hegemony of vision, Richard Schechner advanced the theory of rasaesthetics. Drawing on the classical Indian tradition of Natyasastra it offers a theatricality that is predicated not on judgement, but on experience and practice. Experience, in the context of rasaesthetics, comes to be thought of as a process of digestion. The process of theatrical performance and reception can be likened to when we prepare, cook, taste and consume a particular food. The reactions of the audience and critics are not dissimilar to those of dinner-guests: if they like the dishes they are served, they won’t want to stop eating, and will leave with pleasant memories; if the food is not to their liking, they will feel unwell and maybe even nauseous. Schechner recognizes that this metaphor can seem stretched at times, especially with regards to the consumption/excretion dichotomy. The latter element — the moment of excretion — is one of the most obscene scenes, a scene that remains hidden even in contemporary theatrical performances.
What do we feel when confronted with scenes of transgressive heterogeneous excrementality? The visitor of contemporary theatres would be hard-pressed to find genuinely scandalous theatrical events. We have seen everything and continue to see everything on a daily basis. Violence, blood, nudity: all these are no longer constrained by taboos; even cruelty fails to elicit strong reactions. We are indifferent to what appears on stage, for it has nothing to do with us. The later adherents of the Theatre of Cruelty forget that, in Artaud, cruelty has a spiritual dimension.
From a spiritual perspective, cruelty is rigidness, consistency and clarity of vision. It is a vision without limitation, imperturbable, a face that ceaselessly looks at the thing from which it would rather turn away. The most everyday and the most monstrous moments of our lives are contained within and elucidated by this cruel vision. As Artaud recognised, there can be no cruelty without awareness and focused, methodical consciousness. Georges Bataille writes in a similar vein: “I will never forget the violent and marvellous experience that comes from the will to open one’s eyes, facing what exits, what happens” (Bataille 1986: 266) To elucidate this point, we would like to consider an eminently non-theatrical text of Bataille’s: Story of the Eye. In the final scene of this fragmented work, entitled “Coincidences”, the narrator relates the incommunicable primordial scene — the hitherto invisible scene, the ob skena — underlying the various episodes described in previous sections of the text. This traumatic scene is the image of the urinating father:
« When I was born, my father was suffering from general paralysis, and he was already blind when he conceived me; not long after my birth, his sinister disease confined him to an armchair. However the very contrary of most male babies, who are in love with their mothers, I was in love with my father. Now the following was connected to his paralysis and blindness. He was unable to go and urinate in the toilet like most people; instead, he did it into a small container at his armchair, and since he had to urinate very often, he was unembarrassed about doing it in front of me, under a blanket, which, since he was blind, he usually placed askew. But the weirdest thing was certainly the way he looked while pissing. Since he could not see anything, his pupils very frequently pointed up into space, shifting under the lids, and this happened particularly when he pissed. Furthermore, he had huge, ever-gaping eyes that flanked an eagle nose and those huge eyes went almost entirely blank when he pissed, with a completely stupefying expression of abandon and aberration in a world that he alone could see and that aroused his vaguely sardonic and absent laugh. » (Bataille 1977: 93)
The father, who experiences the world in a profoundly different way from that of those capable of seeing, is frightening even during the moment of his vulnerability; in fact, the secret of the terror he inspires resides in his very infirmity. In Bataille, this vision of vulnerability informs the entirety of his literary text: « In any case, the image of those white eyes from that time was directly linked, for me, to the image of eggs, and that explains the almost regular appearance of urine every time eyes or eggs occur in the story. » (ibid)
The figure of the despotic father can, of course, be less fearsome and spectral (Unheimliche). Such a father may even come to be regarded as comical or grotesque, such as the old man depicted in a comic scene of Péter Nádas’s Utolsó utáni első órán (On the Last Hour Before First). This figure of senility sits upon a toilet seat, giving out various disgusting, bronchial noises and demands a jug of preserved cherries from his son. This meal is, according to him, the precondition of his “shitting.” His words of gratitude: “One could say that I cannot shit without it. (…) My gratitude shall pursue me even after my death. It tortures me. I remain the sole guarantee of your existence.” In Nádas’s novel, the son can transgress against the father, but only because he too takes his place upon this revolting “throne.” The son’s dependence upon his father changes only because he himself becomes his own father, and his body takes up the position of his father’s body.
The ambivalence of the father-son relationship is even more pronounced in Romeo Castellucci’s truly scandalous play, On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God. In the play, the authentically infirm father, incapable of holding back his excrement, is no longer laughable. During the first half hour of the play, father and son participate in an everyday routine: the son cleans his father. Whether due to the incontinence of the father or the ineptitude of the son, this gesture is always unsuccessful, and must be repeated endlessly. Both become ever more vulnerable, ever more exposed to this uncomfortably public situation: the father’s legs, the son’s clothes and the entire room come to be covered in shit. Yet this is no mere repetition: on the stage, as in real life, nothing can be repeated in the exact same manner. With each change of the diaper, the father becomes ever more ashamed, the son ever more impatient, and their situation ever more perilously hopeless. The depth of their sadness and rage is gradually embodied in the form of aggression. There is no love that could endure this. Or is there? The most beautiful gesture can be observed and felt when the son, after an explosion of frustration and rage, begs for forgiveness while washing his father’s emaciated, exposed and soiled body.
The audience, too, is exposed: to an unpleasant and nauseating smell. Several members of the audience cough and appear to almost suffocate; some even leave the theatre. Castellucci’s performance manages to irritate one of the organs least utilised in theatrical performance: the nose. Yet the strength of the performance does not lie in this circumstance. Rather it resides in the shared loneliness of both father and son, as well as in one of the concluding scenes where an icon-like portrait of Christ comes into view. A dark material of uncertain provenance slowly spreads across Christ’s face: the God Incarnate is flooded with human excrement.
On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God is a play that is at once sacred and profane, for it reveals the sacred in utmost profanity (during the process of cleaning), just as it profanes the most sacred. It must be noted that the introduction of excrement onto the stage also introduces theological issues; as Giorgio Agamben argues in his essay, “The Glorious Body”, the Church Fathers (chief among them Origen, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas) had to find an answer to the question of whether glory could be extended to the act of excretion. In Agamben’s view — which is no doubt influenced by both Walter Benjamin and Maurice Blanchot — resurrected bodies may be interpreted as bodies that have lost their use value, “unworked” bodies, exposed and exhibited empty corporealities. Agamben compares these vacuous bodies to those of dancers, but why could we not extend the analogy to theatre?
In Castellucci’s performance the father is naked, his body soiled with shit; in this pose, his anguished body becomes an Imitatio Christi. This reveals the suffering and redeemed body, for, to use Agamben’s words, “the glorious body is not some other body, more agile and beautiful, more luminous and spiritual; it is the body itself, at the moment when inoperativity removes the spell from it and opens it up to a new possible common use.” (Agamben 2010: 103) Excrement resists spiritualisation; it is the refuse that refuses to disappear. The unformed (informe) and the base material are always already there in every epiphany.
(Translated by Ádám Lovász)
Veronika Darida is professor of aesthetics and theater studies at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary.