Theater as Simulation, or the Virtual Overcoat: Towards a Theater of the Postmodern

'The Burial'. Scenes from 'The Overcoat' #2535,5. Dir. Jacques, November 1998. Photo: D. Galanternik.  'Map of the City'. Scenes from 'The Overcoat' #2535,5. Dir. Jacques, November 1998. Photo: D. Galanternik.  'Raking'. Scenes from 'The Overcoat' #2535,5. Dir. Jacques, November 1998. Photo: D. Galanternik.

 

For over an entire century theater has existed as make-believe, as it has tried to create the illusion of reality on stage by developing the notion of empathy in order to stimulate the spectator emotionally. For over three quarters of a century this conventional, realistic theater has coexisted with a “theater as theater” that opposes these principles and seeks instead to push the spectator towards a rational response to the stage events, to make him aware of the spectacle, and to use its effects and attractions to enhance theatricality.

Cultural history, be it in theater, cinema, architecture or the visual arts, has always benefited from the tension between two dominant principles, such as for example the contrast between kul’tura 1 and kultura 2 as explained by Vladimir Paperny in his seminal study of architecture (especially the 1930s); the binaries of vertical and horizontal organising principles, of centrifugal and centripetal movements in culture; the opposition in theater between verisimilitude and stylisation, realism and abstraction, reality and dream. It is this tension between two polar opposites (rather than its resolution) that provides a source of artistic creative energy; the achievement of a synthesis would imply stasis, since any state of order that removes chaos and movements is, in artistic and cultural terms, unproductive. If we are searching for a new theater, then we should not be looking for a synthesis of these theatrical forms.

However, poles develop: global warming brings even the ice to melt. I would suggest that the paradigm of “theater as an illusion of reality” needs to be reconsidered in terms of its definition in a time in which reality has been superseded by virtual reality. Cultural theories have long been investigating the notion of simulacra, and maybe the time has come to begin looking for new forms in theater that can represent or accommodate such simulacra, a theater that deals with virtual reality. In literature and drama of the postmodern period attention has shifted more and more toward inner mental worlds that do not offer a straightforward conventional dramatic conflict and therefore require a different, more intimate kind of theatrical space. In order to find adequate scenic solutions, many directors have withdrawn into studio spaces, or converted the standard theatrical stage by reducing its space and that of the auditorium, or by inverting the two.

For the theater, the playful structures that have been explored in these experiments with the spatial relationship between the stage and the auditorium echo the playfulness that forms part of postmodernism, and which may hold the key for a new form of theater that rejects and develops at once the principles of ‘theater as illusion’. Postmodernist literature engages in a creative play with the past (history and its parodic treatment), with language (its deconstruction) and with form and genre (variations of generic forms). The creative play with the word forms the basis of Anatoli Vasiliev, where the actor is effaced entirely behind the text that acquires a new significance in the empty space and through repetition and variation. Playfulness with the text also lies at the heart of the theater of Eimuntas Nekrosius, who, having reduced the actual text to a minimum, makes it resound newly through a series of images that counter-act the words. For Nekrosius, Shakespeare’s text often serves as a springboard for his visual fantasies where, in places, images acquire a life of their own and visual sequences develop along their own internal laws rather than along the laws of the text. Through the exploration of playful structures in the text contemporary directors seek to develop the art form of theater.

The visual representation may be incongruous with the text. If we consider Jean Baudrillard’s “phases” of the image and the image’s relation to the word and reality, then the first phase of “reflection of a profound reality” can be connected to the concept of a “theater as illusion” and Stanislavsky’s aim to achieve verisimilutude and the perfect reflection of reality on stage; Brecht’s or Meyerhold’s “theater as theater” would “mask and denature a profound reality”; the theater of the absurd “masks the absence of a profound reality”; and finally, in the fourth phase, we encounter a new form of theater that bears “no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum”. (Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, Michigan, 1994: p.6). This theater explores not reality, but its surface; it does so in the full awareness that this surface is not reality. Such theater is concerned with the surface rather than meaning, just like Gogol’s Akaki Akakievich is concerned with the shape of the word rather than the content of the text. We may wish to call this theater “conceptual”, although it forms part of a much larger movement. Mikhail Epstein has written about conceptualism that it “is a new form of conventionality that denies mythic unity as something inauthentic and inorganic. A concept is an idea attached to a reality to which it can never correspond, giving rise, through this intentional incongruity, to alienating, ironic or grotesque effects.”(Mikhail Epstein, ‘Metarealism and Conceptualism’ (1983), in Russian Postmodernism, New York and Oxford, 1999 Mark Lipovetski, Russian Postmodernist Fiction: Dialogue with Chaos, New York and London, 1999. p. 106.) Epstein here lays down the fundamental principles for conceptualism in literature and art, but the question that interests us here is the extent to which they are applicable to the theater. Can theater attach ideas to reality and labels to objects whilst keeping those two levels separate? Can theater detach signs from reality? Can the stage world exist separately from the text’s meaning and substance? This would mean that the reality of the text has no bearing on the stage world, but that images consciously simulate realities which have no relation to the text. It would suggest a theater where the actor produces signs, where words are not used to relate meaning(s) to the spectator. In such a theater “form falls away from substance and meanings become detached from objects” (Epstein). The text is not illustrated, it is not used to fill the scenic space; meaning and image are incongruous. Words become sounds, they lose their meaning and acquire instead a new quality: images are created from words mentioned in passing in a text. These images are inflated to entirely new, independent visual worlds, that do not represent the real but simulate an existence under different, but precise and concrete conditions.

The RussianImpostureMasterclass

The RussianImpostureMasterclass calls itself the first concept theater in Russia. The group began with a performance entitled RussianImpostureMasterclass: The First Steps, based on the works of the leading Moscow conceptualists Vladimir Sorokin, Dmitri Prigov and Lev Rubinstein, who remythologise and deconstruct Socialist Realist discourse, and explore the self through its accidental intersection with the surrounding world (Rubinstein’s card catalogue principle). The conceptualists share a concern with discursive power: language has the power to create utopias and destroy them, to dictate and define. For conventional theater this preoccupation with discourse is highly unattractive, since it offers little scope for visual and psychological exploration. Sorokin’s ‘dismorphomanic’ outbursts, his obscene and abusive language combined with conventional dramatic discourse, have long been an obstacle to his plays finding their way to the stage. Furthermore, the preoccupation with discourse leaves the issue of the visual representation wide open. The intonation or musicality of the dialogue may be effective for radio performance, but certainly offers few cues for the stage. Instead of illustrating the text, the theater had to find a way of creating a visual incongruence to the text, a world borne out of, but independent of, the text’s content. The chaos resulting from the linguistic deconstruction had to find an (anti-)reflection in the visual harmony offered on stage.

After first experiments with the prose and plays of Vladimir Sorokin ‘Russian Imposture Masterclass’, headed by Zhak (Vadim Zhakevich), staged Sorokin’s play The Ditch. Sorokin undermines the discursive power of language by reducing it to non-sensical fragments or by slipping into obscenities. In this linguistic chaos lies a permanence, a new order, or stasis, which provides the rhythm of a ritual with its slowly paced movements for the performance. While Sorokin’s dialogue constantly borders on vulgarity, the stage world created by the designer (Zhak) is beautiful, white and clean to the degree of sterility: all the soldiers wear either military uniforms, or long, white underwear; even the lamps and the feet of chairs are covered with dustcovers.

Sorokin’s play moves back to the time of the Great Patriotic War as five soldiers await further orders in a ditch. They pass their time eating porridge, drinking tea, smoking, drinking spirit, and eating corned beef. Their physical action provides a circular structure for the play. On the verbal level, they listen to reports from the newspaper that are read out by one of the soldiers; they repeat war and party slogans; or they talk about themes that preoccupy them, such as frost and sweat (the freezing cold and its antithesis), food and sex (both of which they do not have). The dialogue is interspersed throughout with obscene language. Thus, for example, the newspaper language is subjected to a series of linguistic experiments that digress into obscenities and thereby reduce the contents of the articles to the absurd: the newspaper reports are presented like recipes for cooking, description of church rituals, instructions for painting floorboards; they offer praises of Lenin in blank verse, descriptions of war action embedded in sexual obscenities that give the text the form of nursery rhymes, acronyms for combinations of nouns and the adjective ‘purulent’ (‘ãíîéíûé’) or an account of the latest events at the front line with the adverbial phrase ‘rotten’ (‘ïî-ãíèëîìó’) repeated after every phrase. The soldiers themselves have nothing to say and are therefore reduced to express themselves through repetition and reading, or through abusive language. They undergo a process of linguistic degeneration that leads eventually to their physical destruction as the logical consequence. The violence is exclusively verbal, set against an almost gentle and tender theater language. Lipovetski draws a parallel between Sorokin’s text and the theater of cruelty: ‘… in Sorokin, as in Artaud, the act of cruelty, recreated with naturalistic obviousness, violates the boundary between text and reader inherent in traditional discourses.’ Lipovetski 1999, p.216).

Zhak creates an abstract space: a white stage borders onto a white back wall with a hole in the shape of a television screen, while some wooden heads or nails form seats for the soldiers. The stage floor is gradually covered with 36 square sheets that are, to begin with, folded in conic shapes and placed like a row of little pyramids across the stage. Once the sheets are unfolded, the floor cover reveals a bear (the logo of the theater) in black on white. This design is carefully covered with transparent foil. Later, sheets of paper are spread over the bear so that the floor is just white. The space becomes more and more sterile, so that it resembles a museum of history in which the past is covered, layer by layer. The actors take off their uniforms and appear instead in white overalls (underwear), wearing white hoods and white cotton bags, that are tied like dustcovers around their feet (instead of socks). As the past is covered under the layers of the floor, the actors take off their uniforms: covering and unveiling are antithetical, but also parallel actions in the RussianImpostureMasterclass. If for the artist Christo the act of covering serves to uncover something new, then here the act of uncovering implies covering something else. This is well illustrated by the actress (not from Sorokin’s play) who appears several times during the performance. She sets a colourful counterpoint to the black-and-white stage world: her body is tied into a leather-and-fur corset that leaves her nipples free. She serves tea, and later she holds a mirror so one of the soldiers can shave. She represents the sexual desire that informs part of the discourse, yet she is no fetish, since her action contradicts her appearance: she fulfils the function of a maid serving tea. She wears masks and holds mirrors, combining in her character both parallel (mask and mirror disguise) and antithesis (the mask covers, the mirror reveals) at once. At the end of the production, just before the final destruction, the image of Brueghel’s winter landscape is projected onto the back wall: the peace before the war devastates the ditch, leaving the stage white and empty. The static quality of Brueghel’s work is of particular interest for this theater.

Such playful readings of the text as a linguistic playground serve for RussiamImpostureMasterclass to explain the text and counteract it at the same time. The work on Sorokin’s texts prepared the ground for the reading of other texts in a similar vein, exploring associations triggered not by the word’s primary meaning, but by word fields or sounds that are associated with or derived from words or phrases in the text. This approach allowed RussianImpostureMasterclass to find a vital key for staging Sorokin, but also to open a new dimension hidden under the ‘meaningful’ surface of other texts.

Conceptualism and Gogol

You cannot place a man in an absurd situation if the whole world he lives in is absurd. … Akaki Akakievich, the hero of The Overcoat, is absurd because he is pathetic, because he is human and because he has been engendered by those very forces which seem to be in such contrast to him. (Vladimir Nabokov)

RussianImpostureMasterclass has, for several years, been working on a project that places Gogol’s Overcoat in the context of the 20th century; it consists of a radio project “Notes about the Overcoat” and a CD that have already been completed; an exhibition and installations of films transposing Akaki Akakievich into the contemporary world; and a three-part theater project that traces the journey of the book, the journey of man, and the journey of the soul. Part I (The Journey of the Book) was shown in November 1998 during the NET (New European Theater) festival in Moscow, entitled Overcoat #2737,5. The production follows on from the discoveries made with conceptualist texts. Zhak uses text as a springboard for the simulation of virtual worlds and journeys into virtual realities.

The production begins with a man dressed in a white suit as worn by astronauts and protective glasses entering the stage to take a sample from the white snow (plastic granulates) that is spread across the 8 meter diagonal circle located on the centre of the black stage. The same man (this is in fact Zhak himself) appears again at the end of the performance to cordon off the circle, protecting the sterility and whiteness of the artificial landscape. Both the slow pace of his movements and the emphasis on purity thus thematically frame the production. The title of the piece (Overcoat # 2737,5) and the initials of the character (A.A.) are projected onto the snow circle. The surface of the snowy circle changes: it is flat to begin with, then disturbed by the concentric circles that form as the rings are inflated; with the help of projections it then appears as a wavy surface of an ocean, or a fragmented surface of a map; it is eroded through the flicking away of an (imagined) fly, then through shots fired into the snow which cause micro-explosions; it is raked by three women to give it a linear structure of a ploughed field; it serves as a burial ground for Akaki Akakievich, and as a lunar landscape with balloons lit from the inside which are gradually inflated in the finale. The circle is, like text for Akaki Akakievich, a surface onto which images derived from the Gogolian narrative can be projected or reflected. For Gogol’s Akaki Akakievich language has no meaning, which is why he mostly uses particles and adverbs and perceives streets like the lines of a text.

The first scene proper presents the two actors (Ko and Ma) who appear ‘instead of A.A.’. Just like the snow circle and the circular frame of the scientist probing and sealing the snowy landscape, this scene contains also a circular structure. The actor Ko pronounces his text for A.A., then addresses a spectator whom he invites to have a feel of the snow, and then takes half way round the circle where the spectator is met by Ma (the second A.A.), who takes her back to the front of the circle and accompanies her back to her seat before Ma speaks his text, the same as Ko. The circularity of the movement is repeated and reinforced by the repetitiveness and circularity of the text. At the beginning of the production, during the scientist’s inspection, a huge egg is released from the triangular supply bar suspended above the circle; it marks the centre of the circle, and could also symbolise the beginning of life, the birth of the earth. This precedes the appearance and introduction of the two A.A.s, their birth as characters. There are thus three concentric circles as a frame for the production: the scientist, the two A.A.s, and the fall of the egg. The scene of the birth or emergence of the characters is immediately followed by death: A.A. is buried under the granulates while three women in black mourn his death.

A.A. rises from the burial grounds as a march sounds with the enthusiastic tones of a May Day parade: A.A. emerges to the intonations of Soviet slogans, through which Gogol’s text is filtered. He is resurrected by sounds that are incongruent to the words: he is an artificial “Soviet” man, a hybrid of Russian and Soviet culture. The sound of a fly disturbs the idyll of the two men. Ko’s Akaki Akakievich tries to flick the fly away with his fingers, splattering the granulate around. The buzzing of the fly turns into the noise of arms’ firing, while the flicking of the granulates develops into a series of mini-explosions of shells on the surface: a war reigns; yet this is just a game. This scene illustrates well the playfulness of conceptual theater: images and sounds follow an independent associative chain and give a result (war), which is absurd and grotesque.

A map of St Petersburg is projected onto the circle, through which the two A.A.s walk. The projection reflects Akaki’s concern with the streets, alleys and squares, words recurring throughout the text. It soon turns into a sea: a mere drop in the ocean of the price of the overcoat (p.126); as though he were on the high seas (p.133) are the phrases that allow for this transposition. The two actors dress as sailors and sing a song to the accordion. The mooing of cows takes us away from the city-sea to the countryside wherethree women in white work the surface of the circle with rakes. A.A. peels and egg that is part of the lunch which one of the women has prepared, while one woman brings on the large egg and stands on it, reading a book. A picture that is reminiscent of the Soviet kolkhoz as much as of Pieter Breughel’s painting of the harvest (1565) with its neatly raked fields and statuesque figures. Having observed her statuesque pose for a while, A.A. puts on black sleeves and takes an abacus to work out the cost of the overcoat. Meanwhile, Ma reads a list of phrases from the Gogolian text that contain numerals. This is how the total of 2737,5 is arrived at: it is the sum total of all the numbers in the narrative. A.A. again turns to the audience, bringing the second structural circle to a closure by declaring that there is no overcoat. He deprives the narrative of its driving force and the hero of his raison d’être; instead, he presents the audience with an absence, with a void. Internally lit balloons pop up in the circle, that comes to resemble a lunar space; this final image is accompanied by the noise of communication between earth and a rocket preparing take-off, with parts of Gogolian text.

“Dismorphomania”

Gogol’s text is deconstructed and refracted through the slogans of the May Day Parade; through the communications with the rocket; as a list of items with indication of quantity; or as a menu. The text is reduced to meaninglessness: “the shock effect itself arises as a result of the visual, but not at all philosophical, compatibility of the ritual-mythological structures for producing order with the semantics of the total elimination of meaning (obessmyslivanie), that is, with a world model of chaos” (Lipovetski 1999, p. 217). The breakdown of the text’s conventionally assumed meaning goes hand in hand with a harmonious visual score and a musical arrangement ranging from Mozart through Edith Piaf to Tom Waits and Janice Joplin which repeats the dissonance between classical and modern, between conventional and abusive in conceptualist discourse. The chaos of the discourse gives rise to cosmic harmony in visual terms: chaos seeks to appear united.

The pace of the production is very slow, often pauses are held excessively; yet this serves to enhance the stasis and the ritualistic manner of the production. Zhak creates a circular image for a circular structure of the production. The circular form is maintained throughout, while the surface is subjected to a series of visual and physical ‘assaults’ that disturb and upset the flat and tidy appearance. This circle is at the same time divided into two halves by a series of contrasting principles that underscore the dialogic principle of the production. The tri-partite frame of the production combines polar opposites: sterility is tested at the beginning of the show and preserved, or sealed off, at the end; the substitution of character is followed by the absence of the object; and the earth associated with the egg from which everything hatches is complemented by an image of a lunar space in the finale.

Within this frame, the dialogic structures continue: the birth of the character (A.A.) is followed by death; A.A.’s resurrection is followed by destruction and war; and the city-sea motive is complemented by a scene in the countryside. In the end, the binaries are not merged, the opposing principles not resolved; instead, they coexist in harmonious tension, the harmony being a result of the structural balance and the eternal, permanent and static form of the circle. Lipovetski has argued that playful structures are an essential feature of postmodernism and conceptualism, combining the creative with the eternal. In Overcoat, we see the play with words and the playful journey into different worlds and times. A different beauty is born out of the chaos of the journey and the havoc it wreaked onto the neat and even surface of the snow circle. Atthe end, the circle is still static, but lit with numerous balloons that create a more beautiful image than at the beginning: human chaos leaves traces, but does not destroy cosmic harmony. The work with the surface does not preclude aesthetic harmony at the end.

As another maker of an ‘Overcoat’, the animator Yuri Norstein, commented quite correctly after the performance: this production has nothing to do with “The Overcoat”. Instead, it exposes the text as a linguistic phenomenon, read by the director with that ‘creative mind’ that Nabokov spoke of in his lectures. Overcoat #2737,5 is a play with the text, a play which empowers language to create new worlds that are independent of the immediate reality, that are made from words and phrases which simulate another visual world, and that bare and fill their own cosmic space.

Birgit Beumers teaches film theory at the University of Bristol, UK. She is a regular contributor to ARTMargins.

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