Tag Archives: Antonin Artaud

The Shit/La Merda

‘A text for naked voice and naked body’ photo: Valeria Tomosuolo

Summerhall. Edinburgh Fringe

The Shit/La Merda performed by Silvia Gallerano and written by Cristian Ceresoli

[contains spoilers, although I’m not sure anything can prepare you for the live version]

In The Shit, words might be sung, yes, but the chant never emerges. Invective remains and prevails, so does the howl, the body that shakes out its personal story in an unbroken flow of thoughts/words rendered as sounds (then etched into memory). Shrieks. The deafening din of screams that have been choked. Appeased. Imploded. (Ceresoli)

It’s dark and it’s raining. We stand in the rain outside the ‘Demonstration Hall’ to the sounds of a woman warming up her voice. Which is already inhuman.

The first thing is the space. It’s concrete, stone, an old lecture hall, students perched high up, but it also feels like a building from childhood novels, in the middle of nowhere, strange owl creatures might appear, perhaps there are blood stains in the concrete.

No – but there is a naked woman perched on a high stool. The height makes her small. Her eyes are wild, her lips are red…her hair is in bunches. She’s quietly singing the Italian National Anthem. Perhaps her nudity is the first thing we notice, but later, it’s her voice and her words that take centre stage.

I’ve spent some time wondering what it was that made the stream of consciousness narrative that followed so compelling. It wasn’t just the sense, but the sound. The voice as an extension of the naked body; the unrelenting hammering of words and meanings that bleed into each other. She remained on the high stool throughout. The vocal stream only punctuated by monosyllables: “Yes” and “Me”, are the jumping off points for long vocal dances. The text breaks down at the end of each section, and gradually breaks down throughout the whole piece. In the beginning the sentences are endless, by the end they are a series of monosyllabic words.

Meanings circle, images reappear, she opens with a story about railway tracks, she says she would jump, she says it would take a lot of courage, except she’s using the second person, so is it herself she is referring to? Later she says he…he, her father must have had a lot of courage to jump.  We discover her father is dead, and that this is how he died. His death is beneath the surface of everything she says. She skims over the kind of lines that we don’t often hear in the theatre…‘starving little midgets’… and “Have you ever seen a spastic reading the news?” There’s no censorship here.

I know bigness. So big you can see its material. It’s so big that when the feeling happens down there, you can’t tell what’s going on in there, what’s going on in there. Everything becomes lost. It can be anything, it and what goes on in there, and as long as you don’t die, you survive…..This is what sex was. Death, then sex. I didn’t recognise it at first. This is when I learned that I can close my eyes, fight however I have to, and survive.  Kathy Acker, In Memoriam to Identity

It is a musical text. The music is in the punctuation, the syllables, and the voice. It’s a strong, brilliant voice, but it’s also uncontrolled, with too much vibrato. I thought, it can’t be uncontrolled because she can’t control it; she’s too good for that. And later this was proved when she dipped between two registers: a deeper, chest voice without vibrato, then back to her penetrating higher register, or ‘vocal mask’. She jumps back and forth between the two voices. It was virtuosic.

– I wonder about the sound though. Her voice echoes in this space. With the microphone and amplification on top of the natural reverb, the words merge into each other and are hard to hear. And this is a text I want to hear the whole of. The microphone has become a part of her physicality, a part of this work. But in this venue, I’d consider losing it, or just switching it off…

And what about the body? Meat on stage. Meat me me me me me meh meh …merda. Or at least, that’s how it sounded. This ‘me me me’ happens at the end of each movement, it is the shitting out of all the experiences and words up until that point, it is the body turning itself inside out, rejecting everything, or it is the rape, the howl. The word ‘me’ transforms, it becomes ‘meh’ – which of course, is the same phonetically as the ‘meh’ sound in ‘merda’. – The Italian version comes through…the same phonetic transformation would work in the French version ‘La Merde’, however ‘The Shit’ – phonetically, doesn’t work in the same way. Which is a reminder that this version is a translation. And that Gallerano performs this text in three languages.

And truly
must it be reduced to this stinking gas,
my body?
To say that I have a body
because I have a stinking gas
that forms
inside me?
Antonin Artaud, To have done with the judgement of God (1947)

In this play there are no boundaries between childhood, sex, the body, food, shit, fame, and politics. Not just in the sense that people often talk of a ‘politics of the body’, but Italian politics…just glimpses, fragments of things her father told her, there are no differences in her world. A sentence can begin with the topic of food and end with a rape “you wouldn’t think a handicapped guy could have such a tight grip” begin with body hatred and end with the revolutionary anthem, or the world cup, or VAT, or dolphins.

What the fuck is reason in this life, a life of disease and sex show? Perhaps I had become too polluted, not down there, but socially, as everyone becomes, to be pure even down there in the blood  Kathy Acker, In Memorium to Identity

She tells us that the flag is the male sex. Her words narrate a transformation of the body, or a consumption of the body. Is it out of self-hatred, or out of a desire to somehow become her country, to become what people want to see, or to become something of what her father once was? Whatever the answer, her vision is distorted. Her voice narrates, but is also a channel for this strange swallowing of the self.

I want to attempt a terrible feminine. The cry of the revolt that is trampled underfoot, of anguish armed for war, of the demand for justice.
It is like the groan of an abyss that is opened: the wounded earth cries out, but voices are raised, deep as the bottom of the abyss, voices which are at the bottom of the abyss crying.
Neuter. Feminine. Masculine.

In order to utter this cry I empty myself.
Not of air, but of the very power of sound. I raise up in front of myself my human body. And having cast on it ‘THE EYE’ of a horrible measurement, part by part I force it to reenter me.
Artaud, For the Theater and its Double (1931-36)

She tells us how her father once took her to an aquarium. There she learned that male dolphins rape females, and that a female octopus eats her own limbs. And we discover that the returning themes of her life – rape, the consummation of her own flesh – were born from these childhood memories. She tells us that a woman must transform her body, must submit to men, to get anywhere. A fantasy of escaping her life is blurred with a rape in a warehouse  – she resists the rape because it’s ‘thanks to the Resistance Movement that Fascism is over and our country exists, yes” and the movement descends into the howl of ‘me me me meh meh….’

I wanted my body to be mine. Deep in me I didn’t want it to be theirs. Something in me was revolting. Something in me was screaming, ‘No. No. No.’
So just as I was learning about my own body, I learned this kind of revolt.
No one was going to touch me but me. That’s how all of me felt with a scream. But it didn’t matter how strong I felt it cause the slimy man lifted up my right breast and looked at it… Kathy Acker

In the final movement she eats a dolphin, (she eats the rapist?) she goes to the toilet…(not literally, this is all in the narration) there’s a repeating phrase ‘in my shit’. Everything up until this point fragments and collides with ‘in my shit’.  She shits her life –her father, all the food, the cripple-rapist, her fears, the army, her youth. And then she tries to take it back. The consumption of her shit becomes the consumption of her nation. The Italian anthem returns, another scream, she tells herself to jump….

If only one could taste one’s void, if one could really rest in one’s void, and this void were not a certain kind of being but not quite death either.

I have only one occupation left: to remake myself.
Artaud, From the Nerve Meter (1925)

The Shit/La Merda is intense, dark, searing, powerful, raw. It is satirical but not in the way we usually understand the word. With its collision of the body, food, sex, and rape, it is also an intensely female play, but is written by a man. This is what would be born from a brief, violent meeting between Artaud’s vocal and physical screams and Kathy Acker’s fucked up cut up texts.

Gallerano is an astonishing actor, but don’t let that mask the fact that this is an astonishing piece of writing too.

photo: Valeria Tomosuolo

They brought forth in me the image of that scream armed for war, that terrible subterranean cry.
For this scream I must fall,
It is the scream of the wounded warrior who brushes past the broken walls with a drunken sound of glass.

I fall.
I fall but I am not afraid.
I give up my fear in the sound of rage, in a solemn roaring.
Artaud For the Theater and its Double


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Filed under Edinburgh Fringe, political theatre

Avant-garde theatre: Britain has lost what little nerve it had

There’s something appealing about the term ‘avant-garde’. Perhaps because it doesn’t evoke a particular form of work. In spite of the clichés mentioned here, for me it doesn’t conjure up eyeball munching, nude dancing or a preoccupation with insulting the audience. It’s more about pushing a form to its limits, making the work you want to make and not caring what anyone else thinks. And it’s a bit retro, it conjures up different times, writers such as Antonin Artaud, Tristan Tzara, Alfred Jarry – performance that is obsessive and uncompromising and hard. Avant-garde theatre has sharp elbows. Ironically, the term conjures up the old, not the new. But it’s definitely better than ‘experimental’.

The discussion in the Observer by Vanessa Thorpe references recent comments by Mark Ravenhill, who is talking about the avant-garde within playwriting rather than art/theatre in general. I think it’s within the new writing theatres and playwriting that there is the biggest problem – because most writers depend on being spotted by a producing theatre or company to get their work seen. Of course theatres are rejecting brilliant avant-garde plays by unknown writers. They always have and always will. Beckett’s plays weren’t recognised until he was 47.

“I was simply left wondering how such naive tosh managed to scrape past the Court’s normally judicious play-selection committee.” Michael Billington on Blasted

Sarah Kane on Crave:  “I think of it more as a text for performance than as a play” (Kane cited in Saunders)

It was OK for Kane to say that as she was already seen as a playwright by then. But there’s a risk that if you start to say this kind of writing is not playwriting, then it gets kicked out of the canon, out of the new writing theatres and confined to devised theatre companies (who usually don’t want to work with scripts or writers anyway) and student productions. Or in Kane’s case – the rest of the world where it’s performed regularly.

Looking at Howard Barker proves that something is seriously wrong with the theatre and new writing industry in this country. I love Kane’s work, and her attitude and her writing on theatre. She is incredibly important. But as a playwright, Barker is in a different league. As Kane said – in a few hundred years he’ll be like Shakespeare. The fact that his current work is practically ignored in this country is a crime. He may be a nightmare to work with. I don’t know, never met him. But who cares? He’s the best living British playwright.

Mel Kenyon suggested that Kane couldn’t have gone further “the body of work was absolutely complete”. (About Kane: the playwright & the work)

Maybe that’s how Kane felt at the time, she wrote in 4:48 Psychosis:

How can I return to form,
now my formal thought is gone?

But I disagree with Kenyon, I think she would have kept writing and kept experimenting. She was a writer. You can go further. The worst thing about people’s attitude towards ‘avant-garde’ work is that there is some assumption that it’s all been done – so let’s get back to naturalism and story. It’s harder to do it badly.

As well as this plague of TV style naturalism there’s an obsession with story in theatre at the moment. Theatres, playwrights, competitions, everywhere, looking for writers with ‘stories to tell’. ‘Be very clear about what your story is’.

“Narrative is not destroyed by the non-linear, it is merely disguised. Disguised as something else, which is where the poetry comes in” Mac Wellman

Kane on the Bush theatre:

“If I wrote a report saying a play was absolutely dreadful, I could be pretty sure that it was going to be on in six months, and it was always to do with form”

New writing theatres are drowning in story and naturalism while there’s a drought in experimentation with form and language. Language play is seen as a distraction from character and story. Characters speaking in similar voices are seen as proof the writer doesn’t know their craft. But Kane’s don’t. Barker’s don’t. Wellman’s don’t. Churchill’s don’t. Crimp’s don’t. Beckett’s don’t. Sarah Ruhl’s don’t. Marius Von Mayenburg’s don’t. etc. – those writers use language, form, image, theatrical innovation as an integral part of writing, part of theatre, and not as something that is toyed with to the detriment of the quality of the work.

“I genuinely believe you can do anything on stage. For me the language of theatre is image” Sarah Kane

Part of the problem is in the barriers that are placed between performance art, spoken word, new writing, devised theatre, performance art, academia and ‘the real world’ (London). Artists should have a choice regarding what genre they operate within. If they say it’s a play, then it’s a play. It’s too easy to dismiss avant-garde playwriting as ‘performance writing’ or something ‘other’.

Of course avant-garde theatre has small audiences. We need smaller audiences. Peter Brook said ‘oh for empty seats’ – we need theatres and funders willing to support work that won’t reach large numbers of people in the short term. That’s the work that makes an impact in the long term.

We also need theatres, directors and actors who are able to produce the work. Work that doesn’t fit a three week rehearsal period. And into a – character motivation, character journey, what’s at stake, what’s the subtext – kind of analysis.

This tentativeness in approaching and producing avant-garde plays seems to have something to do with how directors and actors train, differences between university and drama school, a narrow therefore inbred route into London theatres and the wall erected between the work of companies such as the Wooster Group and Odin theatre (for instance) and British new writing. A bit of cross-fertilisation would be good.

In moments of desperation I do haphazard google searches:

‘linguistically innovative plays’

‘directors interested in experimental writing’

‘international playwriting’

etc. It’s pretty futile.

I emailed Mac Wellman, and he replied:

– obviously it wd be better if we cd talk in person.  Of course, doing non-naturalistic work is hard nay where; but you shd persist– one never knows; best wishes, Mac Wellman

It was nice of Mac to respond, and maybe we will talk in person some time. That’s just how it is, we’re all busy, we’re all fighting.


Filed under Playwriting, Theatre, Uncategorized