Season 2023/24

The physical body of words: notes for a one year journey

An immense and dimly lit room. Paintings hang on the walls. The Infanta Margret, Doña Maria Augustina de Sarmiento and Doña Isabel de Velasco, her dwarf and her mastiff… Don Diego is at the easel. There is a mirror there, at the end of the room, next to the door, which is ajar. Two figures emerge from the darkness, framed by a curtain... me? you? Of course not! Look closer; it is the Planet King and Queen Mariana of Austria. In 1966, Michel Foucault, intent on understanding the impossible and dizzying geometry of gaze and refraction created by Velasquez in his famous enigma Las Meniñas, uncovered the archaeology vital to setting out and orienting his philosophical study on the origins of human science, formulating a shocking antithesis – or hendiadys? –: “les mots et les choses”, words and things. This titanic clash - or insatiable embrace – is our point of departure.

Words and things. Having, last season, exhausted the examination of the relationship between reality and representation, after having concentrated on the rebus of existence, the Piccolo Teatro di Milano’s study of developments in theatrical experience at the beginning of the new millennium now, fatally, alights on the mystery of language. Having overcome the inclination towards the aphasia of so much New Theatre, having dominated the fascination for the splendid and dazzling tableaux of the late-Twentieth-Century Image Theatre – an extreme expression of the avant-garde, of happenings and the post-dramatic drift –, now at the dawn of the 21st century, theatre seems to be facing an impassioned and radical rediscovery of the word. “(1) In the beginning was the Word”, explained John, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (2) The same was in the beginning with God. (3) All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. (4) In him was life; and the life was the light of men; (5) And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not”. Contemporary theatre is animated by a dense and visceral form of word; it is plastic, material, dynamic and tactile. It is to be savoured and modelled, sculpted and trained. A word that resonates in space. A word that takes form, becoming gesture and action, creating conflict. Besides, is it not also John who teaches us that: “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us”? Not an abstract idea or concept, but rather flatus vocis; a sigh that caresses and tickles, a flaying cry, laughter that coddles and taunts, a groan that leaves us soft and tender. The 2023/2024 programme for the Piccolo Teatro is a veritable “physics of the word”. A physics of the word, always ready to transform into anatomy. A detailed examination of the word and its varied theatrical uses and registers, its many possibilities. Its many forms and declinations. Reaching towards multiple horizons. Pushing towards distant latitudes. Flowing from tragedy to comedy. The theatrical word is, first and foremost, understood through its dialogue with literature, beginning with the grand mechanism of the novel, Bakhtinesquely nourished on history and philosophy, weapons and loves, courtesy and audacious trials. An endless era that embraces the living and the dead, and even music and poetry. The word is then explored on the more precise theatrical terrain of dramaturgy; from its classic form to its “critical” Twentieth- and post-Twentieth-century reinventions, driven by autofiction, citationist pastiche, didactic agreement, narration, documentary investigations and sociological portraits, as well as grotesque excursions into the absurd and into nonsense. Liberated from the more orthodox rules of grammar, the word then extends, multiplies and becomes more powerful, interweaving with other languages, and from a springboard for the gags of Goldoni’s “improvised comedy”, passes to representation, serving as a constituent cell and paradigm of choreographic expression. And beyond. Finally becoming a generative (and fatally transformational) matrix of performance and installation. A word that is, that grows, and that lives, as in the drama landscapes of Gertrude Stein. It is in the ekphrasis of the word that references the landscape that we reach what may be the most profound and genuine point of this gentle yet violent encounter with words. A secret and unnamed place that radically interrogates and questions us. “O flock at peace, O happy creatures, I think you have no knowledge of your misery! How I envy you!”, sang Leopardi’s nameless shepherd, as he wandered the endless high plains of Asia in the pale moonlight. In his animalesque essence as a wordsmith, where does mankind find his most personal and genuine nature? And what is the relationship between the so-called “Anthropocene”, or age of mankind, and language? Does the word annihilate or forge nature and reality? As in Armida’s enchanted garden by Tasso, in a dizzying play of reflections that is ideal as always when speaking of theatre, art and nature, words and things, have now, for us, become indistinguishable: “So with the rude the polished mingled was/That natural seemed all and every part, Nature would craft in counterfeiting pass/And imitate her imitator art.”
Claudio Longhi