The measure of things; notes for the theatre of the future
Certain thinkers say that soul is intermingled in the whole universe, and it is perhaps for that reason that Thales came to the opinion that all things are full of gods.
Aristotle, De anima, I, 5, 411a
It does not matter that we do not believe that common chairs [during stage rehearsals, Ed.] are really trees or rocks, but that we believe to be true what we feel when faced with these objects, pretending that they really are trees or rocks.
K.S. Stanislavskij, The actor’s work on himself
[…] the skill of an artist lies not only in eloquently speaking to us of a real object (a head, a landscape, a human event, etc.), nor in eloquently speaking to us of the beauty of an object; above all they speak to us of the object itself, they explain it to us. A work of art explains the reality that it depicts, it presents and transmits the life experience of the artist and teaches us to look at the thinks of this work in the proper manner.
B. Brecht, Writings on literature and on art
[…] The most beautiful is the object
which does not exist.
Shakespeare, with his razor-sharp, visionary, and metaphysical intelligence, carves into the beating heart of Hamlet, the barbaric tragedy par excellence, and the point of origin of all forms of modernity, one of the most powerful and enigmatic emblems of theatre; the “mirror”. Intent in weaving his unforgiving trap to uncover and unravel the deceitful plots of his mother and uncle, the young and melancholy prince of Denmark - a budding Orestes in a world forgotten by the gods -, explains to the comedians who have come to the ends of the Earth, to the depraved Castle of Elsinore, a very real realm of the flesh and the senses, that “the purpose of acting [...] is, both originally and now, to hold, as it were, a mirror up to nature; to show virtue in its own image, folly in its own image, and the very age and body of time in its form and pressure”.
Nothing could be clearer - and darker - than this play of “objects” and “reflections”, of truth and falsehood, of revelation and concealment; the theatre as a sophisticated heuristic device that draws its origins from reality, yet fatally transforming it into “other” (abandoning it to signs, chimera, caprice...). Theatre that is a reflection of truth, presenting it, evoking it in its absence, mimicking it, pretending to be something it is not, summoning it while denying it. In the intense and cutting attack from Hamlet, a connection immediately forms between the two opposing linguistic poles of the theatrical mechanism; reality and its duplicity, the “truth” and its “double” - tightly bound through the ritual of representation.
Centuries of study crumble before this image, a compendium of all forms of theatrical studies; from the intrepid architecture of Baroque thought more or less imploded by the theorists of the grand siècle to the “realistic” bourgeois liturgies, from Enlightenment to Naturalism, of Diderot and his followers, to the hall of anamorphic mirrors of Turneresque anthropology (a kind of fairground of wisdom), down the line to the neurological reinvention of Aristotle’s Poetics proposed with the recent theory of mirror neurons. Centuries of studies and centuries of theatrical experience, in a shifting array of possibilities emerging from flights of fancy or dives into the sidereal abysses of abstraction on the one hand, and the maniacal striving for particulars, details, and the tangible, bleeding and highly material tranche de vie on the other. Words and things, like in a fascinating enchantment by Velázquez. Theatre and the World, like in a reworking of a Goldoni gag.
In this, our weakened present, a realm of empty façades and virtual seduction, in this, our weakened present, proteiform and fixed in images, in which the very fabric of society is “offset” as “entertainment”, in this, our shifting and fluid present, theatrically fluctuating between the illusion of representation and the truthfulness of performance, Hamlet’s metaphor gains new strength and energy, becoming an essential passage for reinvention of theatrical language. The more reality becomes a trace or noise, fake or a post, the more contact with the origin is lost, and a subtle nostalgia for reality, a touch of presence, seeps between the pages of contemporary theatrical writing. A new grammar of “things” emerges; a measure of our lives and rules for theatricality.
Beyond all discussions over realism and verisimilitude, it is precisely this powerful desire of contemporary theatre to be concretely worldly (or to tangibly measure its distance from the world) that the 2022/2023 season at the Piccolo Teatro di Milano intends to explore, presenting audiences with a rich and variegated catalogue of possibilities to examine the relationship between life and theatre, and the ways to interpret it.
Drawing cues from a meticulous and as objective as possible reading of the Hamletic archetype, the Piccolo’s latest programme offers space for examinations of History that aim to identify the origins of each stage play, or explore the twists and turns of so-called autofiction, travelling again and again along the uncertain ridge that spans between art and reality. The late-baroque trompe l’œil of theatre within theatre, al la Commedia dell’Arte, is wonderfully placed into perspective with reality (which - one should remember - is clearer when viewed from afar!) presented in the form of a pseudo-illuminist adamantine fable or a didactic drama à la manière de Brecht. The true anatomy of feelings and experience dialogues with science (or science-fiction) over the mysteries of the cosmos, complete with disturbing footnotes, like with the liberal staging of the direct and innocent truth of bodies and their irrepressible desires. The theatre-document, perhaps remodulated in line with the classical editing of a novel or a documentary film, counterbalances the limpid mapping of metropolitan solitude, entrusted to a form of theatre that steps off the stage and moves through the city. In a dizzying crescendo, following the common thread of the shows in the programme, one is made aware of the truly theatrical reality of language, of poetry, of fable and lastly of ritual - the final destination of a form of theatre that aims to tangibly identify with the community. In a supreme and radical prophetic claim for the crushing political reality of theatre, Rousseau wrote to D’Alembert in 1758: “Plant a stake crowned with flowers in the middle of a square; gather the people together there, and you will have a festival. Do better yet; let the spectators become an entertainment to themselves; make them actors themselves; do it so that each sees and loves himself in the others so that all will be better united.”
Encoded into the rebus of a concrete and vital theatre that cannot and will not cease, through things, its relationship (both genetic and physiological) with reality, in the precise exchange with reality, theatre thus now finds one of its most profound meanings and its truest pleasures. It is from this point that one of the main ways (perhaps the most important of all?) can be traced to allow the future to be imagined. In its irreducible verity, is theatre, as Artaud knew all too well, not still “the only place in the world where a gesture, once made, can never be made in the same way twice”?