Eroticism and Death in Theatre and Performance by Karoline Gritzner (University Of Hertfordshire Press) Exploring a range of topics, including Greek tragedy, Shakespearean theater, contemporary British plays, opera, and the theatricality of Parisian culture, this compilation provides new perspectives on the relationship between Eros and Death in a series of dramatic texts, theatrical practices, and cultural performances. Detailed and analytical, these informative essays demonstrate how changing attitudes towards sexuality and death—opposed but entangled passions—were reflected in theater throughout the course of history. Psychoanalytical and philosophical models are also referenced in this work that features essays from dramatists Dic Edwards, David Ian Rabey, and David Rudkin.
Eros and Death are the two central drives and compulsions of the human psyche, Land their dynamic interconnectedness has been pervasive in the formation of Western thought and culture. The essays brought together in this collection offer new perspectives on the eros/death relation in a wide selection of dramatic texts, theatrical practices and cultural performances.
Topics explored range from Greek tragedy, Shakespearean theatre, the work of Georg Buchner, Bertolt Brecht, the kiss of death in opera, the theatricality of Parisian culture, to the performance of conjuring, contemporary British drama, body art, the live performances of Nick Cave, and erotic encounters in One to One performances.
Many of the essays locate their discussions of erotic desire and death as conflicting and entwining passions in specific cultural-historical contexts and provide a sense of how drama and theatre reflect and influence changing attitudes towards sexuality and death. As well as offering particular historical perspectives, the collection contains essays that engage with contemporary dramatic writing and experimental theatre/performance practice, such as the drama of Howard Barker, the performance work of La Fura dels Baus, and the explicit body performances of Ron Athey.
The book combines theoretically informed criticism (drawing on psychoanalytical and philosophical models by Freud, Bataille, Lacan, Zizek, Lingis and others) with detailed text and performance analyses, giving a sense of the powerful appeal that death and the erotic exert on the human imagination.
The collection also includes essay contributions by dramatists David Rudkin, Dic Edwards, David Ian Rabey and an Afterword by Howard Barker.
Karoline Gritzner is a Lecturer in Drama and Theatre Studies at Aberystwyth University. Her research interests include contemporary British drama, modern European theatre, gender and sexuality, aesthetics and Critical Theory. In 2004 she co-organised a symposium on 'Theatrical Aesthetics of Eroticism and Death' at Aberystwyth University.
Excerpt: `A space must be maintained or desire ends.' (Anne Carson)
In his novel The Golden Ass, the second-century Latin writer Lucius Apuleius recounts the Greek love story of Eros and Psyche. Aphrodite (Venus to the Romans), the goddess of beauty, love and sexuality, is jealous of the beautiful maiden Psyche, and commands her son Eros (Cupid), the god of love, to strike Psyche with his arrow of desire and make her fall in love with the ugliest man on earth. Eros, however, becomes enamoured with Psyche himself. Aphrodite is enraged by this and curses Psyche never to find a suitable husband. Eros keeps visiting her in the darkness of the night and makes love to her, but leaves before sunrise so that she cannot see him. One night a drop of oil from the lamp falls on Eros's shoulder and wakes him. Psyche recognises him but Eros flies away, leaving her behind, abandoned and sick at heart. Psyche begins a long and painful search for her lover; enslaved by Aphrodite, she is forced to perform impossible tasks. Aphrodite wishes her to die but Psyche's desire for Eros, despite causing her pain and suffering, keeps her alive. Eventually she is reunited with Eros and becomes immortal. They have a daughter called Hedone (Voluptas) — the goddess of 'sensual pleasures'. According to the myth, Psyche experiences desire, love and sexuality in a context of conflict and danger. Greek mythology and art depict her with butterfly wings because in ancient Greek the word 'psyche' (soul) also meant butterfly. These details become significant when we remember that the Greek god Thanatos (death) is the son of Nyx (night) and Erebus (darkness) and a twin of Hypnos (sleep). He is often depicted as a winged god (like Eros) with a sword in his belt; or as a slumbering youth with a torch held upside down and carrying a wreath of poppies, or a butterfly.
Mythology tells us that love, sexual desire and death co-exist as conflicting yet complementary forces in the human psyche. Theatre and theory, from the ancient world to the present day, have explored the embodiments and conceptual constellations of sexuality, desire and death in a multitude of ways. Sigmund Freud, for example, was fascinated by the personifications and dramatisations of (unconscious) mental processes in Greek myths. In his groundbreaking psychoanalytic explorations of the human mind, formulated in studies such as Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) and 'The Ego and the Id' (1923), he distinguishes two classes of instincts which exist in an opposing yet complementary relationship: the life instincts (Eros) and the death drive (Thanatos). This is a refinement of his previous theory that the individual's instinctual needs are dominated by the pleasure principle, which rules our unconscious, the id, and aims for immediate wish-fulfilment. The pleasure principle is held in check by the reality principle, the ego's way of accounting for reality by means of repressing the id. But such a theory could not explain the origins of the destructive tendencies of the mind, such as the repetition of painful, traumatic experiences, which is not in the interests of the ego or the libidinal id. This led Freud to the discovery of the death drive. Eros is self-preserving and life-creating desire, and is often used as an umbrella term for sexual instincts (which create an energy known as libido). The sexual instincts are counterbalanced by the death drive, whose aim is destruction: to 'lead organic life back into the inanimate state'.
Despite the dualistic presentation of both kinds of drive, Freud emphasised that they exist in a relationship of interdependence and fusion. `We perceive that for purposes of discharge the instinct of destruction is habitually brought into the service of Eros' — for example, in forms of aggressive sexuality such as sadism. But in his work after the First World War and in the face of personal loss (the death of his daughter), Freud no longer perceives the aggressive instincts merely as 'derivatives of Eros' but addresses the dominance of the death drive in modern society and culture. In his famous study Civilisation and its Discontents (1930) he draws our attention to the paradox that civilisation, in order to fulfil its aim to establish safe and peaceful conditions of human co-existence, has to repress and control individual instincts and desires. As a result of the pressures of evolution, the aggressive instincts have become externalised into the world where they appear as forms of social and political violence such as war. The sexual impulses, too, are subject to control and repression by civilisation, which prevents happiness but, on the other hand, seems necessary for the maintenance of stability. For Freud, the conflict between civilisation and the human instinctual life is open-ended, but what cannot be denied is the marked tendency towards aggression in society — a manifestation of the death drive on a wider social and cultural level.
Cultural theorists after Freud have argued along similar lines. The Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse, for example, argued that capitalist society was a system of repression and domination that produced pseudo-individuals with artificial needs and reified consciousness. He saw a revolutionary potential in the struggle between the pleasure principle and the reality principle (which he termed 'performance principle') if individuals consciously devote their lives to the pursuit of pleasure and the gratification of their sexual desires. Emancipated sexuality (the liberation of Eros) represented for him a radical critique of the 'surplus repression' resulting from capitalist discipline, control and manipulation of individual needs.
According to the postmodernist philosopher Jean Baudrillard, the capitalist order is no longer structured on the basis of contradictory forces of production (pleasure versus reality) but has become an overwhelming sphere of consumption: 'Today the whole system is swamped by indeterminacy, and every reality is absorbed by the hyperreality of the code and simulation.' Furthermore, so-called 'liberated' sexuality has itself become a sign of reification and, like the other forces of production, economic growth and general rationalisation, it appears (or is socially 'staged') as an inverted manifestation of the death drive. Our system 'undertakes to abolish death and, for this very purpose, erects death above death and is haunted by it as its own end'.6 Martin Heidegger, too, spoke of the necessity to arrive at an authentic relationship with death, and to recognise that death is finitude and nothingness and always already part of our existence. We can experience individual freedom only if we consider our existence as a Being-towards-death.
It seems that in modern society the Freudian 'repressed' returns in the form of repression itself — as the subjugation of individual life and experience under the 'monstrosity of absolute production" and arrested consumption.
In this globalised context of growing social and natural 'damage' (Adorno), any attempt to redirect the focus of attention to the sphere of individual instinctual life may seem obsolete and ineffective, unpolitical even. Not so, however, if we acknowledge the labour of the imagination which is involved in our conceptualisations of and aesthetic responses to the drives and compulsions of the human body and psyche. In our attempts to 'make sense' of Eros and death we rely on the powers of our imagination; enter the worlds of drama, theatre and performance.
The embodiment of elemental and psychological forces in the mythological world of ancient Greece was carried over into Greek theatre where, especially in the aesthetic form of tragedy, the conflict between life/ love and death is dramatised as an agon (`struggle', 'battle') between the mortal hero or heroine and the gods. The transgression of boundaries is a key principle of tragedy, its primary motivating force, and recognisable in acts such as Oedipus (unknowingly) killing his father and marrying his mother, Antigone's defiance of the laws of the polis, or Electra and Orestes's murder of their own mother. What fascinated Nietzsche about ancient Greek tragedy was precisely its dramatisation of instinctual desires and urges in which pleasure and pain are intertwined. In an adaptation of Schopenhauer's dualism of 'will' and 'representation', Nietzsche proposes a vision of Greek culture as a battle between the gods Dionysus and Apollo — a conflict between the spirit of ecstasy, intoxication, irrationality and self-oblivion, and the principle of order, reason, creativity and beauty. It is significant that the Dionysian in Nietzsche's theory contains both life-affirming and destructive elements — Dionysian frenzy is excessive and boundary-breaking and can lead to death. Hence Nietzsche's qualification of the Dionysian as the primary instinctual force which combines Eros and Thanatos. The Dionysian is the irrational, transformational energy (the libidinal force of existence) which became restrained in later developments of Greek tragedy (according to Nietzsche, in the work of Euripides, which emphasised rationalism and the Apollonian principium individuationis). The aesthetic genre of tragedy reveals the powerful effects of desire, sexuality and death on the individual. Notwithstanding Plato's caution against the unmoral effects of theatre on the polis and Aristotle's attempts to 'defend' theatre by harnessing its 'dangerous emotions' in the process of catharsis: the form of tragedy has always attracted us precisely because it offers a glimpse of the unknowable and ultimately unrepresentable world of human desire, passion, love, sex, violence, pain and death. The associations of theatre with death are longstanding in the Western tradition.
Moving into the context of modernity and beginning with Shakespeare, we notice that death in Shakespeare's theatre can be a genre-breaking element; it is dramatised in comic as well as tragic terms. Comedy may try to perceive death as part of the natural order (the death of Antigonus in A Winter's Tale is contextualised by the shepherd's observation: 'Thou met'st with things dying, I with things reborn'), whereas death in tragedy is often the result of a perversion of the natural order or a transgression of moral and sexual codes (as in Macbeth, King Lear and Hamlet, for example). The art of theatre in general, but Shakespeare's theatre above all, places all its bets on the power of the imagination: without it; nothing is possible; with it, everything is. Eroticism, too, is triggered and sustained by the imagination. Qualitatively different from the sexual act which aims for reproduction, eroticism is 'sexuality transfigured by human imagination'' — the erotic is a poetic elaboration and, hence, an end in itself.
Tadeusz Kantor describes his aesthetic practice as a 'theatre of death', a theatre of impossible presence in which space and time are haunted by ghosts and memories, and the human figure — often modelled on but never entirely replaced by mannequins or wax figures — is suspended between life and death. In his manifesto 'The Theatre of Death' (1975) he articulates his 'ever-deepening conviction that it is possible to express life in art only through the absence of life, through an appeal to DEATH, through APPEARANCES, through EMPTINESS and the lack of a MESSAGE'. Theatre is the space in which actors and spectators perform their 'ritual of TRANSFORMATION ... AS IF THEY WERE TO EMBARK ON A / DANGEROUS EXPEDITION'. For Heiner Muller, too, 'the essential thing about theatre is transformation, and the last transformation is death, dying. ... And what's specific to the theatre is not the presence of the living actor or of the living spectator, but rather the presence of the person who has the potential to die.'
The art of theatre then is an invitation (or challenge?) to imagine the `final transformation' of life in every present moment of appearance. As Howard Barker maintains: 'The art of theatre is a rehearsal for death but more, a confession of ignorance, of the limits of knowledge. ... Death remains unpronounceable, a secret, in response to which the art of theatre (the tragic form) is a `step/not beyond' (Blanchot's pas au-deb). 'Death is the secret of secrets, the origin of the idea of the secret, of which desire is the highest manifestation in life ...' The limits of knowledge with which both death and sex confront us (for we cannot positively know anything about the erotic sexual moment either — that form of sexual expression which is other and more than reproduction. Words fail us, again and always), this conceptual limitation, generates an endless circulation of desire.
According to Jonathan Dollimore Western culture has always been fascinated by the connections between erotic desire and death. In his book Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture he identifies desire as a 'restless movement' which 'comes to seem destructively insatiable, a permanent lack whose attempted fulfilment is at once the destiny of the self and what destroys it'. There is a tradition of thinking about desire as emerging from an experience of lack and incompleteness, as is epitomised in Plato's retelling of a myth (by Aristophanes) according to which all humans were originally androgynous beings of circular shape who, as a punishment by the gods, were cut in half. This was the origin of (idealist) love and erotic desire — our longing to find the 'other half' who will make us complete. But, as Jan Kott says, 'the paradox and sadness of eroticism consists in the fact that its absolute fulfilment is not possible'." This is what makes Eros 'bittersweet' (Anne Carson) — a contradictory movement of desire, pleasurable and painful at the same time. `[E]rotic imagination never creates a fully developed situation, or a complete person. The erotic partner of imagination and desire is created or given only in fragments.'" The fragmented erotic other, because he is incomplete (a secret?), positions himself at the boundary between creation (life) and dissolution (death). Accordingly, the status of eroticism and death as 'limit experiences' (Blanchot) suggests that the promise of fulfilment or ecstatic jouissance which is contained in the image of the other, the object of desire, is connected to the pleasure and pain of transgression. This was the view of Bataille who, like Sade, associated sex with death, arguing that the fully expressed sexual and erotic desire causes a dissolution or loss of self, a `breaking down of established patterns' and a disturbance of 'regulated social order' .
Bataille argues that eroticism signifies a break from the social order of work, reason and calculation; it is an aspect of human sexuality that is divorced from the reproductive drive and through which the individual experiences the shifting grounds of existence. Eroticism is associated with transgression and approaches the condition of death, for its aim is dissolution of self and continuity of experience. The erotic state can be a heightened form of consciousness in which the furthest possibilities and intensities of selfhood are explored. Eroticism is an unknown territory, a mental and emotional terrain vague, and in this it resembles death also. The spiritual, sacred dimension to the experience of eroticism is captured by Bataille's use of the term 'sovereign' to describe erotic desire's movement of transgression and effect of transfiguration.
Alphonso Lingis, too, juxtaposes erotic life to normal life (the order of reason and work) and shows that our socially constructed sense of stable identity and integrity can be radically undermined as the result of our sensuous erotic encounter with the body of another. 'And what else is erotic craving but a craving to be violated?'" The 'dangerous emotions' of eroticism can create a sense of empowerment or vulnerability, pleasure and pain experienced simultaneously, an 'exultation of risking oneself, of plunging into the danger zone, of expending our forces at a loss'." We enter the intimate erotic relation, or are driven to it, with a sense of fear and at the risk of losing our sense of stability, identity, security; we are seduced by Eros at the risk of danger, violation, dissolution, in other words: death.
There is an inherent theatricality involved in erotic activity, which is suggested, for example, in the process of seduction as a form of self-performance for an other. The erotic (performance) can be an empowering experience especially for women, as Baudrillard suggests in his book Seduction, where the feminine is constructed as a principle of reversibility. A similar, but politicised, perspective on female eroticism is presented by the Caribbean-American poet Audre Lorde: 'When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the life-force of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.'"
The temporality of eroticism and death is peculiar: rooted in experiences of mutability, transformation and crisis, they are both confrontations with the unknowable and make us sensitive to the value and passing of time. It is perhaps no surprise that the intersections between eroticism and death find some of their most poignant expressions in the ephemeral arts of theatre and performance where our encounters with bodies, words, sounds and images are subject to a dynamic of mutability and a heightened experience of time. The theatricality of eroticism and death points beyond representation; its gesture is anti-mimetic, sublime even, for it binds together contradictory impulses and energies which disrupt the logical order of understanding and representation. Theatre is the space in which real and imagined encounters, relations and contacts are enabled or deferred, made actual or possible (the erotic itself creates a space in which every movement, gesture, word, is heightened, made different). The theatre can be an invitation to imagine ourselves and the world and people around us differently; it can alter the parameters of our psychic worlds and affect us viscerally; it can be a dialogue, an address, a challenge, a risk, a seduction.
Viewed from the perspective of subject—object dynamics, the theatre is a relation of desire: a space permeated with possible ways of looking, moving, speaking and being which structure the subject's relation to the other. This dialectical understanding of theatre in terms of desire is informed by Lacan's famous theory of the mirror stage, which is crucial to the formation of ego-identity. The infant identifies with the reflected image of his/her body as an 'ideal-I', a perfect imago of autonomy and wholeness. This narcissistic fiction of identity at the same time creates an awareness of separation and alienation, structuring the subject's mental development in terms of a desire for the imaginary 'ideal-I' which is contrasted with the reality of the socially determined and imperfect 'ego-ideal'. Lacan emphasises that the identification with an idealised and objectified self-image during the mirror phase is a process of misrecognition (méconnaissance), a form of imaginary (self-)knowledge. The theatrical stage set-up and performance condition may be understood as an imaginary order in which méconnaissance operates by structuring the self's relation to the other in terms of a dialectic of absence and presence. The desire for the lost and unobtainable object of desire (Lacan's objet petit a) contains a dramatic and theatrical dimension which emerges when desire compels us to reach beyond the boundaries of the pleasure principle itself, to a point of impossible and deadly jouissance.
Some of the most striking explorations of desire can be found in Surrealist art, which draws attention to the inherently dramatic nature of the Freudian model of the unconscious where the forces and compulsions of the human mind exist in relationships of crisis and tension. In Surrealism the unconscious expresses itself in symbols, images, forms and words that can have an unsettling and disturbing effect on our sense of (objective and empirical) reality. In many of their art works, manifestos, exhibitions and performances the Surrealists explored eroticism and the death drive as essential forces of transgression and excess. The theme of the 1959 international Surrealist exhibition EROS (Exposition international du surréalisme), for example, was Sade's notion of transgressive desire and liberty. This theme was ritualistically explored in a performance by the Canadian Surrealist Jean Benoit, entitled The Execution of the Testament of the Marquis de Sade, which involved the artist removing his tribal costume piece by piece while Sade's testament was read out. The performance ended with Benoit burning the word `Bade' onto his naked chest with a hot branding iron. In the exhibition catalogue, Andre Breton talked about eroticism as a 'privileged place, a theatre of provocations and prohibitions in which life's most profound urges confront one another'. The Surrealists' aim was to restructure reality by confronting us with the `unbound desires' of the unconscious and, as Breton says in Mad Love, to search for images of 'convulsive beauty' in erotic love, passion and desire.
The revolutionary politics of the Surrealists, expressed in their manifestoes, exhibition installations and performances, were concerned with harnessing the liberating powers of Eros.22 Feminist critiques of male Surrealist practices have focused on their representations of women and female erotic sexuality and argued that they were objectifying and essentialising. This is not to overlook the important contributions made by female artists to the Surrealist movement, to which the exhibition 'Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism' at Manchester Art Gallery (26 Sept 2009-10 Jan 2010) has recently drawn attention. Much of Surrealist art can be accused of being phallic and male-centred (foregrounding male desire in performative terms and representing women as passive erotic objects), but female Surrealist artists challenged this notion in early attempts at subverting the male gaze and challenging gender boundaries with their provocative art. The female body was presented as constantly changing and out of reach of the fixing (male) gaze. Such strategies were later explored by explicit body performers and avant-garde live artists who developed new strategies of (self-)presentation and experimentation with the body as a means of questioning and challenging the aesthetics and politics of gender and sexuality.
The essays collected in this volume explore many (and more) of the above-mentioned manifestations and representations of Eros and death in theatrical, musical and cultural texts and performances, both historical and contemporary. One of the central concerns of this book is to propose or work out what may be intrinsically theatrical or performative about the encounter between eroticism and death. The essays explore the ways in which various forms of theatre and performance embody the dynamics of desire and death by, for example, identifying Eros and Thanatos as transgressive, liberating or healing but also aggressive and destructive forces. Many of the essays locate their discussions of eroticism and death in specific cultural—historical contexts and thus provide a sense of how drama and theatre reflect changing attitudes to sexual desire and death. As well as offering particular historical perspectives, the collection contains essays that engage with contemporary dramatic writing and theatre/ performance practice.
Our encounter with eroticism and death in theatre and performance is real and imaginary at the same time. The transient movement of bodies in the space and time of the here and now can be seductive and yield a visceral affect; but our encounter with the unknown and invisible will ultimately depend on the work of our imagination, which alone has the power to turn the theatre into a space of desire.
The Vintage Erotica Collection DVD DVD022 (NTSC); 324 Minutes; 1930-1950; B&W; No dialogue; French titles; Not rated; Director: Diverse; With Original & New soundtrack SPECIAL DVD FEATURES: Photo Galleries; 6-Page Booklet (not seen); Scene Selection; New Music. BOX SET Includes:
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