Silence Between Words

One of Abe’s actor training exercises he called ‘neutral position’. The actor assumes a pose that is, in fact, not a pose but an ur-pose, one before movement, before figures, the putty out of which the body is formed, one that reacts to nothing, that experiences nothing, so that the body might respond best to everything. This neutral position is like the silence between words … a pause, a negative space within which swells all possibilities.

Abe returned a number of times, in an interview with Nancy Shields, to a marsh that he passed often as a child living in Manchuria, “which was not only a public dump ground but also an execution site […] the scene of a grotesque display of the heads of criminals gibbeted on stakes at a height just parallel with the windows of passing trains” (Shields 28-9). In his interview, Abe says,

I don’t remember clearly whether I ever actually saw any heads hanging there. I have a feeling that I did catch a glimpse of something that looked like a lump of black threads, but it may only be my imagination playing tricks on my memory […] The heads — now food for crows — appearing suddenly out of the darkness and disappearing again, terrified and attracted us. (29)

What’s interesting about trauma is that it is precisely because one doesn’t see or understand what happened that it repeatedly returns. Did Abe see the heads of executed prisoners? He says he’s not sure. The memory is like neutral position: an absence that swells with possibilities.

“Neutral position”, Abe says, “is, in short, the basic condition for existence to establish itself as expression” (Shields 71). That is: expression not interpretation, not something that the actor can, through past experience, assign a meaning to:

Do not confuse interpretation with expression […] Avoid artificial interpretations. Even though you pretend you’ve seen something, the thing you didn’t see remains the thing you didn’t see. Therefore you cannot perform The Green Stockings as a subject of experience. (Abe, quoted in Shields 127).

What is interesting about the crows pecking at the gibbeted heads (or was it garbage?) is that it wasn’t seen, and the heads remained silent — anonymous figures “whose stories”, Abe said,”would never be told” (29).


Shields, Nancy. 1996. Fake Fish. New York: Weatherhill.

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