Theatre of Presence / Theatre of Cruelty
Abe’s studio plays are especially resistant to the centripetal force of textuality: they cannot be read, precisely because they are so grounded in the performative aspect of theatre. As described in Nancy Shields’s book on Abe’s Studio, Fake Fish, “Abe did not write a script in any ordinary sense of drama” (Shields 1996: 166). Rather, the ‘script’ was at best a rough guide. Abe’s plays were flexible, allowing, for example, improvisation on the part of actors. The authoritative power of the text as well as its author-creator was diminished and emphasis was placed instead on the body itself in motion: the “-ing form” of meaning (Hardin and Kobo 1974: 445). Rather than something represented abstractly, meaning as such is a present continuous on which the curtain never closes. It is a meaning that derives from the dynamic and singular presence of bodies in movement: meaning as process rather than static identity. As such, Abe’s plays are never reducible to the text, they are always ‘in process’, he said. In Donald Keene’s introduction to Three Plays by Kōbō Abe, for example, he notes the frequent changes that Abe made to his plays each time they were performed, and says that “Abe did not consider any text of his plays to be definitive” (Abe 1993: xii). This processual aspect of theatre represented, for Abe, a rupture with the static nature of (the) script. It constantly rebells against logocentric inscription.
A convenient comparison to Abe for the purposes of addressing his complex negotiation of the relation between literality and theatricality, language and body, absence and presence, is Antonin Artaud and his ‘theatre of cruelty’, with its privileging of the body, its rejection of the author(ity) of the text, its equal focus on what Abe called the “-ing form” of meaning, the unrepresentable singularity, and its emphasis on presence and immediacy rather than alienation and mediation. This is admittedly an Artaud understood through the eyes of Derrida, in his essay “The Theatre of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation” (Derrida 1978). As we will see, Derrida uses a meditation upon the theatre of cruelty to challenge the simple equation of theatre with ontological or metaphysical presence.
Artaud’s theatre of cruelty is not, writes Derrida, “theatre that privileges speech or rather the verb, all theatre of words” (Derrida 1978: 243). Moreover, Derrida contrasts Artaud’s theatre — concrete, physiological and multi-sensorial theatre — to
all abstract theatre which excludes something from the totality of art, and thus, from the totality of life and its resources of signification: dance, music, volume, depth of plasticity, visible images, sonority, phonicity, etc. An abstract theater is a theater in which the totality of sense and the senses is not consumed. (Derrida 1978: 244)
Moreover, Artaud’s theatre, like Abe’s, is a “theatre of dreams” (Derrida 1978: 242). Thus, like Abe, Artaud’s First Manifesto on theatre begins by comparing dreams to theatre: “THE LANGUAGE OF THE STAGE: It is not a question of suppressing the spoken language, but of giving words approximately the importance they have in dreams” (quoted in Derrida 1978: 241). And, like Abe, the dream logic of Artaud’s theatre in no way represents the logic of the unconscious/interior: “[Artaud] would have rejected a psychoanalytic theatre with as much rigor as he condemned psychological theatre. And for the same reasons: his rejection of any secret interiority, of the reader, of directive interpretations or of psychodramaturgy” (Derrida 1978: 242, emphasis added). His theatre in theory admits no dialectic of interior/exterior: there are no secrets, no repressions.
Derrida identifies the essence of Artaud’s theatre as a desire to ‘erase repetition,’ to create the singular experience of pure presence, a “present tense of the stage” akin to Abe’s “-ing form of meaning”:
[Theatre of Cruelty is not] ideological theatre, all cultural theatre, all communicative, interpretive (in the popular and not the Nietzschean sense, of course) theatre seeking to transmit content, or to deliver a message […] that would make a discourse’s meaning intelligible for its listeners; a message that would not be totally exhausted in the act and present tense of the stage, that would not coincide with the stage, that could be repeated without it. Here we touch upon what seems to be the profound essence of Artaud’s project, his historico-metaphysical decision. Artaud wanted to erase repetition in general. (Derrida 1978: 245)
We can now see clearly the implications of Abe’s theatre, its understanding that “the actor must be someone who does more than simply transmit elements of the play, either verbal or visual. The actor must be those elements” (Iles 2000: 165): his theatre in principle goes over the edge, so to speak, to the other side of the screen/performance, where there is no longer a separation from origins, merely the simple identity and unity of the touch with the touched, sight with the object of sight, the word or trace with the thing itself. And this resistance is also therefore a resistance to language, for as soon as there is language, there is absence, repetition, separation, and difference — all that Abe’s theatre tries to overcome through direct physiological experience.
However, and here is the ‘thesis of the theses’, the underlying inversion of all that has come before, all desire to do away with language, to reduce theatre to the pure presence of the physiological: there is, for all this, no outside to language. At best, there is the limit where language touches its opposite which is the ‘body,’ but even this is a body in language, language’s own internal Otherness.
Hence, Derrida argues that the desire to grasp the truth of the ‘thing itself’ in its unmediated presence is an impossible goal. Attempts to reproduce Artaud’s theatre, to affirm its goals, are always already unfaithful to his theatre, they are already repetitions structured by the logic of representation:
Artaud knew that the theatre of cruelty neither begins nor is completed within the purity of simple presence, but rather is already within representation, in the “second time of Creation,” in the conflict of forces which could not be that of a simple origin. Doubtless, cruelty could begin to be practiced within this conflict, but thereby it must also let itself be penetrated. The origin is always penetrated. Such is the alchemy of theatre […] Artaud kept himself as close as possible to the limit: the possibility and impossibility of pure theater. Presence, in order to be presence and self-presence, has always already begun to represent itself. (Derrida 1978: 248-9)
Is it possible that Abe did not ascribe to the idea of the necessity of representation — this cruel necessity to avow even when disavowing it? Whether or not Abe is conscious of the knowledge that his theatre traverses this limit, is suspended within this simultaneous avowal and disavowal of the thing itself, remains to be seen.
We might say that Abe succumbs to what Derrida calls, in Archive Fever, an ontological ‘outbidding’ (surrenchère). In other words, Abe’s theatre is resistant to the symbolic, to the necessity for representation: it desires the thing itself, the “object as object itself” (see above, Hardin 1974: 450).
The search leads one to the realm of dreams, the spectral, illusory realm. However as it does this it also at the same time disavows the illusory: it is not satisfied with ‘truth’ of the dream, i.e. the truth that all is always already disappearing, which is to say a dreamlike absence of the thing itself. It wants the physiological to puncture the dream, to ground the dream in the world of the object. Iles says even language in Abe’s plays has to be grounded by the physiological basis of the actor’s existence: “in this act of existence [the actors] remain ‘real’ for the audience. Although they propel the audience thus into the artificial reality of the play, that reality has an actual, physical basis which is not transcendent” (2000: 185). This is a desire to overcome the trace that is language, to ‘go to the other side of the illusory experience,’ as Abe says (nise taiken no mukô ni). This desire oversteps the half-truth, the dreamlike truth of what we might call ‘representation’ (hence Derrida’s identification of a ‘closure’ of representation in Artaud’s theatre). There is truth in the dream, the spectral world of dreams, a truth in the inverted ‘fake world’ of Abe’s theatre: this world that both belongs to Abe and is disavowed by Abe.
This conflict is thus none other than an ‘archive fever,’ the simultaneous necessity for the archive, and the desire to overcome the need for the archive, to leap over it and grasp the thing itself in its unmediated presence. The archive “excludes and forbids return to the origin” (Derrida 1996: 92); and yet there is the desire to return, a passion which feeds upon and is tortured by the displacement, the absence of the origin it desires.
Derrida hence describes desire for truth as a conflict or tension, one that is inherent in all desire, passion, drive, “compulsion, or indeed repetition-compulsion,” as he says of the archive fever (Derrida 1996: 91): the necessity for archives and the trouble of archives. This fever causes a double vision, a conflicting desire, a desire for the “truth” of/in the archive, which nevertheless wants to renounce the archive, in order to grasp a more fundamental and complete Truth, which is access to the thing itself, a thing unearthed from the depths, the arche, the original, primordial, the beginning — in a word, the archeological. The archival and the archaeological – with ‘linguistic’ and ‘material’ origins respectively – are confounded, confused, cross-circuited. The archaeologist has no need of the archive once he has dug up the things themselves. He lets stones speak in their own tongue, in a forgetting of mediation, delay, and translation: “the origin then speaks by itself. The archê then appears in the nude, without archive. It presents itself and comments on itself by itself. ‘Stones talk!’ In the present” (Derrida 1996: 92-3). Rather, we can say that the ‘complete’ Truth of the thing-itself in its original presence, transcends and outbids (surrenchère) the ‘partial’ truth of representation, translation, mediation — in a word, the truth of the archive: “the archaeological outbidding of a return to the reality, here to the originary effectivity of a base of immediate perception” (Derrida 1996: 94).
There is an irony, here, or a paradox, in that right here when the archaeologist appears to have exorcised the phantom, and reached a more properly true base of perception, the illusion of presence, immediacy, of the dead (stones) coming to life, and speaking, constitutes another ‘delusion.’ There is a simultaneous exorcism of ghosts and a new belief in ghosts. The delusion repeats itself. In escaping from the haunting of the archive, one is haunted again by the illusion of the presence of the real.
Abe’s silent writing
However, if Abe’s theatre, on the one hand, ‘outbids’ the half-truth of dreams, cinema, language, and representation in general, then perhaps, on the other hand, if we look to his use of language, we can find exactly where it is he is ‘unfaithful’ to his theatre, where he returns to the half-truth, the silent absence that structures language and representation. Abe says of the use of ‘dialogue’ in theatre, “the place at which true dialogue is born must be the point of contact between words and silence” (quoted in Iles 2000: 186). Perhaps here we find an encounter with language at its limit, language expropriated towards its Other, where body, as asignifying corporeal force, ‘touches’ language (“even silence has a physical basis”, says Iles 2000: 186). Here is perhaps where the half-truth is recuperated in Abe’s theatre: in resisting the interior pull, it resists also the centripetal force of language. It centrifugally ‘ex-scribes’ language, ‘abandons’ writing to its outer limits, where it touches ‘its’ edge — an edge that is not really its edge, but its “own-other” edge (Nancy 2008: 87). This edge marks the skin, the film, the ‘emulsion’ where text touches upon the outside of text, “its being inscribed-outside” (Nancy 2008: 11). Thus this silent text is not properly text, though it is not outside text, either (the text has no outside, says Derrida): it is (text), both written and erased, written (as) erased.
Hence, Timothy Iles discusses the way in which, in some of Abe’s fiction, he silences language — prefiguring Derrida’s “erasure” and perhaps derived from Heidegger’s concept of “crossing out” (Iles 2000: 61). For example, in Baberu no tō no tanuki (1972):
Women’s legs allowed me to enter into the woman’s interior at a single bound; they allowed me actually (to exist) within a primordial feeling of unity. Beautiful legs did it beautifully; ugly legs did it with ugliness, but all were part of my equation for (existence). (quoted in Iles 2000: 61)
The existence — or “(existence)” — of “primal unity” is something that is represented in language as outside–inside language, as a present absence, a parenthetical trace. The (existence) of a primordial unity — a harmonious Utopia without antagonistic oppositions, without dialectical antithesis, without Otherness itself — would be something that is ex-scribed from language, that is non-representable, that (exists) in text as its ‘Other edge’:
Abe brackets ‘existence’ […] both to highlight it within and eradicate it from his text at the same time — it becomes a word capable of slipping through the discourse either as an escape or a sneak attack […] something held in abeyance, a ‘black box’ holding the position of a device yet to be invented. (Iles 2000: 62-3)
It seems Abe was sensitive both to the limits of language, and the necessity for language. His theatre developed an ideal, an absolute reality of physiological experience, but his experimentation, both with bodies and language, with theatre and literature, exhibited the tensions inherent to representation itself, which resides uncomfortably at the limit between body and language: body as language’s limit. In other words, the desire for this Utopia is always frustrated by the lack inherent to desire: both the desire to affirm the Utopic, and language’s desire to become its opposite, is always already caught up in representation.
Abe, Kōbō. 1993. Three plays, ed. Donald Keene. New York: Columbia University Press.
Derrida, Jacques. 1996. Archive fever : A freudian impression. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
———. 1978. The theatre of cruelty and the closure of representation. In Writing and difference., 232-250. London: Routledge & K. Paul.
Hardin, Nancy S., and Abe Kobo. 1974. An interview with abé kobo. Contemporary Literature 15, (4) (Autumn): 439-56.
Iles, Timothy. 2000. Abe kôbô: An exploration of his prose, drama and theatre. Fucecchio (Firenze), Italy: European Press Academic Publishing.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. 2008. Corpus. New York: Fordham University Press.
Shields, Nancy. 1996. Fake Fish. New York: Weatherhill.