31 January 2010

Eisenstein’s Theory of Attractions

Almost anyone who’s been to a movie in the past 85 years has seen a montage sequence, and it’s likely most of us know what one is even if we can’t actually define it. It’s such a common movie technique, one of the first developed in film, that it almost seems an attribute of cinema itself rather than a contrived technique that was once an innovation. But it was. Film pioneers such as Lev Kuleshov (1899-1970), Dziga Vertov (1896-1954), and Vsevolod Pudovkin (1893-1953) introduced the use in early Soviet cinema and, of course, the great filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) made it almost a personal signature in his films in the early ‘20s. The word ‘montage’ derives from the French verb monter, ‘to set up,’ ‘to assemble,’ or ‘to organize.’ Simplistically, a film montage is a succession of pictures, often of unconnected moments, edited together into a rapid sequence. It can have many uses in a movie, such as indicating the passage of time or speeding through distances. In the hands of a master filmmaker, of course, it can accomplish much more as well. Eisenstein and his colleagues in Soviet film standardized the use of montage, a technique employed masterfully by others like Fritz Lang, Orson Welles, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Stanley Kubrick.

Before montage was a filmmaking tactic, however, it was the foundation of an innovative stage technique. Eisenstein, mostly known today for his film work, was first a stage director and he developed a practice he eventually called “the montage of attractions.” Eisenstein described this idea, sometimes also called the “theory of attraction assembly,” in his essay “The Montage of Attractions” which first appeared in LEF (Left Front of the Arts [Moscow] 3 [1923]: 70-75; the essay’s also reprinted in many books, including Eisenstein’s own Film Sense). The concept was named and defined by the renowned filmmaker in 1923, but Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874-1942), the innovative Russian stage director who’d been Eisenstein’s teacher and mentor, was clearly employing the technique as early as 1918 (notably in Mystery-Bouffe, 1919 and 1921) and even before. As a stage technique, montage of attractions has appeared in the work of contemporary companies like the Living Theatre, the Performance Group, and the Wooster Group, among others; one contemporary director used the term to mean “one thing after another . . . like a sideshow.” In fact, Eisenstein found the models for the technique not in film but in music hall and circus, two forms to which Meyerhold had also been drawn. Eisenstein coined a term, the ‘circusization’ of theater, which he applied to his 1923 production of Aleksandr Ostrovsky’s Enough Simplicity in Every Wise Man by staging an actual circus performance, a montage of attractions comprised of tightrope walkers, jugglers, acrobats, clowns, music hall comedy, and other circus acts.

Eisenstein, having observed how popular entertainments at fairs and circuses held the attention of the spectators, defined an “attraction” as “any aggressive aspect of the theatre; that is, any element of it which subjects the spectator to a sensual or psychological impact.” ‘Attraction’ is the same word, not coincidentally, that we use to designate the elements of a sideshow, vaudeville, or a circus; in fact, the Russian noun attraktsion also means ‘sideshow.’ (One of Meyerhold’s seminal essays, published in 1913, was called “The Fairground Booth” or “Balagan” in Russian.) The OED defines an attraction in this sense as a “thing or feature which draws people by appealing to their desires, tastes, etc.; esp. any interesting or amusing exhibition which ‘draws’ crowds.” But it also offers, “The action of drawing forth interest, affection, or sympathy,” and, “The action of causing men or animals to come to one by influencing their appetites or desires.” An attraction can be anything, in other words, that “attracts” the audience’s interest, including gimmicks and tricks--as long as they’re “calculated to produce . . . certain emotional shocks” in the spectator. (Eisenstein denied that gimimicks could be attractions, but they clearly can be if used for a purpose.) Each attraction is discrete and complete in itself, selected and presented to have the strongest effect on the spectator, and doesn’t depend on any of the others either for its meaning or for its presence on the stage. As Meyerhold explained it:

I have come to regard the mise en scène not as something which works directly on the spectator but rather as a series of ‘passes’, each intended to evoke some association or other in the spectator . . . . Your imagination is activated, your fantasy stimulated, and a whole chorus of associations is set off. A multitude of accumulated associations gives birth to new worlds . . . . You can no longer distinguish between what the director is responsible for and what is inspired by the associations which have invaded your imagination. A new world is created, quite separate from the fragments of life from which the [piece] is composed.

The attractions are then arranged or “assembled” to guide the audience to “the ultimate ideological conclusion.” The spectators then connect the dots, so to speak, filling in the lacunæ for themselves, generating an understanding they hadn’t known before. The “dots” are the attractions and their arrangement’s the “montage of attractions.” The purpose, said Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)--who knew Eisenstein, was attracted to film technique, and employed his own form of montage of attractions, notably in Man Is Man and Galileo--is to guide the spectator “to draw abstract conclusions.” A well-known example of how Eisenstein’s theory works states that by showing someone first a fragment of a photograph of a woman in black and then a second fragment showing a grave, the viewer, supplying the missing continuity, will conflate the two discrete images into the representation of a widow.

The arrangement of the attractions isn’t a logical or chronological sequence, pursuing an Aristotelian or Stanislavskian causality that’s “self-contained and all-determining,” but a theatrical one. It’s not illogical, but alogical, “with a view to establishing a certain final thematic effect” which is more than the simple sum of the fragments. Eisenstein drew an analogy with the way Chinese ideograms combine to form meanings different from the separate symbols: The sign for ‘dog’ plus the sign for ‘mouth,’ for example, combine not to mean ‘dog’s mouth’ but ‘bark.’ In Brecht’s 1930 chart comparing “dramatic” and “epic” theater, the playwright included “each scene for itself” in contrast to “one scene makes another”; he further explained, “The episodes must not succeed one another indistinguishably but must give us a chance to interpose our judgment. . . . The parts of the story have to be carefully set off one against another by giving each its own structure as a play within the play.” Most of Brecht’s plays are constructed from various elements such as action, songs, music, slides, captions, and stylized acting which create their impact through juxtaposition and contrast. The scenes are often disparate and succeed one another rapidly, essentially presenting a journey of experience episode by episode. In Brecht’s dramaturgy, this structure forces the spectator to draw comparisons and consider the inconsistencies between the images presented on stage and not become immersed in the fictional narrative without thinking about it.

The selection of the attractions, however, isn’t haphazard or serendipitous, as Eisenstein instructed: each element is carefully and purposefully chosen from all the possibilities to generate the desired response. How each attraction rubs against the ones around it, creating tension or conflict, determines the selection and juxtaposition and how they effect the audience, the same way Vincent van Gogh believed that one painting, say a blue one, is more resonant when hung next to another in a complementary color, such as orange. Describing the effect of two sequential scenes in his production of The Wiseman (as Eisenstein’s adaptation of Ostrovsky’s play was known), the innovative director observed: “The surprising intersection of the two dialogues sharpen the characters and the play, quicken the tempo, and multiply the comic possibilities.” While Eisenstein, also likening the theory to the relationship of musical overtones to melody, intended montage to generate an emotional, psychological, or ideological response in his audience, Brecht applied the technique to engender an intellectual reaction. Since the juxtaposition of multifarious attractions, drawn from the many resources of theater, art, and technology, necessarily means that the production will break away from the linear continuity of conventional storytelling, as it did in Meyerhold’s Mystery-Bouffe or D.E. (1924), it permits, even forces, the spectator to take time to analyze and examine what she’s experiencing. In Brecht’s view, causal inevitability makes the audience complacent; an audience cannot be passive when confronted with a non-linear theatrical structure, but must actively participate to connect the dots, to become critical observers. For Meyerhold and Eisenstein, then, montage was a way to a theater removed from what Eisenstein called the “illusory imitativeness” and “representationality” of Stanislavskian Naturalism. “In the theatre the spectator’s imagination is able to supply that which is left unsaid,” Meyerhold declared. “The stylized theatre produces a play in such a way that the spectator is compelled to employ his imagination creatively in order to fill in those details suggested by the stage action.” Eisenstein believed that the strength of montage was that “it includes in the creative process the emotions and mind of the spectator”:

In fact, every spectator, in correspondence with his individuality, and in his own way and out of his own experience--out of the womb of his fantasy, out of the warp and weft of his associations, all conditioned by the premises if his character, habits and social appurtenances, creates an image in accordance with the representational guidance suggested by the author leading him to understanding and experience of the author’s theme.

On the other hand, while some spectators found the new, non-linear presentationalism exciting and stimulating, others were confused and complained about the excess of abstractions and symbols. The fragmentation of montage, if the director isn’t careful about carrying the audience along with the images, can lose them in a welter of unconnected moments. The attractions may not be linked causally in Eisenstein’s technique, but if they aren’t connected thematically in some way, the dots will never coalesce in the spectators’ imaginations.

Just as Jerzy Grotowski (1933-99) wanted to pare away all of what he saw as unnecessary spectacle in theater, Brecht wanted to strip theater down to its intellectual minimum--putting on stage only what was necessary to show his audience what he wanted them to understand. For Brecht, theater wasn’t a medium to present a series of events, but to focus the audience’s attention on the truths beneath the facts portrayed and lead them into an intellectual debate the conclusion of which the spectators themselves would determine. Narrative connectives, psychological justifications, character development were all superfluous and would interfere with the spectator’s ability to judge critically. The effect wasn’t intended to be literary or dramatic but theatrical and thematic. By following Eisenstein’s lead, plays like Mystery-Bouffe and Mother Courage keep the distractions to a minimum and give the audience only what the author and director think is necessary for them to make the pertinent connections.

Meyerhold, however, suspended both the causality and the temporality of individual scenes, which he equated with Eisenstein’s attractions and treated as discrete episodes, so that the actions and objects would no longer seem familiar. In the filmmaker’s application, since the attractions are in themselves unconnected to one another, the spectators’ preconceptions are constantly shaken by the juxtapositions. This tactic, like Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, allows the audience to observe and comment on the situation. The individual episodes generate an impression of continuity in the minds of the spectators because they’re held together by the director’s “concept.” One result is that by showing two concrete (that is, visible) images, a third, abstract (invisible) one is revealed. “Two pieces of any kind, placed together, inevitably combine into a new concept, a new quality, arising out of that juxtaposition,” said Eisenstein, who described this process thus:

The woman [and] the mourning robe she is wearing . . . both are objectively representable. But ‘a widow,’ arising from a juxtaposition of the two representations, is objectively unrepresentable--a new idea, a new conception, a new image.

(Playwright Sergei Tretyakov [1892-1939], on several of whose plays Meyerhold had worked, introduced Brecht to both Meyerhold’s work and the concept of priyom ostranneniya [literally, ‘device’ or ‘method for making strange’], a phrase coined in 1914 by Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky [1893-1984] which Brecht rendered in German as Verfremdungseffekt.)

For Eisenstein, the realization of the theory isn’t just the juxtaposition of disparate elements, but the clash of conflicting images that’s the most effective kind of montage. Indeed, he called his technique “collision montage,” which Meyerhold described as “the conflict of episodes, each one conflicting with the next.” The effect is generated by a clash of contrasting components in a kind of thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectic. Brecht also disparaged the causal through-line of Stanislavskian theory, both in his dramaturgy and in the work of his actors, whom he admonished not to try to connect the separate moments made up of the actions enacted on the stage. In Brecht’s theory, the spaces between the moments are as meaningful as the moments themselves. The connections, Brecht insisted, become visible both despite and because of the interstices.

This notion is remarkably similar to “plastic space,” an art concept Tennessee Williams (1911-83)--who absorbed several Brechtian influences both from the German writer’s own theories and through Brecht’s early mentor, Erwin Piscator (1893-1966), with whom the young American had studied and worked--ascribed to painter and teacher Hans Hofmann (1880-1966). Williams, who had an affinity for film himself, explained that the empty space in an arrangement of objects is as significant to the total assemblage as the space in which there are objects. Though Hofmann never actually used the term “plastic space,” he did describe “positive” and “negative” space in terms of the presence or absence of “visible matter” and defined “plasticity” as the communication of a three-dimensional experience in the two-dimensional medium of a painting. Plasticity derives from the tension between the forces and counter-forces created by the separate elements of the painting--the juxtaposition of negative space and positive space, for one. Like the conflict of images in Eisenstein’s montage of attractions, Hofmann’s plasticity generates a response in the spectator that’s more than just the depiction of reality. (For more on Williams’s ideas on plastic space and plastic theater, see my essay “’The Sculptural Drama’: Tennessee Williams’s Plastic Theatre” [Tennessee Williams Annual Review no. 5 (2002), http://www.tennesseewilliamsstudies.org/archives/2002/3kramer.htm].)

Since Eisenstein’s concept owes its inception in part to Constructivism, the director’s emphasis, too, was to reduce theater to its fundamental productive essentials--the parallel of Grotowski’s search--as if it were a machine which the engineer (for which profession Eisenstein had studied) designed with only the parts necessary for producing the desired product. Toward this end, Eisenstein kept the barriers between the spectators and the performers minimal. Like circus, too, such performances are “more real” (as one circus artist phrased his comparison of circus and traditional theater): Eisenstein, himself, observed that the application of the theory of attractions results in a performance of “immediate reality.” As Meyerhold wrote, both he and his former student “were looking for a new type of stage, free from anything which might get in the actor’s way.” Indeed, all of the artists who practiced some version of the montage of attractions--Meyerhold, Eisenstein, Piscator, Brecht, even Williams--were seeking a new theatrical form, and the relationship between the spectator and the performers is key. Theater audiences start out as a mass of individuals and the traditional Aristotelian theater lulls the individuals into a sense of privacy and isolation--they’re alone in the dark, separate not only from the actors on the stage but from everyone else around them, not to mention everyone outside the theater. The activist theater artists, wanting their audiences to respond directly, need to resist this separateness and create a sense of commonality, a community among the spectators.

From an artistic perspective, Meyerhold was, like Eisenstein, earnestly searching not only for a new stage but for a new theatrical form--an echo, perhaps not coincidentally, of Konstantine Treplyev in Chekhov’s The Seagull, the part Meyerhold played in the Moscow Art Theater’s 1898 production: “What we need is a new kind of theatre. We need new forms.” This urge parallels the call for a “new plastic theater” by Tennessee Williams (in his “Production Notes” to the text of The Glass Menagerie), who may be seen to have used his own adaptation of Eisenstein’s theory of attractions in plays like Glass Menagerie (which, in the playwright’s original concept--not realized in the Broadway première--is startlingly Brechtian) and, especially, Camino Real--performances that came together from elements which weren’t only causally unlinked, but structurally unconnected. There’s an apparent correlation between plastic theater, which draws on all the stage arts to generate its theatrical--as opposed to simply literary--effect, and Hofmann’s idea of plasticity. In a plastic theater, the tension among the disparate attractions creates the plasticity of the performance and, just as the viewer of a plastic painting has a three-dimensional experience from a two-dimensional work of art, the audience of a plastic theatre work has a theatrical experience beyond the mere image of actual life. Meyerhold also writes of plasticity, by which he means not just three-dimensional settings, but three-dimensional acting (“plastic movement”); Williams was, in a sense, going to the next level, using plasticity to create multi-dimensional plays and productions.

Meyerhold made theater out of disparate elements as opposed to “illustrating” dramatic literature. Productions like D.E. and The Inspector General (1926) were composed of scenes which each had its own mood, tempo, atmosphere, rhythm, mode, plot, development, and climax. In D.E., for instance, Meyerhold included elements of Kabuki, Expressionism, music hall, military drill, Chaplinesque pantomime, biomechanics, wild dancing, jazz, and calisthenics. Eisenstein, in fact, made the point that a dynamic work of art, as opposed to a “lifeless” one,

is not fixed or ready-made, but arises--is born. The image planned by author, director and actor is concretized by them in separate representational elements, and is assembled--again and finally--in the spectator’s perception. This is actually the final aim of every artist’s creative endeavor.

The multi-dimensionality of a montage production owes much to the pioneering work of Piscator. Unlike Grotowski, Piscator sought to use all the technological and staging arts he could apply to create the images and effects he wanted for his audience. Piscator’s impact on Brecht and his own development of political theater, along with Brecht and Meyerhold, in the early decades of the 20th century mean that his ideas would filter down half a century later through the work of groups like the Living Theatre, whose co-founder, Judith Malina, had been a student of Piscator. In his “Total Theatre,” Piscator made extensive use, for instance, of film clips, projections, loudspeakers, and other technology available--even innovative--in his day for his political spectacles. These, too, are attractions in the Eisensteinian sense. Let the filmmaker sum it all up:

And now we can say that it is precisely the montage principle, as distinguished from that of representation, which obliges spectators themselves to create and the montage principle, by this means, achieve that great power of inner creative excitement in the spectator which distinguishes an emotionally exciting work from one that stops without going further than giving information or recording events

26 January 2010

'Brother, You’re Next'

[Late in 1967, Leonardo Shapiro, then an NYU theater student, and classmate Stephen Wangh produced Brother, You’re Next, a Vietnam-war street musical Shapiro and Wangh wrote with Chris Rohmann and Robert Reiser. Brother, a 25-minute adaptation of Brecht’s anti-militarist Man Is Man reset to the Vietnam war, came out of the mounting Greenwich Village trend of performing free on the streets. “The center of gravity in advanced theater activity is again shifting,” wrote a contemporaneous observer of the scene. “Forms are changing and so are the locations: the new ones are the streets, the parks and the college campuses . . . .” Many small troupes had taken to the streets to agitate not so much for artistic and theatrical audacity, but political and intellectual liberties. While Shapiro and his friends usually presented Brother on the sidewalks and in the parks of New York City as guerrilla theater, on one occasion the itinerant troupe did a series of performances indoors as part of an anti-Vietnam war event organized on 26-29 January 1968 by the Theatre for Peace, a project of the Committee of the Professions to End the War in Vietnam. On the 42nd anniversary of that presentation, I publish this account.]

Brother, You’re Next was developed, mostly through improvisation, by a group of friends from the NYU undergraduate theater program. Rohmann, whom his friend Stephen Wangh had invited to join the effort specifically to write the music, came to New York City from Ohio where he had been living; he was the only member of the company not connected to New York University. The play evolved, maintained actor Larry Pine, one of the original participants, because the band of friends and, save Rohmann, classmates, were simply frightened by the prospect of being drafted and sent to die in Vietnam. “There was lots and lots of dead people coming back and we were all scared shitless,” Pine said. They were all facing the ends of their student draft deferments, too: Pine, himself, had already been called for military service, as had Rohmann. “I was sitting in my hometown in Ohio waiting to be drafted,” Rohmann recalled. “I’d been drafted and I was appealing, and Steve [Wangh] called me up and said, ‘Come to New York and use whatever liberty time you’ve got left to good advantage.’” Their goal, according to Wangh, was to stimulate those who saw Brother to emulate their efforts with “similar things.” It was a frankly youthful impulse of personal commitment.

Like Man Is Man, a play which had come to have special meaning for Shapiro after he saw the Living Theatre’s 1962 production starring Shapiro’s friend (and later collaborator) Joseph Chaikin, Brother, You’re Next showed how a man could be turned into a fighting machine against his will, his personality manipulated at the whims of others--in Man, the soldiers of the detachment and in Brother, the draftee’s friends and family. It calls to mind the first part of Full Metal Jacket, the 1987 film directed and co-written by an inspiration of Shapiro’s, Stanley Kubrick. The film follows a group of Marine recruits through boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, where the drill instructor, a contemporary and perhaps more realistic rendering of Man Is Man’s Bloody Five and Brother’s Sergeant, abuses, brutalizes, and humiliates them into becoming mindless, soulless “killing machines.” In Brother, for instance, the Sergeant tells the Inductees that in the army, “We make all the decisions for you. You never have to think at all.” Later, in the song “Uncle Sam’s Grand Army,” the young soldiers are ordered, “Just leave your brains” at the induction center and that Uncle Sam will “cut out your heart and then throw it away” as the new soldiers will no longer need to think or feel. Symbolically, they, like Kubrick’s Marines, are encased in a “full metal jacket,” the hard copper casing that covers the soft lead slug of the 7.62-millimeter ammunition U.S. forces were issued for their M-16 rifles.

Like Brother and Man Is Man, Full Metal Jacket probes what turns people into killers as they are dehumanized by the system and posits that while the American establishment thought it was helping the Vietnamese cleanse their country of communism--“We gas, we torture, we napalm to civilize the Reds,” sing the soldiers in Brother, You’re Next in “War Is Fun”--it was actually contaminating its own populace by turning them into robotic murderers. When Michael, the young draftee in Brother, hesitates to shoot a defenseless woman, the Sergeant commands him, “Listen, soldier, in the Army you see with your ears as well as your eyes. I’m telling you that’s a Viet Cong guerrilla. Now kill it!” As Crazy Earl, one of the Marines of Full Metal Jacket, muses in the second part of the film when the unit is fighting in Southeast Asia: “These people we wasted here today are the finest human beings we will ever know. After we rotate back to the world, we’re gonna miss not having anyone around that’s worth shooting.” This is not far from the lines Michael utters near the end of Brother, You’re Next while he is being celebrated for participating in a massacre of civilians that seems to predict the events at My Lai where a U.S. Army unit slaughtered hundreds of Vietnamese women, children, and old men and then burned the hamlet. The returning hero asks wryly, “What did I do to deserve this praise? I only killed a few people, raped a few women, burned a few villages--nothing that any red-blooded American boy wouldn’t do if he had the chance.” (The massacre at My Lai happened in 1968, but the military kept the incident secret. The atrocity was revealed by the press in 1969.)

(The mirror image of the world of Full Metal Jacket is perhaps seen in Kubrick’s 1971 film, A Clockwork Orange, a depiction of a world so dehumanized that its citizens are programmed to behave acceptably through Skinnerian conditioning. In this dystopia, Kubrick suggested, the sole outlet for actual human action is violence, since it is the only behavior a person remains free to select. Conditioned behavior, he said, is not truly human: “When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.” Clockwork is Kubrick’s vision of a future in which Galy Gay and Michael, clothed in their own full metal jackets woven by military training and fitted by war, “rotate back to the world” with the attitude expressed by Crazy Earl. If 2001: A Space Odyssey is about machines becoming human, Clockwork is about humans becoming machines. The title phrase is a Cockney expression that describes something which appears normal on the surface but is artificial and unnatural beneath.)

Brother, You’re Next, whose script, Chris Rohmann recalled, had not been written down until after several improvised performances--though Wangh noted that the songs were set--was presented in unscheduled, unannounced outdoor performances around New York City starting in July 1967. Only one indoor presentation of Brother, at the Cooper Square Arts Theatre in the East Village, departed from this practice; all others, almost exclusively during the warm-weather months, were set up, presented, and struck while pedestrians gathered and watched. Wangh noted that the company avoided performing before anti-war rallies, though they were often invited to do so, because they “didn’t want to preach to the converted”; however, the Brother troupe did go to Washington and performed on the steps of the Pentagon during the demonstration there on 21 October 1967. Pine burned his draft card in front of the headquarters of the Department of Defense.

The group was also invited by Abbie Hoffman, the legendary anti-Vietnam revolutionary who was a leader of the Pentagon protest, to take the show to Woodstock in 1969, Christopher Rohmann recalled, but they decided they preferred working in the streets. The troupe, which numbered about 20, all of whom knew the script well enough so that as few as five could pick up at a moment’s notice and mount a performance by simply shuffling roles, made a “conscious decision” to go where they could perform for “ordinary people who didn’t see Washington Square type of street theater.” They frequently traveled to all the boroughs of New York City, often setting up in locations like the sidewalk in front of military recruiting stations, but regularly returned to perform in Washington Square Park, New York University’s unofficial campus quadrangle and a center of counterculture life in New York City. Rohmann remembered that some spectators, especially young men but some young women as well, reacted very strongly to the piece. Recognizing themselves or loved ones in the character of Michael, struggling with the notion of being drafted to fight in Vietnam, they would approach and thank the performers for helping them to understand some of their concerns and fears. Some told Rohmann that the play had helped them make decisions about their draft status and Wangh recalled that some men asked to be put in touch with organizations that did draft counseling. Shapiro remembered hearing about performances of Brother by other groups in Chicago and cities in California and Minnesota and requests by distant groups, Rohmann suspected, was the reason that the text was eventually written down.

Originally composed in the year Martin Luther King. Jr., led a march in New York against the war in Vietnam where nearly half a million U.S. soldiers were then fighting and some 50,000 protesters demonstrated against it at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., Brother tells the tale of a draftee at first determined to escape military service--a plot device shared with the musical Hair, which opened Off-Broadway that same year--but who eventually learns that “war is so much fun” and readily participates in it “to help the boys back home who manufacture guns.” Perhaps Shapiro still had lodged in his mind the final lines, not dissimilar to those of Full Metal Jacket’s Crazy Earl or Brother’s Michael, from the Living Theatre’s Man Is Man which he had seen five years earlier:

For already I feel within me
The desire to dig my teeth
Into the throat of the enemy
The instinct to kill
Providers of families,
To carry out the orders of
The conquerers

History had converged with art during the years Shapiro and his co-creators were working on Brother, You’re Next. Around the time of the Cooper Square performances in January 1968, the U.S. Navy spy ship Pueblo had been captured in North Korean waters and the Tet offensive was underway in South Vietnam. By the end of 1968, when further performances of Brother were being planned or presented, both King and Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated; “Red” Rudi Dutschke, the radical German student leader, had been shot in West Berlin; students and workers in Paris had engaged in a strike and those in Mexico City rose up in protest on the eve of the Olympic Games; the Prague Spring had collapsed under the weight of Soviet tanks; and Richard M. Nixon had been elected President of the United States. The next year saw both the Woodstock celebration, which Shapiro attended, and the disclosure of the My Lai massacre.

In a 1967 statement, the founders of the Theatre for Peace, who included Viveca Lindfors, Joe Chaikin, Eric Bentley, and Alvin Epstein, among others, averred that the project’s aim was to develop and stage theater pieces whose purpose was to end the Vietnam war. One of four pieces in various styles, Brother was part of a commitment “to a theater of propaganda in the best sense of the word.” These performances of Brother were the only ones formally “produced” by an outside organization or offered in an indoor space--and the only ones reviewed; a local critic astutely described it as “an event rather than a play . . . planned to take place almost spontaneously in the street or a park.” Directed by Wangh, Brother made use of direct contact between the performers and the audience; in the street performances, the actors played scenes among the spectators. At the start of the play, for instance, the actors watched the audience from the stage while preparing whipped-cream pies. The spectators were clearly expected to wonder if they were about to become the targets of a bombardment, and were surely relieved when they were not. As serious as their anti-war stance was, Shapiro and Wangh, like Brecht, were not above using farce and slapstick. “The play is funny and entertaining,” wrote two of the participants, “yet people have approached us after performances to tell us we had changed their thinking about the draft.” “Irresponsibility” and “lightheartedness,” Peter Brook observed, are necessary parts of this kind of theater and George Bernard Shaw argued that in the theater “the oftener you laugh the better, because by laughter only can you destroy evil without malice, and affirm good fellowship without mawkishness.”

Brother, as Shapiro acknowledged, was an agit-prop play but, crediting the performance’s reliance on theatrical effect rather than polemics, the West Side News, a neighborhood paper, declared that it provided a “sardonic, gung-ho quality which is almost ambiguous enough to speak to people who are not yet actively against the war.” In addition to playing among the spectators on the sidewalks of the city, the company engaged the audience in the progress of the plot, even to asking them to help torture one of the characters. “Our constant effort is to never allow the audience to dissociate itself from the action and the issues of the play,” wrote the creators. The troupe even allowed hecklers to become part of the performance text. At Cooper Square, Show Business, the theater trade weekly, judged that the “spirited” cast “held its own” with songs in the folk-rock protest vein, typical of the period, accompanied by a lone guitar and somewhat reflecting the style of Bob Dylan (who was Shapiro’s cousin).

Brother, You’re Next had music by Chris Rohmann and lyrics by Rohmann and Wangh. The cover page of the script bears the following annotation:

The authors and copyright holders hereby grant permission to perform BROTHER, YOU’RE NEXT royalty-free under the [condition that] no profit is to be made from such production . . . .

The creators explicitly intended the show to be produced in varying venues, for diverse audiences, and under changing circumstances. (An existing text shows elements of such changes: original references to “Lyndon” have been altered to reflect Nixon’s election in November 1968.) They expressly permitted alteration of the text and even the lyrics to suit the needs of the producing organization. This was all in conformance with the goals of the Theatre for Peace to create material to be disseminated to like-minded protest groups around the country and establish traveling troupes to carry its convictions to other cities and towns.

[As a sidelight, the cast of Brother, You’re Next became the kernel of a street troupe, the New York Free Theater, which performed anti-racist, anti-war, and social-protest songs and sketches all over the five boroughs of New York City from 1968 until the mid-1970s. Shapiro left New York for points west in the summer of 1969, spending two years leading the Appleseed Circus, a guerrilla-performance troupe in the area near Taos, New Mexico. (I’ve written some about this latter endeavor--“Song in the Blood (Hiroshima/Los Alamos)” and “Cheerleaders of the Revolution,” 5 August and 31 October 2009, respectively--and the New York Free Theater may be the subject of a future post on ROT.) Steven Wangh, who served for some years as the dramaturg of Moíses Kaufman’s Tectonic Theatre Project, is on the faculty of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and, as a project for one of his classes, assembled many of the surviving members of the Brother company and made a tape of a reconstructed performance (ca. 1991). Some of the cast also recalled their experiences with the street performances and I’ve quoted some of those remarks above.]

21 January 2010

Terra Cotta Warriors of Xi'an

[Here’s the second part of my report on the art shows I visited while I was in Washington over the year-end holidays. This part exclusively covers the NatGeo exhibit of the terra cotta statues from the tomb at Xi’an, China.]

We booked tix for Wednesday, 6 January, for the Chinese terra cotta soldiers on exhibit at the National Geographic Museum at 17th and M Streets in downtown Washington. I had planned my trip to Washington specifically to see this show, open until 31 March, so I went down late and stayed past New Year so the holiday crowds would dissipate some, which turned out to be propitious because the timed-entry schedule was disrupted by the snow storm of the week before Christmas and several days of the exhibition were canceled. All was back on schedule by New Year and we took a bus downtown, alighting a block away from the museum about ten minutes early for our entry time. (We had to kill a few minutes in the NGS’s photo exhibit of life above the arctic circle in another gallery. Once inside the warrior exhibit, visitors can stay as long as they want, but the museum prohibits lining up more than 15 minutes before the scheduled entry time on the ticket.) I’d seen a half dozen of the statues some years ago when they were part of an omnibus exhibit of ancient Chinese art at the Met, but this show focuses on the clay figures. What I didn’t know for sure was that Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor includes more than just the warriors. It’s as much a history exhibit as an art show, with artifacts and other statues excavated from the tomb site of Qin Shihuangdi.

While the administrative process for the museum was unhelpful and confusing, from the perspective of buying the tickets on line through trying to get information about arrival procedures and bus transportation, the show itself was magnificent. Unfortunately, the NatGeo Museum is the last stop on the warriors’ North American tour. (The exhibit stopped at Santa Ana, California, in May 2008; Atlanta November ’08-April ’09; and Houston May-October ’09.)

First, a little background. Emperor Qin was born Ying Zheng in 259 BCE and became king of the state of Qin in 246, at the age of 13, ruling under a regent until 239 when he began to reign in his own name. (Qin, pronounced ‘Chin,’ is the origin of the Western name of the country, China.) During this period of war among the many independent states of China, Zheng was able to conquer all of his neighbors and in 221 BCE, having consolidated all the country under one ruler, he declared himself Qin Shihuangdi (literally, First Emperor) and reigned until his sudden death in 210 BCE. Qin’s short reign was both stern and innovative, introducing many reforms but punishing subjects and administrators harshly for the smallest failures. Qin started the structure that would become the Great Wall and, as soon as his reign as King of Qin began, he initiated the construction his tomb, a vast underground city in Xi’an, a few miles southeast of Qin’s capital, Xianyang. (Xi’an is about 570 miles southwest of Beijing, in the interior of China.) Qin’s rule is controversial and the record is somewhat suspect since it was written as much as 100 years after his death by his successors who were from rival dynasties and had no love for their predecessor. The tomb site, which was discovered by accident in 1974 (some local farmers were digging a well), is estimated to contain as many as 7,000 warrior statues, only 1,000 of which have been unearthed. Dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World, the Xi’an tomb complex has yielded many clues to the accurate history of Emperor Qin and his empire, buried for over 2,000 years.

The burial complex, a true necropolis, covers 19 square miles (the size of Yonkers, New York, or Bozeman, Montana). In the center is the actual burial mound, to date unexcavated (for reasons I haven’t been able to discover), that is believed to cover a bronze tomb with 500 tons of mercury flowing as rivers which replicate the actual rivers of Qin’s empire, and a jeweled ceiling that symbolizes the heavens. (There’s a speculative artist’s rendering in the exhibit of what this tomb may look like.) The clay army was buried with the emperor to protect him in the afterlife, but there were other symbolic attendants as well, including entertainers, musicians, and civil servants—all life sized (including horses for the cavalry soldiers and chariots) with individualized faces and detailed hair styles, clothing, and armor. Many of the figures would have held weapons, reins, musical instruments, and other artifacts, but over the millennia, the objects, made of leather, wood, fabric, and other perishable materials, simply disintegrated underground and the modern discoverers are left to imagine what the clay people, posed in ghostlike postures with hands gripping vanished tools of their trades, might have been holding. Hundreds of other items, meant to serve the emperor in death, were buried in the complex, each in its proper location in the vast city of the dead, built by thousands of laborers, many of them slaves and convicts—some at the loss of their lives—to serve the spirit of one man. (Qin died suddenly, falling ill while on an inspection tour. It’s daunting to imagine what might have been added to the necropolis if he’d lived longer!) The whole image is fantastic.

Terra Cotta Warriors is divided into two parts (separated by the lobby of the NGS building, so visitors must keep their tix to reenter after the gap) comprising four “themes.” The first part, covering “Building the Empire,” “Power and Paranoia,” and “The Afterlife,” contains all the objects other than the clay soldiers—except for the very first exhibit, a sort of overture to the entire show, which is a lone cavalryman standing in the center of a small gallery, his horse by his side. Entering this room is a very dramatic introduction to the exhibition and provides a background explanation of the statues, the soldiers they represent, the history of Emperor Qin, and the discovery of his tomb. Further details unfold as you pass from one gallery to the next and read the panels for each segment and each display of objects. (If you’re like me, as many of you know, you will read as many of the explanations you can stand, a process which makes the whole visit last about two hours or so, including a couple of respites on benches placed in some of the galleries and in that lobby. NatGeo states that the visit takes about an hour, but I’d say only if you speed through the exhibits and even skip some of the displays. That’d be your choice, of course, but I can’t do that. I’m obsessive that way.) The first part of the exhibit includes about 100 objects ranging from bronze bells, to coins (the design that began in the Qin kingdom, a round coin with a square hole, and was adopted for the whole empire remained in use until 1912!), to roofing tiles, to a stone sewer pipe, to weapons, to limestone-tile armor. Using these objects as examples, the explanatory panels show the development of such innovations as uniform standards of coinage and weights and measures, assembly-line manufacture, saddles with stirrups, the crossbow, construction methods—often centuries before similar developments appeared in Europe. Most of these items were utilitarian in purpose, but they were often strikingly beautiful in their silhouettes and surface decoration. (The bronze bells in one gallery, though they were objects of warfare, are incised with the most astonishingly delicate filligree patterns. Even the spear points and sword blades—the parts made of wood or other perishable materials are no lonbger available for examination—are minutely decorated.) There are a few art objects in this part of the show as well, however, such as the two handsome lifesized bronze birds meant to accompany Qin Shihuangdi into the afterlife.

The second part of the exhibit, “Armies Unearthed,” includes an explanation of the creation of the statues and their reconstruction, the replicas of two recently uncovered half-sized bronze chariots (like one that might have carried Qin Shihuangdi’s corpse to Xi’an for burial), and eight warriors in three small groups. While it’s true that seeing the individual clay soldiers displayed in a gallery is not the same as seeing them arrayed by the hundreds in ranks and files, deployed to defend their emperor in phalanxes in immense pits north of the burial city, visitors to Xi’an cannot see the statues this close-up and examine the detail and differentiation. The massive project that the 7,000-man army represents is an impressive image, as revealed in the many photographs (including the exhibit banners) on view around the museum. Removed from their intended context this way, that accomplishment—and the absolute power Emperor Qin obviously wielded to require the 700,000 workers to construct the tomb and create the artifacts buried in it—is lost except in the texts of the historical pannels. But the artistic accomplishment that the statues reveal isn’t accessible at the dig site as it is when you can approach each figure within a few inches, unobstructed by any barriers (aside from a low railing) such as glass cases. You are close enough to touch the statues (although that would be a no-no: there is a terra cotta replica at the exit for touching).

According to the exhibit literature, each life-sized figure is about six feet tall and weighs between 200 and 400 pounds. (The horses weigh about 750 pounds each.) To create the torso, artisans built up coils of clay. The hands, arms, and head were molded separately and then attached. The legs and feet of each warrior are solid clay to support the weight of the figure. When a figure was complete, a layer of fine clay was applied to the entire sculpture so individual details could be incised by hand; each soldier is appropriately uniformed for his rank and military specialty—archer, crossbowman, spear-carrier, charioteer, cavalryman, and so on. In the case of one kneeling archer, even the exposed sole of his shoe is detailed with the knotted cords of the conventional design. After this was completed, the statues were fired at high temperatures. The hands were then positioned to hold weapons, many of which were stolen during the rebellions that followed the emperor’s death or simply rotted in their underground vaults. Craftsmen—about 1,000 workers are estimated to have helped create the clay army—sculpted the individual facial appearance of each figure by hand, adding mustaches, expressions, and other distinguishing features. Many of the faces are thought to resemble the artists themselves or some real person or military figure; no two are believed to be identical. Originally, the soldiers were painted with pigments made from minerals mixed with either egg white or animal blood. When the statues were exposed to the air upon excavation, the paint faded and only traces remain of what was apparently a magnificent aspect of the discovery.

Terra Cotta Warriors includes 15 clay statues: five non-military figures in the earlier galleries (two musicians, a strongman, a court official, and a stable boy), the introductory cavalryman with his mount, and, in the final gallery, eight soldiers—three officers, including a general; two archers; two infantrymen; and a charioteer. Some, like the strongman—with his bulging muscles and sumo-wrestler belly—are heavily damaged, pieced together like a giant 3-D puzzle from fragments gathered and assembled painstakingly by trial and error. (Mr. Muscle, one of the entertainment figures, is still missing his head.) Others seem to have emerged from the earth whole or nearly so. (Some of the damage is attributed to tomb looters following Qin Shihuangdi’s burial but some was simply the result of the underground chambers having collapsed on the occupants over the past two millennia.) The archeologists have speculated in many cases about what the men (there are no women among the statues so far discovered) were carrying, based in part of the positions of the figures, especially the placement of their hands and arms, and in part on the evidence on the ground near the figures’ burial site—such as remnants of weapons. The wooden spear handles or the arrow shafts and quivers have disintegrated, but warriors identified as spearmen were surrounded by bronze spear points on the pit floor and archers were identified by the arrow tips found with them. I can only imagine what else they’ll find among the 6,000 figures they think are left to unearth in Xi’an. The variety among the few they’ve already dug up suggests there are some amazing surprises yet to be seen!

I understand from friends who have visited Xi’an, one of the most popular tourist sites in China, that seeing the dig is an awe-inspiring experience, especially seeing the clay soldiers lined up as if marching out of their burial pits to defend the dead emperor. Nonetheless, examining these statues, with their expressive faces and intricate detailing, so close, has its rewards. I was first greatly impressed with the work in evidence. The start of the final gallery is an exhibit explaining how the statues were made, with illustrations of the workshops for building the soldiers and horses and examples of the reconstruction and conservation. This set me up for an appreciation of the craftsmanship and effort that resulted in the statues on display in the final gallery. It’s not insignificant that I was constantly reminded that these figures were constructed 2,000 years ago when our European ancestors were still running around hitting each other with clubs. Creating this scale of work even today would be an amazing accomplishment, not least because terra cotta is a brittle and fragile material even in small objects. Then the artistry, irrespective of the age and technical achievement the statues represent. I swear, these pieces look like they could spring to life and stride right out to do battle. Each face is as expressive as an actor’s in a close up. You could write a play featuring these eight guys just by interpreting their appearances here for character details—it’s all in there. In Kabuki theater, the mie, the dramatic pose held by an actor at a significant instant, is called “a frozen moment.” Each of these statues is a frozen mie. I have no idea if all 7,000 figures are different from one another as the archeologists speculate, but these eight (or 15, if you include the men in the other galleries) are characters, in the sense of dramatis personae.

The display in the last room at NatGeo is set up so you can walk all around the small groupings of soldiers, viewing them from the back and sides as well as the front. (You couldn’t do that at the dig, though there is a museum in Xi’an that probably displays examples of the statues, however accessible that would be.) No detail I could imagine has been left out—armor, caps, hair styles (even under a cap!), that shoe sole, mustaches. (One explanation notes that the stable boy was at first thought to have been a woman—until the trace of an adolescent mustache was discerned!) Blake Gopnik of the Washington Post asked why spectators would be “so happy to be there” to see the statues and posited that it has something to do with the need to see “authenticity” in this age of mass replication. Maybe he’s right: we need to cling to the idea that there are still one-offs in our culture somewhere—accomplishments that are unique and unduplicable. But I think that I was happy to have been there, to have seen those 15 clay statues, because they are innately marvelous, both individually—each figure a personality on its own--and en masse—an unimaginably immense achievement (which, granted, could only be accomplished under an absolute autocrat). In other words, while Gopnik says the statues are magnificent because they’re “authentic,” I say they’re authentic because they’re magnificent. (Ask yourself this: would everyone be so thrilled if there had been 7,000 really ugly things buried under that field in Xi’an? I think not! QED.)

18 January 2010

Art in D.C. (Dec. ’09-Jan. ’10)

I made my usual year-end trip to Washington to spend the holidays with my mother and to check in with friends and family down there. Normally, I see some theater in D.C. as well as movies and art exhibits; it’s even a semi-tradition for Mom and me to go to a play on New Year’s Eve and get home before the ball drops in New York. This year, however, there weren’t any appropriate shows to see over the whole period, much less 31 December, so I have nothing to report about on that front. I did see several flicks on my vacation, but I don’t generally do film commentary. As it happens, though, among the art shows I saw was the exhibit of the terra cotta warriors of Xi’an, on display through March at the National Geographic Museum—an experience well worth recording. Chronologically, the terra cotta soldiers were the last of the exhibits I saw in Washington, so I’ll start with the other shows first and build up to the pièce de resistance, as it were, in part two of this report. I think that’ll work out nicely.

We began on Sunday, 27 December, at the Phillips Collection, one of the many private art museums in the city, which was hosting Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens, a fascinating show not only for the art on display but its curatorial concept as well. I’m not a great fan of Man Ray or of photography as art, but some of you may know that I have a strong interest in African art, starting back in the ‘70s when my dad got involved with the private predecessor of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, one of the two underground galleries on the Mall. The idea of Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens is that the Western art community of the early decades of the 20th century became so engaged by African art that they not only elevated it from anthropological and ethnographic artifacts, as it had been considered until that point, to objects of art and pure aesthetics, but they appropriated many of the objects themselves for their own art work. This was especially true, it appears, of the photographers who directly featured African pieces as props in their portraits and photographic still lifes. (This isn’t a new idea for an art exhibit. The Museum of African Art, the precursor to the NMAA, kept a permanent display of modern works by such artists as Modigliani and Picasso alongside the African pieces that may have inspired them. The photographs, of course, manifest this influence more literally, and many of the African objects in the show are the original ones depicted in the photos.) The Phillips exhibit placed the Western photos near the African objects they depicted giving the spectators a chance to appreciate both the modern Western art and the often superb African carvings, masks, and other objects which had inspired them. A double whammy, so to speak. (If you’re a devotee of photography, especially late 19th- and early 20th-century photography, this is an irresistible set-up. It was the African sculptures that most delighted me, however. As I’ve remarked before, these works are astonishingly beautiful.)

The Phillips show, assembled by Wendy Goodman, includes over 100 photos, more than half by Ray himself (born Emmanuel Radnitsky of Brooklyn), and over 20 masks, carved figures, and practical items from several African cultures (and a few Oceanic peoples). The exhibit can be viewed from several perspectives: it can be seen as evidence of Western imperialism, appropriating the cultural objects of African peoples for Western consumption and paying no heed to the cultures from which they were lifted; it can be seen as a form of cultural racism with undertones of slavery and oppression, as a white, European culture pillages the imagery and expressions of a dark-skinned populace for its own pleasure; it can represent, as it did for many African-American artists, a search for black cultural roots that predate American slavery and European colonialism; it can demonstrate the rejection of the West’s descent into war and destruction and the dehumanization of the mechanical age that gave us bombs, tanks, fighter planes, and machine guns, in favor of a purer, less debased culture; it can even manifest an homage to the accomplishments and artistry of hitherto overlooked peoples. (The Dada artists, whose work was the subject of terrific recent exhibit at NGA and then MoMa, reacted against this same early-20th-century development that arrived in the guise of Word War I. Ray was a participant in this fascinating art movement, too.) In the days of Man Ray and the other artists represented at the Phillips, art such as that of Africa, Oceania, Native Americans, and other non-Western peoples was called “primitive,” now considered a demeaning description; today this kind of work is called “naïve,” meaning only that the artists came by their techniques naturally, without the benefit of professional training. But “naïve” can also imply that the art—and the artists—have been untouched by the so-called worldliness and sophistication that turns to cynicism and negativity. Untainted. Unadulterated. A Romantic viewpoint, perhaps, but not uncomplimentary or denigrating. (It is also not a comment on the quality of the work, which even an untrained eye can see is complex, profound, and meaningful. It’s merely a distinction of the source of the techniques, which are traditional instead of schooled.) As Blake Gopnik of the Washington Post noted, in this side-by-side exhibit, the Western works “come off as weaker” than the much bolder, more robust (less effete?) African works. The arch-conservative Washington Times posited that Man Ray, African Art . . . failed to avoid “relegating non-Western art to a supporting role” in the modern trends of Western abstraction, but my own apolitical perspective is simply that these are immensely beautiful works of art which the Western artists, irrespective of their feelings or ignorance about the cultures from which the objects came, saw and appreciated. Nonetheless, the photos do show the African objects without reference to their cultural matrix or the purposes for which they were made. Maybe I’m the one who’s naïve.

One thing that struck me, though there’s no reification of this sidelight in the exhibit lit or the criticism, is the several different purposes the photographs in the exhibit served. One, starting with the Alfred Stieglitz photo at the beginning of the show, was archival rather than artistic. Stieglitz, Walker Evans, and Ray were all commissioned at one time or another to record the holdings of private collectors or the works displayed in museum or dealer exhibitions, including the now-famous 1935 MoMA show, African Negro Art (recorded by Evans). A second purpose, related to the archival use, was what I’d call documentary. A number of the pictures in the Phillips show were merely records of an example of African art, really an anthropological artifact which takes on other layers of meaning because, first, the objects depicted are so stunning and, second, because they are being displayed here, among other, clearly aesthetically-oriented photos. (These same sorts of photographs, if collected into a catalogue, might still be beautiful because the subjects are, but the photos—as distinguished from the African objects themselves—wouldn’t be seen as art, just illustrations.)

Undoubtedly these two kinds of pictures helped spread the appeal and the mystique of African artworks during the 1910s, ‘20s, and ‘30s, especially among the artists of the period. Deborah Dietsch, the Washington Times reviewer, noted that the paintings of Lois Mailou Jones, a Harlem Renaissance artist whose works were among the only paintings in the Phillips show, took their inspiration not perhaps from the actual African objects she depicted but from Evans’s archival photos from the MoMA exhibit. But the most interesting photographs at the Phillips were, as you might imagine, the art prints, the ones taken as art, composed, lit, and printed to be aesthetic objects. The acclaimed star of these pictures was Ray’s Noire et blanche, taken for Paris Vogue in 1926. The photo shows a pale, dark-haired woman lying on her side, photographed from the bust up only, holding upright a small, dark, carved African mask. (The mask, from the Baule people in Ivory Coast, is included in the exhibit.) The model’s white face is horizontal, juxtaposed with the black mask-face at a right angle just below her chin, standing vertical, manifesting a contrast not only of black and white, but of length and height. The woman’s face is soft and (apparently) powdered; the mask is hard and shiny, adding another level of contrast. The woman’s hair is short and combed flat, a boy’s cut; the mask’s coiffure is elaborate and high. (In an almost whimsical addenda, Ray also printed the shot in reverse contrast, a “negative” print with the white model’s face dark and the African mask light.) Gopnik of the Post observed that, though the title of the picture is often translated as “Black and White,” Ray seems to have intended it to mean “Black Woman and White Woman”: though the French adjective noire doesn’t inflect for gender, blanche is the feminine form for ‘white’; ordinarily, ‘black and white’ would simply be noire et blanc unless a feminine noun were implied. (Other photos at the Phillips were by James L. Allen and Cecil Beaton.)

Aside from masks and carved figurines, on display were also a number of wonderful African beaded hats, depicted in several fashion photos, a collection of ivory bracelets belonging to Nancy Cunard, the British shipping heiress, and other practical objects like pitchers, bowls, a stool, and a door. (African art objects are almost all made for use or worship; few African cultures created purely aesthetic or decorative objects—except in recent decades for Western consumption. Really old African pieces are rare because they simply get used up. This is compounded because African work is seldom composed of stone or metal; it’s mostly perishable material.) Nonetheless, it was these pieces which “grabbed” me—as Gopnik wrote, though in a different context. A 16-inch Kanyok half-figure (a woman carved from the waist up, but with feet serving as a base!), was particularly enchanting, with an expressive, only slightly stylized heart-shaped face topped with an elaborate hair-do of several curled lobes of hair (picture an Africanized geisha wig). I will only add that there were many other objects in the exhibit that I wouldn’t mind having in my living room. Some of you may recollect my mother and my imaginary midnight shopping trips, and my vote this time would have gone to the 13-inch Yoruba mother-and-child figure with a lidded bowl. The woman, with a baby seated on her rump, also wears a lobed hairstyle and is well dressed. She’s carrying a large, covered bowl, and as the baby grips her around the waist, she grips the bowl in front of her. Carved in a nearly-Realistic style, the detail is incredible: the fabric pattern in the woman’s dress, her bracelets and necklace, the baby’s anklet, the texture of her hair. It’s altogether stunning. (Both these objects are shown in Man Ray photos from about 1933, part of his commission to record the collection of Carl Kjersmeier, a Danish collector.)

The Man Ray, African Art . . . exhibit closed at the Phillips on 10 January, but it’s a touring show and will appear elsewhere around North America, including the UNM Art Museum, Albuquerque (6 February–30 May ), UVa Art Museum, Charlottesville (7 August-10 October), and Museum of Anthropology at UBC, Vancouver (29 October-23 January 2011).

On Sunday, 3 January, we drove down to the Mall (it was way too cold to wait for busses in exposed sidewalk shelters) and, after finding the perfect parking space (the remaining holiday tourists apparently having stayed in their hotels, much to our benefit), we walked a half block to the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum to catch the last day of Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection. Truitt is an artist of whom I hadn’t heard; my mother is much more up on the mid-century artists than I am. (Two years ago, Mom introduced me to the work of Morris Louis, a contemporary of Truitt’s who had also had a show at the Hirshhorn.) A bit of history first, then: Washington had never been much of a theater city until the 1970s when a number of Off-Broadway-level (and several more Off-Off-Broadway-level) theaters opened there, supplementing the Arena Stage, the city’s principal rep company (founded in 1950), and the National Theatre, its legit house (opened in 1835) . (The Kennedy Center opened at the start of this period, 1971, greatly expanding the city’s theatrical offerings and its cachet.) But since at least the post-World War II years, the Nation’s Capital has been a true art center. Not only have the big museums such as the National Gallery, the Phillips Collection, and the Corcoran Gallery long been important venues for displaying and viewing art of many cultures and eras, but Washington had long had a vibrant retail gallery presence, catering to the many collectors in the metropolitan area and beyond. (Full disclosure: my parents became part owners of one of these galleries in 1956 or so, when I was still in single digits. The partners liquidated the gallery in about 1960 and it no longer exists.) But all of these facts aren’t what made Washington an art center. That would be the community of artists, some native Washingtonians (we were rare in those days), others born elsewhere but drawn to the active art scene there. Not a few well-known figures came out of this scene over the decades, and there was even a Washington Color School in the middle of the last century. Some of the painters in this group included Louis, Kenneth Noland (who died 5 January), Gene Davis, Howard Mehring, Tom Downing, and Paul Reed. (A more current artist associated with the Washington Colorists is Sam Gilliam who happens to have been a friend of my parents and an artist some of whose works both my mother and I own.)

Another associate of the Washington Color School was Anne Truitt, who began her career in the late 1940s. Born in Baltimore in 1921, Truitt grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She moved to Washington in 1947 and, except for periods abroad (her husband, James Truitt, was a journalist), she lived the rest of her life in the Capital. After working in psychology and writing fiction, Truitt turned to art. She started with sculpting in clay, cement, and stone, but in the early 1960s, she abandoned and even destroyed much of this work. A 1961 exhibit at the Guggenheim, American Abstract Expressionists and Imagists, changed Truitt’s whole perspective and she turned to minimalist geometric abstraction. These works include First (1961), essentially three slats of a white picket fence, and Southern Elegy (1962), a black-and-green, arched tablet shaped like a gravestone. (These works are included among the 49 sculptures and 35 paintings and drawings in Perception and Reflection.) Shortly afterwards, Truitt moved beyond even these abstractions and started producing what became her signature form: highly colored wooden columns. (Ken Johnson in the New York Times described these as “resembling models of Modernist skyscrapers.”) With this step, the artist moved not only into the interstice between Color Field painting and Minimalist sculpture, but she focused entirely on color to express her intent, as the columns were undifferentiated (though they varied in size and dimensions) and unrepresentational. She used many shades of non-prime colors, sometimes applying varying hues of the same color, other times using two or three contrasting colors. The paint was carefully applied by hand in alternating brush strokes of vertical and horizontal for each layer, so that the finish was smooth and hard. The artist sometimes varied the appearance not by contrasting colors or even hues, but finishes, using a matte surface to set off a glossy one. Truitt completed her last columns, Return and Evensong, just before her death in December 2004.

Curator Kristen Hileman called Truitt “a pioneering but understudied figure” and suggested that her work is “ripe for rediscovery and ready to be considered on its own terms.” I demur. Gopnik of the Post said Truitt’s art is “sociable”; the works “keep you company.” For me, not so much. She’s a figure of curiosity because of her placement in the continuum of art history, her association with artists like Louis, Noland, Minimalist Donald Judd, and Abstract Expressionists Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman, and her membership in the Washington art world. But her art itself leaves me cold. Some of the colorful columns are pretty in a neutral sort of way, but they don’t “grab” me at all (and I wouldn’t want to come back after closing to nick one). Noland’s paintings are bright and striking, crossing between Colorism and Op Art, and they can be exciting to look at. The optics of the geometric shapes and the brilliant colors he used makes them seem to pulse and spin (a phenomenon Hans Hofmann described as “plasticity”). Louis’s poured stains, also brightly colored, seem to run off the untreated canvases into an undefined future somewhere. Suggesting flowers, rainbows, flowing ribbons, his art bursts off the canvas in upredictable ways to give the sense of a living force. Truitt’s columns (there are examples of some of her other forms, except some aluminum sculptures she made during a period in Japan and which she destroyed) are all restraint and coldness to me. They’re almost studied, remote, lifeless. That’s the problem with “bare-bones” art—it has no life in it! That’s not for me.

On Tuesday, 5 January, we drove down to the Mall again to see the exhibit at the National Gallery’s East Building of the Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection: Selected Works. Continuing at the NGA until 2 May, this isn’t an exhibit of the works of one artist or a period or theme of artworks assembled by some museum curator. It’s a display of pieces from the private collection of a Baltimore real estate developer and his wife which the couple has bequeathed to the NGA. The full collection is some 300 pieces of 20th-century art, which the Meyerhoffs began collecting in the 1950s and continued to amass into the early years of this century. (Jane Meyerhoff died in 2004; Robert Meyerhoff, 85, is still alive but has already begun to turn over their holdings to the gallery. The current show includes 126 pieces.) The Meyerhoffs began buying art by many artists of the mid-century, both European and American, but shortly after starting their collection, they concentrated on six notable American artists: Jasper Johns (whom the Meyerhoffs must have really loved because there are far more Johnses in the collection than any other two artists on exhibit), Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Brice Marden, Robert Rauschenberg, and Frank Stella (there’s a whole gallery of one series of Stella’s wall-mounted, found-object sculptures, all titled with variations on Playskool). The collection and the exhibit, which include many other artists in addition to this focal group, embrace both paintings (and some drawings) and sculptures; it is, in a way, a study in depth of the development of a segment of modern American art from the ‘50s to the ‘80s and ‘90s. Some of the artists made a step-by-step journey into maturity and refinement of their techniques and styles; others progressed by leaps and turns, seemingly trying on a new dynamic every year or so. This being less than half of the Meyerhoff holdings, it’s amusing to try to imagine what their home must have been like with all or most of their art on display. David Lloyd Kreeger, at least, built himself an actual museum to live in until he died and could have his former home opened to the public. The Meyerhoffs' taste in art, by the way, seems to have been better than Kreeger’s.)

The Meyerhoff gift, which is the largest single donation since the founding of the NGA and the gifts of Andrew Mellon and the other original benefactors in 1937, was actually announced in 1987. (Beginning in 1986, the Meyerhoffs had donated many individual pieces of art and money for the purchase of works independent of this single gift.) Part of the arrangement is that part of the collection will be held by the NGA in Washington and part will remain at the Meyerhoffs’ estate in Phoenix, Maryland. It is the first permanent location for art in the NGA's collection remote from the museum’s base on the Mall. The estate, which will not be part of the NGA but be maintained privately by a foundation formed by the Meyerhoffs for that purpose, will open to the public on Meyerhoff’s death, but works from his holdings are already being transferred to the gallery’s ownership. Now, I won’t say that the whole Meyerhoff Collection delights me—one of the Pollocks on display (Ritual, 1953), for instance, is an unprepossessing example of his work as far as I’m concerned—but quite a few of the pieces are great additions to the national art collection and the Meyerhoff holdings as a whole is a true treasure. (It’s a good point to note that all the Smithsonian museums, both on the Mall and elsewhere around the country, are open free to all visitors every day of the year except 25 December; the NGA is also closed on 1 January. It’s one of the best deals the taxpayers get from our government. The fees for places like the Phillips, the Corcoran, MoMA, the Goog, and so on keep going up—and they close some days—but the NGA and the Smithsonians are there, free, and available! I’m for that!)

The principal peculiarity of the Meyerhoff exhibit is that it’s not organized by artist, subject, or date. Curator Harry Cooper arranged the pieces by themes—somewhat recondite categories, in my opinion, but nevertheless . . . . Some of Cooper’s distinctions depend on visual aspects of the works, some on the method of making the pieces. The ten divisions—Scrape, Concentricity, Line, Gesture, Art on Art, Drip, Stripe to Zip, Figure or Ground, Monochrome, and Picture the Frame—were devised to accommodate as many different artists as possible in each theme (there’s a Johns in most of the sections), so the galleries are an almost haphazard selection of works from the Meyerhoffs’ holdings. (I confess, I didn’t pay as much attention to the categories as I moved through the show as I perhaps ought to have for the curator’s purposes. I just enjoyed the individual pieces as I came upon them. Doing that, the art seems much like the arrangement you might find in someone’s home—a very big home, granted, with a lot of very expensive art on the walls, but most collectors don’t hang their art according to some academic taxonomy, do they? They display it the way it seems most pleasing to them, without regard to who hangs next to whom. That’s how I do it—with my dozen-and-a-half, mostly unknown works! I’m just sayin’ . . . .) Anyway, I guess curators have to justify their salaries. No harm, no foul, I suppose.

Most of the Meyerhoff holdings fall into the style of Abstract Expressionism and its immediate descendents. (Their first purchase, 1957’s Autumn Gold by Hans Hofmann, one of the founders of Abstract Expressionism in the United States, is on display at the entrance to the exhibit.) Next to Impressionism and its offspring, Abstract Expressionism is my favorite style of painting. In addition to Ritual, about which Blake Gopnik wrote an entire essay for the Washington Post, there’s a 1951 Pollock (Untitled), a black and white drip painting (it’s actually ink on Japanese paper), that I’d happily hang on a wall at home. The Rothkos, Franz Klines, and Barnett Newmans are bold, colorful, and expressive, stirring emotions and thoughts (unlike, say, the Truitt monoliths of the previous exhibit) that are too rapid and uncontrollable to capture much less articulate—which, to my way of thinking, is what Expressionism is supposed to do. Even the Minimalists and Op Artist like Ellsworth Kelly, Ad Reinhardt, and Frank Stella excited my senses even if they were less emotionally stimulating. I’ve always gotten a kick out of Roy Lichtenstein’s Pop Art, too, and the exhibit included a bronze sculpture, Sleeping Muse (1983), which was essentially a cast version of one of his paintings abstracted to lines and curves. In fact, it put me in mind of a Minimalist sculpture of the model’s face from Man Ray’s Noire et blanche! It’s the face of a woman, depicted in outline and a few abstract details formed by lines, lying on its side facing the viewer. The open-work bronze casting is patinated in forest green. I can tell you, I’d find a place for that in my apartment in a New York minute!

That Gopnik essay in the Post, bemoaning the lack of “rudeness” in the once-provocative and ‑challenging art in the collection, was called “The sweet smell of success, and the scent of an iconoclast.” The art reviewer began by asserting, “Success may be the worst thing that can happen to modern art. When a radical work gets taken up by wealthy collectors and big-time museums, it risks becoming a marker of cultural status instead of creative achievement.” I’m nowhere near enough of an art critic to know if there’s any truth to Gopnik’s opinion, but I do wonder where he’s going. Is this somehow the fault of the artwork or the artists? Okay, there was a movement, Conceptual Art (and a few similar doctrines) that insisted that art was not a consumer product and deliberately made art that wouldn’t last beyond the creative moment. But most art, radical or conventional, is made to attract attention from viewers and, therefore, also buyers and exhibiters. It goes with the territory. Indeed, it’s how most artists make their livings. And their points. An artist who sets out to make art that won’t become desirable, that persistently affronts viewers, isn’t going to last too long—unless she likes shouting out in the wilderness. So whose fault is this phenomenon, then? The critics and reviewers who offer positive opinions on the art and thus make it appealing to potential purchasers and museums? So, what? They should just stop rendering positive opinions? That’ll work. Is it the fault of the spectators who come to appreciate a work of art, making it popular and enrolling it in the established canon. And who is it who controls that? That’s right . . . no one.

Gopnik went to the Meyerhoff show looking for a piece of once-radical art that “simply refused to play nice, however much money and prestige it’s been draped in.” He was generally disappointed except for the one Pollock, Ritual, which he described as “gloriously rude and ugly, and has stayed that way despite the passing of time and the canonization of the maker.” Well, okay. In the writer’s opinion, here was a work that didn’t age badly, according to his standards. Where does that leave the rest of the collection, even the rest of the mid-century American experiment in provocative forms? Just relegate it to the trash heap of art history? Unhappily or not, the works of all kinds of innovative artists eventually become mainstream and acceptable—sometimes because we’ve learned the lessons the artists was trying to teach. Look at Ibsen’s plays, especially Doll House. That caused riots when it was published; Ibsen was breaking all kinds of taboos, both theatrical and social, with his Realism and the portrayal of Nora, the wife who leaves her husband and family. Ghosts, with its frank depiction of syphilis and moral decadence, was almost as inflammatory. But Ibsen’s theater eventually became the norm, in terms of both its frankness and its stage style. The power of Ibsen’s plays is still there, however. Maybe no one will riot in the streets afterwards, but Ghosts and Doll House and Hedda Gabler can still make us pull up short and ask questions. They still challenge us, and when I look at the other Pollocks, the Rothkos, the Kellys, the Louises, the Nolands, and the works of other such artists from half a century or so ago, the ones who thrilled and excited us, who provoked and frightened us, who moved us to wonder and question, and explore—they still do. Well, they do me, anyway. I wonder if perhaps it isn’t the art that has become tame, but jaded viewers like Gopnik who’ve lost their sense of excitement. (Of course, maybe that’s just me being naïve again. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing, either.)

[Not many viewers, I don’t think, would have trouble getting excited about the Chinese terra cotta soldiers on exhibit at the National Geographic Museum. Come back in a day or so for my report on this unique experience.]

13 January 2010

'Rasa-Bhava' & The Audience

Somewhere between the 2nd century BCE and the 2nd century CE, what are now The Natyasastra’s 37 chapters were assembled in India. Preceded only by The Poetics (335 BCE) of Aristotle (384-22 BCE), to which it bears some superficial resemblance, The Natyasastra is the second-oldest known “how-to” book on theater. Predating the treatises of Zeami Motokiyo (c. 1363-c. 1443) on Japanese Noh drama (1402-23) by some 15 centuries, it is attributed to the sage Bharata-muni but was probably compiled by several contributors over many years. (Bharata’s life dates are unknown--if he in fact existed at all--though they have been put anywhere between the 5th century BCE and the 2nd century CE. Bharata had 100 sons, who became actors. Bharata is the Sanskrit word for both ‘actor’ and ‘India.’ Bharata Natyam, for instance, means ‘Indian dance.’ Muni corresponds to the title ‘Sage.’) Our primary source of information about ancient Sanskrit performance and a guide to understanding the many living performance traditions in India today, the treatise is still used by classical performers such as Kathakali dancer-actors, Kutiyattam storytellers, and Bharata Natyam and Orissi dancers. Unlike Aristotle’s Poetics, The Natyasastra was written for theater practitioners, not analysts. A detailed handbook of theater production, it covers all elements of playwriting, theater construction, costume, make-up, acting, dance, and music. I’m going to look at only one aspect of acting which I find intriguing, the Theory of Rasa-Bhava.

The Natyasastra is partly a religious text, the “fifth Veda,” revealing to the people the rules of dramaturgy and stagecraft as handed down to Bharata by the god Brahma. The production of a play is an offering to the gods (much as it was in ancient Greece), and performing is a religious act.

The Natyasastra is written in the classic Indo-European language of Sanskrit, the language of the intelligentsia and aristocracy of ancient India. Natya is the Sanskrit word for both dance and acting or theater; sastra means ‘set of rules.’ (Classical Indian performers are “dancer-actors” because the distinction we make in the West simply doesn’t exist in classical Indian theater.) English transliterations of Sanskrit words vary in their spellings (many with elaborate diacritical marks) depending on the system used, so I’ll try to avoid using them at all when I can. But note that the original words and terms have multiple English meanings, none of which may be precise, or even entirely accurate. (Some Sanskrit words are unavoidable, as you’ll see, but I won’t provide the Sanskrit term for every concept I mention as most academic studies on the subject do.) My essay covering this subject, "The Natyasastra and Stanislavsky: Points of Contact" (Theatre Studies 36 [1991]: 46-62), from which this column is partly excerpted, was a comparison of the theories of Konstantin Stanislavsky and the performance practices laid out in The Natyasastra. Towards that end, I used Stanislavsky terminology and examples to discuss the Sanskrit system. For the sake of simplicity and consistency, I’ll keep to that tactic--with the caveat that the approaches, while I determined they had overlapping features, are not precisely equivalent. In other words, what I’m going to say here is something of a simplistic approximation. Now, a word about the text of The Natyasastra: there are several English translations available, as well as many analyses and commentaries (both ancient and modern), but the terminology and quotations I’m using here have been drawn from Manomohan Ghosh’s rendering: Bharata-muni, ascribed author, The Natyasastra: A Treatise on Ancient Indian Dramaturgy and Histrionics (Calcutta: Manisha Grantalaya, 1961-67). One more note--about gender references in this column: like Greek drama, Kabuki, Elizabethan theater, and Kathakali, all actors in classical Sanskrit drama were men; all pronouns will therefore be masculine. (Some modern descendants of Sanskrit theater, such as Bharata Natyam and Orissi dance, have both male and female artists.)

Before getting down to rasa-bhava, I want to touch on a broader Sanskrit concept that in a sense governs all of performance: abhinaya. The word literally means “leading towards,” with the implication in performance of leading the audience toward an emotional response (rasa), but it is generally used to mean the actor’s art of expressing feeling. It covers everything that an actor may use on stage to communicate the play’s meaning and the character’s emotions and intentions to the audience. Abhinaya has four components: gesture and movement (anything to do with the body), speech and singing (anything accomplished with the voice), costume and make-up (anything using outside objects, including the few props or set elements that appear in Sanskrit drama), and “representation of the Sattva” or the portrayal of emotion. (I’ll touch on sattvika abhinaya a little later. It’s the heart of rasa-bhava, as you’ll see.) So, you see that abhinaya comprises the whole of an actor’s craft. Western observers of Asian performance sometimes consider that it’s all technically rendered, and if you look only at the treatises like The Natyasastra and Zeami’s Kadensho, you might well think that. But examining the performances themselves, hearing from the actors, and delving below the superficial appearances, you’d find that they are all rife with emotional content. (I discuss this in some detail in my original essay. I have also written another essay on the expression of emotions by Kabuki actors, "Kabuki: A Trip to a Land of Dreams," which I’m preparing for publication and a version of which I may eventually post on ROT.)

Like many Asian forms of performance, from Noh and Kabuki to Beijing opera to Wayang Kulit and Wayang Orang to Kathakali, Sanskrit drama is codified and conventional. Just as the iconography of the costumes and make-up convey meaning to the initiated spectators, so do the movements and gestures of the actors, such as the hand or eye movements which they learn in years of training and apprenticeship. With good abhinaya, the gestural codes seem spontaneous and natural even though they have been carefully worked out and codified over centuries, like the kata of Kabuki performances. (Most of the published studies on Indian classical theater provide lists of the scores of codified movements and gestures Indian actors and dancers use. Many are depicted in temple carvings so you can get an idea how amazingly precise and detailed they are.) The whole aim of abhinaya is to depict the feelings of the character (bhavas) and convey them to the audience so that they will respond with the desired “mood” (rasa) appropriate for the play. While the Greek tragedies, according to Aristotle, were aimed at purging the spectator of pity and terror though catharsis, Indian heroic romances (there are no tragedies in classical Sanskrit theater--all the plays end happily so there’s nothing to purge) aim to provide the audience with an emotional experience they enjoy. The Greek audience was expected to achieve insight by learning something from the events of the play they witnessed, terrible and pitiful though they may have been. The Indian audience achieved insight from the emotional response they had to the feelings portrayed on stage by the heroic characters in the play they witnessed. That audience response is rasa. Everything that happens on stage, everything that went into writing the play, is designed to achieve rasa.

The transmission of the actor’s emotions to the spectator toward this achievement is the subject of the most interesting and complex discussion of The Natyasastra. Chapters VI and VII identify and describe the bhavas, the “Psychological States” or “Modes of Being” of the performers, and the corresponding rasas, the “Sentiments” felt by the spectator. Known as the Rasa Theory or the Theory of Rasa-Bhava, what I’m going to outline is The Natyasastra’s description of how the bhavas arise in the performer. (This theory is very complex and I’m not going to cover all of it. Curious readers are directed to excellent discussions of Rasa-Bhava in Pramod Kale, The Theatric Universe (A Study of the Natyasastra) [Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1974] and G. H. Tarlekar, Studies in the Natyasastra [Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1975].) It is here that sattvika abhinaya has its most significant application. All of the components of abhinaya must be applied by the actor in order for him to bring the audience to the correct rasa, and thus to the enjoyment of the play, but sattva, which literally means ‘purity,’ however in dramaturgy is the pyschological ability of the actor to identify with the character and his emotions, is the hardest to master and to understand. As Bharata asserts, “Sattva . . . is [something] originating in mind. It is caused by the concentrated mind. The Sattva is accomplished by concentration of the mind. It’s nature . . . cannot be mimicked by an absent-minded man.” There is no adequate translation of sattva (the noun) or sattvika (the adjective); the The Natyasastra calls it the “Spirited” modes of abhinaya, but the best explanations link it to Stanislavsky’s “Magic ‘If’” and “Sense of Truth.” This allows the actor to convince himself the circumstances are real to the character, even though, as the actor, he knows they are not. When executed properly, sattvika abhinaya allows the actor to exhibit the physical signs of the emotions the character’s feeling, such as tears, trembling, change of color, or (and I love this one--it’s so “Indian English”) horripilation (the hair standing on end, or goosebumps). For the audience to feel the correct rasa, the actor must manifest the outward expressions of the character’s emotion with all of abhinaya, but especially sattva. The Natyasastra insists, “The Histrionic Representation”--that’s the English term Ghosh uses for performance--“with an exuberant Sattva is superior, the one with the level Sattva is middling, and that with no [exercise of] Sattva is inferior.”

The end result for a performance, rasa, is different from the feelings we have in everyday life. (Rasa literally means ‘taste’ or ‘flavor’; it’s used in aesthetics because it signifies something that can be “tasted” or “savored.”) Ordinary emotions don’t result in enjoyment or fulfillment and aren’t the consequence of representation, or abhinaya. In fact, rasa only results from drama--not literature, poetry, or even dance creates rasa. The Natyasastra names eight rasas to which drama leads its audiences: erotic, comic, pathetic, furious, heroic, terrible, odious, marvelous. (Different words are used in different translations.) These sentiments or moods, which the spectator is meant to feel from a successful performance, correspond to eight bhavas, the emotions the character feels (and which the actor must express): love, mirth, sorrow, anger, energy, terror, disgust, astonishment, each emotion matching the relevant rasa. (A later commentary added a ninth rasa and modern aestheticians have even added more, but The Natyasastra recognized only eight.) In other words, if a character is feeling anger (bhava), the actor uses all his abhinaya skills to impassion the audience with fury (rasa). Furthermore, an actor must distinguish between the way one character projects a rasa and the way a different character does it. Late Kathakali actor Padmanabhan Nair explained that while a king and a brahmin may both feel sadness at the loss of a son, for instance, the ordinary brahmin “may express his sadness very loudly. But the king’s is very much controlled.” Rasa, then, imbues the spectator with “pleasure and satisfaction,” says The Natyasastra.

To put it very briefly, the bhava, the emotion felt by the character, results from a “Determinant” (vibhava), or determining circumstance, such as the time of year, the presence of loved ones, the decor or environment, and so on, which are described in the dialogue (as noted earlier, Sanskrit plays have very little scenery, like Elizabethan theater). The vibhava affects the character so that he feels sorrow, terror, anger, or some such emotion (bhava). The “Consequent” (anubhava) of a particular bhava is a specific behavior exhibited by the actor (as he portrays the character) such as weeping, fainting, blushing, or the like. (This is where sattvika abhinaya comes most pertinently into play: the better the actor’s sattva, the more real, and therefore convincing, will be his anubhavas.) The anubhava, if properly executed, will cause the audience to feel a specific rasa corresponding to the bhava felt by the actor. A simple diagram of this process looks like this:


This is precisely the process Stanislavsky describes for his actors. A character’s feelings arise from the circumstances of the scene, both those in effect at the moment and those that occurred before. The feelings, combined with the “given circumstances,” cause her to behave in a certain way--the “stage action.” Replacing the Sanskrit terms of The Natyasastra with Stanislavskian terminology, the diagram might look like this:


This is, admittedly, a simplistic reduction of Rasa-Bhava. Chapter VII of The Natyasastra goes into great detail about the bhavas, which are broken down into three categories. The major one consists of the eight “Durable,” “Permanent,” or “Constant” modes (sthayibhavas) which I listed above. These affect the character so profoundly that all other circumstances may become irrelevant. They are accompanied by thirty-three vyabhicari-bhavas, called “Complementary” or “Inconstant” modes, which may be seen as what Uta Hagen calls the “Conditioning Forces” of a scene--the changeable conditions that affect a character’s behavior, such as intoxication or exhaustion. The way famous Bharata Natyam dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai put it makes the system clear and simple: “There is an old poem that says: ‘Where the hands go the eyes follow [anubhava], where the eyes go the mind follows [sattvika abhinaya], where the mind goes the mood [bhava] follows, where the mood goes there is rasa born . . . .’”

The Theory of Rasa-Bhava also establishes a relationship between the performer and the spectator. In Indian aesthetics, the model spectator is a sahrdaya, someone ‘who empathizes with the author.’ Since the success of a performance is measured by whether or not the audience has a specific experience (rasa), the performer depends heavily on the spectator. Even more, since the goal of Rasa Theory is to create a mood in the audience, the spectator becomes a vital participant in the play. Another way to look at abhinaya is that it’s the process by which the meaning of the play is “led toward” the audience.