Theatre / part one

I’ve wanted to write a few thoughts about theatre that have been collecting in my head for months now.

How does ‘space’ unlock itself to us in a theatre? First, before any answer, there is the question of ‘external reality’.

The Principle of Linear Perspective, 1811, Brook Taylor

There is always several places in any such image (the above) — the psyche is the seat of observation. The seat in the theatre of existence. One of the things Lacan introduced with the split subject is that there is always another screen.

Perspective represented space. The Freud/Lacan notion that perception is always a transcription to *representation*. In film, something happens that is connected to the idea of a screen, a plane surface. In theatre, something happens more directly linked to desire.

Film represents space. Theatre is architecture. What is it that captures out interest, our attention, when it occurs on stage? What is it that happens in film? I think the idea of subjective and objective probably are evolutionarily interconnected. Simultaneous.

The real is always elsewhere (Lacan). And there is always AN elsewhere. In the theatre it is offstage. Has the construction of theatres expressed something of the violence felt for the ‘real’? For the unconscious? We have appropriated ‘reality’ in some fashion, and built systems, religion, capitalism, language… and do these systems form multiple lenses through which we observe, and then if somehow these are always inadequate, because we are split, do we suffer?– and the trauma of childhood leaves us with scars, anyway. What Lacan called a “tear in the imaginary”. Our memories, our dreams, are always felt in the shadow of a hurt. As children. The physical theatre, that building, is entered I think, always, as children.

A still from a film, a frame out of a film, will often resonate, bouncing around the space of our private screening room. There are easy explanations. None of which are correct. Did theatres get built that expressed the patriarchal punishment that we knew we had coming? In theatre and film, is this desire to be *looked at* the same? I think not. The screen does not look back. The actor does.


If you see two black windows up-stage, and if you see two black windows in a film-shot. In the theatre, we know “someone” is watching us. In the film, the camera must comment. The code of subjectivity must intercede.

Architecture is always a performance of some kind. It is a collective sense of desire, or of repression.

One can talk oneself into several corners at once with this. And partly, that itself is a system to organize reality. How do the ancestral linkages to money form our reading? To reading capital. There is a spatial problem for humans. There shouldn’t be, but there is. For where does it hurt? Sometimes, we don’t know.

The unconscious appears, if we believe Freud, in the slip of the tongue, the joke, or the dream. Our assemblage of reality uses a hydraulics of *realness*, those various torture implements give the cold unloved edges of salary and hierarchy, and punishment. We all know the presistence of factory, prison, school. Those institutions of abuse for the West.

World Bank, District of Columbia, USA

The stage, is closest to the idealized field, an empty field, at night.

When we did the outdoor plays at the Padua Hills Festival, I would always look up into the night sky. For that was where the play was taking place. Theatre is not church. It’s not religion. It’s not any institution. It is the anti institution.

It is the place where the institutional dies.

I have noticed how some films become resonant the moment a sense of space, and more importantly, *place* is established. This is possibly a good part of what film does. Let The Right One In is perhaps not a great film, but I remember a sense of place …not any particular place…but almost *home*, forgotten, and then remembered. You are someplace.

The imagination of the West is drying up. The corporations behind film and TV provides only superating physic wounds, only slippage from memory, from dream. They give only the erasure of dream.

There are no places. No air in Spiderman, no space left after editing. The faster the edits, the more the unconscious is driven away. It is a violence done to the imagination. To the creative. It is fascism. It is the gesture that reproduces the robot or mindless infantry soldier, faceless, helemted, and inhaling his own need to kill. Drones are the perfect metaphor for 21st century America. No pilot. Insect like. Less than insects. Big insects. Insects without pollin, without reason to be. Noisey.

Un Chant d’Amour, Jean Genet, 1950

The reality quotient. The reality effect. In the dream, the perspectival has no horizon. I dont think we do. The ordering of the real, from Descartes to Fra Carnavale, to Bellini, Canaletto, to the photograph. Perspective. Cataloguing. The theatre resists this violence. The amatuer playwright, the Broadway hit, the Las Vegas spectacle. They seem to do less harm than network TV. The physical plant, the chair, the accident.

The repetition of rehearsal. The residue of repetition. The improvised text fails before it starts. Always.

The accident. Our childhood. Dreamwork. We are late for our appointment. We cannot remember with whom. Or where.

Lacan says anxiety is a symptom of the real being nearby. Proximity. The ego must act. Defense. The defended moment. The return of the object.

Let The Right One In

The corporate made show, or film, satisfies — it restores balance and equilibrium. But does it? Drive theory feels wrong to me here. Theatre is about death. But it is not about execution. Great plays reach for primordial silence. Product is noisey, like terror drones.

Lacan’s Insistence Upon the Letter in the Unconscious, quotes Freud, Wo Es war, soll Ich werden… Where I was, I must come into being.

That is theatre. And if so, then the problem of realism is a bit easier to ponder. And of space (Lorens Holm’s book, on Brunelleschi, Lacan, and le Corbusier) where a sense of the private space is examined.


Rehearsal. Repetition. The real. The picture of the real.

The ego and super ego now hold court over a necroplis. What is that wound left after a thousand repetitions? There is violence in moderation. In the reasonable. The infection of maturity, which is only a diseased infantilization. There is no maturity under capital. There is no primordial silence, there is, perhaps, a mute function. The better not to hear the ‘other’. Private property. Private space. What do such terms mean in theatre?

“architecture, at least the architecture that we hold central to the Western tradition — is the built form of a series of spatial effects worked out first, and in their definitive form on paper.”
Lorens Holm

And capital. In theatre, there is place, or the pre-conditions for it. I often return to Piranesi. His series of drawings, Prisons of the Imagination, or the Carceri, published in 1750, were precursors for Kafka and Buchner. For modern theatre. For something impossible. It is their impossibility, within their impossibility, that their importance lies.

I leave off here.


  1. Guy Zimmerman says:

    You’re covering a lot of ground, here, John. This feels like a distillation of other writings you’ve table about the art form and it makes me imagine how far you might take that distillation. Well, we’ll find out.

    I think you’ve captured what I’ve always loved about Lacan’s account of the human – the sense that the real is always elsewhere. To be constructive I might want to take issue with him just a bit by saying, yes, but the real is available to us so long as we cease being ourselves. Separation from the real IS the condition of being a subject, a reified self. Agamben is intriguing about this in the way he views the anthropogenic moment – the moment when man became man – as the moment when man “risked himself in language” and “staked his life on language.”

    This line of thought brings us to the edge of the “non-human.” The “risking ourselves in language” project has brought us to the edge of the abyss. The Logos has become a corporate logo in the shadow of which we incline toward an evolutionary ditch. Time to stop all that, somehow, as Nietzsche saw clearly, and Gotama long before him.

    This is not at all to say that Lacan is wrong. It’s like he brings us down to the final circle of hell and there’s satan in the frozen sea…and the odd thing is you can climb down Satan’s leg and there’s a little stream there that leads out…

    But this is all still totally fraught with relevance for the art of the stage and everything you say about it rings true and the truth has been earned with the integrity of all that fine work you’ve brought into “the real.”

  2. For me, the stage is idealized and particular at the same time. When I read your work I get a sense of space (the looking out into something unknown) and can also see how the unknown translates into particular a place and time.

    The idealized stage is difficult to access in American Theater. The architecture itself represents a hierarchy, a closed institutional system that permeates the stage and all thinking around it.

    Since I read this post and started reading the Olson book, I’ve been thinking about the stage, the theater as a Meridian. That intersection between space and time. When I’m onstage I feel that. It is very real. There are certain plays that harness that power – like Lear, especially Lear. As a writer, that’s the ideal I’m trying to access. But I also think of the specific architecture of the theater (if I know the space the play will be going in) – how do I access the energy of a particular building? How does it become a time/space machine?

    I guess I’m being too literal and that’s not where you’re going at all with this, I realize.

  3. john steppling says:

    Thanks guy, and elizabeth.

    And elizabeth, no, I think what you say is quite right. I directed a sort of experimental Lear in poland, in three languages…..with two lears (mick collins as the english speaker and the great polish actor marian opania as the polish speaking). They were on stage the entire play. At the end, in the final scene, the english lear stumbles forward….and in shakespeare he speaks to Kent….” Who are you?
    Mine eyes are not o’ the best: I’ll tell you straight.”…but in our version he spoke to the other Lear. It was a great emergent property of the play. And i mention it because i think it speaks to what you say about Lear. The famous blind tom and gloucester on the heath scene…..jan kott wrote about that. Beckett clearly studied it. That play is in one sense the start of modern theatre. The Tempest is the follow up to it. And The Tempest links up with the Olson book on Melville. Its wonderful to start to make those connections…..stretched out over history.

    I wanted to write more, and probably will at some point, about the actual physical plant…the material theatre as its been constructed over the last eighty years, say, in the US. There are exceptions, but often there is horrid sense of that meridean , as you nicely put it, being cut off. Its almost systemic instinct on the part of the system.

  4. A lot i want to commdnt on…but seemingly off topic in preparation…the Vivian Beaumont. A wonderful space suitable for Aida with love elephants right? But inappropriately huge for so many things done there. In the early days of the theatre I used go find this almost distracting and fascinating…evidence of what the director and designers tried to do to make use of this space. To fill that height. Very often the arbitrary quality of the use of this higher space was disconcerting. And then it occurred to me such a space sojlx never be excessive for opera. The existence of that higher plane is implied in operas…that there will be something very naturally to stage on the air. For much theatre is only disconcerting to be aware if such levels…anyway more shortly.

  5. Live elephants

  6. No air.there is Nos a culturally dominant generation who came up with fig talk. They didn’t experience the loss of the room we heard in analogue sound recording…vinyl and tape. They never heard the room n the recording. On the recording….And they see CGI as the norm, a despoticallh controlled reality. But this is spectacle…the spectacle of analog, the analog recording has passed. But direct sensual experience is mt such changed the double, the mirror we relate to from our position is different. But rather than imply a different reality it encourages different dissatisfactions. And perhaps a loss of the ability analog had to be pertinent and engage. Though the theatre remains live and in the space, is there etiquette requiring an audience to pretend to be consuming the despoticallh controlled CGI?

  7. Jesus. The phone rewrites!

    There is now a culturally dining generation that grew up with digital.

  8. Again: culturally dominant.

  9. john steppling says:

    Yeah, Molly, I think this is important and I was going to get to some of this in part two. The new recordings of the classic repertoire, the digitalized mush, is very much about control. There is a really diabolical assumption behind this. And it has several arteries, in a sense. One is the notion of progress toward this perfection….except within this idea lurks the ideological, right? Antiseptic and scrubbed and hygenic. Wipe Mr Gould’s spittle from the sound please.

    So how has performance changed in its mirroring of this perfect sound? (and im being sort of undialectical with the above thought).. Im not sure, really, but I think if the question is returned to theatre, per se, does inform narrative, and on one level, its obvious in now plot embedded itself. But like analog vs digiital recording, the digital is really just data thats been stored. The analog has the flux of the wave reproduced, but there are other stranger aspects having to do with aliasing and stuff Im not technically sophisticated enough to talk about. Obviously, in film the question of digial is huge and maybe I’ll write about that soon. But digital image is omnipresent. We cant escape it anymore. And the way in which that image prevades our lives has had consequences Im sure nobody has quite figured out yet.

    But theatre, and this is why I think it retains such importance, is not reproducible. I mean its re-created. But this question of the space is one that really does continue to haunt me in a sense. Blau said this great thing about not all theatres have curtains, but all theatre remembers the curtain was once there. I think any performance on a stage, in a space established as a stage, has enfolded a memory of archaic emotions or traces of narrative and allegory. I dont think its particularly mystic to suggest this. I think its just sort of obvious in a way. And I suspect the writing for the stage that we find today has, with the cunning of domination and capital etc, has by its nature accomodated the erasure of these traces. Thats what bad plot is about. A repetition of the kitsch elements. And those kitsch elements are the ones most easily fitted to broad propagandistic themes and jingoism and advertising. There is also something in all this having to do with trance inducing repetition, with an addiction to kitsch,. The form, the very form of familiarity is your friend. You are lonely without it.

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