Where other art forms have since the nineteenth century achieved maximal freedom of expression and form, entering the twenty-first century theatre still suffers from limitations that restrict its chances of developing alongside other arts and prevent it from being considered an equally serious phenomenon.
The question no longer is about political, moral or religious restrictions which theatre has had to struggle with in the Western world since its birth. In relation to the world around it, theatre is now freer than ever before in its history. This social emancipation has not, however, liberated theatre from its internal limitations which do not, of course, solely concern theatre but make their appearance there and become the subject of it complicating the process of making drama and forming a problem that theatre should be able to confront.
In their simplest and most obvious form these limitations appear in the universally prevalent fact that theatre very seldom moves anyone any longer. It cannot challenge the surrounding reality. It becomes isolated and eventually cannot justify its own existence alongside other art forms through any other means than by citing tradition and institution-based reasons. The problem certainly does not lie in the lack of ideas, nor in the best talents being diverted to more “trendy” arts disregarding theatre altogether. Neither can the situation be blamed on a poor system of grants to the arts, and least of all on the audiences having poor taste. On the contrary, it is obvious that theatre tastes bad if it cannot even come to like itself.
The core of the problem can be found in the point where the preconditions for a theatrical performance intersect with the most fundamental metaphysical and ideological prejudices of modern experience. The question therefore is, can theatre face up to these prejudices on its own terms, or does it unwittingly surrender to them, in which case it will have already lost the battle even before it has started? Up to now that critical point of intersection has been left to hide behind the scenery. And yet, whenever theatre has in recent years managed to touch something, that point of intersection has also come to the forefront. What is that intersection made of then, and what is there in it? The answer is most obvious: It is the human figure that can be found there. The problem of theatre, as it is thematized here, is a problem of the whole western way of experience. It concerns both, being limited to the human figure and the limitations of the human figure. It concerns the human figure as the basis and fundamental principle of limitation, of drawing borderlines.
Visual arts, as well as music and poetry, and modern dance from dramatic arts have managed in the past centuries to break into what is generally referred to as “non-figurative” art. The same demand has never appeared in theatre. And why is that? The reason may be that theatre is bound by its central means of expression, the human being, which brings with it supposed and assumed limitations. Throughout time the human being has been perceived to be a prisoner of such essential determiners as the body, gender, background, history, community or race, as well as being time-bound or ignorant. Modern theatre has concentrated on representing the human battle against these inbred limitations. The themes have varied from breaking the boundaries of those determiners because of their oppressiveness, violence and injustice. At other times the aim has been to cross and lose all boundaries and limits, revealing all the madness and bloodshed that follows this, and to eventually return to re-acknowledging the borders. In all cases theatre has first and foremost shown an interest in, and a concern for shifting boundaries, for pushing and redrawing them. Freedom has been recognized as the most important of all values, liberation the essential subject of modern drama. That liberation has, however, been taken to fundamentally mean a project which is defined in a dialectical relationship to the aforementioned limitations, their elimination and recognition.
This process eventually also summarises the “responsibility” that theatre has felt and taken for the “world” and the “state” it is in. As a kind of moral at the end of every performance, people have wanted to see and hear a sign of hope for another, better and more just world (“pessimism” and optimism” here being entirely exchangeable). The “social” aspect of the stage, which has become the synonym of its “importance”, has been understood in a utopian manner. By thus setting a measure and a model for reality, theatre has at the same time always secretly supported the logical nature of reality; by constructing a “possible world” of itself, theatre has done so only in relation to this existing one, offering an alternative future to “this” world. And by doing so, it has covertly justified the existing world order which, of course, also needs to have “something to dream of”. If playwrights or directors endorse this so-called “shared reality”, they may open their way to the chambers of power, but at the same time they sign their own death warrants as artists.
Being faithful to its earlier policies, theatre has aimed at showing the world as potentially changeable, showing it as something fundamentally man-made. But by preaching the message of changing the world, theatre has simultaneously agreed with the ideology under which all injustice happens on a global level in this world today. That ideology rests itself upon, and is based on the idea of human, the idea of the human being as the most fundamental power and moulder, as the figure of figures, as the identifier and shaper of the world. The idea of progress, despite the criticism it faces, practically obliges all the world’s economies without distinction and lives off this same myth. “What” that progress is or “where” it takes place, is in the human experience of self-realisation. In the same sense, our time sets itself against all preceding eras in which the basis of experience has been the unchanging stability of circumstance and maintaining of that status quo. From the perspective of progress every step in a different direction is inevitably a step “back”, i.e. towards a “worse” state of affairs. That ideology therefore holds a monopoly on the whole concept of “better”; a myth of a better world which is realised only through changing the world. In other words, we are on a never-ending journey towards a kind of secularised version of the Christian idea of the “otherworldly”, an assumption of a utopian state. Theatre has also held precious this myth of a better world and has repeated it time and again.
Theatre, which it by definition concerns itself with the human being by following and describing her/his undertakings in the world among other fellow humans, has not managed to question these, nor for that matter many other metaphysical doctrines. We can continue to agree with Aristotle that theatre “imitates men in action” (mimesis prakseos), but in this case the problem lies in how that “action” is to be understood. Do we take the phenomenon of action for granted, as defined by some pre-given concept? It would thus be clear that something is indeed being “imitated”, mimicked, echoed, be those imitated stories made-up ones or from “real” life. The alternative cannot, however, be the cutting off of action, bringing it to a standstill or abstaining from it altogether. What else would that be but encouraging suicide? (Various speculative theories have already long ago said all there is to be said about this.) The problem lies more deeply in the fact that we do not have the courage to confront action as a phenomenon, action in and of itself, fundamentally in a state of non-definition, in all its unfamiliarity which does not return to the already familiar, but instead takes us on an endless excursion. We continue to see the same figure in “a human in action”. We continue to see the figure of figures, an incarnation of our imaginative capacity, a creator who brings to life his/her internal visions and ideas, a dreamer, an artist, a scientist, a politician, an educator, etc. – However, always someone either at home in his/her limitations or someone able to take advantage of them, or then someone who falls victim to them and suffers from these limits. We therefore give our blessing to these limitations and progress on their terms. At the same time we mark off human experience from all other creatures which continue to exist in the universe in large numbers despite our constant and extensive efforts to destroy them. We exclude and demarcate the human being and at the same time give our blessing to his/her project and progression, his/her mission to turn everything into his/her own image. In a situation where there is no higher authority to offer humans a model, we make ourselves into one. We turn the human being into the value of all values and thus believe we are heading towards a better world. We even dare to promise that to ourselves because we are able to see that our world-shaping efforts bring tangible and visible results. Everything around us starts to function increasingly the same way we ourselves do…
Theatre has taken part in liberating the human kind from political and religious oppression. As a result of that process of emancipation it is, however, itself suffering in its acquired state of freedom, the very same freedom in the name of which people elsewhere enslave themselves and each other. How deep are we really when theatre has to justify itself and its “usefulness” to that self-same process that produces genocide and a general sense of homelessness! How on earth has this situation come about? Had it been better not to have touched the holy doctrines of the church or the mystical powers of the rulers at all? Or does freedom pretend to have ultimately reached itself and now only aims to sustain its acquired benefits, entrenching itself in its present position? But how could freedom even imagine “reaching” itself if it did not set itself limits and borders, an essence, a definition beforehand? To this day freedom continues to give itself a definition only through human deeds and achievements, as an opportunity won, as a scene of action, as a dammed river, as a clearing in the woods, as a nation freed from tyranny, as civil rights, as the commonly agreed set of rules for mutual exchange. It is not understood, nor does anyone even want to hear about freedom surpassing the human. Or that it would originate somewhere that entirely precedes our experience, not to mention that freedom would somehow oblige us to change into something other than just better functioning, more efficient and innovative beings in the marketplace of pre-defined freedom. However, unlike what we are told and what we wish to believe, freedom is not the result of limiting and creating borders, of lifting or lowering bars and barriers, of sensible actions towards “nature” or towards those considered to be of less value, i.e. less developed regions and marginalized groups of people.
Theatre should not be taking part in bowing to or in fostering this kind of thinking, like should no other art form either. If theatre today is not as developed as other art forms in terms of the freedom of its medium, this may mean that the step towards liberation remains yet to be taken, a step which in the case of theatre may be more difficult to take. Because the instrument of expression in theatre is the human being, all changes in that instrument alter our relationship to our way of being and perhaps we are not ready to compromise that way. Since our experience is so strongly tied to a predefined human figure, we are unable to encounter the phenomenon of human. Perhaps deep down we do not even want to know anything about it. Therefore a manifesto, a call for liberation of expression, is still possible in the case of theatre, and that call in all its simplicity is: the phenomenon of human must be liberated from the human figure.
This aim cannot be reached in any individual theatre performance. There is no one expressive solution to this. This is about a process of transformation to which this manifesto calls all those, equally and without distinction, who work with performing arts.
Abandoning the model of human means that we really first turn our gaze to each other in this situation where there is no authority, ideology or ideal to supervise us anymore. We must ask ourselves and each other, what is left of us after all this, what is left of our gaze – what is there still to see, to hear, to perceive?
The aim is to distance theatre from that restrained “anthropomorphism” which has conventionally given a negative connotation to all “anthropomorphism”, and to do so time and again through using different means and methods. A religious worldview has been abandoned through criticising its anthropomorphic conceptions. Yet at the same time the perspective has merely been inversed and the human being has been turned into the model and creator of all creation. Anthropomorphism thus defined is, however, just as restrained as earlier, or even more so in that it aims to convince us that “there is no other world than this”, i.e. everything possible has to be done to this world within the limits of this life. The acceleration of progress, its unlimited fury, springs from the same anger that a prisoner feels towards his/her cell.
Our perception of a human face, a talking head, of hands and feet, as well as our idea of their instrumental value is deeply rooted in us. One must not hurry away from those perceptions which have essential meaning in terms of human life. A complete denial of the human figure, breaking it as an end in itself, distorting it or de-figuring it, easily leads us back to a dialectics with the figure and as a result we end up with a more or less heroic and sublime passion-play, a cult where the victim of the sacrifice is the figure itself and the ultimate winner is some ever more potent metaphysical instance. Modern drama has in the twentieth century seen numerous attempts at breaking out in this way and the achieved fracture has only led to the next cell, only a little more spacious than the previous one.
The phenomenon of human can only be encountered by affirming and advancing the infinite finitude which appears in it. As a distinction from the previous, restrained anthropomorphism we call our attitude a generalised one. As its means it has the ability to extend the human phenomenon to all existence. Through training this perceptive capacity, the human figure experiences dissolution and breaks away from those identificatory attachments to which we have in our perception connected it throughout millennia. In a sense we go back to thinking and perceiving the same way a small child does. But in this game which we call theatre, we are after something other than a child at play. We are not pursuing to control the world, we do not turn the world into our own image but, on the contrary, attempt to dismantle that too perfect a picture which we have built so that beings could from now on come to encounter and address us more on their own terms, in all their unfamiliarity, in all their uniqueness which does not trace back to our definitions and our way of being.
The human being has a peculiar right to imitate other beings that she/he encounters in the world, to participate in other experiences. From now on, this right could be turned into our duty. The idea here is one of practising rebirth, recognizing one’s own being born. The idea is to recognize the fact that we are beings, and through that, simultaneously and without distinction, to encounter the diversity of other beings and species. This is not about “pluralism”, or “diversity” as a value in and of itself, instead, it is an experience of the birth of oneself and of other beings. Thus the encounter between different beings is no longer based on binary opposites of me and the others, subject and object, audience and performer. “Naivety” which has always been a characteristic of excellence in art, does no equal gullibility or childishness. Instead, it is encountering of the phenomenon and affirming it beyond all prejudice and prefixes, evoking the uniqueness and beauty of its very own existence. To do this in the human case means going beyond the human by following and strengthening the abysmal movement that arises in us. This reaching outside of the human figure is neither progress, nor a project. It is encountering something unfamiliar and non-human and opening up to it. It is openness towards other forms and shapes and experience in the universe, some of which are less complex compared to the human form of existence, others far beyond it in complexity.
The stage has no model. This lack of a model manifests itself on stage as a positive state of creativity. This does not mean that humans would again lapse into thinking too much of themselves, considering ourselves as all and everything there is and start universalising our own familiar experience. What this means is that we must take reaching outside of ourselves very literally, as entering other, fundamentally unfamiliar experiences beyond return to our own. Here, generalization of the figure, manifesting the idea that if I only want to I can be anything and everything, means that I acknowledge the diverse and rich multitude of experience without trying to always reduce all experience to my own, human one. I lend my human face like a mask to what is not human and let that non-human be manifested through that mask. This experience does not increase my powers but is recognition of my simultaneous impossibility and infinite disparity. An understanding of the connection between the world and experience, of the interconnected influence of all experience, has been very typical thinking in theatre, an idea that all artists in this field respect. The denial of this understanding has always taken place in the name of “reality” which theatre has feared but has tended to rub shoulders with, sometimes out of necessity, other times out of free will.
If theatre were to free itself from something, it would be the modal prison where it has been locked throughout its western history and according to which theatre consists of “possible” representations of the world. Thus, theatre is always already expected to be limited to take place in the “unreal” illusionary of a ghost circle, in relation to some other “existing” world, as a potential of that world. A modern theatre building which locks theatre away into dark and in many ways secluded rooms, also caters to this idea of reproducing an “outside” world. One does not, however, need to break any conventions or walls to be liberated from this situation. It is enough for a performance to start taking itself as reality. It is enough for theatre to start believing in itself as an event. It is enough that we understand that each and every experience we have gone through is in itself an event that touches everyone, and that creating experience for oneself and others is also action. Of course, theatre people always talk this way, but why so rarely, if ever, does one see performances which would attempt to manifest the reality of this conviction? Why is theatre ashamed of its own activity, why does it succumb to self-censorship? Is it because theatre’s message has from its very beginning been in too great a conflict with its surrounding environment to be even thought of, let alone publicly manifested?
Human hope lies behind all restricted anthropomorphism, behind everything that calls itself “humanism”. It lies in the decidedly non-human. What we encounter at its most beautiful in other humans is something that always goes beyond us. Humans can only rely on what we are not. We are safe to trust stones, plants, animals, the sea, earth and space. Only against those elements can we encounter, understand and regain the uniqueness of our own experience. How on earth could a human being expect to get response from space when s/he does not even manage to get it from her/his close living surroundings? Is it not the same desert that s/he finds time and again? The liberation that we are calling for does not result from crossing limits and boundaries or from respecting them. It is the outcome of opening up to that which is not limited and bound. That opening up is in itself dramatic and invites all creatures to gather around it because it is opening up to being in all its diversity and uniqueness. The phenomenon of human is the phenomenon of the stage, theatre the place of encounter for that phenomenon.
Helsinki 28th April 2004