The various semiotic approaches to theatre have as their objective a highly refined, object-sensitive analysis. As long as dramatic texts or theatre productions are being analyzed, the results are rather convincing. The success of this analytical competence commends its application within a performance’s genesis. Given such a task, the dramaturg, i.e., the intellectual at work within the theatre responsible for the repertoire, would truly earn the title of “production dramaturg.” This is the title existing especially in Germany but whose content still wants a precise determination.
But errors are inevitable in this practice. For it is conceivable that the dramaturg beforehand, and probably collaborating with the director, elaborates so rigid a set of stage directions that rehearsals turn into mechanized obeisance to the prescribed model. In this way, an entirely new text will have been offered up as substitution for the original, and an unbearable hierarchy (re)imposed, which, if nothing else, completely detracts from the actors’ creativity.
This is the manner in which many rehearsals still proceed, with or without models constructed from competent textual analysis. If, however, we determine that there is no single definitive solution but, on the contrary, that there are several possible interpretations and, likewise, that there is no one path into a recognition of the meaning of the text but, in fact, analytical as well as intuitive in-roads, then this approach to the dramatic text could be applied in the collective creation process. The dramaturg’s analytical competence hereby assumes its essential place alongside that of the scenographer’s image-reading and the actors’ psychic and physical competence in true interplay with the text—which the rehearsal, ultimately, should be.
The rehearsal does of course have its boundaries. For the public to be able to relate to something, selection must occur, which means that in the final instance an interpretation of the totality must be rendered. Perhaps this is where the dramaturg acquires his/her most vital function by merit of the fact that in close interaction with the director s/he is at leisure to analyze and look upon the heterogeneous product. Capable, to a certain degree, of furnishing a pre-performance analysis (including suggestions for cuts, changes in scenic order, etc.). It is here we register the need of concrete semiotic competence for its ability to win a perspective over the comprehensive body of signs, to distance itself from the process, which, until the concluding phases, was directed on an open playfield and by endless patience in trying out even the most oblique proposals. Proposals which often in the end prove to have penetrated the performance’s essential core. At least when the performance is successful: this is virtually the seal of quality for the creative process.
In the following we are going to concentrate on processes which have resulted in productions which the public and critics (some of them at least) found interesting, even ingenious. Starting with a few accounts of the rehearsals, we will attempt reconstruction of the creative process giving up these yields. The experiences are very diverse and any true conclusion would therefore also be incorrect. It should be possible along the way, however, to explicate some “rules of play” which are reproducible under other conditions.
I have selected three productions: Peter Brook’s staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s dramatization of Nicholas Nickleby, and, finally, Pina Bausch’s dance theatre production, Tanzabend 2.
I have not seen the performance; my knowledge of it stems from commentary and criticism. The general impression: this production was epoch-making. It is of such character that it has not been possible to stage Shakespeare since then without direct or indirect reference to it. After premiering in 1970, it toured for two years world-wide, with 535 productions in thirty-six cities. The result—the finished product—had an impact, but it was not until ten years later that the author David Selbourne published his diary-like record of the rehearsals in The Making of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: An Eye-Witness Account of Peter Brook’s Production from First Rehearsal to First Night (London, 1982).
Selbourne took part in all but a few of the rehearsals. Like a fly on the wall he saw, heard, and recorded partly the general occurrences, partly the things going on within himself. Therefore the prose form is virtually intact, and there is nothing reminiscent of an after-rationalization.
It is the encounter of the literary being with the theatre being, and Selbourne nurtures traditional expectations of the rehearsals. Where he anticipated a lengthy interpretational process marked by intellectual interaction, he instead encounters Brook’s attempt, inspired by Artaud and Grotowski, to involve the actors in a totally contrary process:
An actor asks, “Is the whole play a dream?”
And Brooks replies: “Don’t impose a theory on it. Don’t take it literally either. Discover the truth of it.” (9)
Brook discourages his actors from intellectualizing, from trying to derive meaning from a prior reading of the piece. Instead of exchanging proposals for different readings of Shakespeare’s text, each single actor, albeit under Brook’s guidance, discovers the play, finds individual pathways to what Brook refers to as the truth. “The rhythms of the play,” he asserts, “are deeper than the words Shakespeare is able to use” (11).
Brook’s method is one of infinite improvisation and, at first glance, one without a perspective. Selbourne says it is degrading to the actors and, in comparison to the text’s precision and potential, unrefined. Brook progresses from the body, grimace, rhythm, play, emotional exercise, acrobatics, clowning, through the many layers of the Shakespearian convention of theatrical play, in realizing a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which in the actuality of 1970 England is “true”:
Yet in the effort to find what Brook, a few days ago, had called a style which is “not-acting,” where things happen as if “by themselves,” was there not a tacit admission of the primacy of the written? Is he not saying to the actors that, with the sufficient sensitivity, a form can be found where the written word, in its simplest and truest evocation, will arouse and sustain all meaning? (165)
Brook has been recognized after this for his essence-searching versions of classics such as Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and Bizet’s Carmen. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was perhaps his first success in this new tendency to shun theatrical mechanics. In one solitary white room he focuses completely on the actors’ presence together with the few props (the trapeze!). Shakespeare’s text went unaltered during the rehearsal, and a complete analysis of it was not at any point presented. Nor did Brook stick to it during rehearsals, and here and there misquoted. His work is non-literary but is guided by a crucial respect for the text as a totality. It is physical and technical, he moves outside and in, he is primarily anti-intellectual but, nonetheless, prompted by the unifying intention of a director:
Nevertheless, much more important—as I have come to see during these unregarded, but carefully observed, weeks of rehearsal—is the overall consistency of Brook’s pronouncements. (Even the contradictions and obscurities are consistent.) His intention, as well as his principles of interpretation and guidance, have held steady, and without undue repetition, from the outset. (139)
In the pictures from the production, the simplicity and physicality are the striking elements. The white room, the loud costume, the spectacular yet refined props. A “minimal” Shakespeare. A Shakespeare for actors and non-initiates. A shocking, straightforward story which even the schoolchildren before whom Brook performed a week prior to the premier could understand.
Up to now I have stressed something which those with a literary bent may find surprising because of the very physical approach. But this method seems bizarre to many in the theatre world as well.
It seems that each new rehearsal day begins at square one in a never-ending pursuit of the moment in which it is experienced that something “true” occurs:
“There is something consistent,” Brook (once more in his stride) continues, “which happens when a play bursts into life. Watch for this,” he tells them. “After such a moment has passed, it can’t be switched on again, or mechanically pieced together. What has to be recalled are the meanings which come out of a burst of life. This becomes the starting point for new invention.” (101)
Brook bombards his actors relentlessly with new darts in order to call forth the so-called “free intuition” which emanates “from a group sharing the same direction” (101). Still, it would be an illusion to imagine the process without the “direction” of one particular person: this is, as in other institutional theatre, a well-prepared process. The roles are assigned. The scenography prepared. The fundamental idea hence prescribed. It was necessary for the director to preconceive an approximate result of the interaction with the actors. The vision of the collectivity’s final product is necessarily conceived from one person’s ideas about and specific experiences within theatre. So, though the scenario is individual, it cannot be completely overlooked that the production mode is largely in the hands of the process. Without a willing group of actors participating in the “excesses” in almost blind faith to the director, a boundary-breaking project is unrealizable:
I have learned from these rehearsals that with one theatrical false step—which can sometimes not be traced, or even discovered—love can become sentiment, pathos bathos, and the tragic comic. Moreover, just as yesterday’s jokes are today unfunny (especially if endlessly repeated), so today’s realism is artifice tomorrow. In the theatre, relativity is all. (273)
All that remains, frustrating as it is, is the after-effect of a chemical process whose basic elements are identifiable but whose point of catalyzation can be surmised only very summarily. Thus the analytical point of view would deem this experience very negative: we can be certain that a detailed analysis of the text has not been presented to the actors. On the other hand, we cannot exclude the possibility of Brook having a conceptual background for his preparatory work with, for example, the scenography. It is more probable, however, that Brook, rather than by conceptualization, has been inspired by a formal idea which implies an ideological choice—simplification: strip the story down, recount it as if the company itself had thought of it.
Even if Brook knew of Jan Kott’s penetrating criticism of the romantic version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Kott’s analysis is only one of the inspiration’s sources. Judging from Selbourne’s book, the genesis of the production is essentially evoked in the rehearsals’ initiation-like mode of individual and collective recognition of epic and dramatic means and effects.
Peter Brook’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was set down within traditional frames: a text, a director, an assignment of roles to pre-chosen actors. Whereas for the RSC, once the decision was made to dramatize Charles Dickens’s 900-page novel Nicholas Nickleby, it was wholly an institutional experiment.
Its novelty was the absence of a text. It was the author David Edgar’s job to produce one during the production process. It was novel, too, that the actors could sign themselves up for the project. The approximately fifty who did so were not guaranteed a part. And it was innovative that the group, as a whole, had to produce the story, the play, the scenography—in a word, the scenic totality. They were, of course, under the direction of the directors—Trevor Nunn, John Caird, and Leon Rubin, the first having chief responsibility—and in professional collaboration with scenographers, componists, ateliers, but still more as a whole than as a part of an institution.
Preparation took eight months and resulted in one of the company’s greatest successes. It lasted two days and played successfully in London and New York and, thanks to the televised version produced in conjunction with Channel 4 (in itself a masterpiece of televised theatre) reached a broad public. Leon Rubin describes the entire process in The Nicholas Nickleby Story: The Making of the Historic Royal Shakespeare Company Production (London, 1981). This gives a detailed and nuanced analysis of the creation process; it presents the analytical, practical, and organizational creativity which through a unified engagement came up with a scheme to solve a task fundamentally different from that usually tackled by the company.
The directors had already devised a work schedule which would structure the first phase into three subject areas: (1) the socio-historical, (2) the narrative, (3) the characters. The idea was that everyone started by gathering material on Dickens and his period. One should figure out a way to relate his or her part of the story to the rest of the company. Finally, everyone was to begin developing and performing individual characterizations from the novel.
The result was naturally all-encompassing. At once varied and chaotic. Rich in perspective and confusing. Engaging and frustrating. Some actors loved this new-found freedom; others experienced it as being enrolled in a seminar. Yet, in retrospect, it can all the same be stated that these tasks greatly influenced the final product. A great deal of the secondary literature contributed to the re-evaluation of the textual material. The involvement in the epic moment led to a decision early on not to discard the novel’s less “dramatic” sections, which led to the production’s special trademark: the unifying of the epic and the dramatic and the discovery, among other things, of original solutions to the various difficulties of addressing the public in the epic sequences.
Another important consequence of the reciprocal retelling of the novel chapter-by-chapter was the discovery that Dickens’s text had “left some ends untied.” That certain points in the action were obscure. That, in a word, the text suffered from a certain “blindness.” In this context, the question of Ralph Nickleby’s economic situation was central, which was one theme (the so-called financial plot), which David Edgar had already pointed to as being central to the performance. Combined with the filmed versions which the company also saw during the first working weeks—versions in which the script and the stage direction had tried to create cohesion precisely where this was impossible without secondary sources and re-editing—it can be concluded that the community effort had already contributed concrete and improved lines of direction.
One of the exercises of the greatest import for the production’s “style” was the attempt by various groups at producing one of the novel’s most fundamental descriptive sequences, that of Nicholas Nickleby’s arrival by coach to London. This tableau’s corporeal mimical evocation, where the characters can change 180 degrees, from persons of rank into proletarians, was a decisive sign that the grandiose scenes should be dealt with by the actors and only a minimum of stage props. So that, in the final production, the departure from London by coach occurs as a wonder of imaginative theatricality with a vehicle loaded down with suitcases, a commenting and acting choir, together with a cacophony of live sound provided by the characters on stage.
Certainly there were lengthy discussions during the long rehearsal, processes whose subject matter included the theoretical foundation of the actors in this process, which Nunn believed could gain more inspiration from Brecht than Stanislavsky; the general impression of this production is always that the great leaps, the moments where new insights are won and where everyone could perceive the excitement, occurred in connection with the concrete tests—bodily or verbal. Take, for example, the scene in Dotheboys Hall where the boys are to introduce themselves while they eat: Whom should they address? Of what consequence will it be for the addressing of the public in general?
In David Edgar’s production of the scene, the boys spoke as though they were speaking both to Mrs. Squeers and to the audience. Narrative technique was thus internal and external at the same time. In the discussion that followed, many thought the boys should speak directly, in an alienated manner. But when this was eventually tried, the scene lost its impact. We discovered in this way that narrative need not necessarily intrude and could, indeed, enhance the dramatic impact of the story. (56)
The processual barriers are overstepped through an open attitude toward testing all possibilities practically. Even the company’s traditional Christmas luncheon right in the middle of a difficult period was a stimulus for their interaction. The theatre’s process of artistic realization is as much intellectual as it is physical and emotional, which is hardly surprising to practicing theatre people, but perhaps can be for an academic dramaturg who must watch as his/her finely cogitated textual concepts are reduced to a few scarcely usable details in a production traveling headlong toward new horizons which were inconceivable from his/her initial assumptions. But this problem will be returned to. It could, however, be important to emphasize that Nicholas Nickleby’s success—its theatrical originality, in short, the uniting of such different theatrical forms as represented by Meyerhold, Brecht, and the English music-hall tradition in an epic-dramatic combination, which were essentially intelligent and entertaining, historical and actual—cannot be imagined without a harmonious pre-planned collective process. A comparison to other productions, which are based upon the dramatization of other genres, emphasizes the particularly tough odds which were faced. One generally does not find such correct solutions to immanent narrative problems. Far more seldom do we find examples of simultaneously preserving the mood of the original (which is an essential part of the public’s horizon) and justifying the translation into another medium. An example of a playwright’s attempt at tackling the problem, indeed, almost of combatting an obsession, is given in Peter Weiss’s two dramatizations of Kafka’s The Trial. In the first version from the early 1970s, he reduces the story to a specific socio-political fable and thereby loses the mood of the novel completely. In the second version, which was to be his last work, he captures its nightmarish character to a far higher degree, but is unable to tell the story and thereby fails dramaturgically.
Here the scenic space is a classical bourgeois sitting room done completely in white. The windows facing “the elements”—water, desert, forest—are closed. The final image is established. Eight dancers, paired in sitting position, holding each other by the hand, forming a sort of rhythmical snake, move themselves diagonally across the stage to the droning version of Ravel’s “La Valse.” In the background, a man in a smoking jacket tries frenetically to mount an immense pair of stilts. The music and movement are intensified. Just like the navigators of “Le Radeau de la Méduse” by Géricault, the group of waltzers desperately press themselves up against the walls. The man on the stilts abandons his preoccupation and dons an angelic robe, continuing to paint himself white so that in the end he becomes almost one with the backdrop against which he leans. Is the performance over? Mechthild Grossman, who has figured as a kind of narrator-commentator throughout the performance, now enters through a door in the wall at the back of the stage. The lights are dimmed to twilight. A blue neon light shines through the open door. Grossman appears in a dream of a 1950ish evening dress. Blue with a long train and a V-cut that amply reveals her breasts. With a cigarette in her mouth she holds in her long gloves a pitch-fork which she uses to pitch hay into a wheelbarrow. The music has changed. It is now Hugo Wolf’s lament “Everything ends that is commenced,” “We too were joyful and sorrowing beings just as you,” “Now we are lifeless here.” Thus setting the general mood on stage. This characteristic ephemeral quality, where the narrator begins calmly to stack coal briquets after having changed from business gloves into work gloves, and where the man in the background is now one with the wall, is suddenly interrupted by the rest of the company who, with an exaggerated friendliness in mimic and gesture, dance in to German-American swing music with the refrain “two cigarettes in the dark.” The house lights come on. The macabre atmosphere is preserved as background for the finale’s euphoric pulse. Is the play over? The company steadily surges back and forth in a seemingly infinite overture. Some spectators begin clapping sporadically. “Everything ends, but when?” Then after three and a half hours of sense bombardment with this duality, it ends: the biting sorrow (the piece starts with “Come right in, my husband is at war”) and the manic joy. The final image is the piece’s most successful. The most cohesive in its tension-packed disharmonies. It sums up the performance without harmonizing its contradictoriness.
The piece with the meaningless title has until then had the character of independent stories, each of which could have been experienced as more or less expressive, more or less narrative, more or less successful. The production’s specific characteristic is the dissolution into individual recitations, not the flow of collective dance or the company’s interplay in general. The recollection of the performance consists of moments, favorite stories, “pearls on a string”—a rough structure, which can be captured in a cross-network of general semantic units such as happy/unhappy, man/woman, oppression/liberation, culture/nature.
The scenography’s duality expressed through the classical and bourgeois whiteness and the almost film-like presence of natural elements, is a manifest and constant framework of the piece’s functional conditions. The characters proceed from this highly civilized space, to a more “original” space where, for example, a melodramatic murder of passion can occur or where one of the piece’s maniacally active men can mellow out in the uterine warmth of the aquarium—complete with flippers!
The man-woman relation is a given thematic constant in the activity of the dance theatre. In this performance this is evidenced in Pina Bausch’s costuming: an exaggerated femininity, in the 1950 dresses’ low-cut tops and the macho smoking jackets. In the course of the production, this is often with a role-liberating effect changed into a transvestic utopian man-dance in high-heels, ballroom dresses revealing the hair on their chest. But also retained, for example, in the image of “girl” socialization, depicted materially and generally, as one of the female dancers “pairs” a whole sackful of shoes in chronologic order, creating a point of identification for the public, for a personal, sex-specific upbringing.
The production consists of an infinite number of small stories essentially of the same character. Their point of conjunction even in the individual sequences is ambiguity: women who, seemingly independent, dancing barefooted to rapturous music in a free space, have a pot tied to their leg, and cannot escape. A woman who, tied to the man’s leg, is used in loving embrace as a nutcracker! Totally instrumentalized she is lifted up and down so that her behind can efficiently crack the edibles for the guests. Harmony, but sheer disgust among the audience, whose senses on the whole are provoked all through the evening’s morass of concurrent disharmonies and harmonies. Or by the violent tension between hysteria and serenity. Major and minor—concretely in the purposely forced cuts between the different musical genres—classic/modern, serious/popular, uplifting/depressing.
During the past ten years with her company in Wuppertal, Pina Bausch has earned a place in the international dance theatre scene. Her dance productions are both dance and theatre. In contrast to, first and foremost, Modern Dance from USA, her body-theatre is a mixture of language and body, and its expression an exponent of the narrative dance form, an epic-dramatic contrast to Modern Dance’s corporeal abstraction. The consequences of Pina Bausch’s influence of modern theatre are naturally quite extensive in a period when a trust in linguistic expression is questionable and the influence from visual media on theatre’s practioners and public is so overwhelming. It can therefore be interesting to see how a production such as Tanzabend 2 was created. The rehearsal is described in the program. Rehearsals were started with cues to the company, who should illustrate, practice, dramatize their respective memories and associations. Here are some of them:
When does one say shit? / Sentences where God appears / To use the word mother / To do something with the belly / The small joy / Teaching somebody / Someone has gone astray / Children’s play / Itch / Throw your own head away / Tuck the thumb / A Punch-like movement / Something in a waltz step / Swing / Exaggerated movement / The optimist / Cause-effect / To strike with body part / To motivate oneself / Something has gone to pieces / To snap one’s fingers at someone / Something pleasing on the chest / Flee like Punch / To hide like Punch / To howl and be miserable like Punch / To search for help like Punch / A sign of rain / Something troubling / To stretch a body part to the extreme
Certain lines and basic themes obviously stick out in this seemingly impenetrable list of cue-words. These are the structures and topics which are reidentifiable in the final production and which are described above. Nonetheless, it seems nearly magical that this menagerie of imperatives could end in a three and a half hour long performance in just two months.
The dramatist Renate Klett, who had worked with another choreographer, Reinhold Hoffman, on the latter’s production Föhn for Bremer Tanztheater, in a very interesting article (in the weekly Die Zeit, 18-26 April 1985) described the genesis of this dance performance. Renate Klett, who is normally a theatre dramaturg asserts that, whereas a theatre production functions under prerequisites of a script- and role-distribution, a choreographed production begins simply by creating the piece. As we have seen with Nicholas Nickleby and what has gradually emerged from more and more improvised theatre, this is far from the usual case but still a veritable norm. Renate Klett describes the methodology:
The content generates from the form, from the tension between whisper/ shout, horizontal/vertical, solo/tutti, from the relation between movement and space, movement and music, action and counter-action. It is a choreographic way of thinking foreign to me; it orients through pictures instead of through meaning, only with other means. The stories which are told in this way are secretive and complicated, interchanging in their ambiguity. The dramaturgic principle is intuitive, not intellectual. It endows the piece with the confusing fascination which causes the spectator to believe for a moment that he understands everything, and then, in the next, nothing.
As we have seen in connection with Brook, Nunn, and Bausch, it is perhaps too clear a distinction which Klett makes between intellectual and intuitive dramaturgy. The distinction, rather, lies on the one hand between the analytic and calculatory reduction and the interests in cause and effect, indeed, the exactitude of an ordered system, and, on the other, the multifarious facets of the creative production—intellectual, intuitive, but determined most of all by practice—the search for ambiguity, openness, contrasts.
Literary science, indeed, science in general, conceives of itself as being analytical. In its everyday pedagogical praxis it in fact functions excellently. It seems scientifically legitimate to analyze a text—for example, a dramatic text—by establishing a differentiated, detailed, and well-supported account of the text’s semantic potential, and the one most correct and most convincing for the respective interpreter; however, every determination of this sort implies the death of a creative process which presupposes an active and imaginative participation of actors, dancers, musicians, scenographers, etc.
If one super-imposes an analysis a priori, the process withers on the spot. And if the dramaturg—or a highly analytically gifted director—attempts to intervene too early in the process, to summarize, in a word to reduce, then no new insight is brought forth, and new possibilities of new meanings are nullified. The role of the dramaturg is therefore different from that of the external critic. He must not completely immobilize the intellect but apply his analysis non-reductively, attempting to analyze actively, opening instead of stiffening, explosively and not implosively. Like Roland Barthes in La Chambre claire, as an intellectual who has the entire intellectual apparatus at hand, but who uses it in an excessive, inquisitively inspired self-transcendence.
Of course there are very concrete tasks which a dramaturg can carry out during a rehearsal. His/her knowledge of the text’s complexity will be utilizable for the director and the actor, in that many rehearsals are wrongly preoccupied with a genuine striving toward coherence and harmony, where the text—perhaps conceived of as an artistic whole—upon closer examination proves to be riddled with ambiguity and blind spots. Inasmuch as the texts appear dramatic and coherent, or fragmentary and contradictory, the work of the dramaturg is a new one each time. From his/her analytical assumptions about the text, the dramaturg is challenged to go into (but also against) the text in order to make room first for the participants’ and thereafter the public’s imagination. Hermeneutics’ most important task as active participant in the creative process lies in an opening of the hermetic texts (e.g., Ibsen) and in a non-simplified selection of the non-streamlined texts (e.g., Shakespeare). This fundamental conception of the text as a score ought to have a liberating effect for the analytically schooled dramaturg, who with this sort of background will have ample opportunity to introduce apparently academic but relevant points into the process.