- Reality Principles: From the Absurd to the Virtual by Herbert Blau
In his most recent book of collected essays on theatre and performance, the esteemed scholar and theatre director Herbert Blau (who died on 3 May 2013 at age 87) recounts a story from his early days as a director of an actor’s lament with his rehearsed role, “I don’t feel this, I’m not feeling this at all.” To which Blau forcefully replied, “I couldn’t care less what you feel, or don’t, feelings are cheap! I only care what you think. What we’re doing here is thinking, trying to understand” (143). In a chapter entitled “The Emotional Memory of Directing,” Blau is looking back from a distance of decades onto memories of emotions, always directed toward theatre’s own unique vantage onto thought, its corporeal manifestations, its bodily obligations, and “[...] the ontological fact that the one performing [...] is dying in front of your eyes” (114).
The fact of this witnessed dying, the very thought of it, is not (contrary to what one might gather from Blau’s response to the struggling actor) an unfeeling or uncaring one, but instead a carefully directed response that was to demand of actors, audiences, and readers alike the rigors of reflection, a not-so-cheap cost to the concentration — the kind of thinking, the “trying to understand” that Blau has always insisted upon. As he affirms again and again in this book of [End Page 172] essays collected primarily from keynote and memorial lectures, it is the nature of that thought, as embodied object, as imperiled subject, that is most forcefully and consistently sought and engaged. Moving between Beckett and Brecht, Genet and Ionesco, to the more recent work of the Viennese Actionists, Orlan, and Stelarc, it is the illusiveness of thought, its very uncertainty, perhaps even its impossibility, that is constantly returned to in this book’s brilliant analysis, with Blau having acceded to Artaud’s terrifying proclamation that “no matter which way you turn your head, you have not even started to think” (1965:48).
Each chapter of Blau’s book, turning as it does every which way (and then some), is a forceful and vigilant manifestation of such a starting point, or such a desire to start thought. For it is at such primordial beginnings that the emotional memory of thought’s rigorous and violent approach is written upon the bodies of those performing, as thought’s corporeal “condition of possibility, [...] which as always remains to be seen” (148). And what Blau would ask of his actors and his many students, he would also ask of his readers: to think at the “extremity of thought” (67) of a theatre imagined within the always turbulent cultural and historical contexts that extend beyond the stage and out into that larger life of the everyday world from which all thought affirms its lived emergence and condition. As Proust’s narrator, grieving for his grandmother, similarly asserts of thought’s necessity: “we truly know only what we are obliged to re-create by thought, what everyday life keeps hidden from us...” (Proust 2004:168).
We are reminded by Blau how events in the world, and the often violent and hidden processes of history have forcefully determined the manner in which theatre is to be thought about at all, from the “theater of the absurd” and the Cold War (with which this book begins); to our own more recent War on Terror, and its responses to 9/11 and Ground Zero (to which the remaining chapters are chronologically linked); and finally (in its concluding chapters), through questions of presence, liveness, and mortality, to the renewed affirmations of what Walter Benjamin described as “the most forgotten alien land [that] is one’s own body” ( 1992:132). Because for Blau, it is (and was) always that vulnerable and fleeting form before us that, regardless of its various mediations, remained the forgotten referent of the newly mediated stages of...