- Ludics in Surrealist Theatre and Beyond by Vassiliki Rapti
Theatre has long been considered the form of expression that least interested the surrealist movement, as defined and led by André Breton. Abandoning drama himself after a few minor forays during his early Dada years, Breton discussed the form only rarely and usually quite dismissively, arguing that, like the novel, it tended to enslave the creative text (and, indeed, its [End Page 282] performance) to a naïve, rationalist, and unproductive notion of “reality.” Other adherents of the movement, most notably Antonin Artaud and Roger Vitrac, had more faith in the capacity of the theatre to accommodate surrealist preoccupations and express them productively, but their experiments generally took place at the margins of the “official” movement. The enthusiastic, later rediscovery of Artaud justifiably abstracted his particular vision from the surrealist context out of which it had originally emerged, and if Artaud became a key figure for both the theory and practice of performance, in the 1960s and after, his connection with the Bretonian vision of surrealism was scarcely a factor in this afterlife. Yet it is this surrealist genealogy that Vassiliki Rapti’s study seeks to reassert. Rapti’s thesis is that, despite Breton’s explicit doubts about and even hostility toward the theatre, an implicit dramatic theory can be reconstructed from his writings, and that, while Breton did not or could not seek to put it into practice himself, other writers subsequently did – not only Artaud and Vitrac, but the Greek surrealist Nanos Valaoritis and a later generation of experimental practitioners, including Robert Wilson and Megan Terry. Rapti claims that it is possible to trace, through this lineage, a form of theatrical experiment that is founded (albeit as implicit and impossible) by Breton, on the basis of distinctively surrealist notions of dialogue and play. Through close readings of works by these writers, she sets out to uncover these notions at work in them and to connect them back to a ludic, non-mimetic, surrealist vision of the theatre, established by Breton.
Much hinges, then, on the first chapter, where Rapti seeks to reconstruct Breton’s “ludic dramatic theory” (46), notably from a key scene in his 1928 autobiographical prose narrative, Nadja, in which the eponymous protagonist invites him to play a game of word association with her. The verbal image that Nadja conjures reminds the narrator of the one piece of theatre he passionately admires, a piece of grand guignol by Pierre Palau called Les Détraquées (meaning “madwomen” or “the unhinged”). This image becomes the nexus of a web of surreal associations for Breton, and for Rapti, who compares his account of the incident to that of a “performance analyst,” using a term drawn from Patrice Pavis (37–38). From Breton’s response to it, she extrapolates an incipient theory of performance, based on a dialogical and non-mimetic practice, where the performer – like Nadja in this scene, or like a child playing an imaginative game – both embodies the other and remains herself. It is this conception of performance that Rapti, then, tracks through the theatrical experiments of Vitrac, Valaoritis, Wilson, and Terry, arguing that they are able to put into practice (not least, thanks to new technological developments) a theatre that approaches Breton’s supposed ideal. Breton only thinks he hates the theatre, Rapti argues, because he thinks of the theatre as Aristotelian, realist, and intrinsically mimetic. Later practitioners, influenced by him, are able to show that it doesn’t have to be any of those things. [End Page 283]
The problem with all this is that it relies on very limited evidence. Rapti’s tracing of the scene from Nadja and its associations is interesting, but she fails to establish it as specifically theatrical in character. The idea of “performance analysis,” as used here, is nothing more than a reframing of what is already theorized explicitly in surrealist thinking on poetry, the dream, the image, or the found object. What Repti sees as dialogic/ludic and therefore...