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  • The Malady of Film in the TheatreKatie Mitchell Stages Marguerite Duras
  • Daniel Sack (bio)

The theatre may house the total work of art, but this does not mean that all its rooms have common dimensions or ease of entry. Even after decades occupying its quarters, a screen onstage often demands an outsized attention from its audiences, distracting from live performer or event. Not so for the enigmatic book, its secret life bound up undisclosed to theatrical awareness. The book requires a further activation on the stage—the voice of a reader—and even then remains at a distance, inaccessible. One could say, with only slight exaggeration, that the theatrical screen is practically pornographic in its transparent exposure and immediate close-ups, its seductive promise of full representation. Meanwhile, the book is opaque, even erotic, in its suggestive retention of story and scene, its refusal to show up.

Recent theatrmakers have sought to stage the "bookishness" of a book—one's durational engagement with its material pages, and the peculiar imaginary sensations that arise in the midst of reading. Such, for example, is the premise of Elevator Repair Service's trilogy of "readings" of classic American novels that recreate the bleed between whatever fictional world and one's actual surroundings. More than twenty years after her death, writer/filmmaker Marguerite Duras remains perhaps the signal artist concerned with the problematic of staging the act of reading. Yet Duras's performance works do not merely theatricalize the book as media; rather they use the book as a wedge to pry loose the very foundations of theatrical representation, particularly the problem of female visibility on the inherently patriarchal Western stage.1 Her novels, memoirs, and other hybridized conglomerations mimic theatrical means while hollowing out the very prospect of an embodied mimesis. Even her plays arrest their characters in stasis or refuse image altogether; they act like spoken novellas or installations more than dramatic works. [End Page 52]

With its lack of desire and lack of action—those two cornerstones of dramatic conflict—the novella La Maladie de la mort [The Malady of Death] (1982, translated 1986) may sound a resolutely anti-dramatic proposition. And yet, it records speech in a script-like manner, relying heavily on formulations such as "You say: The sea. She asks: Where?"2 Maladie further foregrounds the performance of its own reading by using the second person subject position throughout, explicitly casting the reader as protagonist. "You" are the man at the center of the story, afflicted by the malady it names. Of course, one is always implicitly forced to play a part when reading, collaborating with the author to envision and act upon an internal stage. Yet, as literary theorist Elaine Scarry has suggested, for all its seeming evocativeness, writing "is almost bereft of any sensuous content. Its visual features, as has often been observed, consist of monotonous small black marks on a white page."3 The strange paradox of readerly vision, then, with its quasi-sensations and half-formed scenes evoked by those uniformly dressed words, shows itself in Maladie as a central blindness to the other that afflicts its protagonist: "you." In other words, it confronts the condition of the spectator with the condition of the reader.

In her 2018 stage adaptation of Maladie, developed in collaboration with playwright Alice Birch, director Katie Mitchell replaces the novella's impossibility of sight with the excessive visibility of the pornographic. The book is still onstage, but it is relegated to a sound booth appended to the corner of an elaborate film set. It is a vestigial organ in the evolutionary arrival of cinema. Instead, two film cameras become the central mediating device through which spectatorship is transfigured. Where Duras's Maladie uses the medium of the book to interrogate the stage, Mitchell's Maladie uses the stage to interrogate the screen. The novella's sophisticated deferral of a reader/viewer's desire to know or see, translates into a far more recognizable and conventional critique of sexual and visual violence. Is this the malady of film in the theatre—a tendency toward excessive vision and excessive explanation?

Duras's novella begins with an unnamed man, addressed as...


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