Towards an Ape Theatre (Part 3) Twentieth Century Performance Technique and the Changing of the Avant Garde

towards a poor theatre

The nature of theatrical performance in Europe and the United States would change dramatically during the course of the twentieth century. A very short list of the most radical and influential forces early on includes Alfred Jarry, Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings, Nikolai Foregger, Vsevolod Meyerhold and Antonin Artaud. In almost all these cases, extreme personal and or socio-political conditions led to new levels of achievement and cultural insight. The tumult of that time is still felt today, and delineating what is theatre and what is performance art is often difficult. Hollywood always reaps the rewards of such turmoil as it can freely pick and choose whatever it finds beneficial and use it effectively toward it’s own end.

Jerzy Grotowski’s Polish Theatre Laboratory would not become known to the wider world until roughly the mid 1960’s. To my knowledge, Grotowski would cite Artaud and Meyerhold as important predecessors to his work, yet he maintained an important critical distance from both. Stanislavski was his (and Hollywood’s) guiding light and laid the real groundwork for Grotowski’s highly regimented experiments. But Artaud would provide a lot of the necessary fever.

cruel theatre indeed
cruel theatre indeed
Like the fictional character Adrian Leverkuhn in Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus, Antonin Artaud seemed damned to embody the sickness of his age. The difference is that Artaud was not only a real person, but also brutally aware of the world he lived in, and this became the basis for his art. Briefly a member of the Surrealist group, his Theatre of Cruelty may have been his most constructive project in regards to his own stability. His legacy is in the form of many poems, essays, drawings and a handful of plays and film performances. He brought Van Gogh’s plight into the 20th Century and became a template for the artistic social outcast as a type from the 1940’s onward. Grotowski, as much as he admired the man, was tired of how pervasive and superficial Artaud’s influence on theatre culture had become, declaring in 1967 that we had entered “the age of Artaud”, something he was determined to get away from. He did so by putting the health of the performer first and by developing an outlook and methodology that he thoroughly tested, while always remaining committed to the basic tenets of theatre. As a result, Grotowski’s work continues to influence performers in many disciplines to the present day.
Antonin Artaud circa 1920
Antonin Artaud circa 1920

If, in regards to performance, the 1960’s were the beginning of ” The Age of Artaud”, one can see the evidence in not just theatre and film, but in rock and roll and the fine arts. Since The Theatre of Cruelty had become bankable by 1968, you might say that Grotowski had already plotted his escape from The Planet of the Apes. The arrival of the book Toward A Poor Theatre that same year was the manual for breaking free.

The setting of Planet of the Apes is like something off a Max Ernst canvas. The story is also like something from the Surrealist movement. But the playing, in the case of the ape characters, is staunchly rooted in traditional theatre. Only the human character Taylor is allowed to drift into more extreme avant-garde method. His tattered rag of a costume, a play on Tarzan, is also right out of The Polish Theatre Laboratory. As Taylor is ushered into the ad hoc Tribunal of the National Academy by two gorillas this most theatrical of scenes gets crueler by the minute–Taylor has regained his voice, but is quickly gagged as a panel of well mannered orangutans decide his fate. As he is brought outside to identify Landon, finding him lobotomized, he explodes into attack on Dr. Zaius. Aside from seizing Taylor, the apes never get too excited. This juxtaposition of acting technique is used to great effect throughout the movie. And every time Taylor loses his cool, the case against him is stronger: this man, like all men, is nothing but an animal.

-Sidrel Mundet-

Part 4 (end) coming…