The Past on Stage
Vítor Oliveira Jorge
University of Porto – Department of Heritage Sciences and Techniques (DCTP)
“To contemplate ruins makes you fleetingly aware of the existence of a time which is not the time in history books, nor the time that restoration attempts to bring back to life. It is a sheer time, unlocatable, absent from our world of images, simulacra, and reconstitutions, from our violent world whose debris can no longer afford the time to become ruins.
A lost time which only art can retrieve.”
From the introduction to Le Temps en Ruines / “Time in Ruins”, 2003.
“The setting is the space in which, in an interval determined throughout the course of a celebration or the performing of a ritual, something that usually remains invisible becomes visible: gods, demons and heroes, performed by men-in-masks and reduced to a state of play; but it is also the conflicts, in the same way that objects are removed away from sight. It is a space, a microcosm, symbolizing the world and thereby the object of sacralization even in our own secular societies.”
Trans. from Enciclopédia Einaudi, vol. 32, “Cena” / Setting (L. Zorzi), p. 416.
“Everything is meant to be seen, because everything is visible, because nothing should be hidden away.
“One could hardly imagine how the ‘work of representation’, which pressuposes a distance necessary for the acquisition of knowledge, as well as for aesthetic perception, could still fulfil itself when everything is prone to display or exhibition. Even when affirming its will-to-modernity, museum didactics is marked by its own anachronism, since it merely creates the illusion of institutional control over the hysteria of the gaze.”
H.-P. Jeudi, 1995, p. 9.
To connect theatre and archaeology, namely by means of the idea of “staging” and “acting” (“performance”): is this only apparently an original connection, within the “postmodern tendency” to establish unexpected relationships – which to some is superficial and inconsequential – or, on the contrary, is it a form of interdisciplinary reflection in its most recent and fruitful sense, that is to say, not just enunciating interdisciplinarity as intention or desire, but actually inhabiting it without further preliminaries?
I am obviously inclined to choose the latter hypothesis.
We live in a society of indifferentiation between the real and the virtual, characterized by the general consumption of everything as commodity, by the high-speed fruition of experiences, atmospheres, environments. As Marc Augé writes (2001, p. 91), we spend our lives drowned in evidence, in the eternal present, in the “trop-plein” (that is, inside something which is already “filled up to its brim”); in a society characterized by “zapping”, keeping us under the illusion that we are watching the theatre of the world, in its resplendent totality, within space and time. We sit before any screen, before any window with a view to reality, and hedonistically prepare ourselves to enjoy.
In fact, that is what the theatre (and in Greek the word denotes the site from which the performance is seen) has always provided us with, whether in more naïve ways or in more sophisticated ones: we sit ourselves before a stage, let the curtains open above a made-up reality, although everything seemingly happens in that very instant (which is true, to a certain extent), and let ourselves become involved, fascinated, as if it were life itself. To stage is to speak the truth by means of a lie; and all this begins in the actors themselves, who embody a character and have to let themselves merge into her/him. They have to enact, on stage, what we do in the course of our daily lives: to perform roles, to assume different identities, or, if you will, to attempt a balance between sameness and otherness, in a perpetual game of masks.
By resorting to their own bodies as a working instrument, the actors undergo a process of de-personalization, making public their singularity, and thereby displaying it as simulacrum – that is, as something which does not belong to them, which is part of another character that they objectify or incarnate. In their nakedness, in their bareness before a judging audience, whom they attempt to seduce at all costs, the actors throw themselves onto a razor’s edge. An actor cannot afford to fail, that is to say, s/he always has to be between the real (as an actor s/he is pretending) and the virtual (the character has to be authentic enough to persuade us, to move us, to seduce us, to involve us). They conjure, reactivate, reintegrate a whole experience which is meant to be lived as a performance, as something which always leaves us suspended between two worlds: fiction and real life.
Within such a relationship of complicity, both elements – actors and audience – agree to play this serious game: a game which utterly involves us all. It is therefore not surprising that performance has its origins in religion and ritual and is rooted in the most immemorial and recondite dimension of ourselves. A body and a fragment of space / time are all the theatre needs to begin, beyond the alleged aquiescence of others. Even the distantiation of the audience and an atmosphere (lights, etc.) are dispensable at the outset; they can be created afterwards, throughout the course of the performance, as a kind of force involving all the participants in the end.
Acting is therefore to re-enact, to pretend that everything is happening in the present, while in fact reactivating energies, reminiscences, memories, forms of affection that are enthralling and can be shared only to the extent that they originate in the past. Acting means conveying to the stage what in other contexts / moments could be considered obscene, implausible, disturbing, unbearable. An intensity which takes pity upon human temporality and its attendant daily routines.
Theatre means a dis-traction from those routines, an escape from the banality of daily life and from an overly ordered, extensive reality, in order to allow room for a more real, intense reality. And, once again, the parallel between representation and ritual assumes particular relevance. It is everyone’s profound belief in ritual, its magnetizing potential which attracts participation, thereby releasing the collective energies on which the ritual feeds itself and derives the single possibility of remaining a “serious affair”, or the “serious affair par excellence”. Should anyone show disbelief or refuse to participate, or to get involved, the ritual will find itself reduced to the condition of a foreign, exotic, wild, or even ridiculous object. As in numerous ethnological reports aimed to carnavalise the other, to convert the person – the “persona”, the actor – into some sort of clown, into an exotic being, dressed bizarrely, staring, zombie-like, at a camera.
Archaeology plays, precisely, with all these ambiguities.
Archaeology aims not so much to reconstitute the past as something distant, remote, fleeting, but to reactivate it, to re-live it, to present it to others. In this respect, the archaeologist, like the actor, is a mediator, someone who establishes a link between past and present, between past experiences and present ones. The archaeologist speaks of an absence – an absence that he attempts neverhteless to bring into the present, not as nostalgia or loss, but in the form of contemporary action or production. An action at various levels: in the archaeologist’s activity as observer, prospector, excavator, interpreter, producer of narratives by means of text, discourse, the museum, the exhibition, visits to sites, places, landscapes, and the very ability to “set things going again”, thereby enacting its simulation, its representation in virtual (the computer) or real spaces. The archaeologist is therefore himself an actor, an interpreter, to whom society assigns a role: the representation of the past for collective benefit, here and now. As in any theatre play.
The round-table discussion “The Past on Stage” (Oporto, Rivoli Theatre, November 2004) was oriented towards an anthropological perspective, in the sense that it attempts to look at social reality – including our own – as an “other-reality”, that is, as something which is not “natural”, butn on the contrary, a particular historical outcome, among a set of many other theoretical possibilities. In fact, a combination of practices and beliefs, behaviours and desires – some inherited from the past, others only recently acquired – and forming a mosaic that raises problems and interrogations. Hence, it provides us with a most relevant topic for debate.
We set out to reflect on the meaning surrounding the concerns that our modern and, in particular, “supermodern” (or post-modern) societies show about conservation, restoration, heritage, representation (i.e. staging). These concerns are, moreover, directed towards the leisure of increasing masses of the public, towards manifold “fragments of reality”: objects, works of art, testimonies to times past, archaeological sites and monuments, landscapes or territories (parks, protected areas), or even the life of populations, “caught” in their “authentic” daily routines.
In such society, based upon the evident and the present, there is a tendency to represent, within “time capsules”, the totality of human life in the shape of objects and spaces easily seen and deciphered, thereby converting into seemingly “natural” narratives, discourses, and interpretations, objects which are actually “fabricated”, in the sense that they are the outcome of labour. It is interesting to note that very often we find in these places the coexistence of the principles of the museum (the preservation and handing down of the past), of the theatre (the representation of the past), and of the shopping mall (the consumption of the past). This is precisely the work of museologists, archaeologists, ethnologists, architects, restorers, producers of shows and other events, performing artists – in sum, of all of those who seek, each from a different point of view and according to their respective abilities as agents, to take part in the modern organization of time and territory, as well as in culture and leisure programming.
But all these productions contribute to an overlapping of narratives, with each one attempting to fill in the space / time gaps, to introduce order, to provide those spaces / times with continuity, intelligibility, transparency and fluidity – in a word, to provide the life of the citizens with meaning. From the perspective of these productions and representations of meaning, common space is no longer a mere support or container of services and resources for immediate use; on the contrary, it constantly gains strength from windows opened towards the past and the future, which are thus brought back to everyday reality, to the present, with a reassuring purpose.
Heritage, as we all know, is connected with a sense of permanent loss, which is felt as the absence of a common good, no longer a legacy but, in a broader sense, a comprehensive resource, a galvanizing process. This general resource is, by definition, constantly under threat. This threat is embodied by the vested (though often concealed) interests of “development” – that is, the modernization and homegeneization of the world, the well-known globalization and its attendant paradoxes. However, the obsession with loss may as well become a symptom of unease or even nostalgia for a lost transcendence, which no modern ideology or grand redempting narrative has as yet managed to replace.
It is possible to locate several discourses or ideologies working underneath this general emphasis on heritage. I shall now present a very brief and, of necessity, oversimplified characterization of some of these discourses / ideologies.
On the one hand, we have a nostalgic discourse which, being hostile towards concessions to the masses, aspires to keep the “practice of the past” reserved for a few only . It admits only the minimum degree of intervention in archaeological sites, always resorting to the spectre of vandalism to defend values that it considers (often rightly) unique and therefore indestructible. Such an attitude is, as often as not, suspicious of the “heritage-mania”, of the overestimation (or even obsessive repetition) of commemorations and monuments – as if it were possible to expand a practice which is intimately linked to tourism (and thus highly profitable) and, at the same time, to enclose it within a strictly pre-defined frame of access and fruition. Many times “intellectuals” and scientists find themselves unwittingly on this side of the barricade. This is because research poses new questions as well as multiple possibilities all the time, whereas the answers or explanations that the public demands forces the former to withdraw or suspend the process of questioning, leading thus to the presentation of a more feasible version of what is expounded. All artists, all museologists, all actors, all playwrights, all novelists know that. Because the very reason for bringing something to public attention is precisely to make its sense visible and evident to everybody, this sense is converted into a common sense.
On the other hand, the culture and heritage industries (which should ideally work alongside contemporary artistic productions) generate new jobs, even though in many cases these jobs are precarious, temporary and low-paid. Young people willingly participate in this movement, since it allows them to take an active role in society, even when activities such as “emergency archaeology”, or labour strictly subject to the play of market forces prevent them from fulfilling their original dreams – dreams in which a degree of idealism mingled with a genuine wish to carry out research and a creative activity. Hence the discourse of these young people very often assumes an optimistic tone – a phenomenon that is not too difficult to understand if we take into account that they were born in a society in which fierce competition, short-term profit, individualism, and immediate success were already the order of the day. And very often too, they do not fully realize that heritage-oriented movements collaborate, in their own fragile ways, in the homogeneization of the world. And we say fragile, because the material conditions of production and publicizing at their disposal are infinitely smaller than those at the disposal of other fields (including the production of easily marketable entertainment).
Heritage as a re-activating force or energy – the staging of the past – no longer belongs to an elite, as the contemplation of ruins did in romantic times; it is now an effective industry within a free market society, within a formal democracy dominated by consumptiom, the acceleration of life and mass tourism. Nevertheless, heritage assumes such fundamental importance to our future that we cannot possibly leave it to the care of “experts” alone. Considering that heritage is potentially a promoter of happiness and pleasure, we should all have a word to say about it.
The participants in the Oporto round-table discussion do not claim to say their last word on such a slippery and complex ground. Actually, to lay claim that one has said the last word on anything is, in our time, quite simply beyond the pale. Our sole aim is to allow for the exchange of different viewpoints and experiences among people involved in distinct kinds of “theatre”, resorting to a great range of materials which vary from field to field, but which nevertheless have many points in common. All in all, we are concerned with the enlargement of the debate over one of the most obvious features of modernity: the socialization of a common past. In other words, it is our aim to bring a once “aristocratic” object of consumption to a terrain where meaning can be shared, discussed, demystified and thus pluralized. This implies a perpetual renewal of staging, no matter how mythical or difficult the latter might appear to us. The performance begins within a few moments. Or perhaps we should say: the performance has always been there.
Oporto, November 2004
Translation: Daniela Kato
The author wants to aknowledge his deep gratitude to the translator.
Gonçalo Velho gave his very useful collaboration to the organization of this round table, which was a great success. That success is something we owe to all the speakers, with a particular relevance to Prof. Marc Augé.
We also want to thank the direction of Rivoli Theatre, especially Isabel Alves Costa.
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Paper published in JIA 7, 2005