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Paratheatre: Plays Without Stages

The extraordinary synthesis of post-war experimental movements in theatre in Jacques Rivette's monumental _Out 1_.
The following article accompanies the audiovisual essay Paratheatre - Plays Without Stages (From I to IV) by Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López and commissioned by Chris Luscri for the 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival premiere of Jacques Rivette's 1971 magnum opus Out 1 - Noli me tangere. More entries in the Out 1 Video Essay Project can be found at the here.

In Jacques Rivette’s monumental Out 1 (1971), we see two theatrical works perpetually in progress — until, due to the force of many factors both internal and external, both projects collapse. Yet what we witness are not, in any conventional or normative sense, rehearsals. They are more like what Jerzy Grotwoski called paratheatre: playing without a stage, without an audience ever in mind or in attendance, playing for the sake of playing itself, for the process of working it out and working it through.
Every critical commentary on Out 1 (and its double, Out 1: Spectre from 1974) refers to the prominent place in it of theatre — a prominent place it enjoys, to varying degrees, throughout the director’s entire career. But this theatrical element is usually too often and too quickly reduced to a theme (theatre and cinema, theatre and life …) and thus abstracted away from the specifics of its presentation.
The fact is that Out 1 is an extraordinary, synthesising document of many experimental movements in theatre, dating from the immediate post-war period and surviving through to our day, in performance workshops grand and small across the globe. Although some of the commentaries indicate, in passing, that Rivette drew upon (through his actors) a mélange of influences including the Polish theatre guru Jerzy Grotowski and The Living Theatre from USA, it is dizzying to realise just how many traditions and tendencies are referenced in the physical work of the performers that Rivette records with such care, and at such length. The film is like an immense corridor through which the history of contemporary, experimental theatre passes.
It is not only that Rivette was — and, in this respect, he is unique among the Nouvelle Vague’s members — totally immersed, as observant spectator and fan, in the progressive theatre of his time; it is also true that theatre itself, in the 1960s, was an exceptionally international, cosmopolitan, shared movement. This is partly because the particular kind of theatre we see in Out 1 was not, predominantly, text-based — language played a subsidiary role to gesture, movement, sound and dance. It was also because of the border-crossing energy and commitment of some of the era’s prime movers, including Julian Beck and Judith Malina of the Living Theatre, and Peter Brook, author of the hugely influential The Empty Space in 1968. Not only borders of nations were effortlessly crossed, but also those of media: Brook was a film director throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, while Living Theatre members (most recognisably, Beck himself) appeared in movies by Pier Paolo Pasolini and Bernardo Bertolucci.1
Those who know little about the complex knot of traditions in theatre and performance, and their cheek-by-jowl evolution, tend to assume as given the opposition between, on one side, the so-called Method, as a supposed bastion of realist or naturalist performance, and, on the other side, the non-psychological theatre of Grotowski and others. This is a largely false opposition, as many actors would tell you. Michael Lonsdale from Out 1, for example, was trained in the 1950s (in a class that included Delphine Seyrig and Jean-Louis Trintignant) by the renowned drama teacher Tania Balachova; she was associated with Constantin Stanislavsky (presumed father of the Actor’s Studio Method), but equally with Antonin Artaud. Lonsdale remembers how Balachova would have them ‘playing Marivaux while rolling on the ground — fifteen years before Patrice Chéreau.’2 (Chéreau is himself another key figure spanning theatre and cinema in Europe.)
‘Rolling on the ground’ evokes many things we see enacted in Out 1 — and it is too easy for some viewers to mulch the lot into some imagined ‘alternative theatre’ craze of the 1960s, just a bunch of hippie ‘happenings’ (although the actual form of the happening, as cultivated in Europe by Jean-Jacques Lebel and others, was certainly one reference point for Rivette). But the sources for these performance actions are many. It is crucial to realise that the film is structured on a close comparison of groups with two very different approaches — which are, in a sense, two alternate versions of the large legacy for experimental theatre that evolved from the twin influences of Grotowski and Artaud.
One group uses gestural and vocal work to explore and express, in highly stylised ways, Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes; the other uses a radical form of improvisation, nominally based on the pretext of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, that is not quite psychodrama (its aim is not in the least bit therapeutic), but certainly reaches down to the roots of Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty — in the latter case, the written text slips further and further away. Both groups base their work on the types of rigorous exercises (Grotowski’s exercises, psychophysical exercises, and ancient games such as mirroring) that are crucial, for instance, to Richard Schechner’s The Performance Group (which later became The Wooster Group), whose production of Dionysus in ’69 was documented (in split-screen) by Brian De Palma in 1970.
Both troupes talk, analyse and review their work a lot — but whereas the Thebes group tend to re-work things practically (according to various kinds of ‘scores’ for voice and movement), the Prometheus group is more into research and self-critique, once they emerge from each ‘trance.’ Note, too, the dual orientation of both groups: while, in one way or another, they are fully avant-garde, they are also trying to plug back into mythic, sacred sources — the revival of theatrical spectacle as ritual which both attracted and disturbed Pasolini by the end of the 1960s.
Rivette himself knew a great deal about theatre, and had the direct (and not entirely happy) experience of producing Diderot’s La religieuse on stage in 1963, three years before filming it. For the principal cast of L’amour fou (1969), he scooped up, as he avowed, ‘basically Marc’O’s company’ — Marc’O being a stage and screen director, originally associated with the Letterists, who is sadly little-known beyond France, although a vitally important figure for the 1960s and beyond. (His 1968 screen adaptation of his own, long-running stage musical production Les idoles, which stars Bulle Ogier and Pierre Clémenti, is a quasi-Situationist spectacle about the corruption of pop stars, and a genuine cult-film item.)
For Out 1, by contrast, Rivette ‘wanted to play on a more heteroclite, more heterogeneous casting’ — although he added that ‘in fact, from my point of view, this heterogeneity is much less flagrant than I'd originally planned.’3 He is doubtless referring here to the marked difference in manner and method between trained performers such as Lonsdale, Michèle Moretti (another Marc’O player) or Hermine Karagheuz, and those spellbinding ‘naturals’ who grew up in Nouvelle Vague cinema, namely Jean-Pierre Léaud and Juliet Berto — both, tellingly, cast as solitary and somewhat solipsistic seekers, not parts of any ensemble.
Yet the overall, rhizomatic unity of Out 1 — its exploration of the notion of play across so many overlapping and rhyming levels of the work — ensures that the heterogeneity of the casting is, indeed, not so stark as Rivette first imagined. Here, a viewer must bring to the film other theatre-related traditions — such as performance art, minimalist dance, sound art and even ‘relational aesthetics’ — that were certainly nascent in the 1960s (via Yvonne Rainer, the Viennese Actionists, Jack Smith, Carmelo Bene, etc.), but went far further afield in the decades after it. Leáud’s obsessive, robotic actions pre-date many similar performance pieces; while the exploratory improvisations of Lonsdale’s troupe (mixing dance, sound art and conceptualism) anticipate the multi-media inventions of, for instance, Lyndal Jones.
This is why, in our episodic, audiovisual work Paratheatre, we have drawn in correspondences both far and near to Rivette and his daring, highly receptive actors from 1970: references from the Living Theatre in Bertolucci’s Agonia (part of Love and Anger, 1969) to Andre Gregory’s recounting of his Grotowski Experience in  Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre (1981), not forgetting Australia’s very own premier experimental ensemble Arf Arf and their classic Thread of Voice (1993) — like Out 1, a film which both richly documents a performance practice and, at the same, fully metamorphoses it into true cinema.
 
Notes
1. See the fascinating interview with Julian Beck by Bernard Eisenschitz, ‘Tourner avec Bertolucci’, Cahiers du cinéma, Issue 194 (October 1967), p. 44.
2. Interview with Michael Lonsdale by Jean-Marc Lalanne, Les Inrocks (25 August 2004), http://www.lesinrocks.com/2004/08/25/cinema/actualite-cinema/michael-lonsdale-1171215/
3. 1973 Interview with Rivette by Eisenschitz, Jean-André Fieschi and Eduardo de Gregorio, originally translated by Tom Milne for Jonathan Rosenbaum (ed.), Rivette: Texts and Interviews (BFI: 1977), reprinted at http://www.jacques-rivette.com/.
 

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