Tadeusz Kantor is a highly regarded avant garde Polish director who died in 1990. Not long after what’s- considered-in-New-York-as a historically significant performance of his work in 1988.
Having seen only one of his plays before this performance (on YouTube) but being still very aware of his importance and so guilty about only being familiar with one work, I was glad to find out that Elizabeth LeCompte herself, the director of this play and the auteur behind The Wooster Group, had herself only seen one of his plays live before beginning work on this project earlier this year. I’m sure she’d have seen some more on video but it goes to show the nature of theatre is that even amongst the most experienced and important artists, they only know a fraction of each others' work.
The project was a commission from a Polish agency, Instytut Adama Mickiewicza, who wanted The Wooster Group to make a show about the theatre work of Kantor. This commission made sense I assume because both Tadeusz Kantor and The Wooster Group are avant garde theatre makers. Also, both work in a highly visual, idiosyncratic and auteur-driven manner. Kantor’s work is so auteur-driven that he himself sits on the stage and he even played the central character and central concern in his most important work I shall Never Return. This is where the overlap between The Wooster Group and Kantor ends though, as putting herself on stage as the central concern of her own work is something that LeCompte would never do in one of her own plays. She famously said she prefers to hide behind her actors. “She prefers to watch them so as not to be watched.” Her company, since its emergence in the late 70s, has always used very strong actors, like Spalding Grey (her first husband), Kate Valk, Willem Dafoe (who LeCompte was married to for 25 years), and more recently Scott Sheppard and Arias Flakos. All just as intimate in their personal lives with LeCompte as they were professionally. But in her own productions LeCompte really uses these actors in a manner that isn’t so much collaborative, as manipulative, a director manipulating her actors’ skills to her own ends. At a cursory glance, Wooster is a company run collectively and in fairness, financially speaking, the profits are equally divided, but nobody within the company is in any doubt as to whose artistic vision is being executed.
And so A Pink Chair is, for me, a meditation on the two different approaches of LeCompte and Kantor. In the work, LeCompte asks what was the result of Kantor explicitly making himself the subject of his own art? Hidden in this question of course is it’s mirror: what is the result of LeCompte not doing this?
Now before I pursue this question directly, I want to bring the reader’s attention to a comment made by Tadeusz Kantor’s daughter during a pre-show discussion (NB: this was not part of the actual show). She said, and I took this down exactly because it jolted me when I heard it, she said “Art is the most important thing in the world. And artists are the most important people.”
I assure you she used the word “people” here, because it was the word that struck me most.
It is a phrase I can’t imagine any artist in the English speaking world ever saying; that artists are the most important people.
Saying that art is the most important thing, with the conditional “to me” put at the end I could certainly imagine. Saying that “art is the most important thing” period is maybe something I’ve heard. But to say that “artists are the most important people” is essentially an offensive line when said in English. It almost feels like it’s one of those grammatical rules that are so hard to explain to non-English speakers. I wanted to put my hand up and tell Kantor’s daughter that you just don’t say it like that.
But her sentence construction was pretty unequivocal and simple. Her use of grammar was flawless. She clearly meant exactly what she said. And so I must conclude that it was the sentiment itself that felt naïve and wrong to my English speaking ears.
I think this must be because we share more than just a language in the English speaking world. We don’t like to admit it, especially in Ireland, but the English speakers worldwide do seem by and large to share a lot of fundamental beliefs that are not necessarily self-evident truths to people in other parts of the world. I would posit that the vast majority of English speakers (not necessarily the reader of course) share a belief in individual enterprise and the freedom of the individual to increase their happiness and their wealth through their own endeavour. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were no accidents. English speakers value the rule of law and individual rights above all else. Britain and the US can vie for contention as the longest continuous democracies in the world. And if I’m being frank, for me what unites them most of all is their fervent and historical embrace of capitalism, for good or for ill. Capitalism, Rule of Law and some form of Democracy must exist above all else.
Consider how easily English speakers can witness the greed, and the exploitation of capitalism; how we can witness the gross income disparity it creates, the wars it demands; the many deaths in third world countries; the destruction of the environment; look at how we can literally spell out the impending and real danger of the world ending and still not really be into the idea of taxing the products that may be causing this disaster. Not to mind even thinking about measures such as the large scale seizure of private property for instance, or publically owning key major businesses, or putting any restrictions on our personal freedoms, etc. even if it was argued that that might help prevent the impending doom.
My point, more simply, is that even someone on the far left of the political spectrum, such as Jeremy Corbyn, is still operating within a very particular set of beliefs that he shares with even his opponents on the far right, and my point is that these beliefs aren’t necessarily rational or useful and are often particular to the English speaking world.
For instance this belief, for belief it is, in liberal democracy and the rule of law and individual rights has made us very uneasy when it comes to talking about elitism and privilege. Just as there is a widespread public denial of the privilege and elitism available to the wealthy (‘sure what can money buy’ ‘the rich are the same as us’ ‘money doesn’t buy you happiness’ etc.) there is also a widespread denial that certain groups might be intellectually privileged or that other groups might be spiritually privileged. Let me ask the reader, are there any groups around today who could be considered holy amongst the English speaking people for instance. Or even any individual alive today that might be seen as wise? I can’t think of any personally.
And so we are uneasy with the idea of a vanguard, unlike Poland, where vangaurd groups such as artists, theatre makers etc. were central to its resistance to communism. But in the United States where popular art has been seen as the only form of emancipatory art, the avant garde is not given the same recognition. People cannot see its use and so treat it with suspicion.
Perhaps this is why LeCompte is so keen to hide her inner life from society’s gaze, like an animal hides it’s nest from physical danger, because it is not safe to reveal her personal, perhaps obscure, spiritual enquiry to a public that would treat it with awkwardness and consternation.
But her work does testify to this personal and spiritual enquiry. She says that each theatre piece is part of larger piece that is the sum total of all her work.
But to write about this, with regard to the specifics of this play in particular, is no easy task. The play makes no statements that a reviewer can cling onto. Instead LeCompte gives the audience a series of images and re-enactments and performances, which I can describe but can’t conclusively categorise or explain:
Kate Valk's portrayal of a wretch was particularly memorable. Her performance seemed to convey an atmosphere of self-hate and shame, and her physicality and costume seemed to mortify her body in a very particular and extreme way. She was old and haggard, and for the most part silent, but very much alive despite this silence. Was this LeCompte speaking to us through the play about her own ineluctible presence in the world?
The play was also punctured throughout with hymns. Uplifting church-like requiems that seemed to indicate hope and that what is beyond life is good.
And finally, let me remark on the portrayal of Kantor himself by Zbigniew Bzymek who normally works as a video maker with Wooster. Was this choice of a non-actor an attempt to denude Kantor’s inner life (which was Kantor’s obsesssion) when one of the group’s main actors would have given Kantor’s portrayal much more colour? With Bzymek we hear Kantor’s texts repeated and the things he is recorded as saying but we don’t get the atmosphere in the same way, for instance, that Kate Valk portrays the atmosphere of the wretch. Is this LeCompte then, exploring Elliot’s separation of the man that suffers from the mind that creates? When Bzymek smiles we can tell he is a nice young man and whilst Kantor too had a humble, deprecating presence, Kantor also had the unmistakable whiff of despair and remorse that gave his performance a weight as great as the words he spoke.
Bzymek’s performance was more clownish than grand. But Kantor too claims that the result of his work was a loss of dignity and that the artist who gives his whole life to art will end it only as a clown.
As Bzymek stood on stage for us at the end we began to see a revealing moment in Lecompte’s direction. Her portrayal of Bzymek/Kantor was at once both pathetic and uplifting. Somehow the two ideas seemed to exist at the same time.
With LeCompte’s direction the foolishness and vanity of a man making himself into a work of art is not denied, but we are encouraged to see something else in this too. We are encouraged to see the affect he has had on the collective; on his actors for instance but perhaps also on his wider community.
For me Lecompte is pointing out here the relationship between an artists’ solipsism and the community it nurtures. Is this how she sees her role in Wooster or even in her wider community? What I mean is, that she seems to be saying that the individual is judged not by its own merits but by the effects that their work has had on other people. And here she seems to be indicating that Kantor brought a form of joy and hope.
She’s still not saying that artists are the most important people, I think, but she is making an argument that they are at least of some importance anyway, and at the very least, of some importance to her life.
Dick for DRAFF
A Pink Chair by The Wooster Group ran until the 23rd July at the Fisher Centre, New York. Image: Maria Baranova
Posted: 1st August 2017