Janus bifrons, or theatre during the pandemic

George Banu
Honorary member of the Romanian Academy


A planetary extension

Late into the night, I call a friend in Sibiu who, in agitation, confesses that she only intermittently listened to one of my recent conferences, as she wanted to also see one of Lev Dodin’s shows and the rerun of Ionesco’s Lesson staged by Mihai Măniuțiu with Constantin Chiriac and Ofelia Popii; that, afterwards, she watched an Israeli dance performance broadcast from Paris; and that she didn’t want to abusively prolong her conversation with me, as a Metropolitan opera concert was scheduled to begin momentarily… “I’ve only ever had such pace during the international festival!” What a joy! Felix Alexa expresses his regret at my not having reminded him of Lefteris Vouyatzis’ Antigone which opened the on-line event at Epidauros, but I manage to offer him some consolation in sharing that Robert Wilson’s masterpiece, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, would shortly be staged at the National Theatre in Craiova. A friend calls to inform me of an opportunity to view two Schaubühne shows he long knew I had missed. With Andrei Șerban, more present than ever in front of the screen, I exchanged links, while Niky Wolcz requested information from the web…! Thus are true planetary networks forged, bringing together those who, like myself or other close friends, adopt such a form of substitution. We are in search of “theatre, everywhere”… anywhere in the world! Whatever the format!

This multiplication of available recordings constituted an improvised response to the brutal suspension of theatrical pursuits, to which a palliative cure was sought in exploring and reactivating the latent heritage of performances and artists. A heritage rarely frequented before the pandemic. This operation is comparable to archaeological digs on undervalued land. Old performances, forgotten or legendary, reappeared on our screens precisely to attenuate the absence of theatre and to preserve its temporarily suspended place. That is the motivation for recourse to what we could assimilate to a form of artificial breathing. Injecting oxygen, not unlike in the attempted reanimation of a patient in the name of their decision to fight, to not give up, to not give in! Online broadcasts coalesced into a defensive front, prophylaxis in times of abstinence (that is also why I cannot forget the scandalous formulation of the French Prime Minister who, when declaring the need to remain sedentary, included all artistic manifestations among unessential activities. They might well be sources of contamination, to be sure but they are hardly unnecessary! It was against such misplaced diagnoses that the online resistance was formed!).


An archaeology of theatre

Rebroadcasts, especially those of theatrical performances, less so of opera, have long aroused a shared reservation, both from the public and the artists themselves. Crippled, bereft of the immediate physical essence of the craft, reducing it to a surface image, such broadcasts were reproached their inadequacy to the essence of theatre, to the words and bodies taken as manifestations of the shared present of the stage and of the spectacle! Personally, and less aggressively, I equated them to ancient ruins; for, not unlike ruins, they too lack certain fragments. But in these wounded performances we can also detect certain persistent elements that allow for their imaginary reconstruction. Indeed, does the Venus of Milo not seduce precisely due to the absence of her arms? In his book, On the shoulders of giants, in the chapter On some imperfections in art, Umberto Eco debates those who restore such treasures of the ancient world as the Venus of Milo: “Undoubtedly”, the author writes, “Venus of Milo, mutilated throughout the centuries, lacks certain features. Many an imbecile has long attempted to render her perfect again, and I saw one such armed variant in a wax museum in California, bearing the inscription: “as she was when created by an anonymous sculptor”. However, why do I find the attempt to bring perfection to the Venus of Milo intrinsically idiotic? Because, when we admire her, we are fascinated by the attempt to imagine the whole that has been lost. But this sensation is adjoined by taste, summarised in the expression “an aesthetic of ruins” which first came to light in the 18th century”. Likewise, recordings or preserved fragments neither claim not imply the effort to dissimulate absences and to propose a complete vision. They are exploited as they are, archaeological vestiges that may, at best, be afforded some technical improvements.

We can claim the same of such reruns what has long been claimed of translations: “It cannot be done, yet it must be done!”; and that is why, today, owing to these theatrical insertions onto our screens, we have entered into the Babel Library of Spectacle! Into the thicket of reserves explored when we discover a small nugget of gold, or when revolted by a particularly disastrous performance! Just so, in translation! Both alternate “co-genial” successes and deplorable deteriorations! While Andrei Șerban enthusiastically viewed a rendition of Grüber’s Bacchantae in New York, I was turning off a Cherry Orchard directed by Peter Zadek in Vienna that was truly deplorably captured on film! A labyrinth of revelation and deception! We win, and we lose!

Archival research was accompanied by disillusion, for often the state of the recordings was either deplorable, or reduced to a series of disparate fragments, shards of a once-whole piece. Yet is that not the state of so many works of art that present themselves as fragments and, consequently, force us to seize upon the impact of the “fragment” as a symbolic and poetic remnant laden with meaning? That is, after all, the implicit lesson in all archaeology. And how could I not evoke the emotion of five minutes of an old television broadcast which allowed me to see Jean Vilar in his theatrical swansong? Alone, long aged… it was as if I had discovered a deteriorated icon, yet one which still possessed the gaze’s charm, the eyes’ noblesse… through such discoveries, theatre itself became an affiliate of the poetics of ruins.

The relationship to real spectacle certainly differs; but rebroadcasts do not always only imply a deficit. They also allow us access to a dimension often inaccessible from the theatre hall… we now hear what once we could not, see what we could not! A splendid close-up of Titus from Grüber’s Bérénice, or a whisper from Ludmila Mikaël. “The murmur is a cry that you cannot claim… it addresses you that you would listen…”, said Grüber himself! We can perceive the tragic physiognomy of Harpagon in Șerban’s Avar at the Comédie Française, or accede to the purity of Giulia Lazzarini as Ariel in The Tempest or to Ion Caramitru’s noblesse in Radu Penciulescu’s rendition of The Vicar! The benefit of looking closely! How could so much truth be born of fiction, I ask myself in awe! And then, frustration is converted to consolation! I discover the trembling eyelid and the voice in psalmody! Before the pandemic, none of us had access to this poetic proximity. To this theatre of the intimate!

Now, many are those who resign themselves to online theatre and to the glow of the screen… a compromise occasioned by this imposed universal house arrest! Theatre seen in the home, in one’s private space and sanitary refuge, was one alternative.


A reunion with ghosts

Consuming theatre on our screens allows us to once again meet those that have passed… Well-known actors, actor friends, actors that have long disappeared, rediscovered in the exercise of their craft… an endless game that extends, beyond mourning, into a form of definitive survival! Ilie Gheorghe as Faust, Virgil Flonda as Vladimir, Bruno Ganz as the Prince of Homburg… they have not died, but rather are present in front of us and, as in a superb novel by Bioy Casares, Morel’s Invention, they benefit from the double status of being both present and absent! Screen-bound incarnations and phantoms of the mind! Only these retrospective online visits can cause such effects! The spirits of the stage dance among us anew.

                Just as ghostly are some recorded performances that we, today, view from the perspective of death. Vlad Mugur’s testamentary Hamlet, or Harag’s Grove, Galileo Galilei – the last performance of Antoine Vitez – or Cosi fan tutte, Strehler’s swansong! The youth today may view them as defunct edifices, correctly reconstituted yet foreign; they, however, serve as a memorial album to the witness I often have been! Of the theatre-lover that I never ceased to be! Fragments of a thusly-revisited autobiography! An optimistic memento mori… and, serenely, I whisper to myself: not everything disappears!

Alfred de Musset once eulogised the “armchair theatre”, which, in travelling at the expense of real effort and difficulty, I had always repudiated. “Let me see theatre as it was meant!”, in the country I live in or elsewhere, among people, that was my creed! Today, on the contrary, I find myself “in an armchair” in which I travel the world and, nostalgically, visit this kingdom of shadows that excitedly drift across my screen. I am confronted with the indecision between what was and what, partially, still lives… However, I also await a miracle – that of the resurrection of theatre on stage, a theatre the frustration at whose absence the artificial iron lung of online performances can only attenuate! It has its merits, but also its flaws. It is a substitutional remedy, nothing more. A temporary balm. Antidepressant medication.


The condition of theatrical professionals

The art of the spectacle is, by nature, a collective art; and those that practice it distinguish themselves from solitary artists that are themself-sufficient. During the pandemic, this opposition was flagrantly exposed, requiring specific reactions depending on the field in question. Writers and philosophers authored interesting works or wrote down their memoirs, as they were imperatively cloistered in the private sphere and, implicitly, detached from social practices and societal functions, and thus able to fully dedicate themselves to their craft. On the contrary, stage directors felt the restrictions as direct sanctions that deeply affected them artistically and profoundly depressed them socially. No comparison, then, to the fecundity of the solitary by vocation.

Directors create in the context of a community whose forces mobilise them and fuel their creative expression. Spectacle is only ever done jointly, alongside actors and artistic collaborators; here, solitude is unproductive. Bereft of community, reduced to himself, the director is dispossessed of that collective energy – all the more since, for a few decades, he has also ceased exerting his attributions in the vein of an authoritarian despot. He is artistically dispossessed. And therefore, in seeing my director friends, I understood their attempts to undertake a temporary vocational transition: Andrei Șerban began collaborating to Liternet on a regular basis, publishing texts which evoke events and people he had met throughout his career; Silviu Purcărete rediscovered his youthful passion in drawing; Mihai Măniuțiu wrote verses of exceptional quality, and an admirable novel… all of them, exercises in consolation against a backdrop of frustration. Gabor Tompa continued to direct, but also took refuge in poetry. Yet, above all, the pandemic has revealed their specificity to all: their fulfilment in the cooperation with others. One unexpected solution proved tempting, and its relevance confirmed, in spite of prior misgivings and the difficulties it brought on: that of directing remotely, via Zoom. Communication at a distance, technological dialogue and artistic wager – that is what this exercise implies. It has allowed for several exceptional performances, such as The Drover and Death directed by Silviu Purcărete at the National Theatre in Iași, Strauss’ Elektra staged by Krysztof Warlikowski, and many others. The director has rediscovered his partners, albeit virtually; and, thus, became fulfiled again. Transitional vocations were succeeded by the tempered exercise of original advocacy.

In turn, actors too perceived the pandemic as a sanction that radically affected them. They were deprived both of participating in the construction of a group creation, and of the pleasure of exposing themselves in front of an audience demanding and exciting in equal measure. In Bucharest, Ion Caramitru confided: “Do I ever miss the hard floors of the stage!”; in Paris, the former director of the Comédie Française, my friend Marcel Bozonnet, confirmed the same sentiment of the frustrated actor, “denied the wooden threshold of the stage”. Theatre people, more intensely than other artists, were severely sanctioned by sanitary restrictions in the very exercise of their chosen art.

We can, however, also note the other – this time, beneficial – side of the coin: namely the (at times, in fairness, excessive) slowdown of the staging process adopted by the most reputable directors of the European stage. Before the pandemic, without affording themselves the time which, initially, had been one of the luxuries of artistic theatre, they neurotically globetrotted from one country to the next, from classic works to modern plays, ever shortening the preparation and rehearsal period. All of a sudden, they had to curtail this frantic alienation and to turn inward to themselves. To question themselves, and to prepare. To rehearse slowly, sometimes taking advantage of inner – even dissident – strategies, and in so doing to reestablish the near-forgotten value of languor taken as a regime for stage production.

I undertook a series of interviews with emblematic figures both from Romania and abroad for the Sibiu international theatre festival. Exceptional dialogues! Their quality is, indisputably, a side effect of their seclusion, their resurgence and their temporary mobility. Sedentary and solitary, in the context of a grave stagnation of theatrical production, their rebuilt their reserves and reconsidered their condition. At least in passing… and, consequently, post-pandemic productions have most often been memorable successes.

One sole artist destroyed by the pandemic – Pippo Delbono! And this, perhaps, because he was the artist most attentive to not only the art of his collaborators, but also to their personal evolution and growth. Bereft of these, he darkened – and, in seeing him, I grieved.


A public lost and found

A well-known assertion states that theatre is the art of the present! And, I might add, of the presence! A presence shared, for better or worse, for we should not exaggerate mythologically: how often did we long to leave a theatre hall, to escape a disastrous performance… yet how often were we enthralled by the intimacy with the public, and with our relationship to this effervescent assembly! It is not synonymous with the amorphous flow of visitors to an exhibition, nor with the chaotic environs of a rock cocnert. On the contrary, it presents itself as an organized ensemble that preserves the right to individual identity in the context of a structured community. For this reason, the satisfaction comes at once from acts of self-recognition and from the association with our partners in the hall. “Alone amongst the others” - that is the condition of the theatre-goer.

                The pandemic has wrought many a solitude. Our screens have rendered those theatre-lovers that also frequent it for the pleasure of belonging to a group whose tension is contagious, whose attention directly consolidates unity, much lonelier. This parthenogenesis – hall / stage – intrinsic to the theatrical act has endured the most drastic of interdictions; and more often than not this, rather than anything else, was longed for. Sat before a screen, the spectator is as alone as the reader is in front of a book. The pertinence of perception is not affected – on the contrary; but in watching our screens we are left without our community spirit. We also attend theatre because we like people… and the pandemic has severely affected this collective relationship. Each of us could become a solitary spectator in watching broadcast plays which, however, did not belong to any distinguishable audience, left without the capacity to forge an immediate relationship with one’s neighbour or with the actors on stage. This reminds me of the answer of one actress who starred in both cinema and theatre and who, called on to  declare her preference, answered thusly: “In cinema you send letters, in theatre, you blow kisses. Sometimes, I tire of correspondence, and want to kiss.”. Our screens have served as “letters” received from another place, another time, but we dearly awaited the kiss of theatre. And for that reason, once we were all able to feel it anew, we all rejoiced.

The resumption of theatrical activity has been surprising owing to one significant symptom: the public’s enthusiasm. This surpasses any previous reactions: the applause is thunderous, the ovations prolonged since here, beyond the spectacle itself, the spectators also celebrate their shared rediscovery while the public as a whole salutes its resurrection. Theatre is fulfilled in no small part owing to this phenomenon.


The ambivalence of Janus

The pandemic has sanctioned the creators and consumers of theatre, but it has also revealed forgotten or previously-dismissed resources; it has reignited the despised memory of the stage and capitalised upon it as a mnemonic storage of ignored resources. An exemplary legacy, whose value shone through in the context of restrictions applied to an art as communal as theatre. The pandemic has given us time, forcing us to remain indoors and explore the devalued thesaurus of theatre, to piece together old adventures, to find ourselves once again. For a time, the “within” had tempered the excesses of travel, of circulation, of sociability. A difficult experience yet, for some, a source of renewal, and not solely of frustration.

The pandemic stalled theatrical production across the globe, but it has also occasioned the invention of unforeseen responses and solutions unimaginable in any other circumstances. Today, we can speak of a “digital stage” and a “vital stage” as complementary facets of the greater whole. Plays once thought inaccessible can well be discovered at the far ends of the earth, while a solidarity that transcends all borders has become the norm. The new generations, of artists and spectators alike, can now benefit from the entire world’s stage, without also sacrificing the satisfaction of being present, here and now, inside a theatre hall, in a reunion of spectators and actors. Indeed, the empty stalls we saw during the worst of the pandemic well highlighted the principal importance of the public.

Today, still subjected to certain restrictions, theatre has restored its specific protocol, while also mobilising actors and audience in the name of the dialogue which forms its essential core. The resurgence of the virus raises troubling uncertainties: if a temporary pandemic can give rise to redoubled and shared efforts, a chronic pandemic only terrifies and depresses. It forbids our perspectives, and darkens our future. The virus’ temporal indeterminacy and its recurrent revival, depress. In this context, ambivalence then disappears and we, depressed, enter the long cycle of discouragement.

In his Notebooks, Cioran wrote: “There is a famous phrase by Pascal who, in answering his sister’s reproach that he took no care of himself, stated: “You only say that for you know not the unpleasantness of health and the advantages of disease”. In a book by Sestov, I first discovered tis phrase, which left an indelible mark on me. I remember being ready to scream. I was seventeen at the time… Any disease is also an initiation”. COVID-19, in turn, was one.

This ambivalence of the disease constitutes an unforeseen element with dual consequences that are well worth evaluating and examining further. Janus bifrons.

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