XXX, Virtuosity, and the Abject
Copyright © Signy Henderson 2003.
(No part of this text may be reproduced without the written permission of the author.)
This material was presented live at the Virtuosity and Performance Mastery symposium for postgraduate/research degree students and academic staff over two days by Performing Arts at Middlesex University on 31st May and 1st June 2003.
Many of you will have seen La Fura dels Baus in XXX at the Riverside Studios a few weeks ago; many more of you, indeed I would think virtually all of you, will have heard or read or otherwise encountered at least some of the pre-publicity and journalistic comment about the show. I haven't yet met anyone among my acquaintance who hadn't heard something about the show, which makes it as widely trailed as the new Matrix movie. Not bad for an avant-garde live performance group from Spain appearing in one of London's established Fringe venues. We could wish that all small-scale, innovative, international theatre could attract such wide-ranging attention.
My current research project is a study of graphic representations of rape on stage, hence my initial interest in XXX. At the outset I want to say that in the course of working on and thinking about this project I have fallen into the habit of talking about rape and sexual assault in a worryingly casual way. It's easy for me to become so used to the language with which I approach the issues that I seem to treat it glibly or dismissively. I never forget - or at least I hope I never do - that rape is something that happens to real people in real life and is not ironic or abstract or comfortably theoretical. If the language I use makes it sound as though I have forgotten this, I apologise in advance and reassure you that I haven't.
My research project is looking at graphic representations of rape on stage (the liveness of performers and audience is crucial) and the broad questions of why and how these stagings are executed. I want to find out what happens between performance/performer - I'll come on to that slash mark in a minute - and spectator when the audience watches a graphic enactment or representation of sexual violence.
Why do this? Is it putting the spectator through some form of assault (thinking of Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty)? Is it part of a socially controlling strategy through which the fear of rape is promulgated in order to restrict the sense of freedom of potential victims (usually women and girls)? Is it making the spectator complicit in the crime committed by the onstage perpetrator of violence? Does it make voyeurs of us, and if it does, how are we as spectators expected to respond to being cast in that role?
So XXX looked like a dream come true for me. Graphic representation by live performers in the presence of a live audience of rape and other sexual violence, replete with warnings. First I got a flyer from Riverside Studios advertising the show with very little detail, except to say that it was based on a Marquis de Sade story and NOT repeat NOT for the easily shocked or those under 18. Then I saw a newspaper article reporting that the Metropolitan Police had licensed the show for performance. At this point I began to feel a tiny bit worried - knowing the relevant legislation, I surmised that there was no chance of the sex on stage being real, merely simulated (or it wouldn't have got the licence). (Not, of course, that I wanted to see a live sex show - one can go elsewhere for that - but because issues around virtuosity and the relationship between performance and audience were already compromised. If the Metropolitan Police thought it was okay, how risky could it be? And how was it going to live up to its hype?) So my expectations were of a fictional story, represented theatrically and employing simulations of sex and violence.
Rumours started flying about: of spectators being dragged up on stage to participate, of a website where you could post a fantasy with the chance of being selected to have it acted out for you on the night you attend. Now I had another set of expectations, difficult to reconcile with the first - that the show would be interactive, would involve the participation of the audience or of plants in the audience, that it would therefore not be wholly fictional or simulated, and certainly not subject to the usual degree of 'foreknowability' we expect in the theatre.
Arriving at the performance, the effects of the hype were clear: the audience was a mix of the usual earnest Riverside types (like me), who faithfully turn out for odd performances which challenge the mainstream; a fairly obvious contingent of people into alternative lifestyles and with what I can only describe as exhibitionist tendencies; and a third group of spectators, typified by a group behind me, who seldom went to the theatre and never to the Riverside but had been drawn to what they thought was to be a titillating live-sex show. It became obvious that none of us could be there without expectations of one kind or another, and those expectations were very much in evidence.
Those expectations must cause huge problems for the show. In terms of virtuosity it gives the performers something impossible to live up to - we have all had the experience of seeing a hyped show and coming away disappointed and then seeing a very similar show about which we had few or no expectations, and enjoying it much more. In this case the hype related very specifically to the display the performers would be making of themselves in intimate and potentially degrading ways. For someone like me viewing the production professionally, the hype merely exaggerates the ever-present problem that I watch analytically and inquiringly and may therefore be too detached and too aware both of myself and of the methods the production is using to be susceptible to the emotional and visceral effect of it. What do the performances have to achieve, in terms of virtosity, to "work" in such a difficult situation?
Additionally, if people don't get what they think they are paying for, they quickly become hostile. The guys behind me, who'd come along for "something hot", quickly became bored and disruptive when the material wasn't what they'd expected.
Everything about the production's pre-publicity, from its leaflets to the procedure for booking a ticket (was I over 18? Was I aware of the content? What did I know about the show, and from what sources?), acted to warn us that the experience would - indeed, intended to - confront taboos and inhibitions and show us images of things our social conditioning tells us to turn away from. So those who are readily shocked or not ready to confront taboos will stay away; the audience has self-selected from those who believe themselves analytically detached, and those who hope that the production will shock them although they consider themselves unshockable. Either way, it's a huge challenge.
What the production is offering, then, is an experience of abjection, a chance to observe the body made abject in the course of the story of a very young woman - 18 or younger - who comes to a job interview and is tortured, raped, and assaulted before managing to escape. She voluntarily returns, however, to learn more about the world of desire and the narrative continues, displaying the "education" she receives from the trio of libertines who have lured her in.
There's a problem here in terms of abjection, at least if it's the audience which is to experience the abject. As Kristeva expresses it, the abject surfaces, exists, in the process of our being confronted with the taboo (in the religious form of abjection) or the defiled (in the more secular sense of the term). To summarise Kristeva's position very briefly: we are born into an order she calls "semiotic" in which libidinal desire is expressed freely and identity - subjectivity - is experienced and held entirely through sensation. As we grow up we are inducted into the symbolic order, where we can use language and our identity is socialised.
This process of socialisation allows us to develop a stable (more or less) identity in relation to the world, to become a subject which understands itself as such (and can therefore relate to other things in the world as objects). Part of the process involves establishing the boundaries of the body as the incorporation of the subject-self; and rejecting as unclean those bodily functions and desires that are anti-social. It's a very similar idea to Freud's repression, with the difference I think that Kristeva sees the repressed material - the acknowledgement and desire for the corporeality of the body - as permanently, problematically but also constructively present for the socialised, speaking subject. To confront (or be forced to give in to) the abject - that which is disgusting, or shameful, or harmful, and above all, not contained safely in the symbolic order - is to hover on the border between subject and object, to confront the possible collapse of the carefully constructed social self. Kristeva writes,
A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does not signify death. In the presence of signified death - a flat encephalograph, for instance - I would understand, react, or accept. No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit, are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being … If dung signifies the other side of the border, the place where I am not and which permits me to be, the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything.' (Kristeva, J, Powers of Horror: An essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez Columbia UP, 1982)
To return to XXX, I am intrigued by Kristeva's reference to "the true theater". She describes it as being without masks or makeup. By this does she then mean, without artifice, without self-conscious recourse to simulation and representation? Here the crux of my problem with XXX becomes clearer. All the hype, all the pre-publicity, all the rumours, suggested an oxymoron: a simulation of the abject, images of abjection which we could safely contain within the symbolic order knowing them to be fictional, disembodied, not real but manufactured. Thus the self-knowingness of it, shared between performers, performance, and audience, defeats the project of rendering the abject.
What, then, were we witnessing, if not the real abjection I thought we were to be offered? The most interesting part of the show for me turned out to be the relationship between the performers and the audience in the passages of interaction which interrupted the narrative. The performers seemed to me to be real-ly angry, hostile, and dismissive in their dealings with the audience. Were they still in character, as Dominatrix and sexually predatory porno movie director? If they were in character, why were they talking to us, and referring specifically to being in London (albeit in Spanish)? Why were they talking to, indeed giving instructions to, the stage manager running the show? If not in character, why were they being so mean? Was the guy they got up on stage a plant? If he was, why bother doing audience interaction at all? If he wasn't, how would they handle the unpredictability of what might happen when they offered him fellatio?
One of the surprising features of the show - and here I come back around to the slash mark in performance/performer - was the show's reliance on pre-recorded material. This was a necessity in view of laws about live sex on stage in this country (I don't know whether the same happened in other countries, but my guess on the basis of very limited available material is that it did). All the actual sex - anal, oral, vaginal, -- shown was recorded and projected. This left the live performers with a secondary function - they couldn't or wouldn't or weren't allowed to do it for real and so rather than leave the real sex out, the producers/directors sidelined the performers to include images of the material non-live.
This had the effect of devaluing the simulations the performers could enact, as clearly a cop-out, second-best, rather pointless. And the forays into the audience to make the show interactive only made this effect worse. They disrupted the theatricality of the event - the core story of the girl's initiation - and thus wiped out the chance for the performers to offer sustained, virtuosic performances in character. It was telling that, at least on the night I saw the show, the performer playing the innocent girl did not appear during the interactive sections; was this in order to sustain the illusion of her character, allowing her the only "straight" performance within the conventional symbolic order of the production?
The biggest audience reaction the evening I saw the show was to a series of web images - the live operator projected a fantasy/fetish website up on to the screen and clicked on various samples of what the full site offered. The audience groaned -- in disbelief, or disgust, or admiration, or something - at a videoclip of a woman being penetrated by a pony. This was abjection - witnessing as a public spectacle (having paid for the dubious privilege) a really bestial, degrading act - and in the context of the show it was hard to know how to respond to it. There was no indication of her enjoying the experience, nothing to say it was her choice or for her pleasure or even with her consent. There was, further, no way of knowing who had filmed it, when or why. For all we knew, we were watching a genuine act of sexual assault. Was it the woman, or the audience, or both, who were abjected?
With the production's shifting between illusion and reality-TV techniques, the juxtaposition of simulated sex, degradation and violence with recorded images of real sex, degradation and violence, the production gave the performers the most thankless task I can imagine. The performers were set up in a situation, arguably by the director, where, no matter how brilliant the performances, they couldn't give the audience what it wanted; their work was bound to be irrelevant or disappointing or a side-dish, not the main course. They reacted with hostility and the audience responded dismissively. I felt embarrassed for them and this, I think, is the key to the nature of the abjection in XXX.
I insisted earlier on making a distinction between the production and the performers. Is it the evident and self-referential artifice of the live material - contrasted with the realness of the recorded material evidently considered necessary by the show's directors -- that's the problem, so that we cannot suspend disbelief? We know that it's all simulated and we know, crucially, that they know that we must know that it is simulated. Does what I have described as the hostility of the performers result partly because they cannot pretend to themselves, or to us, that they are fooling us? They know that we see straight through the pretence - in other words, the production has not trusted their artistry enough, has not given sufficient scope for them to display their virtuosity as performers, to establish a stable connection to the audience that the performers can have some control over. Remember that the non-abject body in Kristeva's formulation is the body controlled by the subject, the body contained by the symbolic order of language and social, subject-object relations.
In this case it is the production that humiliates the performers, removes their artistic subject status from them. People who have been sexually assaulted often report that the worst aspect of the assault is not the physical pain or the medical consequences of the act, but the fact that in being assaulted they have no power, no control, no agency, not even the right to say no or to leave; that they have become the object to another subject instead of remaining stable subjects themselves. The invasion of the most intimate parts of the body, transgressing our taboos about the integrity of the embodied self, magnifies the effect. For the performers in XXX, their bodies and talents and bravery are used as part of a spectacle which requires them to break taboos and to confront the abjection of themselves; but it places them in second place to a set of recorded images with which they are not allowed to compete. In the conventional theatre of representational fictions (into which category the scenes adapted from the Marquis de Sade clearly fall), the performer's art lies in his or her ability to use performance skills - virtuosity - to allow the spectator to enter the world of the play (this need not be total suspension of disbelief, but is about fascinating and engaging us as spectators so that we are compelled to keep watching). Is this a contemporary Theatre of Cruelty, with the performers as the victims? Do they know that they are the victims, and if not, is their degradation and humiliation more, or less, extreme? What does that make the spectator, then, as we accept this contract with the production behind the backs - over the heads - of the live performers on stage? Like the woman penetrated by the pony, we watch as complicit perpetrators, reducing subjects to objects or, perhaps, to ab-jects and in confronting their abjection, sensing the limits of our own "clean and proper" subjectivity.
Signy Henderson is Principal Lecturer in Drama at Middlesex University. Her teaching and research interests are in Renaissance and Contemporary theatre, with particular interests in theory and history and their application in production work. Her current research project examines graphic depictions of sexual violence in the British theatre since 1960.
Web design copyright © John Robinson, 2004.
Page last updated 30th August 2004.