Main Page / Bez kategorii / Scenes from the life of language. An essay on the language of theatrical art
Scenes from the life of language. An essay on the language of theatrical art

Today we are publishing an essay by Zbigniew Kadłubek entitled “Scenes from the life of language” about the language of theater art.

I leave Bach with the harpsichord.
I go to the window.

Miron Białoszewski

Cesare Pavese was one of those few quiet and unassuming observers of theatrical art (as Antoine-François Riccoboni had been two hundred years before, for example) who realised that drama is one of those media, or domains of art, capable of imitating, altering, substituting, recoding and ultimately completely deceiving any language and hiding the most terrible things from people: “[…] the whole world of the sacred and divine contains abyssal bottoms, and so a veil must be cast on them.”

The role of theatre is to cover up hell. To shout it out, to blow the trumpets and play auloses, which sound primitive and frightening; to play as loud as possible for the moans and groans from hell to reach no mortal. The best veil for the abyssal bottom of reality is a theatrical curtain, with all kinds of artistic languages of theatre being little curtains. Analyzing various opinions about language that Friedrich von Humboldt wrote down in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a Russian philosopher and psychologist Gustav Shpet offered in his work Inner Form of the Word the following commentary on language scholarship: “If language were used only for the purposes of everyday life, it would not be marked by such a great variety in how one expresses their inner feelings, personal views and moods, manifoldly transcending the function and meaning of a given word.”

Stuttering, having slips of the tongue, farting loudly, shouting, aping the crowd around, flinging derisive remarks and taunts at each other, showing genitals to each other and patting each other’s buttocks, διθύραμβος was parading the streets of Athens. Nothing was uglier and in greater disarray than this phenomenon known as the Dionysus entourage. Haphazardly plucked dark green ivy was mixed with twigs of vine. There was a hint of Aurora lights and shimmering transcendence, and one could take it for a pre-dawn of the world. Luminosa alba della trascendenza. Someone came to believe they would end the world, or that the human element had been once again overtaken by the incomprehensible gibberish, meaning the human-animal was just emerging anew and was coping ever more boldly inside and outside the urban walls. Theatre does not need words. It needs dancing, farting, twisted faces, singing, screaming, wine trickling down the thighs, cum in the hair, auloses, uneven gait rather than a march. Indeed: “[…] let there be a dance school / tour de balance!”.

Even then, as they were walking tipsy early in the morning, they must have looked bewildering, and yet everyone would be happy to join that savagery and abandon the tools of trade and morality, clad in masks to remain anonymous and untamed forever.

A mask also means a change in the language of the street, a new dialect nobody can comprehend yet. Individual syllables point to something, but it is not clear what. The mask is thus a language, yet not a way to stick words together. The face, machinery or the podium for the linguistic preparation of speech, must contort and lie so as not to bring a sliver of truth to the stage of life. “The mask, argued Rev. Józef Tischner, refers to others; those who use them view masks as an outcome of alienation. In fact, it shows a lowered sense of self-responsibility, it is the work of those who have not taken responsibility for themselves.” The devil, that awful pig, loves masks and all masking strategies; that is why they feel both best and worst in theatre. Devil’s language is taken away from him and is given his ever different technologies of mystification, which he is yet to learn and is therefore always clumsy in the beginning. Devil interferes with actresses’ and actors’ metre as they deliver their lines, and actors’ jaws crack under the onslaught of the devil’s mumbling.

Nevertheless, the director does not let the stage-hopping devils win. Bacchantes ultimately tear nobody apart, and chefs serve the roast meat only after the show. One shall understand, however, that the debacle of theatrical language, foreshadowed by a diabolical syllable every now and then, is always round the corner. For Antigone with a word of negotiation is not guaranteed to come: ”But my nature is to love. I cannot hate.” Oh, that sorrowful Antigone again! And the nice charmer Sophocles!

Euripides, however, was always just the one who ruined everything in theatre, and so were Ibsen and Brecht. Euripides was very lucky to have been defended, in our time rather than in ancient Athens, as he had to flee in a hurry to Macedonia, by Jacqueline de Romilly, who once said that: “In fact, Euripides’ theatre lives in the rhythm of surprise.” The following passage from Euripides’ Orestes proves that zombies entered the stage freely as early as the Greek theatre and were hard to control primarily because they spoke a language unknown to human beings. It is verse 390, where we are no longer dealing with a human being but some kind of disembodied zombie, i.e. without speech organs, having a transformed unreal body with non-biological functions, a body that uses a non-human language:

τὸ σῶμα φροῦδον: τὸ δ᾽ ὄνομ᾽ οὐ λέλοιπέ μοι.
The body has flown away – my name remains.

However, Euripides probably does not take the question of madness as a kind of altered speech seriously. This will only be done on a grand scale by Shakespeare in Hamlet.

Shakespeare would psychopathically mount an attack with a medical diagnosis of Gertrude, Queen of Denmark. He did so, indeed:

This is the very coinage of your brain.
This bodiless creation ecstasy
Is very cunning in.

My pulse as yours doth temperately keep time,
And makes as healthful music. It is not madness
That I have utter’d. Bring me to the test,
And I the matter will re-word; which madness
Would gambol from. Mother, for love of grace,
Lay not that flattering unction to your soul
That not your trespass, but my madness speaks.
It will but skin and film the ulcerous place,
Whilst rank corruption, mining all within,
Infects unseen. Confess yourself to heaven,

Shakespeare would have done the right thing by combining the role of the shaman and the medicine man in theatre (each parodying joyfully and sadly at the same time their partner or rival for human health). It is a sheer fact that the language of a doctor is way different from that of a non-pharmaceutical citizen. The haematologist wishes that no one should understand them; so does Shakespeare. Indeed, Shakespeare would have been very happy to handle the question of theatre as a medical clinic, a highly specialized one, or a place where rituals provide healing. Let’s take a look at the following claim: “There is no theoretical problem in having a play representing a ritual, in theatrical form, while also reflecting a parodic intent.” Rituality aligns with the endevour to mimic a language; it is pure mediality; the capturing of foreign languages, musical notes, sounds, peculiarly feigning similarity with some ‘impossible’ original (a source without a source). This is the fundamental feature of theatre: mimicking a language for it to sound somehow more original; the more savage, the better; the more aboriginal, the healthier.

Since we have summoned Shakespeare and Hamlet, it is worth recalling the most important sentence about the tragedy of the English playwright ever made. The sentence aptly captures the essence of transformations of the language of theatre and theatre itself as an element that changes language as it takes theatre’s speech away. Ludwig Börne (1986-1837), who devoted a great deal of his writing to Shakespeare and would make brilliant comments about Hamlet, noted down two excerpts (I am just quoting them):

Shakespeare ist König, nicht utnertan der Regel.
Hamlet ist ein Todesphilosph, ein Nachtgelehrter.

The first sentence confirms my assumption that Shakespeare didn’t have to abide by any rules…, including the rules of language. He was the king of grammar and the emperor-lexicographer and had never had to bow to any phrase in his poetry. The second sentence refers to Hamlet as a death philosopher, one that voices their views in a different setting, a nighttime environment, in dim light, when everything goes quiet and the language sounds different. Not only is Hamlet a death philosopher, but also ‘a scholar of the night’. Hence his powers mentioned by Börne.

You might be fed up with English now, so let’s take a walk with the captain and listen to what he has to say.

“This is I
That is you
This is my nose
That is your nose…

But one cannot incessantly learn English, so the captain lets two of his old Viennese friends take him by the hand.”

Concluding and eventually escaping the stage manager lurking behind the curtain, I am inclined to presume that one of the captain’s friends might be Thomas Bernhard, the greatest ventriloquist, who enacts a language that creates itself in theatre. There is no indication that Bernhard thought of himself as a user of Viennese German. Even if I knew it, I would keep this knowledge secret.

Zbigniew Kadłubek
Professor of the University of Silesia,
Director of the Silesian Library, comparatist,
columnist and writer

Kategoria: Bez kategorii

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