We suffer for their art: Avant-garde theatre can be cruel to audiences, but it's also irresistible
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 6 May 2003)

As we sat in the audience that Saturday night in April the humidity made us sweat and the hard wooden benches, resembling Methodist pews, tortured our spines. Our necks strained to take in the mostly meaningless events happening around us while an inadequate sound system played inadequate music. We weren't happy, but we comforted ourselves with the thought that we were doing our duty. It was an avant-garde event, and we were there to suffer, as usual.

We had paid our money, either $60 or $45 a head, to witness yet another moment in the history of creative theatre, this one a little more outlandish than most, a water-opera staged in a swimming pool at the University of Toronto.

Does that sound irredeemably crazy to you? You're probably right, but try to understand that a certain madness overwhelms people like me, people who consider themselves relatively sane, when we hear of something so eccentric. A nanosecond after reading about Thom Sokoloski's Kafka in Love, the story of a brief affair Franz Kafka had at a spa in 1913, I knew I had to see it. What sold me was precisely what would deter anyone with an iota of common sense: Sokoloski was telling the story through a silent film he had made, some music (bits of Shostakovitch, mystic Sephardic chants, etc.), a monologue -- and synchronized swimmers.

It seems likely that no one has ever before constructed a synchronized-swimming performance around an incident in the life of a major author. Perhaps it should have occurred to Sokoloski that there was a reason for this. Perhaps it should have occurred to me and other ticket buyers. But that kind of timid analytical thinking would stop avant-garde theatre -- in fact, avant-garde anything -- dead in its tracks.

Certainly it would have prevented La Bibliotheque, which, like Kafka in Love, was part of Toronto's recent World Stage festival. La Bibliotheque was a reminder that all theatre is potentially the theatre of cruelty and that it's probably regrettable that audience abuse has not yet been included in the Criminal Code of Canada.

The director, Gilles Maheu, of Carbone 14, the Montreal company, set out to make a theatre piece around the meaning of libraries. Carbone 14 gave this project a huge set dominated by ladders that reached up to the ceiling, bookcases that were endlessly pushed around the stage, and a lighting scheme that frequently left us in near total darkness.

The script consisted of emphatic readings in French from the most obvious and familiar writings of Marguerite Duras, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Albert Camus and Elias Canetti. Action was also required, so the performers illustrated the point that books can contain evil as well as good. They clambered furiously up and down the ladders, threw books and loose pages around the stage, and eventually hanged one actor. At no point did they do anything of more than fleeting interest. All we took home with us was the satisfaction of having endured an hour's pain in the name of culture.

People who insist on attending performances like these are cursed by excess curiosity and misguided hope. Once I spent an evening watching two major figures of the 20th-century avant-garde, Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, sit on the stage of a Toronto theatre playing chess, their chess board linked to a sound system that produced electronic music in response to their moves. (It sounded, of course, like all other electronic music, only slower.) Once I watched a company perform Dionysus 69, a nude adaptation of Euripides; the evening's only amusement resulted from the comments of female spectators on the sexual equipment of the male actors. Once I saw a theatre company reinterpret Hamlet by sexually reassigning the parts, with an extra wrinkle. They not only made Ophelia male, they had three men shouting her speeches at the top of their lungs. Hamlet was played by several people, sharing his lines among them. Everyone was deeply earnest.

Paul Valery, the French poet, witnessing a purportedly trail-blazing performance some decades ago, remarked, "Everything changes but the avant-garde." For 500 years the military term "avant-garde" meant the first soldiers into the fight; it moved into cultural discussion early in the 20th century. Today, of course, it's tired, and most of the audience-assaulting conventions the world once considered audacious are battle-weary. But the impulse retains a serious purpose, no matter how many charlatans attach themselves to it.

My first 15 years of watching video art left me convinced that it was going nowhere, but in recent years highly talented video artists have proven me wrong. One, Shirin Neshat, an Iranian-born American, has found a place among the major living artists.

For a while, the avant-garde conquered even jazz, making many performances close to unbearable. John Coltrane, a great saxophone improviser on his best days, unfortunately encouraged the jazz avant-garde's emphasis on endless unstructured solos. It started when he played in Miles Davis's band. During one concert Coltrane's solo lasted so long that Davis left the building, walked around the block, had a cigarette, came back in, and stood in the wings, brooding. Coltrane, finally finished, said, "Miles, I'm sorry. Sometimes I get into a thing and I don't know how to end it." Davis said, "Try taking the saxophone out of your mouth." Jazz finally recovered. But not theatre.

Those who follow avant-garde performances, despite the pain, eventually learn three key rules:

1) You must accept that the performers will enjoy the occasion more than the audience; after all, they know what it's about, or think they do.

2) At the end, no matter how bad it is, you must never boo. In Paris in 1913 they booed Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, setting off a small riot. Ever since, avant-garde artists have considered booing the moral equivalent of a standing ovation. It only encourages them.

3) Lying is essential. You must always tell friends who failed to attend that they missed a great cultural experience. While Kafka in Love was being performed, two friends of mine were in Paris with nothing to do but go to museums, the opera, and exquisite restaurants. When they returned I told them that they had once again failed to be present at a great event, when revolutionary, world-shaking concepts were generated.

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