Theater as Plague

Radovan Ivšić and the Theater of the Weird

Radovan Ivsic 1

“The plague takes slumbering images and latent disorder, and suddenly propels them into the most extreme movements. The theater, too, takes gestures and drives them to an extreme; like the plague, it reforges the chain between what is and what is not, between the virtuality of the possible and what has been materialized in nature…” ~ Radovan Ivšić, A Tout Rompre

Like its counterpart in fiction, the theater of the weird exists on the margins of mainstream culture, where its deadly accuracy when targeting the shibboleths of the cultural consensus can be safely muffled before its subversive potency does any visible damage. Although Antonin Artaud, Alfred Jarry, and Raymond Roussel are the best- recognized creators in this domain, its roots go deep, and this tenacious theater would include works by such little known malcontents as the mocking blasphemer, Oscar Panizza, the “drunken Shakespeare” Christian Dietrich Grabbe, and their heirs in Dada and Surrealism. Although unjustifiably overlooked outside of Europe, the theater of Radovan Ivšić holds its own with the best of his peers in this domain.

In Radovan Ivšić we have one of the great rebels, one of les grands insoumis, of the last century. It is indicative of his refusal to compromise the ideals of his youth and make humiliating concessions to power that both the fascist and communist governments of his native Croatia banned his poetic and theatrical work with equal alacrity.

© Petar Dabac

© Petar Dabac

Born in Zagreb, the capital city of Croatia in 1921, Radovan Ivšić discovered the works of Rimbaud, Lautréamont, and Mallarmé as well as the publications of both the French and Yugoslav surrealists as a teenager, at a time when the clouds of war were gathering over Europe. He describes the atmosphere of that time as dazzlingly effervescent, but charged with shadows cast by the obscure presentiment of the looming debacle. Reason had foundered, and the radical prescriptions offered by these works seemed to be the only legitimate recourse to the growing threat of both physical and psychological violence.

It was during this time that he arrived at the realization that his vision of a poetry inseparable from life could best be embodied in the theater:

While poetry continued in my eyes to show proof of the mind’s non-submission to the force of things, I then discovered that poetry also involved the body, space, colors, shapes, and nature—in other words, that poetry is essentially and concretely connected to the fate of human freedom.

For Ivšić, theatrical space offers the ideal spot for opening that space within the spectator that allows experience of individual singularity not as a rupture, but as a vitally essential difference that makes it possible for the world to breathe. He saw the play as the result of a dark conspiracy between the world and the individual, who intentionally withdraws from this relationship in order to return by means of the Trojan horse of fiction. In his theatrical work, he strove “to open a space analogous to that of Greek tragedy, born from the exchange between the individual voice and the collective voice, inside of which individuals can be encouraged to see themselves in the violence of what connects them and what keeps them apart from the group and the world.”

His first play, Airia, already demonstrates the radically free use of language that would characterize all his plays. Ivšić recalled its genesis was inspired by the performance of a Strindberg play whose cries and convulsions he found overwhelming, combined with his innate sovereign indifference to what was passed off as reality. The primordial significance of love as a transformative agent but one supersensitive to oppression also sketches its first appearance here.

His radical use of language is characterized by a subversion of everyday syntax and the use of parallel monologues that favor evocation over description. This creates conversation in which the sense of each character’s identity is reduced rather than reinforced over the course of the play. In Airia, this erosion of identity is exemplified in the name of one character, a woman only known as !?… Yet paradoxically, as the characters’ identity is worn away like this, the space needed to reveal what makes them truly singular is allowed appear.

Crilice: It would be easier for me if you had a name.

!?…: But that’s impossible.

Crilice: Without your name, it feels like I keep losing you.

!?…: I am more naked this way. And if I abandon your embrace one day, I will not leave you with an empty name.

Étienne-Alain Hubert has observed that the stripped-down syntax characteristic of Radovan Ivšić’s poetry makes each word appear as if encased in a void, therefore granting each of them their maximum power to radiate. Brought to the forefront of the stage, Ivšić uses it to create the “corporeal writing” prescribed by Mallarmé. By providing a space for this corporeal writing, Ivšić felt the theater could offer poetry a vehicle that could open wide the horizons, but only on the condition that it rejected blind allegiance to the realist influence prevailing in contemporary theater in favor of a dream-lit veracity.

Eschewing conventional dialogues and stereotypes allowed him to imagine a space free of this realist or baroque gravity of language, gestures, and décor. Only by clearing the stage of these set pieces was it possible for his vision of an alchemical meeting of body and idea to materialize, essential for this kind of corporeal writing. The primal power of Greek theater, exemplified in the chorus, gave him the weapon he needed “to strike the world in its heart.” Radovan Ivšić stressed that the greatness of Greek tragedy lies in that crucial moment “when the individual emerges from the choir, when the speech of the individual begins to distinguish itself from the collective speech.”

Restoring this chorus was the impetus for the writing of Narcissus, which Ivšić viewed as a complement to Airia: “if Airia was the space, Narcissus was the heartbeat that supplied that space with life.” The choral recitation was entirely built around the different qualities of the voices involved, so that while the group was captured as the echo of the individual voice, the individual voice in turn returned as an echo of the group. He described this as being not only a poetic problem but a significantly political one. As a prime example, Ivšić points to the choirs of totalitarian societies in which the individual voice is annihilated by the monotonous chanting of the group in praise of their dictator.

Narcissus was performed twice clandestinely before being banned by the fascist dictatorship that had taken power in Croatia and collaborated actively with the Nazis. The limited edition of 100 copies, which he printed privately in 1942, was not only seized by the government as “degenerate art,” but rumors circulated through Zagreb that the poem had personally put the dictator Pavelic beside himself with rage. Allegedly his response on reading it was to bemoan the depths to which Croatian poetry had fallen. This only confirmed to Ivšić and his friends that they were on the right path.

Ivšić’s next major creation, his play King Gordogan, reflects the murderous atmosphere of this time transposed into a fairy tale environment permeated by the darkest of black humors. Although it would be impossible not to see the influence of Jarry’s Père Ubu on this sovereign, Ivšić notes that Sade was equally influential in this work—primarily Aline et Valcour ou Le Roman philosophique, as this was the only work by Sade he had read at this time. In fact, he had obtained his copy in exchange for almost his entire library.  Explaining the play’s genesis to Charles Flamand in an interview published in the first issue of Le Surréalisme même (1956), Ivšić recalled how in February 1943 during the German occupation, when they were denied everything, even the possibility of “walking by moonlight and touching the bare night” he was indulging in “that gratuitous activity, or, if you prefer, that monstrous perversity that consists in coupling words.”  This opened up a world of oaths, imprecations, and proverbs for the poet such as “may a black hump swell up on your back,” that was not so much in imitation of Balkan folklore tradition but a new way of viewing his past experiences.

This practice gave Ivšić the key to creating a poetic core in which the creation of a curse or oath was accompanied by the emergence of an unexpected image. “May scabies ride you, you beaked bear!” He felt these proverbial expressions would lend themselves admirably to theatrical dialogue because of the extreme condensation required by the stage. The dialogue thus inspired became the first scene of King Gordogan, a bloodthirsty buffoon of a tyrant who lops the ears of his subjects so he knows they have paid their taxes, and has an eye removed from those who cannot pay. Later, he exults at the prospect of hanging his only son and describes it as one of his finest moments. A former stable boy who usurped the throne from his doddering predecessor, the benign King White, he holds the King’s daughter prisoner in a white tower at the edge of a forest. Indicative of how far from conventional moral standards Ivšić’s play is taking us, the princess holds no resentment of her captor but is grateful that he has taken on the onerous tasks of ruling:

“He reigns in my place and—he’s told me so—it isn’t easy to reign as it was in the time of my father, King White. Today, to maintain order in the kingdom, he has to strangle some ten thousand subjects a day with his own hands. Think for a moment what a lot of work that would be if I were queen! By the time I had strangled five, my white hands would be numb with weariness. And how many more would be left for me to strangle? Ten thousand minus five! Figure it out yourself, I’ve forgotten mathematics” (II, 4).

The king’s logic for eliminating poverty in the kingdom is of a piece with this for it will impose six time the burden on the poor while exempting the rich from any taxation at all. He is accompanied by his Royal Eyegouger and Royal Earsnipper on his tax-collecting rounds, which have become markedly less fruitful in gold coins or body parts as by the time in which the action of the play takes place (the three hundredth day of his reign), there are very few subjects left to supply either, as bemoaned by the Royal Eyegouger when commanded by his king for his day’s tally:

“Only twelve, my king, by my poor mother! Five blind men, five one-eyed men, and a couple of squinters.”

The only challenge to Gordogan’s rule is in the person of a strange knight who has recently entered the kingdom and who Gordogan believes has been foreseen in a prophecy as a potential troublemaker. Complicating matters is the fact that this young knight cannot be slain by anyone who has committed murder, which, as Gordogan’s Fool notes, makes him perfectly safe in their land. Gordogan evades this threat by giving the knight a draft brewed with the herb of forgetting. No longer distracted by duty, the knight falls in love with the wild woman of the forest, Joline, who inspires what’s left of the local inhabitants with dread. She lurks invisibly in the night, her presence only made known through her mad laughter (which Radovan saw as a violent rejoinder to the laughter of Moliere’s smug servants, who he believes, since they first stepped on stage, have occupied too much space in the theater with their healthy, good sense, and triumphant mediocrity).

As Gordogan prepares to hang his son, soon joined at the gallows by Princess White, the Fool scans the horizon frantically for the knight—the lovers’ only chance for rescue. His excitement on seeing the knight and Joline appear on the horizon causes him to fall from the roof, breaking his neck, the hangman does his work and the knight rides off with Joline, totally forgetful of his original purpose, desperately in love. Now alone in his kingdom, having “tsaffed” [slain] the last of his subjects, Gordogan contemplates his future: “May a tail sprout from my forehead if I know what I am going to do now.” An idea soon comes to mind and he heads off into the forest to cut the trees down one by one.

It is important to note that this play is not a political allegory like one found in the engaged theater of writers like Brecht. For Ivšić, it was supremely important that the critical dimension—eliminated by the needs of ideology—be allowed to emerge—without which no innovation in the theater would be possible. Ivšić points out that it is for this reason that plays written for an idea or an ideology are worthless—they close down the horizon rather than open them to the magic of coincidence and the unexpected.

Gordogan would not be performed live until French radio broadcast it on April 18, 1956. When it was finally staged for the first time by a French theater company, it was coincidence alone that dictated its opening performance took place at Sade’s ancestral castle, the Chateau La Coste.

Contrary to expectations, matters only grew worse after Tito’s communist government liberated Croatia from the Nazis and established control of Yugoslavia. The continued repression of his work by the new government, for the same pretexts announced by their predecessors came as a traumatic shock to Ivšić and his fellow poets. He was stupefied to find the communist authorities used the same justifications to ban his work as the fascists they had just defeated. He recounts how, at one point, he wondered if he was losing his mind, or just too stupid to grasp the subtlety of the new government’s cultural policies. It was soon all too clear that for the authorities, there was no legitimate artistic activity outside of socialist realism. Complicating matters was the great number of artists, including friends and people he had admired, who found it easy to turn their back on the past and take up positions in the new order. One of his cruelest disappointments was the sight of the former animator of Yugoslavian surrealism, Marco Ristic, turning into a mouthpiece for the new regime. The former comrade of André Breton completely renounced his past activities and was named ambassador to Paris.  Incapable of making such concessions, Ivšić found himself unable to mount his plays or publish his poems. He attempted to maintain his work in the theater with plays using puppets and marionettes for a time, but despite some positive results, it ultimately proved too disheartening to continue pursuing. He turned to translation to make ends meet. Among the authors he translated from the French were Maeterlinck, Molière, Rousseau, Proust, Apollinaire, Ionesco, and Breton.

In 1954, Radovan Ivšić finally managed to escape Zagreb and emigrated to Paris in 1954 at the age of 33. Within a few days of his arrival he met surrealist poet Benjamin Péret and, a short time later, André Breton. The latter, impressed by his reading of King Gordogan, which he described as a peerless work, “limned with the dew of primal innocence,” quickly invited Ivšić to join the daily meetings of the French surrealist group that were then held at the café Le Musset. From this time to the formal dissolution of the group in 1969, Ivšić was a prominently figured in all its activities. While his texts and photographs appeared in all their publications, he was also known for his work for sound. The sound system that he installed in the gallery that housed the international surrealist exhibition of 1959 on Eros created a stir for its unprecedented use of the sounds of lovemaking. As Ivšić recalled, unlike most openings, this one was unnaturally quiet as the guests were riveted to the recorded sighs and murmurs filling the gallery.

André Breton and Radovan Ivšić in 1954, by Sperry Lea

André Breton and Radovan Ivšić in 1954, by Sperry Lea

It was shortly after his arrival in France that Ivšić wrote Aquarium, a no act nightmare that never ends, inspired by a dream he had while still living in Zagreb. This dream had struck him so forcefully that he immediately noted it down under the heading: “Are we allowed to dream?”

Aquarium takes place in a concentration camp, one of the many claustrophobic bone mills of that time, to which a journalist has been sent to write an article to counter the lies spread by hostile elements about “the atrocities allegedly practiced in our exemplary camps.” He quickly becomes snared in the bureaucratic doublespeak of the camp’s authorities. They question the validity of his documents and seek proof of their suspicion that he is up to no good and should be incarcerated as an enemy of the state. He is blissfully unaware of the increasing hostility that follows his every move and word, because of the entrance of Plume, a former lover who still owns his heart. Here the violence is not that caused by a bloodthirsty tyrant, but is of a more psychological nature: it is the mind that is the prime target. Many of the camp’s brass are incapable of speaking lucidly from being continuously immersed in this doublespeak. All the dialogue goes round in vicious circles, thereby hollowing out and enclosing the theatrical space in an absurd and inescapable prison. The play ends with soldiers hauling Plume and the Journalist off the stage in different directions once his sole defense against their authority, his identity card, flies out of his shoe and falls to the stage. Before he can retrieve it, the Ear in the Leather Jacket, the prison’s representative of the secret police, pockets it, thus delivering him definitively into the world of the camp as a prisoner.

Jean-Paul Goujon, in his preface to the complete theatrical work by Radovan Ivsic published by Gallimard in 2005, describes Aquarium as embodying the tension and anxiety inherent in living in a country where there is no hope, and dreams themselves are hunted down like wild beasts. But Radovan does not mimic the doublespeak used by jailers of all stripes. Instead, he replaces it with an inane babel of talk on subjects, from offering cloves of garlic as if they were cigarettes to stamp-collecting, never omitting the fact that all these conversations are fed on the horrors of their speakers’ actions, only overtly made evident when a young woman attempting to escape the camp is shot and dragged off with no more ceremony than a slaughtered chicken. Here Ivšić uses poetic subversion to bring about what Péret called “a rectification of the universe,” to open wide the horizons that a simple realist depiction of this situation would leave depressingly shut.

If Aquarium can be seen as a kind of antithesis to the earlier King Gordogan with respect to the horrors that have defined modernity, Ajaxaja combines elements from both, and at the end brings us full circle in a bloodthirsty display that proved fully prophetic of the carnage that would dismember Yugoslavia a little under a decade after the play opened in Belgrade. (It ran a week before being closed definitively for “technical difficulties.”)

In Ajaxaja, we find ourselves in a world where it morally impossible to breathe because the words that give us breath have been poisoned. As Goujon notes, the language of assassins plays incessantly in the background like “a murderous litany.” The play’s tension is indicated in its subtitle, il moci reci, [pouvoir dire in French] which means both the power to speak, and the speech of power—the diktat. Being able to speak is relentlessly countered by what power speaks creating the fulcrum on which our freedom pivots. This power is first shown in the character of he director who is the dictator in the theater but a servile lackey to those in power. These Authorities, the Complete Works (they appear on the stage like a mobile bookcase of old tomes) regard him as a useful pet to whom they can toss a bone now and then in the form of a grant or cultural medal. Here the mental extermination at work in Aquarium has evolved radically in a world dominated by brainwashing and servile slogans  “If you are for progress, be for progress. All power to the power.” The last poet in his deep-sea diver’s suit is heard in a hushed silence constantly broken by the roaring thugs that protect the authorities. Incapable of even miming the doublespeak of their masters, in which an invisible poison has destroyed words by reversing their meaning, these mottorrors can only speak in truncated growls that more resemble the machinery they ride than language. The diver’s final soliloquy on the death of language is abruptly broken off when these motorrors cut his lifeline.

The theater’s role as a cultural mask for an oppressive authority is shaken and finally cast down by the appearance of Ajax from ancient Greek theater and Xaja from a remote future. Their improbable love shakes the very foundations of this world and artist and dictator alike are consumed when the cultivated violence of the guardians of order is unleashed in a final frenzy that attacks all indiscriminately. As in King Gordogan, all have been slain in the last scene save for Ajax and Xaja, who have vanished in the distance like their counterparts the Knight and Joline, leaving but one bloodthirsty figure contemplating the carnage. Bringing the evolution begun in King Gordogan full circle, Ajaxaja ends with the character of a messenger, who has only appeared as an onlooker throughout the play, delivering the sole lines he has in this work. Calmly looking over the wreckage of the Complete Works and their minions who slaughtered each other in their blood driven frenzy, the messenger—an angelic young boy—stares straight at the audience and says with grim foresight of things to come: ”there wasn’t enough blood to suit my taste. When I grow up you’ll see what’s bloody.”

Radovan Ivšić’s work revolves around several key elements that can be broken down to Love, Liberty, and Language. They are intimately interdependent and like the plague contamination of one will quickly infect the others. Conversely, as Annie Le Brun points out, the radical health of one can rejuvenate the others. In these plays, it is in the figures of the lovers—Joline and the Knight, Plume and the Journalist, Ajax and Xaja who hold that power. They may not vanquish the horrors that surround them, but their shared uncompromising passion gives them the strength to desert thus preserving their freedom (Plume and the Journalist have the opportunity to escape but this is aborted when he turns back to retrieve his identity card, thus demonstrating his inability to abandon everything for love).

For Radovan Ivšić, freedom is impossible in a world where love is made impossible—and conversely, love that deserts “the ready-made formulas carved to channel it into an acceptable form” has the power to bring these oppressive systems crashing down upon their ears (as shown in Ajaxaja). But only a vital language that holds “the living words of our memory, the sun, the moon, the stars, the animals…” as Annie Le Brun puts it, has the strength to carry the analogical repercussions that give poetry its formidable presence. The doublespeak that holds the floor in all modern societies, whether of totalitarian or neo-liberal tendencies, is too limp and aseptic to give words that charge. In fact, doublespeak’s purpose is to ensure that words are unable to nourish anything but those activities that sustain the existence of the powers that be. For this reason, Radovan Ivšić states that:

The main question that arises today is how prevent the establishment of a coercive relationship to language? Are we going to successfully master language, in other words tame it, domesticate it, and ultimately enslave it in the same way we are trying to enslave nature?

This is echoed with even more chilling implications by Ivšić’s companion, Annie Le Brun’s question in her book The Reality Overload:

In the same way that grains and vegetables are tampered with under the pretext of making them more pest resistant […] among the words that we are led to believe are still capable of provoking excitement, there are no longer any that are not actively working against the ideas they allegedly express

For Ivšić and others who claim the insolent health of surrealist thought, the only space that can give individuals the strength they need to refuse the world such as it is—dedicated to reinforcing all that is unacceptable in the human condition—is the material presence of our imaginal space. When we recognize that words live in us as we live in them, we can gain access to what Ivšić calls a “strange freedom and gravity.” He follows this by saying:

Poetry is no longer the province of specialists or aesthetes: it is life tested by thought, it is thought tested by life; it is the body interrogating the imagination, it is the imagination interrogating the body.

As Alain Joubert notes,

For Ivšić it is of primordial importance to ‘restore language to its true life […] by leaping in a single bound to the birth of the meaningful,” something Breton recommended at an earlier time. He thus puts himself in the position to inspire the image by induction so that it will form—or not—in the mind of the reader, instead of being provided to him irrevocably on paper. A latent image then slowly appears downstream of language, allowing the reader to partially forge it personally, enriching it through its clarification, and causing it to magically move from the state of evocation to that of revelation.

As I noted in an earlier text [written for the performance of King Gordogan in New York in 1997] the true significance of Radovan Ivšić’s work lies in the fact that “desire never caricatures itself; that the misery that is in the world is not confused for the world; and that the unacceptable human condition is not the fruit of divine malediction but a subordination of the rhythms of desire to those forces that seek only to extinguish passion in the interests of their own smooth functioning.”

Radovan Ivsic 3

For poetry is always essentially different or it does not exist… it never follows its old footprints but is always in discordance with the dominant expression of its time. It is perhaps for this reason that Saint John Perse called the poet the “guilty conscience” of his time.

The authorities in Ajaxaja promised to erect “thundering stadiums” upon the ruins of the theater.” In a time when fear is promoted and an impossible security promised in return for our freedom to think and love as we like, Radovan Ivšić reminds us that the theater is dangerous, but it can only be so

Once it refuses to serve

Once it no longer lauds the all-powerful

Once it no longer bows to gold

Once it sings of love

Once it sings of life.

Jon Graham is a writer and graphic artist living in Vermont. His artistic work has been exposed in exhibitions in New York, Lisbon, Vancouver, Stockholm, and elsewhere. He has most recently published articles in Hyperion and Abraxas. He is also a professional translator from French into English specializing in books on Surrealism, esoteric traditions and folklore. Books he has translated include The Immaculate Conception by André Breton and Paul Eluard, Little Anatomy of the Physical Unconscious by Hans Bellmer, The Reality Overload by Annie Le Brun, Rimbaud: Presence of an Enigma by Jean-Luc Steinmetz, and The Tradition of House Spirits and High Magic of Talismans and Amulets by Claude Lecouteux. He is currently working as the acquisitions editor for Inner Traditions, a post he has held since 1996.

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