Dancer, Actor, Marionette: the Modernist Performer
Volume 4, Cycle 3
For years I have been staring at Edward Gordon Craig’s designs for the famous (or infamous) Craig/Stanislavski Moscow Hamlet (1909–11) alongside Edmund Dulac’s designs for W. B. Yeats’s equally celebrated production of At the Hawk’s Well (1916), trying to find some connection between them. Which came first? What acted as inspiration for both designers, and were they aware of each other’s work? What is the constitutive role of Noh, and the specific contribution of the dancer Itō Michio, in the development of the aesthetic of these theatre makers? Of course, there are answers to some of these questions. Craig’s models of the Moscow Hamlet were exhibited in London’s Leicester Galleries in September 1912, probably bearing little resemblance to the actual production. These hawk-like cut-outs for the actors appeared in print later in the 1930s in the equally celebrated “book-beautiful,” funded by the notorious “red” Count Harry Kessler, The Cranach Hamlet. It is fascinating the way these designs mirror each other, and equally fascinating that Craig chose the bird-like figures for the meta-theatrical aspects of Hamlet, most vividly portrayed in the two-tone pages of the Cranach Hamlet. And this theatricality of the stage (and page) clearly has a Noh inflection. Beyond the obvious questions of influence and/or appropriation, perhaps these encounters/events between modernist theatre makers, almost always manifested or conceptualized through the performing body, could be read as a constellation of concepts and practices extending beyond the received binaries of understanding modernism (source/influence, authenticity/appropriation, understanding/mis-understanding, tradition/innovation, radical/reactionary, center/periphery—to name a few) to pose a more “eventful” but unfinished and ephemeral perspective/lens that may be less clearly defined but possibly more dynamic and speculative.
Theatricality and the Performing Body
These mirroring images are designed for the performing body; they already have the principle of embodiment inscribed within them. They are not stand-alone works of visual art, but visual images whose function is to be “read” by a performing body. And in this sense they can be said to bring together discourses of visuality, textuality and embodiment, allowing us to approach the performing body as one of the analytical and methodological units of modernism. Much of modernist criticism has relied on a reading of the modernist project as “a revolution of poetic language,” wherein the body enters as a metaphor for the word. As a result, too, of a deep-seated tradition of anti-theatricality, modernist theatre has always lagged behind in modernist criticism; it has always been the poor cousin. This critical “poverty,” however, has been more recently addressed both within the context of the New Modernist Studies and within the broader performative turn within literary and cultural studies. Not only did modernist writers write plays or translate classical ones (T. S. Eliot, Yeats, Ezra Pound, H. D., Gertrude Stein, D. H. Lawrence—to mention a few from the Anglophone tradition), but they were also all actively involved in experiments that tried to examine the transition from the page to the stage, in a sense gesturing towards the autonomy of performance as an aesthetic practice. And in doing so many writers, visual and performing artists helped to create the idea of the international(ist?) modernist network. The performing body as an analytical unit, not necessarily as a physical entity alone (the word as flesh, and the flesh as word) might in that sense be useful when approaching this evental, international aspect of modernism. This brief excursion will try to sketch out the methodological and theoretical potential of approaching the performing body this way, and also ask what is at stake in such an endeavor.
The attempt to read these encounters through the performing body might also raise further issues about how to read modernism in and through performance. The use of and here, as I have indicated in previous work, is paratactic, creating a broad constellation of ideas and a network of encounters that aims to avoid the issue of belated modernity and the power dynamics of hypotaxis (because, after, therefore, etc). For modernism’s linguistic turn is surely also and always its performative turn, evidenced clearly at that crucial interface where performativity, as a philosophical/linguistic concept, encounters actual experimentation in performance. In this sense the performing body within modernist experimentation becomes a kind of ekphrastic machine, mediating between genres, disciplines and art-forms. The term machine here is borrowed from Friedrich Hölderlin’s writings on Greek tragedy, where the binary between techne and mechane is elided, re-working the Greek term polymechanos, which expresses a kind of embodied critical/practical thinking. Indeed, reading the modernist performing body this way—through what in contemporary critical terms might be termed intermediality—might help shift our understanding of modernism as being premised solely on the revolutions of the “word.”
This emphasis also rehearses the long durée of the anti-theatrical legacy (from Plato onwards), always projected and enacted through the performer. This ekphrastic use of the performing body (what some scholars have conceptualized as the hieroglyph, citing H. D. and in contrast to Pound’s ideogramme), exhibits the intricate and sometimes contradictory ways the anti-theatricality debate is staged within modernism. And in this way the most modern of experiments may be read as reviving the most ancient of debates. Could we in turn suggest that modernism itself (what Susan Stanford Friedman broadly calls “the aesthetic domain of modernity”) has a long durée, reviving, inflecting, and re-working older aesthetic debates? Friedman seems to think so, and theatrical modernism both attests to and (we could also claim) enacts this principle.
Fail again. Fail better
Another significant trope that theatrical modernism often inhabits is that of failure. The Craig/Stanislavski Hamlet mentioned above is a prime example of this. Many modernist performance experiments are plagued by discourses of failure and unperformability (Craig’s many unrealizable projects, Eliot’s plays, Pound’s translations of Greek drama, H. D.’s acting for cinema, Isadora Duncan’s refusal to notate, Stein’s operas, to name a few). It might, however, be more critically and interpretatively helpful to see this kind of work as experimental and speculative, open to the liveness, risk and ephemerality of performance, work that at once resists reproduction and notation. Rather than read these as outright failures, we could approach them as part and parcel of the utopian aspirations of modernist theatre, partly deriving from the aesthetics of catastrophe, itself a result of the anti-theatrical tradition of modernist performance. In The Century, Alan Badiou writes that, “[t]o criticize an aesthetic programme for failing to keep any of its promises is to miss the point.” In this book Badiou is reclaiming the failed and sometimes utopian attempts of the historical avant-garde, attempts that he somewhat counter-intuitively claims to be part of the twentieth century’s attachment to the “real.” This attachment to the “real” is reworked within modernist theatre, primarily through the discourses of anti-theatricality itself. The same attachment to the real, I would claim, is discernible in H. D.’s double fascination with the miracle and the machine (as evidenced in her writing for the cinema in Close-Up) and with the period’s fascination with unrealizable projects. Rather than signifying a form of incompetence or a positivist inability to “apply” these to a pragmatic stage, they point to another kind of reality, one that has a distinct utopian flavor. We might also claim that this revalorization of the principle of failure as an aesthetic category expresses a kind of negative critique, or even negative dialectic in the Adornian sense. Does this make these modernisms “bad,” as Rebecca L. Walkowitz and Douglas Mao might claim? The answer would be, emphatically, “yes!”
Autonomy and Engagement
The performing body may come with the long dureé of its aesthetic domain but is also stubbornly located within specific socio-historical contexts. (Moscow is also the site of perhaps one of the most famous of such modernist encounters, between the Chinese actor Mei Lanfang and many of the high priests of modernist performance, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Sergei Tretyakov, Bertolt Brecht and Sergei Eisenstein in 1935). Reading the performing body in these modernist intercultural encounters may offer ways of reading them that at once accord significance to specific socio-historical contexts and, importantly, do not reduce them to a simple generative outcome. The ways the body of the performer achieves presence in the non-mimetic traditions of acting (Noh, Chinese classical theatre, puppetry) that prove inspirational for these modernist theatre makers, also engage broader issues of representational efficacy. It is no coincidence that these issues (the debates about formalism in 1930s Moscow, for example, can also be read through the reception of Mei’s performance) are mapped out and enacted through the performing body.
This in some ways can be read as reviving the oldest of aesthetic quarrels (Plato termed it “ancient” in his own time): that between theatre and philosophy. From Plato onwards anxieties about the political and ethical efficacy of performance/theatre have been mapped onto the body of the performer. Through these cross-cultural events, experienced through the presence of these performers, we can assert that modernist theatre stakes a claim for the aesthetic and political autonomy of performance. The term autonomy inevitably echoes all the discussions from the 1930s onwards about the relationship between aesthetics and politics. Theatre enters this arena as paradigm (as used in the works of Walter Benjamin), but also through its renewed, and re-energized relationship with philosophy (what Brecht would term a “philosophical theatre”), a relationship that radically reconfigures the longue durée of the anti-theatrical tradition. Perhaps one way in which performance begins to make such a strong claim for its autonomy as an aesthetic mode could be through these sometimes vexed and ambivalent cross-cultural networks of performers and theatre makers.
It may seem somewhat counterintuitive to mention the term autonomy when discussing these encounters as at the same time as they appear to be steeped in historical context, a context that has indeed more recently been read in postcolonial terms. Often recent criticism has gone beyond the politics of blame or historicist readings to propose a more nuanced and reciprocal relationship, one that (like any relationship) is not entirely free of power structures, but also is not generatively bound to them. The concept of the event, as theorized by Badiou, is again useful here. In fact, unlike the literary encounter, which might (mistakenly) be read as a metaphoric event, a performance constitutes a literal event, an event that always features the conspicuous presence of the performing body. This body, usually male, and in encounters that are more often than not homosocial, becomes a type of lens through which the intercultural encounter itself is filtered but also magnified or distorted. Yeats’s encounter with Itō Michio, Meyerhold’s with Mei Lanfang, were not solely rhetorical and discursive; they were first and foremost events in which the actor’s body was present. The impact and the inspiration (or the shock) were felt mainly through a reading of that body. The fact that these encounters were part of broader theatrical events involves its own methodological and theoretical constraints, but also possibilities. The embodied aspect of these encounters makes them at once stubbornly historical and relational, but also singular and unique as artistic events. Indeed, if we read the aesthetic domain in the classical sense as primarily located in and mediated through the body, then these intercultural encounters may be significantly different from purely discursive or rhetorical ones. Their liveness at once situates the event historically, underlining the notion of otherness, but, at the same time, relies on a fundamental understanding of sameness. And this interplay between familiarity and distance becomes a formative category, inflecting both the politics and the aesthetics of modernist performance. Crucially, it also highlights the creative and speculative dimension of these exchanges.
This speculative creativity also gestures towards a singularity that makes a plea for the autonomy of the performance event. Whether this event is then reconstituted within Brecht’s utopian Marxism or Antonin Artaud’s sacred/mystical domain, or never actually materialized, as with Craig’s Übermarionette, remains a matter of historical specificity. What has possibly been gained in the process of these interactions is a series of moments that gesture towards a singularity, a singularity that does not schematically dissolve into its socio-historical context nor is recuperated solely through the metaphysical or the political. These cross-cultural encounters, as Anthony Tatlow has proposed through the notion of the “intercultural sign” and as Edward Said’s late work through the musical analogy/concept of the “contrapuntal” suggests, can throw up contradictions and shortcomings in both the home and the host culture (for example, the absence of female performers in many of the traditions that inspired the European modernists, or the uneasy identification between Fascism and Noh that we find in Yeats and Craig).
The Puppet and the Dancer
The emphasis placed on the presence of the performing body is shadowed by an equal fascination with its absence. Again the work of Craig is central to this argument. The “actor or marionette” debate becomes fully articulated through his notorious essay of 1908, “The Actor and the Übermarionette,” where Craig presents one of the first modernist attempts to articulate a theory of acting that is non-mimetic, not psychological and character-driven, and where the marionette is analyzed as the “model”—a model that is not meant to substitute for the actor but to be his/her double or ideal in the Platonic sense. Modernist experimentation in acting, at once fueled by discourses of embodiment and absence, finds an appropriate “objective correlative” in the period’s fascination with puppets, automata and robots. The Übermarionette—almost more effective for never being realized—becomes the trope through which modernist acting negotiates ideas of presence and absence, expressiveness and stylization, identity and non-identity. Isadora Duncan articulates this double quality of the marionette, while she is at the same time describing the role of the dancer:
For hours I would stand quite still, my two hands folded between my breasts, covering the solar plexus. My mother often became alarmed to see me remain for such long intervals quite motionless as if in a trance—but I was seeking, and finally discovered, the central spring of all movement, the crater of motor power.
This quotation brings together ideas about movement and stasis, the human body and the automaton, potentiality and impossibility, presence and absence, perhaps reminding us that when Kleist wrote about marionettes, he was referring the art of the dancer. The dancer acts as the double of the marionette, in ways that Isadora Duncan acts as Craig’s double. Craig and Duncan’s conceptions of the performing body have sometimes been read in opposition: complete absence of physical and psychological embodiment at one extreme and absolute expressiveness at the other. Where Craig’s Übermarionette might be read as a mechanized puppet or an automaton, Duncan’s experiments could be said to lack technique or even form. However, experiments with marionettes and experiments in dance could be read side-by-side, problematizing the way these binaries have been read respectively as undiluted anti-theatricality at one extreme, and as pure theatricality at the other. From Kleist’s evocative essay through Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet (1922), to Duncan’s Hellenic-inspired dances, the mechanical and the bodily and intertwined.
In this way, the automaton, the Übermarionette and the robot could be read as at once quintessentially modern, but also classical, or rather neo-classical, similar to the ways in which James Joyce re-writes classical Hellenism for the purposes of modernity. These experiments could also be read as neo-classical in the ways that they conceptualize, embody and rehearse Plato’s “ancient quarrel” about the ethical and political efficacy of theatre. It is not surprising in this context to find that Craig’s seminal essay is itself punctuated by two equally important quotations from “the Greeks.” One is from Plato’s Republic; it is the famous section about the rhapsode:
“And therefore when any one of these pantomimic gentlemen, who are so clever that they can imitate anything comes to us, and makes a proposal to exhibit himself and his poetry, we will fall down and worship him as a sweet and holy and wonderful being; but we must also inform him that in our State such as he are not permitted to exist; the law will not allow them. And so, when we have anointed him with myrrh, and set a garland of wool upon his head, we shall lead him away to another city. . . .” (Craig, “The Actor,” 5n1)
How fitting that Craig uses this iconic passage—one that has generated so much philosophical reflection about mimesis—to frame and to also justify his own theories about the Übermarionette. Like Plato, he too is concerned about the power of the actor to distort reality and to mesmerize, to act as a kind of charismatic demagogue who threatens the political order itself (“the law will not allow them”). And as in Plato this power of the theatre and theatricality is seen to be at the core of the problem of mimesis itself. To do full justice to the debate, Craig also calls upon Aristotle in support of his manifesto for the actor, or more generally we could claim for a modern theatre. The quotation he uses from Aristotle is the equally famous passage from Poetics, where the “Spectacle” is denounced as the work of “the stage machinist” rather than the poet, and where tragedy “is felt even apart from representation and actors” (Craig, “The Actor,” 15).
In calling upon the “Greeks” to help him construct and articulate his argument, Craig is not simply being nostalgic, calling upon a unifying and homogenizing rhetoric that would give his argument the aura of the classical. In many ways he is calling upon the “Greeks” as both a philologist and as a theorist of theatre. Indeed, his own essay may be said to rehearse the ancient quarrel itself. As in Plato and Aristotle, this quarrel is given shape and form through the workings of theatre and in particular is located on the performing body. Considering the role of puppets and automata (thaumata, Plato calls them, meaning miraculous creatures) in Plato’s philosophical writings, we can perhaps even claim a lineage for Craig’s Übermarionette that places it within a genealogy of writing about the efficacy (both aesthetic and political) of mimesis enacted through the figure of the automaton. The puppet/automaton, posed simultaneously towards the past (classicism and the oral tradition) and the future may be read as enacting what Jacques Rancière calls the “archaeomodern turn” of modernity, which, “is located at the core of the modern project” and “sets up two categories: that of figurative reason or of sleeping meaning, and the temporal category of anticipation.” So, this attitude towards the Greeks is possibly about the past but probably has more to say about the aesthetics of utopia. Sometimes, performance theorists speculate that Craig was perhaps unable to construct his Übermarionette because he lacked the technology to do so (or even lacked faith in technology altogether), that his ideas were so ahead of their time that they in some way anticipated contemporary thinking about digital arts and the post-human. Although this may be partly true, Craig’s phantasmic creation may be more about the ghost in the machine than the machine itself, more about the whole category of futurity than any specific historical future it may have anticipated. Craig’s refusal to construct the Übermarionette, in this context, could be read as a type of creative failure, once again highlighting the significance of failure for modernist experiments in performance.
A Room in Bloomsbury
Before returning to the Dulac/Craig images that frame this brief essay, I would like to take another brief detour and revisit another important performance event, this time one located at the heart of canonical modernism, that is in one of those famous Bloomsbury rooms. This encounter, intercultural, intermedial, and centred around the performing body, acts as an instance of a cross-cultural/inter-cultural network that in a contrapuntal manner helps to estrange both the home and the host culture. The event itself is narrated by the Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand in his memoir Conversations in Bloomsbury. Itself part of a crucial text that rethinks the relationships between modernism and postcolonial studies, Anand’s final essay recounts his visit to 5 Gordon Square at the invitation of Arthur Waley (Orientalist, Sinologist and first translator of Japanese Noh) and Beryl de Zoete (Sinologist, dancer and dance critic). There amidst many Bloomsbury luminaries (John Maynard Keynes and Lydia Lopokova amongst them), Anand witnesses the Indian dancer Uday Shankar perform the tandava dance of Shiva. The essay is entitled “Ecstasy in Uday Shankar’s Dance in the Salon of Arthur Waley and Beryl De Zoete.” Possibly more reciprocal than the events centered around the dances performed by Itō Michio for Yeats and Pound at Stone Cottage a decade earlier, this event is clearly retold as a conversation. Anand discusses Nietzsche’s ideas about dance with Waley; Uday Shankar, the dancer, articulates his own meta-language about his art and reads it in terms of both Nietzsche and the Indian scholar Ananda Coomaraswamy’s The Dance of Shiva; Shankar himself is presented as a modernizer, as an experimenter, as “[h]e is the first middle class Hindu student not to have become a Babu. He chose to be a classical dancer”; present is also a queer modernist gaze, where the Indian boy dancers playing the parts of women are referenced (Anand, Conversations, 173). All these elements reach a focal point with the arrival of John Maynard Keynes and his wife Lydia Lopokova, after which Shankar performs his dance. Shankar had previously met Lopokova through the Ballet Russes, as like many touring performers he too was interested in “western” dance and performance. Anand calls Kathakali a “[t]heatre of terror” and Keynes responds, “Oh so you anticipated our long war,” in an exchange which can be read as echoing Aristotle, Artaud and the vocabulary of contemporary performance studies, where the violence of the theatre of war, and the theatre of the stage mirror each other (177). Following the dance itself, Anand comments that “This ecstasy is not the Shanti of T. S. Eliot’s wishes,” and Waley adds to this critical appreciation of ecstasy “as violent tension” (178). Towards the end of the event Lopokova mentions that “Yeats is also writing plays for dancers in the Abbey,” and Shankar invites Anand to “leave philosophy, and become Sutradhar.” When Keynes asks what that means, the answer is “Puller of strings” (179). Puppets, puppeteers and dancers are once again called upon to metaphorize, embody, and provide commentary for this cross-cultural network of relationships between artists, critics, and scholars of modernism.
These conversations that Anand recalls or perhaps even fictionalizes present crucial encounters where ideas of sameness and otherness, centre and periphery are problematized and unlocked from their received binaries. Shankar’s ecstasy is seen to be closer to Nietzsche’s (and classicism) than to the orientalist Shanti of T. S. Eliot. Anand himself refuses to make any claims of cultural authenticity, and is as surprised by both the modernity and the traditionalism of Shankar’s dance as are his hosts. Shankar’s dance was influenced by the Ballet Russes (and his encounter with Anna Pavlova) as much as it was by classical Indian dance and scholarship. Importantly, Anand comes to London to pursue postgraduate study after having being involved in the independence movement in India. In the “Preface to the Second Edition” (1995) of his recollections, he claims that he “was nervous and on edge about the undeclared ban on political talk” in the Bloomsbury group (ix). However, if we also insert the political into this encounter and add Anand’s communism as a further frame, then Shankar’s ecstatic dance also becomes Emma Goldman’s dance of the revolution, where the materialist vicissitudes of history and the ecstatic elations of dance are not read in opposition.
Perhaps I was asking the wrong type of question in trying to establish a link between the Craig and the Dulac designs. It is not so much a matter of which came first, or who influenced whom in a generative model of influence or appropriation, but more of trying to locate them within a complex network of relationships that at once acknowledges historical/ideological hegemonies but does not reduce these events to their mere symptoms.
Both these designs could have come from the same portfolio. And this would be a portfolio of master classes that addresses some of the most fundamental concerns of and experiments in modernist acting: the relationships between movement and stasis, the human body and the automaton, tradition and innovation, influence/homage and borrowing, authenticity and artifice, potentiality and impossibility, presence and absence. These images could be part of a constellation of concepts and gestures (or gestus in the Brechtian sense) that at once rehearse the oldest debate about theatricality (the ancient quarrel of Plato vs Aristotle) and propel this into the future. The evental nature of these encounters gestures towards modernism’s performative turn but also to its internationalist character. Indeed, the very notions of “nature” and “character,” “center” and “periphery” are under scrutiny in these encounters of primarily touring artists, where ideas of the local and the global are intermixed—not always democratically. The liveness of these events in turn raises challenging issues about spectatorship, notation and reproducibility, and the performance archive. Reading these images together in the complex polyphony that they create may perhaps tease out some of the performance legacies that help to highlight the centrality of the theatrical paradigm for modernism more generally.
 See Laurence Senelick, Gordon Craig’s Moscow Hamlet: A Reconstruction (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982), 184.
 See Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, “Modernism and Theatrical Performance,” Modernist Cultures 1, no. 1 (2005): 59–68.
 See Olga Taxidou, Modernism and Performance: Jarry to Brecht (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 1–9, 212–13.
 Susan Stanford Friedman, Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity Across Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 4.
 Alan Badiou, The Century, trans. Alberto Toscano (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), 139. Also see Alan Badiou, Rhapsody for the Theatre, trans. Bruno Bosteels (London: Verso, 2013).
 See Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, eds., Bad Modernisms (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).
 See Taxidou, Modernism and Performance: Jarry to Brecht, 136–47.
 See Haun Saussy, “Mei Lanfang in Moscow, 1935: Familiar, Unfamiliar, Defamiliar,” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture 18, no. 1 (2006): 8–29.
 Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theatre, ed. Marc Silberman, Steve Giles and Tom Kuhn, trans. Jack Davis, et. al (London: Bloomsbury Revelations, 2018), 50.
 See Carrie J. Preston, Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, and Journeys in Teaching (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).
 Antony Tatlow, Shakespeare, Brecht, and the Intercultural Sign (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001); Edward Said, Musical Elaborations (London: Chatto and Windus, 1991); also see Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (London: Chatto and Windus, 1993), where he writes, “cultural identities exist not as essentialisms . . . but as contrapuntal ensembles . . . since no identity can ever exist by itself and without an array of opposites, negatives, oppositions” (60).
 See Edward Gordon Craig, “The Actor and the Über-Marionette,” Mask 1, no. 2 (1908): 3–15; and Heinrich von Kleist, Über das Marionettentheater, The Marionette 1, no. 4 (1918): 1–6.
 Isadora Duncan, My Life (1927; rpt., New York: Liveright, 1996), 58.
 Jacques Rancière, “The Archaeomodern Turn,” in Walter Benjamin and the Demands of History, ed. Michael P. Steinberg (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), 24–40, 28, 27. For the significance of this concept for modernism in general see Vassiliki Kolocotroni, “Still Life: Modernism’s Turn to Greece,” Journal of Modern Literature 35, no. 2 (2012): 1–24. Also see Rancière’s comments on Craig’s Übermarionette in his analysis of the Craig/Stanislavsky collaboration on the “Moscow Hamlet” of 1909–1911 (Jacques Rancière, Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art, trans. Zakir Paul [London:Verso, 2013], 171–90).
 See Mulk Raj Anand, Conversations in Bloomsbury (1981; rpt., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995): 171–79. Originally published in 1981 as a memoir, the book refers to Anand’s time in Bloomsbury in the late 1920s.