DECROUX THE UNGRASPABLE: OR DIFFERENT CATEGORIES OF ACTING - MAN OF SPORT, MAN IN THE DRAWING ROOM, MOBILE STATUARY, MAN OF REVERIE
By Corinne Soum
In his work and research, Etienne Decroux was not content simply to codify a new style of acting, or a new genre, which would complete the already very long list of "good solutions" proposed by theatre theoreticians. It would be more correct to say that in it we see the patient edification of an art which bears witness to human experience, to its conquests, its defeats, and its contradictions, from which this corporeal mime emerges. Corporeal mime is science and art at the same time, dramatic in its essence, with extremely varied - and sometimes opposing - visual and philosophical aspects.
There are numerous corporeal practices which, in their postural and mechanical preferences, offer a culturally and esthetically imprinted vision of the world. One dance strives to keep the hips and the legs open; another concentrates on muscular contractions and releases; still another prefers undulatory possibilities of the trunk. Each technique shows its own portrait of the human and his/her environment. One can make the same observation of theatre repertories today. Actors, directors, and teachers claim, through their physical or psychological or aesthetic approach to representation (or all three combined) a certain manner of being or of acting. The respective qualities of different methods are not in question. Let's say simply that the interpretations are often more than foreseeable, the origins of their performances identifiable even before they are born.
But one would reply that there is certainly a "Decrouvian actor." Certainly, but he is a chameleon, a stowaway, a "member of the Resistance." He has no particular identity because he has all of them at once.
In effect, if he possesses the art of action, it is to triumph better in the arts of being; and if he has known a silent apprenticeship, it is so that he can, if he so desires, rediscover the value of sounds and of words. If I may allow myself a comparison, Etienne Decroux is a mystic and not a member of a religious order. He is to the theatre what certain Sufis are to churches, Steve Wasson once said in a lecture on the Decroux repertory. Others would say that he was political but not at all dogmatic, and, if his writings or his words seem prophetically influenced, he always had the modesty to say that he was an observer and not a discoverer. The supreme modesty of this great man! Always moving, he summed up his life with this sentence: "I have invented nothing; I have only invented my belief in it [corporeal mime]." It is therefore always very dangerous to assert that there are forbidden or permitted areas in corporeal mime. "To know what to do, to know how to do it, to assimilate, to be prompt." This was the teaching slogan put forward by Etienne Decroux. It is a vast and optimistic program which supposed that those present had the time, the time to study. Etienne Decroux worked a long time, 50 years, to "show outside what goes on inside."
His favorite authors: men and women and the different phases of their corporeal histories. His favorite writings: the traces in space left by the body when it is happy or sad, when it struggles, or when it surrenders.
E. Decroux made himself, then, a scientist. He established muscular and mechanical systems, a hierarchy of body parts. But that resembles a style, just one more style! No, I don't believe it does, because the project is so vast that it allows hope: the body memory of the being, what it did and what it was, its present, its future. The catalyst to start us working is: "Everything has weight." This is the first step to take to determine the reasons for an "original" drama. The representation of this can therefore find its premises and fundamentals in the struggle against everyone's eternal and common enemy: weight. "The enemy is weight!" This is the "philosophicophysique" cornerstone of the building finding its technical reality in what E. Decroux named "counterweight," or the challenge thrown at the actor to act a loss of a fulcrum or the loss of a connection. Immediately, Decroux the artist sees there the revelation of one of his main ideas: "the upside-down metaphor." "A moral right is a material straight line before being moral" or, "When one says of Diderot that he was a great mind, things are materially great before being great in the mind of Diderot. Decroux also engraved in the brains and the muscles of his students the following fact: "The mime does the thing, and the spectator, in seeing the material thing, thinks of its analogy with the spiritual. Finally, Decroux as author/creator is decidedly unclassifiable and off-putting in composing works as diametrically different as, on the one hand, The Factory (1946) with its repetitive and jolting rhythms, the human face masked, disappearing under the yoke of work, losing its identity in the infernal present; and on the other, The Chair of the Absent One (1983-84) where it is a question of evoking with a gesture, which caresses, which grazes, that which is not, that which is no longer.
In order to organize this great corporeal polemic, he had the idea to define sorts of "contexts" or "conditions of existence" for the behavior of men and of women. This is what he called the different styles or categories of acting.
And, again, what seems simple reveals itself as complex. Each category seems clearly separate from others and then mixed up with them, finding its definition against the others and thanks to them. Just as one believes one has defined one of the styles, a doubt or a contradiction arises; these doubts and contradictions are veritable theatrical and fleshly inheritances of the anarchist and utopian thought Decroux made his own, defining the great destinies of societies, which definitions escape just as one believes one has mastered them.
Etienne Decroux admired sports; he describes them as a sort of nostalgia for the period when men and women moved by their own muscles, in reproducing serially the activities of that era. Thus the name, Man of Sport, is a respectful salute.
It was not only a question of representing the sportive gesture, but of being inspired by it and of extracting a defined way of acting from this condition of being: "Men and women lived without the aid of extra-animal power." In another period - today - from strength or necessity, by choice, desire, or play, always or occasionally, the "historicoeconomic" character, as Decroux calls it, gives birth to an in-depth study of gesture which, in order to represent one thing invents another, or let's say, rediscovers another. Among the hundreds: "the plié." Whoever speaks of sport, dance, gymnastics uses in his vocabulary or his practice the flexing of the knees, either for pushing away from the earth, and therefore for an instant to overcome the force of gravity (the jump), or to soften a shock, that which falls, this time in cooperation with gravity. This plié is useful, "It's good for something."
E. Decroux proposed a rereading of this plié, which becomes an end in itself because it is one of the instruments (not the only one) for struggling against the primordial drama: weight. So this plié, known by all, will leave its secondary role to assume a primary one, and rediscovered, restructured, it is called a "Scholarly Counterweight." This plié can be brusque, jerky, vibrant, separated into several sections, blocked, freed, moving, born from a fall, etc.. Another way to look at this bending of the legs (which would be nonsense in other corporeal practices) is that it amply reveals, rather than hides, the fact that "everything has weight."
Another rediscovery: effort. Like a sportsman's gesture, the gesture of the Man of Sport in corporeal mime shows his effort, his muscular intensity, his affliction, but which one? Not the real one, but a restructured one (even though practice shows that one encourages the other). Here is Decroux's dramatic redistribution: "Create useless effort and hide useful effort." The figure which represents The Canoe, for example, chooses to show the muscular vibration in the arms, which are not carrying anything, and which describe a kind of figure-eight supported by triple designs of the chest which, too, seem to engrave the space. Physiologically speaking, it is not necessary to use this much muscular intensity to execute this movement mechanically. Dramatically, yes! The legs, on the other hand, are really working because they are carrying this moving trunk and chest, in using a walk which alternates bent and flexed legs. Their task is to "slide" almost without accent (in contradistinction to the very nature of their movement) without effort (hiding the useful effort).
Etienne Decroux goes further in his exploration of effort in defining a first subcategory to Man of Sport: Man of Affliction. This is the person who pushes or pulls heavy loads because of his social rank; a person carrying a heavy mental burden would assume the same physical position. Each resembles, through his struggles against what life has imposed on him, a kind of vertical tortoise.
Does all this take on airs of the cult of strength, of muscle, of a systematic research of suffering? In response, Decroux invented a second subcategory, The Artisan. Strength, but also skill, a geometric mind. His works like The Carpenter and The Washerwoman (The Washing, 1931) don't limit themselves to an imitation of these two activities, but expand one action while contracting another, so that the corporeal portrait shows the reality of the thing (planing, lifting, wringing) and the effort it demands, but also the preparations, the takeoff, the movement of body parts which signify the thought which comes into play, and commentaries after the action. As we have already seen, E. Decroux is far from miming only what is seen with the naked eye! "It's almost abstract," Decroux would say in speaking of The Carpenter. "It's like a perfume coming from a concrete action." Continuing along this line, Decroux will then define the "Moral Counterweight." Because everything weighs, ideas and feelings do also, and these become like matter which will be worked like a real weight. Here I take for example all the studies inspired by the behavior of political orators, in particular from the first half of the twentieth century, who, during their addresses often made pulling, pushing, lifting, and throwing gestures, having a strong effect on their listeners, who remembered their gestures better than their words. If one is interested in the diverse manifestations of strength, one must then imagine those who have it but who don't need to use it in a way that causes them to suffer. This is the third subcategory, Man of the Islands. "The Islands" is an abstract country where men and women would still be required to move, but with natural harmony, an articulated system lubricated by oil, Decroux explained. This category has very little to do with geography, but rather with a state of fluidity. "The Islands" is an idea, a vision of muscular voluptuousness, of elegant plenitude of all the faculties previously described. All these definitions of movement - owed to effort - highlight élan, resonances of thought, upside-down metaphor, affliction, and muscular voluptuousness. They can express themselves separately, but also linked or superimposed inside the same corporeal sequence.
This Man of Sport suffices amply to satisfy any number of creators, but Decroux is indefatigable and decides to concern himself with the other condition of existence: that which permits life with the help of extra-animal power. A second "historioeconomic" character from whom a style of acting is taken does not simply describe a period in history but moments in life and behavior which result when men and women are not working: a whole new world of postures, walks, figures, and pieces collected under the title of Man in the Drawing Room. This category is a theatrical testimony which finds its autonomous expression but which, certainly, combines with the preceding style. We are all, at one time or another, first Man of Sport, then Man in the Drawing Room, then both together at different moments in life. The typical Man in the Drawing Room, according to Decroux, does without doing, he stands well, he is above all a bust (head, neck and chest), he helps others, behaves politely and benificently, touches, offers, takes, places, looks, behaves. This corporeal proposition finds its fullness in purified movement, a radiant biped, a muscular punctuation which this time does not show effort, but which privileges articulation of gestures which are careful of others, which try not to bump into or injure even the space! God is a Man in the Drawing Room, Decroux enjoyed saying, "He is eternal with tranquillity." Certain somewhat hasty minds will see there a certain Judeo-Christian morality, a class hierarchy between those who do and those who watch. Not at all. Decroux does not judge, he observes, he envisions, in order to bring out more possibilities in corporeal acting. He was not abstaining from irony when he said that the Man in the Drawing Room was completely decadent, because in his car, in front of his television, he assumed the posture of the vertical tortoise of the Man of Affliction, without the noble excuse of work, but simply the bad one of letting himself go. Was Decroux bitter? Not even that; he was always full of hope because he researched endlessly in the third area, Mobile Statuary.
Mobile Statuary is always a surprising discovery for those who have concluded that corporeal mime mimes only things, tangible actions. Mobile Statuary puts movement there where there is none; Decroux shows us a portrait of the interior. Someone inclines his head, and, to all appearances, remains still. But from the exterior only, for on the inside he pushes, he has a tendency, and Mobile Statuary will tell through movement this thrust of the mind, this adventure of the thought. What thought? All thought, none in particular! It's this idea that seduced Decroux: Thought can be, ungraspable phenomena that it is, materialized by a path made by body parts. "Visible portrait of the invisible," a mental displacement represented by a corporeal displacement, or, better still, by a movement within the body itself. Decroux advised that the movement should remind us of a train moving across the plains, car by car. Each element making up the trunk, aided by the legs which transport it, and the arms which accompany it, or erase themselves, will want to incline, to curve, to displace itself, like successive stages of reasoning, one after the other, one against the others, in the same direction, or in different directions, adopt, according to their needs, this or that muscular intensity, this or that speed of movement. This is another Decrouvian body: a sinuous one, which undulates, which expands and retracts, not like a thing, but very much like a thought, going beyond a mere portrait and becoming the essence of a man or of a woman. This movement, called segmented movement, is also for Decroux a morality lesson because it must, in order to exist, continue - continue to incline, to curve, to find its direction. As in life, where to begin things is not as difficult as to continue them. What a beautiful idea, to perform Mobile Statuary in the hope of learning to be persistent! This way of acting with the body, unfolding, expanding different sequences which seemed to be made up of attitudes contained in the stone of statues, is I must say, the most specific part of corporeal mime. Mobile Statuary can, of course, serve as phrasing for the preceding categories, and the more the acting conspires with it, the more one finds it no matter what the style. But when Mobile Statuary exists autonomously, it manages to give the most complete portrait of the metaphysical with physical means. It's as if one sees the being from inside, from the interior. Figures, exercises, and pieces like The Prophet (1984) are so numerous I cannot cite them in this article.
The fourth category of studies is called Man of Reverie. The body, as if detached from reality, represents this kind of waking, coherent dream which is reverie. It is also the portrait of memory, or rather the state one enters when one remembers. This memory, dear to Decroux, was described by him as the "first artist ever" since it not only keeps images, it also makes new combinations of them. Life in Man of Reverie is without shock: "Things and being move like a society of clouds." This poetry of calm, is it only typified by a rhythm without accents, slow motion, blended images? No, since this muscular softness alone is not enough, it must be connected to a pathway to go to an attitude, a position, "installed in imbalance," "at the edge of falling." It must not seem to be an exploit, but seem rather to have the look of a memory of landscapes and of people from the past or who are absent. In the theatre we are rather more used to remembering with words, and in dance, with music. With Man of Reverie, Etienne Decroux tries to study the different physical and rhythmic traces created by men and women when they evoke what is not in the present. What a crazy hope - to present the imperishable with what by its very nature is bound to perish - the human body. Decroux, sculptor of the invisible, tries to rediscover through form what is hidden in the furthest corners of each of our histories. Man of Reverie is perhaps the most difficult Decrouvian category to master because it is not a movement, or a process of movement in particular, but a state of being, a state which in life demands, at first glance, the absence of visible physical activity. Even so, in looking more closely, there are movements of the head, of the chest, of arms which often seem to defy gravity, but which seem to shoot up from us without any other cause than life.
The absence of apparent material cause will help us find little by little this "how" which will determine the look of the acting in Man of Reverie. This acting is rather near that of Mobile Statuary except that it does not have the necessity of continuing in every direction. It is necessary, rather, to invest a situation with imbalanced body weight, in which one can "rest" while keeping autonomous movements, for example, of the head or the chest. There is always, of course, an unreal, mysterious, or as Decroux would say, "foggy" aspect to the acting of Man of Reverie.
There are few pieces in the style Man of Reverie. The Bird Woman (1983-84) and The Chair of the Absent One are the ones I had the joy of participating in directly. There are, on the contrary, many moments of Man of Reverie in the pieces of Etienne Decroux. I am thinking in particular of the very beautiful piece The Trees (1946) which oscillates between Mobile Statuary and Man of Reverie.
With Man of Sport, Man in the Drawing Room, Mobile Statuary, and Man of Reverie, Etienne Decroux's Corporeal Mime draws up an in-depth portrait of men and women, inspired by their memory, to better understand them and reinvent them. This body, which remembers its suffering and its joys, its struggle, its hopes, and its renunciations, transcends genres and cultures; it is eternal and because it combines all experience, it thinks and represents, and then becomes the witness of our history, the actor of our present, and the messenger of our future.
Many theatre people these days pay their respects to Etienne Decroux. Certain ones speak of his "research," others of his grammar, and others of his system. I understand how much these terms are meant to be sincerely admiring and affectionate, but they always seem strangely reductive, making Decroux seem like an austere master, far removed from life and its desires, a kind of maniac of "gymnasticodramatique" exercises!
I'd like to offer a different opinion, to underline the fact that E. Decroux was above all a creator, and if there is a technique, it is thanks to a repertory he created of more than eighty pieces from 1928 to 1984.
Contrary to another preconceived idea, a great part of this repertory was worked and reworked year after year, with different interpretations and in light of ever-new discoveries. It's a question of original works, and not a thousand and one ways to conjugate Hamlet or other literary monuments. Again E. Decroux shows himself surprisingly daring. He, who had acted everything, or almost, under the direction of Copeau, Jouvet, Dullin, Baty, and Artaud (among others), could have done as most directors do and presented his "versions" of Molière, Aristophanes, Pirandello, etc. Without a doubt, such an activity would have gained for him more understanding on the part of theatre producers! Rising above economic necessities, practicality, and public opinion, he preferred the difficulties, but also the pleasure of creation. The works of Etienne Decroux are short, intense, and seem like poems, Decroux's preferred literary form. He would be criticized for this, but is it not dangerous to take length as a criterion of quality? All these pieces exist and can be played independently, but also can meet, melt into each other, and propagate. It's like a family that never ceases to grow. One solo can grow and be reborn in a chorus form, duets can be placed one next to the other and merged; everything is possible, foreseeable. Once one opens one door, one finds another which opens in its turn. If he is treating social relationships, work, struggle, expression of love, reverie, the Divine or the beyond, it is a repertory which carries hope imprinted with a kind of militant optimism peculiar to Decroux's "political" nature. For having had the great good luck of working on a number of these pieces under his direction, and to have then had the joy of performing them with Steven Wasson and our Théâtre de l'Ange fou (especially in our performance "The Man Who Preferred to Stand"), I have always noticed the very strong reaction of our audiences. Many are deeply touched. Many are surprised, certain ones are hostile, but no one is ever indifferent. I don't find that this repertory is difficult, nor reserved for a specific public. However, this repertory is "new," unusual, it disturbs, strikes, makes one weep when one does not expect to. It is nonrealist, nonlinear, far from anecdotes, reveals to actors the hidden realities of their roots, their resonances, their reverberations, and demands great efforts of concentration, memory, strength, vigilance, and coordination of those who perform them. Stories repeated from generation to generation, and necessarily exaggerated, about the legendary temperament of Etienne Decroux and of his vulnerability to audiences have the unhappy effect of throwing a shadow on his work and make one forget that he was simply a genius. Often, it is true, he was afraid of not being understood by his public, or by his friends, or his disciples. He was therefore like a man in love who is afraid of being rejected by his beloved. It was perhaps this worry that he was not "ready" which gave him the strength of a giant, this creative power. I can only be touched and more than ever admiring before this anxious courage which permitted this passionate work to be born and performed.
Now it is our challenge to continue in the footsteps of this great "ungraspable," and to explore this undiminishable theatrical proposal, above fashions and their transience, concerning the art of acting and the art of being.
N.B. All citations are from notes taken during my studies with Etienne Decroux, first as student and later as his assistant (1978-1984).
Corinne Soum is co-director of International School of Corporeal Mime and of Théâtre de l'Ange Fou (Steve Wasson and Corinne Soum), London.
Translated by Thomas Leabhart.
Notes 1. The term man is to be understood in its general meaning: person.
MIme Journal "Words on Decroux 2" 1997