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What do we see in theatre?

'I would like to say a few words about theatre in general. I dislike it.'
(Genet, 1954: 101)

Theatre is often invoked in the most general terms by writers deploying the concept of liminality. Their aim is not necessarily to identify what might be specific to different forms of theatre but to present theses about social formations, in which theatre serves as an example or as a metaphor. Reference to theatre occurs within a theoretical interest which is not addressed to the stage and its specific techniques, but rather to the conditions for, and the rituals of, 'transitional states' in crossing social thresholds. (1) By contrast, I propose simply to explore an instance of the liminal within the writings of one Western theatre practitioner specifically.

Jean Genet's writing for theatre offers not only plays that are now part of the Western canon, but also a research into what theatre can be. To try to look at theatre through Genet's eyes is to try to identify what Genet saw in theatre specifically, given his dislike of it generally. The register of this difference between the general and the specific in Genet's view of theatre concerns the threshold between the visible and the invisible. For Genet, theatre offers a technique of the visible. This view of theatre has significant connections with the interrogation of the gaze offered in the late work of Merleau-Ponty.

(i) 'Even the finest Western plays', Genet writes, 'have an air of masquerade, an air of farce, not of ceremony. What occurs on stage is always puerile. Beauty of language sometimes deceives us as to depth of theme. In the theatre, everything takes place in the visible world and nowhere else.' (1954: 102-3) What is the connection, as Genet proposes here, between theatre as offering us little more than 'puerile masquerade' and theatre as taking place 'in the visible world and nowhere else'? Is the one a consequence of the other? But then is not Western theatre by definition a place for seeing? (2) And what other world might there be besides the visible? What other world - the 'elsewhere' implied by Genet's assertion 'and nowhere else' - might theatre allow us to see?

Let us make explicit the question which is latent in Genet's statement: 'In the theatre, does everything take place in the visible world and nowhere else?' Besides his expression of dislike for theatre in general, as supporting a linguistic deceit concerning the visible world, Genet offers a distinction through which to think the specific relation between theatre and visibility. On the one hand, the farcical and puerile air of masquerade; and, on the other, ceremony.

Whatever else ceremony means to Genet - and he subscribes to a familiar definition, insisting that the actor be 'a sign charged with signs' (1954: 102), as opposed to masquerading with an air of 'spontaneity' in his gestures (1967a: 227) - it is what distinguishes something specific to theatre from 'theatre in general'. It is on the side of what he calls 'poetic', as opposed to theatre that is concerned to copy its movements and gestures as though 'from life'.

As a writer whose research into theatre was also the practice of it, Genet insists on gestures that 'have no relation with those [that actors use] in daily life'. (1967a: 222) Addressing Roger Blin, during rehearsals for the first Paris production of The Screens, Genet writes: 'Of course, you already know all of what I'm telling you; I am only trying to encourage you in your detachment from a theatre... which looks to the visible life for its models and not to the poetic life...' (1967a: 224) In this Genet is allied with all those theatre practitioners - Artaud, for example - whose research saw in European theatre a very different possibility from what one might still call the 'established' view.

(ii) In his essay on 'the strange word Urb...', Genet offers a parallel between the relation of painting to photography and that of theatre to film and cinema (these being the other visual technologies of his day). 'If we accept - provisionally - the general notions of time and history, admitting also that the act of painting does not remain the same after the invention of photography as it was before, it seems that theatre will not remain the same, after cinema and television, as it was before them.' (1967b: 11) It remains the case, however, that 'theatre in general' has not only remained the same, but has even adopted these different visual media as a point of reference for its own techniques. (3)

For Genet, even at the end of his period of play writing, 'the quality or qualities which shine in theatre alone is or are, perhaps, to be discovered'. (Genet, 1967b: 12) While the sense of ceremony then is 'to be discovered' - this is always the challenge, often not even acknowledged, of staging Genet - we understand that it distinguishes what is specific to theatre from what one might now call 'visibility in general', or from what Merleau-Ponty suggestively calls 'profane vision'. (Merleau-Ponty, 1964: 166) In the case of ceremony, what takes place in theatre would not be the reduction of the visible to what is seen, nor of the seen to what is visible.

The expression of this idea is a chiasmus, which for Merleau-Ponty formulates the reversibility that is the very mode of visual experience. Seeing is not simply a question of what is seen, as if the space of both subject and object were exclusive of each other. Seeing itself touches upon what remains unseen. Not reducible to what is seen, seeing is a dynamic - something 'taking place' - in the reversibility between being seen-seeing. Visual perception does not raise the curtain on a private theatre of mental representations, but requires a body (an 'actor') that moves and is moved, not least by the gaze, as bearing the threshold of 'the visible world'.

(iii) In his last published work, Eye and Mind, Merleau-Ponty offers the following remark about perception: 'The enigma is that my body simultaneously sees and is seen.' (Merleau-Ponty, 1964: 162) The mere statement of an enigma rather tends to dispell any sense of the enigmatic; but consider the current, or flow, of tension - as a register of the relation between seeing and seen - embodied by the highwire act. The steel wire, celebrated in Genet's essay The Highwire Artist, is a threshold traced across the flesh of the gaze. Here it is not a case of crossing a threshold, but of walking along it. The act evokes the line between visibility and invisibility, as the possibility for the audience of being seen by death. Genet condemns 'the rudeness of the audience: during your most dangerous moves, they will close their eyes. They close their eyes when, to dazzle them, you come close to death.' (1958a: 25)

The visible world, as 'theatre', is not then neutrally external to me, indifferent in geometrically co-ordinated space. The visible is not just what I see. It is palpable, through what Merleau-Ponty calls the flesh of the gaze. 'What we are calling flesh...', he writes, 'has no name in any philosophy. As the formative medium of the object and the subject, [the flesh] is not the atom of being, the hard in itself that resides in a unique place and moment: one can indeed say of my body that it is not elsewhere, but one cannot say that it is here or now in the sense that objects are; and yet my vision does not soar over them, it is not the being that is wholly knowing, for it has its own inertia, its ties... [W]e must think it... as an element, as the concrete emblem of a general manner of being.' (Merleau-Ponty, 1968: 147) The highwire act is not, of course, the only theatrical instance of this trace of the liminal, the enactment of chiasmus, in visibility. There is also, at least for Genet, the actor as mask and the stage as mirror.

(iv) As Merleau-Ponty remarks, the most familiar technique of the visible body, of this enigmatic seeing-being seen, is the mirror. Noting that 'every technique is a "technique of the body",' he says that the mirror 'outlines and amplifies the metaphysical structure of our flesh.' (1964: 33) This structure is also evoked by Foucault, who discusses the image of the mirror again in terms of chiasmus: 'I am over there, there where I am not, a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself, that enables me to see myself there where I am not.' (1986: 24)

The mirror is the everyday technique of this threshold of visibility. For, simultaneously, there is also the 'standpoint of the mirror', 'this gaze directed toward me', in which 'I discover my absence from the place where I am.' (Foucault, 1986: 24) In the presence of my absence, I discover the absence of my presence. The mirror offers chiasmus as a technique, in which my body is both seeing - the invisible - and seen - in the visible. For Genet this other 'standpoint', in theatre specifically, is the presence, the gaze, in the actor's mask of the dead.

'The mirror's ghost', writes Merleau-Ponty of this image in which I am seen-seeing, 'lies outside my body, and by the same token my own body's "invisibility" can invest the other bodies I see.' (1964: 33) To see something in theatre is not just a question of what is seen in general, but that it is visible, that it occurs 'in the visible world', the sense of which - that which is unseen - is, in Genet's view, 'to be discovered' within the ceremonial theatre of the funeral mime.

(v) Genet proposes that ceremony 'might render [performance] close to invisibility.' (1954: 106) Ceremony is a name for performance which appears to imply an 'elsewhere' - this 'invisibility' - in relation to the visible world. For Genet, it touches upon such performance as 'is discovered sometimes near the confines of death.' (1967a: 224) To adapt a phrase of Merleau-Ponty's, it 'gives visible existence to what profane vision believes to be invisible.' (1964: 166) This is exemplified in Genet's writing by the mask, the persona, of the archimimos, the funeral mime of Roman tradition (1967b: 16-18). The synonym in Latin for persona - larva - means both 'mask' and 'ghost'. (Wiles, 1990: 129) Both masks and ghosts speak of the enigmatic existence of death, as a palpable threshold not only in, but also of, visibility.

(vi) Genet declares that he goes to the theatre to see himself. Not, however, like 'the public', who go to see themselves displayed in the auditorium through the mirror technique of the stage - in a spectacle for which the 'Italian style theatre', with its gilt frame, was built, and which Genet rather optimistically thought was 'not long for this world'. Even with the gilt removed it remains the case that the audience provides its own performance - 'the performance on the stage never reached the public in its complete purity.' (1967a: 232) Together with theatre in general, Genet disliked 'the play-going public', for whom he suspected that theatre indeed meant simply 'the visible world and nowhere else'. This is the mirror of theatre in general. Genet's famous proposal to counter this was to stage performances if not actually in, then adjacent to, cemetries. (1967b)

By contrast to this world of the auditorium, 'I go to the theatre in order to see myself, on the stage (reproduced in a single character or with the help of a multiple character and in the form of a story) such as I could not - or would not dare - see or dream myself, and such, nonetheless, as I know myself to be.' (1954: 269) Genet goes to see himself in the mask of the actor - a specific relation to the mirror which he variously describes as 'the wound', 'solitude' and 'nakedness'. His account here recapitulates the development from a single to a multiple actor - or, more precisely, from one mask to many - in the history of Western theatre. It also testifies to the element of visibility, its engimatic reversibility, as described by Merleau-Ponty. 'Now perhaps we have a better sense of what is meant by that little verb "to see". Vision is not a certain mode of thought or presence to self; it is the means given me for being absent from myself, for being present in the fission of Being from the inside - the fission at whose termination, and not before, I come back to myself.' (1964: 186)

(vii) If there is 'nowhere else' in Genet's view of theatre in the visible world, if invisibility is inscribed in visibility, the liminal possibility of theatre is not a threshold to be crossed. It is, rather, the enigmatic hinge of that simultaneity, that reversibility of embodied perception, which Merleau-Ponty formulates as chiasmus. For Genet, in place of the dreamt of elsewhere (invoked, for instance, by Turner) there is only solitude, and in place of the immortals the dead. What we see in theatre is the staging of chiasmus, in which visibility is touched upon as a mode of being. This need not be in the extreme of tension evoked by the highwire act; but simply in the solitude, the nakedness, of the 'nowhere else', as that which takes place in a theatre viewed as ceremony.

'This visible world is what it is,' Genet writes, 'and our action upon it will not make it be otherwise. So we dream nostalgically of unmaking it - not only of refusing all action upon it, but of stripping ourselves bare enough to discover that secret site within us out of which a completely different human undertaking could have been possible.' (1958b: 41) While this possibility, as theatre, is to be discovered, what it is to see in Genet's theatre specifically is to be touched by the sight of the dead.


1. For example, the papers gathered from the conferences following Victor Turner's proposals about 'universals of performance' (1990). Turner's proposals are criticised by anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz and Colin Turnbull for their too generalising account of 'drama'. 'It can expose some of the profoundest features of social process, but at the expense of making vividly disparate matter look drably homogenous,' writes Geertz (quoted in Schechner, 1983: 205-6).

2. The word derives from the Latin form of the Greek thea - sight, view; 'a place for viewing' (Oxford English Dictionary).

3. The news, for instance, is often taken as exemplary of 'real drama'; it is discussed by Schechner (1983: 207-9) as a 'paradigm of liminal performance'. The puerility of 'daily life' is also celebrated in such 'fly on the wall' television shows as Big Brother. Genet's reply to this culture is given in his extraordinary last book, Prisoner of Love.


Foucault, Michel (1986) 'Of Other Spaces' (tr. Miskowiec, J.), Diacritics, Spring 1986: 22-27.

Genet, Jean (1954) 'Lettre a J-J Pauvert', in Fragments... et Autres Textes.

Genet, Jean (1958a) 'Le Funambule', in Oeuvres Completes V.

Genet, Jean (1958b) 'L'Atelier d'Alberto Giacometti', in Oeuvres Completes V.

Genet, Jean (1967a) 'Lettres a Roger Blin', in Oeuvres Completes IV.

Genet, Jean (1967b) 'L'Etrange Mot d'...', in Oeuvres Completes IV.

Genet, Jean (1979) Oeuvres Completes V. Paris: Editions Gallimard.

Genet, Jean (1989) Prisoner of Love (tr. Bray, B.). London: Picador.

Genet, Jean (1990) Fragments... et Autres Textes (ed. White, E.). Paris: Editions Gallimard.

Genet, Jean (1997) Oeuvres Completes IV. Paris: Editions Gallimard.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1964) 'Eye and Mind' (tr. Dallery, C.), in The Primacy of Perception (ed. Edie, J. M.). Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1968) The Visible and the Invisible (tr. Lingis, A.). Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Schechner, Richard (1983) 'News, Sex and Performance Theory', in Hassan I. and S. (eds) Innovation/Renovation. University of Wisconsin Press.

Turner, Victor (1990) 'Are There Universals of Performance?', in Schechner and Appel (eds) By Means of Performance. Cambridge: C.U.P.

Wiles, David (1990) The Masks of Menander. Cambridge: C. U. P.