Failed embodiment, silent speech, and ontological intermediality in Edward Bond's production of The Under Room
Abstract: In The Under Room an illegal immigrant is represented by a Dummy and Dummy Actor. The article will examine the impact of this performance strategy from the dramatist's (2012) Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith production, in the light of Shaun May's (2012) discussion of 'failed embodiment', and Jens Schröter's (2011) four models of intermedial discourse. I will propose that the immigrant's 'failed' body demonstrates both 'transformational' and 'ontological' intermediality.
Keywords: Edward Bond, extimacy, intermediality, silent speech, punctum, tragedy.
In The Under Room, set in 2077, an illegal immigrant is caught by a young woman hiding from soldiers in her house. The woman Joan, initially assumes that the immigrant is burgling her, but he explains his predicament: he lives without papers by shoplifting. Joan agrees to shelter him in her cellar and help him acquire a false passport. A little later, the immigrant tells Joan about a trauma from his childhood in his own country, in which he was taken as a child soldier. What is immediately odd for an audience, but which the other characters in the play do not notice about the immigrant, is the fact that his body is represented by a crudely stuffed, barely iconic effigy. The living, speaking immigrant, played by a 'Dummy Actor', usually stands some distance from this 'body', far enough away from it to be unable to ventriloquise it; that is to say, an audience is unable to synthesise or confuse the living body with the dummy body because we may not quite keep them both in focus simultaneously.
Synthetic, and virtual intermediality
In order to make sense of this strange performance strategy, we will initially investigate the structures that it seems to deliberately disrupt. Ventriloquism, like cinema, simulates the presence of speaking beings by synchronising auditory and visual fields. Jens Schröter terms this procedure 'synthetic intermediality' (2011: 2): the onlooker is deceived by an apparent synthesis of media. In the case of ventriloquism, the living voice seems to attach itself to the iconic dummy body because of its carefully coordinated movement. In the case of cinema, a painstaking synthesis of separately recorded sounds and images, 'lip-synch', brings a screen to apparent life. But Schröter's synthetic intermediality is not limited to the auditory and visual fields. As Shaun May, in his (2012) discussion of Botvinik and Cohen's (1998) 'rubber hand illusion' has noted, the visual and haptic may also be synthesised to generate a more personal sense of animation, or 'perceptual embodiment'.
Indeed the illusion-forming qualities of synthetic intermediality do not even appear to require different media to operate successfully. According to Eisenstein's poetics of film form, if we handle images as words by focusing on their syntactical arrangement, we can trigger the same condensing synthesis of signifiers which we have seen at work in the previous examples.
In the famous instance of the nurse from Eisenstein's 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin, which we see below, the illusion of a woman being shot in the eye is created using this editing technique.
Lacan gives an account of Pliny the Elder's ancient tale of competing painters, Zeuxis and Parrhasios, concerning mimesis or iconicity. Here, we need only a single image to generate an illusion convincing enough to trick the onlooker. Zeuxis paints grapes which are realistic enough to take in the eye of the birds, which fly down to peck at them. 'The stress is placed not on the fact that these grapes were in any way perfect grapes, but on the fact that the eye of the birds was taken in by them' (Lacan, 1998: 103).
If we investigate the semiotic structures at work in each of the illusions outlined above, we may detect an underlying formal tendency, Schröter's 'formal intermediality', at work in the illusion-forming process. In each case an iconic signifier which substitutes for, yet resembles its object, is presented as (and so mistaken for) an indexical signifier, with which the onlooker is bodily contiguous. The ventriloquist's dummy 'comes to life'; the image on the cinema screen 'speaks'; Botvinik and Cohen's rubber hand becomes 'sensate'; Eisenstein's nurse is 'shot' in the eye; and Zeuxis' 'grapes' make mouths water. This switch between semblance and proximity is profoundly disorientating, not to say disembodying for the onlooker; indeed we may even go so far as to say that onlookers' bodies are momentarily hijacked by such processes. In the hyperreal the structure of the sign is reversed; as Jean Baudrillard has observed (1994: 2), what we take for an object is in fact a signifier, and languages and bodies, pattern and sensation change places with each other. We feel we are bodily in the presence of something, yet in reality the signifier has no object. We do not even need an icon to be in this state, which Lacan terms 'castration'; just a misplaced expectation, typified by Freud's hypothetical little boy who mistakenly anticipates the existence of the maternal phallus (Freud, 2006: 91). The illusory quality of the hyperreal is characterised by an apparent (and uncanny) animation of something inanimate. It can be seen as disembodying, even deathly, because the corollary of the animated object is the lifeless (if sometimes twitching) onlooker, typified by the cinema audience and (passé Slavoj Žižek), fetishist. The onlooker suffers a lack of agency, being 'taken in', or 'captivated' quite literally, by fantasy (Lacan, 1998: 104).
Bond's dummy fails to come to life in this way. Instead of synthesising, it splits auditory and visual signifiers; this, to generate a deliberate failure of the 'lip synch' principle to which we have become so accustomed from watching film and TV. In Bond's Lyric Hammersmith production of The Under Room (2012), Felix Scott's Dummy Actor was a lively, animated being, like a caged animal at times; he seemed to be increasingly frustrated by his inability to protect his very separate and helpless Dummy body from the projections, assumptions and actions of the other characters in the play, except by speaking to them from across the room. The Dummy Actor's words were in this way disconnected from his body; yet his words were urgent and vital, because they had to act on his body's behalf. As we have seen, the ventriloquist animates the dummy by combining speech and movement, to draw the fascinated, yet castrated audience into their fantasy. Bond's failed ventriloquist however, seems to have the opposite effect of animating his audience. According to Mladen Dolar, the audible and visible operate in starkly different ways:
Watching separates us from events, while listening makes distance collapse; a watching and listening audience experiences the detached intensity that tends to characterise the theatrical. When the auditory is displaced from the visual field, as it is by the Dummy and Dummy Actor, the 'safe' separation of stage from auditorium may be upset. If we investigate the semiotics of the situation, we might clarify what is happening. Dummy and Dummy Actor are separated from each other, so not only are the lips not 'in synch', but the iconic signifier (the Dummy), and the symbolic signifier (the speaking Dummy Actor) are not 'in synch': voices are loosed from bodies as they would have been in ancient, masked drama. Instead of closing, or suturing the gap between culture and physicality as the examples of synthetic intermediality we have looked at do, the failed ventriloquist Dummy Actor indexes his Dummy in a spatial hiatus. According to Charles Peirce, indices 'direct attention to their objects by blind compulsion' (Cited in Chandler, 2002: 41).
The urgency suggested by Peirce's phrase 'blind compulsion' might be explained by the way the index physically destabilises the onlooker. According to Dolar as we have seen, seeing allows us to locate ourselves at a distance from events, while the amorphous nature of sound invades us as Lacan puts it, 'extimately'. Live sound in the absence of images therefore makes us experience the external world with an intimate intensity, encountering effects without being able to establish their causes - effects which may seem to physically threaten us. When effects are apparent before causes, we are caught up in an eerie, ahistorical time warp, in which linear time goes into reverse; we face effects in the present without having first encountered their cause. Peirce's 'blind compulsion' is founded in anxiety; the rattlesnake, for instance, trades on the anxiety its rattle causes us when we cannot see it. Such anxiety causes us to look searchingly; we need to reunite cause with effect, to establish a physical distance between our bodies and the external world of sound which threatens to invade us. In short, we search compulsively so that time and space, (the past and present, internality and externality) may return to a more comfortable configuration; one in which we regain our self-conscious, differentiated, adult status. We use rattles to teach babies to follow sounds with their eyes, to connect cause with effect and eye with ear, a first principle in the acquisition of speech. This is a principle which Bond seems to deliberately undermine here, by disintegrating the function of the eye from that of the ear and returning us to a primal, prelinguistic, and therefore in Deluze and Guttari's terms, 'anti-Oedipal' state of sensory functioning (2012). To understand the Dummy and Dummy Actor in semiotic terms, the indexical signifier has been separated, or 'torn away from the object' (Chandler, 2002: 41). If it is understood by performers, the strategy can induce a potentially heightened or inflamed spectatorship; an animated, embodied audience, whose shifting gaze mediates between Dummy Actor and Dummy. Imbued with this categorical imperative, such spectatorship takes responsibility for the immigrant's failed embodiment by trying to 'knit' him back up, for the sake of the spectator's own corresponding failing physical integrity.
If we return for a moment to the ancient tale of the competing painters, Zeuxis and Parrhasios, we may offer a parallel illustration of the processes at stake here. Parrhasios wins the competition 'for having painted a veil so lifelike that Zeuxis, turning towards him said, 'Well and now show us what you have painted behind it' (Lacan, 1998: 103, his emphasis). What is it that distinguishes Zeuxis' trompe l'oeil from Parrhasios' apparently very similar trick with the grapes? As Lacan points out, Parrhasios has painted a veil: 'something that incites [us] to ask what is behind it' (1998: 112). According to Maurice Benayoun, audience interactivity starts with Parrhasios. This is perhaps because Parrhasios puts us in a gap between expectation and physicality. If we want to confirm our expectations, we have to decide to act: to engage bodily with the artefact; but when we do so in this instance, we are forced by their failure to confront the fact that our expectations are flawed. We relate to Parrhasios' veil in a subtly different way to Zeuxis' grapes; looking beyond or through the painting instead of at it, our expectations are highlighted; instead of colliding bodily with the artefact, we make a pleasurable, intellectual discovery. As Lacan puts it:
We detect similarities between Parrhasios', Bond's, and Freud's approaches in this respect, if we consider the layout of furniture in Freud's consulting room. Freud deliberately positioned himself outside his patients' field of vision, hors champ, so that if they wanted to see him they would have to sit up and turn around; to move themselves bodily. The arrangement provokes a conscious decision: if we want to challenge our expectations, founded as they are in the repeated patterns of past experience, we must use our bodies, and our eyes actively. Active seeing can deliver a reality founded in the physical sensations of the embodied present. From this vantage point, we are able to differentiate between the mediated or represented gaze, and our own unmediated, living gaze; between culture and physicality. We are able to reverse the transposition of semblance and proximity which we make in the cinema.
The Under Room offers us many such opportunities. Joan and the Dummy make contact with Jack, who they believe will help the Dummy to escape 'north'. But Jack is a crook, who secretly breaks into the house at night, and steals the Dummy's shoplifting money which was to pay for his passage. Jack then blackmails Joan, threatening to betray them both to the army unless she prostitutes herself to cover the costs he says he has incurred in obtaining false papers. The Dummy suffers episodes of coma following his experiences as a child soldier, in which he seems to re-live his trauma; during these episodes he speaks in a strange foreign language. Joan's now horrific situation makes her resent the Dummy she had wanted to help. While the Dummy is in his coma, Joan lashes out at him, sending his Dummy body sliding across the floor with a kick; almost immediately, she absolves herself with a strange confession of jealousy. The immigrant remains oblivious. When he wakes, for the first time in the play, the Dummy Actor has taken the place of the Dummy; auditory and visual signifiers seem at last to operate synchronously. In what feels to the audience like a great shift of gear, the other characters now look at and interact with the live Dummy Actor instead of the Dummy. The Dummy Actor moves and speaks almost naturally for the first time; almost naturally, because as he has grown nearer to reintegrating himself with his body, the Dummy Actor has changed the Dummy into his own clothes, a bright red shirt and jeans, the legs and arms of which are too long for the effigy's truncated, child-size limbs. In Felix Scott's performance, the Dummy Actor still could not quite make eye contact with the other characters, as the image below demonstrates; seen but unseeing and half naked, the Dummy Actor is a muscular, yet vulnerable figure, who has not fully broken out of his state of disassociation; he remains partly disembodied, relying on listening more than looking.
Felix Scott (Dummy Actor) and Nicholas Gleaves (Jack) performing The Under Room at the Lyric Hammersmith, London, April 2012. Directed by Edward Bond and photographed by Tristram Kenton. Web image available at http://www.thestage.co.uk [Accessed 10.11.2012]
Joan subsequently speaks as though the violence had not occurred; the Dummy Actor is unaware of it because it happened while he was unconscious; but as the Dummy lies where it was kicked on the floor in the previous scene, it becomes a potential reminder to its audience of Joan's hidden brutality.
Joan is not telling lies here; we have witnessed everything she speaks about. But her self-pity may seem misplaced in the face of the prostrate Dummy, which as we see from the photograph above, was enormous in this production, and occupied centre stage, dressed almost comically in bright red to draw the eye. Like a bruised face, the Dummy is a symptom, indexing an uncomfortable truth: the domestic violence which Joan seeks to disavow. If, like the Dummy Actor, we rely on listening more than looking, Joan may even now convince. After all, we did not expect this behaviour of her - she has kindly sheltered the Dummy; and in spite of her violent outburst, she persists in saying she will sacrifice everything to help him. If we habitually rely on representation, the repeated patterns of past experience lead us to expect an unchanging future. So when Joan knifes and eviscerates the Dummy in the next scene, it comes as a bit of a shock! But we are positioned here between representation, and our own unmediated living eye; between metaphor and metonymy; between icons and symbols, and indices. If we pay attention to the metonymic index - and it is astonishing how easy it is to overlook - the Dummy speaks silently of Joan's brutality; his body a 'brute presence or punctum that remains a deaf and silent obstacle to all forms of signification' (Rancière, 2004: 92).
By separating word from image in this play, Bond could be said to have created monomedia which refuse to synthesise into a fantastic or utopian hyperreal experience. We are obliged to use our own physicality, if we are to first 'knit' Dummy Actor with Dummy by shifting our gaze, and then distinguish between Joan's speeches of heroic self-sacrifice and our own proximity to the bruised Dummy, which nobody mentions. This form of embodied, or animated spectatorship may disclose two separate types of meaning with deep formal differences: that made by linguistic substitution or pattern, and that made by physical contiguity or sensation. A movement from linguistic culture to physicality may be likened to Schröter's concept of 'transformational intermediality' (2011), and May's 'disclosiveness of failure'. May draws on Heidegger's Being and Time (1927 ) to explain how objects which are ready-to-hand, and which we use as tools habitually, take on a transparent, or invisible quality; it is only when they cease to function optimally, or fail, that we become aware of them (cf. May, 2012). Failure, in this instance the Dummy's failing body, makes us aware of a physicality we may otherwise not notice, or forget.
Similarly, according to Schröter, one medium can represent another medium 'in such a way that its everyday "normal" states of being are defamiliarized or, as it were, transformed' (2011: 5). Words and tools both operate according to the linguistic principle of substitution; once we are used to them we stop noticing them, our body is enculturated, and the gap between culture and physicality is sutured. Failing tools and lying words throw us back into our bodies, searching for extralingusitic meaning from metonymic or indexical signs. We have noted how the Dummy's body wordlessly contests Joan's extravagant declarations of self-sacrifice; in this way the logic of a situation (the relationship between cause and effect) can be expressed visually instead of verbally; we hear with our eyes - a cross-sensory, or synaesthetic remediation that Jacques Rancière terms 'silent speech' (2004: 92). The underlying formal (or trans-formal) shift described in each case, seems to be a movement from pattern, a coded, familiar, and so transparent medium, to a decoded, defamiliarized, embodied state; from a state of ideological enculturation to one of sensory functioning. As Roland Barthes might have put it, from studium to punctum (Barthes, 1981: 25-60). Semiotician Daniel Chandler describes the process as follows:
If synthetic intermediality operates on the formal principle of condensing signifiers, transformational intermediality demonstrates its reverse by displacing them. Each strategy seems to have political implications. According to Schröter, synthetic intermediality relates to a movement residing 'in the tradition of Wagner and his Zürich writings, i.e., in the genealogical tradition of the artistic synthesis of a Gesamkunstwerk.' (2011: 1). Chiel Kattenbelt (2008), using different terms, seems to be referring to Schröter's 'transformational intermediality', when he refers to 'those co-relations between different media that result in a redefinition of the media that are influencing each other, which in turn leads to a fresh perception' (2008: 25). Kattenbelt relates this type of intermediality to the paintings of Kandinsky, the films of Eisenstein and plays of Brecht (2008: 26). It seems we have modernist binary intermedialities of the political right and left, which aim to fabricate and dismantle ideologies respectively.
What then are we to make of Schröter's 'ontological intermediality', which he defines as the 'flip side' of 'transformational intermediality'? According to Schröter 'monomedia' are artificial:
In other words there is nothing natural, or 'primal' about transformational intermediality; one ideology purposefully and institutionally dismantles the other, leaving us at a familiar postmodern impasse. For Schröter, ontological intermediality seems to possess a different sensibility; it stops short of dismantling, or forcing us into either camp, but holds both in a Derridean, differentiated yet deferred co presence; here, things 'are determined only relationally and differentially so that, consequently, they do not possess any absolutely constant "being"' (2011: 6). We see this at the end of The Under Room. The Dummy Actor emerges from his coma onto the stage; he looks down to discover something we have already witnessed; that he has been murderously attacked. Joan has eviscerated his Dummy-body and the stage is strewn with its debris of yellow foam rubber stuffing. The Dummy Actor half moves some of these strips of foam rubber with his foot and speaks, repeating a word in a language we cannot understand.
The immigrant has always been spatially unstable, because he existed in two separate spaces which we had to try to synthesise ourselves; now he is auditorially destabilised and we are obliged to rely on his voice to make meaning of his utterances because the word makes no sense to us. The strategy puts its audience in a gap where making meaning by condensing or synthesising symbolic, iconic and indexical signifiers is not possible: word and voice, living and eviscerated bodies refuse to 'add up'. Now, in what we might term a radicalising, or tragic self-consciousness, the immigrant exists in two temporalities, a past and a future that seems to defer or suspend any constant 'being' in the present, because his consciousness and physicality are so starkly inconsistent.
When Lacan writes of the 'delight' of standing on the cusp of the trompe l'oeil, he refers perhaps to the agency it allows the onlooker; we may position ourselves to enjoy the attractions of representation or the realisations of physicality; each is a mere, if transformational, shift of the gaze from the other (cf. Lacan, 1998: 112). To be strictly accurate, at the end of The Under Room, we occupy the cusp of both a trompe l'oeil and a trompe l'oreille. Though 'delight' may seem a strange concept to apply to the situation depicted in the closing moments of this play, I contend that it is entirely appropriate if we understand 'delight' in terms of comic and tragic jouissance.
We may define the comic as a delayed confrontation with castration; we laugh at the moment when a preoccupation with signifiers is confronted with their failure. As he walks onstage at the end of the play, the Dummy Actor is a signifier without an object - he has died without realising it. Like Freud's hypothetical little boy, the Dummy Actor's expectation (of a maternal phallus) is misplaced; he is in Lacan's terms 'castrated'. When he looks down to see his own eviscerated body, his expectation confronts lack. This may be comic for an audience because according to Freud, 'the comic is an expectation that has turned to nothing' (Kant cited by Freud, 1991: 259). Shaun May cites the predicament of Socrates' colleague Thales, who comically 'falls into a ditch because he was busy looking at the sky, with the local bystanders having a laugh at his expense' (2012). According to Schopenhauer humour is an exposure of a gap between our concept of ourselves and our actions: the bigger the gap, 'the greater the ludicrous effect which is produced by its contrast' (1964: 252). In comedy, (which can be both brutal and macabre), physicality corrects, or updates consciousness.
Tragic jouissance in contrast, resides in physicality. The tragic sensibility rests with the abject, in this case with the eviscerated Dummy. Its confrontation with the expectant signifier is not a sudden one because unlike comedy, tragedy is not dependent on timing. In tragedy, we focus not on expectation, but on lack. As Rancière has pointed out, the object with no signifier silently challenges all signifiers, demonstrating Lacan's insight, that 'symbolisation always fails, that it never succeeds in fully "covering" the real' (Cited in Žižek 1999: 73-74). When language fails, we may experience a reality beyond representation.
Though it obliges us to relinquish the pleasures of the hyperreal and acknowledge what Baudrillard labels the 'desert of the real' (1994: 1), the ontological intermediality offered by this Dummy and Dummy Actor is not authoritarian: it does not force its audience to respond in one particular, politically unified way. Indeed the 'play' the Dummy and Dummy Actor offers between prelinguistic and linguistic structure inaugurates a wide range of responses, from the comic to the tragic. Both comedy and tragedy challenge the symbolic order as we have seen: this defines the innate political radicalism of drama. We could define this co-presence of comic and tragic response a post postmodern phenomenon; it suggests that although an audience may not deny the material reality of the immigrant's death, we are at liberty to confront it in vastly different, personally illuminating ways.
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Dr. Kate Katafiasz is Senior Lecturer in Drama at Newman University in Birmingham. Research interests include embodiment, aesthetics and intermediality in applied drama and theatre. Recent peer-reviewed publications include:
'Quarrelling with Brecht: understanding Bond's post-structuralist political aesthetic', pp. 237-251 in Studies in Theatre and Performance, Volume 28: 3 (2008), Bristol: Intellect.
'Staging Reality (beyond representation): a perplexing Bondian body', in JCDE, Journal for the Study of Contemporary Drama in English: Volume 1 (forthcoming June 2013), Berlin: de Gruyter.
'Dramatic Leadership: Dorothy Heathcote's Autopoietic, or Embodied Leadership Model', in The Embodiment of Leadership, a volume in the International Leadership Association's 'Building Leadership Bridges' series, (forthcoming March 30th 2013), San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass/Wiley.