Although The Tragical History started life as a play-within-a-novel, it now finally stands on its own. Its original (alleged) author, American poet, painter, film director and visionary Alfred Hoos wrote and designed it and his disciple, the Greek writer and director Yannis Philaretos put it together for performance. Both characters are fictional, out of a work in progress by Apostolos Doxiadis. But the play and the performance they generated are very real. In it, the aesthetics of popular theater, storytelling, shadow puppetry and music combine in this modern-day mini total-work-of-art.
Dramatis Personae: The cast in Pictures
(click on thumbnails to enlarge)
Songs from the Play (Click on the “play” icons below to listen to the songs)
The Ballad of Jackson Pollock:
Drip drip drip:
Like all pink little infants:
The Moral of the story:
Storytelling and Theatre – Storytelling and Prose
Apostolos Doxiadis interviewed by Dorina Papaliou
What is the relationship between storytelling and theatre?
Storytelling and theatre are related arts, and in part they overlap. Storytelling is at the root of theatre, and a part of the history of civilization but it is also a part of every person’s history, as biologists say ‘evolution of the being copies general evolution’. Both civilizations and people start with a need to tell stories, which are at first told simply and are sometimes, as they mature, dressed up in richer clothing. Peter Brook says that a theatre troupe is in his opinion a ‘multifaceted story-teller’, a formulation which I consider to be very appropriate. What troubled Brecht about what he called ‘Epic Theatre’ was exactly this: bringing theatre back to its roots, story-telling.
In what way has it moved away from this?
Let us look at Brecht again in connection to this. He begins with a divide, which Aristotle made between the Epic and the Dramatic, a divide, which meant something different to Aristotle that what it means to us. Theatre in our day (from the Renaissance to the present) is becoming more and more exclusively dramatic, which in practice means, exclusively psychological. In civilizations with a purely anthropocentric understanding of the world, human passions (psychology) become the focus of attention. If you make two people argue on stage, you achieve the purest essence of dramatic expression as it has been reduced to, today. The foreign theoretician’s concept of drama = conflict has now ended up being about psychological confrontation only.
Does that mean that you believe that there was a time in theatre when the epic or the storytelling element was dominant?
Definitely, it used to define the point of view. This is obvious in the theatre of Aeschylus, the European Middle Ages, early Shakespeare (especially in his historic plays) where he is still influenced by the first Middle Age plays that he would see growing up. We see its dominance in nearly all traditional theatre of the East, the No or Kabuki of Japan, India’s Naudaki, Indonesia’s Guayang Kulit and many others.
Could you give a definition? What is storytelling in theatre? What is the theatre of storytelling?
Briefly: the storytelling genre in theatre is that in which one point of view is dominant, one which does not become embroiled in the psychology of the heroes. Usually, the medium for this is a narrator (or a chorus), or sometimes (the Japanese call this a katar) the characters themselves have ways of moving in and out of character, of distancing themselves – as Brecht would say – occasionally using the third person to comment on their ideas and their actions. The theatre of storytelling is that, in which there is dominant medium of storytelling.
Does the rebirth of storytelling consequently affect theatre as well?
Of course! And in fact, in my humble opinion, it is timely. People of the theatre have a lot to learn from observing what happens in storytelling. And first of all, they have to fight their Narcissism – which in short is the worship of form, of technique – and look again at the meaning of their art. However artful a storyteller is, if the content of his art (the stories) is poor it cannot be successful. On the other hand in our theatre, what is of more concern to us is the how, rather than the what, so the art itself ends up being an affected play on form. But whilst learning things about the art of the storyteller, the actor and the director of the play are thrown back into one of the sources of their art, the story, the spine, the beginnings of theatrical art which have to do with meaning.
What kind of relationship do the new storytellers have with theatre, internationally?
I would say that the relationship is a mixed one, which includes the whole spectrum of capabilities. One finds young storytellers who think of art as completely antithetical to theatre (rejecting over the top, affected and pompous- ultimately – false theatre) and others who very consciously try to approach it, to create connections. Both the former and the latter, however, are different from the clearly dramatic – which nowadays, I’ll say it again, refers to psychological – genre. Let us not forget that the new storytellers place themselves in two basic categories: the fireside storytellers or the theatrical storytellers. The former – by definition – hold the traditional storyteller as a standard, who tells a story ‘by the fire’ having just his voice and some gestures or grimaces as a means of expression. Anyway, they consider themselves diametrically opposite to ‘theatre’ (even if they are exercising its primary form); the meaning of ‘acting’ is anathema to them, an example of what to avoid. The latter, by developing a richer language of expression, using motion, music, the interaction of more than one character/ storyteller, consider themselves within the wider scope of theatrical art. From that point of view, the performance of the Mahabharata by Peter Brook, for example, constitutes an extreme form of ‘theatrical storytelling’. Amongst the best cases of the ‘theatrical storytelling’ form is the French-Norwegian Abi Patrix. The “Compagnie du Cercle” which he has founded, in conjunction with other storytellers, but also directors, musicians, playwrights, etc., creates complex storytelling performances, all of which contain some element of action on stage which differentiates it from simple, unadorned storytelling. I refer to The War of the Crows with the Owls, by way of example where Patrix himself with the musician Bernard Sege present an extremely kinetic and visually lively presentation of stories from the Indian Pandsatandra, a didactic book containing tales of animals, similar to those of Aesop; or another of their shows, where three storytellers present an old Irish love story, accompanied by music and dance movements.
Within the scope of events entitled ‘Let me tell you a story….’ you directed two seminars for actors. What was their aim?
To introduce actors to the world of stories and the art of storytelling. To open a window which would either be useful to them by giving them new abilities in their work, in theatre, or to trigger an interest to learn more about storytelling – perhaps even to convert some of them to this type of art.
Does your interest in storytelling stem from its relationship with theatre?
To begin with, it stems from my work in prose. In all my written work, a main inspiration, in one form or another, was the spoken word: in Parallel Life it was the old legends (based on spoken narration), in Makavettas it was the folk narration of historical events (we find them as written memoirs of those who fought in 1821, for example), and in Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture, it is the immediate autobiographical word. I have always had a dislike of prosaic development. Since childhood, whatever I read, I was in the habit of skipping through sections where the author described places, people or feelings. On the other hand, I felt I was drawn to every passage where I encountered the precise, efficient style of the spoken narration, where people wrote ‘economizing on time, ink, paper and emotion’ as Kondoglou says. Before Parallel Life, I was trying to complete a work for around ten years, but I couldn’t do it: from a certain point onwards, the wordiness would make me feel nauseous, and I would abandon the texts I had begun. In 1985, however, after a period of systematic dwelling on the old biographies of saints (which I did for non-literary reasons), I came to realize that I had at my disposal a style with which I could express myself without falling into the trap of verbal diarrhea.
But don’t biographies of saints belong to literature?
I told you, they definitely originated in the spoken word. Especially in the form in which I first encountered them: in the short stories of Gherontikos or in the longer narratives of Lafsaikos and Limonarios, which I first browsed through in guest houses at Mount Athos, the author essentially records, unchanged, a form of stories which was transferred from mouth to mouth, even to our day, in the environment of holy men: their students relate, again and again, the achievements and the teachings of the elders, and at some point, they are recorded on paper to be saved from the ‘depths of oblivion’ (Anna Komninou’ s expression). So here is where the written word steps in with its first and sacred function, as a preservation of the spoken word. The written version exists in order to preserve the pre-existing spoken word, it isn’t the creative tool of the modern day writer, who sitting in front of his blank piece of paper, starts to fill it with his own ideas, being creative ‘with the tips of his fingers’, to use this excellent expression which characterizes the era of the typewriter or the electronic word processor.
Do we encounter this influence of the oral on the written in other Authors?
Certainly. I refer by way of example to the par excellence storyteller Leskof , the Tolstoy of the latter stories, Isaac Basevis Singer, as well as some singled out short stories by some, amongst other things, very intellectual people, Flaubert’ s The Passion of St. Julien (which also originates in religious writings), some texts written by Hawthorn, Birs, Borges. Also, our very own Stratis Doukas and Fotis Kontoglou.
D.S.: But despite what you say, the writers you mention are considered to be great masters of written style.
So what? He who creates great oral work is the par excellence master of style, a man who says much with few words. A reader can pick up or put down a book he is reading as many times as he wants, whenever he wants. The listener, however, should he leave or get bored, either he falls asleep or is bored to death, whatever, he can never go back. The storyteller does not have the luxury to focus on beautifying language, he either has to be precise or he defeats his own purpose.
And what exactly does ‘precise’ mean in this context?
It means unembellished. It means concise. It means to the point, and mainly it means direct. What we see is the difference between off the rail clothes, or general purpose (the written word), and the made to measure suit (the spoken word). One must not forget that the spoken word has always got a specific purpose, since it always exists in the here and now, it seeks to transfer something from A to B now. A book can be written for thousands of reasons and it may never have had, nor ever intended to have, even the desire to reach an audience. But when I tell you a story, I have to be one hundred percent present, I am to a very large degree subjected to who you are, to where, when and for what reason I am telling you a story, and of course mainly to what I tell you, to what the story is. Establishing an aim creates certain criteria, and those criteria lead to conciseness, to density, and to a high activity of the word.
But surely recording the spoken word becomes an oxymoron?
Look. In our day and age, it is not possible to compartmentalize things. The notion of a purely oral civilization was eclipsed by the discovery of writing and has been demolished by the arrival of printing. From that moment on, in the same way that we encounter oral performances which originate in the written word (e.g. the theatre of our day, where the actor parrots the pre-existing text of the author), we equally have writings which are based on speech, like the works of the writers to whom I referred previously. Naturally, by recording the spoken, we deaden some of its elements (and mainly its adaptability, its capacity to always adjust to the circumstances), but many other elements are maintained: its density, its awareness, its lucidity and the proximity of the signified to the signifier. If we could have an extremely talented storyteller at our service with an infinite repertory, it would be far superior to a full library. But because these things do not happen -at least not on demand – we can find some of the riches of the oral tradition in writing.
I have one last question which I am directing to you as the main organizer of the series of events called ‘Let me tell you a story…’ Why did it take so long for the re-birth of storytelling to reach Greece? And what are its prospects in our country?
As I have also said before, there is a ‘negative’ as well as a ‘positive’ reason. The former is that this rebirth being part of a trend of Modernism (or postmodernism, if you like) was late in reaching us, as are other things. The latter, the positive reason, is that we are by nature one of the more oral-based nations of the West: our lifestyle is still relatively open, as are our hearts. We are more spontaneous, more impulsive, more direct- and consequently, we have been much less susceptible to the dulling effect of the dominant ‘out of a can’ word (whether printed or electronic), than the pure West. And it is without a doubt that the rebirth of storytelling begins as a healthy reaction to this Herald of Death. So it may therefore be that we just have objectively felt less of a need for it. Hence the delay.
And now? Is it getting so bad that we need it?
Let’s look at the bright side again. It would be a shame if we, who in the past have given birth to so many fairytales and so many stories, remained at a distance from this ability, from sophisticated, conscious work on the oral. And we must not forget that the modern, the new storytellers, do not merely practice a kind of ‘recreation’ (in the current sense of the word) nor is it a form of ‘entertainment’. They work in education and in special needs. In other words it goes beyond directing it to an audience, some more bored than others, who want to spend a few pleasant evening hours, they also work where there is a real need: at schools, hospitals, asylums, etc.
So has the time come for us to get professional storytellers too?
Perhaps, perhaps not, but that does not really do anything for me. What is more important is to find the stories that we will tell: we need this process more than we need its results, we need the exploration, which if done properly, would bring with it a process of self knowledge. That is what counts. You mustn’t forget that the storyteller as a rule, does not begin with inventing, plucking things out of the blue, nor does he think up some original story to impress with his wit. He usually works with traditional material, and this is what interests us. As Greeks, we have sources for an oral tradition in ancient times, in mythology, in epic poetry, in Christian tradition, in folk stories, in recent burning memories of History. Which of these is it important to revive, through speech and how? What do we need to hear again and – through hearing it again – to put back into our lives? That is the question with which I would like to conclude. Because, if we can find the stories which we truly need, then we will inevitably find the storytellers.
Paralipomena is a catalogue giving additional background information on the creators of The Tragical History of Jackson Pollock, Abstract Expressionist, writer Alfred Hoos and director Yannis Philaretos (click on their pictures below) elaborating their lives, works, theories and concept of a ‘necessary art’.
Drawing by Alfred Hoos
- Haris Kabouridis – Ta Nea (in Greek) -
Ποια σχέση έχει ο Τζ. Πόλοκ, το σύμβολο της αμερικανικής ζωγραφικής, με τον Πλάτωνα, το μιούζικαλ και τον Καραγκιόζη; Το multimedia έργο του Απ. Δοξιάδη προτείνει ένα «ενιαίο καλλιτεχνικό έργο» και ένα ιδιοφυές ζευγάρωμα της παράδοσης με το πνεύμα της εποχής.
- Paraskevi Katimertzi – Ta Nea (in Greek) -
Πίσω από τον μπερντέ το φτωχό ξύλινο σπιτάκι στο Γουαϊόμινγκ του Τέξας μοιάζει τρομερά με την καλύβα του Καραγκιόζη και το παιδάκι που χοροπηδάει και κουνάει το μακρύ χεράκι του, ο Τζάκσον – Πολ Πόλοκ μοιάζει πολύ με το φτωχό Κολλητήρι…
- Haris Kabouridis – Ta Nea (in Greek) -