Theaterschrift 13. Spirituality: a Utopia?

Foreword and Table of Contents

Theaterschrift Sep 1998English

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Contextual note
This are only the foreword and table of contents of Theaterschrift 13. Click here to download a PDF of the entire issue in four languages.


By Sabine Pochhammer


The question central to philosophy and everything else is: "Why is there anything at all and not rather nothing?" It goes straight to the roots of metaphysics. As blithe atheists, we can afford to take it lightly, along with the other ultimate questions long since deemed to be senseless, those questions of transcendence and ultimate justification we expect soon to vanish of their own accord, rendered obsolete by the age of computers and the media. The enlightened agnostics among us do not deny the validity of the question, but know we are unable to know anything, and settle for endorsing Beckett's grieving mockery of messianic expectations.

After all, it did seem as if the question of God's existence had been settled. Today, after more than two centuries of disenchantment and secularization, the credibility of the Christian doctrine of salvation has worn thin. God's 'de-substantiation' as a mere 'idea' of humankind began back in the Enlightenment, and 19thcentury criticism of religion culminated in Nietzsche's declaration that God was dead. Freud, who was unimpressed by the 'oceanic feeling', unmasked religion as the collective obsessional neurosis of a society arrested in a state of infantile dependency. The atrocities perpetrated in the 20th century also played a role in destroying the traditional theological concept of an almighty, universally benevolent Christian God - his silence in the face of Auschwitz showed him either to be powerless or else indifferent to human suffering. "Is God still contemporary?" - The French/German arts channel 'arte' recently devoted a whole evening of broadcasts to this question. Whether contemporary or merely fashionable - the need for spiritual sustenance does appear to be stronger than ever, as evidenced by Hollywood's fascination with Buddhism or the recent angel cult that graced the media. God's silence and extinction, in conjunction with the demise of Utopian political visions, have left behind a vacuum in which people have by no means stopped wondering about meaning, even if answers can no longer be expected. On the contrary: an explosion of neo- or pseudo-religious movements points to an apparently profound need for religion. The range of movements from New Age, esotericism, occultism, spiritual healing and UFO-watching to drug consumption, psycho-seminars and other commercial ventures promising happiness and healing testifies to the individual's crisis of loss of meaning and orientation in the current social climate of unbridled neo-liberalism and modern social Darwinism. In view of this spiritual eclecticism and the glaring weakness of the major religions (or the Christian branches, at least), the practice of religion is becoming a private affair; visions of a better world are now the exclusive domain of isolated sects promising salvation. All manner of neo-metaphysical theorists have recently been attempting to re-invigorate the morally sluggish liberal democracies by injecting meaning-imparting values. Yet despite these uneasy balancing acts between rationalism and antimodernism, the Western worlds's established religions (fundamentalist creeds excepted) clearly lack the strength and authority to deliver a social Utopia.

"Whereof one cannot speak, thereon one must remain silent." The famous closing sentence of Wittgenstein's 'Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus' points to our central difficulty in dealing with the divine and incomprehensible. Nothing can be said - or nothing, at least, to satisfy the verification requirements of logical positivism. Concepts lose their lucidity fast when the noumenal looms. Art, traditionally, has bridged this gap, and was consigned the function of making it possible to experience the unspeakable. This role was eradicated by the educational, anti-clerical zeal of the modern movement and its avant-gardes. In 1989, George Steiner, professor of comparative literature at Geneva and Cambridge, published 'Real Presences', a book in which he drew attention back to this traditional function of art, countering with emphatic essentialism the post-modernists and the deconstructivism which makes all concepts of presence dissolve in the play of signs, and declares God to be a derivate of the latter. According to Steiner, communication and the holding to meaning, and with it all art, is a wager on transcendence. All 'great art' points to a transcendental dimension, either explicity or implicitly. Even modern art, he asserts,' is not atheistic, but a negative form of theism, determined by the feeling of vacancy and want left behind by the departure and absence of God. However debatable this sacralization and metaphysical justification may be, Steiner successfully returned to the foreground a dimension of art which apparently had been suppressed rather than deposed, and is now re-emergent: the metaphysical dimension.

This issue of Theaterschrift investigates the continuing, or revived, role of spiritual or religious aspects in the theatre. Our chosen subject has a somehow 'offensive' ring to it, making the question delicate for many of the artists asked about the spiritual aspect of their work - as indeed it was for the editorial staff and publishers. This offensiveness is due to the seemingly inevitable, if altogether foreshortening, associations with esotericism that ma-ke the concept of 'spirituality' problematic in itself. To nevertheless investigate the relevance of a spiritual dimension in or for the artists' work seemed all the more interesting. Spirituality, after all, is not confined to quietist contemplation or a longing for salvation projected onto a guru or doctrine. On the contrary: the artists' statements published in Theaterschrift are distinctly of this world, and very cautious, restrained, sometimes defiant, in the handling of transcendental references. Accusations of escapism scarcely seem appropriate, unless one pragmatically suspects- the addressing of transcendental contents to be escapist in the ,first place.
Each contribution in this issue shows that spiritual aspects, in different forms and from diverse viewpoints, are alive and current in the theatre: in performance art that exploits the immanent religious magic of the new technologies, and equally in the theatrical transformation of shamanic traditions; in both the radical theatrical- mystical retreat and the no less radical condemnation of a God who is pitiless in the face of human suffering and wretched social conditions. The opening text by the Dutch philosopher Hent de Vries deals with the connection between developments in new media and the religious revival which emerged at the same time. US performance artists, too, are exploring the links between spirituality and modern technologies and exploiting the magical and ritualistic qualities of electronics, as Shelley Hirsch describes on the basis of her own work and that of Jerry Hunt. A critical view of the media, and the suggestion that the virtual realm can be a zone between this world and the beyond, also figure in an interview with Jochen Gerz, who emerges as a negative romantic with a distinct relation to reality, as somebody for whom action counts more than all speculation.
Peter Sellars sees the specific spiritual chance of the theatre as lying in the buffer zone it offers against the mass media's negative interpretations of the world, a place offering space for tenderness, concentration, devotion and a different experience of the self and the world. Sellars, like many other Western artists in search of new theatre forms, falls back on traditional Asian forms of representation and religious practice. Johannes Odenthal's article shows that contemporary Korean artists have also discovered for their own theatrical work the performative qualities of shamanism, which is still alive in Korea and deeply rooted in popular faith.
Barbara Schwerin von Krosigk's article on Jerzy Grotowski, the great Polish theatre reformer, describes a lifetime's work devoted to exploring the spiritual dimension, and his development towards a radical form of theatre practice occupying the borderland between theatre and mystical exercise, and confining theatrical participation to only a small circle of initiates. The young French actor, director and writer Olivier Py confronts the disenchanted world with the myth, and on behalf of a new theatre generation pleads for a new, uncomplicated access to God, and against the prohibition of God in art. Spiritual aspects similarly play an important role in the works of the Gardzienice Theatre Association. For Wlodzimierz Staniewski, there can be no avoiding holding on to the question of transcendence, and be it only to curse God in the manner of Protopope Avvakum in the company's production of the same name, and to beg him to pull back the curtains behind which he is hiding the other gods who are benevolent towards mankind. The execration of God is also central in the work of the Greek-American singer Diamanda GaLis. She represents the Satanic standpoint in the sense of an ancient opposition to a God who is obviously indifferent to human suffering and death, to epidemics like AIDS, and whose casually stated interest in seeing how Job will react to his afflictions even reveals an element of sadism. In this way, art becomes an act of revenge which, simultaneously lament and indictment, remains invariably, even if negatively, related to the God being condemned. In the final text in this issue, Belgian author Peter Verhelst outlines his dream of a divine-ecstatic theatre whose negative religiousness relates only to a stroked-out God – a God, po'ssibly, who strikes himself through, is not original, and being a construct, deconstructs himself. - Who knows.





By Sabine Pochhammer


In Media Res: The Turn to Religion

A Text by Hent de Vries


That Humble Feeling

An Interview with Shelley Hirsch


The Language of Doing

An Interview with Jochen Gerz


The Right to Hope

An Interview with Peter Sellars


Spiritual Traditions in Korean Theatre

A Text by Johannes Odenthal


Art as vehicle: Jerzy Grotowski - In Search of the Lost Spiritual Dimension

A Text by Barbara Schwerin von Krosigk


Highly Sacred and Highly Political

An Interview with Olivier Py


Divine Questions at the End of the World

An Interview with Wlodzimierz Staniewski


My Songs Are My Revenge

An Interview with Diamanda Galas


A Minuscule Tongue-shaped Dream about Divine Theatre

A Text by Peter Verhelst