(Address given at the Venice Theatre Festival, October 1985)
We are at the "The Gospel According to Oxyrhincus," Odin Teatret's latest production. A woman called Antigone has just covered her brother's severed head with her dress. His head had been set out as a warning. The woman is then surprised by a man called Jehuda, the Grand Inquisitor, a keeper of the law. He approaches Antigone, who prostrates herself. Jehuda, the Grand Inquisitor, draws out of his hat the bunch of flowers which cover the knife he has used to kill other characters in the performance. He holds the flowers over Antigone's neck. But he does not kill her, he does something else. He circles around her, and, at that moment, the darkness which earlier had blanketed the room is dispelled by the appearance of a golden light, the sun.
Jehuda searches with his knife on the floor: he finds Antigone's shadow, starts to scrape at its edges. He outlines the shadow with the dagger and at the same time seems to be trying to efface it.
And so the scene continues, the knife trying to obliterate the shadow and the shadow inexorably advancing.
I worked for a long time to find all the details for this scene, without knowing why. I asked myself all the while: why am I working so much on this scene, why is this scene so essential for me?
On the 8th of August, in Holstebro, I was watching television. For nearly the entire evening, the programs celebrated the anniversary of an historical event: 40 years earlier, the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Among other news items was the report that the pilot of the plane which had dropped the second atom bomb (on Nagasaki) had committed suicide. And then came the customary images, those which by now belong to. .. I would not say to our imaginary museum, but to our very concrete museum. The images of our individual-collective memory. Seeing these images again, I realized that I needed to look for yet another: in my library, I took down a book which I had bought in Japan, in Hiroshima, in fact, and there I found, amongst other things, the explanation for the scene in "The Gospel According to Oxyrhincus" on which I had worked so much. A postcard bought at the Atomic Museum in Hiroshima shows three steps, the entrance to a bank, on which a shadow had been imprinted. A man was climbing these three granite steps when the bomb exploded and the heat of the bomb's fusion stamped his presence into the granite.
Thus I understood why Jehuda persisted in trying to obliterate Antigone's shadow: because it is easy to kill bodies, very easy, but some bodies leave shadows, as if their lives were so loaded with energy that they remained imprinted on history. Even if physically the people have vanished, their shadows remain and darken the beautiful landscape.
There are certain people who have left deep shadows in the history of our profession: Stanislavski, Artaud, Brecht, Julian Beck. There are many Jehuda's who try to scrape their shadows away. But the shadows remain. They remain for those who know how to grasp the meaning of history, for those who want to remember, who do not want to lose the memory.
I mentioned the beautiful landscape and the shadows which darken it. Since some people think that theater derives from literature, let's listen to a playwright, in this case, Heiner Müller, without doubt one of the most fascinating contemporary writers: "The sun shines on the beautiful landscape in the time of betrayal. I see bodies in decay and I recognize the ghosts of their youth. I see bodies which are nothing but the landscape of their death."
Why speak of betrayal? What is betrayed?
To betray literally means "to deliver." "to hand over" someone or something to someone else.
But what is delivered into others' hands? One might think that one's own shadow is handed over, like the character in Chamisso's novel who entrusted his shadow to that apparently innocuous old man.
But what can it mean, to deliver one's own shadow to someone else? It means to extinguish, to surrender, to weaken or to suffocate those energies which should imprint one's own presence on the stone, on history. It means not giving in to the temptations of the spirit of the times. Not to betray means to refuse, it means being a political man in the sense of attacking what happens in the polis, the city, using the weapons which the intellectual has in his hands.
But what are the intellectual's weapons? Once again I asked myself why the figure of Antigone had for a long time, for three or four years, continually returned to disturb me, like a ghost. First with "The Romancero of Oedipus," which Toni Cots and I made together, and where, both in the text and in the actual production, Antigone had a principal role. And then in this other performance, "The Gospel According to Oxyrhincus." I asked myself: what is Antigone trying to tell me?
There was something disturbing me very much, pitting me against Antigone. "If you don't agree with Creon's law," I found myself saying to her, "then don't make your ineffectual gesture, don't pretend to bury your brother with nothing but a handful of dust. You go to Creon every day, see him every day, speak to him every day. So do as Brutus did, take a dagger and kill him, take the power of the polis yourself and establish the morality which is important for you, make it respected. But why this symbolic gesture of burial which accomplishes nothing?"
This is, fundamentally, what the blind narrator, the wise man, in "The Romancero of Oedipus," says when he presents all the stories of the family of Laius: it is almost with irony that he shakes his head when faced with the ingenuous girl who is trying to change things with her useless gesture.
In "The Gospel According to Oxyrhincus," Antigone appears once again. And I could not understand what lay hidden behind her gesture, what it wanted to say to me personally.
I finally understood it when I asked myself what the intellectual's weapon is, what he could use to fight against the law of the city. I think that the weapon is a handful of dust, a useless and symbolic gesture, which goes against the majority, against pragmatism, against fashion. A useless, inefficient, symbolic gesture, but which must be made. Here is the intellectual's role: to know that the gesture is useless, symbolic, and to have to make it.
It is above all a gesture that does not give in to the spirit of the times, a spirit which refuses memory, refuses the past, refuses that which has been, and which believes that all that happened in the Sixties and Seventies is a vanished Atlantis.
A great sword master in Japan before the Tokugawa period was recognized by the fact that he was able to strike a blow to his opponents' neck without removing the head. Everyone would think: he missed. Then the opponent would take a step or two, and with the slightest inclination of the torso, his head would fall off.
I believe that, for the theater, the experiences of the Seventies, which are no longer in fashion, belong to this kind of mastery. They were a blow dealt to the apparently unitary body of the theater, and if even now many exult, believing that this body has remained intact, the generations to come will see its head fall. Something else is hidden in this body: another kind of life, in the blood, in the arteries, another vision of our profession, which is not only text, scenic incarnation. Again, it is as the playwright says: "to be able to accept the decay of the body &ndash: because biologically we all crumble &ndash: and try to preserve intact the ghosts of our memory."
Perhaps, with my companions at Odin Teatret, and with all those who are around us, I succeed in remembering that I must not lose the shadow, the presence, the charge of energy which derives from a single necessity: to refuse. I do not accept the present, I want to remain apart, I want to make performances which are of use to me and to my companions, not performances which are requested or imposed. I want to make my reflections, impose my reflections. I will have strength only so long as I succeed in maintaining this refusal.
I know that all those who seek to erase our shadow will not succeed in taking it away. We, and with us Julian Beck, Grotowski, The Bread and Puppet, all group theater, a certain vision of theater making, will remain: their shadow, our shadow.
This is the beauty of this period of time: to see which is the stronger, the steel of those who wish to erase our shadow, or us. This is the real challenge of the ice age in which we find ourselves, the glaciation which is slowly mutating all theatrical and cultural vegetation: to be able to cross the icy landscape, leaving our shadows behind us.
I have no more to say, if not that I contemplate with joy the decade to come: it is the decade in which the group of people who have worked with me for so many years, and I myself, will become biologically more than mature. It is the time in which our bodies will begin to become ruins. We will see whether or not we will be able to keep the ghosts of our youth alive in these ruins.
The only hand I hold out, that I would like to be touched and remembered, is towards those people who in ten, twenty years will say: yes, we saw, we remember, we keep alive the memory of something which happened and which can happen again, differently, but it can happen.