For a New Ecstatic Theatre
Javor Gardev © 1997


In its etymology, ecstasy (ecstasis) suggests “standing outside”, or “standing apart”. Ecstasis is defined not only by what is visible; it is defined in equal measure by what is invisible, by one’s standing apart from one’s own individuality. This standing-apart is directed at theater’s ideal telos, the living in the image (eidos). Ecstatic theater is democratic theater; it wants everybody to exist in the closest possible proximity to this eidos. In order to achieve its aim, ecstatic theater relies on empathy rather than on intellect. It is grounded in the orgiastic cult known from ancient Greece whereby ecstasis, generated by the collective energy of the community, spread quickly and epidemically. And yet, despite its democratic credentials, even the orgiastic ecstatic theater cannot but profane the teleology of ecstatic acts.

If the aim of ecstasis in the theatrical act is to merge the personality of the actor (the performer of “embodiment”) with the archetypal image (the person being embodied), such a goal is obviously utopian. Yet, it is nevertheless a working aim precisely to the extent that it is unattainable. It is crucial to eliminate one of the most enduring myths in the theory of theatre, that of embodiment as method. The rejection of this theory does not need any special arguments if it is understood that I dwell only in the body in which I find myself in the given here and now. That is why theatrical ecstasis must never be conceived literally as a being-in-the-image but only as an incessant aspiration towards such being. Ecstasis is not the final point where the yearning for existence in the other’s body and time becomes reality; it is the avenue of this yearning, the painfully convulsive history of the heroic aspiration to an ideal Otherness with whom I am in direct kinship; it is the after-crisis of the desire to achieve one’s own eidos. What is the temporal structure of this ecstasis, how does it evolve over time? We can distinguish two phases in which the effort to inhabit Otherness proceeds, two moments (speaking in dialectical terms) that together form the unity of ecstatic movement. Firstly, excess (Latin excessus=”going-out”) and, secondly, enthusiasm (“having-god-inside-oneself”).

Ecstasis: The actor’s act

In Greek theatre, acting occurs, like the orgy to which it is so closely linked, on the borderline. Rather than an “act”, acting is a situation, a situation where matter is left on its own, whose content is gone, where things have lost the crutches of their being. As Plato put it, in ecstasis, the souls are elevated. The orgy is a standing-out or standing-away that cannot be articulated. Eluding conceptual description, it does not easily fit into theories. Since the orgy obtains its being from being unexplainable, it lives dangerously, a mysterious paradox. Acting is located the borderline between two distinct states: the “body with a face” and the “bodies without faces”. The orgy marks the transition or way out (excessus) from the first to the second state. The area in between these two states, between the “I” qua myself, on the one hand, and the “I” in its aspiration towards the image (the domain of genuine excessus), on the other, forces everyone into the indifference of the ecstatic community (=the chorus) where all form one single entity, a.k.a., the embodied Dionysius. To the extent that their ecstasis differ, we have to differentiate between the chorus and the other actors. The task of the chorus as the phalanx of excessus is to effect a breach in the in the autonomy and detachment of the other actors.

Within excessus, two preliminary (preparatory) phases can be distinguished, exaltation and euphoria. Exaltation is the necessary precondition for stepping out into facelessness (depersonalization). The task of the chorus is to bring the audience to a state of exaltation; to ensure communication between the audience and its own orgiastic community; and, finally, to prepare everyone for the going-out-of-oneself that is excess. The community as a whole is the only outlet for this step where all personal energy dissolves into collective energy.

The efforts of exaltation bear fruit in the second phase of excess, euphoria. The merging of the individual with the community has combined all energies into one, powerful enough to perform the sympathetic breakthrough from the private to the social. The actors from the chorus appear as the phalanx that accomplishes this breakthrough. Their exaltation, euphoria and excess materialize in striking bodily contractions. After the shell of autonomy has been cracked, the time of the narrative starts bringing all private psychical time into synchrony with itself. Ideally, private time should now be fully identified with the time of the narrative. Practically, such full identification is of course impossible. The body is in pain precisely because it cannot be abandoned altogether. That is where the action of the actors begins. The role of the protagonist is to take upon himself the identificatory energies of the spectators. The Greek actor is the object of the community’s unified empathy, freeing the chorus from its custody over the audience. In ancient theater, the existential time of the protagonist, which was present in its totality to the spectators (they all knew the plot in advance), became an object of desire for unity. The audience passionately wanted to start living “that” time as if it was its own. Yet such a desire could not be fully accomplished since their own bodies and their own times (despite all synchronization) could never be fully abandoned. The actors of the chorus take it upon themselves to hold back the empathetic impulses of the community as soon as these get unhealthily strong. Preoccupied with empathy, the audience sees the world only through the eyes of the character; the interventions of the chorus change this perspective so that the approaching (fatal) end of the character could be observed (let me remind you again that in Greek theater everyone knew what was going to happen). Thus the community was perpetually oscillating between a feeling of empathy for the character, and a feeling of empathy for itself.

This is how the audience unnoticeably moves towards the second phase of ecstasis, enthusiasm, which is regulated by a fundamental rule of the orgiastic cult, the rule of “proper madness”. To act madly in a “proper” way means that one’s ecstasis, while being full-blooded, should also be controlled in order to prevent harm to one’s body. Whether that is achieved or not depends on how skillfully the exchange between the impersonating actors and the actors from the chorus is performed. “Proper madness” has the status of an event only for the audience. To the actors it is more like a technique or medium. During “proper madness” the audience’s empathy must not slip out of control. Once that has been achieved, the inter-play of empathy and alienation emerges as the true foundation for enthusiasm, a.k.a. the higher stage of ecstasis whereby the deity (Dionysius) speaks through the bodies. This enthusiasm embraces the actors and the chorus alike. The actor’s agonal attempts (shared empathetically by his audience) to shed his skin and be in the represented image gradually eliminate all self-expression. The actor then proceeds to another state, that of being possessed. This movement blazes a trail for something that the actor has in him without being conscious of it. The actor lets this element resound within himself and reconciles himself to being nothing but its passive resonator. What reveals itself in the state of being possessed is on not the actor’s “character” but the Dionysius in him, enthusiasm proper, the ultimate approximation to being someone else. The state of being possessed contains within itself simultaneously all the preceding moments of ecstasis (exaltation, euphoria and excess) which are revived in the living “now” of emotional abundance.

Situated beyond skill, enthusiasm is also the proper domain of talent. It is the ability not so much to articulate meaning, but rather to bear it, let it speak through you and others. Both in Greek theater and on the modern stage, enthusiasm represents the pinnacle of acting. Having attained enthusiasm, the actor exhibits not the character he tries to embody but the quintessence of his own existence. The theatrical dimension of acting consists not in skillful embodiment, in the illusion of its success, but in the “agony of embodiment” and in the painful endurance of the impossibility to transcend one’s own body. Given all this it is difficult to determine what is more tragic: the tragic fate of the represented character, or the actor’s (predestined) failure to embody that character authentically. As it turns out, our lifetime imprisonment in a body is a metaphysical tragedy all in itself. Ecstatic theater laments this imprisonment, yet at the same time it celebrates the heroic, if utopian, effort to overcome it.

The enthusiastic aspiration toward the proto-image is followed by catharsis, the return to one’s self. Catharsis is the therapeutic element in the exhaustion that results from the striving for embodiment. It is impossible to achieve a performance of this kind by relying only on actors as individuals (as is common practice in contemporary European theatre). Ecstatism is possible only in a community. The epidemic rapture of the group and the sweeping rush of collective energy are necessary requirements for ecstatic theater.

The director in ecstatic theatre

Despite all efforts to transform it into a controllable ritual (on the theatrical stage or through any other cultural activity), the orgy always preserves its own inalienable territory. In ancient Greece, it was the task of the chorodidascalos–whose responsibilities consisted in the directing of the play as well as in the composition of its music and the conduct of the chorus – to control the orgiastic cult so that it could unfold without causing harm. There are at least two fundamental dimensions to the director’s efforts to control, one secular and utilitarian, the other artistic. Yet the efforts by culture (or the theater director) to control the orgiastic cult can never succeed completely. Being esoteric and beyond all measure, the orgy resists the straightjackets of culture. Ever since Nietzsche, cultural activity has often been identified with the Apollonian principle and its efforts to grind chaos into a machine of fine forms, providing an image for what is per se formless and faceless. The Dionysian principle, on the other hand, has been seen as the passive object of this process, the beyond-culture that can never be fully transformed into culture. The point is that the Apollonian and Dionysian principles do not simply battle within the limits of culture; Dionysius is rather the pre-cultural counterpoint to Apollo. Serving as its very foundation, Dionysius remains outside the framework of culture. In other words, the Apollonian principle (a.k.a., culture) is doomed to be forever unable to reach deep enough into its own foundations, even though it feels a desperate need to do just that.

Yet the satisfaction of being present at one’s own primal scene cannot be denied to anyone. It was for this reason that in ancient Greece the polis arranged (and paid) for an encounter between the community and its own origins in the theater. The theatrical orgy was directed by its own demiurge, the chorodidascalos, who ensured that the deity intervened in the narrative only under strictly determined conditions. In Greece, involvement in the ecstatic performance was considered a civic act through which the free citizen was purged from his concealed passions in order to maintain his loyalty to the community. The idea was to confront people (the followers of Apollo) with their concealed fears and hidden aggressions (Dionysius) in a battle (ecstasis) from which the Apollonian army would always emerge victorious. The successful realization of this task was considered a precondition for the stability and well-being of the polis. The second dimension of the chorodidascalic action in ecstatic theatre, the dimension that is artistic and creative, consisted in musical composition, one of the main generators of ecstasis, a task that was also entrusted to the director (chorodidascalos). In sum, until Dionysius ascended to the throne of enthusiasm, the chorodidascalos acted as the all-powerful, if concealed, ruler of the community. With his actions he both served and defied the deity. As we saw, the chorodidascalos was personally responsible for the “appropriateness” of the mania. If the chorus was the first phalanx of excess, the chorodidascalos was its strategist, the instigator of excess in ecstatic theater.

Abridged Version. Translated by Pavel Popov.

Published in ARTMargines