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by Tara Anderson

Artaud, Big Dance Theater, and the Threat of Meaninglessness


In 1930, in essays for The Theater and Its Double, Antonin Artaud attacked what he perceived as Western theater’s subjugation to the text and criticized its preoccupation with individual Psychology. He called instead for theater to discover its own language. Artaud imagined this language as the sum of all theatrical elements—lights, costumes, rhythm, music and gesture—utilized not in the service of a text, but for their own expressive values in space.  This “total-art” would be used to express fundamental metaphysical struggles rather than dissect the Psychology of an individual. 


During the Spring of 2000 and Summer of ‘01, Big Dance Theater performed “Another Telepathic Thing.” The piece suggests a thorough absorption of the tenets of experimental theater put forth by Artaud, including the use of multiple disciplines, the rejection of an interpretative hierarchy that favors speech and the literary script, the acknowledgment of theatrical artifice, and the group as an ideal working structure. “Another Telepathic Thing” is a sophisticated, if unconscious, manifestation of Artaud’s theatrical vision.


Directed by Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar, “Another Telepathic Thing” is based on Mark Twain’s short story “The Mysterious Stranger”, about the citizens of an isolated town in Austria whose lives are irreparably altered by the visit of an angel named Satan (not that Satan, but his nephew and namesake). The story concerns Father Peter, the town priest, and his niece, Marget, who face economic and social ruin for daring to say “God was all goodness and would find a way to save all his poor human children” (Twain 1916). When Father Peter decides to take a wallet full of money that Satan has left in his path, a string of events is set in motion that leads to Father Peter’s demise.


Additional scenes based on actual illicitly recorded tapes of film and television auditions are interwoven into the Twain narrative. Linked thematically, the two stories are about “trying to conjure a moment that will change your life” (Lazar 2000). Both transformations are financially based and both are ultimately an illusion of something great happening. Finding the wallet actually causes the suspicion and imprisonment that finally ruins Father Peter. The audition material suggests that success in the commercial acting industry is transitory and random, resulting in a weakened sense of self. The piece has an abstracted play-within-a-play structure, in which the audition script is actually “The Mysterious Stranger”, allowing the performers to move back and forth between the two worlds.


Artaud believed that music and dance, by alluding to subconscious layers of meaning basic to human experience, were particularly well-suited to reaching an audience on a physical level. In “Another Telepathic Thing,” songs and dances are used to compress elements of the narrative, capturing the essence of the experience described. They also have a strong structural function, linking sections of the audition material and the Twain story.  


In “The Mysterious Stranger”, Satan meets the young protagonist as he lounges in the woods with his friends. The angel reads the boys’ minds and lights their pipe, simply by breathing into it. It is the first scene that reveals Satan’s special powers and irresistible charm. 


In “Another Telepathic Thing,” the scene is captured in a slow dance between Cynthia Hopkins as the boy, and Stacy Dawson as the angel. The dance, in which Dawson seems to magically light Hopkins’ cigarette as they intertwine and turn slowly, captures the hypnotic thrill of the boys’ first encounter with Satan. Using an image to distill a narrative element, the moment contains all the ecstasy and danger of reaching the point of no return. 


Props, as well, are used for their sensual, plastic qualities to express the essence of the story. Early in the performance, Hopkins sprinkles snow over a miniature version of the story’s setting: a sleepy Austrian town cut off from the rest of the world. In the closing scene, snow falls on the stage from above, transforming the miniature to the life-size and whisking the audience into the world that before was merely described. A stuffed cat that sits on the casting director’s shoulder in the audition scenes, giving her the aura of a demented but powerful queen, also represents the magical cat that Satan gives to a washerwoman in “The Mysterious Stranger”. Purses become hats, bamboo pieces strung together are a path, then a prison. The objects are aesthetically rich—the smooth dark shine of wood, the plush of a furry cloak, the bright orange of a paper umbrella—and outlandish, as if governed by the logic of dreams. Rather than representing functional objects, the props express a fundamental idea in both the Twain story and the audition material: the potential for instantaneous transformation.


In “Another Telepathic Thing,” all theatrical elements are exploited for their formal, sensual qualities, and employed toward a single goal: engaging the audience in a basic philosophical question about the nature of good and evil and the weight of human existence. In “The Mysterious Stranger”, Twain suggests that the distinction between good and evil, like everything else, is a matter of perception and therefore, immaterial. In the story, Satan creates a tiny city to amuse the boys and then brutally murders its citizens. The boys are horrified, but Satan explains he is incapable of sin because he has no moral sense. Twain extends the idea to assert that all of existence is a matter of perception: an illusion, and therefore, meaningless.  Before Satan leaves the boys forever, he tells them:


. . . there is no god, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell.  It is all a dream—a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing exists but you. And you are but a thought—a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities (Twain 1916).


The last minutes of the performance are extremely concentrated, simple, and focused. In the rest of the piece, text is used sparingly, stripped down to the essentials or an emblematic phrase. Here, the conclusion of “The Mysterious Stranger” is heard almost in its entirety. Dawson delivers the final speech deliberately and evenly through a microphone hidden in a small Asian umbrella as she moves slowly around the stage in a smooth movement from knee to knee.


“The Mysterious Stranger” was the last piece Twain wrote before his death in 1910. It reflects a life-long struggle between the instinctive humor and heart that are captured in his art and the great suffering he endured in his life. The company was intrigued with this struggle, rather than the nihilism Twain’s conclusions seem to imply.


The idea of the speech is cynical, but the language used to say that idea is so absolutely antithetical to the idea itself.  Like the phrase, “the wilderness of stars.” That is just so beautiful, and so entrancing, and so, for lack of a better word, optimistic. It’s a linguistic celebration and a philosophical damnation (Lazar 2000).


“Another Telepathic Thing” functions in the same way. The effect of Dawson’s final speech is shattering. Uttered calmly and rationally, it affects a kind of slow philosophical terror in the audience. It is the final moment of the performance. There is no song to release the tension or dance to change the energy of the room. The anticipated moment of transcendence never comes, but the entire performance suggests it. The idea of meaninglessness is challenged by the formal artistry used to convey it.


Artaud thought of the actor as a healer and wanted the theater to perform a spiritual function, freeing the audience from subterranean evil by expressing it on stage. Decades later, when polls showed most Americans believed in the real threat of nuclear holocaust, psychiatrist and social critic Robert Jay Lifton put it another way. He envisioned a theater that could “imagine the end of the world and create beyond that” (‘82).


The life-threat is personalized and specific in “Another Telepathic Thing,” represented by the world of commercial film and television auditions, but the theme (everything is an illusion and therefore meaningless), is indeed apocalyptic. Realizing the goals Artaud imagined for the theater, Big Dance Theater has tackled the metaphysical threat of meaninglessness with an inter-disciplinary performance of exceptional cohesion and richness. 


Tara Anderson

New York, New York





Artaud, Antonin

1976     Antonin Artaud, Selected Writings, edited by Susan Sontag, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

1932     “The Theater of Cruelty: First Manifesto”

1933     “An End to Masterpieces”

1935     “Oriental Theater and Western Theater”


Chalmers, Jessica

1997     “Dada Today: Not Offending the Audience.”  Off Journal of Alternative Theater                 vol. 2, no. 11.


Lazar, Paul

2000     Personal interview.  New York, December.


Lifton, Robert Jay

1982     Art and the Imagery of Extinction.  New York: PAJ Publications


Twain, Mark

1916      “The Mysterious Stranger”.  New York: Harper & Brothers.


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