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Translated from Italian by John Dean and Bianca Mastrominico
Edited and prefaced by Frank Camilleri
Etienne Decroux and His Theatre Laboratory is based on the long-awaited translation of Marco De Marinis’ monumental work on mime in the twentieth century: Mimo e teatro nel Novecento (1993). Now revised and updated, the volume focuses specifically on the seminal role played by French mime artist and pedagogue Etienne Decroux.
Mime is a theatrical form of ancient tradition. In the nineteenth century, it saw both apogee and crisis in the west with the realistic and gesticulating ‘white pantomime’. In the twentieth century, it underwent a radical overhaul, transforming into an ‘abstract’ corporeal art that shunned imitation and narrative, and which instead tended towards the plastic, elliptic, allusive, and symbolic transposition of actions and situations.
This book is the result of detailed investigations, based on contemporary accounts and obscure or unpublished materials. Through the examination of the creative, pedagogical, and theoretical work of the ‘inventor’ of the new mime art, Etienne Decroux, De Marinis focuses on the different assumptions underlying the various modes of the problematic presence of mime in the theatre of the twentieth century: from the utopia of a ‘pure’ theatre, attributed to the sole essence of the actor, to its decline into a closed poetic genre often nostalgically stuck in the past; from mime as a pedagogical tool for the actor to mime as an expressive and virtuosic means in the hands of the director.
Marco De Marinis is Professor of Theatre at the Arts Department in the University of Bologna. His main field of research involves the theory of the theatre; the methodological and epistemic notions implied in the study of the theatre; twentieth-century theatrical experiences, in particular with regard to leading directors, corporal mime, and the post-WWII so-called ‘New Theatre’; staging and theatrical iconography. Select books in English include The Semiotics of Performance (Indiana University Press, 1993) and Understanding Theatre (forthcoming). He edits and directs the journal Culture Teatrali (Theatre Cultures), which he set up in 1999.
Etienne Decroux, the creator of corporeal mime, was born in 1898 and was still active in his school on the outskirts of Paris in the 1980s. This means he trained and developed during the great period of the early twentieth-century historical avant-garde, and then started his career as creator, researcher, and teacher of theatre in the second half of the 1920s. He received his greatest public recognitions (always relatively speaking) in France and then in the rest of the world between the mid-1940s and the beginning of the 1960s, teaching almost uninterruptedly for over half a century, first at Dullin’s Atelier and then in his own school.
These simple facts should already encourage us to be cautious when talking about Decroux in the singular, and, even more so, when thinking of corporeal mime, or – more broadly – of his artistic and pedagogical work, as something containable in one formula, totally definable once and for all.
This caution is necessary for almost all the great figures of contemporary theatre but it is absolutely indispensable for the author of Paroles sur le mime. Not only is it necessary to remember that Decroux passed through almost a whole century of revolutions of the stage, but also that he did so as an active and deeply involved protagonist, and above all as an untiring researcher, always and continuously dissatisfied by the results achieved and intent on overcoming them – and this in spite of a certain safe distance which very soon he decided to put between himself and the rest of the world.
Talking about Decroux with pupils from various periods, or reading their testimonies, almost always produces the discouraging initial sensation of hearing an individual evoked in very different ways, and therefore difficult to ascribe to just one identity. It is true that this also happens for other great artist-researcher figures of the twentieth century – from Stanislavski to Grotowski. However, usually in these cases, at least their writings remain to document and certify the changes (albeit with all the problems and difficulties that these pose). In Decroux’s case we have just Paroles sur le mime – a difficult, though fundamental book – and then the ‘legend’, or rather the anecdotes of an oral tradition fed by many generations of pupils. In the middle lies the terrain vague of a fragmentary written, audio and visual documentation, dispersed and almost always difficult to access, whose ‘wild’ circulation has certainly not aided the task of historians thus far.
So there are many Decroux, which can be identified with the various phases of his very long theatre itinerary, from his apprenticeship at Copeau’s school, in 1923–24, until his death in 1991. Moreover, next to this plurality which we could call diachronic – upon which some serious historiographic attention has been placed – there exists a (no less important but still rather undervalued) synchronic or vertical plurality. This regards the different levels or planes on which Decroux’s artistic-pedagogic research moved, more or less consciously, consisting of those aspects of his work which are now possible and useful to identify from the point of view of the interests, concerns, and questions of those who practise or study theatre at the beginning of this century (and millennium).
Regarding this synchronic plurality, I believe that it is possible to identify at least three different Decroux, that is, three differing (though obviously connected) levels or layers of his artistic-pedagogic research:
(1) First of all there is the Decroux who invented corporeal mime as a new theatrical genre (a genre which is strongly codified – a rare case in the West).
(2) Then there is the Decroux who was searching for a pure (and essential) theatrical art, based on the expressive-aesthetic use of the body – attitudes–gestures–movements – but without strict rules of codification and without rigid divisions between genres.
(3) Finally there is at least a third Decroux, perhaps the most important for us today: the one who, in the course of over half a century, developed one of the most rigorous, in-depth, and systematic investigations into the foundations of the art of the actor – that is, into physical action on stage, and its techniques, dramaturgies, and principles – which not only the twentieth century but also the whole Western theatre tradition has ever known.
Considering that 50% of all books in translation worldwide are translated from English, whilst only 6% are translated into English, Odin Teatret (Denmark), the Grotowski Institute (Poland) and Theatre Arts Researching the Foundations (Malta) have created Icarus Publishing Enterprise, whose purpose is to present texts by artists and scholars in English translation about the practice and vision of theatre as a laboratory.
Icarus was the name of a schooner that sailed from Civitavecchia in 1697 with a cargo destined for a Venetian merchant resident in the international trading port of Smyrna. Its mythological name was intended, paradoxically, as a bringer of good luck, to ward off shipwrecks. In its hold, the small vessel also carried a luxurious curtain never used before, a few painted scenes and a number of scripts and musical scores from a theatre erected in Rome by Queen Cristina of Sweden and torn down on the order of Pope Clement X.
Similarly to that schooner, Icarus Publishing Enterprise wants to ferry into international waters writings of theatre artists and scholars who, despite their value, risk a limited circulation because of the language in which they have been written. We know by experience that theatre studies are effective only if they succeed in piercing the wrappings of academic commonplaces and inspire those wishing to do theatre. Many think that the theatre has no future. This may be so. But one thing is certain: in the future there will surely be something that we are unable to imagine now, but that will be called theatre.