From Mimesis to Kinesis: The Aristotelian Dramatic Matrix, Psychoanalysis, and Some Recent Alternati

by Ekbert Faas

EkbertFaas, with doctoral degrees from Munich and Würzberg, teaches humanities and English at York University, Downsview, Ontario, Canada.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp.88, Vol. 13, Number 1, Spring, 1983. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Ekbert Faas discusses the possible connections which might exist between Aristotelan poetics and the contemporary psychological theater as well as psychoanalysis itself.

Freud’s mind was tragically oriented . . . there’s always at the end of the vision that vacant spot where he knows he’s defeated, but he wants then to be defeated with dignity. Do you see? He can’t cure everybody. He may not even have an answer, but, by God, he’s going to try with great dignity and all the intelligence and feeling he’s got to arrive at some wisdom.

-- Arthur Miller 1

Of Whitehead’s more specific concepts, his "presentational immediacy," the "immediate perception of the contemporary external world,"2 has probably had the greatest single impact on recent poets. Such direct influence, however, by no means exhausts the relationship between his philosophy and contemporary poetics. Though largely unconnected with the evolution of recent art theories, Whitehead prophetically anticipated some of their most radical concerns. The following excerpts from his 1933 Adventures of Ideas sum up some of these with amazing accuracy and comprehensiveness. The human body, Whitehead writes,

is an instrument for the production of art in the life of the human soul. It concentrates upon those elements in human experience selected for conscious perception intensities of subjective form derived from components dismissed into shadow.... In this way the work of art is a message from the Unseen. It unlooses depths of feeling from behind the frontier where precision of consciousness fails. The starting-point for the highly developed human art is thus to be sought amid the cravings generated by the physiological functionings of the body. The origin of art lies in the craving for re-enaction. . . . There is a biological law -- which however must not be pressed too far -- that in some vague sense the embryo in the womb reproduces in its life-history features of ancestors in remote geologic epochs. Thus art has its origin in ceremonial evolutions from which issue play, religious ritual, tribal ceremonial, dance, pictures on caves, poetic literature, prose, music.3

Had I been aware of it at the time, the statement might well have influenced my previous attempt to describe the new understanding of art "as a re-enactment of nature in process, achieved by projective empathy and psychophysiological spontaneity, rather than as an imitation of reality in stasis."4 To Whitehead as against Aristotle, the subject matter of art is not the "kind of thing that might be,"5 but unmediated reality especially where it reaches into unconscious, pre-civilized experience. The creativity which gives it shape, takes its impetus not so much from rational activities allied to philosophical speculation, as from the rhythms of the body and the motions of our soul. Language, even in the strictly literary arts, is no more than a means to the end of suggesting facts ultimately inaccessible to words. Enshrined as it may become in print, the creative impulse first and foremost derives from the body. The traditional bias of Western aesthetics towards discursive reason, in other words, has been reversed.

According to Aristotle, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex owed part of its eminence as the greatest work of art to the fact that the play could be given its full artistic impact by mere recital, that is to say by virtue of its strictly linguistic potential. Just as this position marks our traditional understanding of art at its perhaps furthest extreme, so its reversal, now widely practiced in today’s avant-garde theater, has helped the new "body" poetics to its most radical and literal realization. To Jerzy Grotowski, for instance, the primary medium for the actor ought to be his body. "[E]verything must come from and through the body. First and foremost, there must be a physical reaction to everything that affects us. Before reacting with the voice, you must first react with the body. If you think, you must think with the body."6 Grotowski’s mentor, Artaud, had earlier demanded a similar primacy of the spectacle over the spoken word. In following "the very automatism of the liberated unconscious,"7 this theater of cruelty should avoid the "cheap imitations of reality" of Aristotelian persuasion. While emphasizing the psychotherapeutic bias of his own efforts, Artaud at the same time inveighs against "a purely descriptive and narrative theatre -- storytelling psychology" as well as psychology in general. Just like the Aristotelian dramatic matrix, psychology, he seems to imply, ". . . works relentlessly to reduce the unknown to the known, to the quotidian and the ordinary, [and] is the cause of the theater’s abasement and its fearful loss of energy."

All this calls for an explanation which Artaud himself or his various followers have so far denied us. What connections, if any, exist between Aristotelian poetics and the contemporary psychological theater as well as psychoanalysis itself? And to what degree can the efforts of an Artaud or Grotowski to evolve a new theater of the body rather than the spoken word be seen as an alternative to this traditional nexus, an alternative with its roots in the same bodily character of experience emphasized so often, and so emphatically, by Whitehead?


For lack of examples listed by Artaud himself, two plays, Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author and Miller’s Death of a Salesman, may serve to illustrate that part of twentieth-century theater with roots in the traditional nexus based on Aristotle and psychoanalytic theory. At first sight the two plays seem to have little in common except that their authors considered them as tragedies. Pirandello felt that he had dramatized "the inherent tragic conflict between life (which is always moving and changing) and form (which fixes it, immutable)."8 Miller thought of his play as the tragedy of a man who "gave his life, or sold it, in order to justify the waste of it."9 Yet even these concepts of tragedy are conspicuous for their differences rather than their affinities. What relates the two plays and, in fact, makes them two of the most forceful manifestations of the tragic in our century, remained a secret even to their authors.

The genesis of Six Characters is well known from the playwright’s 1930 preface to the play. The Father who, possessed with the demon of experiment, sends his own wife to live with another man and almost ends up sleeping with his "Step-Daughter" by the surrogate husband, had somehow taken hold of his imagination without revealing its deeper meaning in a significant form. For real poets, in Pirandello’s Aristotelian conviction, "admit only figures, affairs, landscapes which have been soaked, so to speak, in a particular sense of life and acquire from it a universal value."10 Unable to discover it after much effort, Pirandello eventually found this deeper significance in the conflict "between life-in-movement and form" which crystallized in two scenes of an "outrageous unalterable fixity." The characters search for an author, the whole impromptu stunt of staging their melodramatic entanglements before the surprised manager, is little else than the search for these two crucial moments. The first occurs when the Father, about to sleep with a prostitute, realizes that she is his Step-Daughter; the second, a tragic result of the first, when the young Boy out of the substitute marriage shoots himself with a revolver. The Step-Daughter, like the Father, is "dying to live" her scene in the belief that it caused all her present misery. In turn, the Father calls it his "eternal moment": "She (indicating the Step-Daughter) is here to catch me, fix me, and hold me eternally in the stocks for that one fleeting and shameful moment of my life."

The eagerness with which Father and Step-Daughter want to reenact this traumatic encounter finds its repressive counterpart in the twenty-two-year-old Son, who is made to relive the second scene. His father’s claim to have fathomed "the meaning of it all" is a matter of mere scorn and revulsion to him. Such things, in his opinion, "ought to have remained hidden." But though he preaches repression, he is unable to escape the thrall of his two traumatic memories, one the suicide of the Boy, the other the death by drowning of the four-year-old Child. "There was no scene," he protests. "I went away, that’s all! I don’t care for scenes!" His final reliving of the scene is all the more authentic for being so involuntarily spontaneous.

I ran over to her; I was jumping in to drag her out when I saw something that froze my blood . . . the boy standing stock still, with eyes like a madman’s watching his little drowned sister, in the fountain! (The Step-Daughter bends over the fountain to hide the child. She sobs.) Then . . . (A revolver shot rings out behind the trees where the Boy is hidden.)

Pirandello, in fusing pretense and reality, has actual death and suicide "reenacted" on the stage here. This seems to imply that repressed traumatic events become more powerful than reality itself once they are released. The playwright himself, of course, who was barely aware of Freud at the time he wrote Six Characters, would hardly have talked about his play in these psychoanalytic terms. Instead of pointing out what from a post-Freudian perspective appears as its case history-like plot, Pirandello discusses the play in the traditional vocabulary of Aristotle, to whom the most important thing in a play was how the author had transformed the random events of life into "one action, a complete whole, with its several incidents so closely connected that the transposal or withdrawal of any one of them will disjoin and dislocate the whole."11 In Pirandello’s view, the content of Six Characters may well be chaotic, but his presentation of it was "the reverse of confused." After all, audiences around the world had recognized the clarity of the intrigue and the way in which the whole was finally "quite simple, clear, and orderly."12

We find Miller making similar claims for Death of a Salesman. The playwright’s general sense of form, he confessed in an interview, "comes from a positive need to organize life. The very impulse to write, I think, springs from an inner chaos crying for order, for meaning, and that meaning must be discovered … or the work lies dead as it is finished."13 This Aristotelian search for significant form crystallized in a specific scene which, as in Pirandello’s Six Characters, holds everything in its "outrageous unalterable fixity." There is similarity even of content. Just as Pirandello’s Father, making love to his Step-Daughter prostitute, is discovered by the Mother, so Miller’s Willy Loman and his mistress are surprised by his son Biff in a Boston hotel room.

The two tragedies differ mainly in the way in which their "internal logic" (to use Miller’s phrase) is arranged around these focal scenes. Speaking in psychoanalytic terms, Pirandello’s protagonist plays the role of his own analyst in explaining and reenacting the cause of his misery. "I’m crying aloud the reason of my sufferings,"14 he exclaims. His endless perorations on how a single encounter has crippled his life forever remind the manager of Pirandello, an author he heartily detests. The Father, in other words, assumes the role of the playwright in expounding what the author of, say, Aristotle’s model tragedy, Oedipus Rex, reveals in the gradual unfolding of his play. In a brilliant detective story-like pursuit in which the investigator reveals his own crime, Oedipus finds out about the cause of his misery, while the Father simply wants to demonstrate and, what is more, theorize about it. For man, he explains, "never reasons so much and becomes so introspective as when he suffers; since he is anxious to get at the cause of his sufferings, to learn who has produced them, and whether it is just or unjust that he should have to bear them."

Arthur Miller’s relation to his protagonist, then, resembles not so much Pirandello’s towards the Father, as Sophocles’ towards Oedipus. The play’s internal logic gradually renders both audience and hero aware of his hidden guilt. In Oedipus Rex this takes the form of an investigation into objective facts, while Death of a Salesman gives us a psychoanalytic variant of the same process. Willy Loman’s half-demented forays into his past proceed with the random unpredictability with which a neurotic patient might talk to his analyst. But the form of this involuntary confession, as manifest in the play’s structure, finally amounts to a coherent case history of the protagonist’s dilemma. Characteristically, the original version of the play was entitled The Inside of His Head.15

Death of a Salesman, as Miller points out, is the tragedy of a man who unwittingly ruins his son, recognizes his guilt, and is forgiven by his victim.16 More than halfway through the play, Willy Loman, talking to Bernard, his son’s former schoolmate, still wonders why Biff at age seventeen suddenly turned from a high school football hero into a hopeless good-for-nothing. Surely Buff’s failure in a math course is not enough to explain this transformation. To both Bernard and Willy it is a total enigma:

WILLY: Why? Why! Bernard, that question has been trailing me like a ghost for the last fifteen years. He flunked the subject, and laid down and died like a hammer hit him!17

When Bernard suggests that it happened after Biff had gone to visit his father in Boston, Willy, wavering between half-recognition and aggressiveness, reacts like Oedipus when Jocasta tells him the circumstances of Laius’ murder at the crossroads.18 To the spectator there is little surprise in all this.

For throughout the first half of the play we have been made to watch Willy with the eyes of an analyst listening to his neurotic patient. What we witness now is what Freud would have called a final outburst of "resistance due to repression."19 Very soon the protagonist’s embattled ego will yield its defenses to the forces of a repressed traumatic experience as it invades him from the unconscious. Willy Loman, in Miller’s own words, is "the kind of man you see muttering to himself on a subway . . . he can no longer restrain the power of his experience from disrupting the superficial sociality of his behaviour."20 And as we see his daydream phantasies enacted in front of our eyes, one single event stands out with particular obsessiveness. At one point his wife Linda tells him he is "the handsomest man in the world." This, in Willy’s guilt-ridden mind, evokes a scene with his former mistress calling him a "wonderful man" and thanking him for some stockings he gave her. There is a second association when Willy wakes up from this reverie, sees Linda mending her stockings and screams: "Now throw them out!" All this, we are made to understand, is somehow connected with Biff’s failure in the math course. For following the hotel room scene there is another flashback, disrupted by the mistress’ laughter and Willy’s "Shut up!" in which young Bernard warns the Lomans that their son is about to flunk math. But at this point we still ask ourselves how the two incidents interconnect.

Willy’s overflowing unconscious, however, does not withhold the answer for much longer. His conversation with the adult Bernard has stirred up the crucial link in the chain of associations. Willy is at a restaurant with his two sons and their pickups. When Buff refuses to tell him about his recent interview with his former boss, Oliver, he suddenly, to the confusion of everybody, bursts out: "No, no! You had to go and flunk math!" Now his wandering mind returns to the scene in which young Bernard reported Biff’s failure. But the scene has undergone a significant change. Only Linda and young Bernard are present, while Biff has already left for Boston. Meanwhile in the restaurant, Biff asks himself why he ever went to see Oliver. In Willy’s mind this question is promptly answered by the laughter of his former mistress, which is enough to finally break down his remaining conscious defenses. Abandoned by his two sons, he relives the traumatic scene, long repressed, which contains the solution to the riddle that has plagued him for so long. Biff, thinking that his father might intercede for him with his math teacher, found Willy in the company of a half-naked woman.


As much as they point back to Aristotle’s Poetics and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, the plot structures of both Death of a Salesman and Six Characters in Search of an Author, then, show equal affinity with twentieth-century psychoanalysis. This is all the more striking as both Pirandello and Miller were practically ignorant of Freud’s teachings when they wrote their plays.21 It also suggests that both Freudian psychoanalysis and contemporary psychological drama, each through independent channels, have common roots in the Aristotelian dramatic matrix as largely derived from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. It remains to be seen what connections there are between psychoanalysis proper and this over two-thousand-year-old aesthetic tradition.

Such links can be found even for more recent psychoanalytic methods which in their emphasis on physiological reenactment seem to offer radical alternatives to Freud’s rationalist methods. What, for instance, could be further removed from strictly discursive psychoanalysis than primal scream therapy? But rereading Arthur Janov one quickly realizes that screaming here is only a means to the end of uncovering the unbroken chain of neatly interconnected events or "scenes" often leading back to the "major scene" which caused the neurosis. To quote from Janov’s examples:

A patient who had no memory before the age often began to relive experiences at the age of fourteen and worked her way down the age ladder until she relived a terrible event that caused the final split at the age often Some patients are able to go directly to the major scene in which they felt the split; others take months to get there."22

A similar picture emerges from Bioenergetics. Its main exponent, Alexander Lowen, proposes to "help a person get back together with his body and to help him enjoy to the fullest degree possible the life of the body."23 To this end, Lowen designed a number of ingenious physical exercises combined with primal therapy. But these are subservient to a kind of torture chamber psychoanalysis in which the patient reveals his past in the state of exhaustion or emotional turmoil induced by screaming and physical exercise. In Lowen s own words:

One of the purposes of the analysis is to create that map in the patient’s mind. It is a map of words, made up of memories, and is therefore the full history of the person’s life. When it all comes together like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, it finally makes sense and the person sees who he is and how he is in the world, as well as knows the why of his character.

Lowen’s and Janov’s direct indebtedness here is to Freud, who throughout talks about his patients’ repressed experiences in terms of highly specific, dramatic, and traumatic "scenes." The analyst, like Theseus in the labyrinth of the unconscious, has to "get hold of a piece of the logical thread"24 that will lead him to a logically coherent case history. Not before all the pieces of the puzzle are assembled should he reveal the patient’s true life history to its protagonist who will then be "overborne by the force of logic."

It is only towards the end of the treatment that we have before us an intelligible, consistent, and unbroken case history. Whereas the practical aim of the treatment is to remove all possible symptoms and to replace them by conscious thoughts, we may regard it as a second and theoretical aim to repair all the damages to the patient’s memory. These two aims are coincident. When one is reached, so is the other; and the same path leads to them both.

Alternatively one might argue that Janov’s and Lowen’s indebtedness to Freud reaches far beyond the father of psychoanalysis; or, if viewed from a different angle, that Freud’s impact on his disciples and twentieth-century thought generally stems to a large extent from the fact that he translated into new, psychoanalytic terms what in its major premises forms part of an over two-thousand-year-old tradition of Western thought.

Freud was partly aware of these roots. Even before the birth of psychoanalysis proper, Aristotle’s concept of the purging of certain detrimental emotions (fear and pity) reached by witnessing someone else’s calamities provided Freud and Breuer with the label for their cathartic method. Here the psychical process which caused the neurosis "must be repeated as vividly as possible; it must be brought back to its status nascendi and then given verbal utterance." Even though the patient, to describe him in Aristotelian terms, becomes his own spectacle, the analogy holds. For most of the repressed material he is made to relive will strike him like an alien experience. Freud before long abandoned this more dramatic method for one in which the patient rids himself of his neurosis by learning to see it as a part of his intelligible case history. But even as late as 1924 he still admitted that "the cathartic method was the immediate precursor of psychoanalysis, and, in spite of every extension of experience and of every modification of theory, is still contained within it as its nucleus."

Freud’s indebtedness to the traditional dramatic matrix is equally apparent regarding the complex, which to him constitutes "the nucleus of all neuroses" as well as the beginning point of all "religion, morals, society and art."25 From its earliest mention in the letters to Fliess,26 Freud named the complex after Oedipus Rex. The discovery, he wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900),

is confirmed by a legend . . . whose profound and universal power to move can only be understood if the hypothesis I have put forward in regard to the psychology of children has an equally universal validity. What I have in mind is the legend of King Oedipus and Sophocles’ drama which bears his name.27

One question to be raised in this connection is if Freud, without his model, would have ever "discovered" the complex. Another concerns the supposedly "universal validity" of the legend. Freud may question the interpretation of Oedipus King as a "tragedy of destiny" but only by reinterpreting the notion of destiny. Destiny to him is not one man’s specific fate according to the will of the gods but "the fate of all of us." Oedipus’ "destiny moves us only because it might have been ours -- because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. . . King Oedipus, who slew his father Laius and married his mother Jocasta, merely shows us the fulfillment of our own childhood wishes." Yet recent investigations into the history of the story come to the opposite conclusion. As Thalia P. Feldman points out, Oedipus, in the extant literature up to Aeschylus, was not treated as an offender who needed punishment. "It is the Aeschylean Oedipus who first blinds himself, an unprecedented individual action which signifies that the offender is loading himself with the enormous burden of shame and horror which he feels at his involvement, even though he and everyone else knows that he is not guilty."28 This throws serious doubts on Freud’s claim that the killing of the primal father, the formation of the Oedipus complex, and the birth of tragedy all happened at the dawn of history. What seems to be closer to the truth is that both tragedy and the Oedipus legend represent relatively recent phenomena in a specific culture which as such bequeathed its limitations to Freud’s discoveries of neurosis and the discontents of civilization.

Freud’s third major debt to the traditional dramatic matrix is reflected in his general preference, shared with Aristotle, for Oedipus Rex as a play whose action "consists in nothing other than the process of revealing, with cunning delays and ever-mounting excitement . . . that Oedipus himself is the murderer of Laius."29 Sophocles’ tragedy, if it is not an actual precursor of the modern detective story, can certainly be termed an early example of what Edgar Allan Poe called a "tale of ratiocination."30 Particularly ingenious here is the use of coincidence such as when Oedipus sends for the shepherd who saved his life at mount Cithaeron, who also happens to be the sole survivor of the king’s murder at the hands of his unknowing son; or when the news of Polybus’ death is brought by a messenger who happens to be the shepherd who took young Oedipus from his Theban colleague and brought him to Polybus, king of Corinth. For a moment Oedipus believes that he has escaped the prophecy that he will murder his father until the messenger tells him that he was not related to Polybus. This reversal is confirmed by the arriving Theban shepherd who is forced to testify to Oedipus’ identity with the killer of Laius. What Freud calls "the process of revealing, with cunning delays and ever-mounting excitement," is what Aristotle, with his customary precision, describes as an example of peripety and anagnorisis combined, a fusion made even more powerful by the fact that both arise from a "probable or necessary sequence of events."31 Thus, the two devices add the final touch of perfection to a plot whose several incidents are so closely connected that the transposal or withdrawal of any one of them will disjoin and dislocate the whole."

No wonder that Freud, in calling the action of Oedipus Rex a mere process of revealing, with cunning delays and ever-mounting excitement," was reminded of similar revelations he was involved in almost daily. The process, he writes, "can be likened to the work of a psycho-analysis,"32 which itself leads to the equivalent of Aristotle’s plot, an "intelligible, consistent and unbroken case history." One might add that the analogy has a causal dimension in that the Aristotelian dramatic matrix played midwife at the very birth of psychoanalysis.

Both tragedy and psychoanalysis deal with and in a way try to resolve human suffering. Ironically, Aristotle here was far more optimistic than Freud, who from the beginning purported to do no more than to transform "your hysterical misery into common unhappiness." For in the Aristotelian hierarchy of entelechies, all of which are striving towards self-perception, poetry, as against historiography, imitates things not as they are but as they ought to be. Its statements therefore are of the nature of universals rather than particulars. While "Nature always strives after ‘the better,’" 33art anticipates that process of teleological self-improvement and seeks to fill tip "the deficiencies of Nature" here and now.34 But how then can tragedy, imitating the worst aspects of life ("EW]hat is done by violence is contrary to Nature),35 be the greatest form of art as Aristotle asserts? The answer is contained in the catharsis concept, and, since the better kinds of catharsis are aroused by "the very structure and incidents of the play,"36 the answer is found in the coherence of the plot. To Aristotle, pity and fear are irrational emotions, and their purgation, achieved by presenting the irrational in an ordered context, can only have the aim of making man more rational.37 "Now, in men," Aristotle writes in Politics, "rational principle and mind are the end towards which nature strives, so that the birth and moral discipline of the citizens ought to be ordered with a view to them. . . . And as the body is prior in order of generation to the soul, so the irrational is prior to the rational."38

The catharsis concept, then, seems to cover the whole spectrum from Freud’s "cathartic method" of acting out repressed experiences, to psychoanalysis proper purporting to cure the patient by making him understand these experiences as being part of his intelligible, consistent, and unbroken case history. The forces at work on the Aristotelian spectator of tragedy are of a similar nature. Without some display of violence or suffering, of course, no fear and pity can be aroused. But to Aristotle, this is not to be misunderstood in the sense of a theater of cruelty. Those, he writes, "who make use of the Spectacle to put before us that which is merely monstrous . . . are wholly out of touch with Tragedy."39 Similarly, the best way of handling the deed of horror is found in a play like Cresphontes where Merope, "on the point of slaying her son, recognizes him in time."40 More important than the actual presentation of violence and suffering is the device of peripety in causing surprise while at the same time letting us recognize what surprised us as an ordered sequence of cause and effect. For the arousal of pity and fear, like the emotions felt in reliving a repressed traumatic scene, will be purged by such hindsight. Aristotelian catharsis and Freudian therapy also share an almost exclusive reliance on discursive language. Just as Freud restricts analysis to the patient’s verbal articulation of his erratic life story towards the logically consistent discourse of his case history, so Aristotle, as already pointed out, prefers to have the cathartic impact of tragedy depend on the spoken word to the exclusion of a spectacle.

The Plot in fact should be so framed that, even without seeing the things take place, he who simply hears the account of them shall be filled with horror and pity at the incidents; which is just the effect that the mere recital of the story in Oedipus would have on one.41


Whoever remembers the Happenings of the sixties and seventies will know that Artaud by no means offered the most radical reaction against this position. While Michael Kirby hailed The Theatre of Cruelty as "almost a text for Happenings,"42 Artaud himself was far from advocating a total abolition of language in the theater. But he was equally removed from Freud’s or Aristotle’s belief that language can resolve the contingency of experience in its discursive order. On the contrary, language has been ossified by such assumptions, and, before it can be used in the theater, has to be cleansed of its abstract encrustations. For hidden underneath is its old dynamic potential which, as Artaud concluded before Charles Olson,43 can be reclaimed from the respiratory sources of language:

let words be joined again to the physical motions that gave them birth, and let the discursive, logical aspect of speech disappear beneath its affective, physical side, i.e., let words be heard in their sonority rather than be exclusively taken for what they mean grammatically.44

Artaud had his own ideas about how the theater of cruelty would benefit the spectators. This is achieved neither by letting them see the randomness of events in their deeper causal coherence nor by making them understand life as a logically consistent case history. No amount of explaining or understanding will do away with the basic cruelty of life – "that life is always someone’s death." Man, rather than deluding himself that suffering might be eliminated, should simply learn to confront it. The new theater, then, "far from copying life, puts itself whenever possible in communication with pure forces." It should immerse the spectator in the irrational rather than strive to purge it out of him. The actor is to provide him with a model in this pursuit. To Artaud, "every emotion has organic bases," so that the soul, for instance, is no more than a "skein of vibrations." Yin and Yang, Chinese acupuncture, and the Cabala are invoked in discussing possible new acting techniques that will provide an alternative to the Aristotelian mimetic theater and its twentieth-century variant, story-telling psychology." As an "athlete of the heart," the actor should explore the different modes of respiration in his acting. Thus joining "the passions by means of their forces, instead of regarding them as pure abstractions," will confer a "mastery upon the actor which makes him equal to a true healer."

Artaud’s alternative to the psychological theater was to a large extent inspired by non-Western sources. A Balinese dance group which he saw at the 1931 Colonial Exhibition in Paris brought his rather diffuse ideas about "The Theater and the Plague" or "The Alchemical Theater" to a concrete focus. It also led him to define his goals in analogy to "the Oriental theater of metaphysical tendency" as opposed to "the Occidental theater of psychological tendency." These Balinese productions, he wrote, "take shape at the very heart of matter, life, reality. There is in them something of the ceremonial quality of a religious rite, in the sense that they extirpate from the mind of the on-looker all idea of pretense, of cheap imitation of reality." Some what later, Hindu cosmology helped him redefine his concept of cruelty as the central law of the universe. Unlike the Judeo-Christian God, Brahma suffers his own creation "with a suffering that yields joyous harmonics perhaps, but which at the ultimate extremity of the curve can only be expressed by a terrible crushing and grinding."

The passage serves to remind us that Artaud was not the first either to oppose the Aristotelian dramatic matrix or to derive his alternatives from non-Western sources. It also brings to mind the one-sided distortions which have characterized this now nearly two-hundred-year-old tradition right from the days of Schopenhauer’s pessimistic transcription of Eastern thought. For Eastern philosophy, if considered in its own right, is neither pessimistic nor optimistic, but rather what we might call fatalistic. In depicting the supreme divinity as a monster of destruction, the Bhagavad Gita, for instance, clearly admits to the natural cruelty of life. At the same time it exhorts us to act even if such action may involve someone else’s suffering or death. Neither teleological laws inherent in life nor rational orders that man might impose upon it will eliminate this dilemma. All man can do in trying to face it, is develop the appropriate kind of self-detachment through meditation. Analogously, Sanskrit drama has little concern with implicit teleological schemes, coherent plots showing things as they ought to be, or the purging of fear and pity with the aim of producing more rational citizens. Bharata’s Natyasastra, the Sanskrit equivalent of Aristotle’s Poetics, defines drama, not as the "imitation of . . . one action, a complete whole"45 but as the "representation of conditions and situations"46 aiming to induce a state of appreciative serenity analogous to the life-affirming self-detachment reached through meditation.

Arthur Schopenhauer, the first philosopher-aesthetician to make such ideas his own, misinterpreted the Eastern acceptance of suffering as a denunciation of life and the attempt to come to terms with it as resignation. Lacking all sense of the psychophysiological core of Eastern mysticism, he consistently advocated a repression ("Unterdrückung") and negation of all life impulses. Hence tragedy to him is simply a powerful artistic medium to the same end. In portraying the "horrific side of life" ("die schreckliche Seite des Lebens")47 and showing how all the misery of life results from the blind workings of the Will which is everything, tragedy merely induces a state of quietism in the spectator:

The power of transport peculiar to tragedy may be seen to arise from our sudden recognition that life fails to provide any true satisfactions and hence does not deserve our loyalty. Tragedy guides us to the final goal, which is resignation.

Schopenhauer’s words from The World as Will and Idea are quoted in Nietzsche’s 1886 "Critical Glance Backward" in The Birth of Tragedy (1872),48 which inverts the Schopenhauerian position by way of anticipating the more recent theater of cruelty. Reacting against all previous teleological and rationalist make-believe, Nietzsche, like his teacher, sees tragedy as dealing with the "natural cruelty of things" ("naturliche Grausamkeit der Dinge");49 and he makes light of critics who "never tire of telling us about the hero’s struggle with destiny, about the triumph of the moral order, and about the purging of the emotions."50 Facing "the Heraclitean double motion" of Apollonian creativity and Dionysiac destructiveness, the tragedian focuses on "the eternal wound of being" and shows how, again and again in life, the Apollonian illusion or "veil of Maya" is torn apart until nothing remains but "shreds floating before the vision of mystical Oneness." But as "an augury of eventual reintegration," the Dionysiac spirit "which playfully shatters and rebuilds the teeming world of individuals" induces the very opposite of Schopenhauerian resignation in the spectator:

Tragedy cries, "We believe that life is eternal!". . . It makes us realize that everything that is generated must be prepared to face its painful dissolution. . . . Pity and terror notwithstanding, we realize our great good fortune in having life -- not as individuals, but as part of the life force with whose procreative lust we have become one.

In advocating this untragic celebration of life despite the "horror of individual existence," Nietzsche anticipates Artaud to the very point of sounding imposingly messianic while failing to investigate the practical possibilities of the new theater. There is little even in Le théâtre et son double that enables us to imagine how, as the potential audience of such spectacles, we will be made to join in such amor fati rejoicing. All it amounts to, as Jerzy Grotowski concludes, is "a very fertile aesthetic proposition. It is not a technique." Artaud, like Nietzsche before him, evolved a theoretical alternative to the Aristotelian dramatic matrix and its psychoanalytic derivations. But neither explored the ways in which their theory could be turned into practice, a task more recently tackled by Brook, Grotowski, and others.

The primary aim of Grotowski’s poor theater, for instance, is "a kind of social psycho-therapy"51 in which the spectator comes to share the actor’s psychophysiological self-penetration towards an "inner harmony and peace of mind." This is achieved neither by an Aristotelian portrayal of characters for the sake of their actions nor a psychoanalytic dissecting of emotions for the sake of establishing tragic case histories. Acting to Grotowski is the very Opposite of imitating an action or emotion. "An actor should not use his organism to illustrate a ‘movement of the soul,’ he should accomplish this movement with his organism." Instead of enacting the words codified in a literary text he ought to use his body in order to find a language of signs. Words to Grotowski "are always pretexts" and more often than not disguise the impulse that tries to reveal itself in them. To make words the guidelines for acting is as ill-advised, therefore, as to suggest boredom, for example, by letting the actor act in a "bored" manner. For a bored man, as he desperately and unsuccessfully tries to find something that will end his boredom, is far more active than usual. Before all else, the theater’s medium is the body of the actor. "Before reacting with the voice, you must first react with the body. If you think, you must first think with your body."

In this regard, Grotowski’s poor theater differs not only from its Aristotelian and Freudian counterparts but also from such neo-Freudian advocates of a process psychotherapy as Janov or Lowen. Prima facie, Towards a Poor Theater, with its handbook like lists of physical exercises and its psychoanalytic vocabulary, sometimes sounds conspicuously like Lowen’s Bioenergetics. Living, Grotowski writes,

is not being contracted, nor is it being relaxed: it is a process. But if the actor is always too contracted, the cause blocking the natural respiratory process -- almost always of a psychical or psychological nature -- must be discovered. We must determine which is his natural type of respiration. I observe the actor, while suggesting exercises that compel him into total psycho-physical mobilization.

But to Grotowski, the process of "total psycho-physical mobilization," including primal scream techniques, no longer serves as a means towards the end of establishing consistent case histories within the overall framework of a psychoanalytically discursive logic. Its truer counterparts perhaps are Poetics like the Sanskrit Natyasastra or the Japanese Kwadensho. Such treatises at least show that the training of actors in a manner resembling a process psychotherapy devoid of rationalist systematization is more than a recent fad of the West. It has been common practice in India and Japan for many centuries.



I Richard A. Evans, Psychology and Arthur Miller (New York: F. P. Dutton, 1969), p. 79.

2A. N. Whitehead, Symbolism, Its Meaning and Effect (New York: Capricorn Books, 1959), p. 21. Concerning the influence of the concept on contemporary poets see F. Faas, Towards a New American Poetics: Essays & Interviews (Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Gary Snyder, Robert Creeley. Robert Bly, Allen Ginsberg) (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press 1979), pp. 47, 65, and passim. See also Charles Altieri, "From Symbolist Thought to Immanence: The Ground of Postmodern American Poetics," Boundary 2 1 (1972-73), 605-41, pp. 623ff.

3(New York: Macmillan, 1967), pp. 270-71.

4New American Poetics, p. 32.

5Aristotle, Poetics 1451 b 5. This and all following quotations from Aristotle’s Poetics are from Ingram Bywater’s translation, Aristotle. Rhetoric and Poetics. Introduction by F. Solmsen (New York: Random House, 1954).

6Towards a Poor Theater (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968), p. 204.

7 For this and the following quotations from Artaud see The Theater and its Double (New York: Grove Press, 1958), pp. 54, 60, 76, 77.

8Naked Masks. Five Plays, ed. Eric Bentley (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1952), p.367.

9Death of a Salesman. Test and Criticism. ed. C. Weales (New York: Viking Press, 1967), p. 150.

10 For this and the following quotations from Pirandello see Naked Masks, pp. 364-65, 371, 367, 223, 258, 260, 239, 274, 276.

11 Poetics, 1451 a 32-34.

12 Naked Masks. p. 374.

13 For this and the following quotations from A. Miller see Death, ed. C. Weales, pp. 185, 171, 149.

14 For this and the following quotation from Pirandello see Naked Masks, p. 267.

15 See Death, ed. G. Weales, p. 155.

16 See ibid., p. 167.

17 Ibid., p. 93.

18 Compare Death, ed. G. Weales, p. 94, with Oedipus Rex, line 711ff.

19 An Outline of Psycho-Analysis translated by James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1969), p. 36.

20 For this and the following quotations from A. Miller see Death, ed. C. Weales, pp. 158, 37, 38, 39, 40, 109.

21A. Miller maintains that he "was little better than ignorant of Freud’s teachings when [he] wrote Death of a Salesman," Death, ed. C, Weales, p.161.

22 The Primal Scream (New York: Dell, 1974), p. 97.

23 For this and the following quotation from A. Lowen see Bioenergetics (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975), pp. 43, 327.

24 For this and the following quotations from Freud see Pelican Freud Library, 15 vols., ed. A. Richards (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973ff.), III, 380, 387; VIII, 47; III, 57, 44.

25Totem and Taboo, pp. 156-57.

26 See The Origins of Psycho-Analysis. Letters to Wilhelm Fliess, Drafts and Notes: 1887-1902, ed. Marie Bonaparte, etc. (New York: Basic Books, 1954), p.223.

27 For this and the following quotation from Freud see Pelican Freud Library, ed. A. Richards, IV, 362-63, 364. For a detailed analysis of Freud’s Oedipus interpretation in Die Traumdeutung see Cynthia Chase, "Oedipal Textuality: Reading Freud’s Reading of Oedipus," Diacritics 9 (1979), 54-68. The author, however, seems to me to derive erroneous conclusions from misinterpreting Oedipus’ self-blinding as an act of repression (see p. 57).

28 "Taboo in the Oedipus Theme," Oedipus Tyrannus, translated and edited by L. Berkowitz and T. F. Brunner (New York: Norton, 1970), pp. 59-69, 63.

29 Pelican Freud Library, ed. A. Richards, IV, 363.

30 The New Columbia Encyclopedia, ed. W. H. Harris and J. S. Levey (New York: Columbia University Press, 1975), p. 752.

31 Poetics, 1451 a 33-34.

32 For this and the following quotations from Freud see Pelican Freud Library, ed. A. Richards, IV, 363; III, 387; III, 393.

33On Generation and Corruption, 3.36 b 27, The Basic Works of Aristotle (New York: Random House, 1941), p. 527.

34Politics, 1337 a 41, Basic Works, p. 1305.

35 Generation of Animals, 788 b 28-29, The Works of Aristotle. Translated into English under the Editorship of J. A. Smith and W. D. Ross (Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1970), V.

36 Poetics, 1453 b 9-10.

37 Cf. Leon Golden, "The Clarification Theory of Katharsis," Hermes 104 (1976), pp.437-52, especially p.445, which of all catharsis interpretations lam aware of comes closest to the one presented here.

38 Politics, 1334 b 14-21, Basic Works, p. 1300.

39 Poetics, 1453 b 9-10.

40 Ibid., 1454 a 6-7. Concerning the contradiction between this statement and 1453 a 13-15, see J. Moles, "Notes on Aristotle, Poetics 13 and 14," Classical Quarterly N.S. XXIX, 1 (1979), pp. 77-94, 82ff.

41 Poetics, 1453 b 3-7.

42 Happenings. An Illustrated Anthology, written and edited by M. Kirby (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1966), p. 34.

43 See E. Faas, New American Poetics, p. 45ff.

44 For this and the following quotations from Artaud see Theater, pp.119,102,82,140, 135, 133, 135, 72, 60,103.

45 Aristotle, Poetics, 1451 a 32-33.

46 See P. Lal, Great Sanskrit Plays in Modern Translation (New York: New Directions, n.d.), p. XVII. See also E. Faas, "Faust and Sacontalá," Comparative Literature 31, 4 (Fall 1979), pp. 367-91, 373.

47 For this and the following quotations from Schopenhauer see Werke. Zürcher Ausgabe, ed. Arthur Hübscher, 10 vols. (Zürich: Diogenes Verlag, 1977), II, 472; 1, 318-19.

48 The Birth of Tragedy and The Genealogy of Morals, translated by Francis Golffing (Garden City, N.Y.; Doubleday, 1956), p.12.

49Werke. Kritische Gesamtausgabe, ed. G. Colli and M. Montinari (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1972), pt. 3, vol. 1, 115.

50 For this and the following quotations from Nietzsche see Birth, pp. 133, 120, 108, 23, 67,143, 102.

51For this and the following quotations from Grotowski see Poor Theatre, pp.206, 46, 45, 123, 235, 236, 204, 208.