February 20th, 2005


The whole play minus the plot equals the whole play

There's a neon sign by the artist Martin Creed I've always found both minimal and profound. Its illuminated letters spell out a simple yet suggestive formula: "The whole world plus the work equals the whole world". To me, the formula means that when we add a work of art to the world it doesn't change the world, but it does become part of the world, and that's a plus. On the one hand, the formula is an image of the futility of art. We work on art, but our work doesn't change the world. On the other hand, it's an image of how our work integrates us into the world, gives us our place in it. Instead of changing the world, we belong to it, and our products have the ultimate honour of becoming part of the world's furnishings. There's something about this minimalist, futile and yet heartening phrase I think Samuel Beckett would have liked.

I know Beckett was influenced by kabuki and noh theatre, as Yeats was before him and as David Bowie would soon be. I often think of Beckett's late television plays when watching kabuki. The costumes and gestures in both are so mannerist yet so dignified, so stiff and strange and unworldly, so reduced and yet so magnified, so ancient and yet so sci-fi. Entire parallel worlds can be evoked by a single movement, a slowly rising yelp greeted by unexpected applause. Entire generations of hack directors and hack actors fall by the wayside as you silently reproach them in your mind: "Would you ever have dared to dream up something as wildly strange, graceful and beautiful as this?"

I was thinking about Creed's formula today as I sat through four hours of a kabuki play called Kyoto Snow. I was wondering how I could draw so much pleasure from this performance -- and from Japan itself -- when I don't speak the language and therefore can't follow the plot. My first thought was, I've always hated plot. I've always focused on other things, even when I do speak the language. Plot is for people who like crossword puzzles, detective stories and soap operas. It's for people who demand that art keep their left brain keep busy filing, typing notes, tying up loose ends, worrying over details, trying to make sense of chaos. I've always wanted more chaos, more strangeness in my art. Instead of complaining "That doesn't make sense!" I've wanted to scream at the proscenium arch "Stop making sense!" Plot, for me, is mostly justified as a pretext, should one be needed, for the real adventures of art -- a text which leads to texture, a piece of logic which leads where logic could never go, a bridge to somewhere interesting. The important "content" of art, for me, is what people often call "form": fantastic atmosphere, wonderful colour, graceful poise, rich fantasy and strangeness, music, and a lot of empty space I can insert my own personal dreams into. This is why I prefer contemporary dance to theatre, and why I love kabuki even when the plot means nothing to me. It's also why I feel I'm not actually missing much when I look at a piece of Asian theatre without simultaneous translation cluttering up my head. To misquote Creed, "The whole play minus the plot equals the whole play".

Below I'm linking to a Quicktime movie I made of some scenes and details in Kyoto Snow. Like Andy Warhol watching TV movies "for the shoe styles", you can tell that I'm watching stuff I "shouldn't be": the ghostly, self-effacing way the black-clad stagehands creep on and off, in full view, their posture saying "I'm not really here!" The man who sits at the front of the stage and clacks bits of wood on the floor for emphasis and punctuation. The hairstyles (I'm dreaming about how they might be copied, today, in a city like Berlin). The beautiful, spooky kabuki child in her fabulous orange cloak. The op-art flicker rhythm of bendy stripes on a purple robe, which, worn with a bold lilac obi, reminds me that clothes can be wonderful, even though they so often aren't. The cut of the pants. The way the musicians are also poetic narrators, and the way their voices overlap with the actors'. The dry wandering lines the shamisen chops out. The rich strangeness of the speech intonations. The way one of the actors draws death out of an inner pocket in the form of a knife wrapped in a red cloth, and the way the audience applauds his rolling-eyed yowl as he confronts it. The way Brecht would have adored that. The delicate paper snow that flutters from the roof and drapes the painted bamboo. And, of course, the vocal delight of the audience itself, of whom we could also say "The whole play plus the audience equals the whole play".

Hakodate Kabuki (Quicktime movie, 6 mins 45 secs, 11.1MB)