The relevance of non-intentional theatre for our day and age


… What’s in his head … peace … peace in his head … no further … no more searching … sleep … no not yet … he gets up …

(Samuel Beckett, Cascando)


Right in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis, I am learning the monologue of Voice, the character in Beckett’s radio play Cascando from 1962. The text is about one Woburn (Maunu in the original French text) who wanders from shelter to shelter. The journey ends in a little boat (‘… face in the bilge … arms spread … same old coat …’), drifting without destination on the open sea. If you call this image fatalistic, you will not be the first to interpret Beckett’s work along those lines. To me his work is evidence of a profound engagement with life and with the condition humaine, of enormous optimism. In his personal life, Beckett was strongly committed in his actions, as evidenced by his being a member of the French resistance during the Second World War, for instance, and the fact that he financially supported many families of detainees. Beckett never lost courage. Not in his work either.

Just before the corona crisis broke out, I watched Het Zuidelijk Toneel / A Two Dogs Company perform Act, with a magnificent monologue by Flemish actor Johan Leysen. Part of the project was a video lecture by Belgian philosopher Jean Paul Van Bendegem, in which he introduced the term Interstice as an essential element of Beckett’s work. This appealed to me strongly.

Woburn, too, is on his way from interstice to interstice, from shelter to shelter. Why should this be ‘man’s fate’? Van Bendegem compares the notion of man adrift with the geological drift of tectonic plates. In the human context, this term has a fatalistic ring to it, whereas in a geological context it is an objective description of a process that happens to be.

According to him, being adrift is a natural phenomenon that comes with being a human. ‘Life is an interstice between the mists in which birth and death are shrouded,’ he says. Within this interstice at a macro level, we also travel from event to event, from interstice to interstice at a micro level. From a fatalistic perspective, this continuously being adrift is the fate of man. In Beckett’s work, however, this travelling is an endless journey from possibility to possibility, the sense of which boils down to making the journey consciously – nothing more, nothing less. What matters is not the destination of the journey but the journey itself.

In the work of lawyer and sociologist John Holloway, social progress and the possibilities for change are in finding and creating these interstices; breaking the circles of conventions and institutions, and experimenting with the new possibilities in the interstices – shelters – that emerge. Every crisis, including social crises, yields these types of shelters in the cracks, where seeds are caught and get a chance to germinate. The cracks allow a good view of the foundations improperly laid and thus offer an opportunity to correct them in part.

It would be short-sighted to play down the risk of the corona virus and demand ‘the freedom to do whatever we want’. The corona crisis is partly caused by a system intended to increase profit, to reduce man and nature to marketable consumption items. Allow me to confine myself to the travelling industry. The ‘freedom to go as we please’ is also the slogan of the travelling industry. In the focus of this industry, globalisation is not the means to enrich our lives with new experiences and to come to a new global community in which amazement and inclusivity are central.

The travelling industry is intentionally focused on making more and more profit, at the cost of an increasing number of cultures and peoples. The global spread of fatal diseases is a by-product. COVID-19 will certainly not be the last. A typical example for our society is Jan van Munster’s IK (Dutch for ‘I’), in huge neon letters on a tall office building near Utrecht Central Station.

The person demanding ‘I have a right to this and that’ is typical of the format of the consumer who does not accept any limits. As an individual I am part of a world-wide web, and of course every entity is entitled to develop, but never at the cost of another entity. Wouldn’t it be better to pry open an interstice where this is possible and allow something new to emerge in this very space? I could use my influence to take care of the people in my surroundings in freedom and as a matter of course, with a keen eye for their vulnerabilities and dreams. The elegant twists and turns of a flock of starlings is not the result of one starling-in-chief issuing commands but of each individual starling monitoring the movements of about eight starlings close by and keeping a uniform mutual distance. Anarchy does not mean the freedom to do what I want but rather requires a deep responsibility for all life around me, the freedom to opt for care and compassion.

In a previous blog, I described a theatre performance as an anarchist process, but I hope I have clarified this can never be an excuse for the performers to ‘do whatever they like’. 

The world in which we live and of which all aspects are influenced by a capitalism-based system cries out for new ways of meeting, of showing respect, of a different attitude towards each other and the world around us – and basically towards ourselves.

I also consider works of art, so including theatrical performances, as interstices, as shelters where new possibilities can be explored, as the preparedness to live from the word maybe. In an interview, Beckett said that this word is central in his entire work. Maybe is never a dead end; maybe always opens up to the future.

Theatre as an interstice to learn how to look, how to meet, how to find new words – and where inclusivity is central.

In his lecture that closed the Klangraum week in Düsseldorf (July 2018), musicologist Ryan Dohoney told us about the project he conducted with students of the Department of Music at Columbia University on Eva-Maria Houben’s composition Livre d’Heures, les Petites Heures (see blog 5). In this context, the words from her score are relevant again:

‘being occupied – in a peaceful way, without haste.

a balance between intervention and restraint, between doing and not doing.

being alone – with others, near to each other.

meeting yourself – and each other.

perhaps time seems to stand still sometimes.’

Ryan described how, during the execution of this project, with this text as a starting point, on the basis of the sense that their own input really mattered, the students opened up and flourished more and more, grew more committed to each other, listened to each other better, and that, on the basis of inclusivity, a new reality was created in which everyone was involved.

In Ryan’s lecture, the term inclusivity was central. He described his students’ hunger for autonomy, ownership, creativity, silence, de-stressing, depth, spirituality. Where they had learned to place their creativity in the service of a composer’s and conductor’s phantasies, they, instead of being creative artists, were reduced to obedient performers in a world not only recognisable for artists: fragmented, controlled by speed and production, by consumption and competition, by exclusivity.

In this world, every theatrical performance can be an interstice in which we can test how we can do things differently on the basis of inclusivity.

In the past few blogs, I described several useful techniques that might come in handy here, but above all I described an attitude. Testing how we can do things differently on the basis of inclusivity will only be possible if curiosity is not hampered, if there is dedication to and respect for everybody who and everything that has been involved in the process. It is a fragile process of opening one’s mind, of giving and receiving. Initially, this vulnerability will always lose to violent challenges, which is the characteristic of vulnerability after all. I experienced this some time ago, when one of the composers participating in Klangraum set up an experiment that was actually focused on testing the elasticity, the tolerance of inclusivity as a principle – as I see it now. A participating member of the audience, however, was carried away to the extent that many other participants got frightened and left the performance.

This taught me that non-intentional theatre requires an attitude of collective responsibility and care among all participants for each other, and that vulnerability speaks a language that is essentially different from that of winning and losing. 

Non-intentional theatre calls for a collective responsibility of all participants. 

On his Facebook Timeline (19 June 2020), composer Antoine Beuger refers to the corona crisis. As I think his comments are very apt, I should like to share them with you: 

‘It is a time of deep engagement with creation in every sense of the word: with being a creature in this world of creatures and finding ways to continue being part of it as creatively as possible in the midst of powerlessness, inner and outer surveillance, desiccation and asphyxiation; finding ways to connect, to enact and embody our deep entanglement with each other and everything else on this earth in the midst of a huge push to do the opposite: disconnect, isolate, surrender cheerfully to a high-tech dystopia of touch-free ‘communication’ and ‘access’, of remote teaching and learning, of telehealth, all worshipped as the pinnacle of human civilisation or, even more obscenely, evolution.
This is nothing else than another huge move to keep capitalism ‘alive’, while killing or maybe even worse, zombifying us and our planet, turning it into the desolate planet of the living dead.
But we are not surrendering, we are not dying, we are not worshipping a new world of high-tech blessings!
More than ever, we are dreaming, creating, caring, loving, enjoying, communising, imagining how we can do things differently. We are not letting ourselves be imprisoned in the prose of whatever ‘new normality’, we are more inventive than ever in finding ways to “dwell in possibility” (Emily Dickinson), to find and create interstices and to crack them up (John Holloway), to “walk through the portal lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world, and ready to fight for it” (Arundhati Roy), “In a spiral dance, retrieving the touch, the embodied relationality, the good of what was — while insisting upon the chance of something new, something better” (Catherine Keller).’