Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse. Audiovisual documents on the Net and An extinct way of playing.

Audiovisual documents on the Net

We forget the past; the past is lost in forgetfulness. We remember greatness, we keep results; memories become a group of indefinite images which try to describe any success, a qualification of something or someone. Indefinite images of scandals and that which was explosive for past generations. Details are lost with the fluidity of life. Only documents remain; Foucault knew this very well, our French poet who worked as a philosopher, believed in them; that was the only way to grip what reality missed and lost in interpretations, qualifications and judgments.

The art of acting, which at one moment was only a part of staged theatre (an, as such, an ephemeral art), is full of intangibles documents, even non existent. Some people speak about what they saw, some wrote reviews, some others gave advice based on their judgment of what they saw, a few drew extraordinary poses, comic, iconic. Therefore it is only at the beginning of 20 century that Western acting documents could incorporate sound and movement.

Because of our theatrical tradition, only Ballet (and no other Performing Art) kept the possibility of transmitting a choreography, but the way of acting that choreography was never preserved. Our theatre was a tradition lost through its transmission. All that was left were words and drawings.

Traditional Oriental performing arts kept much of the essence of their art through direct transmission from master to disciple, and so we can then believe (though nothing can guarantee it) that Mei Lanfang, playing in the 1930s in Beijing, for example, had the same way of playing as his masters of the 17th century did. Yet, even though it is true that there is an active line between master and disciple in Peking Opera, this line is so rigid that it could be broken or twisted; Mei himself was also a creator of his own style of acting and was a revolutionary teacher, director and performer, he added, corrected and suppressed many technical points of his time in creating the new Peking Opera.

It is said that the Kunqu Opera of our days is almost the same as that of the 16th Century Ming Dinasty, but we can’t see the actors of that century, we can only see the actor of our time keeping his tradition alive. The experience is interesting, worthy, but it is not a tangible document.

We can assure than one Noh performance in today’s Tokyo has much from Noh performances of 17th Century Edo, but one more time, as I said about Kunqu and Peking Opera, these are modern actors, the others, the masters, have died, we can’t see them acting. Without a real document nothing is sure. Zeami, besides his poetry, is not on stage as a person at any theatre in Japan.

Acting, the art of acting, didn’t have a worthy document until two fantastic human inventions: the phonograph and the cinematograph. It is with their invention and use that theatre and acting could be directly documented, in action and movement and recording them as they happened. Now we can talk about how the greatest stage artists of 20th Century played because they were filmed and their voice recorded. In the future our artists will be studied thanks to video and to the development of computerized ways to archive performing arts material.

In Spanish we say: “nada será como el teatro vivo” (Nothing is like live theatre) and “un video nunca suplirá la escena” (A video will never substitute the stage), but my point is not the substitution of theatre and its reality, it is instead the showing of how that lively act can be preserved inside a document, how those series of movements and sounds emitted by the player can be watched again and again to be studied and analyzed, and then understand a lot better how they did it, how they used to do it.

We have to learn how to use those documents. It doesn’t seem easy, though, as we already have 100 hundred years with communication Media but very few schools or Research centers/institutes making use of it beyond just making them part of their immense “documentary” archives. Many art researchers are still doing their job using only words, showing only photographs, when they are talking about events, movement, action and sound.

I remember how a myth was born when I heard about Grotowski, his actors and his performances; myths about their acting, movements, voice, about their training; interpretation over interpretation. Then, one day, I had the opportunity of watching one filmed performance, Akropolis. Those myths created by interpretations from others started to be analyzed, they were cast away in favour of my own ideas based on my own experience. I wasn’t a real spectator there, but there wasn’t anything closer to that.

Our world is living, thanks to the Internet, a “democratization” of all audiovisual documentation. Many who own special documents (which in another time were kept away because they were unique and precious), in whatever field you can imagine, have uploaded them to the Net and left them there to the use of anyone in the world. (1)

This is my current passion: showing those documents about Performing Arts and talking about them, about what I think of them; sharing my own documents, and forgetting myths.

I can’t see a better way to understand an artist’s work besides experiencing it yourself. Every performance should be documented in the most modern technological possible way and then uploaded to the internet, waiting for any kind of spectator, for any kind of commentator, for any kind of analysis. Currently video is the most modern way to do it.

I don’t only have paintings by Picasso on film (thanks to one French director), but I have a Picasso himself being filmed while he was painting! Thanks to video on the internet I don’t have to go to a special place to see that film and I can watch it online.

An extinct way of playing...

I’m writing because of the past, because of the possibility of documenting the Art of Acting.

19th Century theater started with a success impossible to imagine for any stage actor of our days; without radio, cinema, TV or internet, only actors, opera singers and writers lived moments of glory that today we would grant only to Pop singers or Hollywood stars.

Stanislavski spent many chapters of his books talking about how brilliant and genial many Russian actors he saw when he was young were, but in no moment can we be sure of how their acting was; the revolution itself that The Moscow Art Theatre provoked at the beginning of 20th century could only be documented with descriptions and studio photographs.

When the big stars decided to be filmed and their voice recorded, we started to see a real image of those moments; the document is there, to be watched by our eyes, to be listened to by our ears.

What can we do with acting scenes by Sarah Bernhardt, filmed in 1912? What can we do with acting scenes by Eleonora Duse, filmed in 1916? It’s not just any depiction of how they played, we can watch them, listen to them.

What can we do with Sarah Bernhardt’s voice, recorded in 1910, reciting Racine’s Phaedra?

It’s a treasury of information,... these documents allow entry to a comparisons game where our current vision about acting can be compared with those who were considered outstanding in their time.

Can we imagine a world of spectators, critics and researchers who adored actresses whose acting would be considered today as a symbol of bad acting, or who we could even consider as people without any talent? For a moment we could stop laughing while we watch those performances and think about the reasons they were considered amazing, great, brilliant. We had been able to do that when talking about painting, about sculpture, but not about acting, until now. Now, we can start doing it.

Is our current acting technique an evolution? or simply an impossibility to decode such ancient ways of playing?

Stop asking, documents talk by themselves. No more words.

Do with them anything you wish.

Videos from films by Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse

Sarah Bernhardt. "Elisabeth Reine d'Angleterre" (1912):

Eleonora Duse. "Cenere" (1916) (first part)

Eleonora Duse. "Cenere" (1916) (second part)

Sarah Bernhardt, voice recorded:

INSTRUCTIONS: Click the first sentence and you will be address to the original site where you can listen to the piece. Click the second sentence and you will hear it with your mp3 player (it will open in another page).

Sarah Bernhardt. "Phèdre" (1910)

( mp3) Sarah Bernhard: Phédre.

Sarah Bernhardt. "Les bouffons" [1910]

(mp3) Sarah Bernhard: Les Bouffons.

Sarah Bernhardt. "L'Aiglon" (1910)

(mp3) Sarah Bernhard: L'Aiglon.

Sarah Bernhardt. "La Samaritaine" (1910)

mp30 Sarah Bernhardt: La Samaritaine

(1) A big part of that film (Akropolis) can be seen on internet. In Mexico, for example, the original copies belong to two or three researchers who never give permission to watch them unless an institution asked for them or for a really special occasion.

Akropolis (direction Jerzy Grotowski)

El Principe Constante (direction Jerzy Grotowski)

Any comment, please, if you want a reply write your e-mail. China has already blocked Blogger so I can't acces to my posts and read your comments (I can read them thanks I receive a mail with them).

1 comment:

  1. Dear Mr Thomas,

    I was wondering if you could help me?

    I am looking for historical ephemera relating to Sarah Bernhardt for an exhibition.

    I was wondering if you could tell me where you found the audio and video files of Sarah Bernhardt on your blog?

    Please contact me on carolinemaclennan@hotmail.co.uk

    Best wishes,

    Caroline Maclennan


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