SPILL STINGS 12: Kings of England
Thu 01 Jan 1970
Responses by Theron Schmidt and Mary Paterson to In Eldersfield, Chapter 1: Elegy for Paul Dirac by Kings of England.
Elegy for Paul Dirac is the first chapter of a ten-year cycle of performance by Kings of England called In Eldersfield. At its heart is a sustained silence, and it is probably this that will be the piece’s signature: it will be remembered as the one with the long silence. But this silence is also embedded and supported by a larger structure; thinking of John Cage, I might describe it as a ‘prepared silence’. Through recitations of found text, choreographed movement sequences, and, at one point, the appearance on stage of a group of young schoolchildren representing the leading physicists of the early twentieth century, it explores ideas of history, memory, storytelling, and redemption. The silence is a restaging of a particular anecdote about the quantum theorist Paul Dirac, whose biography is filled with similar stories involving silence. Early in the piece, with many sequences to follow before we get to the re-enactment, Simon Bowes announces: ‘we are gathered here to stage Dirac’s most notorious silence, not to close it, but to hold it open – in an invocation.’
When it arrives, then, the silence is partly about a past moment. In a conversation with me, Bowes describes this anecdote as one of the moments of ethical manifestation that his ten-year cycle of performance wants to redeem from the dark twentieth century. But it is also about testing the possibilities of the theatre itself, working with its unique double-capability to be both present and absent; to be both here in the room and far, far away; to be both the most convivial of the arts and the one most marked by anxieties and power relations. When the silence arrives, and as I sit within it, I find my perception to be flickering between two modes of experience. I think about an observation by the theatre scholar Bert O. States, with reference to Peter Handke, that a chair in the theatre is a chair pretending to be another chair. Is this a silence pretending to be another silence? Is this a representation of a silence, or an actual silence? What would be the difference between the two? What does it mean to perform silence? In States’ terms, I experience it not just through its semiotic properties – its place within the Elegy’s loose narrative, or its significance for a wider ethics of redemption – but also for its phenomenal properties: what it sounds like, its temperature and quality of light, what it’s like to have my body held within it.
This double-nature of the theatrical event is most pronounced in the silence, but can be detected in every theatrical performance. In this performance, another moment in which I am particularly sensitive to such doubleness is a courtly dance enacted in the first half of the piece. What this dance ‘means’ has as much to do with the sound of feet clapping against the floor, and the rhythms of tiny leaps, as with the representation of symmetry and reciprocity. During the silence, I am still hearing these jumps. More strikingly, I find that I am also still hearing the soundless falling of scraps of paper on the floor, scattered early in the performance in a slow wave-like ritual by the five performers. This paper covers the floor on which they are now seated in their chairs as they looking slowly at each other and out at us.
The reactions to the silence by others in the audience are diverse. Many sit quietly. Some visibly and audibly demonstrate their boredom. There are constant patters of whispering, like rainfall, fluttering in the room. I hear stifled laughter that at first sounds like weeping. Bodies begin to leave the room: noisy, quick, awkward. A friend later tells me of hearing the person behind her whispering loudly to a companion: ‘This is some kind of performance art thing. And I’m not going to buy into it. I’m not going to stay here. I’m not going to be a part of it.’ She continues to whisper complaints like this for the duration of the silence, and, despite her promise, she’s still doing so when the silence is ended. I’m still there, too, having spent the time observing others, observing myself, observing the space – oscillating continually between trying to ‘read’ the event and trying to ‘be’ in it. Trying to hold onto the moment, the details of light and dust and energy in the room, the tiny variations in the performers’ countenances – and trying to let it all go, to let time pass, to surrender to what is.
These reactions are dependent on the slightest of variables. The day I am there, there is a large contingent of young people whom I assume are university students, bringing with them a certain kind of tribal giddiness. And the experience of which I was part was marked by two particularly extreme reactions. The first of these occurred midway through the silence, in which someone panicked and fled the room with a piercing cry of distress. The second happened at the end: when the performers broke the silence, the audience burst into applause. The first of these reactions seems unique to that event, and I hope is unlikely to happen again. But in many ways, I’m much more troubled by the second response. What is it that we are applauding? I worry that if it is a celebration of artistic audacity, a sign of praise for the artists for being so daring – or conversely if it is an act of self-congratulation for an audience that has endured and triumphed – then something more tender and more ambitious is erased, something that does not have to do with the bravado of provocation or the endurance of suffering. Is applause not exactly the kind of closure that the work tries to avoid? Or am I being too harsh? Might the applause be a celebration, a ritual of togetherness that parallels the call-and-response toast offered by Bowes at the beginning of the piece?
Is this, then, a silence that is held open? Is such a thing possible? I don’t know. It is fraught with contradictions; these are what make it interesting. It is a gesture of representation, one that points to things that cannot be named but nevertheless can be identified and pointed to; but it is also a thing in itself, one that must be inhabited from within. It is a kind of performance in which the performers apparently do nothing; and yet it is a highly visible, highly apparent kind of nothingness, unlike, say, the kind of activity they might do at the side of the stage or in preparation for the next scene. It is an experience for which it is important for us to have been prepared, one for which the rest of the piece tries to lay the ground; and yet its value seems to be equally based on the unprepared, the spontaneous, the immediate. It is an event in which the performers are most like the audience, as we all sit silently in the same room; and yet it is also an event that most exacerbates our differences, the unequal distributions of power, our surrender of control to those who are on stage. When it’s not working, we are waiting for them to free us. But when it works, I suspect, we feel that we are already free.
Silence. Twenty minutes of it – foretold at the start of the play but nevertheless, that cold shock: are they really going to do it? Five actors in costume, lined up on stage, staring calmly at us and then at each other, sitting it out like this for twenty whole minutes, watching time pass in coughs and scratches and whispers amongst an awkward audience? Is this really going to happen? Is this literal passing of time going to be the only real event in an otherwise symbolic performance? Is time too precious, too difficult to be represented in lighting, dance, music, costume change? Are we so unused to time (as a group, as a culture) that we cannot understand it except by staring at it, straight on, point blank range, no distance, no metaphor? (‘I have so much work to do!’ hisses the woman behind me.) Whose time is this anyway? Whose time is it to give away? If you could choose, is this what you would be doing with twenty minutes? Which do you enjoy more – the muffled silence or the muffled noise? Do you move your head when somebody leaves the rows of seats, or do you stare serenely forwards, as if you can handle this, you know the game, you understand about them and us – the performers and the audience – and you want them to know that you are not imagining an escape? Do you look up, because looking up is body language for, ‘I am not intimidated’? Or do you crumble, let your mind drift, worry about emails, try to check your phone, re-read the programme? What’s the difference between sitting in stillness and silence when nobody is moving on stage, and sitting in stillness and silence while somebody is moving on stage? Are you scared of being alone? Do you have a problem with your own thoughts? Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Are you waiting for it to be over, or enjoying the gasp of purposelessness? Do we keep the same time? Are you ever late? Do you set your watch fast? Do you check the time, obsessively, on the corners of other people’s computer screens, or do you know it, intuitively, in your body? Do you wish they would at least put the lights in the auditorium down, so that we can all stop pretending that this is free time, that this is anything other than a performance? Do you think you would have handled this differently, a year ago? Do you think you are handling this better than the man in the row in front? Do you think you are handling it better than one of the performers? Do you sometimes wish you could have a costume, too? Do you sometimes wish that you could slip into a symbolic world, instead of a productive one, and stay there, and hold some people there with you, in silence? Do you think you are being held here, or are you here of your own free will? Do you think this is freedom? If you had your time again, would this be part of it? What about if you had my time? Would you like my time? Do you think you know what time is like, for me? Do you really think that this is not a metaphor? Do you really think that this is not a symbol? Don’t you realise that time itself is a metaphor for continuity? Do you think this is continuity? Are you still here?