It's my skin that remembers

Published on 01.03.2019, 17:13

With his characteristic provocative style, Heiner Müller confided he'd never finished reading Les Liaisons dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos. He conceded that he had skimmed the nearly 200 pages of the epistolary novel from which he extracted one of his most famous pieces: Quartett. Quartett is thus the rewriting, from memory, of a book browsed diagonally: a kind of express digestion of the characters and the themes that run through Laclos's novel - where the relations between Marquise de Merteuil and Viscount de Valmont resemble even more a manual on military strategy than a chivalrous narrative.

Extraction. Reduction. Assembly. Then connection to a new context. These are some of the primary operations found in the Heiner Müller Factory - which we could describe as a plant that produces paradoxes. In effect, just like Hamlet-Machine, written in 1977, Quartett is at once a reduction and an extension of the material on which it is based. Reducing the precious language of the 18th century to a series of edgy formulations that sound like definitive statements - as though each one should be the last. Reduction of the intrigue to a skeleton narrative, in which the strategies of seduction meticulously spread out by Laclos are summarised as an inexorable demise resulting in the death of one of the characters. If, as Müller writes, "every play, to be effective in the theatre, is nothing more than the curve that peaks like an orgasm", then Quartett begins and ends as of Merteuil's first monologue with the pronouncement of his joy and the immediate revelation of his illusion: "This is good. Yes yes yes yes" / "It was well played, wasn't it?".

What remains between this overture, which concludes with the words "My life, My death, My beloved", and the marquise's last reply after the death of the viscount: "Now, we are only cancer, my love"? What remains to be said, to be seen, to be told of the game of pretence that these two beings deliver? Nothing, or almost. Or maybe the full range of nothingness that devours them. Quartett, just like Ghost Trio by Samuel Beckett - or like the Beethoven trio that serves as the structure for this piece - is a text that never ends. In these two cases, what remains, once the language has been drained, is a score for a quartet or a trio.

Reduction, therefore, but also expansion - of the fact itself of this condensation - of its interpretive scope and its game of possible combinations. As compression of a matter that has already frequently been rehashed by culture, Quartett offers in the theatre a vast field of possibilities - announced by the stage directions at the very beginning, that are the only indication of the set: "a living room from before the French Revolution/a bunker from after World War III". The extreme span of this historical window, combined with the extreme density of the text, presents a serious problem for staging. Müller explains that his texts only make sense when they are eventually performed, when their disruptive potential, their divisive force is unfolded. But Quartett, more than any other play by Müller, appears to be able to stand on its own, and only needs an audience member's cranial cavity in which to play itself out. "My language, for some strange reason, is considered difficult, for the simple reason that it is simple, direct and precise. We are no longer accustomed to listening to precise texts", he wrote. The text is of such surgical precision that it appears to be able to accept all kinds of staging, all while it gives the impression that it actually needs none. Nothing prevents staging Quartett either in period costume or in Mad Max style, at the heart of the apocalypse: regardless of the apparel worn by the bodies that utter it, the text remains. Built, literally, like an impregnable bunker, it can fend off everything, everything, that is, except half-heartedness. The consequences of Quartett cannot be avoided. Too violent. Too radical. Any choice - decoration, reading, staging - that is not weighed meticulously could blow up in your face.

Physical decorum

Beyond the game and the staging choices, any adaptation of Quartett must face an area that comes from the body; which permeates its meanderings, soaks in its fluids, probes its wounds. Few of Müller's texts put into play as tangible a tension between language and physicality - a raw physicality, that of a wound, of decay, of semen, of blood and of tears. "Every word opens a wound", Valmont declares. From which flows a first question: what do we do with bodies in Quartett? What do we do with the duplicate bodies of Merteuil and Valmont, who play (against) each other? Ignore them, purely and simply? Have robots, spectres, empty suits read out the texts or have these played back as recordings? There is nothing more disembodied than Quartett - a purely rhetorical game on the edge of an abyss. And at the same time there is no more physical incarnation, visceral and unfiltered. The midpoint between the language and the body is often played out with Müller vis-à-vis pleasure and its opposite: death, a corpse. A gaping Eros and Thanatos, without decorum. What do we do, then, with the bodies in the textual machine that is Quartett? Have them dance? Can we imagine Merteuil and Valmont dancing? And if so, dancing what? A waltz? A tango? A pogo?

In saying this, the challenge represented by the 1999 adaptation of Quartett by Rosas and the tg STAN theatre company becomes clear. On the one hand, there was the resolutely textual commitment of the collective, for which "the character is the text". By focusing more on the actor and on the perception and less on the staging, they succeed in connecting with Müller's concept of a text 'in which the skull is the only stage'. On the other hand, there was the sleek choreography by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, who had recently created Drumming to the music of Steve Reich. Her dance, so perfectly polished because of its repetitiveness, refers to the invisible geometric lines that underpin space and time.

The two companies had already worked together on Just before, combining music and words, reality and fiction.[1] But Quartett represents another phase in their collaboration, as it relies this time on a text written for theatre. In the face of this refined material, stripped to the bone, the dance runs the risk of being nothing more than a literal copy or an ornament. "Reuniting" dance and theatre around Merteuil and Valmont, doesn't this run the risk of the two missing each other? But Quartett is not a "reunion" or a synthesis nor does it strike a balance between theatre and dance. Thus, Frank Vercruyssen explains that Cynthia Loemij participated in the reading and analysis sessions for the piece, but that the choreography itself was created independently, like a self-contained score. If Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker had already approached Heiner Müller's work with Verkommenes Ufer / Medeamaterial / Landschaft mit Argonauten in 1987, Quartett allowed her to develop another facet of the relationship - intermittent but seminal - that she maintains with the matter of the text. In fact, its title already says enough, Quartett is primarily a score. Without trying to illustrate the meaning of the play but rather to develop the underlying architecture of the score, it's as such that she seizes on the rhythm and the variations in intensity, right up to the decline.

Dancing the structure

At the beginning, the first body that starts to dance is not yet that of Merteuil or of Valmont. In a sense, this body that rolls out an abstract and rigorous syntax - centred round the jerky movements of the arms and head - belongs to no one: the gesture comes before words, the engendering of figures, the appearance of masks. When words are finally spoken, uttering a name, "Valmont", the voice of Merteuil appears suddenly to be extracted from the body that is dancing, floating at its side. But, and this is the choreographic challenge, this extraction by Merteuil does not imply that dance and text converge, or that the character is reunited with his/her body. No, they remain obstinately distinct, as though the dancing body (that of Merteuil? Or of no one?) was one extra body; one body too many, belonging to neither the psychology of the character, nor to its narrative, but drilling its own route to the heart of chaos. Addressing an absent Valmont, Merteuil is from the outset a split, divided, personality. If Quartett operates as a mise en abyme of the theatre, with Valmont and Merteuil exchanging roles, or incarnating the characters of Cécile de Volanges and of Madame de Tourvel, the dance is on different plane. This plane is not the classical theatre within the theatre, but rather, because it is more topical, the becoming of the body. The dance reveals an invisible but fundamental layer: What's the sense in playing several roles (function of appearance) if you cannot be (or have) several bodies, in turn neuter, female, male, animal, even vegetable?

For the transubstantiation that is at the heart of this quartet to work, it is thus necessary that another body appears, one that is neither the sum nor the synthesis of the two (times two) characters; a body that resists the carnival of pretences, that bypasses the aporia of the role games; one body that moves between the roles, the genres - that slowly slides from one to the other and contaminates them piece by piece. Rosas and tg STAN choose to let the text and the dance lead separate lives so that they can then meet again at the structural level. In this way, we are witness to a kind of movement of the motion and to its deceleration: we see the dance outside the action first, the dance is then progressively absorbed, incorporated, and finally expanded into a space that includes more than just the bodies of Merteuil and Valmont. The movement diffracts while attenuating, moves from the visible, readable, structured form to an internalised, underground form where each movement of flexed leg or raised arm, no longer belongs either to the theatre or to the dance, but directly to the orchestration of the text. The choreographic syntax, first very taut, with its broken lines, its arms bent, its breaks in rhythm that characterise the vocabulary of Rosas - slowly melts away, while the ballet of masks make us lose our reference points leaving us feeling dizzy. Because it is in effect when the mask is being passed to another, as when Merteuil starts playing Valmont, who himself plays madame de Tourvel, that this dissolution materialises. The movement freezes - the pure disturbance of a hand outstretched, suspended.

Destroy, she says

The trajectory of the dance in Quartett does not represent the ideal purity of a whole body, unaffected by ageing or death. It would be more the incarnated representation of the mechanics of language, of its precision, of the razor sharpness of each phrase. But Quartett functions, as a whole, as a neutralising device. Something (of theatrical illusion) must be sacrificed. Something - of the bodies, of language, of the relationship with the ideal - must be put to death. "My basic impulse in work is destruction. Breaking someone else's plaything", Müller writes. In the version presented by Rosas and tg STAN, all the scene elements - movements, set, diction - compete with this neutralising of the dramatic. Dance neutralises the theatrical and psychological nature, by limiting diction, inhibiting the melding of voice and body, which in the theatre are seen as a single personality, and the illusion of its inward-looking nature. The text, insofar as it carries its own dramaturgy, neutralises the staging. And the dance is in fine neutralised by the becoming of the bodies - by the stopping, the immobility, the void that engulfs them.

In the opening scene, punctuated by deafening techno, Cynthia Loemij walks around the stage with an attitude reminiscent of the "Furious wait / in the terrible armour / of the millennia", as Müller describes in Hamlet-Machine. The first solo appears to confirm the possibility of a physical language that could pick up the words and run with them or even replace them. And, at the very end, Frank Vercruyssen takes this language on in a slowed-down, petrified form, reduced to its simplest elements. When this game of masks and of transformations comes to an end, the dance fades away until it is no more than a phantom of movement. The actor, playing an actor, raises an arm letting it slip through the void. With a naked, haggard, nearly dead torso, he no longer dances his gestures, he merely indicates them, placing them in space. And we no longer know if the agony of the moves indicates that the dance is dissolving in the realness of death or if it is being disseminated in the representation through the entire performance space. This termination on the edge of immobility, acquires in the resumption of Quartett today, in 2019, a very special load. It is no longer the young and hard bodies of Cynthia Loemij and Frank Vercruyssen, the play's creators. It is their doppelgangers, twenty years on, who replay one more time this never-ending quartet. These are the bodies that neutralised in themselves that which could be kept in the piece about the ideal, the utopia, to reach this invisible horizon between the organs and the skin. "Sometimes children want to know what's inside the doll. And to know this, the doll would have to be broken, otherwise we can never know what's inside." Like "shadow carriers", Cynthia Loemij and Frank Vercruyssen "work on the  infra-mince"[2]: between the "skin that recalls" and "what lies beneath".

Gilles Amalvi

[1]           In 2000, the two companies also collaborated on In real time in which their respective methods were aligned.

[2]     Les porteurs d'ombre travaillent dans l'infra-mince [The carriers of shadow work on the infra-mince]: This is how Marcel Duchamp cryptically defined the artistic activity.