The Hotel Savant’s production of Antonin Artaud’s The Cenci wends its way through the Ohio Theater this month, the first time the sole manifestation of Artaud’s legendary Theater of Cruelty has hit a New York stage in over three decades. The revival joins Savant projects including the 2006 premiere of Susan Sontag’s A Parsifal, as well as founding director John Jahnke’s radio play The Archery Contest, the second installment of which will soon be available on P.S.1 Art Radio’s archive, in a live recording made at Performance Space 122 last November. The company’s The Cenci was developed during a residency at Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center. In an interview, the director spoke of digesting Artaud’s incendiary essays, published in The Theatre and Its Double. “The manifestos are extremely important,” Jahnke acknowledged, “and then over the course of rehearsals they became less so. If you have done your research, those elements that inspired the work find their way into the finished work. There is less obvious passion than one would anticipate, less gore, less sex.”
Artaud’s aesthetic aims went beyond his short-lived company’s provocative moniker; in letters, he termed cruelty “above all lucid, a kind of rigid control and submissions to necessity,” and “this blind appetite for life capable of overriding everything, visible in each gesture and each act and in the transcendent aspect of the story.” As his galling tale, he chose that of Renaissance nobleman Francesco Cenci, whose aristocratic excesses met with Papal lenience until, in 1599, his abused family arranged his murder, after which they were executed for patricide, though all Rome knew of Cenci’s monstrosities. This inexorable hypocrisy inspired a verse drama by Shelley, a recounting in Alexandre Dumas’ Celebrated Crimes, and a translation from court records in Stendhal’s vivid Italian Chronicles, where the focus is on 16-year-old Beatrice Cenci, the probable victim of incest who orchestrated her father’s killing. “Artaud takes the five-act epic of Shelley then cuts and pastes like William Burroughs,” Jahnke said. “His script is very modern, deceptively simple, with an academic, analytical feel—whether or not that was his intent—and a sexual anger that’s very bitter, very much the subtext. Passion is presented through images that Artaud only hints at: An orgy Cenci forces his daughter to view is an abstracted monologue, with the people turned into animals.”
Some contend this restraint involved Lady Iya Abdy, the original Beatrice, who helped back both Artaud and Balthus, who painted her portrait and The Cenci’s palatial and Piranesi-esque backdrops. Artaud and Balthus (whose scandalous 1934 exhibition included girls on the verge and The Street) made an uncanny pair, but Artaud had already headed the Research Bureau for Breton’s Surrealist circle before his exclusion in 1926, with indelible roles in Abel Gance and Carl Dreyer films that gave him insider vantage when critiquing theater’s needs in the face of the new medium’s mass appeal. Though The Cenci managed only 17 Paris performances at the Folies-Wagram in 1935, Artaud’s assistant director was Roger Blin, who’d direct Waiting for Godot’s first run almost two decades later, and production assistance came from Jean-Louis Barrault—by the 1960s, one of France’s greatest actors and directors—who had pulled out from playing Bernardo, Beatrice’s brother and co-conspirator.
Jahnke obtained rights for the first American translation—“the French have quite a bit of red tape,” he said laconically—and commissioned Richard Sieburth of NYU’s French Institute for the update. His preferred Artaudism is the first Theater of Cruelty manifesto’s emphatic HUMOR AS DESTRUCTION, and, where the 1935 staging was theater’s first use of stereophonic sound, Hotel Savant utilizes exacting sonic burnishing by sound designer Kristin Worrall (heard in Archery segments at wps1.org). Artaud called for abandoning theaters for “some hangar or barn,” and Jahnke said “we decided to use the Ohio Theater because it’s one of the last old warehouse-style theaters. Years ago, with Reza Abdoh [founder of the fractious, pan-cultural Los Angeles company, Dar a Luz], we did one show here in a hotel that was about to be torn down, another in an old sewing factory on West 16th Street [Quotations From a Ruined City].” In Marseille, at 20, Artaud had yearned to perform spontaneous theater in factories, and Jahnke noted the Frenchman’s desire “to put the audience in the middle and present the play around them, something Robert Wilson explored in the 1970s.”
On air, The Archery Contest’s imagery is internal: wilted grapes from a cemetery picnic shared by the reverend and his wife Mercy (“Try the chicken,” she encourages; “killed it this morning”), and dessert is myrtle berries, though the girl the reverend pursues prefers raspberries—as he does, concurrently. Compulsion dangles like a hoop, with Archery entering a crypt in Part 1, and into levels of converse and speculation seared in the ears by Worrall’s hovering sine tones. For Part 2 at PS 122, the actors lip-synched the first segment, “then we handed them microphones and turned out the lights,” Jahnke said. “In the tone of the actors’ voices, they embraced the sound [back] in the studio, giving the seductive nature of, say, a mystery….” The script is complete (as is another radio piece, The Sleep of Endymion), but he found serial production the best approach to Archery’s scope and intricacy. “I normally write pieces that are epics in 80 minutes. When I was young, I’d create large, elaborate works in a short period, which is fine with something meant to be chaotic.” That approach had changed by the five-week workshop to develop the six pages of Sontag’s A Parsifal, and he realized that “with Archery Contest, I didn’t want to take 125 pages and just toss it off.”
Before moving to New York, Jahnke’s early, manic bent had led him to Reza Abdoh, who died of AIDS at 32, when the activist director had been hired by Long Beach Opera to direct Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra in the early 1990s. “I’d seen his Bogeyman and absolutely loved it. He was focused on this opera and doing what he wanted with it. It one of my only experiences of vociferous booing—it got absolute disdain from the audience. It was a fantastically angry experience; half the audience was gone by the end, and the reviews were vicious.”
His first original work was produced with Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions. A more recent script, The Shady Maids of Haiti (in the New York Theatre Experience anthology Plays and Playwrights 2004), pits colonial French malaise at the outset of the 19th century with the ongoing slave rebellion on Saint Domingue. Like oleanders, flowering shady maids are poisonous, and redolent plants—“Dryadella, duchesnea/Wipe your tears away/Coronilla, columnea/Death has come to play”—rule this roost, along with insinuated desire and the languor of a meticulous, brutal society in thrall of retaliatory vengeance. Jahnke’s language mirrors this pall, less the conundrums of Richard Foreman than knotted thwarts and feinting:
MME: I’ve never seen him—
MLLE: Now that you’ve been trapped—
MME: Have you never been hunted, Groseille?
MLLE: You offer sanctuary—like a gift—
MME: You didn’t answer my question.
For A Parsifal, Jahnke told a creation story camouflaged as arch-theatrical amalgam, as appropriate for the space station loop of Tarkovsky’s psychic sci-fi film Solaris as for Mesopotamian royal chambers (laughter and music dissipate most readily from distant cultures). Catwalks and open stage, where the action transpired, were flanked by gauze chambers in which didactic scenes occurred, lending heightened impact when darkly clad mutes with automatic rifles (Sontag’s “hundred knights”) invaded those spaces. The King of Pain groaned on a gurney, and Parsifal declared “This is a play…if we slow down enough we will never die,” without the puncturing irony such meta-theatric proclamations carried in Jahnke’s equally stylized Funeral Games, presented in 2004 at the Public Theater in a workshop production. On risers backing a breadth of bare stage, Achilles, a trio of blood-lusting furies, and his mother Thetis come and go from the audience, with rock songs chucked into folding sequences of his relationship with Patroclus, who took up the boycotting, ill-fated hero’s armor in the siege of Troy, with devastating consequences. Realized as a workshop production in 2004 at the Public Theater, a full staging of Funeral Games is projected to follow Hotel Savant’s Cenci.
The Cenci runs February 5-23 at The Ohio Theater, 66 Wooster Street (Manhattan), Wednesdays through Sundays at 8pm, additional 4pm matinee on February 16 and 23. Tickets: $18 at theatermania.com or 212-352-3101.