Capoeira and the Theatre of Cruelty

6 12 2008

(Or: What You Get When You Combine Capoeira and Pretentious Theatre Theory)
(with apologies to my completely UNpretentious friend who lives for and subsists on critical theory)

Capoeira and theatre

This semester, I took an English lit seminar on pain and suffering in the theatre. Each week, we were given a play to read, as well as one or two readings on theatre theory to do with things like the body on stage, the inexpressibility of pain, the didactic power of theatre, and stage-audience dynamics.

Now, let me try describing what, for me, reading critical theory about literature is like. Imagine doing capoeira.  Now, imagine reading a book analyzing how capoeira is or should be done. Now, imagine someone has read several books like that, and writes a book analyzing how people write or should write about analyzing how capoeira is or should be done.  Now imagine someone reading several of those books and writing a book about that and how it all supposedly works. By this point, all actual references to capoeira have in fact been removed altogether.

So, reading a novel or play is doing capoeira. Studying theory is reading chapters of various books from that last level. I have to write a paper pulling together half the theory we’ve studied this semester, for Monday.

The point of all of that being: the writer of Surprised by Soy (a great and fun new cooking blog) inspired me with her application of Aristotle to a cupcake disaster in the kitchen. Not only was it easy and entertaining to read, we now both more or less understand the Aristotelian theory we learned in class. So, as a way of prepping myself to write this paper, I’m going to take you through a tour of classical and contemporary theatre theory, using experiences from capoeira to illustrate, starting with…

Aristotle: “The instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood…through imitation he learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated.”

Basically, all theatre theory starts with Aristotle, who pinpointed the central idea of mimesis, which means imitation, which is what all theatre—and arguably, art—is based on. This emphasis on imitation actually lines right up with what I read in Greg Downey’s Learning Capoeira, where he discusses how central imitation is to how we learn capoeira. Every single movement we learn in capoeira, we learn by copying what we see somebody else do.  This becomes especially important if your capoeira teacher can’t or won’t describe outright what it is you’re supposed to do (like in learning how to use mandinga, for instance; how can you spell that out?). And personally, although I know it’s not the best thing to do, I find that I train best in class when I have someone else to keep an eye on; I use them to help pace (or challenge) myself, and I end up doing movements better and faster if I try matching the timing of an advanced capoeirista doing the same sequence in front of me.

Scarry: “The story of expressing physical pain eventually opens into the wider frame of invention.”

Scarry’s beat is that physical pain is completely inexpressible, that it in fact destroys language because there are no exact words to describe one’s pain. When you’re in pain, you know you’re in pain; at the same time, if your friend tells you they’re in pain, you can never know, for sure, because it’s invisible and indescribable.  You can only describe pain by comparing it to things it is not (“as if I stepped on needles”, “as though a hammer hit my head”), and this type of “storytelling” is what Scarry means by “invention”. Pain destroys language, but it also, in a way, forcibly expands its powers.

I think Scarry’s theory nicely explains a couple things about capoeira. First, it explains capoeira teachers’ seeming unsympathy to students’ pain during that extra set of “just 10 more!” <insert excruciating exercise here>. If to be in pain is to be certain (of the pain), and to hear of pain is to doubt (the pain, due to its un-share-ability), then theoretically, on some level, to our capoeira teachers we are not in pain at all, no matter how much we attempt to express the fact. :P

Second, I don’t know about you, but my capoeira teachers come up with THE. BEST. ANALOGIES. EVER. They are hilarious and brilliant. So using Scarry, I would say that our mistakes as their capoeira students give them so much pain, that they are forced to come up with new ways to tell us how to do things right.  Hence the unprecedented degree of originality among capoeira teachers’ analogies.

Brecht: “If one wants to keep the scene free from wild excitement on the stage—excitement that spells destruction in whatever is remarkable in the scene—one must carry out certain ‘alientations’ especially carefully.”

Brecht was another major influence on playwrights and directors after his work was published. He said that audiences shouldn’t be so drawn into the play, with subtlety-drowning spectacle, that they stop thinking about it; they should be engaged, but “alienated” in a way that they remain critical observers of what is actually going on. This is so they can learn what the play is trying to teach (and Brecht says all plays should try to teach), and be inspired to go out and change the world, or themselves, or something, as soon as the play ends.

I suppose this relates to what our capoeira teachers mean when they tell us to always pay attention to what’s going on in the roda even if you aren’t actually the one playing capoeira at the moment. You should be engaged, but not so entranced that you get mesmerized and stop actively thinking about what’s going on in the game (and don’t realize, for instance, when the song’s changed, when they’ve moved around in the roda and someone’s about to land on you, etc.). Instead, you should be “distanced” enough that you’re able to observe when someone could’ve done something and didn’t, when a sly, subtle trick was played, or when an unwritten rule was somehow broken—then be inspired to buy in and change your own game for the better.

Graver: “To understand the ontological complexity of the actor’s body on stage we need to look not for two forms of existence there but (at least) seven. Actors are…characters, performers, commentators, personnages, members of socio-historical groups, physical flesh, and loci of private sensations.”

Simple enough: so are capoeiristas. Capoeiristas are characters invoked by their apelidos, and performers in the roda as well as a different type in public shows. They are commentators on capoeira through the ways they practice and teach capoeira, and they are personnages through the individual reputations they gain or cultivate in the capoeira world. Capoeiristas are “members of socio-historical groups”—to say the least, on several levels; and the last two are pretty self-explanatory.  Actually, I will expand a little and say that it was capoeira that made me realize my body (“flesh”) can do things. Before—and I know I’m stealing this from some source I can’t remember—my body basically was just a mobile vehicle for the rest of me.  But through capoeira, I’ve started to come to an appreciation of it for itself, like the physical muscles and joints and so forth, and what it can actually do (if I make it!).

Garner: “Phenomenology is the study…of the world as it is lived rather than the world as it is objectified, abstracted, and conceptualized. [...] If theater is always…the house of false images, it is also the site of a radical actuality that surrounds and arrests the flight into otherness.”

Phenomenology = study of experiencing. Greg Downey describes his book as a phenomenological study of capoeira, because half his research was obtained by the actual experience of becoming a capoeira student and then a capoeira teacher, not just reading concepts and abstractions about capoeira. According to Garner, the “experience” of each moment in watching a play is what lets audiences appreciate theatre as a “house of false images” while fully realizing reality and thus not getting sucked into the “otherness” that is that world of the play.

In a way, the roda is the opposite of what Garner says theatre is: it’s a “house of true images”, so to speak. While theatre is set up to offer a form of experiential fiction, it is while experiencing a game in the roda, as it’s often said, that people become the most real.  Although the roda or game itself may arguably be a “contrived” situation (with the deliberate forming of the circle, etc.), it’s exactly our awareness of what the situation involves that makes what happens in it more real.

Sir Philip Sidney: “So that the right use of comedy will, I think, by nobody be blamed, and much less of the high and excellent tragedy, that openeth the greatest wounds…that maketh kings fear to be tyrants…”

Sidney is most known for his piece “In Defence of Poesy”, poesy being comedy and tragedy as the two classical genres of theatre. He wrote it to defend literature and theatre from his age’s version of “video games will corrupt our kids!” (Only in earlier days it also went, “Actresses will turn our women into prostitutes!”). So his message is, basically, don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater; poetry, if used correctly, can be used effectively to move and teach people, not corrupt them.

The idea of something that can go well or badly, depending on how it’s used, makes me think of the attitude of suspicion capoeiristas are told to have at all times. I realize the importance of that, but I also can’t help wondering: if we consistently approach capoeiristas from outside and from other groups with antagonistic views to begin with, assuming they mean us harm before even giving them a chance to be friendly, could the “expected” results just then be a self-fulfilling prophecy, none of which would have happened if we didn’t have Bush-like pre-emptive strike grupo-pride attitudes in the first place? (I also realize that may have been a slightly more than idealistic question, but I still think it’s a valid one, too.)

Artaud: “I do believe that the theatre, utilized in the highest and most difficult sense possible, has the power to influence the aspect and formation of things… That is why I propose a theatre of cruelty.”

If Brecht wants the audience to be distanced from plays, Artaud is the exact opposite: he wants you COMPLETELY IMMERSED. By “theatre of cruelty”, he means he wants you to be able to smell the blood, to have the fanfare of a hundred trumpets, cymbals, French horns, and drums blaring right next to your ear, to be in the midst of it all and completely assaulted by all the sights, sounds, and sensations that is the play. Artaud wants SPECTACLE. Imagine watching Gladiator on IMAX, with the latest in surround sound, but all in 3D and LIVE. Artaud wants us to be so affronted by our experience inside the theatre, that we will forever change for the better upon leaving it—such as having been so terrifyingly assaulted with deafening, clashing, surrounding, in-your-face scenes of war, that upon leaving the theatre we will be completely turned off of violence of any kind against our fellow people.

Now, have you ever noticed the amount of sadism that actually occurs in capoeira? Forcing self-conscious beginners to do stuff in the centre of a circle of strangers who can easily kick their butts. Physical borderline torture. Basing new identities on unflattering/embarrassing traits. Making people watch horrible videos of themselves. Withholding water. Merciless teasing. Forcing a tone-deaf person to sing in front of an audience. Randomly tripping people. Pushing someone into the middle of a fight. And yet…somehow…all that “cruelty” makes us better people when we leave our respective theatres. Score one for Artaud. :P

Alright, I’m going to say we’ve reached the end of the line here. One, because the post is already quite long and I’ve only gone through half the theorists on my list, and two: I should probably consider starting the paper I was writing this post for in the first place!  I hope you got something out of it, and that I didn’t butcher any of the theory too badly if you are actually a theorist yourself. And since we’re on the topic of acting, I’ll leave you with a quote I remember one of my teachers saying to us when I was a beginner-beginner, which I really liked, and was a good mental tactic against being exhausted.  It’s easy; all you do is—“Act like you’re not tired.”








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