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. 😛

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. 😛

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.”




10 responses

6 12 2008

This was a very entertaining post! I really appreciate how efficiently you intersperse information and analysis between the humorous passages.

In this context it might be interesting to mention Theatre of the Oppressed [1], since both its originator, Augusto Boal, and Roberto Freire, who’s writings on the Pedagogy of the Oppressed inspired Boal, are both Brazilian.

Since this is really not my field I’m not sure whether or not the link isn’t just superficial, but some people seem to have made the connection. Searching the Web for capoeira together with Roberto Freire, for instance, reveals that Freire had an interest in Capoeira Angola, and I guess – admittedly based on very meagre knowledge of the subject (so maybe I should really just keep my fingers of the keyboard) – that a comparison of the roda to the Theatre of the Opressed might be interesting.

Feliz aniversario!



6 12 2008

Nice work, Joaninha! I have a couple of things to add, coming from the utterly pretentious position of never having played capoeira before but having about a year’s worth of reading about it (and hearing quite a bit about it).

To back up your point about Artaud, I quote, “‘theatre of cruelty’ means a theatre difficult and cruel for myself first of all.” Each player must be their own toughest opponent, and it’s this sort of introspective taking-stock (“can I take this guy down?”) means becoming acutely aware of one’s own abilities. The cruelty that Artaud talks about strips away the “falsehood and illusion” of the times and forces the actors and the audience to put themselves in “communication with pure forces.” Artaud also says, “the theatre is the only place in the world where a gesture, once made, can never be made the same way twice.” Might this not also apply to the roda? This seems to tie in nicely with my understanding of the roda as a site of dynamic public spectacle.

Adding to your analysis of Brecht, the other crucial point about Brechtian epic theatre is that it should stir the audience to action, forcing them to make decisions, ask questions, bring themselves to the point of recognition. So it’s not just that you’re supposed to distance yourself in order to better observe, but that those observations should then move you to respond to what you see and then act upon those responses. Therefore, the point of attentiveness to the roda is to actually change your own game, not just to take notes on things you ought to do/not do. That is, unless you change your own game, observations aren’t of much use and the “theatre” has failed.

I think what you’re uncannily (ha!) sensing in Graver is actually a reference to Merleau-Ponty, who “considered the body ‘our general medium for having a world'” (Garner 28). Merleau-Ponty’s argument, which Garner discusses extensively, is that the perceiving body is the means through which we experience the world (focusing on the sensual corporeality of the body as opposed to the disembodied intellect) and also the way to tie ourselves to the materiality of the exterior world.

Good luck with the paper!

11 12 2008

Hey, nice post. I should be wrapping up my own paper right now, but here I am instead 🙂
Two things– your comment about the body thing resonated a lot with me. That was one of the things I remember being most amazed by when I started capoeira.
Second, your commentary on Sidney– I think the other part of being on guard is that you’re not supposed to act like it. I remember doing a workshop where we were learning about chamadas, and the professor said that a lot of times when he’s called to a chamada, he’s kind of scared, but you can’t act scared. You have to do it and smile and just be prepared inside. If you act scared, the other player is going to take advantage of it (so it will be a self-fulfilling prophesy), and if you act like you expect something, the other player will see that and not make their move. By not acting scared, you trick the other person into either thinking you don’t realize the danger, or that you’re badass and can handle the danger. So being suspicious can be a self-fulfilling prophesy, but only if you act like you’re suspicious. I guess capoeira does have a lot in common with acting…

24 12 2008

Hi Skymandr, thanks, I’m glad you found it that!! Are you serious?? That fits in so well it’s almost scary. As for comparing the roda to Theatre of the Oppressed…well, at first I thought they weren’t that similar, since Theatre of the Oppressed, based on the wikipedia entry, seems to be about representing oppression in order to encourage people to change it, whereas the roda was a way of escaping oppression. At the same time, the roda represents everything in life, right? And I suppose the berimbau would play the role of the Facilitator/Joker, and as for the “spect-actor”, that would be anyone else in the roda who decides to buy in and play (especially if it’s to relieve one player in their game against the other)!

24 12 2008

SoyGirl–I LOVE that I’ve actually told you so much about capoeira that you can actually apply the theory to it! Well, and also slightly embarassed, but it’s hilarious. 😄 I’m considering you an honorary capoeirista from now on. 😉

And I ended up doing fine on the paper, thanks!

24 12 2008

Thanks, Coral! I hope your paper went well 🙂 That’s definitely true, except I meant that my group tends to go in the other direction…leaning towards not just not shying away, but actually attacking FIRST, pre-emptively…so you can see how that might lead to slight “misunderstandings”…

28 12 2008
Kaitlin Ruth

I adore this post. It made me laugh; you’re such a good writer….And you nailed it! I don’t really have anything to add because I’m sure if I did, being the aforementioned “critical theory geek” would make me completely incomprehensible no?

(Just kidding).

Well done.:-)

31 12 2008

Glad you liked it! The match isn’t perfect, but enough to be interesting. The psychology of the roda can be quite intense…

Speaking of which: More on the Freire-Capoeira connection [1]! It seems that Roberto Freire, a devoted anarchist and anti-psychiatrist has invented a form of therapy called “Soma” [2], which incorporates capoeira angola as an integral part (as well as theatre of the oppressed etc.). The idea seems to be along the lines of “free the body–free the mind”, and the goal is to get into a habit of questioning prevalent power structures and following one’s own lead [7].

The latter point is certainly something which I can relate to in capoeira–in a good capoeira game the inhibitions vanish–but the first one might seem a little curious. After all, isn’t capoeira very hierarchical?

I would say that nowadays it mostly is, but I don’t suppose it has always been so. The academic capoeira has its origins in the 30s after all, before this it was learned in a completely different way, and the bond between mestre and pupil was in all probability more of a personal one than an institutionalized structure of modern academies.

Still, in documentary about Soma by Nick Cooper [3] several prominent (in the sense that I recognize them) capoeiristas seem to be in favour of, if not precisely Freires ideas, then at least the anarchist ideals that gave them birth. There is even an anarchist capoeira federation [4], which from what I can see appears well respected, and has released several CDs among other things.

The capoeira world is indeed large and wondrous–not to mention surprising!

Feliz ano novo!

/Skyman (“Buddha”)
[1]: This is actually a pun on [5]…
[2]: This name is curious, since Soma is the drug used to control the people in Huxley’s Brave New World. I don’t know where he got it from, but at least that association hardly seems fitting for a libertarian therapy But then again perhaps it is an intentional irony.
[4]: FACA, ,the founder (?) of which has written an interesting article that is available over at Capoeira Connection [5].
[5]: [6]
[6]: Yes, I like making footnotes…
[7]: The idea that capoeira changes the practitioner profoundly is also put forth by Nestor in his books, and by Greg Downey in his (if I recall correctly).

31 12 2008

Haha aww Kaitlin, you’re never incomprehensible! Maybe a little less comprehensible than most…but if you give us enough time, we get there eventually. 😉

1 01 2009

LOL Skymandr…yeah, just in case the critical theory and philosophy didn’t already make this post/blog scream “ACADEMIA!”, the liberal use of footnotes are sure to get the job done 😉 😄

Thanks for the additional pieces of intereresting information! About capoeira being a hierarchy but meant to question power structures…I think they’re kind of two different things. Like you said, capoeira is a hierarchy more so now than before, I think, with the introduction of cordas and the elevation of mestres from “teachers” to “masters”. From what you said, I think you might also find this post interesting, if you haven’t already seen it! => What is the Role of a Capoeira Mestre?

However, capoeira seems very much about subverting power structures, as that was the whole drive behind its creation/development, in the first place! That is, while capoeira might have some structure in itself, nearly anything that involves large groups of people probably has some type of structure for it to function, but in the bigger picture, capoeira came out of questioning (to put it mildly) the overall power structures running society, that of caucasian power over Africans, landowners over “slaves”, etc.

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