Emotional Pornography and Democracy in America

Lacura, by Bibiana Monje
Democracy in America, by Romeo Castellucci

Enrique Pardo, Bilbao, April 2017

Traduccion al español pronto
Traduction française bientôt

This article follows-up on a first post on LACURA, the performance of and by Bibiana Monje presented in Madrid in November 2016 as an avant-première I described as a Miraculous Catastrophe  [1]. It was then premièred in Bibiana’s native Canaries Islands on March 17, 2017, this time ‘after the catastrophe’: the computers and multi-media effects behaved impeccably, plus, Linda Wise and I did some fine-tuning with Bibiana on some of the lessons learnt in Madrid on miracles and catastrophes. LACURA is turning into a big success, expanding beyond The Islands, as the locals call the Canaries, into La Peninsula – the Spanish mainland – and beyond. In this article I wish to focus on something that was picked up and commented by the critics, and which I consider essential to my sense and ambition of performance, something that one of the articles went as far as to put in terms of “emotional pornography”.


Here is the quote:

Lacura de Bibiana Monje, (como le gustan los juegos de palabras) titula un solo teatral, una comedia autobiográfica, intima hasta la pornografía emocional, cuestiona y confiesa, nos satura de posibilidades y suplica por una solución para sumirse en silencio. Lacura plantea la imposibilidad de estar del todo cuerdos en este malsano modo de vida y una posible redención en asumirlo. Plantea también un lugar de resistencia hecho de memoria, que es recuerdo y por ello representación.”

“Lacura by Bibiana Monje, (does she enjoy word puns!) is a theatrical solo, an autobiographical comedy, intimate to the point of emotional pornography ; she questions and makes confessions, saturates us with possibilities and pleads for a solution in order to collect herself in silence (?) Lacura considers the impossibility of being totally sane in our unhealthy way of living and of a possible redemption in acknowledging this fact. It also offers a place of resistance, made of memory, which requires remembering and therefore performance. » [2] (My underlining and translation.)

I wish to address the question of “emotional pornography” – which, to some persons may sound crude, coarse and politically incorrect. The matter is too important, artistically and politically, to be sidestepped with euphemisms and not to be addressed clearly, in an adult in-depth mode. So, I return to some more gossip – nothing scabrous – on Bibiana Monje, before addressing the ideas and values involved. These are the sort of stories with which Bibiana could easily write several follow-ups to Lacura.

When her father offered her to take over the prestigious family wine-business (number one in the Canaries – and she is an only-child), Bibiana had already decided to apply for Madrid’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Her father bowed with gracious fair-play. A few years later he was to take up a suggestion of “Wine and Sex” promotional tasting events that Bibiana staged at the (magnificent) Monje winery[3]. Bibiana was probably late with her application to the Drama Academy and missed one of the main auditions. By some kind of fluke-mistake, to do with her non-Peninsular status, she was offered a place. Of course she accepted, knowing well there might be a legal flaw, and took the flight to Madrid to start her drama studies. She walked into the grand building with trepidation, putting on her most cunning innocent smile, ready to start crying if stopped at any check-point and to break any teacher’s heart with emotional blackmail. In fact, she did very well and graduated with honors even though she was far too eccentric to play ladies in a Lope de Vega classic… Though, who knows? In parallel, she started a rock band. One of her teachers at the Academy happened to be our friend and ex-Roy Hart colleague, Vicente Fuentes – become top professor of classical Golden-Age Spanish verse. Vicente is also from the Canaries, and has a keen, masterful eye for seeing-through students’ merits and ambitions. I do not think he helped Bibiana usher her way into the Academy, but he did advice her to come work with Pantheatre. She participated in the 2008 (?) Myth and Theatre Festival in which we all attended a famous breakfast, a real one, set-up early-morning with the sun rising in the bucolic garden behind Pantheatre’s chapel-library: a tête à tête breakfast between Lola Flores[4] (Bibiana) and Greta Garbo (Elisa Matula[5]) – where Lola-Bibiana gave Greta some cunning and sexy career hints. Unforgettable.

Why all this? Why return to memories, to gossip? It is my cautious and circumspect way to approach the question of “intimacy to the point emotional pornography”. My comments start with the last phrase of the quote on the importance of memory and memories:

  1. “…memoria, que es recuerdo y por ello representación.” (…memory, which implies remembering and therefore performance). The move from memory to performance is one of fictional re-presentation. I will succinctly mention here the Roman and Renaissance traditions that link memory and theatre, if only to underline the importance of these traditions in relationship to my own current proposals, for instance, of theatre as divination – divination being a consultation of memory usually through imagistic systems. The curious should check Giulio Camillo’s Renaissance Theatre of Memory, or his Idea dell Teatro, and, more generally, the importance of the Art of Memory[6] in the archetypal perspectives that James Hillman proposes towards a psychology of the imagination[7].
  2. “…un lugar de resistencia hecho de memoria”. (… a place of resistance made of memory). This place of resistance is the ‘memorial’ foundation of theatre. In Bibiana’s case, her ‘place’ of memory agitates and fosters her resistance and her outright rebellion against the gender and sexuation dogmas that society and its religions want to impose on her: to impose, implant, reboot and re-place her memories – including those (call them choices) of who and what she wanted and wants to be.
    In our own laboratories there can be a lot of talk – and babble-talk – about body and embodiment, two notions that often become dogmatic god-terms amongst artists-actors. In a laboratory he once attended, James Hillman cut through this ‘resistant’ talk with one of his strokes of genius (did he have genius loci = genius of place and moment!) He said simply: “body equals resistance”. And this came from the voice of a psychologist who knew better than any of us the morally negative and pious psychotherapeutic connotations that can be given to the notion of “resistance”. Hillman’s is a multi-dimensional statement which I link with two other points of view, two positions:

    1. Roy Hart’s take on singing as an ethical mode and place from which to “attack”[8] resistances – and therefore as a way of transforming, i.e. of “embodying” ideals in order to enact them in performance (in life and in art). Singing as a way of aggressing one’s own regressive body (resistances) in order to reach out to the spectator, to the other. This is idealism of the most demanding kind[9]. Singing as a way of living up to one’s voice. Or, to paraphrase Roy Hart: “You are (you embody) what you can sing”…
    2. My own stand, today, which upholds and addresses these ideals from another perspective: “If you find your place you will find your voice”, which seems to circumvent “the body”, and especially the body when understood literally as the monistic locus, place, tabernacle of the Self, become the main 20th century god-term. Rather than the god within (the Self), I join those who turn to the gods ‘without’ – or call them the multiple polytheistic selves. Rather than living in ‘my’ body, with ‘my’ soul and ‘my’ self, we live in a body of ideas, or call them archetypes or, with artistic courage: goddesses and gods.

  1. “…la imposibilidad de estar del todo cuerdos en este malsano modo de vida y una posible redención en asumirlo.” (“…the impossibility of being totally sane in our unhealthy way of life and of a possible redemption in acknowledging it.”) This begs the question: is Bibiana Monje’s performance “redemptive”, if only because it acknowledges and reworks memory in terms of fictional (and political) performance[10]?
    Bibiana and I are still debating this point and reworking the end of LACURA. The performance’s last words are: “Si me lo creo” – which can have two meanings: “If I believe it” (the usual one), but also: “If I create it”. To believe and to create is the same word in Spanish (!): creo. This ambivalence fits mythology, i.e. theology (belief) as fictional (mythological).
    I join those who consider religions to be the greatest inventions of mankind. So much so that their gods and goddesses then ‘invent’ us – “create us in their image”… This loop (the gods we invent invent us) is actually what constitutes the core and genius of “archetypal” thinking, and of the performative dynamic between crear and creer (fiction and belief).  Me lo creo si me lo creo si me lo creo, etc.
  2. « Lacura de Bibiana Monje… titula un solo teatral, una comedia autobiográfica, intima hasta la pornografía emocional, cuestiona y confiesa, nos satura de posibilidades y suplica por una solución…  »
    We come round to the notion of emotional pornography, linked here with autobiography, intimacy, confession, a saturation of possible answers and a plea for a solution. LACURA unquestionably has brilliant components of stand-up comedy, on a very funny and touching autobiographical mode. But we agreed we did not want to remain within the boundaries of comic and charismatic entertainment, but to welcome and amplify emotion, and especially melancholy, even depression – even regression. Hence the “pleas” for solutions, where what is important is the plea (inferior, confessional, private), not the (superior) solutions. I am glad Bibiana went far into this soulful descent, deep enough to provoke the expression “emotional pornography”.

A few lines on pornography. It is important to underline that porneia is one of the major attributes of a goddesses: Aphrodite. Major and divine – and I feel like adding, just to stress the point: “transcendental” – in any case beyond us humans. It is divine: neither good nor bad. What can be dangerous is excessive and exclusive identification: humans cannot be gods. But then again such dangerousness, especially in Aphrodite’s case, can denote and ‘bless’ some of the best, most radical, most creative iconoclastic artistic moves (think of Manet, Picasso, Koons – or closer to home: Chignaud/Bengolea/Monteiro-Freitas…) Pornography’s bad press and the moral contempt it gets comes mostly from the Mosaic moral heritage, where it is blamed entirely on women, who then, naturally, blame it back onto patriarchy. Post-porn, transsexual and even post-colonial feminism is now thoroughly reviewing the matter. In his lecture at the 1995 Myth and Theatre Festival dedicated to Aphrodite, James Hillman stressed the fact that obscenity has been conveniently dumped onto sex and pornography allowing for obscene behavior in areas such as finance, or even politics[11]. What then would “emotional pornography” be? Deeply human, performed expressions of emotion.

Democracy in America

I wrote these lines in Bilbao, where Linda Wise and I were directing a project on Voice, Theatre and Mantics. Coincidence: Romeo Castellucci was presenting his latest piece titled Democracy in America and we all went to see it [12]. Another masterpiece, and especially its main scene: a long, drawn-out dialogue between a peasant puritan young couple, husband and wife (both played by women, like all the cast.) Possibly the most classical scene I have seen Castellucci direct, and quite possibly his best ever. A dialogue based on Tocqueville’s book Democracy in America, 1835. This scene was so emotionally poignant and wrenching that I feel like bringing in the word “pornography”, and to bring it in because what made the scene so impossibly, crushingly emotional was God, the God of the Bible. How is it possible that we have invented a God that is so impossibly cruel with these two poor puritan peasants! The scene outdoes the Bible’s Job – and possibly because women are involved. The husband applies all his saintly and patient good will to assuage his wife and to remind her that “if you ask, God will provide”. The wife rebels, explodes in blasphemy. She sells her sick daughter to an Indian witch, and performs a diabolical (Indian witch) possession, tearing her clothes full front center stage: amazing acting, amazingly directed. This for me was “pornography” of the highest order and at the complete opposite end of the sexual spectrum. No wonder Aphrodite was born of the bloody castration of Uranus…

To finish, some words on a long tradition called “Hatred of Theatre” – which also has some of its roots in the Bible (and in Plato, of course). Castellucci presents the foundations of American democracy in four or five scenes with great artistically biased choices. He underlines (after Tocqueville) the importance of the puritan Bible (words used as weapons) and of skin, especially the red-skins – and  includes a very long and laborious list of wars, battles and constitutional amendments in the buildup to democracy[13]. His work is sometimes described as non-narrative theatre, and has been claimed by contemporary alter-theatre movements, some of which can be clearly theatre-hating. I am thinking of the contemporary schism between performance art and theatre. One of the things theatre-hating movements hate the most is in my view “performed emotion”. Theirs would be a negative take on “emotional pornography”. Mine is a positive one. Castellucci has his own take, which would require a very demanding analysis to unravel, especially in this piece, and especially in the puritan couple scene. In any case: brava Bibiana, bravo Romeo!

[1] See article, English translation.

[2] “El delirio lúcido de Bibiana Monje” – Unknown Pleasures, por Adán Hernández, Ayudante de producción del Leal.Lav y bloguero de Lagenda y en Tea-tron. See   FULL ARTICLE (in Spanish)

[3] These tourist events are still on, in case you pass by Tenerife. And the wines are good. http://www.bodegasmonje.com/  or check Facebook.

[4] Lola Flores was the ultimate flamenco woman-icon of Spain’s Franco era.

[5] Elisa Matula is also a top actress, now in New York. She was the most amazing Ophelia I’ve seen, in Sean Lewis’ Brooklyn Shakespeare underworld version in which she lets Hamlet really ‘have it’. She went on to be Lewis’ Anna Karina in his Jean-Luc Godard homage film.

[6] The great classic compendium is Frances Yate’s The Art of Memory, and the Method of Loci (memory linked to image, linked to place). It is again, in my view, James Hillman, who draws the most complex cultural conclusions about the imagination in relation to image, place and memory.

[7] See especially The Dream and the Underworld, or the succinct definitions Hillman gives in his Archetypal psychology a brief account.

[8] I place the word « attack » in quotes because nowadays it is considered politically incorrect. Roy Hart could be quite martial in his militancy and agency. It shows the thoroughness of his idealism.

[9] See the poem called BIODRAME written for Roy Hart by Serge Béhar which I consider to be Roy Hart’s manifesto – and his own gloss on it.

[10] The implications of “redemption” call up the borderlines between,theatre and therapy – or catharsis for that matter. These are crucial, and ancient, topics, implicit in this article, but which need developments beyond the scope of this article.

[11] James Hillman: Pink Madness: Why Does Aphrodite Drive Us Crazy With Pornography? Audio, Cassette – Audiobook, July, 1995.

[12] I ran into Romeo Castellucci before the performance. We spoke mainly politics: the French elections were the next day and I told him I hoped his piece would help me decide (in an oracular mode) on who to vote for, given the complexity of current ‘Democracy in France’. I did actually help.

Photo: Luca Del Pia 2017

[13] There is also a very welcome (delicious?) ‘political science’ aspect to Castellucci’s performance (majorettes and all…) One note here: Castellucci underlines the fact that American democracy was a new and different model from the Athenian one. There is one huge and dark similarity – and I think Castellucci refer to it in the list of anagrams (especially of Middle East countries) he extracts from “d e m o c r a c y i n a m e r i c a”. Athens was practically genocidal in imposing its model of democracy on the Aegean states. The USA liberation of Kuwait and its later invasion of Iraq was not far off; both were done in the name of democracy. It was more like massive protection racket: protecting Athens’ commercial maritime empire, America’s Gulf oil.

Votre commentaire

Entrez vos coordonnées ci-dessous ou cliquez sur une icône pour vous connecter:

Logo WordPress.com

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte WordPress.com. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Photo Facebook

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Facebook. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Connexion à %s

Ce site utilise Akismet pour réduire les indésirables. En savoir plus sur la façon dont les données de vos commentaires sont traitées.