Expanded from a lecture delivered in Torino:

The genius of oracular dramaturgy

14 luglio 2017 – Cavallerizza – Torino. Conferenza a cura di Enrique Pardo: In occasione di una visita al Museo Egizio, il maestro propone una meditasione sull’invenzione della religione in Egitto, madre di tutte le finzioni. Si ringrazia la Cavallerizza I-REALE occupata per l’ospitalità.


Museo Egizio Entrance

The town of Torino has the surprising reputation of being one of the Europe’s capitals of magic. This is due especially to its Egyptian Museum, product of the fascination with Egypt in the 19th century after Napoleon’s expeditions, which were Masonic-driven enterprises to a large extent, seeking for the source and prestige of Egyptian esoteric magic. Bernardino Drovetti, a highly colorful and animoso (fiery) character joined Napoleon’s Egyptian party, to then remain in place as French proconsul and thus obtain all the permits needed to organize archeological digs, send them back to

Sr Drovetti

Italy (he was from Torino…) – or sell them all over Europe. Later, in the 1890s, Sr. Ernesto Schiaparelli an archeologist of high repute, senator to the monarchy, expanded the Torino museum with his own extraordinary discoveries (he found Nefertiti!): he was particularly lucky to stumble upon the village of the artisans who built the palaces and temples of the Valley of Kings, and Queens. These sites were intact, preserved under desert sand. The atmosphere in Turin when the cases arrived and were opened was, well, “magic”.

Here are some reflections on the occasion of the visit to the Museo delle Antichità Egizie di Torino, organized by Piccola Compagnia della Magnolia who invited Linda Wise and me to direct a professional theatre course as part of their project Alta Formazzione MAESTRALE 2017. First class hosts and first class participants (the organizers’ choice.) Our project addressed Divinatory Theatre – and more precisely Il genio dramaturgico oracolare (The genius of oracular dramaturgy). I am a great believer, especially in laboratory contexts, in the maxim that says: “If you write “devil” on the wall, the devil will appear”. We wrote “Egypt”.

The participants were warned about the Egyptian bias, and that we were organizing a visit to the Museum. I also asked them to consult a medium or diviner before the workshop, on their personal choice of a working text. They all did it, to my surprise.


Furthermore, Giorgia Cerruti, the director of Magnolia and organizer of the project, told me how important Freemasonry circles were, and are, in Torino, steeped in Egyptian esoteric references – and in the study of “Neoplatonic magic”. Then, one of the actors, a handsome young man from Rome, approached me as we walked to the Museum to tell me discreetly: “If you need any help, I know everything about Egyptian mythology”. Aged four he was given a huge illustrated book on Egypt and for years it was the only reading he wanted to do. To top these good augurs, another actor, from Puglia, showed me, after the visit, a short video on his iPhone: he had filmed two serpents copulating. I will keep that astonishing encounter for a future article on the Caduceus when I return to the Tiresias myth of the coupling serpents, and to the recent exchanges with Rachel Pollack during the New York PanNYC project, including the biblical confrontation between the serpent of Moses and those of the Pharaoh.


Unquestionably, the theatre laboratories I have been directing recently make more and more sense in terms of oracular and divinatory practices, and theory – especially when texts are brought into imagistic, vocal and musical performances: how to “make sense” with texts in such “contexts”? Texts have their own implicit literary discourse, their own authority in terms of meaning and rhetoric, usually linked to the author’s expressed or putative will and intentions. The oracular or divinatory question (we will address the differences later) becomes: how to invite texts as open contributors, as guest visitors, as oracular voices, as divinatory spirits[1] ?

This is how I put “Egypt” to the participants: “If we acknowledge that religions are the greatest inventions of humanity, (which I do, in terms of cultural fiction, and in terms of a quest for depth – as in “depth psychology”) – then we would be advised not only to reflect and speculate on the imagination of religions, but also on how then religions invent us.

Once invented, as it were, religions take the upper hand – the one we actually handed over to them – and in turn they take over, invent us, create us “according to their images” [2] . Religions configure the development of our characters through moral rules and metaphysical dogmas, to live and to die by. At this point we must equate myth and religion: theology is mythology, the stories we live and die by and who therefore know better. And here again, we have all the more reason to study, to consult these divinities, so as to “face them” and to figure out the patterns of their intentions and interventions: the forms they want us to take, the behaviors they want us to comply to. This may sound like, and actually is, a solipsistic loop: we consult the figures we invented who then formulate and return to us the moral and metaphysical forces, the unformed fears and prejudices we handed over to them when we invented them: emotions (i.e. « wild thinking ») born out of our own fear of imaginative autonomy – and especially of our fear of death. To quote one of James Hillman’s strongest statements: “death is the ultimate metaphore”.

This « loop » is the main reproach made to Freud’s methodology in terms of folie à deux: charismatically (or even hypnotically) planting his hypotheses in his patients, for them to then confirm his theories. It was C.G. Jung who, in my view, (re)started dealing in depth with this ‘theological’ double-bind and egg-or-chicken dilemma through his theory of complexes and then of archetypes, later developed by James Hillman in mytho-poetical terms, giving imagination a primary role and status[3].

From the dawn of civilization the divine has been consulted through oracular and divinatory procedures [4]. I propose that these forms (and performances) of consultation[5] constitute the referential horizon towards which we are turning in our laboratory and training work, especially, as mentioned, in the way in which texts are brought into performative con-texts (choreographic theatre and voice performance), so that interpretations rise first and foremost from the interplay with these very contexts, hic et nunc, with what is actually there, present[6]. The main outcome is that the literary, authorial voices of the texts is put into question, heard but mostly subverted, and listened to in mantic-divinatory ways. If one enters, as it were, into an oracular mode of consultation and perception, every performative act and its interpretations is seized (and ‘set-up’) through oracular patterns. I must admit (with a pinch of salt – from the sweat mine[7]), that the best insights during the Torino laboratories proceeded obliquely, intuitively, often seemingly by luck, in oracular fashion; they did not necessary yield miraculous formulations (though some were almost there!), but they certainly brought about refreshingly challenging interpretations – I would add: especially deep psychological insights. In all this I insist on the performer as interpreter, giving his craft clear connotations of diviner, medium, channel or, as I tend to put it: “animal of the imagination”, cultivating “the instinct of image”.

Let us now return to Egypt , and to the Egyptians as the ‘inventors’ of religion (or at least the religions that influenced most directly the Mediterranean.) Here is a quote from an article by a distinguished Cambridge Egyptologist: J.D. Ray (an article in Divination and Oracles – 1981).

“The Egyptians believed that at the beginning of their history the divine spoke to mankind, and that he did so from a temple, the seat of numinosity, and that he spoke by means of an unexpected voice.” (Note: we can sidestep the masculine/femenine/neutral awkwardness of the quote, and speak directly of divinities in terms of goddesses and gods.)

Three questions follow:

  1. What does it mean to say that the divine spoke to mankind? Well, the main outcome of divine speech is stories, myths: hints and gossip, plots and characters, narrative figuration, with which we might , precisely, figure out (divination) ‘our’ world; or, today one may want to call it perceptive or psychological – and creative – imagination. Let me venture further: can we establish a link, let’s say, between Pharaonic Egypt, the Delphic Pythia, the Sybil of Cumae, and what we call the ‘oracular’ patterns and procedures of text interpretation in our choreographic theatre laboratories? To even consider such a question already implies oracular speculation because we are dealing with cultural divination. (I will come to scholarship and scientific methods in a moment.) Inherent in our artistic procedures is a form of prayer, of invocation: calling on the voices of History for inspiration. It might even include a sleight of hand on the gods and goddesses: deflecting, diverting, deviating the stories, betraying them even, adding gossip, inventing anecdotes: the tools of our trade. In actual fact this mostly happens in my case by stealing from scholarship or documented fiction about mythology[8]. The best booty is when scholars allow themselves to speculate beyond documented proof. As artists we exploit the creative continuum between memory and imagination, between archeology and archetypal thinking.

To put it another way, the whole laboratory procedure and its critical thinking, especially when texts i.e. language are involved is this oracular loop through which human traditions and historical fantasies can be consulted [9]. I do not read articles like J.D. Ray’s only out of historical and scholarly curiosity – or for the pleasure of good writing and good thinking alone. Nor do I do it out of any revivalist or nostalgic convictions or hopes. Nevertheless, in these experimental laboratories and in the oratories that accompany them, I am ‘consulting’ antecedents, sometimes disregarded ones, as alternative ways to give voice, think and perform artistic intuition.

On this count, Christianity has a lot to answer for: “close the oracles” was practically the first dictate of Christian authorities, the so-called fathers of the Church, when they took over the Roman Empire[10].

  1. D. Ray writes that divine speech happens in “a temple, the seat of numinosity.” Sure: that temple is the theatre space, and its divine speech is the performance. And yet, nothing could be further away from the images and descriptions we have of Egyptian archaic, hieratic, ritual magic ceremonies than our laboratory improvisations – much more like chaotic, wild sceances! On the other hand, the intensity and the poetics of the artistic work are a quest for “numinosity”, that is, for magic, if only because of the improvisational divinatory risks taken, the complexity of disassociation poetic work, seeking and gambling performatively on what is hidden and beyond us, on what text bring and on the different layers of dramaturgy: pitching interpretation beyond the borders of our logics and morals. A few words here about the Torino Egyptian Museum. It has been totally redesigned recently and is now the most elegant cultural tourist must in town: design, plexiglas, spotlights, electronic tickets and slick historical panels in three languages. There were not that many ‘magical’ objects but lots of exquisite crafts, as expected from an artisans’ trove. The ground floor, the last in the visit, has the awesome statues: the colossal anthropomorphized animals. There they are, the gods and goddesses. One thing struck me: practically no Eros, except for some very dignified, beautiful young couples. Does the sepulchral seriousness and predominance of Thanatos exclude Eros? Certainly no sex. Or was has there been a ‘curatorial’ selection? And finally: what does such a museum represent today, particularly for a contemporary artist who questions (and consults) the nature of the links with Antiquity, and especially with the traditions of magic? I use the word magic as an umbrella that gathers oracular consultations, divination, invocations and ex voto, acting-out fantasies like theurgy[11].
  2. Inevitably I will pick up on J.D. RAY’s mention of the “unexpected voice” by which divinity spoke in the Egyptian temples, according to him. I say “inevitably” because of the impact and importance on my own artistic mindscape of the voice work and philosophy of Roy Hart (1926 – 1975). Roy Hart called his work simply “singing”. His quest and practice, his way of listening to the voice and his own formidable singing, were in many ways a search for the “unexpected voice”, and in that sense an oracular procedure. Asked once by a worried voice phonology specialist if he was not afraid of causing harm to his voice, or to his pupils’, Roy Hart responded with characteristic aplomb: “Madame, I break my voice every day.”[12]

Roy Hart’s “oracular” manner of response and therefore of listening to and commenting the “unexpected voice”, (this was, for me, the core of his teaching), was through dream interpretation. Roy Hart had indisputable hermeneutic genius. One could say that his oracle worked by linking singing (producing and listening to the “unexpected voice”) with interpretative analysis – similar, for instance, with the Lacanian take of Mladen Dolar’s when he writes “the voice if always a dream voice”.

  1. In one of the Torino laboratories I advised an actress to risk her voice, especially her professional (well-trained, clear and resonant) voice, but also to ‘ditch’ and rebel against the voice that her working text asked for, with its stoic, suffering tone – and an excessive tinge of humility[13]. We tried unexpected and antinomic voices, grotesque, gros or cynical ones. The result was “oracular”: the “unexpected” voices spoke with divine (and demonic) intelligence, with oracular genius about the very moral dilemmas the text presented. These “unexpected voices” brought unexpected (divinatory) revelations – oracular interpretations, performative disclosures, radical alternatives. I must add here that my take on voice ‘teaching’ is essentially performative. (I keep a respectful distance from the notion of “singing” because of the devout and even pious religious connotations it can take). Directing theatre, and voice, involves oracular, but often feral and impious performing.

I also told the project participants that we would encounter those awesome deities and unexpected voices that appeared along the Nile, and that they appeared first as African animals (the statues of the ground floor referred-to above): yes, animals were (and are) the original performing gods – ‘perfect’ ways of being and acting in this world. Then came the waves of Middle Eastern and Arabian invasions, greedy for the fertility of the Nile Delta, bringing new gods and taking back local ones and new syncretistic divinities. Egypt was the great theological school. Moses, Plato and Jesus were educated in Egypt…

[1] My favorite (indirect) definition of the voice, is by Giorgio Agamben: “Listening to the voice in speech is what thinking is all about.”

[2] “God created man in His own image.” Genesis 1-27, the sixth day.

[3] One of the essential layers of Hillman’s post-jungian thinking (he named his work Archetypal Psychology) is precisely Facing the Gods. On Jung and religion I recommend Sonu Shamadasani’s Cult Fictions: C. G. Jung and the Founding of Analytical Psychology, 1998. I find it the best “backdoor” entrance into Jung’s “theological” thinking.

[4] Divination procedures are seen usually as more man-made and man-willed than oracular ones. In a performative context that border hardly exists. Sometimes it is a pleasure to see the man-made artifice, the poetic fabrication, the cultural inventivity. Other times synchronicities are best left alone in their mystery. See below the references to the “unexpected voices”.

[5] Two favorite forms of consultation: consideration (from cum sideris: being with the stars of a person and/or situation), and contemplation (entering, being in the figure’s temple).

[6] What is present and what do we call presence, especially in theatre, are foundational points. A hint-propositions that will have to suffice for the moment: “imagination is primarily perception” i.e. what is present.

[7] The salt harvested from “making Orpheus sweat” see the Myth and Theatre Festival titled Spirits.

[8] Playwrighter and psychotherapist Nor Hall was once walking along the Californian Pacific cliffs with her mentor, the renowned mythologist Norman O’Brown, when they came across an ominous cliff cavern. She asked him if he had found Dionysos in such a cave. He replied: “No, I found Dionysos in books”. Rachel Pollack recently asked me if I ever set-up performative rituals in Greek ruins. Today, I answer: “I think I practice Theurgy in the laboratories”. More on neoplatonic theurgy in the coming articles.

[9] Rafael Lopez-Pedraza, in the preface to his Hermes and his Children, invokes Hermes the Thief when he himself is stealing information and fantasies on Hermes from the Hermes scholars. He maintains that Archetypal Psychology was born at the Warburg Institute in London, when he, James Hillman, Patricia Berry and Valery Heron had to flee temporarilly from the strictures of the Zurich Jung Institute. When in Paris, I attend Xavier Papaïs’ seminars on magic, or Pierre Caye’s on Neoplatonism to a large degree as inspirational thinking and fantasy ‘tranfers’…

[10] In a series of articles which complement his book Dumbstruck, A Cultural History of Ventriloquism, on the voice in modern music composers (Schoenberg to Stockhausen mostly), Prof. Steven Connor makes a striking point on how much these artists were inspired and even obsessed by the legends of the Sybil of Cumae – legends which were the result of the very repression and erasure exercised by Christianity. It took some fifteen or more centuries for the repressed polysemic, atonal and multiphonic voices to return.

[11] According to the neoplatonist philosopher Proclus (c. 480): theurgy is “a power higher than all human wisdom embracing the blessings of divination, the purifying powers of initiation and in a word all the operations of divine possession”. I am particularly interested (I should say « curious ») in the performative legends of Iamblichus (c. 245 – 325, Syrian), a figure that has already visited our laboratories…

[12] Here I depart from those who speak of Roy Hart’s work in terms of « finding your own true voice ». Ownership and truth are religious and prophetic notions, not oracular, unless taken as rhetorical modes – as characters, that is, as voices to be ‘broken’.

[13] The actress later told me that in response to my suggestion that participants consult a diviner on their choice of a working texts, she did an I Ching consultation. The title of the answer was Modesty. She chose a text with a modest voice (a character speaking on modesty in modest terms.) The laboratory ‘oracle’ totally subverted her interpretation, her modesty. Bravo to the I Ching for setting her up ! And brava to the actress for instantly understanding the sub-version.


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