JAN FABRE: THE CRYING BODY
Prelude to ‘l’Histoire des larmes’, Avignon 2005
This event promises to be one of Britain’s
truly unique theatre events of 2004.
'The Crying Body’, a new creation of Jan Fabre, premiered in Antwerp in
October 2004. It is meant as a prelude to a
full version 'L'histoire des larmes' for the
festival in Avignon 2005. Fabre has been working on it in the 'Internationale Sommerakademie für Bildende Kunst'
Salzburg, where he discussed questions like how tears have been
interpreted by other cultures and in other times, and what precisely a
body does when tears are rolling over its cheeks.
After some more workshops in Lisbon and a try-out in Rome, Fabre
presented his ‘Crying body’ in Antwerp. After Antwerp, the
production will tour to Glasgow, Milano and Paris.
The crying body consists of a series of episodes. In a first episode four couples interact in an increasingly aggressive way. In a second
episode, a priest hears the confession of a bride and becomes so turned
on that he rips of his soutane and can hardly refrain from proceeding
to masturbating, if not copulating with the girl. Then, someone - who soon appears to be Saint John the Baptist
- begins to articulate without sounds, to gesticulate with a warning
finger – and to sweat abundantly. In the next episode four women begin
to pee one after another, with one leg lifted. Then, all the actors
begin to spit on Saint John the Baptist. Next, there is an interaction
between Santa Claus and Saint John the Baptist. And, to conclude, men
and women alike imitate the movements of a
male masturbating or copulating in every conceivable position. The sweat
that begins to stream abundantly is eventually
thrown upwards in a kind of triumphant fountain. The whole is seasoned
with some songs like ‘Singing in the rain’ and the tear-jerker 'I feel so utterly alone''
(Danny de Munck from ‘Ciske the Rat’)
- and combined with the image of the crying face of Els de Ceuckelier on
a giant screen. A veritable Gesamtkunstwerk, so to speak...
All those loose parts are laced up with three 'red threads'.
A somewhat pathetic figure with the tremor of Parkinson does not manage
to push his bicycle forward, snorts slime out of his nose, drinks
his own piss, and, towards the end of the piece, honours the ability of
the actors to produce the various '‘tears of the body" with a becoming
certificate. A second thread is a kind of witch that now and then
comes to tap the tears produced by the actors in a plastic bag. And,
finally, a woman with a long stick is pricking in the 'clouds'
throughout the whole piece, until eventually, after the fountain of
sweat, she succeeds in letting a shower of
rain descend from heaven.
But those threads cannot conceal the complete lack of organic
build-up of the whole, that is not more than a loose sequence of scenes,
songs and an image on the screen - it
would be a euphemism to call it 'montage'. Apparently, it is not
only in his sculpture that Fabre proves to be utterly unable to compose
(see 'Searching for Utopia').
And that holds even more of of the episodes as such: they consist of the
mere - often enervating - repetition of actions like fighting, spitting,
pissing or masturbating. Sometimes, Fabre ventures a more complicated
structure: the climax, as when all the actors
begin to shout ‘motherfucker’. But, of a more
subtle handling of the flow of dramatic time: no trace.
What is laced up, then, is itself no more than
a series of animated tableaux vivants.
Fabre's scenes have
more in common with a tableau vivant: they are
mute - wordless. Or, to phrase with Fabre: we
are dealing with ‘biologic’ rather than with ‘psychologic' acting. The
whole array of possible conflicts between man and woman is reduced to
its 'essence': fighting bodies, now and then
giving a cry. Not otherwise than, with
Hermann Nitsch, all drama is
reduced to the mere slaughtering of a lamb.
Failing words, it is not always clear what the meaning of Jan Fabre's
sketches might be. What to think of the man
with the tremor of Parkinson and his bicycle? How to interpret the woman
pricking with her stick in the clouds? Ask Jan Fabre!
The word is not completely absent. In the course of the piece, the same
question is asked time and again: 'Why
cry when it does not help?' The profound answer reads: 'Because
it does not help''...
Fabre's philosophical workshops, we cannot help to remind of the fact
that a bad question cannot but get a bad answer. The point is precisely
that crying is all too effective, as every parent of crying children of
every man of a weeping woman will know.
Are we perhaps supposed to consider all that spitting, hawking, peeing
and masturbating 'daring', 'provocative' - or even:
revolutionary? Although the stages of the past century have seen more of
that stuff, it should not escape our attention that,
precisely in a piece devoted to the 'tears of the body', its
juices par excellence are completely absent: milk and sperm from penis
and breast. And, what remained unspoken in
that sketch with Santa Claus and Saint John that Baptist, who,
when Santa Claus has eventually left the scene, suddenly takes
the role of a little boy – of a pathetic 'Ciske the rat'? A little boy and a bishop!
Should Jan Fabre – not only a huomo universale but meanwhile even
a Grand Officer in the Order
of the Crown of Belgium - perhaps owe something to
Granted, there is one element that leaves a
lasting impression: the often deeply moving image of Els Deceukelier
weeping on that giant screen on the background - the only thing that
partakes of the organic of a ‘crying body’ - and, besides, eloquently
testifies to the efficiency of weeping... Although
our pleasure cannot fail to be spoiled by the demonstrative - but
entirely unconvincing - way
in which she is making the slobber pour out of
her mouth - in an effort to remind us of the fact that this masterpiece
is about more then mere literal tears.
Next year in Avignon?
Stefan Beyst, October 2004
From 21 to 23 October in the Tramway in Glasgow.
From 02 to 06 November in the 'Teatro Off Milano'.
From 23 to 27 November in the 'Théâtre de la Ville', Paris.
* 'We laugh, despite ourselves, as a panting priest (naked but
for his dog collar) slams his willy between the pages of his Bible to
stop himself lusting after a woman giving sobbing confession. It’s about
as subtle as Benny Hill, but its cartoonish humour is cleverer than it
looks, allowing us to confront some uncomfortable truths through the
veil of comedy' 'Much of what works in The Crying Body can be put down
to rather elegant toilet humour'. Ellie Carr, 24 October 2004 Sunday
* According to Rosita Boisseau ('Le Monde' (25/11/2004, 25/11/2004) we are dealing
with a 'very political piece' 'Religion, politics, morals' are fiercely
attacked. Does Jan Fabre not show us the human being 'nude,
crawling on their hands and knees in the authenticiy of their animality'?
The supposedly 'fierce attack' turns out to be no more than a
sustained obscene gesture: does it suffice to show humans sweating,
pissing, sneezing and masturbating? In the vein of ' the butter and the
ketchup' in 'As the World Needs a Warrior's Soul', 'The Crying
Body' is supposed to belie the 'universal lie as it is staged in the
media' 'by showing us the crudity of truth, how vulgar it might be'.
Thus, Jan Fabre is supposed to show us 'who we really are'. Rosita
Boisseau is not only blind for the difference between criticism and
obscene gesture. On the formal, purely artistic plane, she overlooks
what Ellie Carr, referring to Benny Hill, called Fabres 'cartoonish
humor'. She rather prefers to talk about Jan Fabre devotion to 'the
grotesque' and 'the farce'. To her, the sketch of the masturbating
priest is already 'a must'. However, Fabre's 'inistence on certain
actions throughout long periods' is so obvious, that even this fervent
admiror of Fabres genius cannot refrain from accusing him of 'taking it
Anna Kisselgoff in an overview of 2004 in The New York Times,
December 26, 2004. Outsider Art.: 'More equivocal at Lyon was a
trend: visual artists who were not professional dancers but who call
themselves choreographers. Frédéric Flamand and Jan Fabre, both Belgian,
are very different and are essentially only as good as their dancers'
To the point: 'Je ne pense pas que l'on refera la Bataille d'Hernani sur un spectacle
que l'on vit presque à l'identique en d'autres "théâtres" de la rue
St-Denis'. E. MdR in
* And to be sure, our revolutionary master Jan Fabre is setting the
trend: 'The newspaper Le Parisien pointed out that the Paris
stage currently offers nudity for all artistic tastes: "intellectual",
like Médée-Matériau; bourgeois-bohemian or "bobo", like Love!
Valour! Compassion!; and deliberately "provocative", like The
Crying Body'. There is nothing new under the sun, though: it
suffices to remind of the happenings and the Living Theatre in de
sixties and body art in the seventies (John Lichfield, the Independent,
05 April 2005:
(see also Hermann Nitsch and
* It is not only in the French press that Jan Fabre has lost his
credibility, witness this passage from the German critic Evelyn Finger
in 'Die Zeit' (July 28, 2005): 'Dawson has developed an impulsive,
angular and precise language of movement and a demanding way of walking
which foils the narcissistic strut of Xavier Le Roy or Jan Fabre'
I AM A MISTAKE
'I am a mistake' is another 'Gesamtkunstwerk' by Jan Fabre. The music,
played onstage by an orchestra, is composed by Wolfgang Rihm, and the
films on the background are from
Chantal Akerman. On stage, four
cigarette-smoking female dancers tear out cosmetic ads and fashion
photographs out of magazines, using their stubs to set them on fire.
They also deface posters of US President George W. Bush, Russian
counterpart Vladimir Putin, Osama bin Laden. The piece is meant as an
'act of individuality against the established social order': "I am
faithful to the pleasure that's trying to kill me."
Just like 'The crying body' and many other
pieces of Jan Fabre, 'I am a mistake' is pseudo-revolutionary and of a
lamentable artistic quality.
In order not to repeat myself, let me just refer to: 'I
am a mistake (Times on Line')
Stefan Beyst, December 2007
(in English, German, French or Spanish):
See also Paul McCarthy, another genius that
practice culture criticism with ketchup.
More on Jan Fabre: see 'The
General background to this article:
stefan beyst: theory on art and music
on other twentieth century artists: follow the arrows: