jan fabre's 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.
Tramway, Glasgow.

'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' in 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''...

Despite 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 someone?


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 pleasurecannot 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

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 Herald.

* 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 too easily''...

* 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'


* 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 Otto Mühl)

* 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' http://www.signandsight.com/features/301.html


'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.

 facebookshare facebookvolg    twitter

image of the week: