The Existential Arena(From Thing that Happen while Reading Rilke)
theatre has lost its mystery since medieval times’, Malte thinks. ‘God looks on
the action as though it has nothing to do with Him. The actor doesn’t know what
part to play so he decides to be himself, and looks in the mirror. The make-up
needs to be removed. But disguises always leave an indelible trace. In this case the liner that
exaggerates his eyebrows and distorts the mouth. His face is that of the white
Malte enters the amphitheatre through a broken glass door. Subsiding columns and mallow shrubs lead him to the open shell of the arena. It is criss-crossed by afternoon shadow like a giant sundial. He makes for the stage, climbing over rows of empty seats and, sensing he’s being watched, turns around and notices a straggle of badly dressed tourists. Their eyeglasses can’t quite make him out. He turns his back on them and, my God, nothing could prepare him for what is happening before his eyes: a superhuman drama is being acted out by the building.
Seized by a violent joy, he sits down, and observes the surrounding arches tremble almost to collapsing point, but steadying themselves, measured in their immeasurability, to form a mask, orbed by the curling tresses of the cornice. A puckering mouth animates it. The auditorium raises itself and revolves around the central stage in pregnant anticipation of an existence about to come into being. Everything and anything could happen here. Looking up, the gathering storm clouds suggests that the heavens are assembling a cortege of gods, readying to descend. Here, he knows, fate reigns supreme for better or worse.
‘What has our theatre to offer in comparison with this spectacle?’, Malte asks himself. ‘A half-baked prefabrication that, crumbling, sieves through the cracks in the boards and piles up in the proscenium until the stage collapses and the audience, having enough, goes home. Malte thinks that that the same half-baked phenomenon is littering our cities. Only with streets and houses more can be reduced to rubble than in an evening at the theatre.
Note (Rilke on the margin of the mss): true to say, we don’t have a theatre anymore than we have a God. It would need a communal presence, a shared Mystical Body of adherents with Shakespeare or Racine as its Pope. Nowadays everyone has their own script, and only lets others hear and see what suits them. We are forever watering down our dialogue in order to reach more and more with less and less, instead of facing reality and wailing at the wall of our woeful ignorance, behind which, given a chance, that which passes understanding would speak for itself.
The Brave Face of La Duse*(From Things that Happen while Reading Rilke)
This most tragic of actresses, Eleonora, stands upstage, bare-footed and frail, apparently without the pretext of a role, save to display her grief to an audience of gawking ghouls. Malte foresaw her suffering when she was a child prodigy. Against the wishes of her thespian parents she did everything to conceal her face, hiding behind flowers, veils, hair fringes, fists or whatever was at hand. She hid as a child does, and only an angel would be able to seek her out, Malte opines wistfully.
Eleonora grew smaller as her fame spread, appearing in larger and larger arenas, until she was a mere speck on the horizon of her audience. Her theatrical vocation was akin to the Portuguese saint who entered a convent and found the love of her life in order to renounce him. Sometimes she gurgled with inverted joy, feeling safe being blessed with a subliminal love that protected her from requital. Still she sensed all eyes were on her. And looked up to see the ugly, hollow space filled with eyes, taking her in. She wanted to stretch out her arms and make a sign with her finger to claw back what they imagined her to be.
On the death of her parents she decided to show her face and, at a gala performance, tore off her mantilla. Her visage was there for all to see. But the audience, blinded by her eyes, averted their's, and tried to humour her with embarrassed smiles. Her ‘look’ was the fixed gaze of the other in which the seer sees himself.
Meanwhile, her fellow actors, feeling that they were caged with something wild, stayed in the background, reciting their lines by rote. But she drew them to the front and, opening herself, treated them as real people. The props and scenery fell away as she sought out the faces in the audience with love and tenderness. Her joy was no longer inverted. A peace beyond understanding made her feel capable of an immense reality, beyond her control...Until she realised that it wasn’t themselves the audience saw, but her own image reflected in their eyes. Horrified, she looked away, unable to face herself in a thousand eyes. And the audience, taking it as a sign that the performance was ending, burst into applause. It was that confirmed for her that the gossamer thread between the audience and herself was an illusion. No transfiguration of herself was going to change their lives. And so Eleonora, who had been brought up to believe that off stage she did not have a life, chose to efface herself completely and live only in fabricating theatrical characters.
* Eleonora Duse, Sarah Bernhardt’s Italian Rival