Words, William, just words
ALVARO GARCÍA DE ZÚÑIGA interviewed
by JOÃO LUÍS PEREIRA.
JOÃO LUÍS PEREIRA You have studied to be a musician (violin and composition); how did that influence your approach to dramatic writing?
ALVARO GARCÍA DE ZÚÑIGA “Approach” is an exact word for describing that process, since a real “departure” never took place. I write since my teens; writing and musical composition developed side by side, in a natural, complementary way. I began to take an interest in musical theatre, perhaps influenced by the work of composers like Mauricio Kagel or Roque de Pedro, who was my composition teacher. It proved an amazing expressive tool, since it enabled me to explore the performative potential of the musical gesture, rather than music itself. It was a small step from there to dramatic writing: I began by writing a series of texts that were not exactly theatre, rather theatre about music. I wrote that stuff in the 1970s; it was never staged.
From composition to literature, from poetry to the theatre, from cinema to radio theatre – is it correct to say that, in spite of this extremely criss-crossed and unruly creative chaos, your operations centre has always been sound, as an utterable material?
In fact, there are two things that always interweave in my works: sound and meaning. Speaking of chaos, the etymology of that word suggests something like “the letting out of the first breath before the scream”, which is very interesting. And revelatory…
How did Conferência de Imprensa come to the TNSJ, where it will have its world premiere on the context of Portogofone?
I showed the project to Ricardo Pais, who told me he was interested. But everything began when William Nadylam asked me to write a monologue for him to perform. The play was written with him in mind, and that proved decisive, because I had wanted for a long time to work on a subject – power – which had never taken a central position in my work, and which also interests William.
Since he is an actor with a knack for endless modulations of speech, could it be that he seemed the ideal instrument to enrich this mode of speech, so mechanical in appearance?
I am not sure if I agree with that mechanical quality of which you speak. Maybe the simple reading of the text can erroneously lead to that impression of “mechanicity”, but it will be different on stage, for the play includes many silences, many moments of listening, reflection and suspension – we do not know how much time passes between the questions, which we never hear, and the answers. The challenge lies precisely on the pauses that may exist between the words, and that interpretative dimension will prove decisive. The “sheet music” of Conferência de Imprensa is full of implicit fermatas, elements of musical notation which mean that the variation of time – that is to say, the duration and suspension of certain sentences – is left to the performer. But William is huge in that; he is a constant source of surprises.
In Conferência de Imprensa there are no characters, at least in the more conventional sense. There are two “hes”, the cinema actor and the politician…
Actually, none of my plays feature characters; they are performed by people who seem aware of being on a stage. In this particular instance, I think we may imagine a third “he”, a businessman, one of those guys who work in Wall Street…
Are they all faces of the same currency used in the media business, ruled by expressive clichés and vacuous thought?
They represent, at the present time, the faces of power. In a certain way, power depends today on economy to survive: there is nothing more Marxist than the capitalist system, which shows us we are not living in history, but in economic history, as Marx curiously stated. Nowadays, we have a political class that is completely disconnected from a huge number of realities, with an increasingly widening gap between power and the citizens. And all this is fed by the media industry, which produces a constant background noise that overrides everything, allowing the passage of any kind of message.
Could the word, the language, be, as Ionesco puts it, “the real weapon of all domination”? And should the theatre present itself as the space where that potential for destruction may be put into question?
I do not know if it is the real weapon, but it is surely one of the most dangerous and efficient. One of the theatre’s positive capacities, certainly not the only one, is its ability to put things into question; it is one of the spaces where society can put itself into question, where society can think about itself. Not in some patronising, moralistic way, but one that will allow people to open their eyes by means of that same questioning.
Is it one of the last refuges?
I’d rather say it is the first refuge.
You seem to believe more in the power of the theatre than in the power of words…
Perhaps words lie more than the theatre does. It is curious, but it seems that there are no masks in the theatre, because by means of play-acting you can reach some essence, some truth. The word in itself contains all the possibilities of rhetoric, which allows for much fascinating interpretation, but for me the theatre is more than just rhetoric: the theatre, the best theatre, the one that stretches from Aeschylus to Shakespeare and Beckett, is about society thinking about itself.
Conferência de Imprensa opens in a perfectly epigrammatic way – “Words, William, just words”. This “William” evokes both Shakespeare (who is a recurring presence here, through quotations from his work) and Nadylam, the actor who celebrates this kind of liturgical ritual of the word and its deceptions…
Nadylam is undeniably one of the greatest modern Shakespearean players; he was even the most extraordinary Hamlet I have ever seen, and Shakespeare is one of my favourite authors, not because I am some kind of specialist, far from it, but because he influenced powerfully my relation with the theatre. All these nods to Shakespeare started as a joke between me and Nadylam, because Shakespeare has been a constant presence around us: we are working on a project based on King Lear, preparing a play called radiOthello (which will open right after Conferência de Imprensa, at Zurich’s Theater am Neumarkt) and there is also the ambition of staging a show based on a Portuguese translation of Macbeth, by António M. Feijó. But the Shakespearean quotations, besides corresponding to a series of private jokes in Conferência de Imprensa, also serve to show how much we can still recognise ourselves in certain Renaissance texts.
Does this epigraph establish a kind of direct correspondence between the “words, words, words” voiced by a splenetic Hamlet and the ceaseless and indifferent “blah blah blah” of the media torrent?
Just as Don Quixote may be read as the materialisation of Cervantes’ fear of man’s alienation via Gutenberg’s recent invention of the press, Hamlet’s “words, words, words” is perhaps a symptom of that same fear that excessive generalisation may empty discourse of its contents. We live in a time in which that dumbing-down has reached its peak, via the press, the TV, the Internet. Currently, we live in fear of being swallowed by technology.
In an interview, you said that Beckett led you to the theatre, that he taught you to “search for a time of theatrical action which must not exceed the real time of the scenic space”, and that this made you eliminate characters from your texts, all ruling concepts in Conferência de Imprensa…
Beckett was a major reference during my adolescence, for I could see there was a form, or subject, or series of subjects that he carried much further than any previous playwright. I based myself on him when I began developing my theatre. I am more familiar with Beckett than with Shakespeare, in the sense that I have read and analysed in great depth Beckett’s words and their potentialities. His final “dramaticules”, very rarefied texts made of fragments, scraps of words, interest me very much. I was very impressed when I read a short text by Novalis, where he precisely describes a literature made from scraps, in which meaning would be something almost residual. I have it here somewhere; let me look for it. Here it is: “Narratives, unconnected, yet full of associations, like dreams. Poems, simply fine-sounding and full of beautiful words, but also devoid of meaning and connection, at most isolated stanzas comprehensible; they must, like fragmented pieces, be made up of the most diverse things. At most, true poetry can have an allegorical meaning in its totality and an indirect effect, like music”. It is absolutely extraordinary how he, on the 18th century, came to the notion of a conceptual literature!
When I think about your obsession with the plasticity of the language, as a meaning-generating sonic material, and even about your experiments in radio theatre, I remember Valère Novarina’s phrase: “I write for the ears”…
Sincerely, I don’t find much of a connection between my work and Novarina’s, even though I acknowledge we both share a fundamental connection with sound, that “theatre for the ears”. Valère is one of the greatest names in post-Beckettian dramatic literature, along with Ghérasim Luca (who wrote a fantastic book, Théâtre de bouche, which groups a series of micro-plays), Oskar Pastior and Ernst Jandl. All of them deal with the written word/spoken word question, and all found ways of overcoming an apparent impossibility: how to write for the theatre after Beckett? Beckett closes Stirrings Still, the last text published before his death, with the words “Oh all to end”…
You describe a group of your plays as “short ni théâtre [neither theatre] texts”…
This term jokes with my desire to mix genres, concepts and techniques: neither theatre, nor… They are three short texts, which I wrote in the late 1990s and entitled Actueur, a portmanteau word formed by the contraction of “acteur” [actor] and “tueur” [killer]. These texts close a cycle in my writing for the theatre, in which the word was essentially a literary construction. After Actueur, the theatrical action itself starts generating the literary text; it is a new cycle, which begins with radiOthello and continues with Manuel Sur Scène (premiered in Berlin, 2005) and Exercices de Frustration (premiered in Zurich, 2006), until finally arriving at Conferência de Imprensa.
Could we say that, from radiOthello on, your theatre is no longer so characterised by the abstraction of “words without acts” as by a more performative “act with words”?
Certainly, and in that sense Conferência de Imprensa shows a difference, since it indicates an evolution towards increasing depuration: even though there is still some play with words – as in the end, when statements are repeated with erased or switched vowels, which are mostly games of sound and sense, or more precisely focused on the dislocations of meaning between the two –, its stylistic construction is much more depurated.
I know you have some reservations in speaking of the present text’s staging, since the rehearsals have not even began at the moment in which we speak…
Even though I have some experience in that field, I don’t see myself as a stage director, at least in the classic sense of the term; I have no specific formation. I am staging onferência de Imprensa because William Nadylam wanted very much to have me write and direct the text, which is both an honour and an added responsibility.
The opening stage direction give us some clues: “Everything must work narratively as a film, with fade-ins, fade-outs and ellipses, all presented as changes in lighting, acting and sound”…
I asked João Louro to develop some visual ideas for this show. His work on image saturation is well known, and Conferência de Imprensa deals precisely with a society saturated with words and images. We are always about to fall down a pit, always one step away from disaster, but we never do. It’s as if all this was a gigantic house of cards surrounded by huge electric fans and which, against all logic, does not tumble down. It is frightening to see how this structure survives chaos.
There is nothing fortuitous about your collaboration with visual artist João Louro, since both of you seem distrustful of words and images, that is to say, are able to feel the constant noise that slowly wears away and trivialises their contents…
We both distrust them, but perhaps not in the same way, or more precisely, not always from the same angle. We had already worked together several times and, as soon as the central concept of Conferência de Imprensa became clear in my head, it became certain that João had to conceive the scenic space. And the solution he found, combining an American-style press briefing room with a Mediterranean clothesline, struck me as a very pleasant surprise.
The text presents a clear circularity (and the circle is also an image that suggests the centre, the seat of power), as it begins and ends with an epilogue: the first, the interview of the cinema actor, is pre-recorded and shown through TV screens, before the action moves to the stage, where the live discourse grows increasingly politicised. Will there be a scenic correspondence for this circularity?
I don’t have yet a clear idea of what we’ll see, but yes, there is an intention of exploring that circularity, even though I’m not sure if it all really comes full circle at the end… Initially, we are confronted with something we clearly recognise as a media event, and that transference into the political sphere slowly generates areas of strangeness and disturbance, because the discourses, in spite of seeming the same, are tremendously different deep down. I will try to explore that ambivalence between art and entertainment, between the idle talk of politicians and hard political discourse. There are also some music-hall moments, songs that disrupt the politician’s speech; they appear like UFOs: we are not very sure of their provenance. Perhaps it is the result of the fact that politicians have turned politics into a kind of game-show, in which it is advisable to lose one’s principles and ideals in order to win and attain power.
Will William Nadylam sing for us?
I hope he will even dance! [Laughs] But that is something we’ll have to negotiate…
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