The concept of theatricality has long been discussed in the theater arts. Many scholars have embarked on the thankless task of trying to define what would ultimately be the definitive characteristic of theater: what would be “specific to theatrical language.” At times approaching such an abstract and essentialist concept that it was beyond comprehension, at others comparing theatricality with notions of verisimilitude or artifice, theorists were far from consensus. Used in the visual arts with a pejorative connotation—as defined by Michael Fried in his Art and Objecthood (1967) theatricality was as discussed, redefined, and debated as the concept it would later come to be known as: that of performativity.
More recently placed at the center of theoretical debates, the notion of performativity arises from Austin and Searle’s studies of speech acts. According to these linguistics studies, performative speech is speech that is not only inserted into the field of coded language, of the transmission of information, but that performs an action as soon as it is uttered. 1There are (…) intrinsic relations between speech and certain actions that take place when they are said (the performative: I swear when I say “I swear”). (…) The highlight of the performative sphere, and the wider sphere of the illocutionary, had three important consequences: 1) The impossibility of conceiving language as a code, since this is the condition that makes an explanation possible; and the impossibility of conceiving speech as the communication of information: ordering, interrogating, promising, affirming is not informing a command, a doubt, a commitment, an assertion, but performing these specific immanent acts, necessarily implicit. in: DELEUZE, Gilles; GUATARRI, Felix. Mil platôs – capitalismo e esquizofrenia, v. 2. São Paulo: Editora 34, 1995, p. 14 A concept understood and utilized in different ways by various theoreticians, it has also entered into contemporary art studies, becoming a theoretical instrument that places the effective action of the artist in the foreground, breaking down barriers that previously separated concepts of art/life; ethics/aesthetics; artist/spectator.
Far from seeking to perform here a historiographic review of the two concepts and their definitions according to different scholars, what interests me in this essay is to understand how we can employ them for the analysis of artworks and artists that relate to the urban environment and how they can help us to understand our daily urban practice.
Theatricality: distance and meaning
I thus begin with theatricality. My interest in the concept stems especially from the approach taken by the French theorist Josette Féral. In her writings, Féral describes theatricality as an operation that depends entirely on the observer of a scene, and not on the one who interprets, acts or creates a scene– as in theater. To make her argument, Féral provides a simple, concrete example: a person sitting in a café, or in a bar, or in a bakery, observes passersby on the street. Removed from them as she is, she does not talk to them, does not interact with them, does not question them. They are bodies that stride by, carrying their clothes, their accessories, their moods, their emotions, their convictions, their responsibilities, their functions…The observer tries to guess, but they can’t be sure. From their own eyes, they read and interpret the signs displayed, as during a show.
What Féral intends to demonstrate with this example is that theatricality does not belong to those who passing by on the street, unaware of being observed. Rather, it is the result of the look cast by the observer sitting in the café. The person seated within the café becomes a spectator of her own free will, selecting scenes from the city, interpreting them, reading them, even fictionalizing them. Such an operation is only possible because of the distance between the observer and the observed.
A simple, almost banal operation, theatricality would therefore be linked to a form of reading the world around us. Taking distance to observe, to watch and imagine. As in a film.
[And who, by the way, hasn’t done this in public spaces?]
One of the first figures to whom we can attribute this attitude is that of the flâneur. The lone stroller who crisscrosses urban centers; the wanderer who enjoys all the stimuli of modern cities, the flâneur was incarnated and eternalized by the French poet Charles Baudelaire. A walking poet, lover of crowds, enthusiastic about modern cities while nostalgic for the world being destroyed, Baudelaire walked through Paris in the mid-19th century, writing about what he saw, or what he “watched.” With a curious gaze, attentive ears, sensitive skin, he revered the potency of the new urban agglomerations—their endless possibilities for encounters and discoveries—while suffering from the destruction of certain neighborhoods and past forms of life.
The literary critic Dominique Rabaté has noted that through his poetry, Baudelaire “opened windows”. 2RABATÉ, Dominique. Gestes Lyriques, Mayenne: Éditions Corti, 2013. Now, the opening of windows cannot fail to remind us of the gesture of the voyeur, the one who observes from a distance, overtaken by curiosity.
[And how not to be reminded of Hitchcock’s Rear Window?]
In fact, the philosopher Susan Sontag defined the modern flâneur as a voyeuristic wanderer, since they, even fascinated by the city, did not give in to it. 3SONTAG, Susan. Sobre fotografia, São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2004. The flâneur maintains always a strategic distance, as someone who, from the tension, the resulting energy between “giving themselves up or not,” could write and create their poetry. As Baudelaire himself observed, the flâneur is a “passionate observer” who sees the world, is in the world and yet remains hidden from the world. 4BAUDELAIRE, Charles. O pintor da vida moderna, Belo Horizonte: Autêntica, 2010. And it is in the heat of this passionate observation that Baudelaire created his famous “To a Passerby” (1855), a poem in honor of an anonymous pedestrian who in a millisecond becomes the focus of his gaze, sensations and imagination. A woman that the poet dreams of, but with whom he will never exchange a single word. The power of “To a Passerby” is exactly that. In the encounter that never takes place, an encounter that lasts merely a few seconds, a window opens to the unknown so that we, the reader-voyeurs, as well as the poet, can experience this brief moment in order to project our dreams and possibilities of the future never lived.
As Walter Benjamin observed: “The delight of the city-dweller is love – not at first sight but at last sight. That is never the climax of the encounter: passion, apparently frustrated, only then springs from the poet like a flame”. 5BENJAMIN, Walter. Baudelaire e a modernidade, Belo Horizonte: Autêntica, 2015, p.48. Thus Baudelaire and Féral’s imaginary observer, behind café windows, do not mix with their subjects, they keep their distance. It is from that distance maintained between the self and the world that the tension and the power of a world not lived, but dreamed, stem. An imagined life.
Performativity: proximity and action
Herein arises a question: what would happen if Baudelaire approached the unknown passerby? If he passed through the window frame, shattered the glass, pierced the canvas that he himself created to mediate his relationship with the world? Would it result in the end of poetry? Here I am reminded of another modern writer, one who followed Baudelaire: the precursor of surrealism, André Breton. One day, Breton, during one of his long wanderings through Paris in the early twentieth century, came across a woman who caught his eye, challenging him: Nadja. Unlike Baudelaire, Breton let himself be carried away by the magnetism of this passerby, embarking on an adventurous series of encounters with this character of “wandering soul”. 6BRETON, André. Nadja. São Paulo: CosacNaify, 2007, p. 70. Free translation. From that meeting the surrealist went on to write a book, entitled Nadja (1928), which tells of his experience through the streets of Paris alongside this enigmatic woman.
An unclassifiable work—a cross between essay, novel, and diary— Breton’s book follows a free, wandering form, as does the spirit of Nadja, a woman of “free genius,” as he described it. Writing does not follow a logical structure, with fixed, justified ideas; on the contrary, it is fragmented, discontinuous, following Breton’s feelings, discoveries, impulses, and impressions. His language, like Nadja, is guided by will, instant illumination, the magic of everyday life and the author’s free desire. It is a work shaped by the experience lived in the heat of the moment. The author’s desire, therefore, was to transmit to the paper the spontaneity and intensity of this experience. As Breton himself noted: “I shall limit myself here to recalling without effort certain things (…) I will speak without pre-established order and according to the whim of the hour which lets survive whatever survives.” 7Op. Cit, p. 28-29. Free translation. It is therefore no longer a question of distancing oneself in order to project meaning into the images of the world. On the contrary, it is a question of plunging head on—with body, soul, and mind—into a fusional experience, abolishing this split between the “I” and the “world.” Passionate, spontaneous, mythical, and in the investigation of his unconscious, Breton does not attempt to interpret Nadja; rather, he experiences her, just as he lives and experiences the city, in all possible aspects.
If Baudelaire created windows in his urban flânerie experience, he also conceived his poems as such: with well-defined borders and lines, choosing what was to remain inside and what lay outside the frame. But in the case of Breton, his free-flow writing, whose “tendency is to record everything that examination and interrogation can provide, without the slightest concern with style,” 8Op. Cit, p. 20. Free translation. follows the founding impulse of the walking practices he undertook. If Baudelaire observed, watched urban theater, Breton embarked upon the city’s adventure. Baudelaire opened windows, Breton walked through them.
[And in the end, it’s only a small hop from Rear Window to Vertigo.]
The image of the window is not just a metaphor that I, writing this text, cling to for no apparent reason. In Nadja Breton also makes use of the window countless times (like Baudelaire in his poetry), to evoke everything that is connected to danger and the unknown. To dive through the window is to take a passionate leap outward—out of the house, out of oneself, out of the known. Like the streets of Paris, Nadja is the very essence of walking. This woman, like the urban space, cannot be apprehended, signified, found, defined. In her own words: “here or there (…) wherever I am it is always like this,” or “I am not findable”. 9Op. Cit, p. 70 e 89. Free translation. Finding her or finding oneself, locating her or locating oneself, both, one and the other, seem impossible achievements in this adventure. The two figures are, therefore, trapped in a labyrinth that seems to have no end. The modern city, with its distant and barely evident limits, places the artist and his muse on a path of no return.
Ultimately, “the city remains (…) a labyrinth for those who venture there without adopting the attitude of the bourgeois who leads from the outside to the inside. Either we are trapped in the solitude of the room (…) or else we plunge into the mass of the crowd, wander in the labyrinth of the city.” 10MONGIN, Olivier. A condição urbana. São Paulo: Estação Liberdade, 2009, p. 74. Free translation.
And Brazyl? An anthropophagic synthesis
If until now we’ve traced a path that differentiates theatricality and performativity based on the attitude we assume—distancing from or diving in—it is evident that such operations, which we define so succinctly and clearly, in reality never “purely” manifest themselves. Each is subject to being permeated and contaminated by the other.
Now, it would be absurd to assert that at no point in his flânerie was Charles Baudelaire carried away by the bodily experience of that moment, without distancing and meaning; just as it would be impossible for us to state that while André Breton wandered alongside Nadja, or while writing his work, there were no moments when the writer analyzed, interpreted, and signified what he saw and lived.
In fact, I could risk saying that life is an eternal oscillation between these two poles. On the one hand, experience; on the other, the meaning of that experience. That is why I made a point of including this essay’s subtitle, “a constant motion,” because I understand that we are always moving from one side of the window to the other. At one moment, we witness the street, the world, the distant other; at another, we dive into the street, into the world, into the other. And, ultimately, what about this other? What is the gaze they return to us?
I have thus far ignored the gaze that the world cast upon these writers while they practiced the city. If I did this it is not only to focus our analysis, but also because they themselves lived the streets of the city as anonymous passersby, who camouflaged themselves in the crowd. But the Brazilian artist Flávio de Carvalho masterfully questions such camouflage.
[Recall that their bodies, as white men, were privileged to be able to be ignored on these occasions. It is well known that George Sand, a writer from the same period as Baudelaire, was forced to dress up as a man to go unnoticed when walking through the streets of Paris. Which begs another question: which bodies become objects of theatricality in the city?]
Back to Carvalho: an anthropophagic 11Translator’s note: referring to the Brazilian “cultural cannibalism” movement., artist, passionate about surrealism, and extremely interested in Brazilian reality, in 1931 he launched himself into an urban experience that he termed Experience n. 2 – an action that generated a book of the same name and that was triggered by his confrontation with a religious procession.
On a walk through downtown São Paulo during Corpus Christi commemorations, Carvalho encountered a procession and an accompanying crowd. “Masses of people, hats removed, watched the procession, entranced, saturated with goodwill and self-satisfaction. It seemed that everyone had reached the limit of the sky; they looked at one another satisfied, sated”. 12CARVALHO, Flávio de. Experiência N.2 realizada sobre uma procissão de corpus christi e uma possível teoria e uma experiência. Rio de Janeiro: Nau, 2001, p. 36. He then decided that he would attempt an experiment in which he would place “a reactant”—a destabilizer— amidst the homogeneous mass. Against what, in the 19th century, Baudelaire called “espousing the crowd,” Carvalho proposed “facing the crowd”: moving in the opposite direction of the procession and wearing a hat on his head—acts considered to be of profound religious disrespect. It took only one individual to revolt, shouting, “Lynch him!” for Carvalho’s entire experience to explode. From that moment on, he was against everyone. The artist was forced to run, escaping the crowd that chased him, hiding in the attic of a bakery until the police arrived and calmed the masses.
Carvalho thus assumed his actions as a provocative act, literally facing the crowd head on, for which he was hated and persecuted. The flâneur’s observation was thus replaced by active experience. His movement, in the opposite direction of that of the religious mass, as well as the accessory he placed on his head, the hat, took on meanings of disrespect to God in the eyes of these fervent “spectators.” His action was thus provocative of the others’ gaze upon him. His performative (or even performatic) bodily experience would now be catalyzed by theatricality; in other words, due to the significance that his image would gain in the eyes of other passersby, spectators of the action.
Thus, for Carvalho, the uncontrolled development of modern cities and the archaism of some Brazilian practices transformed the optimism and enchantment of the multitudes in as seen by Baudelaire into much more pessimistic, agonized portraits of the urban mass. The practice proposed by Carvalho demonstrated a form of friction with this notion of “mass.” While for Baudelaire the crowd meant an opportunity for chance encounters and, for Breton, a sea into which to dive to find his own unconscious, from Carvalho’s point of view it meant alienating homogenization, in the service of a false idea of “God,” “progress,” or “country,” which served for the population to feel empowered, satiated.
Here, in this synthesis between performativity and theatricality, in which Carvalho placed his own body at risk, the fascination with the crowd was replaced by fear of it. Carvalho unleashed and highlighted the blindness and violence of the unanimous, hypnotized mass.
[Though, ultimately, aren’t we still immersed within it?]
This text was originally published in the book reds (museu do louvre pau-brazyl, 2020) and revised in June, 2021.
- 1There are (…) intrinsic relations between speech and certain actions that take place when they are said (the performative: I swear when I say “I swear”). (…) The highlight of the performative sphere, and the wider sphere of the illocutionary, had three important consequences: 1) The impossibility of conceiving language as a code, since this is the condition that makes an explanation possible; and the impossibility of conceiving speech as the communication of information: ordering, interrogating, promising, affirming is not informing a command, a doubt, a commitment, an assertion, but performing these specific immanent acts, necessarily implicit. in: DELEUZE, Gilles; GUATARRI, Felix. Mil platôs – capitalismo e esquizofrenia, v. 2. São Paulo: Editora 34, 1995, p. 14
- 2RABATÉ, Dominique. Gestes Lyriques, Mayenne: Éditions Corti, 2013.
- 3SONTAG, Susan. Sobre fotografia, São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2004.
- 4BAUDELAIRE, Charles. O pintor da vida moderna, Belo Horizonte: Autêntica, 2010.
- 5BENJAMIN, Walter. Baudelaire e a modernidade, Belo Horizonte: Autêntica, 2015, p.48.
- 6BRETON, André. Nadja. São Paulo: CosacNaify, 2007, p. 70. Free translation.
- 7Op. Cit, p. 28-29. Free translation.
- 8Op. Cit, p. 20. Free translation.
- 9Op. Cit, p. 70 e 89. Free translation.
- 10MONGIN, Olivier. A condição urbana. São Paulo: Estação Liberdade, 2009, p. 74. Free translation.
- 11Translator’s note: referring to the Brazilian “cultural cannibalism” movement.
- 12CARVALHO, Flávio de. Experiência N.2 realizada sobre uma procissão de corpus christi e uma possível teoria e uma experiência. Rio de Janeiro: Nau, 2001, p. 36.