Elements Of Style In The Street Of

Crocodiles Essay, Research Paper

The production of The Street of Crocodiles presented by Theatre de Complicite at the Queen?s Theatre

in London exhibits evidence of a broad variety of theatrical styles. Adding to the complexity of the

shows? rich composition is the truth that it is a devised piece of theatrical work. The groups? body of

work has been widely regarded as innovative, garnering a number of major awards and nominations

in the recent past. Dedicated to the collaborative manner in which this production has been

developed, the inventors of this staging have guaranteed an intricate weave of dramatic elements.

In the1999 published text of the work Simon McBurney and Mark Wheatley are credited as

the adapters. The copyright also goes to them. Their original source material starts with the work of

the Polish writer Bruno Schulz published in his collected works, The Street of Crocodiles &

Sanitorium Under The Sign of the Hourglass currently available from Picador. Other writings of

Schulz used for the basis of the dramatic text include additional short stories and letters. Although

they never appear on stage, it is unlikely that the illustrations penned by Schulz were ignored as


Work on this project began at the Royal National Theatre Studio in 1991. Simon McBurney,

Co-founder and Artistic Director of Theatre de Complicite, has served as the shows? director since

this time. Jacob Schulz, Bruno?s nephew, worked with the company as they developed the show. His

relationship with the play remained ongoing through its? continued growth until his death in 1997.

Jacob is credited as providing a bridge between the past and the present by McBurney and Wheatley

in their notes on the script.

His input continued to illuminate not only the character of his uncle but also the world in

which he wrote and lived. There is often a lyrical, often somewhat pastoral quality to much of Bruno

Schulz?s writing. The external reality so closely associated with the subjects and settings of his work

are widely regarded as bleak and burnished. The world he represents in his stories is not necessarily

in keeping with the images often associated with Poland during his lifetime. Given this, the help

offered by Jacob seems likely to have been invaluable. The younger Schulz was certainly in a position

to be of immense aid to the company?s understanding of his uncle?s unique character. The content of

his uncle?s writing commented very little on the author himself. Of course the nature of the narrative

is revealing in and of itself and says much about the man who gives it voice. Jacob?s personal

experience of his uncle can only have helped to add depth and texture to the figure of the man and his


I believe the single most brilliant aspect of the original writings of Bruno Schulz is this. The

beauty with which he sees and experiences his world seems fully contained within the writer himself.

Without ever commenting on his own perspective he appears completely unaware of his integral

presence within his own narrative. He thus becomes not simply the filter through which his readers

experience his world, but the actual object of the their observation. This subtle shift in focus is quite

likely to be the key element that accounts for the surreal aspect of his work?s effect. The tenuous

redirection of cynosure leaves the reader unwittingly off-balance in territories mistaken as familiar.

At this point Schulz is free to compel his readers on a journey inward. There they are apt to join him

in an examination of the nature of recollection that in itself outshines any individual memory.

Here lies the challenge to the creators of the theatrical piece. Their task is to extend far

beyond simply portraying the stories of Bruno Schulz in some way upon the stage. Simply adapting a

selection of characters and settings from the collected stories would do little to bring the world

inhabited by them to the audience. Beyond communicating the tone of the original text lay the

mission to translate the literature into a theatrical language that would have as much impact visually

as it did on the page. In keeping with the original style of the text, the presentation was to remain a

narrative whilst allowing the nature of the subject?s conveyance to be as intricately depicted.

To address the creation of an appropriate language capable of communicating the text as

fully as possible the company looked beyond the written and spoken word. During the process of the

plays? development the company and those who were to assist them allowed their exploration to

include the possibilities of relating the world of Bruno Schulz to a theatre going audience with a

physical vocabulary to support what already existed in writing. Ultimately, the group sought a way to

depict the mental and emotional processes with which the stories were told.

The production?s design by Rae Smith, along with Paul Constable?s lighting and sound by

Christopher Shuff are in no way small contributions to the fullness of the world evoked on the stage.

Yet the success of the form does not rely on these elements in the way that a more conventional

production often does. It is common place in today?s theatre to let the technical aspects of a

production do the work of communicating much it?s form. Transitions and the passage of time are

regularly depicted with a change in the action?s setting. Memory and dream can be represented with

the support of lighting, fog, smoke and scrim. Recorded sound is apt to accompany the climatic

action. At other times it can be used amplify the emotions portrayed by the performers. In contrast,

the majority of responsibility for illustrating and delivering the complete theatrical picture falls in the

hands of the performers themselves. Their physical presence coupled with their manipulation of the

tangible environment which they inhabit are the tools that forge much of the plays? structure.

Accepting the unusually high demands placed on the physical abilities of the performers leads to an

examination of the training and experience that prepares an artist for this work. The background

required includes not only the ability to execute the work. The success of the play has relied on the

individual performers? abilities to contribute to the creation of the physical shape of the play.

The art accomplished in this production draws on a broad spectrum of what is frequently

referred to under the vague heading of movement in the theatre industry. It is commonly accepted

that stage performers who endeavor to train in stagecraft will include movement in their studies. The

realm of choices available to those who seek instruction is broad and varied. Ballet has long been

used as a basis for the performers? study of their own body and its? mechanics. The discipline

required by this form of dance is ideal in helping artists to begin to manipulate their bodies as tools.

Alexander work is a frequent inclusion of stage training for the actor, dancer and singer. The

principles of it?s work encourage the practitioner to address and effect change in patterns of physical

stress. Here, a further understanding of the body?s own mechanics are deepened.

For the work accomplished in the creation and presentation of Theatre de Complicite?s

production of Street of Crocodiles the mastery of physical performance goes much deeper. The work

of Jacques Lecoq is an ideal basis for a study of much of the physical work that goes into the

invention and fulfillment of this manner of exhibition. In the article ?Mime in the Twentieth Century:

to 1950? appearing in Mimes on Miming , the editor, Bra Rolfe refers to Lecoq as ?the fourth of the

French four stemming from Coupeau?s work.? The full compliment of artist contained in this

description are Decroux, Barrault, Marceau, and Lecoq. He discovered his interest and aptitude for

mime by way of his participation in athletics. Jean Daste, within whose school and company Lecoq

was to initially train, had worked directly with Copeau.

In the current production, there are a number of performers who have studied his work at

L?Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris. These include Antonio Gil Martinez, Eric Mallet, Clive Mendus,

Stefan Metz and Cesar Sarachu. Director Simon McBurney?s training and work in Paris also

included an association with this artist. All of these actors appeared in the original production of

Street of Crocodiles at the Royal National Theatre Studio in 1991. Each of them has had a

relationship with the piece since the beginning of its? development on the stage. Collectively, these

artists brought with them the methods of approach and exploration passed on by Lecoq.

In the article ?Mime, Movement, Theatre? appearing in Rolfe?s book, Lecoq comments on the

nature of the work he explores.

?Often people ask me ?What is it you do in your school, is it mime??

I always feel that the one who asks that question limits the school to a

wordless formalism. The word ?mime? already is restricting. One sees a

performer who does not speak and who makes stylized gestures to show

imaginary objects, or makes faces to have you understand that he laughs

or cries.

Then I answer that I don?t do mime, not that kind.?

This rudimentary anti-description of the focus of his endeavors is actually the basis Lecoq?s

art. His aim is to develop what is real and present in a performer?s physical experience. This

departure from a more classical approach to mime work is what deepens the effect of the truth in his

work. Lecoq defines his work as fundamental. He seeks to give expression to the seat of experience

rather than to represent an action for viewing. He believes that the response to any stimuli a character

can encounter is the source of theatrical articulation. This determines the performers action to be only

what they can achieve truthfully with their own presence. The movement Lecoq teaches does not

attempt to represent an illustration of the physical world. In his theatre the action is it?s own subject

and needs no external focus to justify its? reality. The approach places a high level of responsibility

on the performers ability to create honest moments foe themselves. Their ability to communicate the

reality of their experience to an audience depends on the highest level of commitment to the action

they are creating. The artists who have spent time and energy honing the techniques of Lecoq?s

teachings gain a high command of their communication abilities. The interest lies in the simplest

gesture that fully illustrates the artist?s state. Lecoq refers to this as ?Pantomime Blance, wherein the

gesture replaces the word, offers a study of language.?

The events that require this theatrical physicality in the performance of Street of Crocodiles

are frequent. There is an ideal point of departure for an initial examination of this work?s

application. In one instance, the ensemble is called upon to portray the beloved group of birds

belonging to the character of the Father. There is no offstage technical wizardry to encumber them.

The actors simply form themselves into the familiar formation of a flock. Each of the actors

manipulates a hardbound book directly over their head. The performers allow the books to take the

easily recognizable physical shape of the individual birds. The birds in the form of books flap noisily

then glide about the stage, reforming the shape and pattern of the flock as they move. The human

bodies manipulating them are never meant to become invisible. The intention is not that the actors

should magically fade into the background, escaping the audience?s attention. The books never

appear to be flying on their own. It is the shrewd use of the books as key signs of creatures capable of

flight that allow the actors to appear to be flying themselves. This simple device allows the

performers to focus solely on the purity of the action of the bird they are portraying. They have been

freed from the obligation to flap their arms and draw attention away from the contact their feet make

with the stage.

Another chief instance where the company?s physical work is used to extend the production?s

vocabulary is in the internal transitions. In the short stories that make up Schulz?s two books,

memory and dream – like states are explored as deeply as any of the human characters. The

inspection of the effects of the passage of time and the decay it brings is also littered throughout the

printed narrative. These states are effectively communicated by allowing their effects on a single

character to be observed. The role of Joseph is the depiction of Bruno Schulz himself. Throughout

the action of the play he moves fluidly back and forth between the life he lead in reality and the world

he wrote about in his stories. Students under his tutelage become family members and then customers

in the family shop. On stage Joseph exists in a world in which he is an observer. Although his

surroundings are familiar and those who keep his company are recognized as his close relations, he

appears always just off-balance and incapable of anticipating a moment?s probable future. While his

experiences his journey as moving forward at a consistent pace, the events and people that surround

him spiral and skip unpredictably. When the characters swirl about the stage, constantly changing the

dynamic as they reposition themselves in relation to each other , they alter the setting in which the

appear as well. As the characters resolve into the next moment, Joseph is left to catch up with them

although his interaction with the rest of the group has never ceased.

The Official London Theater Guide describes the show as ?a world of dreams that has

merged with an absurdist sense of reality.? Although this notice can alert a potential audience to the

sense of what they might expect to find in the production, it may ultimately be misleading. Anyone

looking specifically for a sampling of something from the Theatre of the Absurd could not be fully

satisfied here. In this production what occurs onstage often appears to be of the Absurd. The effect,

when it does occur, is usually accomplished visually. Although the production often has the look

popularized by practitioners of Absurdism the meaning here is different.

The relationship between Theatre de Complicite?s production of Street of Crocodiles and the

Theatre of the Absurd bears some clear resemblance to the one Tom Stoppard illustrates in his short

play After Magritte. In it, Stoppard allows his audience to examine their own reaction to stage

pictures they may feel are familiar to them. At the curtain?s rise the stage is populated by characters

in unlikely physical positions interacting with common household items in unusual ways. Initially

they are discovered in plateau. As they begin to speak their vocabulary appears to be fragmented and

devoid of meaning. What follows in the play?s short action is the information that fills in the gaps in

the narrative and justifies all that has gone before. In this way Stoppard tells his audience that they

have come to accept at least part of the vocabulary of the Theatre of the Absurd. The signs and notes

have become recognizable and thus there is some chance of anticipating the action.

The effect of the visual imagery used by Theatre de Complicite covers some of the same

ground. The work relies on it?s audience having a basic familiarity with the style?s feel and tone. It?s

inclusion is meant to accomplish the establishment of an altered perspective. For the play?s opening,

Joseph?s entrance precedes the others? and he initially occupies the stage alone. The company?s

subsequent entrance is described in the play?s text as follows.

The cast gradually appear on stage as if called up by Joseph?s

imagination. One of Father?s assistants, Theodore, walks down

the wall perpendicular to the audience, pauses to take his hat

and looks up as, out of the bucket, his twin assistant, Leon,

appears – wet and dripping. Having struggled out of the small

bucket, he picks it up. There is no trace of where he has come

from. Maria emerges from the packing case of books. Charles,

Emil and Agatha emerge from behind the bookcases. Mother,

swathed in cloth, shuffles forward on her knees with a

book covered in a shawl. At a signal, they all produce

books in their hands and look at Joseph.

In these instances the style certainly fits the literal definition of the notion of absurdity. As

defined in the forth edition of the Oxford Dictionary Absurd is ? not in accordance with common

sense, very unsuitable, ridicules, foolish.? When used in the description of theatrical work the term

?absurdism? generally carries a more weighted meaning.

In much of the literature of the Theatre of The Absurd the style that has come to be to some

extent common to the genre is used to comment of a lack of meaning. For this purpose action is at

times portrayed as outside the generally accepted realm of the possible so as to illustrate it?s

meaninglessness. Character?s tasks are fragmented or committed in repetition so as to comment on

their innate lack of purpose or effect. Scenes are played in impossible settings so as to illuminate the

feeling of man/woman existing in a void with no purpose or ability to direct their course. None of

these themes is in keeping with the writings of Bruno Schulz. Neither are they the meaning that

motivate this theatrical work.

The issue of the devaluation of the individual is also explored here to great effect. It is

perhaps a nod to the tradition of the renowned polish dramatist – director Tadeusz Kantor. In his

Theatre of Death he depicted the hopeless state of the individual by substituting an inanimate object

for a person. A puppet of sorts is used in conjunction with live actors who carry out a ritualistic

murder. Ionesco deals with the same subject matter in his Killing Game. Yet again, when this device

is employed in The Street of Crocodiles it is only a visual resonance of a style that is given a different

value here. When the character of the father is lost to Joseph he reapers in wooden effigy. In no

time the wooden effigy is destroyed methodically by another character. Yet it is Joseph?s experience

of loss that is being illustrated. The father?s demise is only presented for its? effect on the son. the

father himself is given the line ? No, no, no, there is no dead matter. Lifelessness is only a


The Street of Crocodiles speaks about searching for purpose and meaning just as the

aforementioned work does. It is however an innately different style of art. Throughout the piece there

is evidence of finding meaning and purpose. While a similar style is shared, it is used here to draw

vastly different conclusions. Often in the plays of the absurdist theatre words are shown to have no

meaning or use. Their very lack of purpose or impact can be identified by the void on which they

continue to have no effect. In Samuel Beckett?s Krapp?s Last Tape the playwright?s sad clown

unwinds the word ?spool? until it has lost it?s meaning. At first it becomes a silly plaything and then

finally is discarded as debris. Words lose their value when a character discovered that they can not

use them to communicate anything.

The question of the possible impact of the spoken word Makes several appearances

in The Street of Crocodiles as well. The characters speak in a number of different languages

throughout the play?s dialogues. At times they are understood by Joseph whilst sometimes their

meaning does not reach him. Yet here again, as with the example of the play?s opening sequence, it

is only the appearance of an absurdist characteristic. Here the use of language explores the outer

limits of it?s means of communicating. In several instances, Joseph?s lack of understanding what is

being said to him is positioned as a metaphor for his uncertainty of being understood himself.

In the end the Theatre de Complicitie?s production of Street of Crocodiles benefits from

weaving a number of different styles together and possible creating a new one in the process. While

elements of absurdism are evident they serve a different purpose than that for which they are usually

used. The mime work incorporated into the body of the piece empowers the strength of the play?s

language, yet the movement is never enacted on it?s own. Indeed no single pure element from any of

the formal genres on which this creation draws is utilized on it?s own. In their note on the script,

Simon McBurney and Mark Wheatley speak about the plays composition and nature in the following

terms. So, this book is more the record of a process than a text for

performance; a map rather than a play. A play is a place

which demands to be inhabited; both origin and destination,

linked by a clearly determined path. A map indicates the

landscape, suggests a multitude of directions, but does not

dictate which one you should take.


The Fictions of Bruno Sculz Picador

The Theatre of the Absurd Martin Esslin Penquin

Notes and Counternotes Eugene Ionesco Evergreen


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