Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 9. Nr. Mai 2001 Editorial

Aesthetics and Ethics in the work of Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio
The need for a debate

Marit Strømmen (Bergen)

The Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio tours worldwide with its scenographic performances. The Italian theatre group possesses a spectacular rhetoric of images. Its power overwhelms, also because the group engages in ethical bungy jumping. How can we applaud when children play Holocaust?

Aesthetics and ethics are practiced today as two limitless fields. The link between the two is experienced and expressed differently by each individual. Many insist on treating their view of art and their values as separate categories. Questioning the ethics in a work of art is often seen as an attack on artistic freedom or connected to censorship as we know it from fundamentalist or totalitarian regimes or pietistic societies. Still, from time to time, there is no getting around this question: Do we need more distress today? Do we crave more realism in artistic demonstrations of pain and distress? More elaborate staging of the visual effects of waste, junk and trash? More detailed representation of violence and rape? Maybe my question is not so much about how I would like to be protected against agonizing art. But rather about admitting that spectators have been there, seen that and have seen enough misery in the name of art to insist that enough is enough. We do not react anymore. When spectators with well trained theater-stomachs no longer care if the blood dripping from the stage is real, things have quite possibly clearly gone too far. Or is it cowardness to try protest against the escalating self-victimization of performers and their victimization of the spectators?

Let me emphazise that I do not advocate for art to be restricted to beauty and comfort. I could have made comparative studies looking at the brutalism of antiquity's Roman theater. Or I could have discussed my question according to theories of aesthetics such as the the theater of cruelty and the aesthetics of the ugly and the grotesque. Many of these discourses were initiated by Nietzsche's credo to revalue all values and reformulated by postmodernism and deconstructionism. Certainly these theoretical approaches serve to describe many widespread artistic practices of the previous century. They belong to the history of art. Here, however, I would like to stay in the present as much as possible, in the presence of the Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio.(1)

Everybody knows that theater has always been tougher than television. It is the spectators' call whether to leave the performance when performers are stripping, throwing up, urinating and molesting each other on stage. Complaining in public is more problematic. The reactionary label on whoever gets sick watching visual artist Andre Serrano's photo series from the mortuary might not be fixed (settled on). But for those who speak up against vomit as art, chances are worse. After education in art and philosophies of art, experience might tell you that such a statement (refusing to accept vomit as art) at best has a tabloid lifespan. By no means is it accepted as an adequate argument in a serious debate on aesthetics. However, context is an argument. Let me move on to one.

The Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio was founded in 1980 and is considered the most important company in nuovo teatro.(2) The group made its breakthrough with Orestea (un commedia organica?) based on the Greek tragedy Oresteia, in the middle of the 1990s.. Here the theatrical illusion was paired with the physical capability of the actor. The theater machine became technological in order to model dreams on stage. The Castellucci twin founders, Claudia and Romeo Castellucci, are masters of theater mechanics. At home in Cecena, a small town on a sandbank in the Adriatic Ocean between Rimini and Ravenna, the company inhabits Teatro Commandini, a former technical college. Director Romeo Castellucci is a serious man, and he uses much sand and little humor in his shows.

In 1992 Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio let machines as well as the human body explode when Hamlet pissed and defacated in the Theatergarage at Bergen International Theatre.(3) Almost ten years have passed since the company put Artaud and Grotowsky on fire and performed Hamlet without the role ever being physically present or performed in any way. Instead the presence of Hamlet could be detected in the shadows of Horatios one-man show.(4) Now the Bible is at stake. Genesi is the subject of the latest performance of the Italian image makers, who perform their shows packed with references to classical mythology and art history. In the ongoing performance, white easel- and circus-dressed children drive toy cars in gas chambers. They breathe air into infants to revive them by means of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and heart massage, and then the children continue to play in silence. These children are director Romeo Castellucci's and childrens-theatre pioneer Chiara Guidis' own children. Teodora, Demetrio, Agata, Cosma, Sebastiano and Eva seem unaffected when one spectator rises from her chair to protest loudly when Genesi is shown at the Hebbel Theater in Berlin.(5)

Chiara Guidi initiated Socìetas Raffaello Sanzios experimental theater school for children(6), a one of a kind enterprize. The children, aged from eight to ten, were met by adults who carried through an inverted pedagogic system whereby the grown-ups learnt from the childrens' treatment of props, costumes and stage space. Especially the experience of space and the movement through space was emphasized. The children chose their own progression through three differently equipped rooms, with the third room having the highest level of difficulty. Some stopped in the second, but most went further after a security break.

The children came to school alone. Coming there by themselves, or being taken there only to stay at school alone, was an ontological point of Chiara Guidis. A few came with siblings, nobody came with friends. Parents were almost banned. Parents should never walk into the theater rooms of the children, according to Chiara Guidi who never gave information or explained anything directly to the parents. In fact, the educator never met the parents. She sought a shift of focus from herself to the children, in order to make the parents dependent on trusting the children. Some parents wondered when the children came home with ash-gray faces, telling about spectacular images. But the parents knew that the children never were alone at the theater school. They were there with a coach and her assistant who did not encourage interference in terms of well-meaning questions and advice.

The school was an experiment. A physical theater experiment where the children first and foremost played mimetic games, moved like dogs or star-shaped skeletons. 30 children participated in the school which was opened in the mid nineties, after the company from 1992 onwards had staged childrens' theater, for example with 300 animal species and encouragement of the free movement of the spectators in the play Æsops fables. At the childrens theater school the experiences from the different fairy-tale environments in the tunnel performance Hänsel and Gretel (1993) were taken into account as well. The structure of the school was particularly functional. The costumes were not washed because the dirt had a function. Everything has a function. The point was to give the children the opportunity to be playful. But the frame was serious, never only playful and fun, according to Chiara Guidis' project diary. She addressed the whole body with the children in classes named after body parts such as torso, head, hands. She let them work with fire, earth, ice and bones, she let them make instruments and practice being quiet. The whole time the goal was to trigger the childrens' curiosity and fantasy.

With children in the central casting the performance Genesi, from the Museum of Sleep tours the world, visiting established, not necessarily very experimental theaters. "Norway is so poor now" is the company's unusual comment when I ask why Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio does not tour here any more. Since the old aggregates and the lonely performer of the Amleto performance visited Bergen International Theater in 1992, the company's performances have developed both aesthetically and financally to become too expensive for most Norwegian programmers. In Genesi, new, enormous stage contructions are put up between each act, from At the Beginning to Auschwitz and the third act Abel and Cain. We join God laughing at his creation in the First Book of Moses. We are with the devil in the laboratory of Madame Curie. We ride a ghost train through a gloomy museum. The glass monters turn out to hide the strangest forms of life in a world of hydraulic effects and mechanical artistry. Nature bubbles in aquariums and test tubes. God spreads herbs of fertility out of his sock, and a robot applause machine, beneath the proscenium, claps approvingly to the mystical act of creation on stage.

The problem with Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio today is not that they are making fun of the Bible. When an African God is rolled in sand, and an incredibly old Eve totters out of her cage, the Tale of Tales glows like a black natural pearl. But the magic fades in the slow choreography of the second act consisting of neatly whiteclad children dreaming, playing and experiencing their extermination in the gas chamber. Organs are driven away by a small boy in a toy train. "You, oh spectator, shall not know what to think or say", preaches director Romeo Castellucci in the pretentious, referance packed and epistemologically ambitious program text.(7)

In the same way visual artist Christian Boltanski's Holocaust-related pictures are both ambiguous and vague. They are not propaganda, but they are composite works of art that demand discussion.

"I have much humor in my art. When I make a large work with used clothes many speak about the relation to Holocaust and how sad it is. But children find it fun, it makes them happy because they get to try on all the clothes." (Christian Boltanski)

Castellucci claims he is only able to investigate images he thinks also might interest God. The catalogue(8) that accompanies the performance shows photographs of a synagogue in ruins after the Cristal Night (Reichskristallnacht) between 9. and 10. November, 1938 in Berlin. In other photographs gypsy children, victims of the medical experiments of the nazi, and excecution scenes from the 19th century are montaged by Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio. The group communicates primarily through juxtapositions of images. Still some members of the audience feel obliged to share their contempt and leave the theater auditorium. But thorough debates afterwards are rare. And when it comes to stopping a show, that is almost impossible. In Belgium the unusual incident happened when a Tournhut major stopped Ivo van Hove and Jan Versweyveld from showing Jean Genets Splendids because they had no gun permit. This happens seldom. So even if audiences disapprove, they are doomed to trust those artists who, as in the case of Societas Raffaello Sanzio, play concentration camp on stage with their own children, and must have thought the matter through for a long time. Longer than the spectator suddenly shocked by disgust. But why the lack of debate afterwards?

Aesthetics and ethics are from time to time debated in film and televison. To my knowledge less in the theater. Debate occurs somewhat in academic research, more in the press, maybe in the foyer, but rarely in the theater auditorium. Debate is usually left to the performance itself, as compiled in the thesis by the Danish realist author Georg Brandes about the obligation of art to present problems for debate. What then about the audiences' obligation to debate? The Internet offers user-run forums for post-performance debates. During my work as a co-editor of the performance studies journal 3t(9), I designed and produced such a forum, only to regret the lack of visitors to the site. This might of course tell more about the economically poor marketing apparatus of such initiatives than the lack of interest from the audience.

As a living art form, the performing arts and the theater are obvious arenas for pain and suffering. In Norway this is seen in Bergen based performers, such as Krement X (10) with their rapist monologue and Turboteatret's showing of Shopping and Fucking, or the Oslo based dance performance company, zero visibility productions, in their latest piece hunt out [reprise]. Viewing these examples on an empty stomach is challenging when gang rape, incest, prostitution and assault are presented practically in one's face and, in some cases, almost in the lap of front-row spectators. Just as strong is the impression from the last row when the African township theater visits with drumming, crying and screaming about rape. South-African women are raped every few minutes, explained the group, who visited Bergen last year as one of the fringe events of the International Biennal Octoberdance. The South-African group encouraged spectators to stay and discuss after the performance. A debate took place, after a devastatingly endless list of the after effects of rape where recited, and the majority of the audience was crying.

Initiating debates after performances is one approach to make ethically challenging performances meaningful. On its own, ethical-tactical theater is meaningless theater. Theater has to be tactless, but not necessarily respectless towards its audience. Respect is both to show interest and to confront. Theater has provoked for centuries and reached extremes in the previous century. But is it in danger of burning out its audience? Can we bear a theater as tough as reality? Of course we can. Only reflections are not triggered by isolated cruelty on stage and disagreeableness from audiences alone. Laughter and happiness at a performance can invite reflection, too. The audience expresses itself at happy plays, but an audience that feels awkward is sometimes just quiet. There is reason to ask whether the politeness of audiences in some cases goes too far.

And if the perfectionists in Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio speculate in staging murder? In the best case scenario the audience is guaranteed impeccable imagery and visions for the development of the perfoming arts. It is easy to promote Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio as artists who stand for high quality performances. Today the group seems almost unchallenged in its branch of visual spectacle. It isn't easy to pinpoint exactly where they go astray. But somewhere in the second act it is difficult to follow the company's, the producer's and the art institution's motivation for supporting make-believe gassing of children.

The last act of Genesi is populated by a bulldog, a bigger and lazy dog, and a physically healthy Abel being suffocated by a crippled Cain. The dogs seem exhausted and lay around in the thick layer of red sand on the stage. A baby has the hiccups in the soundscape. Cain plays with an iron iron toy-ring. After a while Cain lays down on the "dead" Abel (who is illuminated Rembrandt style), performs heart compression, gets an erection. The performance ends here to sacred music.

Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio has checked its own thesis on how Duchamp and Artaud cannot be pronounced in the same breath. The company, which is named after the painter Raphael, claims that everything in Genesi is genetic. The treatment of mankind's first days, its genesis, is represented and interpreted through the murderous eyes of Cain. His gaze is tragic; he was the first to demonstrate the dramatic conflict between beginning and end. The beginning and the end is the faith of man, and the company, an extended family theater, believes in art as a positive power in faith. The show is always the same, but never identical, because it is always recreated. Like a chemical theater, the director would have preferred to run the performance by nuclear power but was advised against doing so.

Still the result is not far from that first day of theater Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio wishes to achieve. Genesi is a performance a critic could watch five days a week. Or condemn, as genesis run through a meat grinder, surrounded by the air of a sexist private mythology. Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio's work remains difficult to handle with its mixture of visual rhetoric, rhetorical ethics and aesthetic hermetisms. To conclude, I emphasize that I do not critique the above mentioned performances as works lacking artistic quality. On the contrary, I voted hunt out [reprise] the most innovative performance of the year in the critics survey of Ballet International/Tanz Aktuel. My agenda is that this type of performance needs space for new debate. A debate that goes beyond the conservative versus freedom-of-speech-arguments, a debate that researches the performative distribution of information in an era where anything is possible in art. Ultimately, questioning what impact ethically controversial performances have on actors as well as spectators, maybe is not too much to ask. For starters we could ask under what terms ethics and aesthetics can be relevantly discussed in this century.

© Marit Strømmen (Bergen)

TRANSINST        table of contents: No.9


(1) I have followed Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio (S.R.S.)since the early nineties, mainly by watching performances and studying program catalogues. Most of the literature on S.R.S. is in Italian, refer to Claudia Castellucci and Romeo Castellucci, Il teatro della S.R.S., Ubulbibri Edizioni, Milano 1992 and Claudia Castellucci, Ubulbibri Edizioni, Milano 2000. In addition to my critique of the performance Genesi, from the Museum of Sleep, I also base this paper upon internetpublished texts and inteviews, including my own interview with S.R.S. at the Hebbel Theater in Berlin sept. 3rd 1999. For general information on S.R.S., refer to A. Mango et al. Il teatro iconoclasta, Edizioni Essegi 1989, G.Bartolucci et al. Atti della Disputa sulla Natura del Teatro, Edizioni Casa Bello Estremo, 1990, or go to (retrieved: 2001-05-03)..

(2) Oliviero Ponte di Pino has documented the Italian nuovo teatro (new theater). For the placing of Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio in this context, go to (retrieved: 2001-05-03).

(3)The performance Amleto. La veemente esteritorita della morte di un mollusco was performed at stage 2 at Bergen International Theatre from Oct. 4th-6th 1992 and was reviewed by critic Sissel Hamre Dagsland in Bergens Tidende, Oct. 6th 1992.

(4) See also Romeo Castellucci, Gewalt als Selbst-Auslöschung, Theaterschrift No.3/1993.

(5) This happened when I saw the performance at the Hebbel Theater in Berlin, Sept. 2nd, 1999. For reviews of this particular performance, see Arnd Wesemann, Genesi - from the Museum of Sleep, Ballet International/Tanz Aktuell No.10, Oct.1999, pp.60, and Christoph Funke, Leben aus der socke Gottes, Tagesspiegel Sept. 4th, 1999, pp 32.

(6) The school took place in the Commandini Theatre of the S.R.S. in Cecena in the spring of 1997. See Chiara Guidi's Diaro della scuola Sperimentale Infantile Cecena,1997 and Claudia Castelluccis introduction in Scuola Sperimentale di Teatro Infantile, Cecena 1996. For more information and pictures from the school, go to (retrieved: 2001-05-03).

(7) To compare, see the S.R.F. program catalogue Giulio Cesare, Cesena,1997.

(8) S.R.S., Genesi, from the Museum of Sleep, Cecena, 1999.

(9) 3t, Tidsskrift for Teori og Teater (Journal of Performance Studies) was founded by Torill Braaten, Kristian Seltun, Ole Klemsdal and Marit Strømmen in Bergen, 1996. For more information, go to (retrieved: 2001-05-03).

(10) Two years ago, at the night club Agora, Bergen, the physical theater performance group Krement X did a monologue, Upop, simualiting the logics of a rapist, which was performed by company director Morten Traavik. See also (retrieved: 2001-05-07).

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