TO SPEAK about plays formulated in a “new way”, about the means by which “standard theatre” is not used, or the procedures by which “unlawful” syntactic units are built from these means whose properties have not been theoretically elaborated, means to move through “unknown terrain”, speak for yourself and not write a critique in the classical sense, critique as the application of basic theoretical concepts of a concrete text. And that is the case here: we should talk about the performance of Theater Maska i Pokret whose performances differ in many ways (practice, theory and critique) from legalised theatre and its manufacturings; to talk about such performances means to talk about something that is not clear in itself and especially to the critic, and that again means to put the critic in a very original situation because the critic must pretend that everything is clear to him even when nothing is clear to him, especially in our “theatrical circumstances” in which “authority” is built only by inviolability (which has omniscience as one of its connotations).
The basic means of expression of this theatre have already been named by its name: in addition to “mask” and “movement”, as members of the name syntagm, the means of expression are music, which, especially in this application, could be considered one of the connotations of “movement”, if for nothing else because the measure of movement is a musical unit (and in the performances of this theatre, music is used primarily as a measure of movement). A very instructive method for a critical speech about such a (conditionally new) theatre seems to be the semiotic practice that treats each individual sign as a system, ie as a “reduced model” of the play and the type of theatre as a whole (as a system of higher-order). This means that on an individual sign, on one acting procedure, the basic material units (factors) of the sign and their mutual relations should be named, and after that, the obtained results should be applied to a higher-order system (hence to the play, and then to “theatre”, ie a type of theatre as a whole), which is why it is important to establish the basic means of expression.
The system is, as Melnikov says, “a complex unity, composed of interconnected or interdependent parts – elements, embodied in real substance that has a specific scheme of mutual links (relations), that is, structure”, which means that “individual acting process” is composed of “interconnected parts embodied in real substance.” These interconnected parts have already been mentioned – the mask, the music and the movement (embodied in the “real matter” of the actor’s body). Of course, there will be no special talk about the actor’s body and music, but it is necessary to determine the mask more precisely.
Mask in theatre Maska i Pokret (Iva Kostović-Mandić and Petar Mandić who are literally everything in that theatre: playwrights, mask makers, choreographers and performers) could be relatively accurately defined by comparison with Schumann masks which are similar in that that they cover the whole face (i.e. the whole head of which they are much larger), which excludes the actors’ speech, but differs significantly in that that they do not exclude the actor’s body (they do not turn it into a “huge puppet” like Schumann’s mask which is “the whole puppet” and not only mask) but combine with it. But here, in fact, Hjelmslev’s assertion is already made that the whole of the semiological system “consists not of things but of relations and that external and internal relations, and not matter itself, have significance for the system”: already when naming the difference between this mask and Schumann’s puppet (which is the only association that this critic has in relation to the mask of this theatre who admits that in connection with the mask theatre he is an absolute ignoramus) it came to the relationship that that mask establishes within the sign (defined as a system) and distances itself from. And yet, right here, the doubts that are necessarily imposed by the radicalism of this statement are manifested because the need to define the elements of the sign itself is shown (it is shown that relations are inseparable from what enters into these relations): the similarity of this mask with Schumann (that is, its size and manufacturing technique) causes its incompatibility with speech, and its essential difference from Schumann (besides the one already mentioned) is still its property independent of the context of the sign (although it is no longer a “primary”, material, property of the mask but a “secondary” property attributed to the mask) – the effort to incorporate some psychological characteristics into the mask, more or less individualise and psychologically define the character marked with a mask.
From the already mentioned characteristic of the sign – the combination of mask that exaggerates face with the body that emphasises its “naturalness” (dance, and that especially skilful dance bordering on classical ballet) comes one of the fundamental definitions of this theatre – its grotesqueness. Admittedly, the benefit of this remarkable discovery is rather small given the fact that in European theory one simply does not know what is grotesque (either this critic has not found an author who knows it reliably and precisely) or it is not known precisely enough. But it is useful because the play “Mme Leopoldine’s Memoires”, on which occasion we talk about theatre Maska i Pokret, is “grotesque” in the most classical sense, in the way that the Roman ornament, to which the term grotesque is to be thanked, grotesque is, and who (ornament) erases the boundaries between the individual “stages” of life by treating plants, animals, and people in practically the same way, attributing to one form of life the characteristics of the other two forms. Peter Schumann’s theatre is not grotesque in this way, if it is grotesque at all: his huge puppets have only an “external kinship” with a man – they resemble him in that that they are “live” (can be without quotes because they really are) and in that that they are similarly constructed, but in no other way. Schumann’s puppet has no individuality, is not psychologically defined, cannot associate with individual human destiny. And Schumann does not ascribe to them an “inner kinship” of a man, not even by the action of his plays which do not tell the individual human destiny but the destiny of mankind, which by its philosophical generality creates from puppets that play in them an incarnated notions and not “human characteristics”. Therefore, Schumann’s theatre is not grotesque in a classical way because it does not have an ambivalent scene of life at its core, which at the same time with the same move “rises” and “descends”, perfects and loses its strength in this process of perfection. If it is, as many critics claim, then it is grotesque in that it “revived the puppet” (and this is, if at all, close only to the concept of romantic grotesque).
The compound of mask and body in theatre Maska i Pokret is grotesque in “original way” in that that the syntagm they build, the basic syntactic unit, makes it distinctly ambivalent, double in itself and directed to two opposite sides, building from the play paradoxical being which is at the same time more than a puppet and less than a man, or more than a man and less than a puppet, a being composed of a mask that gained the expressiveness and vivid individuality of the face and of a body that gained mechanical precision and a “superhuman” degree of mobility.
The main sign in the play of Theatre Maska i Pokret is large mask and dance of classical ballet – perfect, music-fixed, a movement that makes the human body something that is both “above and below human” because by its mechanical/musical regularity it deprives the body of vital individuality and at the same time is (by all its other characteristics) the highest degree to which the human body can reach. Another member of this binary system is a mask denoting an oversized human face, huge and motionless, but “psychologically defined” by an expression that expresses the spiritual state of the character (where the suggestiveness of expression is greatly contributed by immobility and size of the face). The basic sign is, therefore, a compound of elements that are ambivalent in themselves – a paradoxical combination of factors that, each for itself and especially in this syntactic connection, makes from a character a being that is simultaneously more and less than a human being.
And this original grotesqueness of this sign reveals the full value of the combination created by Iva Kostović-Mandić and Petar Mandić, the consistency of the combination of mask and classical ballet: such mask with “natural” movements of the human body would create simply a comic whole, if a whole at all, a circuit that necessarily disintegrates into two incompatible planes, while in combination with classical ballet it seems “quite natural” – as a system that reveals the duality of life itself, ie the grotesque system.
The offered interpretation of the basic sign is indirectly proved by the fact that the body is literally reduced to movement – all its properties are taken away except the life itself, which is most directly manifested in the ability to move. The actors are dressed in black leotards, hence in a costume whose colour deprives the body of all physical properties except movement (because by convention black should be the colour of absence in the theatre, a “negative” colour, a colour that contains within itself the ability to deny), equating it with walls bounding the stage (and which are, again by convention, black), which, therefore, do not exist. And thus the character is reduced to a mask (face) and movement as the only manifestation of the real, but to the movement that excluded body, therefore (the character comes down) to a system composed of a mask which concentrates in itself all “spiritual properties” of the character and all its “physical properties” except the ability to move, that is, of life itself, which (ability) is concentrated in the invisible (ie only visible with mask) body.
Such treatment of mask determines the essential form of the originality of this theatre – its use of the mask as a real character, as a form in which the complete psychological being of the character is formed. And it determines, of course, the dramaturgy of the play, directing the authors to define the action of the central character and subordinate the plot to character. This means that the plot is relatively simple, but formulated by units which, by their degree of generality, enable the projection of its basic lines on a large number of plans and, therefore, projection into the plot of various meanings.
The verbal paraphrase of the plot of this play could clarify what has been said about the dramaturgy as determined by the means of expression and the described way of their use. The central character is Mme Leopoldine, who in “mature years” reconstructs her wedding day, which is marked by very simple but effective means: Leopoldine plays with the wedding veil and puts it on the wall, cleans the stain from the floor, brings out the wedding cake; nephew Oscar brings her flowers and tries to steal the cake, but she doesn’t let him; finally, instead of the groom, her twin sister appears, perhaps, in fact, she (Leopoldine) herself, because the sisters are equal not only in appearance but also in how they play with equal passion with perfectly identical dolls they are beating and then “killing” (which once again shows the simplicity, efficiency and artistic impact of the means and procedures used by the authors: is there a better way to show “growing up”, “entering maturity” and its cruelty, its connection with death), as well as the fact that their movements are emphatically similar; at the end of the celebration Leopoldine dies (the actor, hidden from the audience, pulls himself out of the mask and disappears), and the sister simply puts her in a suitcase from which she previously took out the doll she killed to grow up. This simple plot, in which, due to the reduced means, the relations between the protagonists and individual plot units remained occasionally unclear and imprecise, precisely with its schematicity and rudimentariness, opens the space for projecting the most diverse possible meanings: Leopoldine and really died, and her sister Emilia really buried her; and at the same time Emilia is actually her, the senile-old-fashioned reconstruction of the wedding ceremony is actually the “general rehearsal” of the bride before the real wedding (“the showdown with the dolls” before the wedding is the final growth) and the death that ends the show is actually growing up (Leopoldine buries her ex-self in the suitcase where the doll she played with was) who will turn this death into tomorrow’s celebration. Hence the tragicomic duality of the play, its “cruel joy,” its remarkable ability to undo cruel details (such as killing puppets) with comic and to show the comic details (such as “fainting from fatigue” when cleaning a floor stain) to the full extent of the cruelty that comedy always implies (because Leopoldine, when she faints from fatigue, behaves like an insect, like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa).
This grotesque ambivalence, at the same time tragicality and comicalness of the play, show that in terms of architecture, as Bakhtin would say, the scheme of an individual sign is repeated, and this again shows that “Mme Leopoldine’s Memoires” achieved a very high degree of unity and maximum internal consistency.