Let’s begin with the basics. Stage and cosmos - that vast starry thing one occasionally sees hanging above one’s head - have a yen for each other.
This mutual attraction found its expression - to choose just a few examples - in the open-air theaters of ancient Greece, where the deities descended from the cosmic heights to participate in human affairs, in Sanskrit Drama where Shiva danced the universe into being and annihilation, in Medieval Mysteries where the city became a site of a cosmic pageant from Creation to Judgment Day, in the Renaissance London where theater itself became the Globe (Totus Mundus agit histrionem). Throughout history, the stage embodied cosmic processes just as the universe, too, embodied itself as theater.
In this cosmos-to-theater and theater-to-cosmos paradigm, the body of an actor does not always come into full view. However, stage without an actor is merely a place of potentiality; it becomes activated only through the performer. So to speak about Theatrum Universum means to invoke the actor, in whose body the universe and theater unite. The actor’s body is then both the cosmic body and the theater-body, in which the drama of constitution and re-constitution of our lived reality becomes enacted.
And there have been, in fact, throughout history, the times in which this tripartite alignment came close together. One of those periods was the European Renaissance, where the notion of Theatrum Mundi coincided with the concept of the human body as microcosm (Plotinus) and where the theater became articulated as the Globe. Jumping more or less four hundred years, the triadic equation of body-cosmos-theater, has again a chance to re-emerge. Why now?
Given the discoveries in science, which resulted in new insights into the structure of matter, body-theater-cosmos can unite trough the re-configured notion of materiality as a primarily energetic and also potentially proto-sentient phenomenon.
For us, like for the Neo-Platonist, matter appears alive, permeated with energy and capable of transformations that place it within a range of what we may mean by embodied consciousness. As such, it can potentially enfold complex creative codes that give rise to the supposedly immaterial formations such as art, literature, drama, and philosophy, and become what Neo-Platonist might call a storehouse of images arising both “in the mind of God and in the flesh of the world.” Because of this newly re-discovered capacity of matter to embody and engender sentient patterns, calling an actor’s body a cosmic body looses its purely metaphorical and mystical character and becomes a call for a practical investigation and exploration of this very real potential to be just that: a cosmos and a theater in one body housed.
A ghost light on an empty stage. I walk towards it. I move slowly for I am barefoot and can’t see my feet, and there may be a nail or a tack on the floor. Finally, I arrive. Darkness on all sides. Just a little bit of illumination. Moon over the water. I am alone in a dark theater. I am a cosmonaut suspended in a light capsule floating in the void.
I sense someone’s presence. There is someone here. I look out, peering into the darkness. Anybody out there? No answer. But I notice that I just saw that: I saw myself looking out. I hear a breath. An intake and an exhalation. The breath stops. I notice that I have just stopped breathing. So it is me. I am here with me.
But still, there is more presence than that. The darkness itself is aware. Aware of me. Not in a distant kind of way but in an intimate, inquisitive fashion, as if following my every breath and counting every hair on my head: “Who are you? What would you have happen?”It is watching me watching myself, embracing the two of us in one act of seeing, a third watcher. Our seeing, however, is not only seeing but rather a complex perceptual act inseparably enmeshed in the flesh: my skin seeing darkness that touches my eyes.
Despite this enmeshing, the fundamental tripartite paradigm remains: I am myself, perceiving myself in the act of perception. One, two, three. And then, the new “I” emerges, both all-encompassing, like space, and in motion, like time. Sometimes it coalesces as the one standing on the dusty floorboards and looking out, her feet cold; other times it floats into the audience to watch the shape of the body or the expression of the hands from the back row. Still other times it lifts itself up towards the ceiling to observe a small figure below. But it always embraces. It is always a substratum in which everything occurs. Soon, this multisensory act of awareness becomes a sentient sphere filled with numerous, rapidly shifting and shimmering points of embodied vision; sensing eyes are everywhere, in every particles of dust, above, below around and in-between. I am both here and there and everywhere at once, a fundamentally tripartite entity, but infinitely divisible into perceiving singularities. I am the one who is three who can also become many, as many as there are points in space.
And then, it happens: my foot moves to do a quick tap on the boards of the stage—one, two, three. My right arm flies up, fingers uncurling into a curlicue. Standing on an empty stage in a pool of light, I perform.
Habit? Perhaps. But I rather think that performance is my response to the void that surrounds me. Darkness, even if filled with my own perception, comes rather close to the figuration of nothing. I raise my hand so that I can exist. I perform, for nothing else will do. Somehow, I feel that I cannot just stand there, as if a voice in my head said “offer something, why don’t you,” intimating that the emptiness itself hungers for expression. I don’t know about that. But I do know that only if I raise my hand, bending my fingers just so, I will emerge into existence, etching something like a fleeting human hieroglyph into the blinding darkness of the infinite, accounting for this conscious moment in the light.
Still: for whom do I do that? For myself? So that I can exist as myself? Yes, that seems to be what is happening. But something else operates here, too. If it were only “me, myself, I,” then why bother. I don’t cook for myself, either. Performance wants an audience, but an audience who is also fundamentally different than the performing self, Other than it, not just self-Same, no matter how expanded and panoptical it may be (“Who is out there?” an actor wants to find out, “I hope it is not only family”). The expanded self, watching itself watching itself, although an inherent part of the perceptual phenomenon of the theatrical experience, contains within itself a presentiment and a locus of the Other. Facing the void I perform, not only for myself, not only for the three aspects of my own perceiving, but also for something vaster and larger, for some unknowable but present audience, an ancient watcher up there in the sky of my own mind, hidden within its grey matter, which is also perhaps the dark matter itself. Facing the void, I perform for myself as the Other that is the same as me and the infinite universe, both. At least that’s what I think.
All the world's a stage.
I am standing on the rocky shore of the Pacific. Behind me, a shallow cave, surrounded by steep canyon walls and barnacle-covered rocks. When the tide comes in, the access route to the cave closes, teeming with waves. I have not looked at the tide calendar. All the more urgent that I do what I came here to do: find out if “All the world’s a stage.” Theatrum Mundi. Here, too, then. I wanted to test this famous saying in a place where the world feels more like “the great globe itself.”
But what do we - and I - mean by the world?
In mainstream parlance, “the world” often denotes an entity that is secular, materialistic, ridden with conflict, turbulent, on the verge—a cluster of personal, socio-political and economic variables about which we fret, born into the existential condition of care. This world is time. And never on time, but always late, or projecting itself into the future.
However, even within this intense involvement with the world as a collection of complicated things, something else opens, a presentiment of a wider, inner-to-outer space. And that is why I come here. By the ocean, the world reveals its dimension of space.
This oscillation between temporal worldliness of the world and its more spatial, dimension coalesces also around how we think about the theater. Theater’s apparent preoccupation with the fretful business of humanity more often than not has its contemplative dimension, even if the latter is temporarily obscured.
Consider the notion of Theatrum Mundi. Throughout history, it frequently implied a world inscribed within a convention of satire for the dubious pleasure of its heavenly maker. Had the Ecclesiastes been a theater critic, it is Theatrum Mundi, the Theater of the World, that might have elicited the most bitter of his commentaries, spoken on the behalf of the displeased, divine spectator: “vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas.” In Shakespeare’s time, the world was often portrayed, in the accounts of dramatists and other luminaries of the pen, as a dismal seat of vain striving, scheming and posturing. Period stages attested to this acidic vision. Take the court masques. Populated by archetypal representations of vice and virtue, these opulent productions displayed the virtuous set floating amidst the painted clouds and the bad lot swarming in the painted flames below, as if the simplicity of this dramatic division were enough to counteract the complexity of the social and political life of the times. Good and bad were kept neatly apart as the world shrunk into an adage.
The maxim that “All the world’s a stage” functions in As You Like It in a similarly narrow context. The play, only superficially sweetened by the veneer of a pastoral romance, caustically satirizes the human condition locked within the seven ages of men, whose predictable tribulations make for a suffocating narrative. However, when viewed through the lens of intertextuality, this famous saying begins to resonate across the entire opus of Shakespeare’s work in a different way. When the plays are read together as one work, their infants, schoolboys, lovers, soldiers, justices, the old and the dying, become also the princes in the tower, star-crossed Romeo and Juliet, haunted Macbeth, King Lear raging with sympathetic nature, Prospero the magus retiring to Milan to think on death. Read intertextually, Shakespeare’s characters are beset not only by the personal, social and political dimensions of life, but also by the meta-narratives of a much vaster scope that cause graves to open, spirits to shriek and fairies to stray. His world-as-theater stands circumscribed within nature and cosmos seen as immense and enigmatic but still responsive to human affairs and conjoined with them in some indeterminate but meaningful way: “the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.” Shakespeare’s Globe is indeed a planet, a celestial body suspended in a mysterious universe.
No wonder, then, that Theatrum Mundi, as a satirical site, has also a cosmologically-oriented twin in Theatrum Universum, a similarly popular topos often encountered in taxonomic projects of the Renaissance and beyond, such as the alchemical engravings depicting transmutation of matter in Amphitheatrum sapientiae aeternae. Theatrum Mundi and Theatrum Universum appear to be two sides of the same coin.
And for us? Does our world - and our stage - present itself to us within this narrow-to-vast oscillation?
At first glance our world is anything but contemplatively vast. The Western world seems worried, small, narrowly rational, materialistic. And yet, does the otherworldly or cosmic really have no place in it? To answer this question in the affirmative would mean that we regard the cosmological sphere in a literal sense, as, for example, brimming with “real” ghosts, “real” spirits and the like. However, those entities are anything but literal and may never functioned as such, even in Shakespeare’s time. The otherworldly entities such as ghosts and portentous comets are primarily phantasmal and psychic, annexing our cultural and personal domains in the guise of memories, fantasies and deep archetypal structures of the collective psyche. At present, the perpetual war of the worlds in which we are all involved supplies our collective imagination with continuous dosages of trauma. As a result, our cultural imaginary - not to mention our collective unconscious - abounds with ghosts, demons and the like, all getting their feeding and becoming more multitudinous with each passing day. Seen in this way, the rational culture of the West has plenty of ghosts and spirits to boast of; we may as well bring them back into our conscious habitats because they will never disappear until expiated. They persist, our phantasmal doppelgangers.
Ghosts and spirits notwithstanding, the world of the 21st century is vast in other ways as well. The cosmological territories of the non-human have expanded dramatically due to the relatively recent and groundbreaking developments in science and mathematics. Our non-human sphere includes now not only the raging winds and ominous celestial bodies but also the enigmatic particles of the subatomic realm, which are so unpredictable as to appear almost human, not to mention the ever-expanding galaxies, the supernovas and the dark matter, all threatening to unseat the hegemony of narrowly defined reason and regularly assaulting the mundane mind. These vertiginous phenomena do constitute our world whether we think of them daily or not, manifesting in popular culture as fantasies of humanity’s evolutionary expansion or as hyper-vigilant, apocalyptic anxieties articulated in visions of cosmic doom.
Finally, above and beyond our figurations of the world and how we may narrate its totality at the present moment, the stage itself, across time and cultural contingencies, tends to be an all-encompassing phenomenon. It welcomes—and thrives on—vastness. From Sanskrit and Greek dramas to contemporary performance art, it embraces celestial and archetypal realms. Even during the period of 19th century realism it managed to attract the otherworldly into the confines of little rooms, scattering seagull feathers in gardens and vine leaves in living rooms illuminated by the sacrificial flames of the fireplace. As a comprehensive—but open-ended—phenomenon, the stage itself calls for that which is not only narrowly human but also non-human and cosmic.
So here, at the shore of the Pacific, I begin. The winds are moving the waters into ever-changing configurations of shape and motion. I begin with the experience. With sensation. Here, at the ocean’s shore, the world ‘worlds’ in its most elemental, direct expression. Are you a stage, earth? Ocean? I close my eyes, trying to send rays of perception through the surface of the rock down to its core. Granite. Hard. Not much coming back. I open my eyes again. The flowing mist speeds up and, like an unfurling banner, brushes across my face. A solitary pelican emerges from behind the craggy peaks, swooping across the horizon. I follow its flight, listening to the heavy wings swooshing in the air. I turn to the left as it passes me by. And then I realize that that is what it means to follow a bird. It means to move as it moves, to incline towards it, to sway.
The mist speeds up its advance, flowing towards the pelican from the opposite direction, forming, where I stand, a momentary crosscurrent with the bird’s flight. I flow into that. One arm leans into the misty current and turns my body to the right; the other still traces the bird—which by now started to buoy itself up towards the rocky spires—and moves to the left. I expand into that cross-movement. Although the mist subsides soon after, scattered by the gusts of air, the movement continues. One arm circles above the head, the other dives beneath, their gestures opposing, continuous in the shifting currents of the wind.
And then I remember. Or they remember me. The Five Dakinis. I learned this crisscrossing movement of the arms during rehearsals for Kalachakra puja at the local Buddhist center, training to take part in the dance of the elemental female deities representing earth, water, fire, air and space—and five aspects of enlightened wisdom. Their dance was all about the arms, a confusing cross-motion, not unlike that of the wafting mist and the pelican’s flight, both arms undulating in the opposite direction from one another. It took me hours to master it. But now I am finding it again. The right arm dives more sharply under the left arm’s more rounded undulation. Without invoking the Tibetan rites, I seem to be transmitting the steps of the Dakinis, swept and swayed by the wind in the open mouth of the cave. Am I dancing a recent memory of a rehearsal or has my body tapped directly into the expressive potential of the elements themselves? I think more the latter, for isn’t that how the Tibetans themselves came up with these movements, exposed as they were to the interplay of elemental forces atop the high Himalayan plateaus? This movement originated in close proximity to the overwhelming void of the space shooting up from the mountains and gathering in swirls of airy clouds under the wings of condors. But I don’t need to determine any of this right now. Only the movement matters for it is fun, engrossing. In one way or another, I am present and alive in the in-between spaces of dramatic elemental encounters. I lift up and join the flow of what feels like a primordial experience unfolding within nature-as-play.
The wind shifts. A dragonfly passes by, struggling with the turbulent air; a slick head of a seal emerges from the waters and disappears, lapped back down by the waves. I move with each creature in turn, but not, I realize, in an imitation of their movement but in its improvisatory continuation. I do not mimic. I simply take what’s given and go with it. Unlike the actors who strive to identify with their roles, I cannot say that I am, or would even want to be, the pelican’s flight, the seal’s dive, the dragonfly’s flutter. Much too interesting to be in this hybrid place of the human and elemental in-between. And it is where I am, after all, standing on the shore and moving with the wind as myself, whatever or whoever that is, my orange parka opening and closing with the gusts of wind. I am localized in the participatory world as the indeterminate substratum of its elemental and animal transformations. I am their becoming - but never being - human. They are my becoming - but never being - bird, seal, ocean.
And again, something else happens, like that time in an empty auditorium: performance. I feel prompted to give the next moment a new twist, as if to say: “here, watch that!” to the wind and the waves. Who said that? I turn, bend and twirl. I hop and skip. I make silly faces at the wind. Who is doing all that? I know that the ‘correct’ answer to such questions is ‘nobody.’ But I cannot give it yet. But wait. There is someone here that said that. There is someone that is doing all that. Here, at the shore of the Pacific, facing the sky and the moving ocean, I am earth becoming-me, and that is why I want to move. As the earth in me, I desire that which is my opposite: motion.
It takes the earth millions of years to make a small shift in its structure; evidently, she wants a break. It is she who turns and jumps and twirls. I stand on the rocky shore as if on the primordial stage facing the misty sky and tumultuous ocean, where performance unfolds as the earth’s desire for movement. My arms reach out and play, creating half geometric and half zoetic shapes frolicking with seagulls, casting faint shadows onto vaporous mists. I move into the timeless moment of a ritual invocation, dancing myself out of the slow spirals of geological time, the dead limbs of ancient dancers and deities intertwined in mine. In that moment of eternal return I am freed from the singularity of my being, involved in the dramatic event staged by the earth. My feet, sinking into sand and pebbles, create a cleft that appears like a birth canal out of which the body lifts itself up as I move through the earth’s desire to proliferate as one, two and ten thousand things, unfurling themselves into a curve of my arm, flying into the undulating wrist and twirling fingers, which can reach for a top hat and a cane, if I so desire and if it pleases you.
Aleksandra Wolska authored the articles in this blog. And to that, she says, "Meow."