The World Mysteries: Mysteries of Eleusis
Conceived, written and directed by Vasilios Calitsis; co-written by Tasos Roussos
Brooklyn Academy of Music Majestic Theater, Next Wave Festival, 16 - 17 October 1998
Reviewed by David Kilpatrick
The absence of myth is the myth of modernity. The call for a rebirth of myth through ritual performance has influenced much of the most innovative twentieth-century theatrical experiments. In a tradition which may be traced from Nietzsche, through Yeats, Artaud, Grotowski, and Brook, The World Mysteries: Mysteries of Eleusis, directed by Vasilios Calitsis, attempts a production of the sacred through ritual. Any attempt to produce the sacred in our time must acknowledge the absence of any common significatory (i.e. mythological) system. Indeed, much of the power of Mysteries is to be found in its use of empty signifiers - the possibility of meaning betrayed by contextual displacement. However, this incomprehensibility may explain the intensely negative response the production received in New York. Another explanation may be found in the legendary examples of Aeschylus and Alcibiades, both of whom feared for their lives because of accusations that they had revealed the Mysteries of Eleusis to the uninitiated. Perhaps Calitsis dared to reveal what should not be.
From what little we know of the Mysteries of Eleusis, they centered on the myth of Persephone, daughter of Demeter and bride of Hades. This myth could be seen at the core of Mysteries, but the Initiates are the protagonists of the piece. The basic "plot" and structure of the performance is summarized in the program:
A traveller from a distant and futuristic world is transported to the
ancient times revealing certain cultures of our world. As the traveller
journeys through time, he weaves the cultures. The performance is
divided into five parts, The Purification, The Myth, The Initiation, The
Illumination and Divinity.
Without this explanation, Mysteries is no more than beautiful chaos. Likewise, some knowledge of the Demeter-Persephone-Hades myth seems necessary. The appearance of meaning either attracts or repulses the audience member, drawing one into its spell, or turning one away.
As the audience finds their seats, a recorder is played by a man in a monk-like habit as a man covered in gold slowly moves through what appears to be tai-chi movements; both at opposite balcony archways. As the lights lower, the golden man moves down to the play space proper. At the center-front of the stage are five concentric circles with hieroglyphs (according to a news release, this is a reproduction of the Disk of Phaestos, which remains undecoded). Behind the hieroglyph circles a small stone stool is at center stage, three scrims at either side for the performers to make their entrances and exits. At the center-back of the stage is a tall arch-like structure. The effect of the set design is reminiscent of Artaud's appeal for a sacred architecture for the Theatre of Cruelty. Although working within the limits of the proscenium layout of BAM's Majestic Theatre, the set makes it clear that naturalism should not be expected; that the performance space has become (once more?) a sacred space.
Likewise, expectations of a dramatic performance, in which characters communicate a linear narrative through scripted dialogue, are quickly dashed as nine "priestesses" move across the stage with ritualized gestures. Throughout the performance the priestesses function as a mostly silent chorus, while a recorded soundtrack - at times inaudible - of a male voice (that of the director Calitsis, identified in the program as "Hierophant") and a female voice (Irene Worth, the "Mystagogue") delivers fragments from Aeschylus, Euripides, Homeric hymns to Demeter and Persephone, Heraclitus, and Plato from Greek antiquity, as well as passages from the Bhagavad Gita, Solomon, John, and T.S. Eliot. Again, the audience would have to refer to their program for a collection of excerpts, and this collection is surely not all-inclusive.
With the priestesses standing in place at the back of the stage, turned away from the audience, a man who was initially seated at the small stool with a sheet over his head (in the first act) moves to the center of the hieroglyph circle, sitting in a yoga posture as if in meditation. A woman with two horns of thorns and a shawl of vine and vegetation makes enigmatic gestures as he slowly moves through yogic postures. The priestesses then toss grain from wooden bowls above their heads as a kathakali dancer and two Noh actors (one in white, the other in red) move deliberately across the stage.
The golden man appears at times to be a chorus leader, sometimes interacting with the priestesses, at other times apparently lost in a meditative state, drifting on and off the stage. His presence seems paired with another performer, costumed in a futuristic silver uniform, with a helmet concealing his face. Again, the program suggests the golden man is the "Ancient Initiate/ Hermes" and the silver man the "Future Initiate." The hermetic function of the golden man is decipherable in his apparent role of guiding the audience through the performance; we make our way through the play by following his movements. If the member of the audience reads the program notes, s/he will understand the Future Initiate as the protagonist proper of the performance; without this explanation he appears superfluous, as do the performers trained in various world performance traditions. In addition to the kathakali and noh performers, two actors from Chinese opera and a flamenco dancer round out the cast. Only through understanding the Future Initiate as a traveller weaving sacred traditions through various times and cultures does any of this make any sense.
The second act ends with the Ancient/Hermes and then the Future Initiate exiting stage right; the Future Initiate surrounded by the priestesses, moving like a flock of birds to the sound of digital sequences, like an audio disc that is not being read properly. Just as the play/ritual seems to have reached an impenetrable silence, the priestesses return, led by a flamenco dancer, clapping and stomping to a count from uno through diez. The arch is gone, an octagonal structure suspended over the center stage apparently fulfilling its function. Hermes and the kathakali dancer reappear as an ambient soundtrack carries the mood away from the base flamenco rhythms. As the lead flamenco dancer moves one-on-one with the Future Initiate, a passage from Euripides' Helen is audible: "What is God? What is not God and what is in between?" Suddenly, an angel (the same actor who earlier performed yoga exercises) appears in the balcony arch above stage right. The effect is a breathtaking ecstatic crescendo. The act again ends with the Future Initiate leaving the stage, but this time off left and solo.
When the next act begins, a golden throne at center back stage is bathed in red light. Persephone (formerly the flamenco dancer) appears to take her royal seat. A man with a long flowing red robe, red facepaint and a tall black cone-shaped hat emerges speaking a mix of German and English. The words, "Ich bin Hades," clarify the identity of this frightening figure. The irony of Death as a German brings to mind the post-Shoah crisis of representation. As he explains himself, and the relationship of Death to Life, the priestesses writhe about his feet. Persephone rises off her throne, only to fall to her knees. Hades moves to his bride, but just as they are about to embrace, she exits stage left, and he follows slowly. Suddenly a delirious woman with a naked torso races towards the audience, held back by two female attendants. Gradually she attains composure, lifting one hand to the sky as the lights fade the act to its close.
The fifth and final act begins with a man (in a short red and black robe and a hat like Hades) carrying a long axe across the back of the stage, from right to left. The Future Initiate and the Ancient Initiate enter from left and right and cross paths as the sound of two sopranos holding the same note sets the mood. A golden woman with long black hair enters the movement of the initiates along with two Chinese opera dancers and the kathakali dancer. Eight priestesses circle one priestess and then they all spin away as if in their own orbits, across, off and back again on the stage and then away, to the digital sounds accompanied by a small solo drum. A tall blue-green cone shape - at least forty feet high - emerges where the arch had been, with a young boy lying across an altar/bed immediately before the great cone shape. As the boy lies motionless (like Issac awaiting the blade of Abraham), the two Noh actors (now red and black) circle him. Hades returns to once more explain that darkness is the source of light, and death the source of life. He then pronounces, "I release you" and exits repeating, "I am Hades." The sound of "Aum" is discernible as the Future Initiate reappears without his helmet. The Ancient Initiate slowly reaches the center of the hieroglyph circle, the golden woman at the outer rings of the circle, with the Future Initiate between them and the altar. Suddenly the voice of the Hierophant announces: "the Fifth Gate will open" and the face of a blonde woman appears at the top of the tall blue-green statue. The Great Mother, Demeter, is revealed, as a circle with eight lights drops from above to encircle the Future Initiate. Just then, the Ancient descends from the center of the hieroglyph circle into the stage. All light fades saving two spotlights on Demeter. Slowly, all of the characters re-emerge (except for the boy and the yogic angel) turned from the audience and facing Demeter as if in worship. Only the Great Mother, then the Future Initiate, face the audience. This scene is held until all performers turn to face the audience with heads bowed, bringing the ritual to a close.
What was most striking through the performance was the intense concentration and discipline of the performers. As they moved through a trance-like, meditative state, it was clear Calitsis is after a unique performative consciousness - an invitation to ekstasis. The choreography was dazzling in its precision, as images flowed organically. But if the play/ritual is to perform a ritual function, it must be true to the religious etymologically: the actors and audience must come together. Grotowski, whose work Calitsis's most resembles, makes it clear in Towards a Poor Theatre that the size of the audience must be restricted. The nine hundred seat BAM Majestic, though designed with Peter Brook's Mahabarata in mind, necessitates a more commercial approach that the Mysteries, one assumes, eschews (still, oddly enough, when seated high in the balcony the effect was more powerful than when seated in the seventh row - so powerful was the piece I had to see it twice!). The audience did in some way join with the performance, but in the worst of ways (most notably the second night). Some apparently showed up only to display their disdain by leaving their seats mere minutes into the piece; their exits a performative act. Still others allowed the lack of on-stage dialogue to sanction their own conversations: "what is that?," "what did he say?," "is it over?" were much more audible than the soundtrack. Perhaps the review of The New York Times provoked such behavior, this most scathing of reviews declaiming the piece as perhaps "the most incomprehensible work ever attempted in any medium" (16 October). One expects more from a BAM audience. Indeed, at the end of a hallmark week at the renowned center for experimental productions in the US, in which executive director Harvey Lichenstein announced his retirement, Mysteries would appear to be a crowning achievement. BAM's Next Wave Festival (which has nurtured the careers of Robert Wilson and Peter Sellars, while bringing the works of Grotowski and Brook to an American audience) has literally overseen the transition from the dominance of the word to that of image in the New York performative avant-garde. Wasn't the audience prepared?
This brings me back to my initial consideration: in an age defined by the absence of myth, a ritual designed to bring forth myth is arguably an exercise in futility. Perhaps a taste of ergot wouldn't have hurt, but it was clear that from the actor's perspective, this exercise was authentically transformative. Bringing theatre back to its ritual origins, The World Mysteries: Mysteries of Eleusis offered its audience ontological uncertainty in the midst of aesthetic majesty. The subject remains no less esoteric.
Dr David Kilpatrick
David Kilpatrick teaches in the Division of Literature, Language, and Communication at Mercy College, NY. He earned his Ph.D. in comparative literature at the State University of New York at Binghamton. His research interests include tragedy, history of drama, and the theory of criticism.