The face in the theatre. The Athenian Theatre of Dionysus held approximately 12,000 people, necessitating the use of masks that exaggerated the facial features of the performers behind them. Although very few theatre workers today have such large auditoria at their disposal, the distance between spectator and performer remains great enough that performers continue to exaggerate their expressions (hence “mugging,” the root word of which is a slang synonym for “face”). Because the spectator has his full attention on the stage in front of him, these expressions are experientially magnified. Thoughtful directors realize this even today, that the smallest change in facial expression can communicate considerable information; in productions like those of The Wooster Group or Ivo van Hove’s Misanthrope at the New York Theatre Workshop a few seasons ago, video cameras digitize the face, magnify it, and re-present it in two dimensional form, calling the spectator’s attention to just those physiognomical changes. Even in the New York Theatre Workshop’s space, which seats only about 150, the distance between face and spectator necessitates magnification if the facial features and performaces are to demonstrate a full effect.
The human face is a unique performative instrument. Not only does it contain all of the sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin) through which our representations of the world outside of us are created, it is also the unique object of subjectivity: that immediate object which maintains a delicate balance between subjective expression (through the mouth that speaks, the musculature of the face) and empirical perception. The face expresses and receives impressions. In such guise it is a fetish for the personality within, behind it: another mask behind which is the protean, undefinable self.
Though most auditoria are too large to fully exploit the face’s possibilities, I work in theatres of 50 seats or less, where exaggeration is neither necessary nor welcome, which offers me as a director and a writer the performer’s face as a uniquely expressive instrument. Although the body moves as well, it is the face that can contain the dramatic event, moment to moment. It is surprising to me that more directors don’t recognize this possibility of the human face, especially in these smaller theatres, where both physical and facial gestures tend to be far too large for the room: grimaces and grins, rather than moments of tender intimacy between performer and spectator.
The next exhibition at the brilliant Neue Galerie here in New York is Franz Xaver Messerschmidt 1736–1783: From Neoclassicism to Expressionism, which will be of particular interest to anyone interested in the human face. Messerschmidt’s heads and busts render three-dimensionally the remarkable range of expression possible in the face; his “character heads” led, as the title of the show indicates, to the advances of German Expressionism a century later.
Even though they have the virtue of three-dimensionality, nonetheless they are crafted and cold, unlike the mutable and warm human face itself. In the chamber theatre of a theatre minima, the face takes center stage, its features of particular power, even moreso than the human body; if the body is immediate object, the face is the conduit between the subjective and objective, the noumenal and phenomenal words. “Perhaps the fact that [my lips] move is more significant … than the words which come through them,” said Ruth in The Homecoming. The chamber theatre allows us to “read” these lips, not only for the words that come through them, but for those as well in the language of lyrical and dramatic tragedy.
And, in such a small confined space as a 50-seat theatre, to offer the face itself as sacrifice to the audience. In his discussion of the surfaces of the body, especially the face, Alphonso Lingis in The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common describes what is offered by performer and spectator in the metaphorical arena of the theatre space itself, for the face is within that metaphorical reach, can more easily cross that distance between stage and audience, the eye taking the place of the hand. I hope it is also clear that the performer caresses with her words, her movements, her face as well, and that in this tension between performer and spectator lies the possibility for tragic recognition:
The surfaces of the other, as surfaces of susceptibility and suffering, are felt in the caressing movement that troubles my exploring, manipulating, and expressive hand. For the hand that caresses is not investigating, does not gather information, is not a sense organ. It extends over a surface where the informative forms soften and sink away as it advances, where agitations of alien pleasure and pain surface to meet it and move it. The hand that caresses does not apprehend or manipulate; it is not an instrument. It extends over a surface which blocks the way to the substance while giving way everywhere; it extends over limbs which have abandoned their utility and intentions. The hand that caresses does not communicate a message. It advances repetitively, aimlessly, and indefatigably, not knowing what it wants to say, where it is going, or why it has come here. In its aimlessness it is passive, in its agitation it no longer moves itself; it is moved by the passivity, the suffering, the torments of pleasure and pain, of the other.
What recognizes the suffering of the other is a sensitivity in my hands, in my voice, and in my eyes, which finds itself no longer moved by my own imperative but by the movements of abandon and vulnerability of the other. This sensitivity extends not to order the course and heal the substance of the other, but to feel the feeling of the other. The movement of this sensitivity recognizes the surfaces of the other as a face appealing to me and putting demands on me. It recognizes the imperative that commands the other ordering me also. What recognizes the suffering of the other is a movement in one’s hand that turns one’s dexterity into tact and tenderness; a movement in one’s eyes that makes it lose sight of its objectives and turn down in a recoil of respect; and a movement in one’s voice that interrupts its coherence and its force, confuses its concepts and its reasons, and troubles it with murmurs and silence. (Lingis 31-32)