This article will explore the play of disembodiment and corporeality in a cluster of Marguerite Duras’s texts and performances, particularly focusing on India Song (1992, first published in France 1973) and Eden Cinema (1992, first published in France 1977).1 Not easily categorised as novel, film, theatre or even symphonic poem, this body of texts occupies spaces between forms and genres, merging fiction and memory, destabilising reading with material performance and counterpointing live and mediated action and sound. The titles suggest a kind of intermediality and indeed Duras subtitles the published French version of India Song ‘texte-théâtre-film’ (1973), to convey her own mystification of its representational form. Paralleling this hesitation between fictional modes and forms, the texts are characterised by an interplay of the embodied dead and the disembodied living. In both India Song and Eden Cinema theatrical ‘vitality’ is located in figures who, we are told, are dead: Anne-Marie Stretter in India Song and the Mother in Eden Cinema. Their material bodies haunt the performance space, lingering in it rather than acting upon it, while their dynamic significance is evoked through a cacophony of voices and narrators, ‘live’ figures, albeit barely more than shades themselves, whose stories circulate around and animate the dead.
The question of how to delineate Duras’s texts by medium, genre or form is embodied at another level by discourses that define Duras herself as ‘unknowable’, despite her acclaimed status a writer of international significance.2 Her biographer, Laure Adler, came across the following jotting on a scrap of paper amongst her archive held at Institut de la memoire de l’édition contemporaine in Paris after the writer died:
I say nothing to no one. Nothing about what goes through my life, the
anger, the wild movements of my body towards that dark, hidden word
pleasure. I am modesty, I am silence itself. I say nothing. I express
nothing. About what is important, nothing. It is there, unnamed,
untouched. (2001: 8) 3
She is deemed a writer whose life is indecipherable, whose writing represents loss and negation, whose films embody death, non-appearance and lack and many of whose plays are regarded as non-theatrical and unperformable (Willis 1987, Cohen 1993). In a third strand of the problematic play of presence and absence, the texts work with and through the embodiment of Duras herself within performances, despite a deliberate erasure of herself from her own history. The presence of Duras, dead now for more than ten years, is materialised through her voice amid the recorded soundtrack in the film of India Song and through her unmistakeable imprint on the voice-over of Eden Cinema.4 Duras was brought up in French Indochina on the edges of poverty and respectability between the First and Second World Wars and her writing, her prose fiction and her screen and play writing, continually traces and retraces the shadows of her colonial childhood. Yet though her own life becomes the primary material for much of her creative output, its biographical status is never assured as she revisits the same events and relationships over and over again, recomposing and reinventing them (and herself) each time.
Neither India Song nor Eden Cinema have any substantial performance history in the English language.5 India Song is a collage of fragmented and incomplete stories prompted by the appearance of the figure of Anne-Marie Stretter, the wife of the French Ambassador in Calcutta. It delineates a social milieu that defines her importunately through a myriad of voices which both desire and imprecisely remember her. She is a magnet for memories, and the focus of longing for her enthralled lovers.
Lilo Baur in the role of Anne-Marie Stretter in India Song by Marguerite Duras directed by Annabel Arden’s and Annie Castledine at Theatr Clwyd, Wales in 1993
The unspeaking Stretter lingers on stage
as peripheral characters construct her narrative, in the setting of
the last stages of an exhausted French colonial rule in India.
This dwindling of colonialism is embodied by the gradual physical and
mental collapse of the barely-present Vice-Consul of Lahore, glimpsed
at the edges of the same narrative fragments. Set in French Indochina
between the two World Wars, Eden Cinema depicts Suzanne and her
brother Joseph who tell the story of their mother’s struggle to protect
her land from constant flooding by the Pacific Ocean (the farming concession
Duras’s own mother toiled over). Obsessed by the possibility of holding
back the water, the Mother resorts to extreme and unscrupulous measures
to raise money to fund this hopeless enterprise, until ultimately the
endeavour kills her. Though this article does not allow the scope to
discuss it in any detail, it is worth noting that Savannah Bay
(1992: first published in French in 1982) is a third variation of a
Duras text that depicts an absent central character whose identity is
constructed by voices; a grandmother and granddaughter evoke the absent
Savannah who is their respective daughter and mother and whose name
repeats that of the spatial location of the play.6
The form of the plays
As theatre, India Song, Eden Cinema and Savannah Bay take on a fluid dramatic form in which text, music, images, light, sound and voice are interwoven to create elusive memory plays, partly about the instability and intangibility of the past. Characters are tentative and only partially present ghosts who haunt the stage as they enact tales of ‘trauma, loss, separation’ (Willis, 1987: 11). All three plays centre on characters who are dead and whose stories are told through half-recalled memories of the living, memories which fade almost as soon as they are conjured.
The security of identifying any single Duras work as itself an independent textual ‘body’ is difficult to establish when beginning an analysis of her work, since each text is a retelling or imperfect re-embodiment of the others. The narratives from one Duras fiction (film, novel or play) permeate others, distorting and reforming the events, histories and relationships, juxtaposing fragments of personal history with invented fictions, reconfiguring the relationships between fabrication and actuality.Eden Cinema is part of a nexus of intertextual narratives, prose and drama, that draws on the story of Duras’s mother, first explored in Duras’s autobiographical 1950 novel Un Barrage Contre Le Pacifique (The Seawall) and later woven into her 1984 short novel, L’Amant, subsequently adapted into a popular film The Lover in 1992.7 India Song interweaves fragments of narratives taken from other Duras fictions, from, for example, Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein (1964), Le Vice-Consul (1965) and La Femme Du Gange (1973). One text is destabilised by its encounter with another so her works are a constant process of reformation and re-inscription, a dynamic interplay of fictions, half-truths, incomplete memories, constructed realities and dreams. Their volatile potential is exploited in performances of her work for theatre as meanings of space, time, presence and body are continually renegotiated through an interplay of fluid, intermedial forms. They create not a coherent synthesis of drama and music, but a deliberate destabilisation of bounded representational forms.
more than linking the plays at the metatheatrical level of their family
resemblances of concerns, forms and discourses, I shall focus on the
notion of (dis)embodiment in the spatial and temporal realisation of
the work in performance. My aim is to connect notions of disembodiment
to the ambivalent figuring of ‘character presence’ and death, representations
of time and place on stage, and the historical narratives fragmentarily
constructed. Furthermore, I intend to link each of these beyond the
borders of the texts to their author’s unstable biographical self-presentation.
India Song, Eden Cinema and Savannah Bay
all summon up the dead to tell their stories, or rather to have them
told by others. At the beginning of Section 1
of India Song, the Voices discuss Stretter:
Voice 2: After she died, he left India…
Voice 2: She’s buried in the English cemetery…
Voice 1: … she died there?
Voice 2: In the islands [Hesitates] One night. Found dead. (1992: 123)
In the opening section of Eden Cinema, Joseph tells the audience:
Joseph: It’s there that we were young. There that the mother lived her greatest hope. There she died. (1992: 53)
and at the beginning of Savannah Bay Madeleine says:
Madeleine: I know you now. [Long pause] You’re the daughter of the child that died. Of my daughter that died. [Long pause] You’re the daughter of Savannah. (1992: 100)
In all three of these performances the notion of ‘performed (dis)embodiment’ links the presence of live performers standing-in as, or for, the vital bodies of the dead. It is the enervated and weary bodies of the living who conjure them up in dialogue and voice-over. The focus of this analysis is an examination of the functioning of voice-over in India Song and particularly in Eden Cinema. It will not refer in detail to Savannah Bay since the strategy of voice-over is not used as a system linking past and present in that play. Moreover, while the Mother in Eden Cinema and Stretter in India Song are physically materialised, the tangible presence of Savannah is traced across the physicality of her mother and daughter in Savannah Bay, rather than the dead Savannah incarnate on stage.
Voice-over, sound and space
As Gabrielle Cody states: ‘Duras disorients our spectatorship by using voice as her main representational frame’ (2000: 81). In India Song no-one speaks on stage. The present on-stage action is conjured up by off-stage voices, thus marking the stage action as reminiscence, separated temporally from the Voices which function as an evocation of absent times and figures. As Duras states in her summary of the play at the end of the text, ‘The Voices do not address the spectator or reader, they are totally independent. They speak among themselves, and do not know they are being heard’ (1992: 182). In Annabel Arden’s and Annie Castledine’s Theatr Clwyd production of India Song (1993) the Voices were embedded into an orchestration of music, non-verbal cries, street and animal sounds signifying ‘India’ and comprising a through-composed sound score which accompanied the choreographed visual performance. In Ivo van Hove’s Dutch production of the same play with Het Zuidelijk Toneel, seen at the Edinburgh Festival in 1999, voice was separated from other sound effects and the music. Music was presented live on stage by a small group of musicians embedded into the visible action. The voice-over in this performance was transmitted through two loudspeakers mounted at the ends of a very large mechanical rotor arm which continually revolved above the stage. It was a kind of combination of the tropical ceiling fan, which Duras describes in her stage ‘instructions’, ‘Nothing moves, nothing except the fan, which moves with nightmare “unreality”’ (1992: 123), and huge helicopter blades. While a theatre spectator’s relationship with visible action will necessarily involve a separation between seer and seen, choices of how to relay aural elements (directionally, by means of amplification, etc.) modify the audience’s experience of voice, music and other sound effects to create different kinds of involvement or separation. Although Arden’s and Castledine’s version was an end-on performance, the sound seemed to reach out to enfold the audience with an immersive effect. The Voices were whispering in the ear of the audience while ‘watching’ the action with them. Voice-over was made dynamic and involving in a different way in van Hove’s production since the enormous rotor carrying the sound source revolved above the performance as well as over part of the audience seating space (in-the-round in the original Dutch performance but end-on with some members of the audience seated on stage in Edinburgh). Thus the Voices drifted in and out of focus and thereby were perceived as continually shifting their position in relation to the action and to individual members of the audience. These two productions found different ways of separating and linking the stage action with voice-over, and spectatorship with active listening.
'India Song produced by the Dutch company Het Zuidelijk Toneel (co-production with Holland Festival), directed by Ivo van Hove and designed by Jan Versweyveld, 1998. This performance was presented at the Edinburgh Festival in 1999 where it won an Arch Angel for Best Direction. (Photograph by Chris van den Burght)'
In Eden Cinema performers do speak as characters on stage, though the performance also includes voice-over. The activity of narration is split between the live figures of Suzanne and Joseph, and Suzanne’s recorded voice, interspersed among scenes that re-enact aspects of the story. Live narration functions as a means of access to the present time of the action (framing it in the present tense, and explaining the often silent tableaux that the audience sees), but Suzanne’s recorded voice-over is also a reflective and subsequent discourse, supposedly spoken after the death of the mother. Lived time and experience are refracted across different temporalities and voices, including those of the dead. The through-composed soundscape comprising voice-over, sound and music is the principal way of locating space and time, merging temporalities and overlapping memories. The voice-over is suspended between temporalities and links the audience with the action as a re-seeing or recalling by the characters, positioning the audience as voyeurs of action recreated for them. In the 2005 production of Eden Cinema in Reading, a recorded voice-over of Suzanne was created in the early stages of rehearsal.8 This was mixed with music and other sound effects layered over it to create a single orchestrated score. In performance, some scenes featuring the embodied Suzanne as a character on stage included moments where she listens to her own disembodied voice on the voice-over sound track, reflecting on that moment from a future anterior point: Suzanne enacts what will have been.
Charlotte Bunker as Suzanne listening to her own voice in Eden Cinema by Marguerite Duras at the University of Reading, directed by Lib Taylor, 2005
The audience listened to a future Suzanne, while watching her own past made present on stage. The voice-over called the past Suzanne up for the purpose of (re)enactment.
The sound elements respond to and illuminate the already intermedial and fluid components of Eden Cinema (theatre, cinema, narration, sound, music and text). Time and space, experience and memory, life and death are all made volatile as voice-over disrupts spatial and temporal securities and bodily realities by its different acoustic relationship with the audience from the rest of the performance. Structured as a layered narrative, Eden Cinema is about memory, the past interrupting the present, as the rememberings of family stories are composed and recomposed, deferred across the multiple perspectives of characters and audience positions. So in the Reading performance a fluid kaleidoscopic form was developed using resources which creatively counterpointed live and mediated action and audio-visual forms.
the embodied presence of the dead mother, the son and daughter Suzanne
and Joseph are drawn back to their past to recall a story they only
half remember and want to forget. At the start of the text, Duras states:
Then they talk of THE MOTHER, her past, her life. Of the love she inspired.
The MOTHER remains motionless in her chair, expressionless, as if turned to stone, distant, separate – as is the stage – from her own story.
The others touch her, stroke her arms, kiss her hands. She remains passive: what she represents in the play goes far beyond what she is and far beyond her own responsibility.
Everything that can be said in the play is said by SUZANNE and JOSEPH – the MOTHER – the subject of the story – never speaks directly about herself. (1992: 49)
However, the Mother’s vital presence
is more compelling than the apparent live figures of her children who
are but washed-out shades of themselves.
Suzanne (Charlotte Bunker) and Joseph (Sam Milsom) recall The Mother (Anne Latto) while The Corporal (Ben De Montagnac) stands by in Eden Cinema, University of Reading, 2005
Similarly in India Song Anne-Marie Stretter is the figure around whom stories circulate, but as Duras insists, ‘No conversation will take place on the stage, or will be seen. It will never be the actors on the stage who are speaking’ (1992: 138), and Stretter’s identity is constructed through the memories and prompted recollections of a chorus of voices, a group of tentative and uncertain speakers who we hear but do not see. She is assembled by these scraps of half-remembered and overheard fragments as off-stage voices fade in and out of the sound composition. In both plays we are compelled by the theatrical auratic magnetism located in figures whose material bodies haunt the performance space rather than act upon it. This poses a theatrical challenge in staging these works, namely how to represent/perform memories through the static action and the invocatory dialogue of others. Across these plays, Duras sets up a tension between present but dead central figures, who are crucial to the drama but relatively inactive, and secondary living characters whose role is to summon up the half-remembered stories that delineate the dead.
Space and time
It is by conflating temporal frames that Duras accomplishes the revivification of her dead figures. Both India Song and Eden Cinema are set within the interwar period of French colonialism, locating the displaced body of the central figure among and separate from the dispossessed and colonised in India and in French Indochina. Both central women are allied to the dispossessed colonised populations who surround them – the Cambodian poor and the silent aged male servant known as the Corporal for the Mother, the people of India and the itinerant Savannakhet Beggar Woman for Anne-Marie Stretter. Moreover the central characters are themselves colonised by the voices and figures who delineate them and without whom their stories cannot be told. The colonial spaces of the mise-en-scène are de-realised like the dead figures who inhabit them. The settings reflect those cultural milieux, bleached and salt-washed, but in neither case is the geography nor the historical moment securely or reliably assured. When I directed Eden Cinema the challenge was to realise a performance whose location is fixed with no degree of certainty; where the meaning of theatrical space is continuously renegotiated; where at any point theatrical time is diffused across two or more historical moments; where characters inhabit spaces no more than tentatively. For example, the sea is both on the doorstep of the family home, from where it threatens to flood the plains on which the family’s crops are planted, and at the same time it is 30 kilometers away from the house that comprises the main location of the action.
The stage is a large empty space surrounding another, rectangular space. The rectangular space represents a bungalow, furnished with chairs and tables of a Colonial type. Very ordinary, very worn, very poverty-stricken furniture.
The empty space around the bungalow is the plain of Kam, in Upper Cambodia, between Siam and the sea. (1992: 49)
But then early in the action the Mother recalls, ‘Nothing would grow in the plain. The plain didn’t exist. It was part of the Pacific. It was salt water; a plain of salt water’ (1992: 51).
Charlotte Bunker as Suzanne looks out across the Cambodian flooded ‘plain’ in Eden Cinema, University of Reading, 1993
The storytellers simultaneously inhabit both the space and time of the story, the historical moment from which they recall the story, and the theatrical present and reality in which the story is conveyed to the audience. Stage space fluidly expands and shrinks to encompass room, house, veranda, fields, and roads and cities beyond. The insubstantial quality of space and time is reflected most obviously in the figure of the Mother. Her living presence both within the theatrical space and as part of the cultural location is no more than provisional and speculative. The time and space of the drama are made precise through mise-en-scène, but this is momentary and mutable, since the space is more importantly self-conscious and theatrical, opened up for recollection, re-staging and embodiment of the mother’s presence. So the theatrical space itself appears to have an agency of its own in summoning up the mother and, in turn, her presence evokes the son and daughter whose stories body her forth for the audience. There is a cyclical and recursive compulsion whereby the mother cannot exist theatrically without the children and the children cannot unburden themselves of their tale without the presence of the mother. The implication is then that stage space is also the space of the psyche, and the space of the maternal body. Theatrical ‘vitality’ insists on the materiality of bodies seen on the stage but is constructed through a mise-en-scène drained of life.
Multimedia technology and intermedial forms offer new opportunities for exploring Duras’s texts in performance. The organising question when designing my own production of Eden Cinema was how to configure motifs of memory, autobiography, gender and racial identity, storytelling and dreaming by representing them in live and mediated forms. In contrast to India Song, in which there is no live voice, Eden Cinema combines recorded and amplified off-stage narration with the ‘live’ voices of the mother, children, and the daughter’s lover (made even more complex by the presence of a silent Cambodian servant whose silence is required by his colonised position but who also represents symbolically the silence of the mother about her own dispossessed role). The stage space is rendered insecure by a double slippage, first between Suzanne’s and Joseph’s framing narration addressed to the audience and the enactment of their mother’s story, and second, between the enacted narration and Suzanne’s off-stage voice-over retrospectively and omnisciently commenting on it.
Suzanne (Charlotte Bunker) tells The Mother’s story in Eden Cinema, University of Reading, 2005
This very complex arrangement of present action, retrospective narration by figures on stage and recorded voice-over reflecting on the stage action destabilises both time and space, distancing and deferring it from the audience while simultaneously conjuring it up. However, in each of these narrations, more or less distanced from the supposed time and space of the mother and children’s story, there is little energy or engagement with the staged relationships and they are infused with a strong sense of loss and negation. It is a reverie about a place where the audience, conscious of being in the theatre, is, at the same time, participating in a dream about a location that they could never experience because the action is so filtered through Duras’s own contradictory and fragmented spatial and historical representation of place and time.
Furthermore, as part of French colonialism (though members of a very poor and disempowered group) the characters’ presence in Indochina is transitory. They have only a tenuous claim to the geographical and cultural space they inhabit, and their colonial occupation of the location is ‘improper’. The Mother’s presence in Indochina has been no more than temporary, and the play ends with Joseph saying to the indigenous population (and the audience):
Joseph: We’ll take her body far away. She was not of your race. Even though she loved you, even though her hope was your hope and she mourned the children of the plain, she was not of you race. She was always a stranger in your country.
All of us were always strangers in your country. (1992: 95)
Place is defined equally provisionally in India Song, where action shifts impossibly between the ambassadorial residence in Calcutta and the off-shore islands. In her ‘General Remarks’ at the beginning of the text Duras states:
The names of Indian towns, rivers, states and seas are used here primarily in a musical sense.
All references to physical, human or political geography are incorrect: You can’t drive from Calcutta to the estuary of the Ganges in an afternoon. Nor to Nepal. The Prince of Wales hotel is not on an island in the Delta, but in Colombo. (1992: 120)
India is evoked not as a realistic geographical location but as an erotic and exotic space of dreams and desires, like Stretter’s own body. As with the Mother, Duras associates Stretter with place. Rather than form part of the formal embassy and its activities, she is identified with India, its dispossession and exploitation.
Iona McLeish’s set for India Song, Theatr Clwyd, Wales, 1993
She occupies the unofficial marginal and shadowy spaces of colonial life and, through her, the audience focus on the covert social transactions which occur on the edges of the diplomatic community. The chorus of Voices recall and comment upon this action which they only just glimpse. They fade in and out of a vocal score as figures drift in and out of their (and the audience’s) visual field. The stage-space becomes a place through which figures pass and possibly pause, but which is rarely fully inhabited, except by the figure of Ann-Marie Stretter. In both plays the spaces cannot exist without the dead women nor the women without the space.
Duras haunting the body of her work
Duras’s fiction, and not the least her work for the theatre, played out the possibilities of her own life. Duras, vague, evasive, forgetful and resistant in relationship to her own history, is strangely absent from her own biography but is sharply present in the fictional texts which perform and inscribe her identity. A very tangible example of this is in relation to the film version of India Song (1975) which she directed. The film, to a degree, draws on her own colonial experience but this sense of her personal involvement is heightened when her own unmistakable cracked voice is used as one of the chorus of Voices. Though the voice-overs in this film/play do not function as strongly authorial, rather as tentative and uncertain narrators, the presence of Duras herself endows the film performance with her distinctiveness. Her voice inscribes the performance indelibly with her identity and emphasises the link between her performed biography and her fiction.
Duras was born in French Indochina, in 1914. Her father, a teacher, died when she was seven, and her mother, also a teacher, remained in South-East Asia, struggling to keep the family together. One of the ways her mother aimed to make money was by playing the piano at the Eden Cinema. Another of her mother’s money-making schemes was to buy an agricultural concession, which she wanted to work for profit. But the land she obtained was poor and prone to flooding and her mother embarked on a series of hopeless attempts to build sea-walls or a barrier to keep the floods at bay. The effort of making a living wore her mother out and eventually killed her. Eden Cinema is one of a series of texts (prose, film, performance) that function as a way for Duras to ‘work on’ the idea of her self, her biography, her history, her identity as composed of a cluster of mutable stories. Although known as an essayist, a novelist, a script writer, a film director and a playwright, Duras’s work resists easy categorisation. It challenges the boundaries of genre conventions and refuses orthodoxies. As Sharon Willis points out, she has directed films that have no narrative, she writes film scripts that read like novels, she writes theatre and films in which the actors ‘read’ rather than embody their roles (1987: 1). Her novels are like stream of consciousness diaries or memory fragments in their insubstantial evocations of people, locations and events. Just as the texts cannot be situated in terms of media category, so their status as fact/fiction or invention/biography cannot be determined. India Song, Eden Cinema, and Savannah Bay all reflect her own biography refracted through a fictional lens. Her own ghost haunts her writing, and this was given literal form in her own sound contribution to the film of India Song. Film, of course, has been theorised as both screen and mirror, recalling French poet, screenwriter and director Jean Cocteau’s line in Orphée (1950): ‘mirrors are gates through which death comes and goes. Moreover if you see your whole life in a mirror you will see death at work’. As a time-based medium that presents absent figures as if they were present, film is always potentially presenting the ghosts of its performers at the same time as insisting on their presence on the screen. Duras’s abiding interest in film has permeated her theatre where ghosts are ever-present. The distinctive presence of her own voice in India Song is symbolic of the way in which her own life and voice – her own body – can be seen as haunting the fictions, while the fictions make meaning of her life. In exploring the figuring of disembodiment in Duras’s work for the stage, three interconnected issues appear: the potential of stage space to evoke the dead, the function of voice-over to destabilise time and space, and the ambivalent traces of Duras as locating and dislocating signs.
Lib Taylor is Head of the School of Arts and Communication Design at Reading University, where she researches and teaches theatre. She has published on contemporary performance, multimedia, gender and British Theatre. She is a theatre director and some of her research takes the form of practice particularly performances incorporating mediated images. Her edited collection, The Indeterminate Body, focuses on the body in an array of disciplines across the arts and humanities, including theatre, dance and film. She is currently collaborating on an AHRC funded project, ‘Acting with Facts: Performance of the Real in Theatre and Television since 1990’.
It is not clear whether this scrap of paper is part of a draft of a
fictional work, a page torn from Duras’s own personal journals or
a note on a loose sheet. Adler (2001: 8) notes that sixteen boxes of
personal archives were transferred to the IMEC shortly before Duras’s
death including drafts of fictional works, personal material, unpublished
projects, photographs and personal journals. The scrap was among these
unclassified papers and therefore whether Duras was referring to herself
or to a fictional character cannot be ascertained, but as this article
argues, distinctions between modes in Duras’s writing are indeterminate.
5 Initially written in response to a commission by Peter Hall as a possible opening performance for the National Theatre in the UK, Duras withdrew the theatre performing rights when she made the film of India Song in 1975. The first production of India Song was at Theatr Clywd, Mold, Wales in 1993, directed by Annabel Arden and Annie Castledine, designed by Iona McLeish, sound designed by Oliver Productions. The first production of L’Eden Cinéma (Eden Cinema) was presented by the Renaud-Barrault Company and opened at the Théâtre d’Orsay in 1977 with Madeleine Renaud in the role of the Mother.