Theatre of objects is a theatre where the human figure (under the guise of an actor, a puppet or another representation) is not present, and where objects, in a broad way, are favoured by the dramaturgy to the detriment of the verbal aspect. It is predominantly a visual theatre, having more in common with the figurative arts than other forms of theatre. The actor, when he is present, assimilates himself to the space, sometimes through the use of stage elements or costume, and he does not necessarily portray a character. The human being can be reduced to an object or merely be a pure scenic presence among others next to objects which acquire their own existence by the artistic dignity that is given to them. Mobile wings, masks, figures, mechanical constructions, motorized backdrops, light and visual effects in motion are the protagonists of the scenic event and not (as is often the case with live theatre) just simple elements that complement the play.

Examples of scenic or theatrical objects with symbolic functions can certainly be found in all eras and cultures in the history of theatre, whether they were specifically written as part of the dramaturgy or not, but these meaningful objects did not truly have the status of a character. Starting from the end of the 19th century when staging took a leading role, prescribing a framework of unity where each element served the play, objects and actors played side by side and became essential in expressing the meaning of the play. In symbolic poetry, the object attained the full importance of a sign transcending reality. Alfred Jarry, with his Ubu roi (King Ubu, 1896) and in his theoretical texts, put into question the naturalist status of the theatrical object, the choice of which can be arbitrary and shatter the theatrical frame through the use of disproportion, allusion, illogicality, polysemy, ambiguity or by the opposite use of its functions.

The Object and the Avant-Garde Artists at the Beginning of the 20th Century

The object obtained its true status of character at the beginning of the 20th century with the advent of the avant-garde artists. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944) with his “dramas of objects” wished to offer alternatives to traditional genres. In Vengono (1915), objects have their own lives, and move thanks to the staging of shadows, thus becoming characters. In Il teatrino dell’amore (The Little Theatre of Love), objects as characters expressed their different situations by sounds instead of words. Even in the staging of futurist “syntheses”, Marinetti isolated objects by the use of lighting schemes in order to underline their active roles in the dramaturgy.

In all avant-garde movements, including abstract theatre, the object dethroned the actor from his high position. The preliminary title of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Vladimir Mayakovsky, a Tragedy was The Rebellion of Things, and the piece itself plays on the idea of depersonalization and personification. Countless objects have thus become characters, created by: Guillaume Apollinaire, Alberto Savinio, who even “animated” things in his paintings, Alfred Döblin, who in Lydia und Mäxchen (Lydia and Maximilian, 1906) pitted the human world against that of the “character-furniture”, and Yvan Goll who, whether in his manifestos or in his diptych Les Immortels, invented a stage of objects on which moved an inorganic universe. In the many instances of mixing live actors and objects, the character’s personality was created by the object itself and not by any psychological elements, as the character of Felix in Yvan Goll’s Mathusalem or the Managers in Pablo Picasso’s Parade.

The principle of montage, found especially in objects assembled in Cubist, Dada and Surrealist collages, made its way into the theatre where the everyday object had been taken out of its context and given a new semantic value. Found object, the ready-made by Marcel Duchamp, already harboured a process natural for the stage consisting in giving the familiar object an additional meaning, a symbolic and metaphorical value other than that associated with its basic use. On stage, the object not only left its natural context, but was endowed with movement – physical as well as expressional – thanks to blocking, light changes, or by the use of music.

Cinema also explored this venue: Georges Méliès in France, Segundo de Chomón in Spain, John Stuart Blackton in the United States, have all given life to objects by the use of shot by shot images (see Animation). During the Dada and Surrealist period of the 1920s, Man Ray, Henri Chomette, Hans Richter, Walter Ruttmann transferred the poetic of the surreal object into motion picture. Fernand Léger (for whom the “industrial” object should be at the centre of the story) filmed Ballet Mécanique (1924), in which dance affected all forms: objects, machinery, abstract figurines or bodies. After the war, artists such as Alexander Calder and Jean Tinguely put into motion, in the air and sometimes on stage, mechanical constructions referring in an allusive way to anthropomorphic beings. Some even went to the extent of eliminating not only any human presence, but also any object: in Une voix sans personne (1954) by Jean Tardieu, the main subject of the scenic event is a voice which takes “form” thanks to lighting effects. Thus, in the 20th century, the destiny of the object on stage was therefore that of a character.

Theatre of Objects and Bauhaus

The theatre of objects presents an abstract theatre where the traditional function of dramaturgy and characters is abolished and where action consists of light, shape and colour movements. The pinnacle of this type of experimentation was reached during the Bauhaus movement. The Bauhaus Theatre rejected the human presence on the stage, believing that its foundation should be “spiritual”, in the vein of Wassily Kandinsky’s conception of abstract stage composition, or offer extreme solutions through the use of mechanization such as with László Moholy-Nagy. Kurt Schmidt replaced organic forms with abstract geometrical forms in his Mechanisches Ballet (Mechanical Ballet, 1923) where dancers were “carriers” of coloured figures in an empty space without any real references. Andor Weininger presented the Abstrakte Revue (Abstract Revue, 1926) in which abstract silhouettes moved about on a mechanical stage. “Abstract objects” were also used by Oskar Schlemmer in Bauhaustänze (Bauhaus Dances) with stick dances, circles dances, metal dances, etc.

The 1960s and 1970s

The artistic trends of the 1960s and 1970s took over from where the avant-garde artists had left off. Pop Art inversed the process: instead of elevating the ordinary object by taking it out of context, it degraded the object by reducing it to a mass-produced every-day consumer item. John Cage and the Fluxus movement seemed to satisfy in their own way the futurist aspiration of staging life where the object and daily life became the protagonists. In contrast, arte povera re-used the most “humble” materials and objects in conceptual-type installations.

These movements exerted considerable influence on theatre in the second half of the 20th century. Thus, Stuart Sherman created a sort of miniaturization of minimalist shows by Bob Wilson whereas Paul Zaloom and the Bread and Puppet Theater gave a metaphorical and political significance to the objects that they used. In Poland, certain dramatists proposed to use objects in puppet theatre. In the political satire, What Time Is It? (1964) by Zbigniew Wojciechowski, objects acted directly without the intermediary of a narrator. The object extracted from its original context was also a crucial part of Tadeusz Kantor’s theatre.

Objects, Figures and Puppets

In the 20th century, the theatre of objects and the theatre of figures both explored the path indicated by puppetry towards a break with anthropocentrism by changing their aesthetic principles: the question of human imitation was no longer applicable since the human had been eliminated, whereas technique became more and more the instrument of a concept full of new possibilities and alternative creations. Today, the use of objects as actors has become common practice: The idea of the puppet has evolved into that of a more flexible “figure”, thus leading to a genre that does not exclude any material from the stage that does not necessarily take on anthropocentric traits. Musical instruments, kitchen utensils, even hands (Gerhard Mensching) and feet (Laura Kibel), fruits and vegetables (Ubu roi by Jean-Louis Heckel of the Nada Théâtre) can all become characters. There are many other examples such as in France, the Théâtre Manarf, the Théâtre de Cuisine, Vélo Théâtre, or Yves Joly’s work in Ombrelles et parapluies (Parasols and Umbrellas), in which multi-sized and multi-coloured umbrellas were the protagonists in a banal love story set in Paris. In Italy there were Assondelli and Stecchettoni (Appartamento con figure, Apartment with Figures, 1989), and in Germany, Enno Podehl with Ovid’s Metamorphoses (two tables and metal objects manipulated by three actors). In New York, Basil Twist in his Symphonie Fantastique (1998) inserted pieces of baked clay, iron and plastic into an enormous water tank with one side exposed to the public: projections, mirrors, filtered images gave life to a show of lights, sounds and colours.

The Inanimate Object

In all of these works, the movements of materials are changed into human behaviour. The same principle can be found in “animated” drawings. The concept of animation, which is not always well understood, has in fact multiple meanings. Going back to traditional animist cultures (which is important in order to understand the concept of puppetry and masks in the 20th century), this notion indicates the manner in which an inanimate object takes on a sort of “life”. Half-way between a simple object and a theatre object, this “presence” can be found in fetishes used during ritual ceremonies, the ex-voto, the icons, the statues carried during processions or the mechanical figures of sacred representations which, contrary to puppets, are not generally articulated. “Movement” is conferred to these objects by the sacred nature that they are infused with. The mask here is a singular theatrical object which, even though not articulated, is still “manipulated” through the movements of the actor who wears it. On the other hand, the idea of “animation” which is used in European Theatre is often linked to the fable and allegorical tale in which not only animals but also objects themselves can take on life, with a meaning that always transforms them into being more than just what they are.

Abstract Theatre or Materialtheater

Abstract Theatre – called Materialtheater (“material theatre”) in German, an expression that could be linked to that of “concrete art” used in the plastic arts – not only separates itself, just like the theatre of objects, from the human figure but also from “figurative” references as a whole: it defines itself as a pure expression, renouncing the concept of identity and, even more so, the concept of characters. Whereas in the theatre of objects the material is already developed, formed, identifiable (a cup, a bottle), in Materialtheater, the material does not yet have a destination; moreover, its shaping can take place during the course of the action, like for example, the large amount of buckwheat in Die Schöne und das Biest (Beauty and the Beast) by the Materialtheater Stuttgart. Even more than in the theatre of figures, the “actor”, or that which “acts” on stage, has no meaning outside the context of the performance. Many different types of materials are used (fabric, rubber, plastic, paper, string, tin, wood) and can be flexible, rigid or elastic depending on aesthetic choices. The quality and property of the material must, in fact, correspond to the human movement and therefore to an attitude, brought to mind by association. The very principle of this theatrical genre – based on animation and a shift in meaning – allows for this great diversity. However, just as in all the avant-garde works that remain its models, from Alexander Scriabin’s Prometheus: The Poem of Fire (1912), to Feu d’Artifice (Fireworks, 1917) with sets and lighting by Giacomo Balla and music by Igor Stravinsky, to Achille Ricciardi’s Theatre of Colour and Enrico Prampolini’s “actor-gas”, abstract theatre favours “immaterial” materials such as light and colour.


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