Fatally watching on

October 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

But since society is a mathematically arrived at mass-­organization, we do not hear the last bell toll, although the Apocalyptic riders shake heaven & earth already. We do not mind the stench of the funeral pyre of our whole world. Since Humanism is dead, man is soul-­less, he no longer cares whether he lives or dies. ~ Oskar Kokoschka, ‘Vorträge’ 149

Murderer, Hope of Womankind is an eccentric play, designed for a world that denies itself the human soul. Industrialization & dawning totalitarianisms had resulted in a profound sense of dehumanization at the turn of the century, & many artists tried to document this process — most literally, Kafka in Die Verwandlung (1912). The expressionist movement challenged the demotion of humanity by reminding the audience of their corporeal materials & primal selves. Its practitioners envisaged art as force. They also extracted “the human” by utilizing figures rather than characters [character being a term charged with psychology & will]. These figures play out primal tensions in what is better described as a fury than a narrative. Similar trends are visible all-throughout theatre & performance art today. By studying closely this odd 1909 play [written in 1907] of Kokoschka’s, we may in fact be looking forward.

It opens with a chorus of men chanting the anaphora, “We were the flaming wheel around him”, then changing the “him” into “you”: multiplying the addressee & positioning the audience dialogically against the text. The chorus is referring to the protagonist of Murderer known simply as ‘the Man’, an Everyman. He is only characterized as a knight in blue, wounded & white-faced: an allegorical figure of virtue that is at once fractured & colonizing. The armor ‘the Man’ wears separates him hierarchically from his chorus who are “savage in appearance [with] signs on their clothes, bare legs” & the stylistically painted veins. The chorus states his position explicitly as the “assailant of locked fortresses” which is to say the raider or ravisher.

As in the Garden of Eden, the male value is first to be introduced, woman joining soon after. Here, once again, she embodies the temptresses, being able even to seduce the sun. These women are perhaps amazons — certainly, they borrow from them — what with their strength, height, & allure. Instantly, ‘the Man’ & ‘the Woman’ figures find in one another jubilation until he asks “Who is she that like an animal proudly grazes amidst her kin?” harkening to the aristocratic traditions of romance which liken courting to the hunt, found as early as 8 AD in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Indeed, ‘the Man’ is very much the hunter in this war between the sexes. At various points, ‘the Woman’ is made hyper-animalistic, shown to be “prowling”, “creep[ing] round the cage like a panther”, “hissing maliciously, like an adder”, “cling[ing] high up in the air like a monkey” & of course branded as cattle once she has been won over by the gaze of ‘the Man’. The divide between the cognitive, intellectual male & emotional, primal female is the sole essential dichotomy — while certainly gendered, they are not sexes proper, rather based on a cosmic divide between two forces, only represented by genders. At its height, this schism is evoked in the insufficiencies of language. [Also, on this account, Murderer is particularly incomplete on the page.]

Even in his most brutal moment, ‘the Man’ employs his faculties of rationality: in branding ‘the Woman’ with his sign, he is making a possession of her, increasing his select property. ‘The Woman’, instead, is the figure of the passions which spring deeper than understanding; she is the exerciser of the scream. It is at the climax of branding that we encounter the very first scream, a scream of rebellion. “She leaps at him with a knife & strikes a wound in his side”. Curiously, the wound was already there, covered by a kerchief as we have seen, showing that this battle has happened before, that it is cyclical. A simple equation that comes to say the war between Man & Woman, or mind & passion in my reading, has been & will always be. Taking up a martyrdom, ‘the Man’ offers a short monologue that acknowledges his change of perception: “Senseless craving from horror to horror, unappeasable rotation in the void. Birth pangs without birth, hurtling down of the sun, quaking of space. The end of those who praised me. Oh, your unmerciful word”.

There is a changed situation of observation. He is rejected for his weakness by his peers who say to the women, “Come, you singing girls, let us celebrate our nuptials on his bed of affliction”, committing a dishonor to their leader. ‘The Man’ is placed in a coffin & lifted into a cage. Seeing him like this, desire is reignited in ‘the Woman’; she prods him to reaffirm life, aping Christ’s wound by Holy Lance that was used to affirm his death (John 19:34). Like Christ, he is reborn. He is “singing higher & higher, soaring”, angelic in imagery with light flowing from his burgeoning body. Taking him for a corpse, ‘the Woman’ cries out once more, calling him “vampire”, the name for quite a different sort of resurrected. It was she that managed to trap the other, “caught & caged”, yet he still clings onto her as if he were the victor. In frustration, she rebels, “Your love imprisons me — grips me as with iron chains — throttles me — let go — help! I lost the key that kept you prisoner”. Hopeless, she “writhes on the steps like a dying animal, her thighs & muscles convulsed”, finally powerless. This sight allows for the full erection of ‘the Man’. He “stands upright now, pulls open the gate” without any need for a key. Giving off a final “slowly diminishing scream”, ‘the Woman’ symbolically emasculates ‘the Man’, tearing away his torch while falling. With it, he is stripped of the list of forces — intellect, restraint, reason — that have heretofore been equated with the masculine value in the play. “The torch goes out & covers everything in a shower of sparks”. Chaos ensues & members of both choruses “attempt to flee from him [but] run into his way, screaming” as though he had the gravitational force of the sun. The fate this man represents is ineluctable; he “kills them like mosquitoes & leaves red behind”.

‘The Man’ enacts precisely what is required of the audience: to drop the torch of signification & light up the world before you in an entirely new way. Murderer teaches a new method of observation. Kokoschka identifies this as the aim of his art & his teaching, for “the only way out of this catastrophe, into which the technical civilization has flung us, is to learn to truly see instead of fatally watching on” (Vorträge 33). Where empathetic [realist] drama has taught audiences to look for meaning, the abstractive variety pushes into insignificance all that affirms the world we already know so as to create & test new ways of being, new territory.


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