“The stage is a place where the invisible can appear”
On April 15, I attended a production of Battlefield at the Guthrie, a play whose subject and text are taken from the Mahabharata. Going in, I knew only a little about Hindu epic and less about the Mahabharata specifically, but I wanted to see the show because of its director, Peter Brook. I encountered Brook as an undergraduate theatre major, viewing clips of his plays, watching his film adaptations of Marat/Sade and Lord of the Flies, and studying his book The Empty Space. Brook has been directing plays since the 1940s, was a longtime director at the Royal Shakespeare company, and has revolutionized theatre through both his criticism and practice. There was no way I was going to miss a chance to engage with this 92-year-old giant of 20th century theatre.
As I sat down, I overheard an usher instructing an audience member to carefully place his umbrella beneath his chair so no one would kick it, as this was going to be “a very quiet show.” I found that comment funny, even pretentious. As if a master’s work could not be interrupted by a layperson’s little noises! But as the show continued, I better understood the usher’s direction.
The plot of Battlefield occurs after a vicious battle between two sides of the same family, when the victor Yudhishthira has become king. After Yudhishthira learns that he killed his brother during the war from his mother, he visits the wise man Bhishma, who is on his deathbed. Using fables, Bhishma instructs Yudhishthira on Dharma and how to be a good king. For each fable, the actors interchangeably portrayed the characters: worms, kings, hawks, doves, hunters, and wise men. All the while, a drummer was punctuating the action with his music.
Brook’s production was simple. There was no set besides scattered sticks and fabrics which were also used as props by the four actors. The costumes were in browns and grays, with the occasional addition of a colorful fabric to signify a change in character. It became obvious that the production was the result of incredible artists. A scene that stuck out in particular was when Yudhishthira’s mother and uncle were in the woods, seeking redemption for their role in the war. We learned from a narrator that a fire had broken out in the forest. The actors playing the mother and uncle walked around the stage, back and forth, a red fabric signifying the fire. Every step, even how they arched their feet, seemed to be taken with incredible care. The deeper into the fire they walked, the louder and faster the drums, until finally they exited. And the loudness of the drum gave way into an unbreakable silence as Yudhishthira entered, now the only one left.
The play was beautiful, engrossing, but difficult to watch--for this kind of control of space and sound points toward something beyond nature, beyond what is comfortable. Full of silences that cannot exist outside of our social agreement in those moments to be still, to observe, to synchronize the rhythms of our bodies to the rhythm of the ancient text, the rhythm of the actors. There is no peace in such silence. No safety. It is a silence that asks you to concentrate on the movement of blood in your veins, the quivering hair on your skin, a silence that is not dull--though it is excruciating. When the play ended in silence, it left you bare before a mystery, before something that is both lack and presence. Before something that is beyond being.
The night before I saw Battlefield was Good Friday. I attended the evening service at St. Paul's UCC. It was one of the most moving services I have ever participated in--a meeting of song, meditation, ritual, and performance on themes of loss, guilt, love, and redemption. But it took until seeing Battlefield for me to put to words what so profoundly moved me in the service the night before. It was a same care to rhythm, to image, to movement, the beauty of bodies alone and together, moving and still, of light and darkness. It was the power of quiet in Brook’s play that begged me reflect on the silence from the night before.
The story of the crucifixion is rife with speaking and not speaking, of wanting an answer and failing to receive one, of waiting for signs, of great sounds, and great silences. So too was the enactment of Christ’s narrative at St. Paul's UCC. Between singing and recitation was meditation. Time to think. Time to cry. Time to see the people beside you. Time to breathe. A rhythm signaling movement toward an emotional and spiritual climax, a rhythm beginning with drumming at the start of the service. And before the long silence that ended the night was the furious combination of tapping on the back of the pews and drumming, a simulation of the earthquake at Jesus’ tomb.
On Friday, I had thought the loudness of the drumming, our own earthquake at the tomb, had the power to transport me to a time outside of my own, to put me in the presence of the sacred. But after seeing Battlefield, I reconsidered this. The drums ushered in a cacophony whose singular purpose was to provide the contrast to the silence that followed. It was in that silence when I heard the sniffling of crying. It was in that silence when I felt the motions of my breath. It was in that silence, that darkness, when I had to yield to the possibility of being alone in the presence of something or someone beyond sound, sight, or touch. It is in such silence, where there is no guarantee for another beat of the drum. No chance for song or speech. A silence that exists outside the speech between self and a community, a silence that is a rhythm of its own. It is a response from the divine source to our every being that is louder, more overwhelming, than any sound could ever be.
Max Brumberg-Kraus is originally from Providence, RI, but moved to the midwest to attend Beloit College, WI as an undergrad. There, he majored in Theatre Performance and Classical Civilizations with a minor in Critical Identity Studies, and was the Artistic Director of Beloit Independent Theatre Experience (BITE). He moved to St. Paul in July 2016, where he continues to pursue his artistic goals as a performer, playwright, and poet. Max is the Digital Content Specialist at United, where he is also pursuing an MA with a concentration in Theology and the Arts.