During the now distant eighties of the last century, Peter Greenaway shot a few feature films that impressed me enormously, among them Drowning by Numbers, which – like all of these films – was characterized by a pertinacity that was perhaps deeply embedded in that era as a whole. In addition to this intense film, with its driving, trancelike Michael Nyman score, Greenaway published a book entitled FEAR OF DROWNING
BY NUMBERS RÈGLES DU JEU, in which he lays out the film’s inherent principles:
Throughout the film Drowning by Numbers, there runs a numbercount of one to one hundred, which serves as an incidental and ironic structure against which three women can drown their husbands.
At the start of the film, one of the women and the skipping-rope girl have the following exchange:
I’m counting the stars. – There are more than a hundred. – I know. – Why did you stop? – A hundred is enough. Once you’ve counted a hundred, all the other hundreds are the same.
Everything is playful. Everything is incredibly fantastical.
Bernhard Studlar‘s IPLAY reminds me of both Greenaway’s film and book. All three are numbered from one to one hundred throughout their respective length, even though the parameters have since changed. Several decades have since come and gone, and pertinacy has vanished; flexibility and mobility are the mottos of today. What has remained, however, is the necessity for structure in artistic works. But structure in fictional literature (including dramatic literature) is always an artificial construction, so why not strip this necessity of pretense completely and make it all transparent?
One hundred ‘apps’ (like the numbers in Greenaway’s film) throughout the play lead from nowhere to nowhere (but not to anyone being drowned), there are no characters doing anything, and no meaning coagulates around any plot. Even the narrator disappears, and all that remains – as the playwright points out in his preface – is text. With a pleasantly light touch, Studlar avoids all elements typical of the nineteenth century (“I have a feeling that it’s become obsolete to correspond to the world I live in – and maybe you, too, but who knows, anyway – with a play in three acts with five characters and a linear plot.”) to create a poetic perspective on a (certainly urban) world (“fucking nature”), on a folding chair on the pavement maybe, the tagged subway seat, the traffic light where fragmented conversations are snatched from people waiting.
The term ‘app’ for the extremely exposed text units – often only less than a single sentence – suggests a practical applicability that the lines themselves, of course, refuse. What could such a text be useful for? What specific niche function could such a sentence, a link to a fictitious URL, or a slogan have? In the epilog, the playwright remarks: “I have no clue what this is about. (…) I have no clue whether others might get any ideas from this.” Furthermore, this lightly woven piece will comfort the machinery of theater, which takes itself so seriously, by appearing to say: easy now, it’s alright, let go. Its transparency without coherence (at least at first sight) has a liberating and inspirational effect. You want to play around with these handy chunks, which retain the poetic quality of the text without loading or overloading them with any pressure to be meaningful beyond what’s on the page. Reduction may not only increase a given text’s specific poetic weight but also decrease it by creating space to breathe.
The text contains an explicit challenge to creatively participate: “Intervene, create a new mix, add to it”. Studlar quotes the notion of open source from the digital and functional world, which so far I have only encountered with Charles Mee (no doubt there are others): add to and feed into this play’s text cloud as it travels from past to future productions. This shifts the audience’s perspective away from the one specific production, in which they are listening to those lines, toward an awareness of the play’s journey out of the playwright’s head onto (hopefully) different stages, into directors’ and actors’ and finally the audiences’ heads. At one of these stages, we encounter the text, or it encounters us.