Id-Descartes: Review

Wojciech Hamerski, Gazeta Wyborcza (Poznan), 1 July 2002

(original in Polish, translated by Marek Stelmaszczyk)

Emptiness can be sensed and it can be incredibly inspirational. The effect is what counts, no matter what caused it: the austerity Descartes’ Dutch seclusion, or the severity of the stage with only a handful of props.

The creative potential of an unfurnished stage has been well put to use by Gruppi from Malta. In the performance Id-Descartes, by the will of its director, John J. Schranz and of its actor, Frank Camilleri, classical Cartesian ideas were expressed through passages from Shakespeare, Conrad, and Hemingway. This choice of texts is far from a random postmodern indulgence. The quotations are carefully chosen to exemplify the ideas put forward in the performance.

Indeed, in his monodrama, Camilleri probes and penetrates the Cartesian world from various angles. Firstly, in the domain of objects: there are very few props. In a corner stands is a block of ice, hanging in the air, dripping regularly into a half-full goblet. In another corner, there is a table with a burning candle on it. It is a scholarly illustration, one could say, of the most important quality of matter: its extensibility, its ability to change form. This allusion becomes clearer when Camilleri whispers, shrieks, sings (with an incredible vocal range) the famous Descartes’ lines about wax’s nature.

The philosopher’s ideas have been encoded into the theatrical language of a universal character and pushed into spheres far from its source of inspiration. Things in the scenic space gain the status of props. The stage becomes a space encompassing everything. And the motion enmeshing the space is caused by the ceaseless physical effort on the part of the actor. Camilleri unnaturally bends his body, trying to find an insight into himself, into the few props at his disposal, as if looking for a general rule, a principle governing all the physical phenomena. The hero, just like Descartes, begins his struggle in complete emptiness. For Descartes, emptiness had a methodological dimension. In order to be true to ‘reality’, one must start from the basic notions. The hero of Id-Descartes does the same thing. He looks, full of doubt, at his own body. Then he points with his finger at his face and becomes petrified in this position. By doing so he sanctions the starting point: “I am”. As a result of his further efforts, he gains control over the almost empty space thanks to the realisation that space, too, undergoes metamorphoses.

The above conclusions can be drawn from the performance on its illustrational level. However, one could probe deeper under the veneer of the obvious into what is the essential part of the performance. This path is difficult for the Polish spectator to follow without a special commentary provided by the authors. The monodrama, conducted mostly in English, is at places interrupted by moments in Maltese. I was not quite sure what I should make of it, but fortunately, the authors of the performance came up with a helpful booklet written in English. It turns out that it is virtually impossible to express in Maltese the famous Cartesian phrase ‘I think, therefore I am’ for the simple reason that the language does not have the necessary verb forms.

The ascetic use of the props makes us welcome every single new piece appearing on stage as a symbolic revelation whose meanings cannot be exactly captured. Another obstacle to a full understanding of the spectacle is its linguistic level as proposed by this director-actor duo. Looking at it from this angle, the performance can be seen as a discussion within the Western humanistic tradition. The very title brings up all the associations one has with the Freudian principle of “id”, i.e. the uncontrollable subconscious. This reading does not go very well with the Cartesian idea of one’s own consciousness as the proof of existence. However, ‘id’, as Schranz and Camilleri indicate in their written commentary to the performance, may also mean ‘identity of a dramaturgy’. In this case, the play would exemplify their own efforts to find the identity of theatre, and the character of Descartes would only be a metaphor of any epistemological effort. Neither the authors nor I can find one universal key to the heart of this somewhat incomplete performance. Probably the number of its interpretations far exceeds the number of its spectators. And that is, I think, the way it should be.