Tag Archives: Walter Kaufmann
Sex, Memory, Teaching, Death, Chaucer, Hamlet and–Dick Jokes….

Sex, Memory, Teaching, Death, Chaucer, Hamlet and— Dick Jokes…

Nec Habeo, Nec Careo, Nec Curo![i]

Odi memorem compotorem.[ii]

I begin this ninth chapter with the rather improbable maxim that “no one can teach anyone, anything.” The most one can hope to do is to facilitate the learning process for one’s students. A teacher can make it relatively easier or harder for his or her students to learn, but he or she cannot “teach” them. A quick trip to the dictionary is helpful once again to illustrate my point. There, we find that the word “instruct” is from the Latin prefix “in”, in and the verb “struere” to pile-up or to build (New Century Dictionary 838). Teachers may build complicated hierarchies of facts, figures or skill-sets, they may pile these up in front of their students; but unless the students disassemble these and then reassemble them for themselves, no “learning” has taken place.

Teaching is a matter of creating strategies for student success. Charismatic teachers have little trouble developing these strategies for motivated, eager students. Most teachers can tell the difference between motivated students and lazy students. Motivated students generally sit toward the front of the classroom, take copious notes and turn their assignments in on time and according to the teacher’s specifications. Lazy students sit toward the back of the classroom, do not take notes and are usually late with their assignments. Eager students ask intelligent questions that are relevant to the information that the teacher is presenting; lazy students tend to either ask no questions, or ask questions that are off point, change the subject or are generally disruptive. In my experience, women have out-performed the men by a margin of at least two to one. [This is not a scientific observation, but merely an anecdotal one, based on my recollection. On the other hand, I am sure that if I or anyone else were to wade through the transcripts of the thousands of students who have sat in my classes over the years that this ratio would be met or even exceeded.]

One strategy that I sometimes teach to my students is to use memory systems; I teach three different systems, two are ancient and one is contemporary. Memory experts tell us that memory is based on associations we make between what we already know and what we are trying to learn. Memory systems give us the opportunity to control and create these associations to help us remember. The phrase “on the other hand” comes to us from the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Orators would associate the points that they wanted to talk about with the different parts of their hands by visualizing them on their hands. Another Ancient mnemonic device included “loci” or places; the orator would visualize the elements of his speech in different locations at his home. As he mentally walked through his home, he encountered in his imagination, each of the ideas he wanted to talk about.

In the 1970’s Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas published “The Memory Book”. In it they set out a very useful system of associating images that represent the things, names, dates, numbers, people, facts, words or ideas that one might want to remember. One of their basic principles was, as I remember it, to distort or exaggerate the images one is using to make the images very vivid and thus easier to remember. The more outrageous the image, the easier it is to remember. They also developed a system that exchanged letters or sounds for numbers, based on the shapes of the numbers. “T” or “D” equal 1 because both have a single down stroke; “N” equals 2, because it has two down strokes; “M” equals 3 because it (lower case m) has three down strokes; “R” equals 4 because “four” has a prominent “R” sound. “L” equals 5 because the top of the five looks like an “L” laying on its face; 6 may be represented by “sh” or “ch” because of the “ecks” sound. 7 is represented by K because it looks like the upstroke of a cursive k (7< sort of). 8 is represented by a cursive I or J; 9 looks like a p or b. 0 is represented by ssss or zzz. They also give a series of words that correspond to each number: Tie, Noah, Ma, Rye, Law, shoe, cow, ivy, bee, 10 would have the t or d sound and sss or zzz sound, so “Toes”. When one makes-up one’s own words for association, one should make sure that no other sounds from the list are used less one confuse one’s numbers. All sound values for the number associations are phonetic, and “close enough” is good enough, as long as a vivid mental association is formed. [I’m not citing the book here, because I am recreating this from memory, I lost the book over 25 years ago. I seldom have to memorize lists in order, but do have to remember dates and phone numbers; so I apply the basic system for those purposes.]

This system is especially suited to remembering dates. I require, in Art History that my students be able to see an image of a work of art and recall the name of the piece, the artist, the date is was started or completed, the culture or time period in which it was produced and its current location.  A complete answer includes at least three of these five bits of information. My students learn how to “convert” numbers into words and the words into evocative (sometimes, provocative) images. For example, the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling was painted by Michelangelo from 1508-12. The numbers convert to t or d, l,sss or zzz, I or J, t or d again and n; or we know that 15 could be “tool” 8 is ivy and 12 is toes. We could build a series of images and associations that include a friend named either Michael or Michelle, an angel, tool (s = 0), ivy, a ceiling and toes. Again, the more outrageous the scene is, the more likely we are to remember it.

In High School, I memorized an entire Economics textbook almost word for word. The teacher bragged that “nobody ever gets 100% on one of my tests.” Because his tests were taken almost verbatim from the text, I managed to get 100% for several weeks in a row. [About the seventh week or so I did not study—I was talking to this girl Cathy on the phone….  In my own defense, I still remember her name, but remember very little about Economics except it is all about supply and demand.] As an actor, I always had my script memorized before the rest of the cast. The way one memorizes texts varies a little depending on what type of text one is trying to memorize.

When one is memorizing a text book, one first reads the entire assignment to locate the key ideas. One then writes down the key ideas in order.  Then one reads the assignment again, one sentence at a time.  In each sentence one identifies the key words that have the most “visual” force. One must isolate enough key words for each sentence as one needs, to recall the entire sentence word for word. One then builds visual associations as described in the example above. Once these associations have been made for each sentence and all of the sentences have been linked together. One returns to the text a third time to review one’s associations and to check his or her recollection of the exact text. After this third reading and after checking one’s associations against the text, one should associate the key idea image to the first sentence of the section to which the key idea belongs. One then checks to see if he or she can recall the entire text with just the list of key ideas.

This may sound tedious but if one is very motivated, say to stifle a boastful teacher [or to impress Cathy] one really does not mind the tedium. In fact the anticipation of seeing the look on the teacher’s face week after week as I continued to “Ace” his tests was almost exciting enough in itself to be worth the effort. [But it was not as exciting as Cathy.] After a few chapters, the whole process becomes faster, and fewer associations are required to recall entire paragraphs.

Students will rarely find themselves in a class where they are required to memorize their textbooks. I have described how they might do so without a demonstration. In most classes students will only need to remember key facts and main ideas. So I will “demonstrate” how one might do this. For the purposes of this demonstration, I have chosen a passage from Walter Kaufman’s Tragedy and Philosophy. The full text of the passage reads:

Aristotle’s relative ranking of the six elements he found in tragedy is less persuasive in Shakespeare’s case than in Greek tragedy. [the six elements are given earlier by Kaufman as “plot [mythos], character [ethe], diction [lexis], thought [dianoia], spectacle [opsis], and music [melopoiia]….”  The brackets enclosing the Greek words, the italics and the terminal ellipses are his (52).] What raises Shakespeare above all other post-Greek tragic poets is not his arrangement of the incidents or his handling of the plot but rather—if we stick to Aristotle’s categories—his portrayal of character and his diction, or, as we should prefer to say, his poetry. The plot of Hamlet, for example, is far from being a model of taut organization, but the hero’s character has proved to be as fascinating as any in world literature, and in English only some of Shakespeare’s other plays rival its poetry.

This is not to say that the plot does not matter at all. The fact is that it touches on, and explores, so many crucial human relationships is one of the major reasons for the impact of the play. Yet the arrangement of the incidents, which Aristotle considered all-important although Sophocles, as we have seen, did not (Oedipus Tyrannus is an exception, not the rule), has an almost slapdash quality.

What is true in the highest degree of Hamlet is also true, if not quite so strikingly, of Shakespeare’s other tragedies. There is nothing very revolutionary in this claim; it was largely on account of his handling of plot that Shakespeare was for some time considered a barbarian, compared to the Greek and French tragedians. (272-273)

There are some key ideas that I have added to Lorayne’s basic system. [If he used them I cannot remember, all I know is that they work very well.] The first idea is that words can be manipulated so that the “sound” of the words we use to create our associated images reminds of us the original word or name. Most people, for example, would not be able to conjure an image for “Aristotle”. Most people can immediately conjure a variety of images for “Hair is total”. “Hair is total” can be applied to a wide variety of imaginary scenes and easily reminds us of “Aristotle”.

Plato is seen here telling Aristotle a dick joke...the painting is by Raphael

A corollary to this rule or principle is to use the way the word is spelled to create a part of your imaginary scene. For example, “diction” is a very difficult word to create a picture for. Phonetically I suppose one could imagine a friend named “Dick” “shunning someone—but I am not sure that the image of “shunning” would register in one’s mind in any convincing way. However when we use the spelling of the word, we find the image of a person with a “dick-tie-on”.

This brings us to the third principle which is, I am fairly certain my own original addition to Lorayne’s system. That is, one should use sexually charged images as often as one can. These images work better than mundane images because they are “taboo” and thus, perhaps engage both the conscious and subconscious minds. [What we do in the privacy of our own imaginations is nobody’s business—just be sure that when the test rolls around you do not write “dick tie on” as one of Aristotle’s elements of tragedy.]

Now, to construct our first little vignette; we begin with “Hair is total” the first element is “plot”—we imagine a cemetery plot filled with hair.  The second element is “character”; we visualize an actor covered in soot and ash (a “charred actor”) from head to toe, lying on the pile of hair in a cemetery plot. The third element is “diction”; as we look at out actor again we notice he is wearing a white tie with a picture of an erect red phallus on it, or that he has “a dick tie on.” Suddenly a “thought” bubble appears above his head; we notice that the thought bubble is filled with a pair of “spectacles” that are, miraculously, singing (“melody”).

We can create a similar set of imaginary associations to help us remember the Greek words for each of the elements of tragedy. These do not seem to lend themselves easily to the kinds of association crafted above (narrative images). Instead I have chosen to link them to the “hooks” for the number associated with them by Aristotle’s list. Our hook for the number one is tie; the first word is mythos. This word in Greek sounds like “me toes”—so I picture tiny little ties on all of my toes.  The second hook is Noah, and in Greek, the second word sounds like “ate a”; one could picture Noah eating anything, but “ate” in the vulgar vernacular has sexual connotations, so we should use it in the sexual sense; [There is no one around for Noah to “eat”, so we can associate him with the next hook “ma”—for God’s sake never use your own mother!] we will imagine that he is “eating” or that he “ate” a young ma—we know she’s a ma because she has a little baby on her chest. Let’s use Kendra Wilkinson, she’s a new “Ma” ….The third hook is ma so all of a sudden Kendra lifts the baby up by its legs, gives a leg a kiss—because the third element in Greek sounds like “leg-kiss”—and then lays it down in its crib near the bed. [At this point, I took a break to go call Child Protective Services—because—well, that’s just wrong all around!—let’s make the baby look like Hugh Hefner….]

The fourth hook is rye and the fourth element in Greek sounds like “dE a noi ya”; I picture a very annoying acquaintance of mine in the middle of a large rye bread sandwich looking up at me and asking “(di)d I annoy ya?”  The fifth hook is law and the Greek word sounds like “op sees”; I picture a cartoon like policeman walking up to my car window; the window is rolled down, just as he gets to the window he slips and falls like a slapstick stooge. As he falls I hear him yell “oopsies!” The sixth hook is shoe, so I picture a large, menacing brown oxford, the laces are knotted into a sinister looking face, he holds a large knife, and is “peeing” at me. This is because in Greek the last element sounds like “may lop o’ee ya”; the shoe is threatening either to lop something of mine off or pee on me. This brings us to other principles about making associations: I am borrowing the “p” from lop to use in front of the “ee”’s , I have to remember that I have done this, and always be sure to edit mentally before using the word in a lecture. Also, the sentences we use to create our little scenes do not have to make sense grammatically, nor do they have to be “politically correct”. In fact, as argued above, the more they transgress, the more successful they are.

To summarize the long passage from Kaufmann, I wrote:

Shakespeare’s characters and diction are more important than his plots. Hamlet is a good example.

Hamlet has impact because Shakespeare explores “crucial human relationships”.

His handling of plot caused Shakespeare to be regarded as a “barbarian” compared to Greek and French tragedians.

Aristotle thought plot was the most important of all of the elements, Sophocles did not.

By now the reader no doubt understands how to build associations between and among key words; we have seen several of these words in the previous examples and we need not belabor the point here because I want to discuss memorizing other kinds of texts. I would however like to give a few suggestions about words that might be too bland to create emotionally or sexually “charged” associations.  Shakespeare is obvious enough one needs only to imagine a cartoon Shakespeare with a spear where his penis should be. “Barbarian” and Hamlet (a little ham dressed in Elizabethan clothes with cartoon arms and legs) are “relatively charged” words. “Sophocles” is easy too if know the Greek pronunciation “Sofa-clays”—picture a “clay sofa”.  Words like “important”, “elements” and “crucial” are not very evocative or sexy.

Bland words can be changed to other words that are not as bland. “Important” can become “impotent”, “elements” can become “elephants” and “crucial” can become “cruel”. The student is not likely to be quizzed about elephants in a theater history class and so he or she should easily remember the substitution. The important rule to follow when making substitutions, one should leave enough of the original word intact so that it can easily be recognized later. I believe that almost everyone could recognize a group of “totally hairy, impotent elephants acting out a Greek Tragedy on a cemetery plot” as “plot is the most important element of Greek Tragedy for Aristotle.” If one added an image of “Shakespeare sitting on a clay sofa next to a charred actor with his best dick tie on, at the performance; Shakespeare is shaking his head “no” with his arms crossed in disgust, one has the whole picture!

[And now a quiz— cover the top part of the page with a sheet of paper. No cheating or I’ll call your mother.]

[According to Aristotle, what are the six elements of Tragedy? Once more, in the Greek?]

[According to Aristotle, which of the elements is the most important?]

[According to Kaufmann, which play is a good example of the importance of ——which two elements– of tragedy? Why?]

[Why do you have the image of elephants performing tragedy for Shakespeare and a charred actor sitting on a clay sofa as Shakespeare shakes his head, in your head?]

[Alright, be sure your names, the date and the name of the book and my name are all on your paper then send it to my publisher. The address is in the “front matters” of the book. Yes, you have to buy your own stamps and envelopes! Geesh!!]

One of the more difficult assignments faced by English majors, either as undergraduates or graduate students, is to memorize the first 18 lines of the Prologue from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Middle English. English is a “living” language. “Dead” languages like Latin and Ancient Greek or Ancient Hebrew will never change. English continues to grow, adding vocabulary from other languages; losing vocabulary through disuse or neglect. Sometimes the meanings of words can even change 180 degrees. When Pope Julius II saw Michelangelo’s ceiling for the first time he called it “amazing, amusing and awful”. [He said it in Italian—but this only serves to prove my point in two languages.] “Amazing” means the same today as it did in 1512; “amusing” meant “inspired by the muses”; and “awful” meant “awe-inspiring”. Because English is a living language, the Middle English of Chaucer’s day bears a closer resemblance to the Old English of Beowulf, than to contemporary English.

Canterbury Tales

One of the problems students face when reading Chaucer or trying to “perform” Chaucer, is that Chaucer’s English may have familiar looking words, and letters, but the pronunciation is different and there for the language sounds different than contemporary English. When the student sets out to memorize the lines, he or she should memorize them phonetically. Using Lorayne’s memory system as adapted above, this requires a good deal of creativity and imagination. Because the piece is going to be performed aloud, we can add another adaptive principle to those already given; that is, our associations may be composed of sounds from two or even three adjacent words. Although we, as in other cases, must remember we have made this adaptation, in order to keep each word distinct in performance. Let us look then at the entire selection:

Whan that aprille with his shoures soote

The droughtes of March hath perced to the roote

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

Of which virtu engendered is the flour:

Whan Zephirus eek with his sweet breeth

Inspired hath in every holt and heathe

Tendre croppes and the yonge sonne

Hath in the ram his halwe cours y ronne

And smale foweles maken melodye

That slepen al the nyght with open ye

(So priketh hem nature in hir courages):

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,

And palmers for to seken traunge strondes,

And specially from every shires ende

Of Engelond to Canterbury the they wende,

The hooly blissful martir for to seke,

That hem hath hoplen whan that they were seke.

Now, this is a book about teaching and learning in the Arts and Humanities, and not a master’s course on Chaucer; and this chapter is about using learning strategies like mnemonic systems, not about helping the student pass his or her oral finals. [No JOKES] So, we will not break down the entire piece;[I’M WARNING YOU] but I will give some examples of how Chaucer’s language is different from our own, and a few examples of how to adapt Lorayne’s system to memorize these first few lines.

Chaucer started writing this sometime around 1386; the “tales” [pronounced “tah-lez”] of the title are stories that each of a group of pilgrims tell each other each evening as they make their way to the shrine of Thomas a Becket at Canterbury. Becket was the Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry II (whom we have already met—in another part of the blog…). The language he wrote in was a language in transition from the Germanic languages of the Jutes, Picts, Angles, and Saxons, through the French and Latin introduced by William the Conqueror’s Normans, to the Early Modern English written by Shakespeare 200 years later. The mixture of sounds we hear when listening to Chaucer are therefore Germanic, French and Latin—along with a few that have long since vanished from our cultural memories. [How the English language developed is a fascinating subject, but far too complicated to relate here. Students who wish to pursue the subject should find a copy of Robert McNeil’s book The Story of English; one might even find it on DVD at the PBS website.]

Some general rules for pronunciation are borrowed from these languages. “A” is not “a” as in “cat” but “a” as in “father”. Almost all syllables are sounded in most words. “O” has a variety of sounds: “o” as in “open” as in “soote” and “roote”; “o” as in “from”, “of” and “croppes”; when doubled as in “goon” the first “o” is as in “open” the second “o” sounds like “e” in “hen”, when doubled as in “hooly” it sounds like “oo” in “boot”. Whereas in “night” the “gh” is silent, in “nyght” the “gh” is sounded as “g” in “get”, in “droughtes” as “k” or “ch” in “Loch”. “I” can be short as in “in”, long as in “I”, or sounded as long “e” as in “keen”. “E” can be long as in “seen”, short as in “end”, or as long “A” before “y” as in “veyne”, when doubled in “seeke” or eek, it may look long as in “seek”, but stays short as in “hen”. “Ou” can be “oo” as in “boot”, or “a” as in “father”: as in “shoures” and “droughtes” respectively. There are a few special cases too: “Tendre” is French, therefore “tahn-drrr”; “virtu” is Latin, therefore “vir-teue” (think “ee”, say “oo” as in boot). For “th”, think “d” say “thh”. In “ye” the “y” is silent and the “e” is long.

Rendered phonetically, the first few lines sound like this:

Juan dthaht up-rrEl-leh widt hiss shoo-ress sOt-eh (long vowels will be capitalized)

Dtha drakhts uv march hadth par-ked tO dtha rOt-eh

Ahnt bah-dthet A-ver-E vAn-eh in switch lik-oorr

uv which veer-tewe en-jen-dair-ed ist dtha floo-er

[n.b. “foweles” is not “fow-el-es” but “foolz”. “Inspired” is not “in-spI-er-ed” but “in-spee-rrred”. Terminal “e”’s are barely sounded as “eh”.]

Once one has sorted out the entire selection phonetically, he or she may begin to play with the sounds and start to associate other words with those sounds, and images with the words. As he or she proceeds the student should find that he or she needs fewer and fewer associations to remember the entire piece. When performing the piece the student should understand where the “thought-breaks” are, not the line breaks. If we look at the punctuation we can determine where the breaks are.

“Thought breaks” are complete thoughts, the lines conform only to the metrical pattern established by Chaucer or any other poet. Pauses should only be taken after thought breaks, not after every line; then the performance sounds more natural; even though the couplets rhyme we want to perform against the rhyme, to avoid sounding “sing-song”. Thus, roughly translated: “When April with his soothing showers has pierced March’s drought to its roots; (mini break) and washed all the vines with his sweet liquid, (mini break) the potency of which brings forth the flower.” (Thought break.)  So, in the original there is no pause after the first line. The pause comes after the second line. Likewise, there is no pause after the third line; we can take a pause after the fourth line that is a little longer than the first—and thereby indicated that a new but related thought is beginning.

As we play with the sounds Chaucer has given us, we should keep the thought breaks in mind as we arrange our sounds/words/images and the associations we create among them. [In acting these thought breaks are called “units” and “beats”. I’m just stalling while I think up images for the first four lines.] “Juan” is obvious—a man named “Juan” (“Whan”) has a “hat” (“that”) with an “up-reel” (“apprille”) on it, he’s reeling-up with “his chewer’s oats” (“shoures soote”) (a large Quaker oatmeal box, the man on the box is chewing messily) “the dark sub” (close as I can get to “the droughtes of”). Meanwhile “Mark” (“march”) writes the word “toe” on the side of the sub, that is now in “park” next to “Ed” McMahon; Juan comments and points at it “Toe, he wrote!” (“to the roote”). The order does not really matter as long as all of the elements are there. The same is true of the sounds and letters, i.e.: “dark”, “drak”; “chewer’s oats”, “schewer soat”. If your mind is very facile, and since you have made it this far, I assume it is, you will be able to move easily from one set of images within each thought group. Eventually you should be able to link just the first word and the last word moving from group to group until the entire piece has been recited.


There are two more types of texts that I would like to discuss before the end of this chapter on memorization and learning strategies. They are lines from a play—for actors and vocabulary words from dictionary entries—for everybody. The first involves not only learning one’s own lines but also one’s cue lines, entrances, exits and stage business. The second is learning new words, their meanings and their etymologies. The basic techniques are the same as we have discussed earlier, with some slight variations. Actors can use the “loci” technique in addition to regular imaginary associations. Vocabulary exercises often require remembering what language roots and stems are in and sometimes they are not in the same language.

Jean Simmons and Larry Olivier in Hamlet--playing the country matters scene....

Hamlet is a difficult play for most actors and directors. [Although the great English Actor Edmund Keane is said to have remarked once that “…any fool can play Hamlet, but comedy is serious business.” David Garrick is supposed to have uttered on his death bed the words… “Dying is easy, comedy is hard…” I think…I don’t remember…. But that didn’t stop me from misquoting either of them…] Shakespeare’s work is riddled with puns, slang and hidden meaning. If we as students, teachers, actors and directors know what these are and where they are, they can help us act or direct the scene; these can also help us to remember the lines, because many of them are sexual in nature. For all of our purposes here, we will only use a short snippet from the script so that we can take note of the Dover Publications, Inc. editor’s “interpretation” and an interpretation based on the work of the noted scholar of Shakespearean scatology and sexual innuendo Eric Partridge, (1884-1979), as gleaned from Shakespeare’s Bawdy. Then we can test our proposition that knowing what the words really mean, aids us in remembering the scene, or at least in building our associative images. [Ham is Hamlet, Oph is Ophelia his girl, whom he has just called a whore and told her that she should go to a brothel.]

King [Claudius—boooo] What do you call the play?

Ham. The Mousetrap. Marry, how. Tropically? This play is the image of a murder done in Vienna. Gonzago is the Duke’s name; his wife, Baptista. You shall see anon. ‘Tis a knavish piece of work, but what o’ that? Your majesty, and we that have free souls, it touches not. Let the galled jade wince, our withers are unwrung.


Oph. You are as good as a Chorus, my Lord.

Ham. I could interpret between you and your love, if I could see the puppets dallying.

Oph. You are keen.  My lord, you are keen.

Ham. It would cost you a groaning to take off my edge.

Oph. Still better, and worse.

Ham. So you mistake your husbands. Begin Murderer. Pox, leave thy damnable faces and begin. Come, the croaking raven doth bellow for revenge (III, ii).

[That’s probably enough to make my point.]

We’ll begin by looking at the words the Dover editor glossed, and its “meaning”: “Tropically” is given as “metaphorically” (n.42); “free” is rendered “innocent” (n. 43); “galled jade” is given as “a horse rubbed sore (by a saddle or harness).” (n.44); “unwrung” they interpret as “not pinched” (n.45); “keen” they write means “bitter” (n.46); “groaning” they call “sexual intercourse” (n.47); “edge” they say is “sexual appetite” (n.48); and “mistake” they interpret to be “take in error” (Dover ed. 64).  Now we can look up each in Partridge’s “Glossary”, and list the ones we find there [As we do though we should remember that Partridge first published his book in 1947]:

free, adj. Of a woman that grants a man the freedom of her body; cf. liberal… (111).

liberal, Of a woman, liberal with her body to a man; of a man, licentious, or broad in speech…(135).

Jade, See the quotation at bear. [That quote applies better to another play.] A jade, here is a worn-out stallion; hence a “surfeit-exhausted man”. (The usual sense is a ‘battered, peevish, woman of little reputation’.)…(128).

keen, sexually ardent or excited. … (129).

groaning, A woman’s cry or groan of pain at losing her virginity. See the quotation at edge. …(117). [The quote at “edge” quotes the scene we are reading. It adds only that edge has specific reference to the erect penis (98).]

So we do see that through our research we find that a much different scene has emerged. Hamlet has insulted everyone in the room: His stepfather Claudius, his mother Gertrude and his girlfriend Ophelia. The play they are going to watch is the play that Hamlet was based on, The Murder of Gonzago. Hamlet’s goal is to get Claudius to confess when he sees the murder scene, since Gonzago is killed the same way Claudius killed the senior Hamlet. The sexual tension between Hamlet and Ophelia is a sub-theme or a counterpoint to the main action or inaction of the play.  Hamlet has been instructed to kill Claudius; but Hamlet delays, philosophizes and hatches loony plots. As a result of Hamlet’s indecision, his two best friends, his girlfriend’s father, his girlfriend, his girlfriends brother, his mother and his stepfather and Hamlet himself all end-up dead.

Certainly the scene between Hamlet and Ophelia is much more sexually charged if we take Partridges notes rather than the Dover editors’ notes. To say for example, that “groaning” refers to “sexual intercourse” is far different in degree of intensity, than to say that it refers specifically to “A woman’s cry or groan of pain at losing her virginity.” This also affects the rest of the scene; now we may surmise that Ophelia suspects that Hamlet just wants to use her, take her virginity and toss her aside. She says he is just horny, and he pretty much says she is right.  This gives Ophelia a reason to commit suicide! [In the play, Hamlet should be about 20 years old and Ophelia about 12 or 13; in reality Hamlet was played by a fat, balding and usually drunken Richard Burbage, in his 30’s; and Ophelia would have been played by a 12 or 13 year-old boy, whose voice had not yet changed. That the boy actors sometimes worked as prostitutes in the “Gentleman’s Room” is a well-established fact that is usually omitted from Theater History textbooks. But, let’s get back to memory exercises…by the way, I’m still 47.–Actually I’m 51 and a half, this month….When I wrote this I was 47….]

By this point the reader should be well aware of the procedures associated with building mnemonic associations that are provocative and evocative of images and remind us of the words they represent. Shakespeare’ writing is full of such words at this point a list of some of each for the actor playing Hamlet and the actress playing Ophelia, should suffice. Hamlet’s words might include: “marry”, “tropically”, “withers”, “unwrung”, “puppets dallying”, “cost”, “groaning”, “edge”, “mistake” “husbands”, “murderer”, “pox” and “come croaking”. Ophelia’s words might include: “chorus”, “keen”, “Lord” “keen”, “still”. As they prepare for their scene, the actors should remember to associate their cues as well as their key words.  It is generally not wise to choose the last word in the sentence from the other actor’s line. This may cause the scene to be too choppy and have too many pauses. e.g. the actress playing Ophelia hears Hamlet say “jade” she immediately sees a “jade chorus” and so forth.

[I get the feeling the chapter is almost over, so we should move on to vocabulary; why do we build a better vocabulary—mostly to pick-up women—girls too! Anyway, do you think that the Introduction, first and second chapters were too small? Do you think size matters? According to experts who have taken the time to do studies of Ancient Greek pottery and the like, and to do the math, the average Greek males erect penis was 4.25 inches. If one reads the plays of Sophocles in the original or in faithful translation, one finds that males with large penises were made fun of. For the benefit of my male readers, I would like to report the results of my informal poll over the last thirty years most women believe that men of average or a little above average penis size who try harder are better lovers. In 1959 I think Masters and Johnson established the average size as 6”—but they may have shrunk some since the woman’s movement in the late seventies…. Maybe I should go back and add an addendum, or addenda to the intro, and chapters one and two…. Oh. And I’m a bit better than average—although as a teacher I have no genitalia….]

There is a hard way to do this and an easy way, my reader should suspect by now that I will take the easy way. And even if I am in mid-sentence, I have resolved to quit at the bottom of the next page so I can move on to a topic that I like better: teaching criticism, literature and history with Shakespeare’s “History Plays”: in particular Richard III and The Wars of the Roses.

All of the entries are gleaned from the New Century Dictionary:

Uliginose  a. (U-lij-i-nOs) [Latin uliginosus, moist or marshy.] marshy, muddy…(2079). I picture a guy in a toga sinking in a marsh, his nose is missing; he has one leg and a giant nose where the other should be, as he sinks he yells out “Hey! Is you leg a nose?”

Prognathous a. (prog-na-thus) [Gr. Pro, before + gnathos, jaw] having a protruding chin (1402).  I just think of Jay Leno.

Sesquipedalian a. (ses-kwi- pE –dA- lEan [L. sesquipedalis (neut. Pl.)] a foot and a half long (1672). [Insert your own dick  joke here.]

Contumelios a. (con-tU-mE-lE-us) [L. contumeliosus] humiliatingly insolent (318). I just picture myself.

Endogamous a. (en-dog-a-mus) (see endo and gamous—[once you get married it’s the end o’ your gamous…)  marrying within the tribe (498). I just picture everyone I’ve dated except my first wife.

Hardiment (har-di-ment) n [O.F. hardi] boldness and daring (713). [Despite Wordsworth, it’s something you have or not, not something you have to prove.]

Kshatriya (kshat rE ya) noun  [Sanskrit  kshatra, rule]  member of the military caste (908).  Okay, so now I’m just fuckin’ with you.

Per spic u ous (per-spik U- ous)  [L. perspicuous] Transparent as crystal. Clear in expression or statement, or lucid. (1290). [Okay so I don’t want to give up “perspicuous”. But now I’m done.]

a Kshatriya



[i] “Don’t have, don’t want, don’t care!”

[ii] (Loosly) “I hate drinking buddies with good memories!”

[iii] “Okay, That’s enough of that!”






Lorayne, Harry and Lucas, Jerry. The Memory Book, [I don’t remember anything else about it…]

Kaufmann, Walter. Tragedy and Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968.

Shakespeare,William. Hamlet. [go look it up jackass!]

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1992.

The New Century Dictionary of the English Language, Vol. I. Ed. H.G. Emery and K.G. Brewster. Revision Ed. Catherine B. Avery. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1953.

The New Century Dictionary of the English Language, Vol. II. Ed. H.G. Emery and K.G. Brewter. Revision Ed. Catherine B. Avery. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1953.

Partridge, Eric. Shakespeare’s Bawdy. London, New York: Routledge, 1996.



Performance Art

Now come with me to the tragedy

And let us sacrifice to both gods.


There is a prevailing view that performance art is new, controversial and incomprehensible. There is also a contrary view among certain critics that performance art is now passé, and must be consigned to history. Regardless of the proposition advanced, the proponents cannot tell us precisely what performance art is. These events are difficult to classify. The performers who present their art offer no one set of rules with which to evaluate their work.

The “content” of this work is diverse, at times strange and controversial. These performances can include nudity, shrieking, public sexual intercourse or masturbation, climbing over furniture and even acts of self-immolation. Although these events may seem radically different or even offensive, they have a valid claim historically and culturally in the visual and theatrical arts. The purpose of this study is to examine performance art through the lenses of Aristotelian catharsis and (performative) ecstasy. This scrutiny leads to a fuller understanding of what performance art is. [Have you noticed that the raunchier my subject matter is, the more scholarly my tone becomes. I’ve noticed it too. Luckily, the more scholarly my tone becomes, the more likely I am to include raunchy pictures!]


Audience members may feel safe with the representations of violence and sex viewed from the distance afforded by theatrical films and video. American culture is saturated with these images. When similar scenes are enacted in live theater, the audience may not feel quite so comfortable. A nude man, woman or couple on stage no longer has the same shock value it once had. However, “transgressive acts” performed by or on the naked man, woman or couple can still elevate the audiences’ consternation to various degrees of intolerant alarm. This principle may hold true even when they see an event on film or video. The question is, “What is a ‘transgressive act?’”

Marina Torgovnick, in Primitive Passions: Men, Women and the Quest for Ecstasy, wrote about the 1990 video by performance artist Monte Cazazza. In the video Cazazza’s penis was pierced several times, and jewelry inserted. Torgovnick’s somewhat exasperated account recalled the audiences “deep collective gasp” as

…a tweezers-like devise descends upon the head of the penis. It stretches the penis out like cotton candy, farther than anyone would have imagined the glans penis could be extended (190).

Torgovnick described the insertion of a “metal bolt, perhaps ¼” thick” into the head of the penis (190). The audience that viewed the video with Torgovnick was characterized as “jewelry-makers and craftspeople” who were attending a convention at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia (190).

The context Torgovnick gave for the piercing performed on Cazazza was a “continuum that ranges from adventursomeness [sic], roguishness, and travel, to rape, violence and dismemberment” (190-191). She told us too, that “both ends of this continuum” are connected “symbolically…to the idea of the Primitive” (191). The “shock value” of the transgressive act was located somewhere along the length of the “continuum” she elaborated. [If you concentrate, I’ll show you another picture….]

Torgovnick also gave an alternative context for the piercing that emphasized a less transgressive, more ritualistic meaning (inherent value) for the act: Piercing the penis was intended to imitate menstrual flow (17). It might be inferred that the transgressive act of genital piercing, as a species of performance art, was a ritual act of transformation expressed as theater. The performer’s ability to shock his audience, in this case at least, was not mitigated by the use of videotape. The “idea of the Primitive” was conveyed as a part of the content of the show. The “deep collective gasp” transferred this idea back to the performer: in effect, it completed a circuit of “ceremonial communion.” For those who participated on either side of this exchange, the result was more than symbolic. Even in the artist’s absence, communion was the aggregate of the experience and expressions of the performer and his audience.

The performer and his friends who assisted in the piercing participated in an expression of what Victor Turner called the “liminal” (55). Cazazza was transformed; his penis was ritually converted to emulate the flow of menses. The audience took part in the experience as if it were a commodity, the “liminoid” (55). Cazazza and his companions were displaced into Turner’s “spontaneous communitas,” “a deep rather than intense style of personal interaction” (47). The audience watched Cazazza’s video ceremonially because, as Turner says, “ceremony indicates, ritual transforms” (80). The “deep collective gasp” is an outward spontaneous “indication” of shock or surprise that does not cross the threshold of liminality by way of ritual. In a sense, they took “communion,” they did not “receive” it. The audience was not transformed by the performance. They were just variously alarmed by it.

There was a moment in the experience of the performer that distinguished him from his audience. This moment was necessarily related to the ideas of ritual transformation and the formation of communitas. The performer felt the physical reality of the piercing. He experienced a “rush” of endorphins and adrenaline and was “displaced” for a moment, as if he was “out side himself” and “suspended” in time.

The Greek word for this phenomenon is ekstasis; it refers to an Archimedean “displacement” of the self. If we have any doubts that the experience of this displacement is pleasurable we need only to turn to Torgovnick’s account of the end of Cazazza’s performance video. She relates that when the camera finally pans to the performer’s face: “He’s grinning and mouthing” some inaudible words that she interprets as: “It was great man. Unbelievable” (190).


I suggest that it is ecstasy that transforms, not ritual. While ritual is used to induce an ecstatic displacement of the self, ritual is not the only way this displacement is accomplished. Transformation implies a sustained change in the nature of the self. Ritual implies a constant return to the mechanism that may bring about this transformation and sustain it over time. Ecstasy has a greater sense of sudden, dramatic change that is in some way self-sustaining. Saul of Tarsus’s “ecstatic conversion” blinds him temporarily, changes his mission, his religion and his name. It does not require him to fall off of his horse repeatedly. Much of this distinction hinges on the definition of ecstasy which will be addressed at length in subsequent sections.

Certainly Cazazza’s performance was infused with the “tribal culture” melodramatics of the late 1990’s. Piercing and tattoo parlors proliferated, but there was nothing new about this “callback” to the primitive in Western Culture. There was also nothing new in the appropriation of cultures and cultural symbols that were not one’s own.

Richard Huelsenbeck, wrote in his Memoirs of a Dada Drummer, an account of his recitation of “Negro poems that I had made up myself…” (9). Even when he was told by the owner of the tavern that was home to the “Cabaret Voltaire,” Jan Ephriam, that “they’re not Negro poems,” he persisted. [This all took place in Switzerland in 1916.] Ephriam tried to supply Huelsenbeck with an “authentic” alternative, the latter wrote, “no force on earth could have gotten me to leave out the ‘Umba’ at the end of every verse” (9). John Elderfield, in his “Introduction” to Hugo Ball’s Flight Out of Time, wrote that Huelsenbeck’s “obsession  with primitivism in language was to be central to their work”(9). Ball described a typical Huelsenbeck performance:

Huelsenbeck read on the ninth. When he enters, he keeps his cane of Spanish reed in his hand and occasionally swishes it around. That excites the audience. They think he is arrogant, and he certainly looks it. His nostrils quiver, his eyebrows are arched. His mouth with its ironic twitch is tired but composed. He reads, accompanied by the big drum, shouts, whistles, and laughter (Ball 55-56).

Like the Futurist performers before them, the dadas intended their performances to excite, even irritate the audiences they played to. Ball described the purpose of dada performance as a “burning search, more blatant every day, for the specific rhythm and the buried face of this age…” and “ for the possibility of it being stirred, its awakening” (59). “Art” he wrote, “is only an occasion for that, a method” (59).

The Dadaists, in general, sought to effect social change by provocation. Each of them formed his theories and the configuration of the group was serious. Their performances were more cathartic than ecstatic. They de-limited one “end” of Torgovnick’s “continuum,” while Cazazza absorbed the other.

Michael Kirby, in Futurist Performance, sees a continuous line that extended from Futurist drama to the work of contemporary performance artists (6-8). Dadaism and Surrealism are of more interest to us in our present inquiry because the idea of the primitive consumed them. Dada had a certain naïveté that entertained, even as it hoped to change the world and shook a stick at it. As Annabelle Melzer wrote in Dada and Surrealist Performance, “all those in the later dada-surrealist group” sought “the restoration of a type of primitive theatrical communion” (43). This “primitive theatrical communion” as shown above, was precisely what Torgovnick described.


In the 1950’s, artists discovered the meanings ancillary to Jackson Pollock’s paintings. The term “action painting” denoted that the painting was the result of an action or of a series of actions. Pollock made implicative statements about his work:

On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting. This is akin to the method of the Indian sand paintings of the west (Pollock Qtd in Chipp 546, 548).

Pollock saw himself as “a part” of his work, not opposed to it as other artists might have been. He also claimed to work in the tradition of Native American healers. The actions of “walking around,” “working from the four sides” and the condition of “being in” the painting were read as elements of performance, but these also indicated that Pollock was transformed, perhaps “displaced” in the act of painting. What he described was a form of artistic ecstasy: “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing….[T]he painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through” (548). According to Herschel Chipp’s note, these statements appeared in a 1947 article written by Pollock (546).


In a 1951 film narration, Pollock stated “I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them” (Jackson Pollock, Chipp’s note 546). Pollock presented us with a double image of himself as a painter who was inside his painting and who walked around it; he flung paint, as emotion dripped from his stir stick. He also added, “I can control the flow of the paint” (546). Pollock’s dual location (inside and outside) suggested that he felt he was simultaneously a “part of” his painting and a “part of” his audience. Pollock’s lack of awareness, and his ability to control the paint, may have seemed contradictory at first: however, these statements could have been intended as a further indication of his dual location.

The “performative” aspect of Pollock’s work was emphasized in both the article he wrote and by his participation in the film. Artists like Jiro Yoshihara, Georges Mathieu and Allan Kaprow saw the potential for performance in Pollock’s actions and gestures (Stiles 680-682). Each of these artists, working independently, developed theories about visual art forms that no longer relied on paint, canvas and other materials used by traditional artists. Ordinary objects and simple actions were “elevated” to the substance of visual art, not just the subjects represented by art (Stiles 679-681).

Kaprow said, in a 1966 interview with Richard Kostelanetz, regarding Pollock’s influence on his work: “His practice of being “in” his work was a metaphor, however, once the painting was finished. I wanted to keep that relationship real and constant” (Qtd in Kostelanetz 108). Kaprow wanted to extend the gestic moment of the artist “inside” the work of art; this extension “blurred” or perhaps collapsed the distinction between art and life. Kaprow kept the process and eliminated the product. He said “…its model is life; but as a painting is not a model, so a Happening is not life” (Ibid.124). Two years earlier he wrote, in his “Untitled Guidelines for Happenings”:  “The line between art and life should be kept as fluid and perhaps indistinct, as possible” [his emphasis] (Stiles 709). Kaprow saw the possibility of blurring the line between life and art, but balked at its erasure.

Artists from many different disciplines began to experiment with these new forms. Each artist applied a different name to describe his “happening,” “event,” “fluxus,” or “actions.” Some artists, like Kaprow, wrote elaborate sets of rules, conditions or plans that added a teleological dimension to their work. Georges Mathieu, a “situationist,” wrote what he called “a phenomenology of painting.” He stressed three main points: “speed in execution,” “improvisation,” and a “subliminal state of mind” (or “a certain state of ecstasy”) (Stiles 701-702).

Around 1973, critics began to use the generic label “performance art” to describe these diverse events for convenience, not for greater precision (Stiles 680). Many artists resisted the term “performance art,” because it failed to adequately reflect their personal and sociopolitical aspirations. Some artists felt that they were unfairly associated with the theater and “entertainment” (680). Most serious discussions of Performance Art have begun with the admission that it can not be precisely defined. Recently, some artists have insisted by shortening “Performance Art” to “Performance,” they have adequately defined their work, or that they have made the term their own.

We use “performance art,” informally, to refer to live presentations by artists (Goldberg 12). We stipulate that these artists use their bodies and ordinary objects as the “material of visual art” (Stiles 679). In a more formal sense, we use the word performance and its etymological origin to launch a discussion of Aristotle.

Victor Turner, in From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play reminds us that the word “performance” is derived from the Old French word parfournir, “to complete” (13, 91). That a performance is expected to be complete is a very old idea. It is this idea that leads back to Ancient Greece and to Aristotle’s definition of tragedy which, he says should be “complete and of a certain length” (Kaufmann 33). Walter Kaufmann, in Tragedy and Philosophy, after much deliberation, relates that for Aristotle, tragedy excites feelings of “ruth” and “dread,” and then provides us with a “sobering” or “pleasurable relief” from a “sense of profound suffering, approximating terror” (33-52).

The average Ancient Greek had a fatalistic outlook. In his myths, even the Olympian gods had to answer to the Fates. Tragedy and all of the other institutions of the Ancient Greek civilization, stood against a backdrop of Chaos. The sobering, pleasurable

relief or catharsis that Aristotle prescribed for the Greek theatergoers, was an escape from Chaos and a return to an ordered life. Kaufmann called Aristotle’s idea of catharsis, as applied to tragedy, “the most suggestive idea in his book” (51). Catharsis was after all, a medical term.

Like the Greek tragedian, the performance artist of the twentieth century faced annihilation, perhaps especially those who worked after the Second World War. For performers in the late twentieth century, the doom they encountered sometimes had a name or a face attached to it: Hitler; Stalin; Hiroshima; Nagasaki; Viet Nam; the Cold War; the Bomb; AIDS. All of these names summoned potent images of immanent death and destruction. Performance art arose as the artists’ reaction to what they perceived as the meaninglessness of existence, as they stared into a void. Fro the Futurists’ sintesi, to Frank Moore’s “Rocking and Wrapping” rituals, performance artists wanted to rattle the foundation of social acquiescence.

Performance artists chose a variety of methods for their message; the underlying meaning remained the same: Death waits! David Zinder made a similar point in The Surrealist Connection: An Approach to a Surrealist Aesthetic of Theatre. Zinder confined his comparison of “a Dance of Death: to Dada performance (35). Much of the rest of his argument was based on the premise that contemporary performance found deep roots in Surrealism. Whereas the latter inherited from Dada its preoccupation with “presentism;” and since, despite their “fundamental, philosophical differences,” the “means they employed” were “strikingly similar” (85). It may be inferred that the Surrealist’s message was preoccupied with thoughts of death as well.

Earlier in his text Zinder all but erased these “fundamental, philosophical differences” when he quoted Andre Breton: “It is inadmissible that a man should leave a trace of his passage on the earth” (35). Breton apparently wanted to be a leading Dadaist, before he helped to found Surrealism. As Zinder noted, the quote was from Breton’s “Two Dada Manifestoes” (Zinder 141). Zinder wrote that the Surrealists rejected the negativity of the Dadaists (33-35); but perhaps, when they faced death Breton and the Surrealists simply turned and looked the other way.

Earlier in the section, we located in the art of Jackson Pollock a performative ecstasy and the healing catharsis that Aristotle insinuated as the function of tragedy. Given Pollock’s history as a manic-depressive and alcoholic, he perhaps tried (and ultimately failed) to heal himself. Pollock’s influence on other artists nonetheless, started to collapse the distinction between artist and audience. In Pollock’s work we encountered the genesis of post-modern performance art set against the abyss of death. We have imagined him in an ecstatic, gestic moment seeking cathartic relief for his, and our own anxieties.

We have noted the performative quality inherent in Pollock’s work; and that he equated art making with ritual. Pollock’s ecstatic displacement allowed him to stand both inside and outside his painting. In short, the gestic moment of action painting became the theoretical model for the origin of performance art.  In much the same manner, the definitions of ecstasy and catharsis are set into a framework that will help to unpack performance art and to ventilate the academy of interdisciplinary writing about it.

Annie Sprinkle has been a performance artist since January of 1984. Before her performance at the Franklin Furnace  with Carnival Knowledge, Sprinkle was a prostitute, “porn” star and exotic dancer (“Retrospect”). Sprinkle has referred to herself as a “sex-positive” Feminist and a “Post-Porn Modernist.” She has written of that first show that it was “fantastic therapy” (“Retrospect”). After this first performance, she launched a career as a performance artist.

In 1985 Richard Schechner invited her to perform her burlesque show “Nurse Sprinkle’s Sex Education,” as a part of his Prometheus Project. Journalists and academics alike noticed Sprinkle’s performances; she was “firmly established in the art world” (“Story”). The “many docu-dramas” she made during the period that followed mirrored Sprinkle’s “shift from porn to art.” She toured her show Post-Porn Modernist from 1989 through 1995 in the United States and Europe. The two most controversial “sequences” of the show were “Public Cervix Announcement” and her climactic “Masturbation Ritual” (“Story”).

Cynthia Carr witnessed Sprinkle’s performance of “A public Cervix Announcement” in May of 1989, at the “Little Red Harmony Burlesque Theater” (174). Carr set the scene as “swarming and buzzing with sex radicals, sex buffs, camera buffs, and the plain old curious” (174). She wrote about the event in the even tones that betrayed a quiet sense of disbelief. She seemed neither to be impressed nor appalled; she was perhaps distantly amused:

A female assistant (dressed as a man) helped Sprinkle with the speculum. There Annie sat, legs spread, inviting the audience to peek inside her with the aid of a flashlight (176).

She concluded, “…to look inside someone’s body is to see too much” (176). Carr suggested that Sprinkle’s performance had “transcended sexuality”: “body interiors aren’t sexy” (176). The audience’s sexuality was transcended not Sprinkle’s. “Annie Sprinkle” as an “object of desire” was juxtaposed to a “cervix” as an “object of desire.” What should have been a sexually provocative performance was turned into a medical procedure performed by one “professional” and many amateurs. The performance was an ecstatic displacement of the audience’s expectations; in place of those expectations, the artist left a dour denunciation of lechery.

Rebecca Schneider, writes in The Explicit Body in Performance, “…I would argue that sexuality is not at all transcended in Sprinkle’s collapse of the binary distinction between public and private” (76). Schneider’s prose is riddled with a near-mad conflation of Barthes’ and Foucault’s liberation of authority from the author; Panofsky’s monograph on perspective; the Sartrian “stare”; and the stiff-bristled brush of feminist Hegelian dialectic. A long quote will serve to prove this point:

Rather, Sprinkle’s “too much” exposes sexuality as indivisible from social issues of vulnerability and power inscribed in ways of seeing. It is this provocation, not her actual cervix, that might be read as “too much.” It is the politicized link [her emphasis] she is making explicit between sexuality, vulnerability, and power that is “hardly able to be seen”—out of bounds of vision for a society habituated to maintaining “perspective” by maintaining distinctions between sexuality and politics, nature and culture, or porn and art (77).

The simpler model we proposed above is probably closer to the artist’s intent. Sprinkle sees her life in two parts: as a “multi-media whore” and as a “post-porn modernist performance artist.” She likes the “nicer,” “art-world audiences” better than the “guys who ran the burlesques” (Retrospect). Whereas she once was the object consumed, she has moved her audience to a comprehensive of her deeper concerns.

Sprinkle offered another, more visceral archetype of ecstasy in her masturbation ritual. She described her costume for the ritual as “a topless and bottomless” “dress,” copied from a “granite statue of a Sun priestess.” Her stage was “transformed into an altar,” with candles and “a copper bowl containing ghee and dried cow dung.” To her right she had a tray of objects that included several dildos and “a tireless, strong, battery-operated vibrator” (Legend). Sprinkle wrote that the purpose of the ritual was to put her into an ecstatic state, once in this altered state she then communicated with or “[brought] prayers to” the “Divine” (Legend).

Exotic music, dramatic lighting, and vigorous rattle shaking (performed by audience members) accompanied Sprinkle’s performance. In later accounts of the ritual, Sprinkle played down the importance of whether or not she achieved orgasm. She wrote, “…the primary goal of ritual is about learning and teaching, about provoking thoughts and feelings” (Legend). Sprinkle certainly was provocative; she noted that the ritual was either the “most loved” or “most hated” part of the show. In the conclusion of her article she called the performance her “most important work to date” (Legend). In a caption beneath a photo from a 1990 performance of the ritual, Rosalie Goldberg called Sprinkle a “heroine of emancipation” (141).

Karl Toepfer wrote extensively about the idea of performative ecstasy in the context of the theater. One of the functions of ecstasy, he wrote, is the “…release of the spectator from social norms…”(37). Both of the sequences of Post-Porn Modernist, described above, located this phenomenon. In “Public Cervix Announcement” the audience was denied their expectation of a transgressive sexually provocative performance. In the “Masturbation Ritual,” the audience voyeuristically looked on as they shook their rattles.

Normally the audience in the theater stays passively in their seats while the “performance” takes place. Here Sprinkle allows the audience to become performers and transgressors. This also becomes part of what Kaprow has described as the “myth-making” process that attends performance art (qut. in Kostelanetz 118). It is not just the audience’s participation that “releases” them from social norms, it is the stories they will tell after the performance. Kaprow explains: “If it catches on –if for some reason it has its finger on the pulse of everybody’s needs—then there is some kind of magic attached to that” (118).

In her “Masturbation Ritual,” Sprinkle used microphones to amplify the sounds of her body as a part of the “musical score” (Legend). The amplification of her breathing and other bodily noises served as a way to make the performance more intimate. The “blurred” line between performer and audience was more mental or emotional, than physical or dimensional. Still the performance was, arguably, more ecstatic and held more potential for catharsis, than “A Public Cervix Announcement.”

Toepfer wrote of the origin of Greek drama as a patriarchal reaction to the ecstatic revelries of the maenads. Their rites of orgia were practiced in secret, they required ecstatic union with the male “earth god” Dionysos (21-27). Toepfer argues that ecstasy is a cultic phenomenon and that catharsis is an institutionalized substitute. He reasons further, that language and dialogue were introduced as a part of theatrical performance to foster a greater sense of Greek identity and social unity (118).

The cult of Dionysos was largely a foreign import from the East. The cult favored the suppression of an individual’s emotions and the ecstatic pursuit of union with the god. The cult also stressed Divine concerns over human (male) needs (Toepfer 118). Catharsis then, is seen as “civilizing,” “assimilating” or as confirming our membership in society. Ecstasy is “anti-social,” “exclusive” and secretive. The power of ecstatic ritual to transform is available only for the few who are initiated into its cult. Catharsis on the other hand, is available to all that are willing to be “civilized” by it (118).

Annie Sprinkle’s Post-Porn Modernist situated her with one foot on the winepresses and hillsides of Ancient Greece that predated Greek Drama, and one foot on the threshold of apocalyptic, post-modern performance art. She was not alone; her work followed in the footsteps of, or alongside that of artists Carolee Schneeman (Eye/Body, 1963; Fuses,1964-65; Interior Scroll, 1975), Karen Finley (Constant State of Desire, 1987; A Certain Level of Denial, 1995) and Ann Magnuson (You Could be Home Now, 1992) (Schneider 52-65, 72-125).

Toepfer writes about a link between “ecstatic feelings” and an “impulsive toward theatricalization of action, toward the impersonation of ‘another’” (11). This latter element of the rather cumbersome “impulse” is accomplished through the “appropriation of another body” (11). Toepfer concludes that this “appropriation” is an “erotic act” (11). To be ecstatically displaced, outside one’s self is to see one’s self as “completely other” (11). Toepfer adds that this state of complete ecstasy is rare. Perhaps the most useful way to use the term is metaphorically or in an analogy.

Torgovnick made a similar point. She noted that the word has a “spiritual register” and a “commonly perceived sexual register” (14-15). The meaning of the latter can be read associatively, as a positive or negative on a spectrum that ranges from “an expression of eros or life force” to “a state of excess, frenzy and potential violence” (14-15). Annie Sprinkle in her performance and in later comments, attempted to combine the “expression of eros” with the “spiritual register” in her performance of an ecstatic gesture. Although Torgovnick sees also a potential for violence that attends the ecstatic moment, and actual violence (real, imagined and as it is performed) that are cathartic as well.


In The Theater and its Double, Antonin Artaud wrote of his visions of a theater capable of the transformation of society and the restoration of “all the arts” (80). Artaud  urged that there should be “an analogy between a gesture made in painting or the theater, and a gesture made by lava in a volcanic explosion…” (80). For Artaud, both the actor and the spectator should leave the theater exhausted. Artaud saw catharsis as an “extreme purification” (31). He compared the theater to the plague, and saw both as “a crisis which is resolved by death or cure” (31). In his “Theater of Cruelty the spectator is in the center and the spectacle surrounds him” (81).

Much has been written about Artaud’s influence on the artists who performed in the sixties. Although Artaud never fully realized his theater of cruelty, his writings were widely read and discussed. Kostelanetz cited Artaud’s influence on mainstream “literary theatre” as well as what he called the Theater of Mixed Means (25). Claes Oldenberg and Ken Dewey in their interviews with Kostelanetz, mention Artaud as well (135-137, 179). John Cage mentioned Artaud, obliquely in a lecture prepared for the Composers Concourse in London as early as October of 1954 (Cage 146, 187).

Eric Sellin wrote in his “Preface” to The Dramatic Concepts of Antonin Artaud (1968) that Artaud’s “influence” was “so widespread and so vague as to be inestimable” (vii). Sellin prescribed a separate study that could “establish its own critical norms. Naomi Greene, in Antonin Artaud: Poet Without Words, responded to those who may have “overrated” Artaud’s influence on the artist’s of the sixties, “Artaud’s metaphysical aspirations…are completely lacking in today’s happenings” (220). Green saw the reasons that his influence on theater was inflated were first, many of his ideas were not new; second that his theater was “essentially unrealizable” (220). She reminded us “…above all, Artaud was a poet who wrote about the theater” [her emphasis] (220).

Green implied too, that much of Artaud’s appeal for the (mostly) young artists and performers of the sixties was his use of drugs like laudanum and peyote. She posited that Artaud was reguarded as a “kindred spirit by this alienated segment of society” (221). Artaud’s use of laudanum and chloral hydrate, were at least in part, an attempt to get relief from massive headaches that plagued him from his youth. Bettina Knapp reported in her biography Antonin Artaud: Man of Vision, that later in his life he turned to these drugs for relief from inoperable cancer (197).

In his works, life, and death, Antonin Artaud emerged as a tragic figure. As he once told his friend Andre Masson: “It is I who will play Artaud” (qtd. in Green 22). The sentence betrayed an inherent sense of the theatricality of life, and of Artaud’s life in particular. Artaud was a man at war with God and Society, in his writing and his lectures. He was also a man tormented by headaches and mental instability.

He suffers and struggles against unrelenting cosmic powers. “Everything that acts is a cruelty” ( Double 85). For Artaud, cruelty is a metaphysical power. “When the hidden god creates, he obeys the cruel necessity of creation which has been imposed on himself by himself, and he cannot not create…” [Emphasis his] (102). He writes, “Good is always upon the outer face, but the face within is evil” (104). Even when evil is “reduced” and eventually defeated by good, the cosmos collapses into chaos (104).

Artaud‘s Gnosticism is more than adequately addressed by Jane Goodall in her Artaud and the Gnostic Drama. She compares Artaud to the heretics of the second century of the Common Era (16-18). She argues of Artaud’s Gnostic beliefs, that he “conceives them, extends them and ultimately rebels against them” (17). Artaud’s underlying philosophy or theology is of less interest here, than the goals he set for his theater. Goodall stylishly conjoins Artaud’s theater with his personality in what she terms his “profoundly adversarial self-obsession” (18).

The goal he expressed repeatedly for his theater was what he sought for himself, an “extreme purification.” It must be noted first, that in a theater that is “essentially unrealizable,” catharsis can never be achieved. Artaud’s earlier formulation pronounced that theater offered either a “cure or death.” As he collapsed the distinction between his life and his theater, the “cure” and “death” were one and the same. Clayton Eschleman wrote in his introduction to Watchfiends and Rack Screams: Works from the Final Period,  the gardener at the Hospice at Ivry found Artaud;s body. Artaud was seated at the foot of his bed, holding his shoe in his hand (37).

That Artaud believed that death was merely release from this life into a “real” but “separated” existence, was confirmed by his friend Maurice Saillet in his “In Memoriam: Antonin Artaud” (147-159). Saillet wrote, “he attempt[ed], by means of the theatre to escape his own performance” (152).  Saillet quoted Artaud, “Speaking for myself, I can honestly say that I am not in the world, and that such a statement is not merely an intellectual attitude” (150). Catharsis in theatrical performance, for Artaud was a “turning back” to the “other side of existence” (151). Saillet might have read this as death and the ultimate release, Artaud did not.

There is quiet speculation that Artaud committed suicide. His monograph on the van Gogh exhibit of 1947 (“Van Gogh: The Man Suicided by Society”) is sometimes cited as coincidence. His use of Chloral Hydrate is suspicious as well; it often caused him to lapse into semi-comatose states. Artaud was a man in grave pain. He was released from the asylum at Rodez in 1946; he gave a disastrous and pathetic performance at the View-Columbier in 1947; and in 1948, the year of his death, his radio play To End God’s Judgement was rejected.

Sellin wrote that Artaud’s concepts of catharsis how it could be achieved “to some extent repeated those of Aristotle” (96). Sellin also maintained that the “means” by which catharsis could be achieved for Artaud, differed from Aristotle “on several major points” (96). As Kaufmann related, Aristotle’s audience could have received equal enjoyment whether they read or saw a play (52-53).  Sellin noted that Artaud sought to induce catharsis through the production of “the effigy or simulation of disaster on stage” (97).

Sellin identified a “threshold” in Artaud’s writing, “beyond which the ideas became rarefied” (101). Yet Sellin underrated a similar threshold as described by Artaud: “beneath the poetry of the texts there is poetry pure and simple, without shape and without text” (Qtd. in Sellin 94). Sellin added, “The revelation of this agent or element to the audience via the dramatic experience would ideally produce the transfiguration of which Artaud speaks” (94). Artaud offered a sense of “poetry pure and simple, without shape and without text” in the poetry he created. His poetry is rife with puns, slang and words he has improvised through what Goodall termed his “virtuoso exercises in misprision” and “hermeneutic ingenuity” (7).

Artaud deflated language; he may have as Sellin suggested, treated words like objects (88) or perhaps as “performers.” Artaud may have believed that the more he deflated the structure of words and conflated their sounds and meanings, the closer he brought his reader to the threshold beyond the text. Naomi Greene made a similar point. She analyzed some of his later poems and noted the violence and sexual content Artaud infused them with. She noted also that Artaud included bits of incantations from Egypt and Assyria. She concluded, in part that, “Artaud’s conviction that language is ‘real’” was “obviously related to his desire to make words coincide with concrete physical being” (211).

Greene wrote in 1970 and some of her translations may have suffered from a certain academic modesty. Eschleman published his translations in 1995, and he no doubt had the benefit of writers like Greene, Knapp, Sellin and others, and their works. Some corroboration has been found for the idea that Artaud used his words as “performers” in what may be described as a cathartic ritual. Eschleman’s translation made a more compelling case when seen in contrast to Greene’s:

And you had to beat, belly against

Belly, each mother who wanted to penetrate

Pussy prison into owner-pussy

In the rebellious bloodless tube

As in the center of the panacea:

Pussy prison and owner pussy

Are the two filthy words

That mother and father have


To enjoy him as much as possible

[Italics are hers]  (Greene 199-200)

This same passage, taken from a section of Artaud le Momo in the original French, contained many slang expressions and puns that Green has unpacked then rendered into English (199). Eschleman undertook the same task twenty-five years later:

And it was crucial belly to belly bang

Each mother who wanted to penetrate

Pussy-toady on Boss-pussy

Into the insurgent exsanguine tube

As at the center

Of the panacea:

Pussy-toady and boss pussy

Are the two sluttish vocables

That Father and Mother


To get the crudest pleasure out of him

(Watchfiends 113).

Greene’s translation is perhaps somewhat too literal. “Pussy prison into Owner-Pussy”. The line in French read “Chatte mitte en patron-minet” (199). She explained that a “Chattemite” referred to a “person who is sweet and gentle in appearance only.” Artaud split the word because “chatte” is slang for “the female sex (the pussy)”, and “mite” denoted an insect and was slang for “prison” (200). Eschleman noted that a “chattemite: was a “sanctimonious person, a ‘toady’” (337). Both agreed that “minet” meant “pussy”; Greene rendered “patron” as “owner” and Eschleman chose “boss”; thus Eschleman reads the line “Pussy-toady on Boss pussy” (Watchfiends 113).

Both translations expressed the approximate relationship between the two “actors,” that doubled the mother and father mentioned later in the poem. “Pussy-prison” was not expressive of a person so much as it was of an anatomical trap. Given the parallel structure established by Artaud, the hyphenate was overly deflated. “Pussy-toady” and “boss pussy” described the relationship between the tow actors and hints at their personalities as well.

Artaud perverted relations between men and women twice. He may have seen pussy toady as feminine and boss pussy as a feminized masculine, then he inverted the traditional sexual position as they banged together (belly to belly) “pussy-toady on boss pussy” [emphasis mine]. Artaud further complicated the roles played in the scenario when he referenced them as “deux vocables salauds” (Greene 199, Watchfiends 112). Greene read “two filthy words” (200) and Eschleman, “two sluttish vocables” (113).  [We will carry this analysis a little further, and then I will stop saying pussy altogether because I sense that I’m making some of you nervous. I think though that at least from a dramaturgical point of view—or as a director staging a scene—or as an actor involved in the scene as it is being staged—who may have to say words like “pussy” or “dick” or whatever—we should get to a reasonable explanation of why this is important to the script and to the author.]

“Vocables” it might be argued, could be ‘voiced’ but were not fully words. That they may be “sluttish” implied that they might have done anything or perhaps meant anything. They were deflated even as “mother” and “father” “invented” them. They were primitive and belonged to the chaotic and cathartic realm, the realm beneath or beyond the text. They doubled “mother and father” and banged belly to belly “at the other side of existence”; yet they issued no progeny. They were after all, both “pussies.” I think that both Greene and Eschleman are being too literal and not really thinking about what Artaud is “inventing”. Perhaps his “vocables” are the creatures of the Mother and Father or generative principle of the Gnostic Godhead. But they are “sluttish” and “filthy” mockeries of the originals—barely “banging” in pale imitation of the originals. They are little more than their functions. And that I think is the key to translating his slang. We must remember that slang is a kind of poetic language that doesn’t literalize—it symbolizes. Both of the vocables “act” in the scene: they bang together. One of them is passive and insincere, the other active and “bossy” –yet in some sense they are both alike to the point, perhaps where it is difficult to tell which is which and who is who?

Artaud is inventing two new terms of derision for these “vocables” that are closely related, but they are losing meaning or identity even as they are drawn into focus. This is because their meaning is all about their function. The dependent sycophant is not a “pussy-toady” but a “pussy-lackey” or even “pussy-licker”; the more dominant partner or part of the pairing (Gnosticism requires pairings of opposites, but these have become “salaud” or execrable) is a “pussy-bully” or “pussy-pumper”. Throughout the Cahier’s Artaud’s language is explicit when he is making a point, and I believe he is making a point here. Because French is one of those languages where the adjectives and nouns they modify can sometimes tumble around each other to effect different shades of meaning, we might render the pair as “the licking-pussy” and “the pumping-pussy” to make his point even more explicitly.

For Artaud, in his devastating vision, the Mother and Father of the Godhead have created only these execrable vocables of themselves, and that these are disintegrating even as they are invented. He tells us that they have done this to “get the crudest pleasure out of him”. Artaud fears, that in his Gnostic universe, one that requires that he too has a “double” that his double will be execrable as well; a mere “exsanguine tube”. So to extend the analysis from the above discussion, the execrable vocable into which he is disintegrating (or by which he is “doubled”) is a “rebellious bloodless tube.” Here again, I think the scholars have translated the words very literally we all know what a “rebellious bloodless tube” would refer to in this context. But because Artaud has included the phrase as an interjection, Greene and Eschleman have misplaced is as something related to the two pussies—it’s what Artaud is fearing will happen to him—mother and father are reduced to “licking” and “pumping” pussies, without a penis between them—he is to be reduced to “an exsanguinated tube”:  or perhaps a “misbehaving, deflated dick” (or maybe “pee-pee” because of the infantilized language that appears in related passages, and throughout the cahiers; and of course because “Mother and Father” are to “derive the crudest pleasure” from him—they are going to make fun of him! ).

Artaud’s vision of the Theater of Cruelty is ambiguous at best. His influence on performance artists in particular, and on artists in general I think came about not only because of his drug use, but because his art and poetry are intensely personal. Sometimes I think that his art is so personal, that we should somehow be ashamed to read it, let alone to hear it or to see it performed. It is I suppose what Cynthia Carr meant when she said, “to look inside someone is to see too much.”





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—. Watchfiends and Rackscreams: Works from the Final Period. Ed. and Trans. By Clayton Eschleman with Bernard Bador. Boston: Exact Change, 1995.

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Sprinkle, Annie. “The Legend of the Ancient Sacred Prostitute.” (1998) n. pg. Anniesprinkle.org. August 8, 2003. <http://www.anniesprinkle.org/html/writings/onstage.html>

—. “My Performances in Retrospect.” (2003) n. pg. Anniesprinkle.org. August 9, 2003. <http://www.anniesprinkle.net/html/writings/retrospect.html>

Stiles, Kristine and Peter Selz, eds. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press: 1996.

Toepfer, Karl. Theatre, Aristocracy and Pornocracy: The Orgy Calculus. New York: PAJ Publishing, 1991.

Torgovnick, Marianna. Primitive Passions: Men, Women, and the Quest for Ecstasy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Turner, Victor. From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. New York: PAJ Publications, 1982.








Posted on March 27, 2011, 12:42 am By
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