My Dinner with Andre Part II: Andre in Poland, “I Could Always Live in my Art, but Never in My Life.”

In Life as Lived, My Dinner With Andre on April 25, 2009 at 8:52 pm

M. Standfast, Kyoto

imageWhen we left off, Wally was just arriving at the fancy restaurant to which Andre had invited him. While Andre seems quite comfortable in his immediate surroundings throughout the film, he has not been well; in fact it is clear that he has experienced a prolonged period of painful self-questioning. Wally tells us in the voice-over that he re-connected with Andre only after a mutual friend (George Grassfield) found Andre weeping in the street:

George had been out walking his dog in some odd section of town when he had suddenly come upon a solitary man leaning against a crumbling building, sobbing uncontrollably. Well, George was about to walk by rapidly, as one does in New York, when he suddenly realized that the man was Andre {…} Andre explained to him that he’d been watching the Igmar Bergman movie Autumn Sonata about twenty-five blocks away, and he’d been seized by a fit of ungovernable crying when the character played by Ingrid Bergman had said, “I could always live in my art, but never in my life” (19).

It turns out that a few years previously Andre had lost the ability to “live in his art,” and began to struggle with living his life as well. Wally meets Andre, they embrace (“I remember, when I first started working with Andre’s company, I couldn’t get over the way actors would hug when they greeted people. ‘Now I’m really in the theater’, I thought” (20)) and move to the bar. Wally tells Andre that he looks “terrific” to which Andre responds “Well, thank you. I feel terrible” (20).

This exchange is a touchstone for the entire film, and also stands as a joke that can only be appreciated after seeing the whole film as the issue between how we read the surface expressions of our friends or lovers and how surface impressions often mask deeper issues and problems pervades the film. The exchange also indicates the shallowness of Wally’s observation of Andre at this point in the film, and his desire to simply get through the evening, even if this requires a reliance on cliche. Wally’s uncertainty about the state of his friendship with Andre and the state of the evening leads him to fall back on his “secret profession” as a private investigator. He begins to question Andre about his experiences and Andre begins his tale, which, from the very beginning, oscillates between profundity and absurdity, and between self-knowledge and self-pity.

About five years previous Andre had been invited to Poland to teach a workshop by a fellow director Jerzy Grotowski. He didn’t want to go “because, really, I had nothing left to teach. I had nothing left to say. I didn’t know anything. I couldn’t teach anything. Exercises meant nothing to me anymore. Working on scenes from plays seemed ridiculous. I didn’t know what to do” (22). Grotowski tells Andre to ask for anything he’d like as an attempt to lure him, and Andre responds: “If you could give me forty Jewish women who spoke neither English nor French, either women who have been in the theater for a long time and want to leave it but don’t know why, or young women who love the theater but have never seen a theater they could love, and if these women could play the trumpet or the harp, and if I could work in a forest, I’d come” (22). Grotowski can’t come up with forty Jewish women, but he comes close and finds forty women, plus some men, all of whom are questioning the theater and none of whom speak English. He also finds for Andre a forest which is populated by only “some wild boar and a hermit” (23). Andre agrees to go to Poland.

What we see here is that Andre, unable to live in his life or his art, is looking to get out of his comfort zone; he courts discomfort and discombobulation. He is, in short, a seeker. Once in the forest, Andre is adrift: “technically, of course, technically, the situation was a very interesting one, because if you find yourself in a forest with a group of forty people who don’t speak your language, then all your moorings are gone” (24). This potentially scary situation forces the participants back onto themselves in the absence of familiar structure, organization, hierarchy, or character. Andre likens what occurred in the forest to improvisation, but “in this case you’re the character, so you have no imaginary situation to hide behind. What you’re doing, in fact, is asking those questions that Stanislavski said that the actor should constantly ask himself as a character–Who am I? Why am I here? Where do I come from? and Where am I going?–but instead of applying them to a role, you apply them to yourself” (25-26).

And indeed the first three quarters of the film is primarily dedicated to the story of Andre’s travels as he tries to answer precisely these questions. The Polish episode, which lasts for several minutes in the film and several pages in the script, has two parts; Andre attends a “beehive” in town and then decamps to the forest with his “workshop”. Grotowski tells Andre about the beehive which Andre decides to attend. Grotowski then asks Andre to lead the beehive: “And I got very nervous, you know, and I said, ‘Well, what is a beehive?’ And he said, ‘Well, a beehive is, at eight o’clock a hundred strangers come into a room.’ And I said, ‘Yes?’ And he said, ‘Yes, and then whatever happens is a beehive” (27).

The beehive begins with a women singing a song of St. Francis and the hundred strangers join in; when this runs its course Andre breaks up the activity. One woman in the group had brought a teddy bear, and Andre uses the bear as a means of breaking the frame of the beehive. The way he describes his action is revealing, and leads us into the main point of this post: “Now there is, of course, as in any improvisation or a performance, an instinct for when it’s going to get boring. So, at a certain point, but I think it may have taken an hour to get there, or an hour and a half, I suddenly grabbed this teddy bear and threw it into the air” (29-30). The singing ends, and the group re-forms into two circles doing a rhythmic dance; the teddy bear flies around the room; Andre “{gives} the teddy bear suck” (31); and a number of people cluster around some candles. “I felt in that moment I could go with my own impulse, you know, and follow my impulse instead of trying to be aware of the whole thing–I saw that Grotowski had his hand right in the flame and was holding it there {…} and I wondered if I could do it” (32-33). Andre succeeds in keeping his left hand, but not his right hand, in the flame, and in due time, the beehive having gone well, Andre wants to wrap it up. Again, he uses the word impulse: “My impulse is that if the show’s been good–get out and leave them laughing” (33). But what differs with this performance is that the participants won’t leave at any determined time, but rather “the farewell took two hours, at least, because nobody left until they had a true impulse to leave” (34).

In the span of just a few minutes, Andre uses the word “impulse” four separate times. People leave the beehive at their own speed and on their own terms, and for Andre, in retrospect, this seems to have been the point of the exercise: “You see, also we’re talking about trying to find the truthful impulse, to not do what you should do or ought to do or what is expected of you, but trying to find what it is that you really want to do or need to do or have to do” (34).

The whole discussion of Poland, the beehive, and the forest is predicated upon Andre’s insecurity and inability to live either in his art or in his life. Thus, he is seeking some kind of liminal band where art and life meet and in which authentic action can be achieved. The key point here is that this liminal band, this performance space on the margins of art, where art bleeds into life and vice versa, is very much a constructed space. Andre is aware of this, and introduces the beehive explicitly as a type of performance: “I remember watching people preparing for this evening, and of course there was no makeup, there were no costumes, but it was exactly the way people prepare for a performance. You know, people sort of taking off their jewelry and their watches and stowing them away and making sure it’s all secure” (29). Likewise, at the end of the evening “everyone put on their earrings and their wristwatches and went off to the railroad station to drink a lot of beer and have a good dinner” (35). Presumably, over dinner and drinks the beehivers reverted to their “normal,” non-performative selves; after all, they were wearing their jewelry and their watches.

The point here is that although Andre’s account of the beehive suggests something both exciting and moving, the energy required to run the beehive, as well as the freedom required to act on impulse, are only made possible by the very artificiality of the scenario. The shedding of jewelry and watches is an indicator of the intentionality of the evening, a marker that tells us that the normal rules of daily life and human interactions will be suspended. So, while the beehive is not exactly theater, and not exactly performance, for most adults the impulse to throw teddy bears and hold one’s hands in candle flames can only be acted upon under deliberately constructed and constrained conditions. The challenge for Andre throughout his travels is how to “find the truthful impulse” within the context of everyday life.

Throughout the first three-quarters of the film Wally’s input into the conversation is limited almost entirely to “uh-huh,” “ha ha,” “God, really” and “So, what happened then?” We will see in a later post, however, that when Wally does become comfortable enough with the conversation he challenges Andre on exactly this point, asking if it is necessary to travel to the ends of the earth to have an authentic and “real” experience. Indeed, the issue of authenticity arises again and again throughout the film; one way that Andre and his group in Poland attempts to create authenticity is through ceremony. Ceremony, baptisms, mock funerals, sacraments, these are central features of “My Dinner with Andre,” and as Andre and his company prepare to leave the Polish forest his group engages in ceremony in order to celebrate his leadership: “On the final day in the forest the whole group did something so wonderful for me, Wally. They arranged a christening–a baptism–for me. And they filled the castle with flowers. And it was just a miracle of light, because they had set up literally hundreds of candles and torches. I mean, no church could have looked more beautiful” (36). One of the things which strikes me when watching the film is the extent to which Andre in his years of wandering seems to have depended on such ceremonial interludes–it is almost as if simple diurnal existence without explicit indexing of exceptionality and consecrated ceremony was not sufficient to satisfy his longing for authentic, meaningful experience.

So, where does this leave us? Certainly, we can relate to Andre’s desire to forge from ordinary experience a sense of life as sacrament and ceremony, can relate to the urge to transcend the mundanity of the daily grind, whether, as for Andre, this be embodied by “working on scenes” or by the routine of the office and one’s commute. But it is not as easy as all that. At the end of the film, Andre himself admits as much when he says: “I can imagine a life, Wally, in which each day would become an incredible, monumental creative task–a life in which everybody would just go with their impulses, all day long–they would just be themselves every moment, with others. And we’re not necessarily up to it” (109). But perhaps the problem lies deeper yet, and closer to the bone–the very strictures which Andre seeks to escape, those of form, of structure, of organizational reality, of hierarchy and deference, of repression of impulses and desires, these are what make social life in fact possible in the first place. Read thusly, Andre’s quest has about it an element of fundamental futility, of quixotic insistence on a purity of action that is unsustainable within the context of actual social life.

And yet, this is only one side of the argument. I fully understand the impulse behind the desire to act on impulse, understand as well the urge to create a space where anything goes, a space at once dangerous (in the range of actions that can be sanctioned by a sequestered zone which recognizes the viability of non-normal activity) and safe (in the fact that the other participants are trusted to remain “in-group,” and therefore to “behave” within the broadest definition of the term). When I was in university, some friends and I engineered an evening of “pants down.” Four of us sat around a friend’s dorm room sans trousers etc. and then attempted to act as normal as possible. One of us was gay. The exact rationale for the stunt now escapes me, but the general idea was to test to what degree pants were necessary for normal life to proceed. While nothing particularly memorable was said or done, the evening remains memorable: my primary memory is the initial frisson which accompanied the experiment–it felt like we were putting something on the line. Andre through the film suffers from a similar need to put himself on the line.

The trouble with authenticity and living on impulse is, simply, that one person’s authenticity is another’s callousness; one person’s impulse is another’s betrayal; one person’s honesty is another’s arrogance. Believe me on this last point, dear reader, for I know of what I write. Still, even for the more responsibly minded among us there are moments when the tissue which constrains our behavior within the realm of social acceptability begins to fray, and the liminal zone between life and art, between normality and some version of outre performance, may appear on our event horizon. In “My Dinner with Andre,” Andre moves from the intentional structuring of events in which the barrier between acceptable and bizarre may be broached, to simply ignoring this barrier altogether (see Part III of this series), and finally back to more class-appropriate activities such as telling tall tales of lost years over fine wines in a Manhattan restaurant. This is not to suggest, however, that Andre’s concerns are rendered in any way passe by the film–indeed the issues which his relentless self-questioning brings to bear haunt one past bedtime, and deep into the night.

* This post deals with pages 19-37 of the screenplay.

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