Interview with Ted Hughes Author of Orghast.
Ted Hughes’ voice has the lilting but solid quality of his native Yorkshire: quality which seems to reappear in his poetry with a mirror–like clarity and intensity. It’s not surprising that a poet of British (but not specifically English) heritage should want to experiment with pure sound, what is surprising is that he is the first to do so. (The only parallel I can think of is Michael McClure’s Ghost Tantras, mixtures of strong image–words with a made up “beast” language which also, interestingly makes extensive use of the GHR root). Whether Orghast is a success as a poetic–drama medium is a question raised by the majority of people who have seen the play, and even to a certain extent by Hughes himself. But that it is a powerfully beautiful collection of sounds, with a musical logic of their own, no one can deny. Certainly a great deal, if not all, of the essential structure of the play stems from the beauty of this tongue (which might be a better word than language) but also it cannot be denied that the obscurity, the failure in communicaion that some felt, must also be attributable to it.
Hughes emphasises that Orghast is a dramatic language; that is, it would not succeed in lyrical poetry, where it would be reduced to mere sound. In writing a poem, you follow language, or rather, language follows the poem: sound itself must be the vehicle for meaning. Theatre, however, adapts language to a system of action, it is applied language. As a matter of fact, Hughes and Brook started work on their mythological themes in English. Hughes found that, after having one successful scene, he had come up against a wall, a limit called “literature”; Brook then made the still unformed suggestion that he try an experiment in syllabic sound; nothing more. The first scene in the new language made its appearance, and the enthusiasm of the actors, their immediate grasping of the pure–theatre possibilities of the idea, brought about the decision to continue the process. In his version of Senecas Oedipus, he felt he had taken dramatic–english as far in a certain direction as he could take it. He describes it as bare, bald and brief, and completely imageless. When he tried to go further, all his attempts came out mere literature, distractions from the primordial content which had engaged him. A literary language, he felt, would cut the listener off from, for example, the depths of savagery expressed by the Japanese actor in his ‘murders’.
Orghast has a grammer, because it began to insist on it of its own volition (an experience known to artists in more than one context). The actors even pointed out to him certain regularities which he had not noticed. But, although the words do have, or began with, specific meanings, so that a scene written in english could be translated into Orghast, he was not out to construct a new esparanto. The roots of the words are fixed, Orghast is a strict series, but the vowels have been left free around it (He says that he finds that an actor treats the same root quite differently when it is written with 5 ‘E’s than when with 2). The existent languages he feels it most resembles are Gaelic, which looks dense and unpronouncably guttural when written, but is spoken very lightly; and the anglo–saxon dialect of the north of England, which in fact is guttural, even harsh, and is the source from which our language derives its characteristic strengths. English, he quotes someone as saying, is an Aristotelian rubbish–heap of unused and delightful possibilities; while French is Platonic, a language of perfect spheres. The French poets have paid for the perfection achieved by their writers of the past, with a despair as to where their language can possibly go. English is far from being in this fix, however. Orghast came out, not of any lack in the possibilities of English, but of the exigencies of the play Orghast.
The purpose of Orghast, play and language, is an inner transformation, an opening to a lost world which is the chosen realm of the I.C.T.R. [Brook’s International Centre for Theatre Research]. Music is already such a language, precise and mysterious. Like music, Orghast is at no point meant to engage the cerebration which cuts us off from this deeper world. Music is more sophisticated and evolved, however; imagine music buried for 5000 years, decayed back to its sources, then unearthed: this is the ideal of Orghast. It must lack the complexities of civilisation but belong to human beings at a basic level of experience. This is precisely the aspect of Orghast which makes it difficult to call it a language in the sense we know of, a system of fixed, semantic–symbolic references, reflections far removed from direct communication. Each word of it can shift as poetic image shifts, modifiable by setting. Another comparison, though not an equivalent, might be the mantra, in that both are magical attempts to by–pass the limitations of reason. Any word can be a mantra, even a trivial word, if it is spoken correctly. Avesta was such a language, having no practical use but being used solely for religious recitation and incantation. Orghast, like mantra, possesses a fixed system in order to open it to magic. Hughes admits that he studied the theory of magic in the past, and that those studies have to a certain extent come to fruition in Orghast.
When an actor is opened to different states of consciousness, this must be automatically communicated to the audience. Hughes, like Brook, admits that the play is not a complete success, since this process of transmission has by no means reached its limit; he also prefers to use the term ‘work–in–progress’. But he finds the play as produced cathartic, not in the sense of emotion aroused and purged, but in that the action takes the audience up a certain observed path of violence and ritual, ending in the meditation–in–the–dark, and resulting in a change of consciousness, a coming out different on the other side. (I experienced this as a purified calm; others may possibly have felt differently). The word “up” is very important in this context. Hughes and Brook are both interested in achieving transcendence and the total audience involvement of the Ta’zieh*, but are aware of the fact that no body of myth or material exists for modern man that would guarantee this possibility. Hughes says, and he is not joking, that one answer to this might be to have the audience live with the actors through the birth, growth and perfection of a play, for them to become in fact as integral to theatre itself as the players. In the absence of a tradition of really ultimate power to draw on, Orghast is yet very far from consisting of a break with tradition, rather, its purpose, and the work of the I.C.T.R. in general, is to discover what is alive, what is viable in tradition. In my opinion, such an ambition is the only one worth having in the theatre; and I would far rather see “work–in–progress” from Hughes and Brook than the most polished triviality just about anyone else is currently offering.
(Note: Mr Hughes was kind enough to lend me a copy of his latest book, Crow. Unfortunately we haven’t enough space to reproduce any of it here, but for anyone interested in finding clues to the motive behind Orghast, I recommend especially ‘The Battle of Osfrontalis’, and ‘Crow Goes Hunting’).
*Ta’zieh: meaning comfort, condolence. In Persian cultural reference, a kind of “condolence theatre”: a drama inspired by historical or religious events, conveyed wholly through music and song and often based on heroic tales of love, sacrifice and resistance to evil.