Antonio Díaz-Florián

2007 - El bufón trágico andino y su tocayo europeo - A. Díaz-Florián.
2004 - El Corral de Comedias en compañía del Caballero de Olmedo - A. Díaz-Florián.
2004 - La Cartoucherie: une aventure théâtrale - Joël Cramesnil. (extractos del libro en francés)
2000 - Teatro Latinoamericano: Entrevista Díaz-Florián - Osvaldo Obregón.
1991 - Tamerlan: The beauty of the Resistible Tyrant. - Brian Singleton.


Article by Brian Singleton.
Oxford University Press in association with the International Federation for Theatre Research.
Volume 16 - Number 2 - Summer 1991.
Pgs. : 83-108.

The Beauty of the Resistible Tyrant :
Tamerlan at the Theatre de l'Epee de Bois

Brian Singleton

"The Theatre de l'Epee de Bois offers Free Training in Actor's Workshop", reads the announcement each year in Libération. The response is minimal. Of the four thousand actors in Paris at any one time, few will apply.

The workshop offers on-site training for theatre apprentices and most students and experienced actors decline. Of those who attend, few will have the constitution necessary to withstand the mental and physical demands required of those subsequently engaged for production, let alone be prepared for a ten-month rehearsal period, twelve hours a day, unpaid. The Épée de Bois is more than just a theatre company, it is also a school, and a way of life.

Since Jacques Copeau's Theatre du Vieux-Colombier (1913) there has been a host of theatre-cum-schools in France, all sharing a common aim of training both the actor and the man. Copeau's school trained actors to assert their creativity in a pursuit of le beau, le bien, le vrai.

One such trainee, Charles Dullin, set up his own school, L'Atelier (1918), along similar lines aiming at a fusion of the theatrical elements and at cultural revitalization.

It was Dullin's theatre which influenced Antonin Artaud and Jean-Paul Sartre, spawned a new generation of practitioners such as Jean-Louis Barrault, Roger Blin and Jean Marais, and which now acts as a model for the Epee de Bois.

Ariane Mnouchkine's Theatre du Soleil is a more recent example of a co-operative company in pursuit of total theatre, making harsh physical and mental demands on its actors in their approach to matters of art and life. A common interest of these theatres, particularly those of Dullin and Mnouchkine, is in the Orient. Dullin taught a westernized version of Kabuki theatre to his actors and Mnouchkine's productions have featured oriental subjects and orientalized Shakespeare.

L'Épée de Bois is a co-operative company with oriental interests, and it is little wonder, therefore, that its 1989 production should be Marlowe's Tamerlan (Tamburlaine, The Great).

The company consists largely of actor/members exiled from the Middle East itself (Armenia and Iran), and also from North Africa and South America. One of the principal reasons for this is that the strength of character and wealth of experience demanded by the school, which really can only be gained by living in fear, under tyranny, hungry, or in the shadow of death, are to be found amongst actors from society's marginalized groups or from the Third World.

These actors came to Tamerlan often speaking French as a foreign or second language with a non-West-European perspective of the world. They came not to speak poetry or to interpret the subtleties and nuances of Felix Rabbe's translation, but to present the spirit of a world governed by tyranny and through fear which, with the exception of Franco's dictatorship, has been alien to West Europeans for several decades.

For us, tyranny is not tangible. It is a notion embodied by one of many abstract conditions such as poverty, racial discrimination, homelessness and unemployment. But for these actor-exiles at the Epee de Bois in 1989 tyranny has been a reality and a way of life.

The Epee de Bois is one of five companies which make up the avant-garde theatre complex at the Cartoucherie de Vincennes, Paris. The most renowned, Theatre du Soleil, was the first to occupy four of the hangars of a disused munitions factory for its collectively-created multi-focused spectacle of the French Revolution, 1789.

A new, young audience followed the company to the Cartoucherie and the Soleil was joined subsequently by four new theatre companies; the Theatre de la Tempete, the Theatre de 1'Aquarium, L'Atelier du Chaudron, and the former 'Atelier' de l'Epée de Bois.

Over the past twenty years the Cartoucherie has been a hotbed of radicalism and experimentation with theatre forms and audience/actor relationships. Its warehouse-sized spaces have been transformed into many different environments; circus arenas, baths, marble palaces, Elizabethan banqueting halls and fairgrounds, in which commedia dell'arte, Brechtian gestus, Stanislavskian psychological realism, expressionism, and ritualized Kabuki and Kathakali have all found their place.

Nowadays any in-house production tends to carry with it the label 'avant-garde'. One's horizon of expectation is determined by this reputation, and extended by the constantly changing use of space and the striving by the theatres to demystify the event. The Epée de Bois is thus one section in the commune that is the Cartoucherie, which provides the theatre with a home and determines the nature of the latter's existence.

The Atelier de l'Epée de Bois began life as one of several groups under the aegis of the Communaute theatrale de Raymond Rouleau in a ramshackle building, Rue de l'Epée de Bois in Paris's 5th arrondissement. The present company has very little to connect it with the original theatre except that one group to form there (led by the Peruvian student Antonio Díaz-Florián), which had performed its own creation entitled La Torture in 1969, was subsequently invited by Jean-Marie Serreau to perform its next production, Martyrs (1) at the Theatre de la Tempete. Díaz-Florián's company noticed that several of the hangars at the Cartoucherie were vacant, decamped permanently to Vincennes, and shared a space with the Atelier du Chaudron.

The company currently occupies two hangars adjacent to the Theatre du Soleil, one of which is used exclusively as a construction workshop. The second hangar is divided into two permanent theatre spaces with fixed, tiered seating. Mnouchkine helped Díaz-Florián become established (as a good neighbour should) and there still exists a close working relationship between their two theatres.

Díaz-Florián, like Mnouchkine, openly acknowledges the influences of Dullin and Copeau for the structure and philosophy of their respective companies, and the Orient for its gestural language and performance style. The early creations on torture and martyrdom set the precedent for future thematic preoccupations. Although the range of plays produced has been vast, stretching from Diderot, Marivaux, Hugo, to Lorca, the works of two dramatists in particular have been produced with great frequency; Brecht and Camus. Recently they have attempted a reassessment of English Renaissance texts and Díaz-Florián admits that the purpose of this is to find his way into Shakespeare.

The production of Camus's Caligula (1987) marked a new development in the company's staging. Rehearsals began during the Theatre du Soleil's orientalist period (1981-8) — a cycle of three Shakespeare productions with an Orient-inspired framework of performance language, and Helene Cixous's L'Histoire terrible mais inachevee de Norodom Sihanouk, roi du Cambodge. Díaz-Florián played a minor role in the latter, and the title role in Caligula went to a long-standing Theatre du Soleil actor, Serge Poncelet. But it was not only the personnel of the Soleil which Diaz-Florian invited into his own troupe. A similar performance language, the orientalization of a Western text and the style of acting ('jouer frontal'), all owed an enormous debt to Mnouchkine as well.

In both theatres Orientalism abounds. The musical instruments in Caligula were mostly Armenian and had a significant role to play in per­formance. For example, Caligula, by acknowledging the musicians, would call on them to change the patricians' moods. Music became an extension of Caligula's own mind, an extra voice. His own voice complemented the music in that many of his utterances were monosyllabic and extra-textual. The acting style bore some resemblances to Japanese theatre: the patricians were played mostly in the kyogen fashion, inventing much of their highly acrobatic antics with ladders and torches to portray humourously their fear. Certain orientalized, anti-naturalistic conventions were set up. Death, for instance, took the form of a spinning movement of which the actors lost control. Ironically, Caligula had the force to set his unsuspecting victims into a kind of circular, celebratory dance which they invariably failed to prevent turning into a deathspin. Death in Caligula was almost an exact replica of the death convention in Mnouchkine's Henry IV; in both the victim fell into an unrealistic squatting position.

Other similarities with Mnouchkine's orientalized Shakespeare include the horizontal and vertical groupings, and the declamation of the text. Diaz-Florian went further than Mnouchkine by combining the formerly separated full-front acting and inter-actor delivery. Caligula would often begin by talking directly to the other characters on stage and then switch focus in mid-speech to the audience. This had the effect of turning the audience into participants in the drama and at the same time of widening Caligula's sphere of influence.

As an antidote to the doom and gloom of Caligula the company's next production, Jonson's Volpone (1988), marked a shift in tone if not in style for the actors. It was performed in the smaller of the two theatres using similar heightened and frenetic performance language, akin to commedia, retaining the unrealistic declamatory 'frontal' acting. Tamerlan was the third in this series of exaggeratedly gestural productions. The working method was firmly established although no codes of performance had been laid down.
To conform to it was the remit of the actor. The remit of Diaz-Florian from the Ministry of Culture was to produce one show a year in return for an annual subsidy of 800000FF. With this he engaged a company of young actors, unpaid for a ten-month rehearsal period to create a production based on Marlowe's text. This was an opportunity to return to their recurring thematic leitmotif: the presentation of tyranny and oppression, of which Tamburlaine is the archetypal representative.


Tamerlan opened on 12 April 1989 after a difficult and troublesome gestation. The first six months were clouded by disagreements over artistic policy culminating in the disbanding of the company. Some actors remained and many new recruits joined.
The process of creation played a significant part in the metamorphosis: the actors came to the theatre each day, not to rehearse for a performance, but to create, with or without an audience. A long period of rehearsal with no immediate prospect of performance proved too frustrating for some who were anxious to display the fruits of their labours. The creative process, therefore, had consequences on the production of Tamerlan beyond the purely artistic, and so it would be wrong to analyse the performance without first discussing the method of production.

Each rehearsal day began with a warm-up session led by the Ecuadorian actor/teacher Freddy Rojas. This thirty minute session, conducted in total silence, was an essential part of the method of production and dictated attitudes and approaches to creation. The actors formed a circle and took the lead from Rojas. A period of meditation was followed by a succession of physical exercises (for instance increasing stretches and strides and climbing imaginary rope). Each burst of intense physical activity was followed by a short period of motionless meditation.
Diaz-Florian explains why:
L'essence même du théâtre, c'est une communion. L'échauffement est un moment de rencontre. Il me semble que dans la société on ne se dit plus bonjour. Après il y a des exercices vraiment physiques pour que le corps soit huilé et prêt à repondre aux besoins de la scène.
The idea of communion, of sharing is at the very centre of the theatre's philosophy. All tasks are distributed equally; cooking, cleaning and acting. The session ended with the actors standing in a circle, hands clasped in prayer, then greeting one another and shaking hands. Passing the look from one actor to another was not gratuitous. It has its origins in Lecoq's mime, in Mnouchkine's Theatre du Soleil and is one of the first exercises taught in Philippe Hottier's Theatre du Phénix.(2) In Tamerlan, as in Caligula and Volpone, this fundamental principle of engaging eye contact was part of the acting style — the look passed from actor to actor, and then from actor to audience.

The basic stance adopted for all the physical exercises in the warm-up session found its way on stage and was fundamental to the acting style. The actor stood feet apart, knees bent and back straight. From this position he jumped to various parts of the rehearsal room, all the while retaining his basic stance. This stance in production precluded any attempt at realism. Yet Diaz-Florian had no intention of excluding realism from the Epee de Bois stage:
Ils peuvent prendre des attitudes réalistes s'ils en ont besoin. On leur demande une vérité qui est plus qu'une vérité. Je leur demande de faire un jeu grand, large, exubérant, uniquement pour essayer de les libérer de tous les carcans de trois ou quatre ans de cours de théâtre.
There was no codified gestural language to learn but the gesture which conveyed or signified 'la vérité' was founded on the premise of this one exercise from which all subsequent movement and gesture derived. It was a kind of 'exercice de base'. Once this exercise is mastered, realism, which for Diaz-Florian is totally untheatrical, becomes impossible.

At the end of the session, with the actors having achieved a heightened state of physical and mental awareness, it happened quite often that the philosophy of communion would develop into a sharing of ideas related specifically to the production. These 'ideas' were not the subject of discussion but were used to provoke thought regarding interpretation of character and the creation of the whole performance. Extracts from books on Marlowe, Elizabethan theatre, the Orient and Orientalists, mythology, psychology, anthropology, the Koran were read aloud at all stages of the rehearsal period. Specific extracts were highlighted for the benefit of the other members of the company. One such extract ('Sa vie et ses oeuvres' in Marlowe's Theatre I) is worthy of note:
Toutes les pièces de Marlowe peuvent se résumer en un seul nom, en un seul type, qui reste à jamais imprimé dans 1'imagination de traits ineffaçables: Tamerlan, Faust, le Juif de Malte, le Duc de Guise. Ces personnages hors nature sont véritablement ce que Marlowe a voulu qu'ils fussent: le démon idéal de la conquête et de la gloire aussi bien Napoleon que Tamerlan, le démon de la haine et du fanatisme, le démon de l'ambition et du machiavélisme, le démon de la science et de l'orgueil intellectuel.
Diaz-Florian, however, believed that this 'evil' must not be confined to the play's protagonist:
  Il faut chercher le tyran dans chacun de nous, le faire sortir et le maîtriser.

Each character, like every human being, has the potential for evil. Those who fail to resist the tyrant, Tamerlan or Caligula, are not simply guilty of complicity through inaction, they are fascinated by the evil protagonist. Conversely, those protagonists can convey to an audience good sides to their characters, so that an audience can be similarly wooed.
Every man is a potential tyrant. The actual tyrant is he who has failed to suppress this negative side to his character. None of this is to be found directly in the text, or at least Díaz-Florián did not look there for justification for his belief. It is the director's view of the world borne out of direct experience in his native Peru.

The refusal to consider the text a starting point was fundamental to the creative process. This process was divided into three stages; "se vider" (emptying), "construire" (construction), and "aller à l'extrême de . . . " (exaggeration).
Stage one, "se vider" is the search for a neutral state in the warm-up session. Stage two, "construire", is achieved through a series of mental and physical exercises begun in warm-up and continued in the period of character creation. When the actor put on his costume (from the very first rehearsal) he was constructing. An oversized pair of shoes or an ill-fitting tunic could affect the gait or posture of the actor. They could also affect the type of character being created. Quite often the choice of basic state came from the director who would specify for individual characters states such as clown, raging bull, fop, etc. More often, though, these states originated in the extreme exaggeration of role models.

The result of this process of typification was the construction of one-dimensional characters. Warriors fought; kings were invariably beneficent, patriarchal and both physically and vocally commanding; servants prostrated themselves and put their own lives at risk for their masters. In an early stage of rehearsals the King of Babylon's entrance was preceded by his personal slave carrying a stool (representing a throne) and the Koran. His entrance was dictated by the enormous weight attached to these two symbols of power.
The actor/servant was bent double and in great discomfort in an effort to get these items in position at the appropriate time without letting them touch the floor. His contorted body and face portrayed unquestioning devotion. While still holding the stool and the Koran in the air causing him much pain, he managed to wipe the floor with his shoulder before placing the items on the ground. He then proceeded to measure their position, to check and double-check. When his master arrived the slave fawned and cowered like a dog and accepted without question the whole gamut of his master's emotions.
This improvised scene lasted five minutes and although not carried through fully in production, formed the basis of the servant's state. Psychological motive was absent: a servant was a servant was a servant. This second stage in the creative process could thus be described as "typisation à outrance".

The third stage was to take the exaggeration of the basic state to the extreme through a range of emotions called substates. This resulted in explosive entrances, bold movement, exaggerated gesture, and in the declamatory delivery of the text.
In rehearsal Díaz-Florián constantly told his new actors that subtlety of voice and gesture was not permissible and that they should treat the audience as they would a group of children.
Voice and its modulation were pushed to the extreme. Each word was enunciated clearly and not one syllable swallowed. Consequently the expression "horrible mort", for example, sounded onomatopoeically "horrible".

The principles of exaggerated voice delivery and gesture were complemented by the principles of movement, similarly exaggerated. For in­stance, the actors were told to imagine holding heavy swords in their hands. Thus the actor being verbally attacked had to move his neck in a ducking movement as if he were being hit on the head by the imaginary sword.
This was just one example of externalizing emotions and banising any internal psychology of character. Díaz-Florián gave the entrance of a character added dimension. He called it the "mise en place": the actor first stops at the central entrance to the main stage area, holds his position for several seconds in a posture which conveys his substate (i.e. current emotion) and surveys both stage and audience. Only when the audience has had time to acknowledge the actor's presence does the scene proceed.
This had the effect of breaking all illusion, of eliminating an element of surprise (an appendage of realism) and of establishing the tone of a scene from the outset. One could obviously draw parallels with the mie of the Kabuki theatre, yet in Tamerlan the function of the "mise en place" was less of intensifying emotion than of introducing and clarify­ing it.

The notion of collective creation which abolishes the tendency to interpret scenically dramatic texts applied to every element of the production: set, light, costume and music. None is illustrative. All are creative(3).
The plastic arts in Diaz-Florian's theatre evolve in similar fashion to the creation of characters. As the actors are asked to "se vider" and then to "construire" so, too, does the set begin life from a neutral state, from the bare concrete shell of the theatre. The raked seating bank is a fixture and the set uses the natural confines of the hangar walls to stake out its territory. No attempt at illusion or at historical authenticity is made.
The audience's interpretation of the codes and sign systems of the plastic arts as well as the acting is not determined by foreknowledge of text, period or location. The Epée de Bois's ideal spectator is one who can create a fiction without this armoury. The following analysis, therefore, is an attempt to examine the communication on the stage/audience axis, armed with the knowledge of the director's intentions.


Looking down from the fixed, raked seating bank to the performance space, the overriding impression was of austerity. Scenic additives to the hangar walls and floor of the fixed-feature space were few. The two side walls of the hangar were painted in blue and gold cloud-like swirls, imprecise in nature and of unidentifiable denotation.
The back wall facing the audience had been stripped of its plaster so that the pale sandstone bricks were visible. There were three arches in the wall, the outer two curtained off leaving the central arch for all entrances and exits.
It suggested a Moorish palace — the simple exterior of which belied the artistic opulence of the interior decoration and one could argue that it had the same function as the "palais à volonté" of neo-classical French theatre.
Characters emerged from the "place whence" and related what had happened offstage.
At the top of the wall a circular window, a natural feature of the Cartoucherie hangars, let in natural sunlight which faded as the performance progressed. This window made the "place whence" (represented by the wall) a double signifier: palace and open air.
Characters left the main stage area through the wall to their intended location (interior or exterior). The exit in the wall, therefore, served as a passage to both, with the window reinforcing the duality.

The 18m x 14m stage space was a multi-purpose locale, functional for all interior and exterior scenes ranging across the Middle East, suggesting a variety of domains beyond the confines of the actual space. What is more, the gestural language of the actors forced the domain being evoked to encompass the auditorium; the direction of looks, and the extension of dialogues out to the audience, and pointed to figures and places in the auditorium, contributed to a sense of the audience being not only participants in the drama but also signifiers in the theatrical discourse.

The proxemic relations of the scenic space could not be neatly divided up according to the general cultural codes governing personal, social and public distances. Nevertheless certain rules applied. The central acting area was reserved for homogenous social groups, such as court and family, although interpersonal distances varied greatly.

The limits of the space were defined by rusty iron grids on the floor which, when underlit, served as metaphorical substitutes for hell, prison, or river. In the front two corners of the grids the symmetry of lines and surface materials was broken and the concrete hewn away to a rough surface. These small areas denoted exterior scenes and also indicated in interior scenes characters out of step or favour with an apparently homogenous group; it became the resting place for Tamerlan's victims in public scenes and for Amyras, Tamerlan's non-conformist son. The grids kept out servants from the homogenous social group and also divided opposing factions. The use of space, therefore, was neither emblematic nor pictorial but was a scenic display of the laws governing social behaviour.

The floor itself was made of grey concrete and speckled with vein-like rivers of red paint.
The circle in the centre served as a pivot for much of the action. The kings and brigand leaders stood on it and it was soon established that the circle signified the seat of power. In the early part of the production Tamerlan was suspicious of it and seemed determined to avoid it — unexpected behaviour for someone anxious to conquer it. Only in the final scene, after he had mastered it, did his ambivalent feelings towards the spot become clear: the circle was not only the seat of ultimate power and authority, it was also the predestined place for Tamerlan to die.

At the bottom left-hand corner of the stage (downstage right) was the only piece of vertical setting: a brick plinth on which was placed at the start of each performance a vase of flowers by a created character, the archetypal everyman Perdicas.
The flowers signified a garden scene, provided cover for an embarrassed character, and also indicated a space for moments of joy or laughter. The director's intention was to bring a little life to the stage in much the same way as the burning flame to the rear of the central arch:
Les fleurs sont là où se passe le moment le plus beau — une beauté sublime, désespérante, angoissante, merveilleuse, joyeuse — une vie supérieure, la vie qui est au-dessus. Les fleurs sont les dieux du théâtre. On ne peut pas les maîtriser. La flamme, par contre, est maîtrisable. On peut l'allumer, la colorer, la teinter, etc. Les fleurs et la flamme se complémentent.

Given that psychology of character was banished from the stage and that the actors either looked at one another or at the audience, the flowers became an extra presence which the actors addressed. Whole monologues were delivered to the flowers as to the audience as if both were capable of responding.
Amidst the tyranny and butchery they became, from a representational point of view, a glimmer of humanity. From a purely aesthetic point of view, they broke the symmetry and austerity of the open space.

Another break in the bare scenic continuum was created by the two musicians, Christine Kotschi and Sergio Perrera, and their collection of oriental instruments.
They played an integral role in the performance, creating moods, and leitmotifs; acting empathetically; reacting in discordance to characters traits and emotions. They initiated the performance, were acknowledged by the actors on stage and became, after gesture and speech, the actors' third voice.
The music was composed largely of percussion instruments but it was the string instruments which provided most of the melodic leitmotifs.
Tamerlan himself was accompanied by both a Rebac Kemane (a Turkish violin) and an Indian Santoor, two instruments used to chart Tamerlan's rise and fall. Tamerlan's mood and his actions were betrayed by the accompanying leitmotif, long before his arrival on stage.
Not all the sounds created were of Eastern origin. Natural elements (such as wind) were realistically evoked. Moments of musical realism were few and far between. In scenes of physical violence, no pretence at realism was effected: each stroke of a truncheon was accompanied by a circus-like drumbeat. Generally the function of the music was to dispel the illusion by completing, emphasizing and punctuating speech and movement.

Eighteen actors played thirty-eight characters and only five were played by the same actors throughout; Tamerlan, the two women (Anippe and Zénocrate), Perdicas and Boulourg-Casane. The latter two were new creations — the common man and the camp follower, choric figures who addressed the audience directly and commented on the action.
Perdicas, in the original text a servant to Calyphas, was a free agent in this performance and bore absolutely no relation to his textual counterpart. Played by the Iranian actor Hamid Djavdan, Perdicas evolved during rehearsals as a stage auditor, acting and reacting to the main action, getting caught up in events. He commented, participated, observed and reacted but not once did he take a moral stand or pass judgement. His costume, created by Djavdan himself, evolved during the course of rehearsals as the character developed. The basic costume for all characters consisted of an oriental black headdress and baggy trousers, but for Perdicas, Djavdan also added a greatcoat dating from the First World War. To this he made alterations and additions; baggy sleeves, various pouches, military insignia, medals, and on his lapel a plastic nose, false moustache and dark glasses, a crude badge of the dictator. The final motley costume was a visual indicator of his role as chameleon and everyman. Even his hats changed according to his role and to the scene.

Initially Perdicas set the scene to the accompaniment of oriental music, carrying the large vase of red roses, stopping at the central entrance arch and genuflecting several times as part of his "mise en place". Then shuffling around the stage at right angles he placed the flowers on a plinth. This was Perdicas-the-stage-manager drawing attention to the flowers without revealing their significance and introducing the audience to the exoticism of the production by greeting the audience in Persian with the words "Doroud Bar Choma Khanomha va Aghayan". The audience perceived this as delightful, if incomprehensible, hieroglyphics. Appreciating it simply on that level was sufficient in itself. We did not need to know that he was actually saying "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen".
The smile, the flowers, the accompanying musical leitmotif, the pleasant greeting, all had the effect of ingratiating himself with the audience. He made himself the touchstone.

Further examples of Perdicas's exotic orientalist interventions were numerous. He sang a song of dedication to Bajazet in the first scene and then acted as scribe for a communiqué from Bajazet to Tamerlan, warning the latter not to set foot in Africa or Greece "or else". Perdicas chalked this line by line on a slate giving us a simultaneous translation into Persian.
This served several functions: it distanced Bajazet and Tamerlan in terms of territory and language, it reinforced and punctuated the text, adding extra weight to the threat like an echoing percussion instrument, and it also highlighted one of the great dangers of orientalism — misinterpretation.
The scene ended at the culmination of the dictation: "Mais si, presumant de son faible pouvoir, il est assez fou pour en venir aux armes avec moi, alors ..." [But if he overestimates his power and is rash enough to fight with me, then . . . ] Perdicas translated and transcribed the communique phrase by phrase (one presumes accurately) until "alors" which he repeated as "allo". Communication broke down and so did the scene as Bajazet swept out leaving us to wonder how much else had been lost in translation. The message was read out to Tamerlan in a subsequent scene right down to the final "allo" which had the same effect on the conclusion of the scene. Here he manipulated a misunderstanding of the Oriental language and used it (unwittingly) to intensify emotion and exacerbate tension.

In the second part Perdicas's entertaining orientalism was called upon once more to cheer up the dying Zénocrate.
Playing the role of court jester he sang a Persian song, which to our Western ears sounded like a wail, to reveal the true situation of Zénocrate's imminent death. Perdicas often intervened in moments of sadness, grief or danger.
In the early stages of the play with the threat to Mycetes from Tamerlan, his face invariably displayed little or no emotion and, given the size of the stage and auditorium, subtlety of gesture and emotion would be lost at any rate. When frightened, therefore, he did not appear worried through facial expression or by uncontrollable shaking. He simply changed his formal stance. With knees bent, his toes pointing outwards slowly drew in. This clownish move betrayed the emotion behind his armoured exterior.
When a character was in the process of dying on stage or lamenting death, such as Bassa bemoaning Bajazet's demise, Perdicas hid behind a shield and cried his orientalist cry.
When Bajazet was brought in chained, it was Perdicas who got beaten up for being in the wrong place.
Bajazet's death speech was accompanied by a wail from Perdicas which could either have been interpreted as an empathetic keening for a dying man or as Perdicas bemoaning his own injuries. Whatever the reason the noise conveyed a sense of suffering on a universal level.

Perdicas was the embodiment of the suffering of humanity. He lamented and wailed but not once did he attempt to alter his condition. He told us of the sacking of Babylon as if it were a human being and then of the murder of every human within its walls. His was the voice of resignation, of acceptance and sadness.
The process of character construction, which set the parameters within which the character can operate and develop, made it impossible for Perdicas to alter his situation.

The second character creation (by Laurent Bancarel) was Boulourg-Casane, Tamerlan's sidekick. Unlike Perdicas, Boulourg-Casane appeared to thrive on the world at war. He was a Brechtian sutler of the Mother Courage variety. When Tamerlan, for expediency's sake, was unable to express his true feelings, it was Boulourg-Casane who acted as communicator, having little to lose himself.
His character was conveyed largely through his movements, gestures and sounds. He was a clumsy clown, a noisy character who stumbled into and disrupted tender moments such as the first declaration of love by Tamerlan to Zénocrate.
He complemented and contrasted with Perdicas, no more so than in his relationship with the audience. As Perdicas opened the production by welcoming the audience, Boulourg-Casane closed the first act by telling us not only to "mount your thrones for you are all kings", but also that the interval would last twenty minutes.
He exited laden with pots and pans signifying the capture of Babylon and the installation of Tamerlan as King. In a time of peace he had to move on and so had the audience.

Boulourg-Casane's innate naivety was outstripped by his political naivety. When he mistook Mycetes for Tamerlan, he failed to see both the dangers and possible advantages of the mistaken identity. Then, having stolen Mycetes's crown, he was unaware of the implications of its possession. Unsure as to what to do with it, he was quite happy to offer it to anyone: to the musicians and even to the audience. He reduced the acquisition of power to his collection of swords, clutching them like newly-won toys and laying them out one by one as representations of the Kings who had been conquered by Tamerlan.

Boulourg-Casane delighted in his metonymic collection of properties signifying power and rule, blissfully unaware of their connotations of suffering and slaughter. He never questioned his fate, never tried to comprehend or to improve his lot, but, like Perdicas, accepted the role fate had bestowed upon him.

Both character creations, Perdicas and Boulourg-Casane, had an important effect on the play in that they constituted an attempt to redress the balance from captains and kings in favour of the common man.
Their status was comparable to that of Shakespeare's Falstaff, yet here they were stripped of all arrogance. They were uncorrupted, incorruptible, and naïve.
They were the only characters who survived unscathed to the end of the play, but both remained trapped in their groove of character typification, never growing old.

The other actors changed costume and character frequently. Pascal Guarise doubled as Mycétès, the hapless King in Part One, and Amyras, Tamerlan's non-military son, in Part Two. The weakness of both characters was a point of comparison and so, too, were their respective fates.
But there the comparison ended. Mycétès clothed in a heavy cloak of kingship was a pathetic, bearded figure who protected his crown coquettishly but by the same token was quite willing to hand it over at the first sign of trouble.
He begged the gods for help demanding "pitié" in a strangulated voice. Threatened by the approaching Tamerlan he decided to hide his crown first to safeguard and also to save his skin. Having lost a shoe, which forced him to limp, he made his way to the centre circle which initially represented the seat of power, placed his crown in the middle as if it were an imaginary safe and locked it with an imaginary key.
This could have been interpreted as a pathetic attempt at self-preservation, like burying his head in the sand, and consequently lost any respect or sympathy one might have had for him. His pathetic incompetence was first seen when, feigning an air of authority, he rested one foot on a brick removed by Perdicas from the back wall. One feared obviously that had the wrong brick been chosen, the whole wall might have come tumbling down. Both signs, therefore, (crown and brick) denoted power and authority but in practice connoted weakness and myopia.

As Amyras, Guarise created a Prince Hal figure, a fop who incurred the wrath of his father for failing to follow in his footsteps. His costume of tight-fitting tunic and floppy cap with bright blue feather stood out against the austerity of Tamerlan's sombre, black court. Harangued by his father and protected by his mother (Zénocrate), he invoked our sympathy.
Like Shakespeare's prince he consorted with the lower orders. To a jaunty Turkish tune he emerged swaggeringly drunk with Perdicas and Boulourg-Casane, clutching a goblet. His action broke the conventions of both mise en scène and society. His end, therefore, was nigh.

The use of stage space was diversified particularly in scenes involving Tamerlan's harem of three: Zénocrate, the Arab-speaking 'black African' Anippe, and the grotesque, shrieking eunuch, Agydas. In the Garden of Persepolis, in Part One, the harem was led in by Perdicas along the back wall in such a way as to suggest them risking their lives on the edge of a precipice.
To exaggerate the intended meaning Agydas stumbled and was saved by Anippe. Having negotiated that obstacle Perdicas next led them downstage to the vase of flowers representing the garden. This was a piece of mime which was a prelude to Tamerlan's arrival. Their actions suggested that to achieve a moment of beauty and happiness great personal risks had to be taken.
In the subsequent scene when Tamerlan attempted to woo Zénocrate, Perdicas, Anippe and Agydas mimed sitting positions against the wall, folding arms and crossing legs at several points, creating a kind of gestural commentary on the main action, a similar way to the musical accompaniment, also outside the central acting area.

One notable convention of the mise en scène was the representation of good health by an upright posture and ill-health by a sitting position. Zénocrate died while sitting on a stool and this gave the properties an added dimension beyond their functional denotation. Bajazet (Smaël Behabdelouab) was given a turquoise canopy on four poles to represent visually his authority.
Only later did the significance of this roof become clear. During his imprisonment scene he was given another "roof", this time in the form of a metal grid. It was placed on top of him by two prison guards. He had no choice but to hold the grid up or be crushed by its weight — an inevitable consequence as his strength waned. All properties, therefore, had a dual function in much the same way as the centre circle (or Zénocrate's stool). They were either a symbolic covering (or a seat) of triumph and power, or a place and instrument of death.

The weapons carried by both Tamerlan's warriors and enemies had a similar dual function: offence and defence. Although brandished throughout the production, they were never used realistically. Bajazet was beaten up in prison by truncheons but the act of violence was ritualized and stylized. Most of the violence occurred offstage. Notable exceptions to this were Tamerlan stabbing Amyras with a dagger, and Cosroe staggering onstage impaled on a spear, but this was another instance of the idea being conveyed, not realistically, but pushed to its very limits of credibility. It was the notion of violent phallocratic power which was portrayed and not its actuality.

Of all the displays of the idea of phallocratic power there was none greater than that of Tamerlan himself (Antonio Diaz-Florian). When we first saw him it was at a moment of triumph. He was in a rush for total domination and was physically resplendent. His rise to power was swift. We knew terrible acts of violence had been committed yet we still remained helplessly attracted to the tyrant, to the likeable villain, to the purity and beauty of his power and total domination.
The physical prowess and presence of the actor were attractively exaggerated from the outset. His gradual demise was conveyed by kinetic indicators; a stoop, a more pronounced limp, doubling up in pain.

Throughout the first part little emphasis was placed on Tamerlan's physical disability which earned him the title "le boiteux". He gave the impression of power by non-specific displays of military prowess.
He stood in front of his warriors betraying no emotion other than his confidence and ambition, leaving suspicion and circumspection to be conveyed by his warriors behind.

Here, instead of using props to betray emotions, other actors were used to convey what was going on in Tamerlan's mind but which he never allowed to be seen. Even greater strength was conveyed by having his trusty companion Boulourg-Casane display the rage and aggression which were obviously welling up inside Tamerlan himself. Rather than checking his own aggression in a pseudo-realistic attempt at self-control, Tamerlan restrained Boulourg-Casane who then came to represent an extended physical embodiment of his psyche.
This was Diaz-Florian's major success: the non-realistic externalization of character psychology.

Tamerlan's adopted stance conveyed his prowess emblematically as well as kinesically. First Tamerlan dropped Bajazet's defiant message on the slate and stood on it contemptuously. The inference was that Bajazet had been beaten not only physically by Tamerlan but also by this contemptuous act of aggression.
A similar fate befell the Koran but this time with the added dimension of blasphemy. The pinnacle of Tamerlan's career on stage came at his coronation. No great speeches or ceremony were needed to convey his success. He simply stepped into the centre circle with an enormous bang and crash from the percussionists. Putting the crown on his head was a cliched coronation which was made light of here since it was an act of little significance in itself.
The coronation was preceded by a catalogue of violent acts offstage narrated onstage. Instead of a ritual slaughter Tamerlan's achievement was symbolized by holding his sword erect and by his explosive entrances and exits. He did not kill on stage but threatened to kill. He took hostages, released them, only to dispose of them later. He took Babylon by threatening the audience with a dagger and held Bassa simply by a sheath and not a sword itself, with Bassa collaborating in the creation of the image.

In the second part the tyrant began to crumble as he overstepped the mark. The narration by Perdicas of the destruction of Babylon was painful in its deliberately poignant emotionalism, the burning of religious books in its blasphemous excessiveness.
His domination was threatened by the unwillingness of one of his sons, Amyras, to follow in his father's footsteps and this sent Tamerlan in a descending spiral. The only murder he committed on stage is that of his son, carried out swiftly in anger at his son's cowardice and in the presence of his whole family and court.
After stabbing Amyras he turned away as if he were not proud of his action. As Amyras stumbled and fell, Tamerlan's hand twisted in the air. After the death he threatened the eunuch Agydas and berated everyone for grieving. Emotional displays of human weakness were banished from his psyche.

Lest the character of Tamerlan appear too two-dimensional, Diaz-Florian developed a recurring leitmotif of physical pain as a symbol of inner turmoil. The pain was caused in Diaz-Florian's own words by "un serpent qui mange de l'intérieur".
This gnawing occurred on four significant occasions in Part Two and gradually brought Tamerlan to his knees and finally to his death. Each time it was accompanied by the rippling sound of whisper chimes. The musical leitmotif often pre-empted the physical pain of the character, bringing on the pain rather than reacting empathetically to it. The four attacks took place as follows:
  i) after killing Amyras, when his other son Calyphas (whom Tamerlan admired) declared that the death of his mother signified the death of his own soul;

ii) after the taking of Babylon and the order to drown all Babylonians;

iii) after the blasphemous disposal of the Koran and the order for all religious books to be burned;

iv) after calling his illness an attack from God: "Quel dieu audacieux tourmente ainsi mon corps, et cherche a triompher du puissant Tamerlan?"

These attacks occurred after specifically outrageous acts and they were thus seen as a punishment. Previously such actions were followed by displays of simple courage, holding swords erect and consummating sexual relationships. Now they were followed by drooping swords, stumbling and garbled words.
Tamerlan became more withdrawn, his gestures introverted and his sword at times conspicuously absent from his side. He looked old and haggard. He tried to hand over his sword to Calyphas but it wilted in his hand: a visual symbol of his lost virility and power.
His tyranny was over. When he fell he knocked his helmet off as if his body armour no longer afforded him any protection. He wrapped himself in his cloak one final time and stepped into the centre circle (which was once the scene of triumph), paused, sighed, and in a twisting movement fell in a heap, dead.

Much in Diaz-Florian's performance of Tamerlan engaged the audience's sympathy. Simply by the form of delivery, turning mid-speech to address the audience ensured their undivided attention. Tamerlan's love for Zénocrate was undeniable. We were told of his violent savagery but only once did he commit an act of violence on stage.
The actor acknowledged that most West Europeans would have ambivalent feelings towards the character and his actions. Diaz-Florian courted the ambivalence, well aware that his own South-American audience would have recognized Tamerlan as an evil tyrant within their own real experience and have thrown tomatoes at him. He believes that Europeans are not fascinated to the same extent by tyranny. They have sympathy for him in that his rise to power was resistible but no one had the courage to resist. They will not draw parallels with their own situations but will go away with the essence of Marlowe's play and an appreciation of the mise en scène.
A European's reasoning mind will leave him unsure as to whether he should love the tyrant or not. A production of the play reminds europeans that we have so far successfully eliminated our tyrants, and a third-world audience that throwing tomatoes at a mirror-image of reality is not enough(4).


Despite Diaz-Florian's evident political awareness, there is no political motive behind the direction as such. The themes of Tamerlan are common to much of the previous work of the Epee de Bois. The manifestations of Orientalism, however, are a more recent development coming in the wake of Mnouchkine's Shakespeare cycle. However, putting the Orient on stage pictorially is not Orientalism proper. The first step on the road to theatrical Orientalism is the abolition of the pseudo-psychology of character and the establishment in its place of the psychology of the actor.
The pre-rehearsal and pre-performance communion-like ritual compares to the self-induced trance-like states of the actors of many Eastern theatres. A consequence of this is a group of actors in a highly charged emotional state who perform with exaggerated, broad gestures, using their bodies as the external manifestations of their inner state. Unlike those Eastern theatres there is no coded performance language to dictate form, except perhaps that of the acting style, "jouer frontal" which is not at all presentational but engaging.
The form of acting used for Tamerlan evolves from a general method of communicating suppressed emotions. The text is thus deconstructed from the outset and reconstructed in tandem with the creation and development of the actor's inner states. There is no reverence shown towards the text. It is merely a starting point, the basis for speech, the initial inspiration for states of being.
Subtlety and nuances of the poetry and of character fall victim to the declamatory and psycho-physical style of acting. The Orientalism of Diaz-Florian's Tamerlan is not simply to be seen in the mock Oriental costumes and props and heard in the music, but in the theatre language of movement, gesture, speech, and in the form.

Attending a performance at the Epee de Bois is quite unlike any other visit to the theatre (save perhaps the Theatre du Soleil).
The company members take great pains to stress that they belong as much to a school as to a theatre, to a school with an independent philosophy of life. One learns that the performance of Tamerlan on a particular evening is not a showcase for the work done. It is part and parcel of their learning process, their creative method.
Performing is an ongoing learning activity in the same way as designing, sewing, building, exercising. The spectator is invited into the company's home, treated as an honoured guest and learns that the members are not only proud of their work but also of their way of life.
L'Epée de Bois is not a repertory company providing divertissements but is a "living" theatre where philosophies of life and art intermingle. The collective approach to the creation of Tamerlan is, for the spectator, a window to their philosophy.

Brian Singleton is Lecturer in Drama, Trinity College, Dublin. This study was undertaken and com­pleted while he was a British Academy Research Fellow in the Department of Theatre Studies, University of Glasgow.

Notes :

1. La Torture and Martyrs (both 1969) were devised performances of the 'Groupe de travail de 1'Epee de hois', a working group within the Atelier de 1'Epee de Bois led by Antonio Diaz-Florian. [back to text]

2. The Theatre du Phenix was founded in 1987 in Chennevieres-sur-Marne by Philippe Hottier, a longstanding member of the Theatre du Soleil. Its first production was La Tragedie d'lvanovby Chekhov in April 1989 at the Theatre de la Cite Internationale, Paris.[back to text]

3. Un texte poetique qui est simplement transpose sur scène [ . . . ] se trouve finalement appauvri par la representation, mais un texte depasse par sa realisation est en quelque sorte trahi. L'abus de langage qui appelle "creation" la simple transposition d'un texte a la scène ne modifie en rien ce constat: le theatre fonde sur la Htte'rature se meut a travers ce dilerhme, la tranposition ou la trahison. Les experiences d'un theatre oriente vers la participation active porteront done au-dela du mot sur I'acte. Marc'O, 'La Creation collective', La Nef, 29 (January-March 1969), 74-80. [back to text]

4. Since the production in 1989 the Western World discovered a new dictator in the Middle East.[back to text]

The company:

Laurent Bancarel Boulourg-Casane
Smäel Behabdelouab Bajazet, Maximus, Guerrier
David Danechvar Theridamas, Callapine, Guerrier
Antonio Diaz-Florian Tamerlan
Hamid Djavdan Perdicas
Pascal Guarise

Mycetes, Bassa, Amyras, Medecin,Guerrier.

François-Xavier Lecour Meander, Capolin, Orcanes, Guerrier
Seghir Mahommedi Guerrier
Bruno Ouzeau Ortygius, Calyphas, Guerrier
Freddy Rojas Menaphon, Alieda, Guerrier
Andre Salzet Cosroe, Agydas, Amasia, Guerrier
Mounia Aouichi Anippe
Dominique Carrara Guerrier
Corinne Caslain Zénocrate
Habil Cherkit Guerrier
Marc Cossu Espion, Guerrier
Marie Le Gales Guerrier
Musicians Christine Kotschi
Sergio Perrera
Costumes by Dominique Le Page
Luisa Luis
Directed and adapted by Antonio Diaz-Florian
Webmaster : Cocha-Kuan