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  • Writer's pictureJOE WOODWARD

Euphoric and Grotesque Dream Theatre

Updated: Jun 21, 2020

“Everything can happen, everything is possible and probable. Time and place do not exist; on a significant bases of reality, the imagination spins, weaving new patterns; a mixture of memories, experiences, free fancies, incongruities and improvisations.” August Strindberg: "A Dream Play"

Dreams, the surreal and the grotesque provide the inspiration and the basis of great theatre. It is the disturbing element that compels as it repulses. There is euphoria in its terrifying atmosphere that can't be truly evoked in any other artistic medium. Yet it is this contradictory and paradoxical phenomenon that restores the humanity to artist and audience alike.

New Surrealist Adjunct to the Political

Surrealist art with its dreamlike juxtapositions in visual art can be just as relevant today as it was in the 1920s and 1930s. Less obvious is its relevance for live theatre. Though the two mediums are very connected.

Gao Xingjan, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000. His work was very much influenced by Brecht, Artaud and Beckett. However, the Communist Government persecuted him and forced the destruction of many of his early works. Gao Xingjan's works were deemed subversive of society and culture and theatre works were banned or closed down once achieving a production.

Like many Surrealists, his output was highly criticised by peers and critics. However, his response when looking at the relationship between Surrealism and works outside the dominant cultural contexts is as follows: Literature can only be the voice of the individual and this has always been so. Once literature is contrived as the hymn of the nation, the flag of the race, the mouthpiece of a political party or the voice of a class or a group, it can be employed as a mighty and all-engulfing tool of propaganda. However, such literature loses what is inherent in literature, ceases to be literature, and becomes a substitute for power and profit. (Gao Xingjian from his Nobel acceptance speech)

The Surrealist Connection

The featured image at the top of this page and the one just below are by Stefan Keller. His work features the imagination of distorted images as spoken about by August Strindberg nearly a hundred and twenty years ago.

"Girl in Broken Monuments" image by Stefan Keller

The dreamer in this case of the "Girl in Broken Monuments picture" is dwarfed by the salient image of the broken statue. Yet she is unconcerned. She stands also on a high platform of some kind with light at the centre of the picture coming form some distant source.

In the above image, the dreamer is taking a photograph of an animal which is emphasised only by the snout and head. Once again the human figure seems unconcerned by the absurdity of the distorted size of the creature. It seems perhaps to be dead. Yet it is still ominous and might otherwise be a terrifying sight.

So why is it disturbing? Logically it makes no sense. There is nothing realistically disturbing or upsetting; yet the images contain a disquiet that will touch anyone affected by them in totally different ways. The potential symbolism undermines cultural reality. It is essentially subjective and evoking different responses according to different personal experiences. The purist Surrealist is likely to stop there! Let there be no more discussion or attempt to objectively analyse the selection of imagery or symbols.

However, in theatre there is an opportunity to extend the surrealist attitude to theatre of cruelty, absurdist theatre and epic theatre; and indeed various combinations of each! I wish to explore this contention in relation to my own work as a writer and to demonstrate that in combination with spoken text, surrealist elements in theatre, in a contemporary setting, can explore potent aspects of culture and social interaction in ways that realistic theatre and naturalism cannot even go near or attempt.



In 1979 I dreamed I was in fact an ape. I looked like an ape but spoke and otherwise acted like a human. I dreamt my parents were sad apes who were disappointed at their failing to be human and thus condemning me to ridicule and a life time where I would never fit in with society. I looked into their eyes behind their glasses and saw this sad expression that filled me with the strangest and ever continuing feeling that lingered well after waking up. In fact it stayed with me for weeks. While I could not explain it and could not find words to articulate what I was feeling, it inspired in me a desire to explore this strangeness in a play. This was before I had any real contact with Expressionist or Surrealist theatre works.

It resulted in the writing of "Brother Ape" since reworked as "Ape". In the play, a husband and wife known only as Poor Dear and My Love, cultivate an Ape as a family pet while trying to develop it into having human traits. They take it further into a sexual experiment with devastating consequences. The situation is totally absurd. The visual imagery of Brother Ape behaving as a human while still possessing animal characteristics provides comic and pathos inducing scenes. I would suggest it is still dreamlike. The dialogue from the husband and wife is purposely stilted and affected. The ape's growing consciousness makes him become more than simply a trickster for the family but a figure in his own right with a potential agenda that is separate from that of the couple.

While "Ape" still suggests a very subjective interpretive quality, the rewrite does in effect follow an almost tragedy narrative that is seemingly more conventional. This removes it from the original surrealism ideal while leaving the absurdist qualities. However, its genesis was surrealist. Many of the elements are surrealist. I suggest a surrealist approach is still a key to theatre creation.


In 1969 I wrote a song, "Geese" that was recorded on a Sony reel-t0-reel in 1974. It linked nightmares with military might and George Orwell's "boot stamping on a human face—forever" (Click on the link to see a video of Orwell's final warning). The song linked absurd and surreal images of geese on my bed in the middle of the night and banshee-like screaming while then feeling the might of soldiers and armies waltzing while destroying the world.

In 2010, the bizarre song inspired a play that began in dreams and surfaced in Artaud's theatre of cruelty for a production of the same name, "Geese". It utilised Butoh, visual art created in real time, poetic language, song, outlandish sculpting of physical shapes and real cultural ritual to shape its presentation. It embedded biographical aspects of Antonin Artaud's experience of Balinese dance and the philosophical dreams inspired from France that influenced Leftist ideologies of the 60s and 70s.

Using the juxtapositions of a surrealist approach took the play from being a political work into a dreamlike fantasia. While dealing with a suicide pact that went wrong, it takes place in an imaginary nano-second as the central character dives from a railway platform in front of a moving train; disturbing the nearby geese that scatter at this point.

Peter Capaldi in his video on "Exploring the Surreal" includes a brief snippet from the original "Geese" production as an example of contemporary Surrealism. Rather than simply presenting a narrative about disappointed radicals and their life stories, surrealism allowed for a more subjective and open interpretive platform utilising the reference points offered. The oblique processing of history thus allowed for more penetration into the real humanity that underpinned the events recalled in "Geese".

As with "Ape" the dream feeling is more important for human beings to process than dry historical narratives; a place for history books and documentaries. The doco-drama is more suited to history than is theatre. Fictionalising events is basically unsatisfying. Surrealism allows for the underpinning and the messy human processing of emotions, feelings, memories and even factual events. "Geese" at least attempted this process.


In 2017 a young man who worked in a Queanbeyan Service Station was killed by two youths on a rampage claiming to be inspired by ISIS. There was an initial outpouring of sympathy and support for his family. Flowers and other memorabilia were placed around the edge of the building and left there for a number of days. Then one day as I drove past, I noticed everything had been removed. There was no plaque, flowers, cross or anything to suggest that a tragedy had ever occurred. There was something about this that left me feeling very uneasy. Then I realised it linked to my work-in-progress on a play that had been gestating for a couple of years.

The title "And Beyond the Violence" was given initially to a "Without a Voice" presentation that was to be performed at Smiths Alternative in 2014 in Canberra. As the writing was unfinished and still unfocused, it was cancelled. While circling around political themes, there was no unifying element; though I wanted to focus on the semantics of political and social rhetoric and its divisive capability. I was also interested in the way violent action spawns further violence with competing sides all thinking that their violent actions and rhetoric are going to achieve their aims.

The Charlottesville killing in the USA on 12 August 2017 also helped to crystalise the themes of monuments and symbols to support political and social movement. The growing political extremes and the extent to which people and groups would go to achieve outcomes became an underlying grounding for the text.

But where is the surreal in all this?

In effect, everything is surreal. Human beings attached to agendas and action scenarios are really poaching from abstractions that make no objective sense. Patriotism, Nationalism and various Belief Systems are totally surreal concepts. Seen from an historical perspective, they become absurd. A character in "And Beyond the Violence" says there is NO "beyond". Violence simply IS. Get used to it.

Parker Andrews, the main protagonist, becomes a catalyst for ramping up the action of various agendas. Yet in her seeming passivity and her probable delusions, she brings about the internal combustion of violence itself. How is this presented on stage?

Only by using surrealist imagery and approach can there be any possibility for belief to be undermined and the seemingly self-evident destroyed! The play tries to use the clutter of mass media and social media bullshit as a backdrop in creating a canvas that is simply unreal though comprised of seeming real images; a clutter of sound and supposed sincerity to act like a waste dump and ground-fill used to support the construction of whole living villages of artistic expression!

Dreams Nightmares and Theatre

"God" by Stefan Keller

Can we force ourselves to step outside our own imposed universe to actually see alternative universes and viewpoints that have nothing to do with us? Is it possible? In the theatre, the well-made play has a controlled universe that starts, develops and concludes. It is a bundle that contains its own constructed truths with characters struggling to achieve ends that somehow conclude with the final curtain.

Without major distortion or the shock of unfamiliarity, the play, no matter how dramatic or engaging, will essentially reinforce the cultural and socially sanctioned ways of doing things and ways of seeing the world. It is essentially a conservative device no matter how radical the plot may be or how anti-establishment the themes!

Surrealist theatre and art change all of this. The sweet and the good become grotesque; real objects and situations become juxtaposed to become discordant and absurd; the mediums of art become interspersed with each other; the relationships between characters and sometimes with audiences and actors become liminal (ie. uncertain and at the point of absurd integration with space, time and medium). Surrealist art and theatre give us a sense of largeness and worlds beyond our reach and only accessed through imagination.

Surrealist thinking and output is never scientific and it undermines beliefs and faiths of all descriptions. It serves as a cultural washing machine. It speaks to individuals more so than whole cultures; although imagery may well be cultural specific in order to subvert the dogmatic and certainties that cultures tend to provide. Surrealist work is thus in a tension between individual and culture; as such it is easily attacked and potentially dangerous and highly subversive.

Surrealist work as described here has links to the origins of the Surrealism movement and figures such as André Breton, René Magritte, Max Ernst, Frida Kahlo, Luis Buñuel, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Antonin Artaud et al. However, it is certainly not defined by the past. To speak of Surrealism as a "movement" is a contradiction. A surrealist work is against the confines of a single movement. It has its own independence and its own outlook.

Luis Buñuel, who continued as an avowed Surrealist until his death in 1983: "always stayed true to those primary surrealist principles with which he most identified:

  • a spirit of revolt;

  • the subversive power of passionate love, both romantic and erotic;

  • a belief in the creativity of the unconscious (dreams and fantasies);

  • a pronounced taste for black humour; and,

  • last but never least, an abiding contempt for institutional religion and its representatives. 

Antonin Artaud articulated so much in the world of Surrealism, abandoned it and became highly critical of the "movement" and Breton particularly. Artaud rejected all notions of a "better world" or Utopia. The attempts to create such fantastical places would only lead to a dystopia. "Like Nietzsche and Buddha, Artaud saw suffering as essential to existence, and the price one must pay to become a complete human being." (

At one point, the Surrealist might appear to be advocating an essentially static universe with its absurdity and pointless need for change. On the other hand, it is an agent for re-seeing this universe and seeing it in a different light as if through a microscope or a telescope or even a time machine. Artaud's theatre also holds out the value and possibility for change in the microcosm of one's existence; while it condemns the idealist vision of macrocosm enforced changes. In this sense it is apolitical.

It is perhaps unfortunate that no matter how much our theatre practitioners might like to change the world, they risk madness if enforcing their narrow views on to audiences and culture. It isn't so much the particular belief system or specific beliefs themselves that are the problems. Rather it is the very notion of "belief" itself that is problematic. Surrealist theatre attacks this virus of arts practice with a vengeance that draws attacks but which needs to be sustained and promulgated.

It asks us to trust our dreams and encourage the nightmares. It is the antidote to fundamentalist religious practice and ceremony. It is the blatant opposition to the bully and to the oppressive regimes without ever attempting to mirror such regimes once in power. It is fully aware of the giant foot of false certainty and belief that stamps on the natural environment and the isolated human being in an infinite universe. It is the attraction for an audience thirsting for a substance that is at once compelling as it is in opposition to the clutter of their everyday lives ...

Joe Woodward

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