The Orgien Mysterien Theater
Hermann Nitsch developed the Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries (O.M.Theatre) in the mid-1950s.
Peter Gorsen remarks that the origins of the O.M. Theatre lie in literary and sensory language. The artist first articulated the idea of his total artwork in verbal poetry. In 1956 – influenced by the Greek tragedies, by Georg Trakl, German Expressionism, French Symbolism, Stephan Georges, James Joyce and the Surrealists – he began writing a drama which was to last six days. Hermann Nitsch conceived "a kind of compressed archetypal drama, aiming to summarise the conflicts and catastrophes of the myths. The Oedipus material was processed in the same way as the Nibelungen-Myth, the Atreides myth, the death of the Sun-hero and the Catastrophe of the Cross." However, this work remains unfinished. After two years, the artist realised that language did not have sufficient capacity to convey the required profound and convincing emotional intensity, and transferred his level of expression to different areas. He started working with actual substances – such as milk, vinegar, wine, blood or meat, which stimulate the senses of smell, touch and taste; this seemed to him more conducive to the enhancement of sensual impressions.
In the staging of such events, art is liberated from the task of depiction and representation – as was generally striven after in the 20th century, especially in happenings, performances and Actionism during the 1960s. Art transcends the boundary of life and reality – art and life become one. In real time, sensuous reality is experienced. Literary experience is replaced by real-life experience, thus making it possible to dispense with spoken language. Nitsch says that it is not language (linguistic association) that plumbs the depths, but ecstatic sensual experience achieved through 'Aktionen', tending towards orgiastic excesses, which will expose what has been repressed.
Around 1960, Nitsch abandoned the traditional representational level of the picture and the classic form of theatre. He tried to reduce the means of representation to its elementary and original state or to the purely material – language to the scream, music to the noise, painting to spilling paint. He changed from the word to the action and from portrayal to material. He sought reality instead of theatre and arrived at the orgiastic 'Aktion', whose purpose is reality and life itself – with all its positive and negative aspects, comparable with the "Theatre of Cruelty" by Antonin Artaud, which Nitsch himself refers to. With this, the artist not only achieves a lasting expansion of the pictorial resources, but at the same time a "theatrical dramatic expansion of art".
In 1960, on the basis of the drama, the psychology of Sigmund Freud and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, Hermann Nitsch contrives a "dramaturgical abreaction model" (Hermann Nitsch). The guiding characters in the abreaction play of the O.M.Theatre are Dionysus the destructive fertility god who embodies the primal principle of being, and Christ, who sacrificed himself for love. The dilaceration of Dionysus is seen as a model for the Passion of the Cross; both are principle leitmotifs of the O.M.Theatre. The subject is human existence itself – birth, life, death, rebirth. Myth and ritual are his tools. Hermann Nitsch takes up the theme of rituals of sacrifice and re-enacts them. In this context, the artist and the participants assume the role of suffering humanity, which is to be saved through the retrieval of what is repressed. The sensuous experience curve goes from sensual orgy, to orgiastic excess, to ecstasy, right up to meditation and leads to emotional realisation and catharsis. Form is essential here. "Form has a deep metaphysical moral and ethic quality." Trough form, negative and destructive impulses can be channelled into abreaction. (This is why the artist always draws up precise scores with strict stage directions.) The abreaction rituals of the O.M.Theatre, in which real actions expose participants to a deep experience of the self, with the aim of revealing, channelling and redirecting what is repressed and submerged.
The O.M.Theatre is a "basic experience of excess and a celebration of resurrection, a sadomasochist excess and catharsis, a brutal dismemberment and a harmonising synthesis, an incantation of the myth as a contracted world view and psychoanalytical therapy." "Every descent into the perverse and the unappetising takes place for the purpose of bringing about healing awareness." Increasing disgust and horror and crossing all boundaries and taboos should ultimately lead to an affirmation of life transcending life and death; being is to be embraced in its entirety.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE ORGIEN MYSTERIEN THEATER
my earliest experiments in drama made use of the word, of language. the actors were to speak their lines (as in classical theatre), play their roles. my priority was to combine values creative and sensory in terms of language, as evident for instance in lyric poetry, with what was specifically dramatic. i saw this union achieved only in classical tragedy and in kleist. the separation between drama and poetry disturbed me. i wanted to bring the latter into the action plot far more emphatically as hitherto, without however reducing dramatic power. this led to a sensory intensity almost baroque in its proliferation, a creativity with words that was expressively surreal, which language itself had to breach if it was to come into contact with and fashion reality. language was packed with sensual images and forged ahead, towards its own dissolution. a lot that was libidinal, unconscious swelled and seeped into the language, which could not cope though. recollection of sensual perception, activated through language, was not enough. the need for actual feeling thrust through language, language inhibited intensive, sensory feeling. a rush of the dionysian took it by surprise, repressed sensuality was activated. i could no longer find any satisfaction with language, it was now a mere relic, a symbol (remembrance of what was once experienced). i wanted to penetrate to reality, to real experience, so as to elaborate an art that is only an aesthetic arrangement of what is directly experienced. to complement and enrich my language results, i introduced the directly immediate registration of certain sensory perceptions and feelings, as demanded by the play. the audience had to register smells, tastes and tactile sensations. they had to pour and slop fluids, for example:
- hot water
- lukewarm water
- hot blood serum
- greasy wash water
besides the visual perception, registering the smells and temperatures of the fluids was integral. additionally, the audience members has to pass objects around amongst themselves. raw flesh was carried through the crowd in wooden troughs filled with lukewarm water. instructions were given that a dead, skinned ox be carried through the audience, which was to be disembowelled and ripped to pieces. the actors (covered with blood) were to do this screaming, extremely agitated, triggered by the organized sensory impact the substances (flesh, bowels, blood, etc) were having. the final tearing into pieces and dismembering of the animal by the audience had to come of itself. i demanded of the audience the performance of actions with concrete objects on laboratory benches. these acts were almost like physiochemical experiments, with the difference that for the “experiments of the o.m. theatre” the substances, fluids and objects were not related to one another for the purpose of natural science. i did not understand the objects used in terms of their chemical, physical functions but in terms of their potential to evoke a relishing registration running along channels towards form. similar to alchemy the objects were related to one another with a view to their symbolic value and on the other hand their sensory transmission value in the sense of gestating form. the various objects with their specific symbol aura and sensory radiance constitute the elementary components which, correctly used, result in form. through the analytical forging of interrelationships between smells, tastes, tactile sensations, felt temperatures, visual sensations and resultant language a sensitization of human feeling was to be achieved in the direction of a pleasure-brining registration (of form)…
- Hermann Nitsch, Die Entwicklung des OM Theaters, in: Hermann Nitsch: Das Orgien Mysterien Theater 2. Theoretische Schriften, Partiturentwurf zum 6 Tagespiel“, Neapel 1976, S. 113-115.