Boal: The Fable of Xua-Xua, the Pre-Human Woman who Discovered Theatre

Excerpts from “Games for Actors and Non-Actors” by Augusto Boal, translated by Adrian Jackson

“The word ‘theatre’ is so rich in different meanings, some complementary, some contradictory, that we never know what we mean when we talk about theatre.

Which theatre do we mean?

First of all, theatre is a place: a building, any kind of construction specifically designed to house shows, plays, theatrical presentations. In this context the word ‘theatre’ takes in all the paraphernalia of theatrical production-sets, lights, costumes, etc-and all the agents of that production, the actors, playwrights, directors, designers and so on.

Theatre is the setting for major events, comic or tragic, which we are obliged to observe at a distance, as spectators: the theatre of crime, the theatre of war, the theatre of the play of our passions.

We can also use the word ‘theatre’ in reference to the great social occasions: the inauguration of a monument, the launching of a ship, the coronation of a monarch, a military parade, a mass, a ball. The word ‘rite’ can be used to designate these manifestations of theatre.

Theatre can also be the repetitive acts of daily life. We perform the play of breakfast, the scene of going to work, the act of working, the epilogue of supper, the epics of Sunday lunch with the family, etc.; like actors in a long run of successful show, repeating the same lines to the same partners, thousand of times over.

Life can become a series of mechanisations, as rigid and as lifeless as the movement of machine. This type of theatre, encrusted in our lives, can be called ’profane ritual(s)’.

Phrases like ‘over dramatising’, making a scene, playing it up-or in French ‘faire du theatre’ – are used to describe situations where people are manipulated or exaggerating or distorting the truth. In this context, theatre and lies are synonymous.

But in a most archaic sense, theatre is the capacity possessed by human beings – and not by animals – to observe themselves in action. Humans are capable of seeing themselves in the act of seeing, of thinking their emotions, of being moved by their thoughts. They can see themselves here and imagine themselves there; they can see themselves today and imagine themselves tomorrow.

That’s why humans are capable to identify (themselves and others) and not merely to recognise. A cat recognises its master, who gives it food and strokes it, but can not identify him as a teacher, a professional person, a lover. To identify is to be able not only to recognise within the same repetitive context but also to extrapolate to others contexts; to see beyond what the eyes see, to hear beyond what the ear hears, to feel beyond what touches the skin, to think beyond what words mean.

I can identify a friend by a single gesture, a painter by his style, a politician by the policies he supports. Even in the absence of the subject, I can identify his mark, his traces, his actions, his merits.

THE FABLE OF XUA-XUA, THE PRE-HUMAN WOMAN WHO DISCOVERED THEATRE

An ancient Chinese fable, dating form ten thousand years before Christ, tells the story of xua-xua (Pronounced ‘shwa-shwa’), the pre-human woman who made the extraordinary discovery of theatre.

According to this old tale, it was a woman not a man! – who made this discovery.

Men only embezzled this wonderful art and at various times through ages, exclude women as actors and even as spectators. In some societies men even appropriated and acted women’s role – for instance, in Shakespearean times young boys (men not yet adult, not yet mature) played fully grown queens! In Greek Theatre women were not even allowed to be passive spectators… Because theatre is such a strong and powerful art, men invented new ways of using what was essentially women’s discovery. Women discovered the art and men invented its artifices – buildings, playacting.

Xua-Xua lived hundreds of thousands of years ago, when pre-women and pre-men wandered from mountains to valley, from land to sea, killing other animals to feed themselves, eating leaves and fruits from trees, drinking water from rivers, protecting themselves inside caverns among the rocks.

These pre-human lived in hordes to defend themselves. Xua-Xua – who of course had no such name, nor any other, as no verbal language had yet been invented. Xua-Xua was the most beautiful female in her horde and Li-Peng was the strongest of the males.

Naturally they were attracted to each other; they liked swimming together, climbing trees and mountains together, they liked to smell and lick one another, to touch, to embrace, have sex together. It was good to be with one another. Together.

They were happy as happy as two pre-human people could be.

One day Xua-Xua felt her body becoming different. Her belly was growing. And as her belly grew, she became shy and started to avoid Li-Peng who couldn’t understand what was happening; his Xua-Xua was no longer the same Xua-Xua, neither physically nor in her moods. They kept their distance from one another.

Xua-Xua liked to stay alone watching her belly; Li-Peng went off in pursuit of other females but could find no one like his original female.

Xua-Xua felt her belly moving; when she was on the point of falling asleep, her belly would shift from right to left, from left to right. As time went by her belly grew bigger and bigger and move more and more. Like a well behaved member of the audience, Li-Ping looked on from afar, very sad and very afraid. He just watched without acting, spectator to her incomprehensible actions.

In his mother’s womb, Lig-Lig-Le – this was the name of the child, even though he had no name because no language had yet been invented but this is an old Chinese fable where all liberties are licensed and welcomed! – was growing bigger and bigger but he cold not determine the extent and limits of his body. Did his body stop at his skin? At the amniotic fluid in which he was floating?  Did Lig-Lig-Li end at the limits of his mother’s surrounding body? Was that the world? He and his mother and the world were one single unity, he were they and they were he. This is why even today when we immerse our naked bodies in the water of a bathtub, the swimming pool or the sea, we feel again those primal sensations, we merge our bodies with the whole world, Mother Earth.

This confusion of body and the world could occur because Lig-Lig-Le’s senses were not yet fully activated; he still couldn’t see because his eyes were closed, he couldn’t smell because there was no atmosphere in that tiny cramped space and he couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t taste because he was fed through the umbilical cord and not through his mouth. He couldn’t feel because his skin was always touching the same liquid at the same temperature and there was nothing to compare it with. All feeling is comparing: we sense a sound because we can hear silence, we smell a perfume because we can smell bad odours.

Hearing was the first sense to make a clear appearance. Lig-Lig-Le was concretely stimulated by his ears. He heard continuous rhythms, periodical sounds and aleatory noises – his mother’s heart beat and his own, blood running fast, gastric sounds and external voices.

His first clear sensations were acoustic and he had to organise those sounds, to orchestrate them; that’s why music is the most archaic art, the most deeply rooted – it comes from the womb. It helps to organise the world but not to understand it; it is a pre-human art, created before birth.

The other arts came after, when other senses were revealed. One month after birth the baby starts to see, at first only shapes, then with more precision.

But what can we see, we adults? We see a continuous flow of images in movement. That’s why we need the plastic arts to fix images, to immobilise them, which is impossible in daily life.

Photography, cinema, impressionism came later to immobilise movement itself.

These arts see reality from the outside; dance, by contrast, penetrates movement and organises it, using sound to support this organisation. These are the three artistic senses – hearing and sight, the main ones and between the actors – and occasionally from actor to audience – touch. The other two – taste and smell – are concerned with practical aspects of animal life.

One bright, sunny day, Xua-Xua gave birth to a child, on the banks of the river. Still Li-Peng, watched from behind the tree, taking no action, frightened.

This was pure magic. Xua-Xua looked at her child but could not understand. That tiny little body was part of her body; it had been inside her, now it was outside her, but undoubtedly it was she. Mother and child were one and the same; the evidence was that the small body (part of her) wanted to come back, to join with the big body by sucking her breast. So she could rest assured, she was both, both bodies were she. Without doubt. From  afar Li-Peng, the good spectator observed.

Lig-Lig-Le grew up, learned to walk on his two feet, to feed on things other than the milk from the mother-body. And in the same measure he became more independent, sometimes he would not obey the big body. Xua-Xua was terrified – it was like telling one’s hands to pray and instead they start to box, or telling one’s leg to sit and they walk away. A rebellion was taking place, led by a small part of her – a small but dear part of her body. And she would look at herself-mother and herself-baby; both of them were she, but one of her was playing tricks, being naughty, disobeying. Li-Peng merely watched them (watching her-big and her-small). He kept his distance, just looking.

One day, Xua-Xua was sleeping. Li-Peng was curious, because he could not understand the relation between Xua-Xua and her son, and he wanted to try to establish his own relationship with the boy. So when the boy awoke before his mother. Li-Peng attracted his attention, and two of them went off together. From the start Li-Peng knew that he and the boy were two different bodies, the boy was ‘the other’ and not himself, not Li.

Li-Peng taught Lig-Lig-Le how to hunt and fish and the boy was happy. When Xua-Xua awoke and looked for her small body and could not find it, she was unhappy. She cried and cried – she had lost part of herself – and shouted and shouted, hoping her cries would be heard but Li-Peng and the little had gone away.

However, since they belonged to the same horde, a few days later Xua-Xua saw them both, father and child. She wanted to get her baby-body back but he refused, for he was also happy with his father, who taught him things his mother didn’t know.

Xua-Xua had to accept that the small body even though it had been born inside her – it was she! – was also somebody else, with his own needs and desires. The refusal of Lig-Lig-Le to obey his mother made her aware that they were two, not one; she did not want to stay with Li-Peng, Lig-lig-Le wanted to – each had made their own choice!

Each had an opinion. Each had their own feelings. They were different people.

This recognition forced her to identify herself: Who was she? Who was her child? Who was Li-Peng? Where were they? What would happen next time, if her belly swelled again? Did she like Li-Peng as much now as she had done before? Would she try other males, as he had tried other females? Would all males be as predatory as Li-Peng? And what about she-herself? Would she stay the same? What would happen tomorrow?

Xua-Xua looked  for answers by looking at herself.

In that moment, theatre was discovered. The moment when Xua-Xua gave up trying to recover her baby and keep him all for herself, accepted that he was somebody else, and looked at herself, emptied of part of herself. At that moment, she was at one and the same time, Actor and Spectator. She was Spect-Actor. In discovering theatre, the being became human.

This is theatre – the art of looking at ourselves.”

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