The Last Temptation of Christ

See the bottom of the page for a list of all films cited in this article.

Theatre-Film Contact as an Edge Phenomenon

According to Baz Kershaw, edge phenomena in biology and ecology are “places, such as riverbanks and seashores, where two or more ecosystems rub up against each other to produce especially dynamic life-forms and processes” (1). In this essay, Kershaw’s term serves as a starting-point for exploring the contact area between theatre and film and how these two environments change and enrich each other. Such contacts are made by the Wooster Group actor Willem Dafoe through his alternating presence in theatre and film. The discussion of films will go beyond the particulars of a single play’s or film’s plot or dialogue to include the “nonrational”, nonverbal “hinterland” (2) of a performance. Characters and other “signs” will be read as iconotexts: in other words, we will look not only at how a performer enacts a given role but also at how he or she signifies something beyond themselves (3), for example by evoking other narratives or roles they have played. A character as an iconotext may also bring up a whole tradition or a myth. Even an object, put into context within a semantic system, can be read as an iconotext (e.g. in Shadow of the Vampire, the steam train, the white coats of the filmmakers, or even light itself).

One might wonder why Dafoe’s film appearances are different from other stage actors “gone Hollywood”, or why his presence on the stage of the Performing Garage on Wooster Street in downtown New York differs from the performances of Hollywood star-imports gracing the stages of Broadway. But while the commuting of stars between stage and screen is a common phenomenon, Dafoe is a special case. Here, a series of characters that Willem Dafoe has played will be examined in order to construe a paradigm which shows that the rule of realism and naturalism in mainstream cinema can be disrupted in ways more subtle than the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres allow; and that this is possible through the transfer of typically “theatrical” techniques from stage to film, especially the moment of ritual. “Ritual” in the religious-anthropological sense refers to an action that has a profound or spiritual meaning for a community striving towards “reconciliation and reordering through sacrifice” (4). In a more secularised sense, “ritual” refers to the regular, rhythmical repetition of certain actions in our daily lives even if severed from their original meaning (5).

Myths and rituals, even in their secular form – for example the cycle of going away and returning within a narrative – allow us to resolve contradictions and make sense of the world (6). One of the oldest myths is the repeated death and resurrection of a single character, as in the story of Jesus or the martyrs. The appeal of such stories may be explained by the need (conscious or not) of modern or postmodern viewers to be reconnected to the roots of drama or of life itself.

The desire to transgress the limits and limitations of human existence is a driving force behind all art. At times when the individual feels fragmented or alienated, (s)he strives for a unity within, that is, a synthesis between intellectual and physical faculties, because such centredness can be a source of energy which is in turn vital for surviving or retaining one’s integrity in adverse conditions As will be shown below, Dafoe’s approach to performance stems from the theatrical tradition of the counterculture of the 1960s, which can be placed in the tradition of the Surrealists and the Romantics: criticising the materialism of consumer societies and aiming to dissolve the limitations of the everyday, explore the worlds hidden beneath surfaces, and reach higher states of awareness. If at first glance the counterculture was simply out to shock the bourgeoisie through confrontational actions such as Happenings and sit-ins, its truly revolutionary aspect was its underlying desire to eliminate all established divisions: between onstage and off, between high and low culture, between “fictitious” and “real”, between “actor” and “spectator”. Only if the authority of such divisions was undermined could theatre become a truly collective, and therefore empowering, experience.


In Dafoe’s stage and film work, the moments when he displays his naked or partially naked body tend to be especially crucial. Apart from its shock value, nudity can be interpreted as a signifier of high purity because it is devoid of any cultural attributes. There is nothing more concrete and authentic than naked flesh. The actor’s bare body represents a defiance of the “rich” theatre which is equipped with costumes and scenery, and dialogue-driven. A “poor” theatre, which relies on the body and on the gestural and vocal expressive resources of the actor, has a greater capacity to reach the audience’s senses and thereby establish the desired communion with the spectator. At the same time nudity is an ambiguous signifier of a skin-deep surface reality, hinting at the evanescence of all things physical. Film lacks the physical presence of the performer. This lack of presence and of the sensuality that comes with the proximity of a small stage represents a challenge that certain filmmakers and actors address by encouraging a heightened awareness of physicality. Death, torture of the body, humiliation of body and spirit, physical or moral deviation, are all situations that Dafoe’s characters are typically exposed to. In moments of intense physical or psychological agony, there is a facet running counter to naturalistic expectations: a moment that tells us, sometimes with an ironic twist, that the suffering is accepted as “part of the game” or even embraced as an escape from the confines of a given reality. Physically pushed to the limit, these characters are surprised when they find themselves on the threshold of the metaphysical.

Elements of Ritual in Film Appearances of Willem Dafoe

Slick master-counterfeiter Rick Masters burning like a human torch in To Live and Die in L.A.; technical genius Geiger exploding in his plane caught on a needle-like post above an oil-tanker; drug dealer LeTour shot and returning to life in prison; bomber pilot Virgil Cole committing sacrificial suicide in black-face while camping it up for his comrades with a last cigarette; Sergeant Elias covered by bullets, his arms raised towards heaven and the rescuing helicopter; bandit Bobby Peru shooting his own head off; Jesus on the cross hallucinating about life and a wife; the Green Goblin impaled by his own lethal spikes; Gas, the operator of a gas station, calling himself God the Mechanic – such is the stuff that Willem Dafoe’s films are made of. Fairly spiritual, and funny, too, to borrow Gas’ description of ArtGod, a forerunner of the hottest of all virtual games, eXistenZ (7) in David Cronenberg’s science fiction thriller of the same name.

Dafoe’s roles are connected with death and various forms of suffering; even his early action movies or thrillers, with their car, plane, or boat chases ending in sensational, sometimes cartoon-like crashes and deaths, are underscored by metaphysical subtexts adding a spiritual or ritual dimension to the visible surface reality. Thus the heightened physical awareness generated by images of violence does not simply serve the purpose of creating images of cinematic beauty or of the stereotypical “postmodern heavy” (8). Rather, his roles are manifestations of the archetype of the individual in extreme agony, stripped to essentials in a fight against an inimical environment. In The English Patient, his thumbs are cut off during an inquisition-like torture scene; later he injects himself with an overdose of drugs. Self-mutilation ensures his survival in Animal Factory: he opens his arteries in order to use his own blood in a ploy to escape from solitary confinement. Another, related attribute of Dafoe’s film performances is radical physical transformation, both from film to film (in Wild at Heart, his atrocious set of teeth as “Bobby Peru” is beyond ugliness) and within a single role. His passage from ambitious scientist-businessman to destructive monster in Spider-Man evokes images of torture, of a sadistic science experiment, or of the last moments in a death cell. Half-undressed, Dafoe is strapped to a stretcher while the total transformation brought about by a newly developed chemical is made visible in the contorted movements of his body and face (9). Apart from using his whole body as a tool for expression, Dafoe instrumentalises a wide variety of “voices” for creating different characters. In Spider-Man he is able to play both Norman Osborn and the Green Goblin talking to one another by mere variations of the voice pitch and facial expression. His finely-tuned range of registers and accents make it possible to create 11 characters plus the narrator in the audio book of Stephen King’s One Past Midnight: The Langoliers.

Wild at Heart

At first glance, Dafoe’s roles could be divided into heroes and villains, angels and demons, gods and monsters. Yet even the Christ-like figures display human weaknesses and flaws while the villainous characters have an alluring side, resembling Übermenschen who escape moral judgement. In Wild at Heart, David Lynch creates a larger-than-life figure of self-enjoying and self-destroying evil from the novel’s “black angel” Bobby Peru (10), a Vietnam War veteran of indefinite origins whose evil lasciviousness and eerie handsomeness, making him attractive and repulsive at the same time, are as far over the top as his end. When he shoots his own head off from below with a vertically held rifle, the head bounces off and rolls along the ground. The scene is no more tragic than if it were in a cartoon: the severed human body part is all of a sudden no more than a rubber ball. In Paul Auster’s film Lulu on the Bridge, an allegory about the power of the unconscious and the contingencies of life and death in the guise of a thriller, Dafoe’s character, the anthropologist Dr van Horn, is associated with the machinations of nightmarish, Kafkaesque evil. Yet he is also an interrogating angel situated between the just-deceased protagonist, Izzy, and the gates of death. The ambiguity of Van Horn’s character is encapsulated in his words to the captive Izzy, “May God have mercy on your soul” (11).

Dafoe’s characters inhabit the edge between this and another world, between the physical and the spiritual, between life and death. They defy moral absolutes. Through a closer analysis of some films featuring Dafoe, one can distinguish a number of different types of transgression.

First, there are films where Dafoe’s character lives in, and goes back and forth between, two worlds or two different communities. In Light Sleeper (1991), for example, professional drug dealer John LeTour leads a shadowy existence, meandering between the criminal world and “ordinary” middle class citizens. He commutes between the hellish luxury apartment of his femme fatale boss, (Susan Sarandon) – dominated by the colours black, red and gold – and the heavenly white apartment of his psychic therapist (Mary Beth Hurt) whom he asks for a prediction of his future. Encumbered by his existence as a high-class criminal at the edge of society and by chronic sleeplessness, he touches on life and death, consciousness and unconsciousness. His “death” disrupts the conventions of an action thriller: when LeTour is shot by rival drug dealers, his face freezes and blood spurts out from several spots of his upper body in dark red gushes; he falls down slowly, with his arms stretched out in a stylised crucifixion pose, backwards onto the bed. In the next scene LeTour re-appears in jail as a prisoner facing his former boss across the partition during visitors’ hours: he has escaped from near-death to another transitory place. There is no clear-cut solution at the end as LeTour remains in physical and legal limbo.

Body of Evidence

Similarly, characters played by Dafoe transgress established physical or moral borders such as the division between law and justice, crime and integrity. For example in Body of Evidence, the defense attorney Frank Dulaney (Dafoe) enters a forbidden liaison with his client (Madonna), the body of evidence herself, who is an icon not of innocence but of murder, cunning, and seduction. In a scene of ironic role-reversal, the man of law and order – every sinew and muscle tight with anticipation – yields himself to ritualised love-making as “Madonna” approaches him with a white candle and drips hot wax on his naked chest. The Boondock Saints, pseudo-documentary in style and infused with Christian and Greek symbolism, features Dafoe as the exceptionally gifted FBI special agent Paul Smecker who transcends the dividing lines between official justice, vigilante justice, and crime. He supports the murderers he officially hunts down, two devout Catholics who commit themselves to ridding Boston of the “bad guys”. Smecker’s intuitive identification with the criminals turned saints is expressed in his “acting out” each of the killings in sync with the perpetrators, to better put himself in the shoes and frame of mind of the criminals. His changing attitude becomes visible in his outer appearance: as he gradually identifies himself with the “righteous criminals”, his formerly tight and proper look becomes more and more dishevelled. In a climactic scene when he psychologically unites himself with the criminals, the orderly mask of his face dissolves, the tie is undone, the shirt opened, and his formerly straight face expresses the wild look of frenzy that liberation can bring about. His methods of investigation now also include cross-dressing. Ethically troubled, Smecker consults a priest: in the ensuing scene set in a confessional booth, a chiaroscuro close-up of Dafoe is reminiscent of his portrait on the poster for the Wooster Group’s 1997–8 production of The Hairy Ape. Black and white merge on his very face; similarly, there is no clear distinction between good and evil in his actions.

Other film characters played by Dafoe are outsiders who enter a community and affect it in a crucial way. As well as Dr Van Horn, examples include the thief Caravaggio in The English Patient, the history teacher Rolfe Whitehouse in Affliction, the CIA Special Agent John Clark in Clear and Present Danger, and the military cop Buck McGriff in Saigon. In Mississippi Burning, Dafoe’s character named Ward is an FBI-man from the North who comes “down South” to investigate a murder case and, by virtue of deviation from the federal textbook, not only clears the case but sets off a chain of events that symbolise major developments in the civil rights movement of the ’60s. The character constellation of Tom and Viv, the story of T.S. Eliot and his first wife Vivian (Miranda Richardson) based on the play by Michael Hastings (1984), is particularly intricate. The American Tom converts to the Anglican Church and the English way of life. When confronted with his wife’s illness, Eliot’s confinement within the restrictions of patriarchal society symbolised in the recurring motif of physical barriers between him and his environment contributes to her estrangement and eventual exclusion from society. In Victory, an allegory of the redeeming powers of love merged with elements of the creation story and the story of Troy (12), the position of Axel Heyst (Dafoe) is morally and legally ambivalent. For his antagonist Schomberg (Jean Yanne), the mysterious Swede who supposedly stole a fortune from his business partner represents the personification of evil. Heyst’s relationship with Alma, the female protagonist, is one of mutual salvation. He rescues the young woman from exploitation at the hands of the corrupt owner of a ladies’ orchestra; she takes him out of his universe of detachment and scepticism. At the end of the film, the ambivalence is not resolved. When Alma is killed, Heyst’s passion is so intense that he sets his whole estate afire, insisting that they perish together in a Liebestod; but according to the possibly unreliable narrator, Heyst escapes from the all-consuming flames and turns into a restless wanderer.

Another category of characters played by Dafoe are those make a tragic movement from community to isolation in order to become hero-figures. The dope-smoking, swearing Sergeant Elias of Platoon (1986), based on an actual man of the same name whom Oliver Stone had met during the Vietnam War and come to regard as a mythical figure, is a symbol for the conflicting views on the war that divided Americans (13). In the screenplay Stone provides Elias with the natural sense of grace, the charismatic power and the dignity of a heathen god (14) at one with his surroundings. Rejecting human-made moral principles, Elias aligns himself with the natural elements: “The stars … there’s no right or wrong in them, they’re just there” (15). And yet the character Elias is complex enough also to symbolise hope and the search for truth and meaning in life as expressed in his spiritual bond with Stone’s fictitious counterpart, the narrator Chris. Elias’ death is ambiguous in various ways, not least because of the stylised pose of his body as he seems to be coming after the rescuing helicopter. Kneeling and arms raised in the air while he is shot at from behind, the gesture could be one of supplication or of resignation. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) depicts not a saviour in his full glory but the suffering mind and body of a very human son of man who is painfully transformed into the Son of God. During the prolonged moments of his dying, the tortured and emaciated body is in full display while the agonised hero on the border between life and death is riveted between the normal life he could have had, and his assigned role as the saviour of mankind. The mind-body dichotomy is painfully explicit here because what we watch during the latter part of the film is a mind fully functioning while the body is slowly but surely dying. The unification of body and mind can only happen in the moment of death.

Pavilion of Women

In Pavilion of Women, set in China in the late 1930s, Father André (played by Dafoe, the only Westerner in the cast of this Chinese production), a foreign priest without any family or other social ties, is an outsider in every possible way. Having established an orphanage for the abandoned and illegitimate children in the province of Wu, he enters the rich Wu household as a private teacher. Through his teachings and his presence, he changes the life of the family. The soul union between the Christian André and the traditional Buddhist Madame Wu leads to a passionate sexual encounter (16), the first climax of the film. Another climax is reached at the end when André, like his namesake, dies a martyr’s death (17). He saves the lives of Madame Wu and the village children by distracting the troops of the Japanese invaders, who shoot at him from the back again and again while he is running away. The impact of every rifle shot is displayed as André’s figure twists under the spray of bullets penetrating his body. The death scene is shown in slow motion, to heighten the sense of cruelty and also the impression that time is slowing down while André is transformed from the friend he had come to be, to anonymous victim of war, to saviour and eventually to martyr. André’s limp body is added to a heap of anonymous corpses, but this scene acquires a mythical dimension as his sacrifice in the name of the salvation of the community leads to his spiritual resurrection. In the final scene of the film, the children who have been saved by his intervention celebrate their joy in life by adopting the Christian names that André (posthumously called “One Honourable Foreign Heart”) (18) had chosen for them and which reflect the values that he had personified: Honesty, Faith, Truth, Mercy, Light, Grace. The youngest is named Love by Madame Wu, a former sceptic who has been liberated from her confined image of herself and the world by the experience of love for André.

Apart from tormented Christ-figures or alluring demons like the uncannily seductive Bobby Peru, Dafoe’s repertoire of “supernatural” personae includes aerial or ethereal characters. Borrowing a term of Susan Broadhurst’s, Emit Flesti in Faraway, So Close!, the sequel to Wings of Desire, could be described as a liminal character. The lack of resolution in Wings is symptomatic of its liminality (19); it celebrated growth and reconciliation before the actual historical event of the reunification of Germany. The deconstruction of oppositions in the then divided city of Berlin therefore anticipated the end of the two opposing systems. In Faraway, So Close!, produced after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the metaphysical character Emit Flesti, “Time Itself” reversed, has been introduced as a link between the angels and the humans. Questions concerning Emit (Is he good? Bad? A helper? A fraud? A demon? A businessman? Present or invisible? Real or imaginary?) are perpetually deferred. The elusiveness of Emit, whose outfit and style are changed every time he appears, adds a sense of confusion as well as urgency.

Transgression in Shadow of the Vampire

A paradigm for many of the kinds of border-crossings that occur throughout Dafoe’s work, Shadow of the Vampire not only depicts a liminal character living at the border of life and death, of past, present and eternity – it is also a direct commentary on encounters between stage and film. Starring John Malkovich as the German film director F.W. Murnau shooting Nosferatu and Dafoe as his male lead Max Schreck, the film is set in the 1920s, a crucial period for both film and theatre. In social-historical terms the period saw increasing social alienation and a widespread yearning for the replacement of the old, no longer acceptable values, as well as the rise of new mass media which paved the way for the theatricalisation of politics. It is the period when the French theatre actor and director Antonin Artaud began to develop his holistic approach to theatre, the expressionistic and ritualistic Theatre of Cruelty typified by its assault on the senses of the audience, in opposition to real-life atrocities on the one hand, and to the realism dominating film and the mainstream stage on the other. When his theories were anthologised as The Theatre and Its Double in 1938, the book’s title was inspired by one of Artaud’s leitmotifs – overthrowing the dualism of life and art.

Shadow of the Vampire

Shadow of the Vampire focuses on, and at the same time deconstructs, the conflicting forces of the time: photography and film vs theatre, stage-uniqueness vs film-reproducibility, “realism” vs “ritual”. It also makes a comment on the struggle between director, writer and actor that has been going on since the 19th century and later came to include a fourth player, “the camera”. Significantly the man behind the camera is the first one to be bitten by Schreck and die.

Linked to this aesthetic discourse is a comment on European history, on developments in the economy and science, and on the uprise of Nazism in Germany in the 1920s. For example, the white coats of Murnau and his filmmaking team do not only symbolise science (medicine) in general but within the film’s specific historical setting also evoke Nazi doctors. The presence of the German actor Udo Kier (as producer Albin Grau) whom American audiences associate with the stereotype of a Nazi or horror movie monster, adds to this dimension. The train named “Charon” and the wagons leaving the train station one misty morning may suggest a journey into a concentration camp, or an attempted flight for safety across the border.

The image of Murnau holding a snippet of film in his hand evokes his control over the artistic process, but also film as a new “art” as suggested by Benjamin’s essay on art in the age of mechanical reproduction, one with a special power to manipulate its audience (particularly through montage) (20). The historical camera lens used by Murnau is caught by the contemporary film camera several times in close-up, an observation and reflection by the film medium itself on itself and its history. Murnau’s morphine-injection equipment also appears in close-up more than once. Both the camera and the syringe are Murnau’s weapons, and both can be used to animate and to destroy. At the very beginning Greta, the stage-diva who will play van Helsing’s wife, complains that film is sucking the life out of her; she would rather return to the theatre stages of Berlin than travel to a foreign land for the completion of the movie. After the production is relocated to Heligoland (where Heisenberg was working on his quantum physics theories around the time of the making of Nosferatu) for the shooting of the final scenes, she is literally sucked empty by the vampire after being tranquilised with a morphine-injection. Murnau’s masterpiece equals the death of the actress, immortalised on film.

Murnau’s “star actor” Max Schreck (Dafoe) is surrounded by an aura of vagueness and ambiguity from the start: one does not know for sure whether he really is a former member of the Reinhardt company, where exactly he comes from, or where and how he lives. In his first appearance he emerges from a long and eerie tunnel which seems to connect two different worlds. The other actors are stunned and terrified by him. The question, “Is he a vampire – or a perfect Method actor?” hovers in the air at all times; whenever Schreck appears, it becomes as palpable as the live bat he swallows down with a swig from a bottle. The supposed vampire is attracted to and fascinated by the light emanating from the camera; his experience borders on the sublime when he watches a sunrise transmitted by a film projector and hence without danger. As opposed to acting for the camera, being in the film (i.e. fixed for memory) arouses the vampire’s desire. In a scene resembling a showdown between the “Special Guest Appearance” from Schreck and the God-like director Murnau, Schreck manages to rise above Murnau. When Schreck, slowly rising, says, “This is hardly your picture any longer”, Murnau the film director starts losing it. Their fight for dominance ends in the destruction of cast and crew members. The real survivor is the camera, together with the film it has recorded.

The Wooster Group and Its Tradition: Traces of Artaud, Grotowski, and Theatre as Ritual

The Hairy Ape, a Wooster Group production

An iconographic or symbolic subtext suggests that Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire can be seen as a personification of the “Performer” (21), with a capital letter, the idealised persona construed by the Polish theatre visionary Jerzy Grotowski (22) given artistic impetus by archetypal images of human suffering derived from antique myths (including the death and resurrection of Christ) as well as historical events, specifically the Holocaust. The Performer is a special being for whom acting and life are one and the same. Imitating emotions would equal “pure hypocrisy” according to Grotowski in an 1967 interview (23), whereas the challenge is to “stop the cheating, find the authentic impulses. The goal is to find a meeting between the text and the actor” (24). For the Performer, there is no pretence in acting because there is no “acting” in the conventional sense of faking; because knowledge means doing; and because in the unified personality of the Performer essence and conscience, body, spirit and intellect are one in a dynamic relationship. Grotowski, who wanted to tear down the barrier between audience and stage, imagined the relationship between Performer’s self and the role not as a dialectic but as a continuum. In statements like the following, where the focus is on body movement and action rather than on psychological identification with another, fictional character, Dafoe puts himself in Grotowski’s tradition, creating an image of himself as an anti-Method actor:

I will not lie. I think I’ve got something. But I think it has more to do with who am I than what I do, and why I want to do it… I’m good at committing to something as if my life depended on it, in a quiet, intense way. When I get in front of a camera and engage myself in an action, I become single-minded and I become like an animal. It’s intuitive…each time it’s a new adventure. Performing can almost be a spiritual practice (25).

“Self-knowledge”, “self-research” and “rebirth” (26) are keywords in Grotowski’s concept of Poor Theatre that relies on the voice, body, and conscience of the performer as the sole means of expression. If this transcendent stage has been reached, as is the case with Schreck, who is both human and vampire, it makes no difference in which medium the Performer is situated. Never putting on a costume, make-up or stereotypical vampire attributes such as protruding eye-teeth, Schreck/Nosferatu just walks onto the set and is himself (27). When he appears most natural, most convincing in his acting, the Performer is oblivious of the result or of the effect on the audience. Schreck/Nosferatu/Dafoe touches upon the essence of the Performer – a concept that can hardly be grasped but which is represented metaphorically at the end of the meta-filmic shooting of Nosferatu. The title “Shadow of the Vampire”, a reversal of the film’s working title “Burned to Light”, reflects the impact of light on an object rather than light itself. We, the audience watching the scenes of Shadow of the Vampire which reproduce both Nosferatu and the making of Nosferatu, perceive Schreck/Nosferatu/Dafoe from the point of view of the camera as he “freezes” to an ashen-grey in a solarised photo in which black and white, positive and negative, the surface and the latent image are reversed as a result of overexposure to extremely bright light. For the Vampire/the Performer, light signifies both destruction and the way to immortality. In a single moment, artificial light emanating from the camera and “real” light from the rising sun is shed on Dafoe (the Performer and the man), the actor Max Schreck (the real person and screenwriter Steven Katz’s reinvention of him), the vampire Count Orlock, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the series of Dracula variations created and re-created in film history. Faced with (real) sunlight when the gate opens, the vampire dissolves and is at the same time fixed on film for eternity. What is captured for us to see is the moment of transition when an organism changes under the influence of light.

For the Surrealists, the photomorphic process has been an analogy for looking inward and exploring realities hidden underneath the surface (28). When the edges between the actor who plays a vampire who plays an actor who plays a vampire become fluid, the notions of presence and absence, real and imaginary, are similarly destabilised. The playful interplay between fiction, meta-fiction and real life is echoed in one of Dafoe’s comments on his film acting:

Every time you make a movie, you have to reinvent the process. Here I knew what the process would be. I knew it would not be naturalistic, there was an accent… Once I enter the frame, I know it’s time. I tell Willem to take a hike and I can be Max Schreck…you don’t know what’s required until you get to the scene. When you’re in the space, in costume, when you’re inhaling the character, another thing kicks in. Life is the same way. You don’t know until you get there (29).

Concepts and ideas from Grotowski’s Poor Theatre and Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty form part of the theatrical tradition of the Wooster Group. Contemporary understandings of Grotowski and Artaud see them as accepting the reality of evil in their search for truth (30), “the reality treated superficially, or denied by so-called realistic theatre” (31).

What is perhaps less known is that Artaud had already had ambitions to cross the boundary between theatre and film by trying out film acting and directing. With one of his enterprises, a horror film scenario, he tried to impress the expressionist filmmakers in Germany and Hollywood. The 32 was quite obviously modelled on the mass-murdering vampire of Murnau’s Nosferatu (32). According to Susan Sontag, “by the mid-1920s Artaud had two possible candidates for the role of total art: cinema and theatre” (33). But rather than giving the title of master art of the past century single-handedly to either cinema or theatre, an alternative would be shifting the focus to the moments where the two arts meet and interact, for example in Dafoe’s alternating presence in an experimental theatre company and TV and movie productions of the last 20 years (34).

Dafoe’s ongoing search for re-invention, aiming for what critics (35) call the “essence” of theatre, a kind of acting that lays bare the fundamentals of human existence as if on the very edge of survival, affects the entirety of the film productions he is part of. As Elizabeth LeCompte, the director of the Wooster Group, pointed out, the Performer’s interest extends to the entire piece he or she is part of, its meaning and overall concept. The Performer has “a much greater intellectual stake in the performance itself” (36).

Performing Presence/Absence in Fishing with John

Baz Kershaw’s comments, quoted at the start of this article, suggested that the edge between water and land is an exceptionally fertile ground where new species prosper, where such a thing as “the” edge does not exist because earth and water form a continuum in constant flux. In Fishing with John, John Lurie’s five-part TV series, Dafoe’s liminal performance focalises the mythical undercurrent of the narrative while at the same time deconstructing the notion of a continuum between actor and role.

Traces of a religious subtext can be found in the theme, characters, and contents of the entire series, minimalist as it may be. It could be interpreted as a contemporary, secular interpretation of the story of Jesus, the Fisher of Men. The main theme is water and its life-giving powers, nourishment, procreation and vegetation, and what connects water and life, namely fishing. The Narrator’s voice-over provides the following introduction to the series: “Life is so beautiful. For some more than others. Ah…fishing.” Tom Waits’ a cappella rendition of “River of Men” (“Fishers of Men/Up one side and back again/along the River of Men…”) sets the tone for the series of adventures. A hallelujah-choir intones the mock-mythical pre-hunting fish-dance (37). The four episodes featuring “Matt Dillon”, “Dennis Hopper”, “Tom Waits”, and “Jim Jarmusch” (all of them, including John Lurie, playing themselves, i.e. appearing with their real names) are set in hot climates, in tropical, exotic waters, ending more or less happily: Lurie and his respective fishing partner arrive on location, take a boat, spend time on the boat, try to fish, catch little or nothing, give up and leave.

Fishing with John

In the episode in which Dafoe appears as Lurie’s companion, the established pattern of mock-adventure is ironically overturned. The seeming ultra-realism of the other episodes, filmic representations of the banal eventlessness of fishing trips, is transcended. The “non-action” takes place somewhere in Maine, in a frozen wasteland in the dead of winter. The monosyllabic “John” (John Lurie), an ironic stand-in for John the Baptist, the voice in the desert who proclaimed the coming of Jesus, who lived in austerity, denouncing sin and demanding repentance, always an outspoken and fearless speaker, takes “Willem” (Willem Dafoe), the “Jesus” of The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), ice-fishing. Braving the inimical elements in an act of (self-)sacrifice, their story indeed acquires mythical dimensions: setting out to conquer nature and staying amidst the harsh surroundings of the frozen outpost of civilisation is a test of the limits their endurance and human potential. Mere survival would be a victory. As the faux documentary account of ice-fishing gives insight into a typical American “guy-thing”, the dominant aesthetic mode of realism occasionally alternates with slow motion that, along with the alien sounds of the score, is a counterpoint to the freezing stillness.

“Willem”, who has been lured into this project on the premise that “John” could not do it alone, remains isolated in the icy wilderness together with his guide one day after another. They are walking, and travelling in their snow-mobile, on water, i.e. on the frozen lake. Their equipment looks new and expensive but is cumbersome and unfit for the occasion. The lifeless setting, the two wandering characters, and the non-plot evoke the ironic nihilism of a scene in Born on the Fourth of July in which the handicapped and exhausted characters, the crazed Charlie (Dafoe) and Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise), engage each other in a futile fight on a deserted country road in Mexico (38). The frozen lake in the middle of nowhere is also a variation on the forlorn road-and-tree-setting where Vladimir and Estragon, the prototypical anti-heroes of the 20th century, are forever waiting. After some initial playing around, conversation is sparse, with long silences. There is no food, no catch. Some indefinite time after Day 11, this episode ends as we are informed by the narrator that John and Willem have died.

Like the Wooster Group’s deconstructionist approach to theatre, aimed at revealing the everyday or familiar in a new light, the episode starring Dafoe underscores the concept of a “continuum in constant flux” between art and life, performer and role, acting and being, by representing the very opposite of a continuum: a frozen, static surface. A literal analogy of Kershaw’s ecological model, the location is a Northern lake at winter time, i.e. the constant movement which prevails between water and shoreline is held still without motion. The usually fertile area is shown barren, dead, even hazardous. The white surface of the frozen lake equals a total elimination of all signifiers. On this tabula rasa, several ambiguities are at play: unlike the partners in the other episodes, Dafoe does fish, and the Wooster Group owns a place in Maine. As opposed to the other episodes, an event of tragic dimension, the death of two characters, occurs but the viewer is denied the gratification of seeing the actual passing from life to non-life. Where land ends and water begins is equally impossible to distinguish. Water is not life-giving but life-consuming. The characters are literally and metaphorically “frozen” between life and death, land and water, fiction and non-fiction. The event becomes a non-event; presence becomes absence without the element that usually accompanies the transformation of one state of being to another: an act of violence – or less violently, “action”. The defamiliarising reversal of a death scene to its unsensational, invisible opposite creates a blank out of which may arise questions as to the multiple ways in which death and dying can be represented.


Being burnt onto film as in Shadow or, in its ironic antithesis, vanishing in an icy desert are examples of performing absence where the emphasis is not on finality but on the fluidity between various states of being. The actor’s body may be physically absent from the performance in a film, and yet eternally present – immortalised – on celluloid (or in digitalised form, a medium even less “physical” than film). One is constantly aware of the tension between absence and presence and the ensuing dynamic in Dafoe’s performance. Few people may have a chance to see him in his theatrical “home” on the stage of the Performing Garage, while his persona as a movie actor in more than 50 film productions is internationally known. While shooting a movie, he is absent from the stage, an absence which is sometimes made up for by recording and playing his scenes on video. The transition from one medium to another, from theatre to film, is paralleled in the movement from life to death or a higher being-state as enacted in Dafoe’s cinematic performances. His liminal characters – transitory figures commuting between different worlds; saviours who sacrifice themselves for their community; redeemers, helpers or healers – insert a ritualistic subtext to the realistic parameters of the adventure and action films, melodramas and thrillers he appears in.

Dafoe’s ritualised representations of death do justice to an individual’s uniqueness and integrity because they bring into play a quality beyond the physical-material aspect of human life, even at the end of life. This nexus between Christian and Romantic concepts suggests that “good” and “evil” are manifestations of one creative force. Death may signify the transformation into another substance or another state of being rather than destruction, by virtue of the preservation of a metaphysical energy such as the soul. The various transgressions of borders in the films discussed do not happen for their own sake if these transgressions are linked to a subtext of resurrection, of redemption, or of self-creation which might lead to a transcendental state of grace. According to the psychiatrist and social critic Robert Jay Lifton, “a survivor has to imagine that death encounter in order to create past it, to stay in it and use it, yet move beyond it” (39). Herein lies exactly the ambiguity and the irony of violence, which is in the service of death but also of rebirth, initiation, culture-making, in other words of “more life” (40), especially in rites and rituals. Some critics may be suspicious of the ways in which post-1960s American theatre experimentalists have insinuated themselves into commercial film and television (41). If the actor “sacrifices” him/herself to the audience in an attempt to elevate or re-create him/herself beyond the fictional context of the film, this process might challenge the audience to do the same. Such a counter-discourse, inspired by the theatrical avant-garde of the ’60s, has the potential to resist the trivialisation of death in the mass media.

My thanks to the Wooster Group and their internship program, as well as to the organisers, especially Prof. Johan Callens, of the conference “The Wooster Group and Its Tradition” (Brussels, 2002): two major stepping stones in the development of this essay.

Works Cited


Affliction (Paul Schrader, 1997), based on the novel Affliction by Russell Banks

Animal Factory (Steve Buscemi, 2000), based on the novel Animal Factory by Edward Bunker

Basquiat (Julian Schnabel, 1996)

Body of Evidence (Uli Edel, 1993)

The Boondock Saints (Troy Duffy, 1999)

Born on the Fourth of July (Oliver Stone, 1989), based on the autobiography by Ron Kovic Born on the Fourth of July

Clear and Present Danger (Phillip Noyce, 1994), based on the novel Clear and Present Danger by Tom Clancy

The English Patient (Anthony Minghella, 1996), based on the novel The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

eXistenZ (David Cronenberg, 1999)

Faraway, So Close! (Wim Wenders, 1993)

Flight of the Intruder (John Milius, 1991), based on the novel Flight of the Intruder by Stephen Coonts

The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988), based on the novel The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis

Light Sleeper (Paul Schrader, 1991)

Lulu on the Bridge (Paul Auster, 1998)

Mississippi Burning (Alan Parker, 1988)

The Night and the Moment (Anna Maria Tatò, 1994), based on the novel La Nuit et le moment by Crébillon Fils

Pavilion of Women (Yim Ho, 2000), based on the novel Pavilion of Women by Pearl S. Buck

Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986)

Saigon (Christopher Crowe, 1987)

Shadow of the Vampire (E. Elias Merhige, 2000)

Speed 2: Cruise Control (Jan De Bont, 1997)

Spider-Man (Sam Raimi, 2002)

Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi, 2004)

Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)

To Live and Die in L.A. (William Friedkin, 1985), based on the novel To Live and Die in L.A. by Gerald Petievich

Tom and Viv (Brian Gilbert, 1994), based on the play Tom and Viv by Michael Hastings

Triumph of the Spirit (Robert M. Young, 1989)

Victory (Mark Peploe, 1995), based on the novel by Joseph Conrad Victory: An Island Tale

Wild at Heart (David Lynch, 1990) based on the novel Wild at Heart by Barry Gifford

TV Series

“Maine”, Fishing with John, episode four (John Lurie, 1992)


Stephen King, One Past Midnight: The Langoliers, read by Willem Dafoe, Penguin Audiobooks, unabridged edition, 1990.

John Lurie et al, Fishing with John: Original Music from the Series by John Lurie, Strange and Beautiful Music, 1998.


  1. Baz Kershaw, “Oh For Unruly Audiences! Or, Patterns of Participation in Twentieth-Century Theatre”, Modern Drama, vol. 42, no. 2, summer 2001, pp 133–154, p. 136.
  2. Making Plays: Interviews with Contemporary British Dramatists and Their Directors, ed. Duncan Wu, Macmillan Press, Houndmills, 2000, p. 1.
  3. Martin Esslin, The Field of Drama: How the Signs of Drama Create Meaning on Stage and Screen, Methuen Drama, London, 1987, especially pp 43–51.
  4. René Girard, The Girard Reader, ed. James G. Williams, Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 1996, p. 14.
  5. Willem Dafoe, interview [1997], Fresh Air, re-broadcast on National Public Radio, 19 January 2001.
  6. Graeme Turner, Film as Social Practice, Routledge, London, 1988, p. 73.
  7. Gas: “ArtGod, one word. Capital A, capital G. ‘Thou the player of the game art god’. Fairly spiritual. Funny too. God the Artist, the Mechanic. Funny.” For Allegra Geller, the game designer, physical existence is a cage, while playing eXistenZ is liberation. eXistenZ is full of double entendres and plays on multiple levels of reality, one of them the virtual reality of the movie industry itself. Dafoe says in his out-of-character role as a member of the post-game discussion group: “I was really bummed down at first. I got knocked out of the game so soon”, to which his respondent replies, “You were really scary and crazy”.
  8. Leonard Maltin, quoted in “Willem Dafoe: The Unofficial Website”, accessed June 2004.
  9. This is in sharp contrast to Spider-Man 2, in which the creation of the evil Doc Oc (Alfred Molina) happens externally (the metallic arms are grafted onto his body as a consequence of the failed experiment which ends in an electromagnetic storm destroying half a neighbourhood).
  10. Barry Gifford, Wild at Heart, Grove Press, New York, 1990, p. 135.
  11. Paul Auster, interview in Lulu on the Bridge, Faber and Faber, London, 1998, pp 148–149.
  12. Robert Hampson, “Introduction”, Victory: An Island Tale, by Joseph Conrad [1915], Penguin Books, London, 1989, pp 15–17.
  13. Oliver Stone, “One from the Heart”, Introduction: Platoon/Salvador: The Screenplays, by Oliver Stone, Ebury Press, London, 1987, 5–12, pp 8–9. Platoon has come to be considered as the beginning of the healing process of the American society’s Vietnam trauma.
  14. Stone, 1987, pp 24, 28.
  15. Stone, 1987, p. 79.
  16. A vast deviation from the novel on which the film is based, Pearl S. Buck’s Pavilion of Women [1946], Moyer Bell, Wakefield, 1999.
  17. This scene is another significant deviation from the novel, in which André’s death, the consequence of his confrontation with angry, young ruffians who assaulted a shop owner, is represented only indirectly in oral reports and Madame Wu’s reflections (Buck, pp 207–209) Brother André’s quasi accidental death and burial serve as a stepping-stone in the spiritual development of the novel’s protagonist Madame Wu.
  18. Buck,1999, p. 277.
  19. Susan Broadhurst, Liminal Acts: A Critical Overview of Contemporary Performance and Theory, Cassell, London and New York, 1999, p. 130.
  20. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. and introduced by Hannah Arendt, Harcourt, Brace and World, New York, 1968, pp 231–232.
  21. Jerzy Grotowski, “Performer”, Grotowski Sourcebook, ed. Richard Schechner and Lisa Wolford, Routledge, London and New York, 2001, pp 376–380.
  22. Grotowski first came to the United States in 1967, where he conducted a course at New York University’s School of the Arts. In December of that year, he was interviewed by Richard Schechner, the leader of the Performance Group, out of which later evolved The Wooster Group. Grotowski left Poland during the period of martial law and emigrated to the United States in 1982. As of the academic year 1983–84, he continued his theatre work and research at the University of California-Irvine (Lisa Wolford, “Introduction: Objective Drama, 1983–86” in Schechner and Wolford, 2001, pp 283–284.)
  23. Jerzy Grotowski, “An American Encounter: an Interview with Jerzy Grotowski by Richard Schechner and Theodore Hoffman”, Jerzy Grotowski: Towards a Poor Theatre, ed. Eugenio Barba, Methuen Drama, London, 1991, p. 202. The complete interview was published in The Drama Review, vol. 13, no. 1, fall 1968.
  24. Grotowski, 1991, p. 206.
  25. Bob Ivry, “Playing Satan or Savior, He’s Just as Intense”, The Record, 8 June 1997, p. 01.
  26. Grotowski, 1991, pp 200–203.
  27. See Hap Erstein, “Dafoe, Mainstay of Quirky Films, Says ‘Shadow’ Could Go All The Way”, The Palm Beach Post, 26 January 2001, p. 9.
  28. See for example, “The Secret Art of Photomorphosis”, 2001–2002, “Photomorphose” website, accessed June 2004.
  29. Sharon Waxman, “Too Bad for Hollywood: Where Others See a Rut, Willem Dafoe Finds a Niche”, The Washington Post, 29 January 2001, p. C1.
  30. Commenting on his production of Akropolis, for example, Grotowski says: “If we want the truth, we must show Auschwitz as a giant mechanism with all its cruelty… We cannot avoid this reality. It is a choice we made: the mechanism of Auschwitz in confrontation with past values… It is impossible to create if we destroy the bridge to the past. Myth or archetype links us to the past”. See Margaret Croyden, “’I Said Yes to the Past’: Interview with Grotowski” in Schechner and Wolford, 2001, pp 83–87.
  31. Susan Sontag, “Art and Consciousness”, Conversations on Art and Performance, ed. Bonnie Marranca and Gautam Dasgupta, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1999, pp 2–9.
  32. Stephen Barber, Artaud: The Screaming Body, Creation Books, New York, 2001, p. 16.
  33. Susan Sontag, “Artaud” (Introduction), Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings, ed. Susan Sontag, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1988, p. xxx.
  34. That this exchange is mutually enriching goes without saying. Dafoe’s entrance as the superhuman Theseus in the Wooster Group production of To You, the Birdie! (Phèdre) (New York, 2001) could be mentioned as a recent example of the reverberations of his movie life on the stage. Theseus’s colossal strides accompanied by crashing sound effects as well as the complex (self-) referential display of his body function as signifiers of a hero/star returning from a victorious campaign, be it a battle or a film production.
  35. Apart from Grotowski’s piece on “Performer” (1990), see also Jan Kott, The Theatre of Essence, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1984. For the Polish theatre critic Kott, who played a pivotal role in the popularisation of Grotowski in Europe and the United States, the Christian spectacle Everyman and traditional Japanese theatre, both sites of liturgical sacrifice, are examples of “theatre of essence”: “Essence is the human drama freed of accident and of the illusion that there are choices. Essence is a trace, like the still undissolved imprint of a crustacean on a stone” (Kott, p. 161).
  36. Elizabeth LeCompte, “Acting and Nonacting”, in Marranca and Dasgupta, 1999, p. 405.
  37. “Libretto for Fish Dance”: “There is a dance/A special dance/ Beautiful and powerful/The dance seems silly/You must have courage but/ Those who do it are graced/Yes!/With good luck in fishing/…Hallelujah/All the power and the wisdom/Hallelujah/Lelujah/Hallelujah/Ha!” “Fish Dance”, the narrator’s introduction “Ah…fishing”, and Waits’ “River of Men” are included in the released soundtrack (see Works Cited).
  38. The emotionally charged scene showing Charlie’s eruption of frustration and anger, which triggers Kovic’s decision to live by himself for the first time ever, has been added in the film. In Kovic’s autobiography, this physical fight between the two wheelchair-bound men does not take place. Instead, “they sat by the edge of the road for a long time until a Mexican truck-driver picked them up” (Ron Kovic, Born on the Fourth of July, Pocket Books, New York, 1976, p. 126).
  39. Robert Jay Lifton, “Art and the Imagery of Extinction”, interview in Marranca and Dasgupta, 1999, pp 11–24.
  40. Lifton, 1999, p. 19.
  41. Philip Auslander, From Acting to Performance: Essays in Modernism and Postmodernism, Routledge, London and New York, 1997, p. 68.

About The Author

Edith Hallberg has published articles on contemporary American, Australian, and South African theatre. She is also a co-editor of Litspeak: A Magazine of Fiction, Poetry and the Visual Arts.

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