Antoinette LaFarge

presented at CAA, 2.13.97
first published on the web at UC-Davis

Somewhere Heraclitus says that Hades and Dionysus are the same [1]. Not just brothers, as it is usually understood, but one and the same. Nowadays we think of them primarily as antagonists: the god of exuberant life versus the god of grim death. But even in the classical legends about Dionysus, the life-affirming ecstasy we associate with the god of wine and laughter turns readily into the murderous frenzy of the Maenads. Divine revelry provides an entrance to the Underworld.

If Hades and Dionysus are the same, it follows that life and laughter are fundamentally murderous and the Underworld fundamentally comic. And this we know already, for the cruelty of jokes was evident long before Freud laid it bare. Comedy as a form of murder is at the center of Freud's argument that jokes manifest a deep-seated rebellion "against the compulsion of logic and reality" [2]. This rebellion serves to promote thought by guarding it from rational criticism. It is the work of the id, whose natural home is the Underworld. Ego attempts to deal with death in the heroic mode; which explains why there are so many books about coping with grief, overcoming grief, managing grief. But heroism and its concomitants-- mastery, sacrifice, control-- are not the mode of the id, which pushes us instead toward Dionysian excess. It is through the id that we most clearly manifest and experience the Plutonic realm. In our cultural critiques, our egos spend a good deal of time explaning away the id, but we need it more than we would like to admit.

So what does the id want? I would like to approach this question by examining a form of text-based theater I am involved with on the Internet through a group called the Plaintext Players. This online theater, as I shall call it, takes place in the virtual online worlds known as MOOs [3]. The basis of the form is pseudonymous roles enacted as and through text by live performers in real time. The performances are scenario-driven and directed; in fact the director functions as an extra, present to the other performers but invisible to the audience.

It is no accident that online theater takes place on a network, because the decentralized structure of networks strongly resists control. Networks are a dynamic Underworld where the id makes itself at home. We tend to think of networked virtual worlds like MOOs as a new cultural form, but the original virtual world is the Underworld and its variants, such as Elysium, the Afterlife, and Heaven. To the extent that it is still with us, I believe the Underworld is the master world from which all virtual worlds draw their psychic resonance. As Kevin Kelly put it in Out of Control: "The network . . . signifies the swamp of the psyche" [4].

In the nonlinear structure of a network or web, each node affects many others more or less simultaneously. From this distributed causality, patterns emerge that could not have been foretold from the individual parts of the system. A flock appears from some birds, but the flock is not deducible from a single bird. The flock is an emergent entity that owes its existence to a web of birds. Likewise, online theater emerges from a web of writer-performers. The characteristics of such collective forms (or "collective systems" as Kelly also terms them) are different from those of the individual works we are used to. As an emergent form, online theater is not simply a multiple-author variant on the individual play. It is as different as id from ego, and I would like to look at its differences from the following perspectives: subjective identification; personal experience; open-endedness; minutia; and pointlessness.

Subjective Identification: Online theater, like other collective forms, is a highly social activity. For the performers, the strongest experience is the sense of being immersed in the world they are creating; being part of something larger, inside it, elsewhere. Although they remain autonomous beings, the life of the whole is at least as important to them as their own individual lives. In their profound identification, the performers cross the boundaries between characters, between truth and fiction, between here and there. This can be a highly unsettling process since it is the performer's own sense of self that is forced to become fluid.

I am reminded of a comment that was made about the work of Richard Foreman, founder of the Ontological-Hysteric Theater in New York: "The characters are incurably disoriented, unsure of where the stage begins and ends, always tripping over the decor. They are caught up in inscrutable plots, and speak as though they have only just begun to learn the language. Nothing ever coalesces in their world" [5]. This is also how it is in online theater, with the extra burden of the fact that the performers are creating their characters for themselves. There is no playwright in online theater to mediate the role for the performers; they themselves must decide, as one of them put it, to "never concede the vision" [6].

Early in this century, Freud defined magic as the omnipotence of thought [7]. Now the idea of omnipotence speaks simultaneously to the ego's fantasy of being master of the world and to the id's fantasy of doing anything in the world.

In online theater these fantasies merge: what the performers think, they can do, with near instantaneity [8]. Hades-Dionysus presides over a world where the limit is not on what we can do but on what we want to do-- and want is the id's realm. In online theater, the characters' lives are not predetermined, so they live and change and die unpredictably. Collective systems must be resilient to such individual disruptions, so they tend to evolve and adapt quickly. In one recent performance, for example, a character named Candide got knocked off line, an event much like an actor falling into the orchestra pit. Almost instantly, someone sent up the idea that Candide had been struck by lightning, and the performance incorporated that premise and continued.

Personal Experience: In online theater, writing is a matter of empirical rather than strictly rational knowledge. As generations of writers have found out, writing at its best can be a way of finding out what you think, saying things you couldn't ordinarily say or didn't even know you knew. This is one of the ways id makes its presence felt through language, though our egos like to put it in its place with editorial gloss. Online theater is less shielded by the editor in us, and it takes the empirical nature of language another step. As the French critic Gaston Bachelard put it long ago: "What one meant to say is so quickly supplanted by what one finds oneself writing, that we realize written language creates its own universe" [9].

In online theater, the language is also about inhabiting that created universe. Generally, the performers inhabit individual roles, but it's also possible to speak anonymously and to pretend to be any of the other characters. The boundaries between roles are blurred because the performance is expressed through text rather than through the physicality of the body. It is not always clear who has "performed" a given line of text. Take the following four-line extract from a recent series called The Candide Campaign:

A large jumboJet explodes silently far above,
creating a momentary *flash*.

Oooh, more votes!

Tears run down Candide's cheeks.
No one notices. [10]

Is this one, two, three, or four distinct voices? And how many of them are Candide's? There's a sense in which the performers take on multiple personalities within these performances. It's the opposite of multiple personality disorder-- here we can find multiple individuals inhabiting a single personality instead of the other way around [11].

This is both an imaginal and a temporal process. Time is a key dimension of dynamic networks in the sense that networks are places where change happens; they are event-driven entities. "Time is the medium of all our digital activities," writes Marlena Corcoran in a recent issue of Leonardo, "and constitutive of our life online" [12]. What Bachelard had to say about "written language" applies to online theater because he was interested in language, not words; and language is a temporal process, whereas words are carriers, signifiers, objects. Elsewhere, Bachelard writes: "All human activity desires to speak... Literature is thus not a poor substitute for any other activity. It accomplishes a human desire" [13].

Open-Endedness: Death and mourning are two of the central themes of online theater. But if the idea of death is permanent, death itself is not; the dead are easily resurrected. For example, in one recent series of performances called Christmas, several episodes took place in what became known as the DownUnderWorld, a hybrid of the classical Underworld and Down Under. On one level this came about through an association of sounds and gave us a hell populated with black koalas, but on another level it spoke to the history of Australia as a continent representing the underside of the European-oriented globe and, with its origins in Botany Bay, a purgatory of the British Empire. This DownUnderWorld, I should add, was presided over by the cigar-smoking Vodoun god of the crossroads, Baron.Samedi, himself another form of Hades-Dionysus.

These online Underworlds are not just places to visit the dead in the familiar literary tradition of Homer, Virgil, and Dante, nor are they simply an excuse to rehash jokes about the dead, although both of these needs are answered. They are places where the dead come alive. In virtual Underworlds, we embody the dead through the characters we create. And these characters are aggressively alive, their vitality a direct challenge to the mediocrity of ordinary life. Hades-Dionysus has taken such disparate forms in our performances as Baron.Samedi, a beheaded army deserter, and cholera personified. Most recently, in an online improvisation centered on an election theme and set in Florida, a large number of tiny human body parts took an active role, giving new life to the old political cliche about electoral rolls padded out with dead voters. These body parts were "survivors" of the Challenger space shuttle explosion and the spring 1996 Valujet crash.

All of this makes sense in the context of a collective system, which tends toward continuity and evolution. The life of a collective system is centered in the system itself rather than in its members-- in the pattern of incarnations rather than in the incarnations themselves. In general, online theater shows a strong resistance to endings, to catharsis, to any kind of closure, and an equally strong resistance to external control. Like other collective systems, an online performance can be guided but not forced. The characters control their own destinies in tandem with the director (and they nearly always want their stories to continue). The structure of performances is thus episodic rather than novelistic or Aristotelian, and its near relatives are the Javanese shadow play, the commedia dell'arte, and similar improvisational forms in which stock figures enact variable scripts [14].

Gertrude Stein once wrote that she didn't enjoy theater as a rule because she was always either ahead of or behind the action. Her solution was to try to achieve a "continuous present" in her plays [15]. This ever-renewed present is also characteristic of online theater, where the dramatic line is created from moment to moment and no one can see even a few steps ahead in the action. Like chaos systems, online performances are extremely sensitive to initial conditions; seemingly small things can change the performance radically, and at no point can you clearly foresee the next shape to come. Like a beehive or a mind, online theater builds its structure as it goes. It explores the Borgesian library of form, and wherever it happens to get to at any one moment determines the next place it will go. And yet, as it lurches unpredictably toward novelty, it manifests a clear structure at every point.

Minutia: Playwrights like Stein and Foreman often complain that most plays are so much about their own structure-- demonstrating the writer's and director's sense of narrative, transition, pace, denouement, and so on-- that such things as the musicality of the language and the beauty of specific moments tend to get lost. These are elements of the microstructure, the momentary structure, of a work. Gaston Bachelard tells us that it is in writing that polyphony is awakened [16], and it is just this polyphony that is easily overshadowed by larger dramatic structures.

Logic is a linear mode, but the logic and grammar of online theater are nonlinear. The texts make sense, but not in the way we are used to language making sense. Each line in the web is cause and effect of several other lines, creating a tight tangle of relationship within which meaning is distributed. This larger whole is so hard to unravel without many re-readings, that one is all but forced to the micro-level for intelligibility. More than either entire scenes or individual lines, a three-, four-, or five-line group is one of the basic structures of these performance texts. For example:

The curtain solemnly descends.
The curtain is not sorry for the Baron, though.
The curtain is just doing its job.
The curtain is being paid union for this.
No one said curtains were cheap. [17]

These lines were threaded among others, but they form a clear subgroup in themselves. Sometimes these micro-rhythms take the form of a mini-dialogue:

"The dead are not the real majority."
"Not according to the latest poll."
"Are you sure about that?"
"Statistically correct."
"It's a proven fact."

"Functionally wrong."
"Practically an absolute truth."
"It's all a fiction of the candidate." [18]

The rhythms here are oral and poetic rather than narrative. Terse, verging on cryptic, these last two examples are typical of online performance text. It is tempting to think of them as products of today's sound-bite culture, in which brief assertions, often repeated, stand in place of extended thought. A key difference is that these utterances do not stand alone but lean heavily on each other, building up complex, allusive images from individually tenuous fragments. For example:

Candide: "And the last time you voted was...?"
Monkey-General: "Are you asking me?"
Candide: "Forgive me, General, it has been four years since my last..." [19]

Here the phrasing of Candide's reply invokes the confessional ("Forgive me, Father, it has been four years since my last confession"), and thus, without saying so directly, describes the voting booth as a confessional, a place where we go to unburden ourselves of our culture's sins by the choices we make.

Pointlessness: There is no real goal in online performance; it is evolutionary rather than goal-driven. Theoretically, one could set up the performances to have some intelligible point, a comprehensible meaning, but the tendency of this kind of improvisational performance is to bury ends in a welter of means.

In online theater, the performers circle any given subject, attacking it from all angles; and the result is a complex of perceptions that lead to no conclusion. As in any network, there is lots of redundancy and waste because there is no central control. Didacticism is constantly undercut by the omnipresence of the id. The attraction of expressing all our desires works against the desire for clear ideas. Online theater is thus both a theater of cruelty-- peculiar sex, cartoonish violence-- and one of laughter, as everything we find absurd makes itself at home here. In its apparent pointlessness, online theater is both a stepchild of postmodernism and a child of the networks. What appears to be a rambling mess is actually a rich web in which what is meant cannot be separated from the whole without destroying it. The intention is in the whole, but the whole was built without intention.

Clearly, online theater is a long way from the now-familiar form laid down by Aristotle and developed in the succeeding centuries. That theater is an ego-centered enterprise, marked by our desire for finished surfaces, controlled rhythms, careful deployment of detail, tight structure, clean edges, and, most of all, neat denouements. Its continuing appeal is seen, for example, in Brenda Laurel's influential book Computers as Theater, which takes a solidly Aristotelian perspective. Laurel approvingly invokes such dramatic conventions as "elimination of the extraneous and gratuitous, clear causal relations among things that happen, and the notion of beginnings, middles, and ends" [20]. This may be a useful approach to take to some forms of human-computer interface, but it is definitely not how things play out when one actually uses computer networks for theater.

Online theater, as we have seen, is marked by loose (often episodic) structure, tangled narrative, chaotic rhythm, uncontrolled utterance, superfluous detail, and refusal to end. Seen through the critical lens by which we usually examine theater, it often looks crude, sloppy, and buffoonish, a caricature of theater as it could be, or as our egos think it should be. Seen as what it is, a true collective form, a networked art through which the id comes into it own, it shines with the beauty of the complex, the uncertain, and the unknown.

The freedom of the id in online theater can also be seen as a long-overdue displacement of text by subtext. Modern theater has been strongly marked by the increasing divergence between text and subtext. In the silences of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, as much as in the verbosity of Stein or Foreman, the divergence is so severeÑ the characters' words so patently stand in place of things unsaidÑ that the audience can be said to panic in the silences [21]. That panic is the key. Panic enters at just that place where the gap between text and subtext yawns and you are afraid of falling in. Panic is what happens when the id pushes the ego too far.

In online theater, panic has entered the words themselves, with the result that they do not hold their meaning for very long. We have only subtext, a fragile thread of thought that veers wildly from line to line. Each line is a piece of the whole which the next line will undo, and the line after that, and the line after that. This leads to an instability of meaning that makes the performance text as a whole resistant to interpretation. And in this resistance is its strength, for interpretation is an ego-driven activity, a process that replaces the thing itself with something more easily comprehended [22]. But in the world of Hades-Dionysus, the network where Underworld and Overworld become the same, the id stands guard against substitution. Words may not be lightly revoked, for a word is indeed the equivalent of an ax [23].



1. James Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld, p. 44 (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), quoting Heraclitus as translated by M. Marcovich in Heraclitus: Greek Text with a Short Commentary, 1st. ed. (Merida, Venezuela, Los Andes University Press, 1967).

2. Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (New York: Norton, 1960), pp. 154 and 162.

3. MOO is a nested acronym that stands for MUD, Object-Oriented. MUD has several expansions, among which I prefer Multi-User Dimension. Both are types of online virtual worlds that are built and maintained by their members. As a hybrid form, online theater could just as well be called live fiction; the choice of the former indicates where my own biases lie. For an earlier paper exploring online performance, see "A World Exhilarating and Wrong," in Leonardo 28:5

4. Kevin Kelly, Out of Control (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1994), p. 26. My analysis of online theater is deeply indebted to Kelly's lucid discussion of collective systems throughout the book, but especially on pp. 20­28.

5. Richard Foreman, My Head Was a Sledgehammer (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1995), p. i.

6. Marlena Corcoran (Candide in The Candide Campaign), personal communication.

7. Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo (New York: Norton, 1989), pp. 108-113.

8. Realization of fantasies plays a large role also in the popularity of animation and so-called "god games" like Sim City. In both, human participation is very narrowly defined compared to online theater.

9. Gaston Bachelard, On Poetic Imagination and Reverie. Trans. Colette Gaudin (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971) p. 27.

10. Extract from the unpublished transcript of "Election Night," part 3 of The Candide Campaign, performed by the Plaintext Players Nov. 5, 1996 on ID MOO for Postmasters Gallery, New York.

11. For an extensive discussion of personal identity in the age of networks, see Sherry Turkel's Life on the Screen (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995).

12. Marlena Corcoran, "Digital Transformations of Time," Leonardo 29:5, 1996, p. 375.

13. Bachelard [9], p. 26. Kevin Kelly might have been thinking along similar lines when he wrote: "In the logic of the Net, there is a shift from nouns to verbs" (Kelly, p. 27).

14. The Javanese wayang (shadow) plays are themselves an intriguing hybrid, both in the language, which mixes Sanskrit and archaic and modern Javanese, and in the scripts, which alternate improvised dialogue and action with passages that have been set by tradition and so must be learnt by heart. For a detailed description of the Southeast Asian shadow play tradition, see the exhibition catalogue Asian Puppets: Wall of the World (Los Angeles: UCLA Museum of Cultural History, 1976, pp. 45­51).

15. Foreman [5], p. ii

16. Bachelard [9], p. 25

17. Extract from the unpublished transcript of "The Candidate Announces, part 1 of The Candide Campaign, performed by the Plaintext Players Oct. 22, 1996 on ID MOO for Postmasters Gallery, New York.. The full version of this section runs as follows:

The curtain solemnly descends.
Baron.Samedi kicks a few minor devils for good measure.
The curtain is not sorry for the Baron, though.
The devils squeal and scamper.
The curtain is just doing its job.
signpost follows its own lead offstage.
reporter writes: 'Monkey tells Death Party to Drop Dead'
The curtain is being paid union for this.
reporters peek over each others' shoulders to see what the others have gotten for number 3.
signpost has arrived.
No one said curtains were cheap.

18. Extract from "Election Night [13].

19. Ibid.

20. Brenda Laurel, Computers as Theatre (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1993), p. 77.

21. Here I am drawing, at secondhand, on remarks made by the actress Fiona Shaw at a 1996 lecture, so I may not be paraphrasing her correctly.

22. See Hillman [1]; also Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation (New York: Dell, 1969).

23. The title of this paper paraphrases a line from the sixth performance in the Plaintext Players' Gutter City series. The relevant dialogue runs as follows:

Moby-Dick: "Someone cut my head off right now and I'll show you."
bystander: "What?"
Moby-Dick: "Right here.... does anyone have a word or an ax? Sword, I meant."
bystander: "Words are much more lethal."