Germinal at On the Boards could be described as “an acclaimed French play that humorously addresses ontological and epistemological concepts—and teleology—with a minimalist set.” In the parlance of the play itself, it might also be described as “not poc poc.” In the future, I will simply say it is one of the most refreshing, exuberant and clever explorations of human consciousness I have ever seen on the stage.
Germinal’s absurdly sweet—and largely visual—narrative uses every tool at its disposal in the theatre. Its opening jest uses the house lights themselves to let the audience know a playful omniscience is in control, before plunging into a silent void that begins a journey of discovery and reconciliation. There is no spoken dialog for the first thirty minutes or so, but the room was still full of laughter. By the end of the 90-minute performance, the stage itself has been excavated, with surprises literally popping through the floor boards.
Theatre’s finite space and duration, its hidden machinery, its assigned roles, et al, are frequently used as a conceit for political power, social norms, even existence itself. The conceit appears in criticism and commentary, and reflexively in certain plays themselves, but often there is an unfortunate fatalism about it all. In the middle of the last century, individuals like Beckett, Brecht, Artaud and Genet (to name just a few salient examples) were addressing the ecumenical trauma of war to an increasingly passive consumer class—passive perhaps because of the trauma, and driven to consume when consumption feels something like action, despite its passivity. The intention was to shake people out of their stupor, to demand action from the audience when the curtain falls, and such work is as valuable as ever. Unfortunately, many audiences only pick up on the despair of these works and leave feeling paralyzed—and perhaps reluctant to venture into a theatre again.
Devotees of the Theatre of Cruelty and the like might view Germinal as safe and indulgent because it is willfully detached from a world of woe and consequence. Germinal‘s small, closed universe is not driven by necessity, does not suffer the trauma of loss, but its four inhabitants have an intuitive awareness of it—demonstrated in an absurd customer service call. (On that customer service call, the four cast members convene to determine that they are interested in having a universe with the laws of thermodynamics, but would like to avoid deism and monetary systems, as they never do quite what they are intended to do.)
Germinal‘s interest is not in primal politics, to which it seems to say, “comme ci comme ça.” Rather, its pursuit is the mere delight of being, led by curiosity and empathy toward ritual celebration. Faced with the possibility that all is a silly construct without inherent meaning, the play’s creators Halory Goerger and Antoine Defoort seem to proclaim, “Okay! Let’s play!” rather than sinking into an existential crisis. It is the anti-Huis Clos: Other people are not hell; there is an end and an exit, and even admitting to that can be a source of joy.
While it affirms the pleasure of discovery and communication, Germinal also lampoons our lexical gaps, our tangled taxonomies and a flawed tendency toward analysis without a guiding principle of true synthesis. One cast member’s realization that physical objects make the sound “poc poc”—while abstract concepts do not—leads the group to order things in categories of “poc poc” and “not poc poc.” It doesn’t work very well, and the results are often hysterical. For those who have not much considered the philosophies of language and mind, Germinal is a wonderful primer, and for those who have studied them, it is a playful instantiation.
At last, its final moments synthesize all the absurdity and perceptual flaws into a moment of acceptance, cooperation and empathy. Mortality and the arrow of time do not point toward some sort of meaningless defeat, but a necessary conclusion that enables coherence in the first place. The crown prince of ennui Emile Cioran said, “Nothing proves that we are more than nothing.” Goerger and Defoort reply, “Ain’t it grand?” And also, “That is not poc poc.”
Germinal plays at On the Boards though this weekend, Saturday, September 27 at 8 PM and Sunday, September 28 at 5 PM. A recording will later be made available at OnTheBoards.tv, but see it live while you can, as being part of Germinal’s happy, closed universe is best achieved in the theatre itself.