Go Deeper

Living in the Eyes of the World: On Romeo Castellucci’s “On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God”

Posted September 10th, 2013

When I ask my 1-year-old daughter, “How much do you love On the Concept of the Face?” she raises both her arms in the air! How much do we love it? So much so that we commissioned this essay from Nicholas Ridout about On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God, which opens tomorrow night and runs through Saturday. Enjoy:


Only under special circumstances can we expect to be able to contemplate a face. In sleep, perhaps in love. In most of our everyday encounters with one another we look at, up, down, and away from one another in a constant negotiation of glances, restfulness, tact and attention. If we were to suspend this movement and arrest the face of another person so that we could see it as a face, so that we could examine its contours and make it into an image for ourselves, the relationship between us would also be suspended. You can’t talk and listen to someone at the same time as looking at their face, not really looking. It has been suggested that the theatre constitutes one of the special circumstances in which this is not the case. The theatrical situation permits a mode of attention that is usually prohibited in everyday life, because the face on stage is felt to invite all kinds of sustained, exploratory, inquisitive, absorbed and fascinated regards, to summon them up, even, from the dim anonymity of the auditorium. At the same time, conditions in the theatre make such contemplation quite frustrating. The faces you are encouraged to contemplate seem available but they are often just too far away. Never as close up as the close-up. But then the close-up in the cinema is not there; the person behind the face has already made themselves absent, leaving just their face behind. But it’s that illicit combination – of presence and the face – that the theatre seduces you with and which the cinema, and, indeed, the painting, however amplified, can’t quite promise.

What is so compelling about the prospect of seeing a face this way? Is it perhaps the thrilling and terrifying possibility of being seen oneself? Might it even be that your desire to see a face is actually a mask or veil for your desire to be seen, and your fear of being seen, known, understood, in all your shame and your longing to be forgiven? The strange thing here – and this is one of the effects of Romeo Castellucci’s recent theatre work – is that this feeling, this fear of being seen alongside a desire to be seen, seems to be provoked by the appearance of a face, on stage, that is both present and withdrawing itself at the same time. Is the image of ‘the son of God’, in this theatre work – On The Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God – blown up to billboard size from Antonella Da Messina’s painting, Salvator Mundi, the image of a face which is here, and which we feel looking at us, or is it the image of a face which has withdrawn forever from the world? No longer here, but there, across the abyss which separates the stage from the auditorium, the dead from the living? It is this double character, its being here and there, present and forever departed, that seems to me to make sense of the appearance of this image in a production Romeo Castellucci has created in relation to a prolonged engagement with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story, ‘The Minister’s Black Veil’. In Hawthorne’s story Pastor Hooper withdraws his face from his congregation and the world by placing over his eyes a veil composed of two folds of black crape, which he wears for the rest of his life, and even into the grave. The veiled face of Pastor Hooper is a withdrawal from the eyes of the world that simultaneously draws the eyes of the world to it; it makes the withdrawal something to be seen, an image of withdrawal. An act of iconoclasm – an attack on the image – produces an image of enigmatic and terrible power. By the same logic, the enigmatic and powerful image of the face (of the ‘son of God’) in the theatre this evening is also an image of its own shattering and dissolution.

Between you and this image there is some action. This is the kind of thing we are used to think of as what happens in the theatre. It is what get acted out, in scenes, with dialogue and interaction, between characters. A father and a son, in this case, and their relationship, the predicament they share, that forces them together and which also divides them so painfully from one another. Normally this might be where we would look in order to find out what this is all about, even, sometimes, what it might mean, what it might have to say to us. There’s plenty to get to grips with here, in this quiet, oddly cool representation of an everyday domestic scene. But is there also something about the time it takes, its repetition of the same humiliation and distress, that invites us, as spectators, to wonder why we are looking at it, to ask ourselves what sort of feelings we might be after in such experiences? Romeo Castellucci has said that for him the subject of the contemporary theatre is the spectator. By this I don’t understand him to mean that the theatre is about me, or about you, but rather that it is about the condition of being a spectator, which is something which could happen to any of us. It is a way of being in the world. So one of the things to do with the experience of watching this kind of action and these kind of scenes might be to make something of the relationship between the humiliation and distress enacted in the scene, and the shame and vulnerability that come with being in a theatre which might be looking at us. Which is, in turn, perhaps, an unavoidable part of the condition of being a spectator in the world, and of living in its eyes.

–Nicholas Ridout

On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God runs September 12, 13 and 14 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Center City. All shows 7:00 pm, $20-$39.