Food on the Stage in Periods of Scarcity: Aesthetics or Provocation?
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The use of real food proliferated on the contemporary stage from the late 1960s onwards. This practice echoed the effects of globalisation and of consumer society, which became some of the theatre makers’ main concerns. Hence, food provided strong and sometimes disturbing stage images, and a direct way to convey messages of a society that is moving uncontrollably fast, exchanging spirituality for materiality, and gradually losing its identity. However, the ill effects of the affluence in the West was to be cut short abruptly after the international economic crisis of 2008, and the European financial crisis that followed soon thereafter. Within this frame of economic instability, the question of food and nutrition takes a whole different meaning, because poverty has become widespread in Europe, leading to food scarcity within a growing part of the population. This prolonged state of humanitarian crisis has shed light on a very different viewpoint when it comes to food and nutrition, to the point that the stage use of real food could very likely disturb the audience’s sensibilities. While the economic crisis is still ongoing, it is probably too early to draw conclusions and evaluate how the scenic use of food in European theatre has followed these rapid social and economic changes. We thus propose studying this subject by looking back at earlier examples of theatrical uses of food at times of financial (and hence social) crises and food shortage, while taking into account the moral, political, biological, social and aesthetic implications of using real or imaginary food in the theatre. In other words, our main question is: what does it mean to whet the audience’s appetites when their stomachs are empty? In order to answer to this question we will look at examples of performances that included actual or symbolic food and which took place during times of food shortage, mainly in the late 20th century.
Food, financial crisis, food scarcity, performance, audience, theatre direction, stage props, Joël Dragutin, Alberto Pedro Torriente, Miriam Lezcano, Grupo Teatro Escambray, Reinaldo Montero, Javier Fernández Jure, Soviet Union, Cuba, Greece, Spain, France.
The group Bread and Puppet started baking bread and distributing it to the audience back in the 1960s, in an attempt to show that theatre should be as necessary as bread. This practice initiated a new current in Western theatre, especially from the 1970s onwards, in which the bond between the culinary and the theatrical art has been established. Instances of cooking and food and drink consumption on the stage and in the auditorium multiplied ever since, thus marking the beginning of a certain culinary pluralism: gradually, bread – the most ancient and basic form of nutrition – gave way to other foods, like vegetables, meat, and confectionary, with more elaborate recipes, spanning from exotic to traditional ones, and even extending to nauseating images of victuals. Therefore, by the turn of the century the scenic presence of food became much less sporadic and defined new ways of symbolic representation of contemporaneous political, social and aesthetic preoccupations. The organic nature of food, together with its strong political and social connotations induced forms of direct and, at times, visceral reaction in the audience.
The proliferation of food on the stage echoed a relatively recent exposure of international and traditional cuisines, the transportation of foodstuffs that had hitherto been unavailable, the pervasiveness of the fast-food industry following the U.S. paradigm, and the heavily industrialised mass production of food on a global scale. In other words, the effects of globalisation and of consumer society became some of the theatre makers’ main concerns. Hence, food provided them with strong and sometimes disturbing images, and a direct way to convey messages of a society that is moving uncontrollably fast, exchanging spirituality for materiality, and gradually losing its identity.
These were the ill effects of an affluence in the West that was to be cut short abruptly after the international economic crisis of 2008, and the European financial crisis that followed soon thereafter. As part of the Eurozone crisis, Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain, the so-called P.I.I.G.S. found themselves in the eye of the storm. An association of this acronym to the swine cannot be avoided: the animal’s pejorative qualities – laziness, gluttony, and the idea of consuming more than it can produce – accompanies the aforementioned, formerly poor countries that experienced a sudden, unprecedented boost in their economies, only to see them fall down again into recession.
Within this frame of economic instability, the question of food and nutrition takes a whole different meaning, because poverty has become widespread in Europe, leading to food scarcity within a growing part of the population, especially in Southern Europe that has also very recently been stricken by the refugee crisis. It is evident that such a prolonged state of humanitarian crisis has shed light on a very different viewpoint when it comes to food and nutrition, to the point that the stage use of real food could very likely disturb the audience’s sensibilities.
Back in 2001, I had exchanged a number of emails with the late Arnold Wesker, who had placed the subject of food in many of his plays partly as a result of his personal experience of working as a pastry chef in a Parisian restaurant, in the 1950s. When I asked Wesker what he believed on the use of real food in the theatre he had answered: “I have no idea why people use real food on the stage if they are dealing with large numbers. As I probably said before – it’s a waste of food.”
Back then, Wesker’s views weren’t as trenchant as they are now, in this new era that we, Europeans, have entered. Within the last few years, apart from the aforementioned changes in our eating habits, there have also been rapid and abrupt changes in the theatre industries’ modus operandi, as a result of the economic crisis. Hence, food in the theatre has acquired new uses, being employed less as a stage prop for aesthetic purposes and more as a tool of protest, and social inclusion.
For instance, some theatres in Athens ask for the contribution of food instead of money. They later offer the food items to vulnerable social groups, or use it to create a shared meal after the end of the show. In this kind of difficult times the social role of theatre is therefore reinforced: it offers not only a theatrical experience but also nutrition and conviviality, which are both much needed. In Spain, theatre companies sell carrots instead of tickets, because their VAT percentage is lower. The so-called “carrot rebellion” is a kind of protest against recent austerity measures and cuts to arts funding that have forced the Spanish theatre artists to find new ways to survive artistically.
While the economic crisis is still ongoing, it is probably too early to draw conclusions and evaluate how the scenic use of food in European theatre has followed these rapid social and economic changes. We thus propose studying this subject by looking back at earlier examples of theatrical uses of food at times of financial (and hence social) crises and food shortage, while taking into account the moral, political, biological, social and aesthetic implications of using real or imaginary food in the theatre. In other words, our main question is: what does it mean to whet the audience’s appetites when their stomachs are empty? In order to answer to this question we will look at examples of performances that have taken place during times of food shortage, in which either actual or symbolic food is used. We will try to analyse the theatre makers’ intentions, on the one hand, and the audience’s reactions, on the other hand.
A very characteristic case of discrepancy between the aesthetic vision of the theatre director and the audience’s reception was the play La Baie de Naples (The Bay of Naples), written and directed by Joël Dragutin and first performed at the Théâtre 95 in the outskirts of Paris, in 1985. La Baie de Naples was intended to be a bitter commentary on the consumer society in the West – a society obsessed with materialism and in lack of intellectual aspiration.
During a dinner party, a procession of enormous platters of grotesquely presented food “sculptures” took place; a mountain of rice decorated with vertically positioned skewers of meat, a construction of huge pieces of ham, a platter of great cabbage leaves, and a gigantic birthday cake all covered the long dinner table upon the stage. These gigantic food constructions were devoured by the incessantly chattering guests, who spilled them onto the stage floor, or even threw them to one another, at a rapid, hysteric pace that finally descended into paroxysm.
When the production was shown in New York in 1991, the audience at La MaMa received it enthusiastically, because they saw in it a typical French gastronomic extravaganza, and laughed a lot with the exotic images of gluttonous French characters who talked a lot and ate a lot. According to Joël Dragutin, the audience in New York did not realize that this was a critique of consumerism and remained on the first level of a tourist’s interpretation of typical French lifestyle being parodied in the play and thus the essence was lost.
On the contrary, when the performance toured in the USSR that same year, the economic and social context brought about a very different reaction from the audience. The tour had been scheduled at least one year before to be shown in three different cities, Moscow, Leningrad and Kalinin, as part of a bilateral cultural exchange. However, the performances took place during a year of significant historical change. During that final year of the Communist regime, the Soviet Union experienced a severe food crisis and people struggled to survive. It was too late though to cancel the exchange and the performances had to be shown as scheduled. While it was impossible to find the necessary food items for the show in the USSR, the company decided to carry all the foodstuffs from France, and transported them in refrigerated containers.
The images of actors consuming, playing with victuals, and even throwing them on the stage floor, together with the idea of seeing large amounts of food considered as nauseating were two of the main reasons that disturbed the Russian audience. In all the three different cities were the play was performed the spectators’ reactions were extremely violent and the shows ended in protests against the food waste. The contrast between two different societies underlined an opposition between two wholly different worlds and, of course, the conflict between two different political systems which was about to reach an end with the prevalence of Capitalism. In light of these circumstances, La Baie de Naples, that had started out as a social play denouncing the consumerist society, acquired a totally different reading under this historical change, this time as a political play.
The consequences of the collapse of Communism were also experienced in Cuba, during the “Período especial” in the 1990s – a prolonged time of severe economic crisis which resulted in widespread hunger. Within this context, the subject of food shortage and biological survival became central in the critically acclaimed play Manteca (Lard) by Alberto Pedro Torriente, directed by Miriam Lezcano in Havana, in 1993.
Three siblings are locked up in their apartment and discuss about committing or not a “terrible” act of violence, which is not revealed to the audience until much later in the play. It is New Year’s Eve and the characters enumerate the advantages and disadvantages of the Soviet presence in Cuba, they account for the food imports from the USSR during the 1970s and 1980s, which had offered a certain nutritional affluence, and the differences in the eating habits “here and there”, “then and now”. These culinary reminiscences are accompanied by simple scenic actions which reveal aspects of the Cubans’ everyday lives and the difficulty in sustaining themselves on a daily basis: Dulce, the sister, is ceremoniously sorting the rice ration, dividing it in small bags for every day of the week. She then cuts one piece of bread in three parts and shares it with her two brothers. She prepares water with sugar – a drink also known at the time as the “Havana breakfast” – which they will use for the New Year toast at midnight.
During the course of the play it is revealed that the three siblings clandestinely raise a pig in their apartment, in order to kill it, get its meat and make lard which they will later sell in the Black Market. But the pig has somehow become a member of the family, since they have been feeding it as their own baby. Yet, at the same time, they consider it as a kind of intruder and an enemy, because its very presence forces them to stay locked in their apartment so that neighbors will not hear or smell the animal. Killing the pig is, according to Rita de Maeseneer and Juan Manuel Tabío Hernández “as if they [the characters] dared to kill the quintessence of the Cuban being, using the pig as its metaphor”. The pig is sacrificed for the siblings’ survival at the end of the play just like the Cuban nation is driven to sacrifice for the sake of international politics and the possession of power.
The play’s direct references to the everyday life of Cuban society with a humoristic and sometimes sarcastic approach arose feelings of self-identification to the audience, who massively attended the performances. According to Johannes Birringer:
“Portraying Cuba’s economic and psychic disintegration in a painstakingly exact naturalist manner, with an audience responding emotionally to almost every single scene of (self) recognition, Manteca both questions the mythology of the home and the nation by depicting them as a decaying island ghetto filled with amputated families and broken revolutionary dreams (…)”.
In times of deprivation, food becomes an object of memory that people will long for, and nostalgically fantasize about. The Grupo Teatro Escambray aimed at awakening this memory in Los equívocos morales (The Ambiguous Morals) (1995), a historical allegory that used the Spanish-American War in 1898, the island’s siege, its resistance against the Spanish and American appropriation and the subsequent US conquest of Cuba as its dramatic setting. The playwright made a parallel with Cuba’s reality in the 1990s, directly linking the issues of blockage and scarcity. While one of the characters recites a luxurious French menu which will be offered to the Spanish army who colonize the island and can treat themselves with such refined delicacies while the Cuban people are starving, the actors enter as in a parade, imitating French waiters, and carry platters of food, like chickens and pigs. The victuals were skilfully made out of papier-mâché, despite the fact that paper itself was very hard to find. There is an obvious gap between the gourmet dishes recited and the paper-made, crude food items shown – a way of implicitly showing how food can exist only as recitation, as words carved in one’s memory without physically being there. Added to this, the food items were made out of a non-edible material and could not, therefore, awaken feelings of hunger to the audience.
To conclude, in times of hardship, theatre is considered a refuge, where people can form a group identity and enjoy a collective experience by sharing emotional release, and a certain kind of catharsis. This can be obtained when the theatrical experience allows spectators to identify themselves with the characters onstage, especially when they can laugh at their own misfortunes, as was the case in Manteca, where their present-day harsh reality was re-enacted on stage in a tragicomic fashion. The limited portions of rice, bread and sugar-water shown on stage did not offend them, since they were an exact replica of their own everyday dietary habits during the Período Especial. Likewise, when the food props were fabricated by other, inoffensive materials, like the papier-mâché chicken and pork in Los equívocos morales, the audience’s reception has been positive, because of the foodstuffs’ playful mode of representation.
In contrast, a hungry audience can become uncontrollable, especially when spectators are reminded of their hunger in the theatre. This was the reason why in Greece, during the German Occupation in the Second World War, the occupying forces set up a censorship law which forbade any reference to hunger or the lack of food in the plays by fear of protests. This kind of visceral response can be accentuated when there is an actual representation of real food that the starving audience can see, or even smell, but cannot consume it: in other words, this can be considered as torture. In that frame, the audience’s senses are intensely alert, and the biological need for nutrition prevails over any aesthetic appreciation. Real food is, therefore, not considered a mere stage prop. Because of its organic matter it belongs more to life than to art. Especially in the case of La Baie de Naples’ tour in the USSR, the fact that the performance travelled from another country and a different political, economic and social reality, and thus with different preoccupations, the provoking image of large amounts of food and its waste was considered as provocation and even as an immoral act of exhibitionism from a society of haves to a society of have-nots.
 The popular Cuban dish Moros y Cristianos was cooked on stage during the performance Variaciones sobre un concierto barroco by the Anglo-Venezuelan theatre company Opera Transatlántica, at the London International Festival of Theatre, in 1999.
 The traditional Catalan recipe Arroz negro con sofrito was prepared on stage in La increíble historia del Doctor Floit y Mister Pla by the group Els Joglars (Teatro Romea, Barcelona, 1997).
 In many of Rodrigo García’s performances junk food invades the stage and provokes sensations of disgust and nausea (for example in La historia de Ronald, el payaso de Mc Donald’s, 2002, and Jardineria humana, 2003)
 For instance, this has been the case in Rodrigo García’s play Accidens (Matar para comer) (2006) where a lobster is being bisected alive and then grilled and eaten by the actor.
 For an interesting analysis on Ireland’s diachronic porcine comparisons, see Townsend, L. “Porcine Pasts and Bourgeois Pigs: Consumption and the Irish Counterculture” in B. Faragó and K. Kirkpatrick (eds.) Animals in Irish Literature and Culture, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, p. 55-56.
 Like Roots (1958), Chicken Soup with Barley (1956), The Four Seasons (1965) and, of course The Kitchen (1957), in which Wesker insists that no real food should be used.
 Arnold Wesker, personal communication, September 12, 2002.
 This had also been the case in Argentina, during the economic crisis of 2001-2002, where theatre tickets were distributed in exchange of food donations for the poor.
 Theatre tickets saw a rise of 13% in their VAT, which rose from 8% to 21%, whereas vegetables are subject to just 4% VAT.
 The idea of selling carrots instead of theatre tickets was initiated by the Teatro de Bescanó, in the outskirts of Barcelona, in 2012 and was later followed by other theatres in Spain.
 Interview with Joël Dragutin, Cergy, June 29th 2004.
 Raising pigs in urban apartments has been a fact during the Período Especial, and has been depicted in several literary works of the period, like César (2002) by Nancy Alonso and Macho grande en el balcón (2009) by René Vázquez Díaz.
 The pork is an important element of the Cuban cuisine.
 De Maeseneer, R. and Tabío Hernández, J. M., “La cerdofilia en el Período Especial y sus avatares en la obra de Ronaldo Menéndez” in Á. Mateo del Pino and N. Pascual Soler (eds.), Comidas bastardas: Gastronomía, tradición e identidad en América Latina, Santiago de Chile, Editorial Cuarto Propio, 2013, p. 113-114.
 Birringer, J., Performance on the Edge: Transformations of Culture, London, Athlone Press, 2002, p. 232.
 The play was written by Reinaldo Montero and directed by Javier Fernández Jure.
 Myrsiades, L.S. “Greek Resistance Theatre in World War ll.” The Drama Review: TDR, Theatre and Social Action Issue, vol. 21, no. 1, March 1977, p. 105.
 During the German Occupation in Greece, there had been quite a few protests in the streets by hungry citizens who demanded bread, despite the occupation forces’ threats of executing the protesters.
 See De Ferrari’s analysis on how hunger and aesthetic judgement cannot happen simultaneously (“Abjection and Aesthetic Violence in Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s Trilogía sucia de La Habana”, in Vulnerable States: Bodies of Memory in Contemporary Caribbean Fiction, Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 2007, p. 181-184).
Birringer, J., Performance on the Edge: Transformations of Culture, London, Athlone Press, 2002.
Boudet, R. I., “La dramaturgia cubana de los 90” in O. Pellettieri and E. Rovner (eds.), La dramaturgia en Iberoamérica: teoría y práctica teatral, Buenos Aires, Galerna/GETEA/CITI, 1998, pp. 147-166.
De Ferrari, G., “Abjection and Aesthetic Violence in Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s Trilogía sucia de La Habana”, in Vulnerable States: Bodies of Memory in Contemporary Caribbean Fiction, Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 2007, pp. 181-210.
De Maeseneer, R. and Tabío Hernández, J. M., “La cerdofilia en el Período Especial y sus avatares en la obra de Ronaldo Menéndez” in Á. Mateo del Pino and N. Pascual Soler (eds.), Comidas bastardas: Gastronomía, tradición e identidad en América Latina, Santiago de Chile, Editorial Cuarto Propio, 2013, pp. 107-130.
Myrsiades, L.S. “Greek Resistance Theatre in World War ll”, The Drama Review: TDR, Theatre and Social Action Issue, vol. 21, no. 1, March 1977, pp. 99-107.
Rudakoff, J., “R/Evolutionary Theatre in Contemporary Cuba: Grupo Teatro Escambray”, TDR, Vol. 40, No. 1, Spring 1996, pp. 77-97.
Sklodowska, E. “Entre lo crudo y lo cocido: las representaciones de la comida en la literatura cubana del Período Especial” in R. De Maeseneer and P. Collard (eds.), Saberes y sabores en México y el Caribe, Amsterdam/New York, Editions Rodopi, 2010.
Stourna, A.-H., La Cuisine à la scène: boire et manger au théâtre du XXᵉ siècle, Coll. « Tables des hommes », Rennes/Tours, Presses universitaires de Rennes & Presses universitaires Franҫois-Rabelais de Tours, 2011.
Taylor, D. and Townsend, S.J. (eds.), Stages of conflict: a critical anthology of Latin American theater and performance, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2008.
Torriente Pedro, A., Manteca, Ch. Winks (tr.), TDR, Vol. 40, No. 1, Spring 1996, pp. 19-43
Townsend, L. “Porcine Pasts and Bourgeois Pigs: Consumption and the Irish Counterculture” in B. Faragó and K. Kirkpatrick (eds.) Animals in Irish Literature and Culture, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, pp. 55-72.