Imagination and Memory in the Theatrical Place

Dr. art. Anita Hammer, Associate Professor of Theatre Studies, Oslo, Norway.

An inquiry into Bachelard’s notion of “Material Imagination” encountering the theatrical event.


Gaston Bachelard’s notion of “material imagination” is grounded on the premise that an intimate interconnection exists between human memory and imagination. Imagination shapes and creates memory, as memory exists only as imagination.

Most of the examples Bachelard uses in showing the material universes embedded in imagery is taken from literary works. Therefore it is no surprise that his works have been utilized in the analyses of literature. In film analyses too, Bachelard’s writings have been utilized as tools for analysis of thematic concerns as well as of mise en scene and cinematics.

My approach to Bachelard’s work, however, is from the perspective of the theatre. To my knowledge Bachelard’s theory has not been applied to the theatrical experience, at least not in the Scandinavian context, which is from where my viewpoint begins. I will suggest that the close relationship between memory and imagination is activated by sensuous bodily presence in the experience of the theatrical performance, both in the performer as well as in the audience. In my approach I will pay particular attention to the notion of material imagination, as I find this particularly apt for approaching a description of the theatrical experience as physical, spatial and “place- ial” presence.

My point of departure is to describe Material imagination as imagination of matter that takes place as a result of, or intertwined with, memory in a performative process. I will try to show that applying the concept/theory of material imagination to an event, which produces imagination and memory, not in the literary text or “fictitious place”, but by presence in the theatre, in material place, with living bodies of participants and the physical material of the stage as place, leads to a different focus in the reading of theatrical experience.

“Emotional memory”, as we know from Stanislavsky’s works, has been a main factor on which the psychological analysis of character on the stage has been based. My approach represents a different angle; I see theatre as a sensuous event, in which sensuous presence comes before psychological identification.

The phenomenological approach in Bachelard’s work is easily combined with approaching theatre as “event”. Approaching each performance as unique and non- reproducible, including the presence of the spectator implies that the theatrical event involves a communicative universe emerging from simultaneous physical and sensuous presence.

The Theatrical Event

I will suggest that Bachelard’s terminology may be used as a means of focusing on, and emphasizing the importance of, the sensuous and material aspects of theatre; material imagination then becomes the focal point from which meaning is derived within the theatrical event.

As in the analyses of poetry, the Bachelardian emphasis will be on the interrelations between matter and creative fantasy (Kittang 1996:209). The same emphasis on theatre as spatial/situational and bodily experience implies that the duality of matter that exists within material imaginational presentation in the theatre can be described as presence of body and matter in a potentiated form. This potentiated form is one in which language, scenery, sound and sight, light and darkness, all add up to a “material” realization of imagined memories.

In the following I will exemplify this experience by examining segments from the Norwegian performance group Verdensteatret’s performance “Concert for Greenland”.

But first, a brief introduction to Bachelardian thinking.

Bachelardian thinking

In the years between 1932, when his first work on imagination, The Psychoanalyses of Fire, was published, and till his death in 1962, Bachelard continued to explore his phenomenology of imagination by means of various qualities of “matter” as his lead. The title of his first work on imagination reveals the importance given to the substance of matter.

I will draw on the works Water and Dreams (1942, English translation) and Poetics of Space, in order to convey how Bachelard opposes the critical approach to imagination, and replaces this with an approach to human imagination that celebrates it and proposes human fantasy as a function of a vision into the future.

To Bachelard, the experience of reality as materiality is the ground for all imagination, thus matter, in all its elements, is decisive to the quality of all imagination and sensation of matter present in all human imagination.

The Bachelardian descriptions of images are suggestive and associative, rather than argumentative. Still, he sums up his various theses in the form of postulates from which emerge far reaching epistemological consequences. Imagination is described as irreducible. When applied to the context of the theatrical event, this means that the sensuous expression of the performer and all the other elements of performance, as well as the experience of the same by every member of the audience, are regarded as a non reducible subjective experience, and simultaneously as a shared experience of place in the scenic imagined imagination.

The theatrical place may then be understood as a meeting place not only between performers and audience, but also a place where inner and outer imagination are actualized as a meeting between sensuous experience, memory and imagination.

Bachelard’s writings on imagination echo the process of artistic production, and therefore also the process of theatre: taking into consideration that the theatrical performance is always a creative process, referring to a shared imagination in the making between everyone present in the event.

In his introduction to Water and Dreams, entitled “Imagination and Matter”, Bachelard proposes that the forces of human imagination are derived from two axes that are fundamentally different. The first axis draws on the quality of the unexpected, the unusual and the picturesque. These are the spring forces of imagination, they produce flowering life. The impulse of the second axis is for depth. It seeks the eternal and the primitive in inner human nature as well as in outer nature.

Besides the images of form, so often evoked by psychologists of imagination, there are /---/ images of matter, images that stem directly from matter. /---/ When forms, mere perishable forms and vain images – perpetual change of surfaces – are put aside, the images of matter are dreamt substantially and intimately. They have weight, they constitute a heart (Bachelard 1983:1).

There exists, thus, two kinds of imagination, says Bachelard: One giving life to “formal cause” and the other giving life to “material cause”. He then proposes the existence of one formal imagination and one material imagination. According to Bachelard, shaping a complete philosophical analyses of “poetic creation” (ibid.) would be impossible without these two parallel concepts. He further notes that images of form have so often been described in philosophy, but he wants to point out the existence of images of matter as well; that is, imagery that is created directly from matter.

According to Bachelard there is an individuality of depth that makes matter into a totality. “Matter is the very principle that can dissociate itself from forms” (bid)
What Bachelard suggests here, is that meditation on the intimate relation between the material and the formal cause leads to an experience of matter that leads to either the
deepening or the elevation of the formal.

The Poetic Image as materialized material image

According to Bachelard all memory is imagination. Consciousness is imagination. The individual consists of extraordinary impressions, not only the ordinary. Sensuous experiences of extraordinary quality build the images of which memory consists. Experience of spatial experience of place is vital in this process of becoming an individual.

In his preface to Poetics of Space, Bachelard writes about the poetic image:
”Because of its novelty and its action, the poetic image has an entity and a dynamism of its own; it is referable to a direct
ontology. This ontology is what I plan to study” (Bachelard 1964:xvi).

He proposes that the poetic image is independent of causality (Bachelard 1964:xvii). Psychology cannot explain the workings of an image that is unpredicted and new, it cannot explain reasons for its communication. A poetic image cannot be reduced to the explanation that it is a subjective experience. The trans-subjective cannot be explained by subjectivity alone.

Capacity for transformation is, according to Bachelard, a quality embedded in the poetic image, and this capacity is due to its variability, contradictions, and its process of duality, which is crucial to the experience.

The image, in its simplicity, has no need for scholarship. It is the property of a naive consciousness, in its expression, it is youthful language. The poet, in the novelty of his images, is always the origin of language. To specify exactly what a phenomenology of the image can be, to specify that the image comes before thought, we should have to say that poetry, rather than being a phenomenology of the mind, is a phenomenology of the soul. We should then have to collect documentation on the subject of the dreaming consciousness (Bachelard 1964:xx).

The poetic image exists prior to language, and is the purest, most primal language. Bachelard stresses that the notion of the poetic image must not be mistaken for “metaphor”. These are entirely different ontological entities:
”Metaphor is related to a psychic being from which it
differs. An image, on the contrary, product of absolute imagination, owes its entire being to the imagination” (Bachelard 1994: 74).

He suggests imagination as a “major power” (1994:74) in human nature. The Image exists on its own grounds, on its own premises. It is “the pure product of absolute imagination” (1994: 75).

Theatre as daydreaming

By presence of the senses, in physical space, and refraining from interpretation, Bachelard proposes utilization of daydreaming as an instrument that sends “waves” of the unreal into the world of realities. In imagination of matter lies the possibility of the mutual encouragement of imagery growth of inner and outer space.

In his work, The Poetics of Space, Bachelard describes the house, the hut, as boundaries of the “home” within the universe, while drawers and chests are places for exploration of intimacy. Nests, mussels and shells are directly related to experiences of the body.

Then how does one approach the theatrical space? It must be approached as place. Within this place all material elements may be considered as “dreamt up” realities that are enacted by means of spatial imagination of matter. The quality of the materiality unfolding in the performance may be considered as constituting the imaginary reality within which creation and participation takes place.

Bachelard describes the poetic image as a process taking place between sensuous experience of matter, memory and imagination (op. cit.). Experience in the theatre may be described as immersion in material imagination over time, by means of re- enactment of material imagination.

The theatrical event may, then, be approached as a material imaginary event. Theatre is an event of communication in which imagination is conveyed by means of matter, and where experience of imagery in place is shared with others. Physical presence by all participants, in place created by framed space, and of time of action, is characteristic of the theatrical event.

Experience of material imagination is central to this experience, particularly in a performance that is not built around psychological realism.

“All memory has to be re-imagined. For we have in our memories micro-films that
can only be read if they are lighted by the bright light of the imagination” (Bachelard 1994:175).

I encountered such a “dreamt up” theatrical experience, an experience that to me combined images, memories and matter in such a way that it may in fact serve as an illustration of Bachelard’s notion of material imagination, when I went to see the performance “Concert for Greenland” at the Black Box Theatre in Oslo in 2004. In this performance the materialization of primary sensuous elements become so central that they constituted the meaning of the performance, and therefore can be said to be the foundation of meaning on which the communicative event is based.

The theatrical event - Concert for Greenland,
by Verdensteatret Performance Group at the Black Box Theatre, Oslo, Norway


The Norwegian, Oslo based performance group, Verdensteatret is led by two artists who combine the crafts of fine art and theatre, Lisbeth Bodd and Asle Nilsen. These two represent the core of the group, while they have an open structure that brings in various performance participants in various productions. The creation of A Concert for Greenland (CFG) involved 12 performers working with sound, musical composition, image and movement.

The Clips and summaries used in the following passages are taken from texts on their website.

The background for CFG is a journey Verdensteatret made to Greenland and the other north-Atlantic islands in 2003.
Greenland as the focus point of this work is, as often before, the result of an intuitive attitude towards use of artistic material, and the fact that research on travel has worked very well for us on several occasions earlier.

The material collected on this trip went into a deeper artistic process that “sweat out” a poetic concentrate.

They say that Greenland made a deep impression, and that they had “ambivalent impressions” of Greenland, which, when back in Oslo, changed into deep fascination. The performance, on one level, mirrors the actual trip, but on another level, “the structure and artistic expression of the performance is more like images and sounds from the subconscious experience of these Nordic journeys, rebuilt through our dreams or our unreliable memory.”

This has resulted in a “sound-scape, through language and visual transformation”.

They call the various expressions of the coming together of sound, image, language, space, movement and stories a “live animation machine”. By use of these different elements the aim is to, “make the performance into a dynamic movement through material”. This is created by, “many medias operating simultaneously”, but it is always created live, in front of the audience.

The room of the “live animation machine” is, “images where past and present exist simultaneously”, the perspective constantly changes between indoor and outdoor, high and low, narrow and broad, in order to create a “multi-perspective”.

And how is this space of “dynamic movement through material” created? As their website explains:

In "Concert for Greenland" the left side of the stage-room is dominated by a wooden construction. This primitive construction is like a shadow-theatre seen from the back-side (the audience is placed on the same side as the figures/objects and the manipulators). The shadows fall on a white wall behind the construction. This construction we call "The Raft" It is made out of old weather-beaten planks in two levels with a lot of figures/objects placed on it. The objects are shoved back and forth, they rotate and some move vertically.

All objects have their own sounds which is dynamic connected to their movement. The objects are controlled by the people on stage.

Each object/figure has its own "voice"/sound which consists of its own sound when it is moved back and forth on the wood + samples made specially for each object.
A contact microphone is attached underneath every object/figure which makes the "voices"/sounds dynamically in intensity according to how they are moved.

The “dynamic movement through material”, I would like to point out, is composed from imagination based on material impressions. Sound track and “authentic” material components from Greenland are used. There are sound recordings of wind and the sea as well as sounds of ice breaking while the objects move horizontally with the wooden raft. The shape of the objects are something in-between a human and a vase, a shoe and a stone, a flower basket and something unknown, which leads the imagination inward to connect to previous imagery living in the psyche, and thereby making these imaginations of memory available. Creation of new meaning takes place when the living images constantly change and “bleed over” into each other.

Semantic definable text is introduced in the 14th minute of the 30 minute long performance session, and describes the shadow of an aeroplane forming a cross on the ground, a man in the middle of the cross in a split second, aligned with a cross on the naked wall of a church. The man has had the impression of something moving with tremendous speed. The sound of these lines is then electronically transformed into an onomatopoetic content.

The horizontal lines dominate and create a place that echoes the horizon on a sea; ice breaking, floating on water. Images of water dominate, particularly in the second half of the performance, emphasising the boundary between solid and fluid shapes of water. This allows for a dual existence. Water is the predominant material element of the imagery, while accompanied by metallic sound.

The deliberate “unfinished” nature of the shape of the objects opens up a world between the very well known and the unknown, as if we, as spectators, are suddenly transferred to a place from childhood, listening through the wall to familiar sounds of which we have no reference in sight, peeping into the mysterious world of the unknown, (perhaps some form of adulthood). But at the same time we are part of the environmental changes affecting the Greenland ice.

The scenery may also be seen as a “miniature”. In The Poetics of Space, Bachelard pays special attention to the miniature as an expression that is inherent with the capacity of shaping an imaginary world of enormous dimensions. Bachelard describes the function of miniature as “immense immensity”. Anyone who’s ever played with Barbie-dolls, electric toy-trains, or cultivated a Bonsai, may have experienced this. This experience not only refers to the object, but refers to the process of consciousness itself, as “imagining consciousness”, according to Bachelard

(Bachelard 1994:184). Miniature refers to the human as “pure being of pure imagination” (ibid.). The miniature as expression, then, is a “by-product of this existentialism of the imagining being” (ibid.). The product of this process is the extension of consciousness.

The miniature aspect of CFG is created by the dimensional difference between the bodies of the actors and the moving objects. The performers play on and with objects like children or animators. The performers act of playing also works as an appeal and a confirmation of playing with imagination for the audience. In this miniature, the materiality of natural phenomena, wind, water and wood, constantly changes meaning by use of sound, the mood also constantly changes between stillness and excitement.

Material substance is at the centre of this experience in this performance.

“Dreaming Consciousness” and the dialectics between inside and outside that Bachelard refers to as, “The two kinds of space. Intimate space and exterior space,” which, “keep encouraging each other, as it were, in their growth” (Bachelard 1994:201), are obviously present in CFG. The collection of material used in the performance re-enacts experience of the material universe via imagination in and around matter.

Experience of the elements as images, here predominantly the element of water, forms the basis for ”material imagination”. This process of exchange between the interior and exterior is seeing the world anew. It is the hallmark of “dreaming consciousness”, opening up to the image that comes before thought (Bachelard 1994:xx). The ambivalent impressions from the performers give duality to the imagination experienced in the performative event. As event, this performance is one event in a chain of events in which imagination plays the major part. The journey of imagination of all the participants is made present by the material images of water in the journey.


In theatre, as shown in the use of dynamic movement through material in the performance piece “Concert for Greenland”, the “Bright light of imagination” implies the following when approaching a theatrical event as “material imagination:

1. The trans-subjective experience is particularly relevant when describing the shared experience in time and space between performers and other participants in the theatrical event.

Images of matter have a trans-individual character, and may function as the key to understanding the theatrical experience, which works on an individual level and at the same time as a shared communal experience in a particular event in time and space.

Individual imagination of matter meets in the shared space where material imagination is re-enacted.

2. Experience of reality as matter, according to Bachelardian thinking, is prior to language.

Emotional memory is constituted by images of matter, not language.

I will say that this is true not only of experiences from early childhood, but for any experience of matter that crystallises into poetic imagery. Images of matter may be prior to language in constituting meaning within the frame of the theatrical event.

3. What happens to images of matter when these are created as scenery and movement of bodies taking place within a theatrical event? We may consider them images of matter that are re-imagined by means of matter. This re-imagination may be aligned to Schechner’s notion of som ”twice behaved behaviour”( Schechner 1985:35-116) that contains “re-actualization” of the past, and is closely linked with the quality of reflectivity that according to Victor Turner is at the core of performative experience (Turner 1982:13-18 and 79).

Images of matter may be re-actualized by matter in a theatrical setting. The theatrical experience, focusing on a particular image of matter, may be able to re-enact images of matter by means of matter.
The performance of
Concert For Greenland does this in a way that enables us to re- connect to matter in today’s environment, departing from personal and subjective experience. It shows that the performance centred on material imagination has the capacity to combine the individual and the collective, the inner and the outer, as well as large and small issues.

4. A theatrical event based on images of matter will be able to draw individual and collective consciousness into a process more deeply effective than would a performance based merely on the formal cause.

5. The condensed living image experienced in Concert for Greenland simultaneously points back to the trip to Greenland, the ambivalent impressions, and the re- imagination of the performers. This contains sensuous presence, memory and reproduction. The communal experience of the event is constituted by the performers’ creation of memory of their journey in such a way that the images open up to a meeting of past and present. This is the past of the spectator, by reactivating material images, as well as the impressions from Greenland. The theatrical event then becomes a floating experience between past and present that opens up to something new, previously not available to consciousness. This takes place by “dynamic movement through material”.

Material image materialized is not a re-presentation of a previously experienced image, but it is an enactment of materiality in a new form that is based on the deep connection to materiality that is at the same time individual and shared.

The swift action of the force of imagination, according to Bachelard, has the capacity not only of connecting, but also separating humans from the past as well as from the present. It evokes the future. Poetic imagination may then be described as a “function of unreality”, equally important to human beings as the function of reality, in the psyche. “If we cannot imagine, we cannot foresee”.

Imagination, therefore, shapes and creates our future. Theatre may be perceived as pointing to the future when it opens up to the daydream, because:

: /---/ the daydream transports the dreamer outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity” Bachelard 1994:183).

Through material imagination centred on images of water, the performance piece Concert for Greenland combines intimate and personal memories via miniature material imaginations, with environmental issues of today, which unite the experience of the performer and the audience as well as the world outside the theatrical space. According to Bachelard, the element of water bears a quality of destiny. It is also transitional, and its dual materiality is focused on in the performance.

Bachelard says that:
“Space that has been seized upon by the imagination cannot remain indifferent space

subject to the measures and estimates of the surveyors. It has been lived in, not in its positivity, but with all the partiality of the imagination” (B 1994:xxxvi).

This is now true of the environment of Greenland. We all share in its destiny.

List of References

Bachelard, Gaston (1964) The Psychoanalysis of Fire, Beacon Press, Massachusetts Bachelard, Gaston (1983) Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, the Pegasus Foundation, Dallas
Bachelard, Gaston (1994)
The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press, Boston

Døving, Kjell (2004) Luktesansens Mysterier, Kronikk, Aftenposten 10.desember Verdensteatret: 2004/2005 Konsert for Grønland, Black Box Teater, Oslo

Hammer, Anita (2002) Weaving Plots, KUBE nr. 2, NTNU, Trondheim
Kittang, Atle (2004) ”Imaginasjon, negativitet, materialitet: Sartre og Bachelard” Lecture, University of Copenhagen 24.03.04.
Kittang, Atle og Aarseth, Asbjørn (1976)
Lyriske strukturer, Universitetsforlaget, Oslo-Bergen-Tromsø.
Sauter, Willmar (2000)
The Theatrical Event, University of Iowa Press, Iowa Schechner, Richard (1985) Between Theater and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.
Stanislavski, Konstantin (1936)
An Actor Prepares, New York
Turner, Victor (1982)
From Ritual to Theatre, PAJ Publications, Baltimore and London