The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Garden of Earthly Delights is a series of pictorial vignettes performed without text or scenery. There are four distinct sections, dramatizing in turn Eden, the Garden of Earthly Delights, the Seven Deadly Sins, and Hell.

Part 1 begins when a smoky mist fills the blackened stage to the low sound of whistling wind. A trumpet blares as blue light illuminates a thicket of leafless tree branches held overhead by a man who trudges slowly to center stage. Six figures enter from the darkness of stage left, walking on their hands and feet, looking like animals cautiously exploring a new world. One falls over and instantly becomes the prey of the others, who pounce on it and devour it. The first musical motif begins on cello and recorder as light spreads across the stage to reveal the figures of Adam and Eve, dressed in skin-colored body suits and standing side-by-side.

The two begin a gentle, fluid movement sequence to the sweet melody of the cello. Eve gradually moves away from Adam, signifying her emergence from his rib. The two move gracefully to the floor as two merry angels piping on penny whistles fly in above them. Adam strokes Eve’s hair and then tenderly pulls her from the floor by it. Their brief moment of innocent wonder ends as they are met by the serpent, who pulls an apple from between her thighs, symbolizing the end of innocence in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve fold over into the animal shapes of the earlier creatures, and like them exit slowly on all fours, heads bent. The tree-man stalks off, accompanied by stringed instruments playing a dirge.

The second section of the piece is set in the Garden of Earthly Delights. A musical change signals this transition; a more percussive score begins with a knocking sound on the side of a drum underscoring a flute. The musicians enter the empty stage in small groups with the dancers. From stage left, the cellist enters, accompanied by a crawling woman. When he stops upstage left, she stretches out at his feet. From upstage center another dancer enters with a man playing a lyre. She then nestles against him downstage, holding the lyre while he plucks the strings. A trio enters from stage right, led by the flute player. Two women walk closely behind him, holding the instrument as he plays, at right center. The musicians finish this soothing song, then move to the edges of the stage. One woman exits, while the three who remain begin a movement sequence which begins on the floor and eventually carries them offstage.

A collage of vivid images ensues. The low, eerie sounds of a tuba accompany the entrance of a grotesque beast. Three men roll toward center stage; a woman balances on each one with a staff for support. One man becomes a boat; the woman on his back calmly guides her stick-oar through unseen water. The other two men swim away. The remaining women kneel and wave their sticks across the floor as if conjuring. The music grows more animated. A woman in a chiffon robe flies above the heads of five figures, who have replaced the kneeling women. They watch her before dividing into a trio and duet, beginning a movement sequence characterized by contact and acrobatics. The two conjurers reenter, swinging switches like long whips. The sound of the whips and the staccato plucking of violin strings...

(The entire section is 1349 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Garden of Earthly Delights is distinguished from much contemporary performance art by the dominance of the expressive use of the human body, replacing all spoken text. Clarke’s approach to developing material and directing the action is primarily choreographic. The images of Bosch’s paintings are brought to life by the performer’s bodies, transmuted into human and animal characters. Clarke is able to evoke a range of beautiful and horrible images by her use of movement motifs which are initially suggested in the paintings and subsequently expanded to extend the ideas of the painting in time and space. The characters are choreographed in the air as well as on the ground, making the entire theater an animated canvas.

The most striking mechanical device used throughout the piece is the flight of actors and musicians, accomplished by means of harnesses and wires. Angels float and soar above the stage and damned souls hurdle toward Hell or hang lifelessly in darkness. The careful blending of dance and aerial movement, mime, acrobatics, music, and lighting effects with a minimum of props exhausts the formal possibilities of expression without surrendering to the demands of specific textual themes.

In the Seven Deadly Sins section, Gluttony, Anger, Envy, Lust, Pride, Sloth, and Covetousness are personified by a band of medieval peasants in a quick series of cartoonlike scenes. These scenes are the most humorous in the piece, but in an unquestionably cruel way. While the peasants’ actions are broadly drawn and sometimes clownish, the implications of their coarse behavior are frightening.

By employing actors who constantly transform from one role to another, good to evil, male to female to natural object or animal, Clarke suggests that the range of actions and feeling suggested by the piece are somehow abiding elements within all human beings.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Clarke, Martha. “Images from the Id.” Interview by Arthur Barton. American Theater 5 (June, 1988): 10-17, 55-57.

Clarke, Martha. Interview by Elizabeth Kendall and Don Daniels. Ballet Review 12 (Winter, 1985): 15-25.

Copeland, Roger. “Master of the Body.” American Theater 5 (June, 1988): 14-15.

Gussow, Mel. “Clarke Work.” New York Times Magazine, January 18, 1987, pp. 30-34.

Sadler, Geoff. “Martha Clarke.” In Contemporary Dramatists. 6th ed. Detroit: St. James, 1999.

Smith, Amanda. “Inside the Fellini-esque World of Martha Clarke.” Dance Magazine 60 (April, 1986): 70-74.

Zimmer, Elizabeth. Review of The Garden of Earthly Delights. Dance Magazine 58 (September, 1984): 85-88.