The revenge of the impossible

The revenge of the impossible

From the exact sciences …

Anyone who has practiced, or even just seen doing room gymnastics on a treadmill knows that you can run at a given speed with respect to the carpet while remaining stationary in place with respect to the room. Speed is a relative quantity, it depends on the reference system in which it is measured. In 1905 Albert Einstein stated that this is true for all entities in motion except light. The speed of light is an absolute quantity, regardless of the “carpet” on which it runs and the “room” in which the carpet is located. Impossible, he told himself. The facts – which in the realm of the exact sciences are called experiments – set out to prove that this impossible was real.

After centuries of conflict between proponents of the corpuscular nature and those of the wave nature of light, Louis de Broglie claimed in 1924 that the two apparently contrasting arrays were unknowingly in agreement with each other. Light is both particle and wave, both natures together. Impossible, he told himself. But even in this case the facts took it upon themselves to prove that this impossible was real.

Whoever is behind the wheel of a car passing in front of a given service station is certain that, at the time of passing, the speed of the car was that marked by the speedometer – that and no other -, and the service was at that precise point in its path – that and no one else. In 1927 Werner Heisenberg stated that the two certainties are incompatible with each other. Apart from cars and petrol stations for didactic purposes, the certainty about the speed of a moving object generates uncertainty about its position, and vice versa. The only certainty is uncertainty, according to the “uncertainty principle”. Impossible, he told himself, from certainty only other certainty can come. But once again the facts took it upon themselves to prove that this impossible was real.

These are only a few examples, among the many available: but the physics revolution of the twentieth century can be summarized just as the revenge of the impossible. Against the common sense axiom, according to which the real is by definition (the) possible, the facts proved that the real can sometimes be (the) impossible. Even more, they made it clear that the possible is only the terrain of the superficial observation of reality. To see it in depth, one must confront the challenge of the impossible.


at the theatre …

The theater of the twentieth century has known for some time, that in its reign the rule of the “excluded third”, nor that of “from cause to effect” apply. That is, the first canons of the possible. Also for the theater, only a few examples among the many available.

In 1904 Craig observes Isadora Duncan dancing, but he does not see a body in motion, but the Movement in a body. The effect is reversed into cause. The movement – which is of the body: the body comes first – overturns in Movement – which is in the body: the body comes later. He observes the actor, and sees that the actor has a body without being that body. The actor can exist even in the absence of the body. The Supermarionette – this is the name she coined for her bodyless actor – was Craig’s triumph in the challenge of the impossible.

Stanislavsky observes the actor in his constitutive exercise of fiction, but in fiction he sees the instrument for creating truth. Fiction is the opposite of lying, not the opposite of truth. Stanislavski’s paradox was, as in Craig’s case, a reversal of the norm “from cause to effect”. According to Stanislavski, not from being true it follows that a fact is trustworthy but, on the contrary, from being trustworthy it follows that the fact becomes true. The formulation of this paradox and its implementation according to the laws of the “system” were his victory in the challenge of the impossible.

Artaud observes the dance of a troupe of Balinese actors-dancers, and sees them free but in rigorous subjection to a score. Impossible, one would still say that freedom has become just a word in freedom. Either you are free or you are subject. Artaud faced this challenge of the impossible, and gave his victory the name of cruelty. In theater as in life, what man can do is only to get in harmony with necessity. Neither reject it nor suffer it. Simply – cruelly – live it. Make it alive. Cruelty is the hidden principle of improvisation. The actor who manages to reveal it on stage captures in the spectator’s gaze the jump of gratitude for having witnessed the unexpected revenge of the impossible, in the face of too many expected and sad triumphs of the possible. In the theater, as in life.

1976, and a few years later
Eugenio Barba observes the ordinary man, who on stage ceases to be so, proposing himself only as a character. Between the two extremes he sees a tertium: no longer the ordinary man, not yet the character. Simply the actor: capable of capturing the viewer’s attention without the props of the stage person. Or rather, before the implementation of those weapons. Discover the pre-expressive level. His victory in the challenge of the impossible has become the weapon for the many defenseless homeless of the Terzo Teatro, and of the theaters who, without having its name, share its spirit of revolt.


and return.


The discovery of radioactivity dates back to 1898. Certain elements can of course, by their own virtue, generate a different element. Impossible, it was said. Proof that this impossible was real was Maria Salomea Skłodowska, better known as Marie Curie, after she emigrated to Paris from her native Warsaw, graduated in physics and mathematics at the Sorbonne, immediately starting her research. The first element he discovered, generated by radioactivity from uranium, he called it Polonium, in honor of the homeland.

But, in addition to the discovery that earned her the first Nobel, in 1903 – she had a second in 1911 -, Marie Curie proved the reality of two other alleged – and inveterate – impossible ones. That a woman can compete in the same field – science, moreover – with male rivals, and that a wife can be something more than an appendage to her husband. Pierre Joliot was, at the time of his marriage to Marie, a much more accredited scientist than she was. And yet, not only did he collaborate in the search for his wife, but to some extent he put himself into her service. The first Nobel Prize was awarded to the couple Marie-Pierre, giving it individually to a woman would have been a scandal. But he always gave her the greatest credit.

Even this victory in the deemed impossible “gender challenge” was accepted by the theater. Many women of the theater, finally out loud after a long forced silence, compete with colleagues of the other kind. More and more successfully.

Franco Ruffini

Article by Franco Ruffini