Mainstage

We learn of a warp in time-space, one that actually occurred here on Earth, from Gertrude Stein who, in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1932), reflects on the portrait of her painted by Pablo Picasso. It was some time around 1905-1906, Picasso was between periods and thus experimenting with different visions. He had never done a portrait, a fact that might explain why he required ninety sittings from Stein in order to complete it. So much work went into it, so much thought. Upon its unveiling, however, commentators pointed out that the portrait lacked the one element so crucial to the genre. It didn’t look like her. Or, rather, Stein didn’t look like it. Either way, Stein’s representation in oil didn’t represented Stein in the flesh didn’t represent Stein in oil. To this, Picasso famously replied, “She will,” meaning that at some point in the future, Stein would live up to the representation. And sure enough, as time passed, Stein seemingly lived into her artistic representation, growing in appearance more and more like her painting, thereby revealing Picasso’s ability to chart matter’s unfolding through time and space as well as how an art object can act as a foreshock to the future.[1]

As a theatre and performance scholar struggling to make sense of the recent turbulence of the election, I have been asking myself: Is there an analogue in theatre history to this event of painting, one that prefigures our recent election cycle and outcome and acts similarly as a foreshock to the future in which we now dwell? Simon Critchley’s recent post in The Stone about the renewed importance of Existentialist nausea goads my thought, too, though I would like to emphasize here not a philosophical paradigm as such but rather a theatrical-philosophical one.

The foreshock that first comes to mind is The Chairs (1952) by Eugène Ionesco. In this play, now a canonical title belonging to what Martin Esslin named Theatre of the Absurd, we find two characters of greatly advanced age struggling, in essence, to make their lives great again. Dialogue, if we can call it that, drenched in memories, perhaps misremembered recollections, oscillates from semi-sensical to nonsensical and back again, slowly rendering a fuzzy image of the two characters’ present situation. The Old Man, we discover, has something of major import to tell us. He has worked his whole life to express this majorly important insight about the world in which he lives, but he does not have the language to do it. To get the message across, the Old Man has enlisted the help of an Orator who, the Old Man assures us, will convey the full thrust of The Message.

In anticipation and celebration of the Orator’s address, the old couple throws a party. As the play progresses, Ionesco gradually ratchets-up an odd feeling of dis-ease and eventually reveals to the play’s audience that each party guest, while bearing a name and a clear social function, is invisible. One by one, the old couple welcomes these invisible people into their living space. A separate chair marks each guest. It is unclear whether they, the characters, can see these invisible entities or whether they are engaged in some kind of willing suspension of disbelief themselves, a kind of selective dementia. Regardless of the true ontic status of these invisible characters, the frenzy of anticipation grows until the play almost combusts in a conflagration of fragmented speech and hurried movement. The stage, once empty, fills with chairs. The Old Man and Old Woman are moving so quickly that we have either to doubt their age—listed as 95 and 94 in the text—or accept that the vitality of the moment has enthused them.

The Orator finally arrives, and after a suitably grand introduction delivers The Message. But, once again, Ionesco constructs the logic of this moment with his signature strangeness. The Orator speaks in discernable sounds, but not in familiar speech. We learn in the text that he is a “deaf mute,” and thus his message, the oh-so important message hyped throughout the play, is incommunicable and unintelligible. Even when the Orator determines to write The Message on a blackboard, thereby overcoming the problem of the spoken word, the audience, both on and off stage, receives the following: ANGELFOOD […] NNAA NNM NWNWNW V. And so The Message does not land, it cannot land since it seems to have no content. Yet, with renewed vigor, the Orator erases the board and seems to conceive of a remedy: ∧ADIEU ∧DIEU ∧P∧. There’s The Message all worked out. Can’t you see it?

Can we not imagine Trump, Clinton, or Sanders as the contemporary embodiment of the Orator? Enlisted to put into words the message of many disgruntled and uncomfortable citizens of the United States, the message we eventually receive from them is in fact a string of sounds and symbols that have no real import beyond the readymade intelligibility that each sound and symbol may carry for acolytes and those initiated in each politician’s way. As with the Orator’s message, we might ask whether the messages of these politicians lack sense intrinsically or whether some of us lack the reservoir of knowledge to understand the all-important utterance? That Trump won means only that there were more members of the Electoral College who seemed to understand his ∧ADIEU ∧DIEU ∧P∧.

In The Chairs, once the confusion of the message begins to register with the audience—Like, oh, this is it? This is what we’ve been waiting for?—we in the house seats start to re-appraise the character of the Orator. Is he a normal character? Is not something a little bit off about him? Is he indeed a deaf mute (as the text suggests), or is he playing one, perhaps even mocking one? Have we perhaps, because of his title of Orator, overlooked something beneath his appearance? The fact of the matter is that we do not have, nor will we ever receive, answers to these questions. Ionesco, in his stage directions, tells us that the Orator seems displeased with the way his message has landed, but the audio track that slowly rises onstage—“bursts of laughter, murmurs, shh’s, ironical coughs”—suggests that some of the invisible people have understood something. Maybe the Orator’s appearance of displeasure is something else altogether, a kind of body language decipherable only to those who speak his language. After all, before he exits the stage he “bows ceremoniously,” as if he has done what he was summoned to do. When the play ends, a lot has just happened, but what precisely are we to make of any of it?

Back to the present day similarities: The Old Couple foreshadows the electorate. Old and young at the same time, they are equipped with vivid memories but also ample disillusionment, i.e., memories of a past that never existed, able to recognize the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, but simply unable to speak it for themselves. Due to this inability, they require a spokesperson, a surrogate, a representative to drive the message home in precisely the right terms, i.e., terms that make sense to them.

Even the scenography of the piece, which Ionesco draws out in great detail on the first few pages of the script, eerily resembles the floor of a Parliament or legislature: a semi-circular configuration of chairs facing a raised dais with a discernible left side and right side. Are the characters of the play gathered in a political arena that has been evacuated of its use and now functions as a party venue?

While not a completely verisimilar replica of the current political situation, The Chairs nonetheless predicts the confusion, the miscommunication, the enthusiasm paired with despair, and the general out-of-tune-ness of the state in which many now find themselves. A message has been delivered, but can anybody say what precisely that message is. ∧ADIEU ∧DIEU ∧P∧, indeed.

Looking back to the precursors of Ionesco’s brand of theatre, I find another intriguing foreshock: Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921). Midway through that play’s action, which itself consists of a rehearsal of a play preparing for its grand opening, the doors in the back of the auditorium open. Through the very same doors through which the audience will have entered comes an ensemble of characters that, so we are told, are searching for their author. At this moment, “real-life” audience and “fictional” stage actors are united in an uncanny experience that hinges on a seemingly impossible reversal of cause and effect: before an author has created them, a cast of characters wanders the earth. Struggling with this twist of temporality, the six characters plead with the actors to put their story into action.

All of this happens within the framework of a play-within-a-play, what Lionel Abel eventually terms metatheatre. The result of this upon the “real” audience watching the play was profound in its day. Audience members shouted in disbelief: Manicomio! (Madhouse!) Incommensurabile! (Incommensurable!).[2] The uncommon event transpiring within the theatre eventually ends tragically, due in part to an inability between the actors and the six characters to determine the precise mode of realism needed to bring the characters to life, in part to the fact that causality has been broken, and in part to the actors’ inability to properly author the ciphers who appeared before them. The characters are indeed ciphers, placeholders with relatively common dimensions—denoted by names such as “Father” and “Daughter”—waiting to be filled out, but the filling out does not transpire properly and thus tragedy befalls the lot of them. Many of the six characters “die” at the end, but the Director of the “real” show is unsure whether it matters. After all, they weren’t real people were they?

In this foreshock, our recent presidential hopefuls corresponded to Pirandello’s characters. We, the electorate, are going about the dramas of our daily lives when there appears a group of characters claiming to need our support in order to bring their visions to fruition. Clinton is the archetypal matriarch, Trump the dominating and witheringly masculine patriarch, Sanders the son (who, in Pirandello’s play hates the family because they have ostracized him). We, the electorate, are told that without us the power of these characters cannot come into being. We are needed to author the promise of each character. Without us, these characters are empty placeholders, Zeroes, but when we do our best to play our parts we find that the joke is on (half of) us. We act through our vote only to discover that the majority of the voting population hasn’t accomplished anything real at all. The votes counted and didn’t count in the end. Were they fictional votes? Does it really matter?

The point I’d like to make here with these strange resonances between absurdist plays and our recent election cycle is this: history is not repeating itself as either tragedy or farce; it is, rather, fulfilling its identity as the theatre of the absurd. Therefore, the present reality is not absurd in its own right, but is instead theatre of the absurd. We are experiencing another stage in the evolution of the Theatre of the World. Maybe this is the most important aspect of Absurdism that scholars like Esslin have overlooked; namely, that, despite its clear relationship to the climate of the times (post-WWII), the theatre of Ionesco and his contemporaries actually conjured a vision of a future, a future that has revealed itself to be the present in which we live. We have, in other words, finally grown into the misery of the world portended by the Absurdists over half-a-century ago.

Faced with this possibility, what we need today is a team of theatre and performance scholars to investigate this current theatre in which we all find ourselves. To do this, the team could break down the theatre into its constituent parts. For example: language. Is it too much of an exaggeration to say that an orangutan testing the depths of a pool blocking its path is more adept with its tool than any of the presidential contenders were with the tool of language?[3] Transcripts from stump speeches prove clearly that not only did language fail to communicate specific messages to the gathered audiences but also that language consistently failed to rise to the level of meaning at all.

Of course, Trump’s are the most amenable to my argument, as this excerpt from a rally in South Carolina on July 21, 2015, proves:

Look, having nuclear — my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, okay, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart — you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, okay, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world — it’s true! — but when you’re a conservative Republican they try — oh, do they do a number — that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune — you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged — but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me — it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are […][4]

Where Clinton’s language is concerned, the problem is not outright grammar-less nonsense but, rather, vagueness and empty talk. In her speech for the acceptance of the Democratic Party’s nomination, for example, we heard, “Now we are clear-eyed about what our country is up against. But we are not afraid. We will rise to the challenge, just as we always have.” And then we heard about building a road to citizenship (how?), fixing inequality and social mobility (in what way?), creating better jobs (in what fields?), that climate change is real (…duh?), and other broad-sweeping claims that people in the room with her already believed. What, though, was the main message of her campaign? There wasn’t one. There wasn’t one, and so her speeches could at best aim not to set an agenda but, rather, to accomplish everything that liberals want and to do it all well. This vagueness and lack of message may in fact explain why Clinton polled at 47% for nearly the entirety of her campaign. No message = no change in polls because there’s no new information into which swing voters might tune. (I’d need another 4000 words to discuss the language and logic of polls.)

As was the case in the plays of Ionesco, language did not function in the campaign as a tool to convey meaning but, rather, as a tool to produce not-fully-understood affective responses. With the dog-whistle politics of Trump and the vapid sloganeering of Clinton’s talk, the electorate was left with sound and fury, nothing more. The candidates stripped language down to basic sounds with indeterminate meaning and a hint of recognizable vitriol. In terms of reception, the negatively polarized electorate heard only what it already believed to be true. Like high school fans catching the Fab 4 in concert during the height of Beatlemania, whose screaming drowned out the sound and lyrics of the musicians, the role of the polarized electorate was never to listen to speeches and be convinced of something new. No, the role allowed individuals to cheer and believe that their candidate was saying what they believe he/she has said in the past and what they already fervently believed in before the election cycle even started. Such a breakdown in language’s traditional function as meaning-maker, communication facilitator, or, God forbid, medium of reason, means that we have no hope of applying Aristotle’s tried and true ethos, pathos, logos analytical scheme to the campaign rhetoric. Trump: all pathos (fear), no ethos, no logos. Clinton: all logos (neoliberal), no pathos, no ethos. When we look back on all the transcripts and search for meaning in the words, do we really find anything more “meaningful” than the words uttered by the Old Man and Old Woman in The Chairs?

George Saunders was well aware of this problem when it sprouted a particularly pungent blossom several years ago in the form of Sarah Palin. His essay for the New Yorker, “My Gal” plays with this new de-tooled language. Here are the first two paragraphs in case you missed it:

Explaining how she felt when John McCain offered her the Vice-Presidential spot, my Vice-Presidential candidate, Governor Sarah Palin, said something very profound: “I answered him ‘Yes’ because I have the confidence in that readiness and knowing that you can’t blink, you have to be wired in a way of being so committed to the mission, the mission that we’re on, reform of this country and victory in the war, you can’t blink. So I didn’t blink then even when asked to run as his running mate.”

Isn’t that so true? I know that many times, in my life, while living it, someone would come up and, because of I had good readiness, in terms of how I was wired, when they asked that—whatever they asked—I would just not blink, because, knowing that, if I did blink, or even wink, that is weakness, therefore you can’t, you just don’t. You could, but no—you aren’t.

Saunders went wild over the fact that the key of each Palin sentence, that which was supposed to unlock the hermetic meaning in each convoluted expression, was never tendered. And this way of speaking (strategy?) was somewhat brilliant because it compelled listeners to keep listening for the moment when the idea landed. But it never landed.

If we can compare Palin’s wandering talk with Trump’s nonsense, then we can also compare the empty sloganeering of the McCain/Palin ticket with that of the Clinton/Kaine ticket. Saunders also helps us here as he walks through the 2008 Republican banner slogan:

Now, let’s talk about slogans. Ours is: Country First. Think about it. When you think of what should come first, what does? Us ourselves? No. That would be selfish. Our personal families? Selfish. God? God is good, I love Him, but, as our slogan suggests, no, sorry, God, You are not First. No, you don’t, Lord! How about: the common good of all mankind! Is that First? Don’t make me laugh with your weak blinking! No! Mercy is not First and wisdom is not First and love is super but way near the back, and ditto with patience and discernment and compassion and all that happy crap, they are all back behind Country, in the back of my S.U.V. […]

Given his interest/fear in the unmooring of language in 2008, it is no surprise that Saunders turned up again in the eye of the Trump storm, this time not to accost through wit but to understand who exactly these Trump supporters are. He attended Trump rallies, admitting to those he met that he himself was once an avid reader of Ayn Rand and a registered Republican who voted for Reagan. Bonding in this way seemed to give him access to interviews with the Trump supporters gathered there, such as this woman:

I ask her what, in terms of her day-to-day life, she thinks is wrong with America.

“I don’t like people shoving Obamacare down my throat, O.K.?” she says. “And then getting penalized if I don’t have insurance.”

Is she covered through Obamacare?

No. She has insurance through her work, thank God, but “every day my rights are being taken away from me, you know?” she says. “I mean—this is America. In the U.S., we have a lot of freedoms and things like that, but we’re not going to have all that if we have all these people coming in, that are taking our—”

What is on display here if not the same antilogic (illogic? ill-logic?) that subtends the ever-weakening rationality of the masses in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (1959)? In that play, Ionesco weaves a discussion between the Logician and the Old Gentleman about syllogisms that functions something like background music to the primary dialogue unfolding between the play’s lead characters:

Logician: [to the Old Gentleman] Here is an example of a syllogism. The cat has four paws. Isidore and Fricot both have four paws. Therefore Isidore and Fricot are cats.

Old Gentleman: [to the Logician] My dog has got four paws.

Logician: [to the Old Gentleman] Then it’s a cat.

[…]

Old Gentleman: [to the Logician, after deep reflection] So then logically speaking, my dog must be a cat?

Logician: [to the Old Gentleman] Logically, yes. But the contrary is also true.

This lesson builds to a more complex example of two cats and the number of their paws. Instigated by the Logician’s question, “If you take six paws from the two cats, how many paws are left to each cat?” the Old Gentleman delivers a wide range of answers before stumbling into the category of the unnatural: one cat with five paws, a cat with one paw, a cat with six paws or with no paws at all—all logically possible. These possibilities lead to further possibilities of some cats with special privileges (those with paws) and some cats without privileges (those with no paws). Here the Logician fuses the path of Logic with that of Justice and declares: “Logic means Justice.” But Ionesco undercuts this statement with the sound of a rhinoceros, thereby suggesting that some bestial thinking undergirds the logician’s seemingly scientific rationality. Saunders seems to have discovered a similar (il)logicality in the thinking of Trump supporters, one that aligns with their (in)justice. Violence lurks beneath this irrational rationality.

So we find ourselves now, after the election, cast within the theatre of the absurd. If language has acquired an Ionesco-like ambivalence and malleability, one of our jobs moving forward must be to understand how this theatrical language works, how it is put to use, and what worlds it is capable of making. But theatre and performance scholars should also rush in to assess other constituent parts of this theater: the embodied knowledge of protesters, for example, and the scenography of violent police shootings, and the mis en scène set by those who claim to be directors of the national interest. In short, what we need now is a dramaturgy of this theatre of the absurd, perhaps one armed with a solid background in Wittgenstein and the notion of language games.

Another foreshock, the last I’ll mention, occurred prior to my writing of this essay. Two days before the election I randomly pulled F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Crack Up” off my bookshelf. In that story, the narrator (who seems to be a surrogate of Fitzgerald himself) tells us that the mark of true intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in one’s head. For example, and to stay in the key of the Absurdists, that I can’t possibly go on and I must go on. The narrator who says this with such certainty, however, also vouchsafes to his reader the fact that he himself is slowly going crazy, slowly cracking up. To practice true intelligence is to risk insanity. The primary opposition in the story, the one that will fuse disjunctively into a profound realization of self and world, comes from the confrontation between the narrator and the narrator’s wife (who resembles Zelda). During a bitter argument, the former explains his belief that his crack is interior to himself and thus he himself bears the responsibility of fixing it (or ignoring it altogether with alcohol), while the latter works from the opposite belief that the crack is outside. “The crack is in the Grand Canyon!” she yells. The story ends abruptly, without resolve, and so leave us with questions. Are we to follow the internal crack-up into our own individual depths, thereby pushing our sanity to the brink no matter how dangerous that may be, or do the cracks of the natural and social words impinge on our sanity to such a degree that our job is to map those forces and explore them like an intrepid scout?

With so many cracks showing now in the aftermath of the election, which path are we to follow? “Of course all life is a process of breaking down,” Fitzgerald tells us, and so we see the cracking of language all around us. But the inevitability of breaking down, either through internal cracks or by external blows, does not preclude an attitude of good humor and sharp wit. Indeed, it is precisely now, with the help of our life dramaturgs, that we may find a new dimension to language altogether, one that frees us from the paradigms of right/left, black/white, 99%/1%, and produces instead a new cosmology.

[1] http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/47.106/

[2] https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Six_Characters_in_Search_of_an_Author

[3] Take your pick: http://ow.ly/AoVf3069nZr

[4] http://www.vox.com/2016/8/18/12423688/donald-trump-speech-style-explained-by-linguists

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The Theatre Times is a brainchild of Magda Romanska, writer, dramatug and faculty member at Yale School of Drama and Emerson College in Boston, and Beatriz Cabur, Spanish theatre maker living in London, and working worldwide.

The project started with the goal of bringing theatre people and theatre lovers together on one platform, particularly highlighting theatre from historically underprivileged regions and thus, hopefully, drawing attention and resources to these regions.

With more than sixty Regional Managing Editors around the world, we aim to be the most wide-reaching and comprehensive theatre news source online. In addition to our original content, The Theatre Times filters through more than eighty sources, around six hundred articles, and thousands of pages of theatre news every day.

Facilitating global, transcontinental collaborative models, and generating opportunities for interaction and creative development amongst a wide network of international theatre artists, we want to assert the importance and impact of theatre as one of the oldest and most universal forms of human expression.

How is The Theatre Times changing the landscape of theatre news?

During much of the last century, Western theatre scholarship and theatre-making have been in a somewhat predatory – colonial and postcolonial – relationship with the rest of the world.

American, British, or Western European theatre scholars and artists would travel to exotic locales – Africa, Asia, South America, or Eastern Europe – to gain some, often superficial, knowledge of the local theatre ecosystem. The entire semiotic landscape of a particular culture would be subsumed to the Western understanding, processed and interpreted through the prism of Western cultural codes and canons.

It’s not to say that such a state of affairs has never led to mutually respectful relationships and collaborations, but it has created a lopsided synergy in the way that we’ve been talking about and making theatre.

Social media and digital tools provide equal access to the virtual public space for everyone, and there is no need for the Western scholars and theatre makers to serve as intercultural intermediaries.  By giving a platform to local regional editors, native language speakers, and cultural insiders, The Theatre Times provides a new, twenty-first century model of intercultural exchange. Our editors and collaborators are in charge of their own stories, and they are empowered to be the interpreters of their own cultures.

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Theatre has been always underfunded, underprivileged, and underserved. Yet, theatre is also the oldest, the most enduring, and the most adaptive and persistent of human art forms. It has been perpetually affected by shortages of all kinds, and yet, it has effectively outlived all political systems, social upheavals, technologies, wars, restrictive social mores of all sorts, bouts of censorship, bans, plagues, and economic and institutional collapses. It is this grit, inventiveness, endurance, and will to connect with your fellow human being that we want to celebrate. We want to grow based on this premise: pride in the history and accomplishments of our art form and conviction in the value of our work.

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NOW AVAILABLE AT CTR ONLINE  –  CTR 167, Summer 2016 “Funding”

Also available on Project MUSE

Can you put a price tag on art? How much is an artist worth? CTR 167 Funding, edited by Nicholas Hanson, follows the money, tracking the financial wellbeing of the Canadian performing arts network. From coast to coast to coast, our nation’s theatre artists are facing increasingly precarious living and working conditions. Nevertheless, artists and arts organizations are demonstrating imagination and innovation in the conception and implementation of new ways to pay the bills. In 2016, the Canada Council for the Arts will implement the most transformative changes in their history; this issue is perfectly timed to explore the unspoken realities about artistic labour, the complicated notions of accessibility, and the creative solutions for the future.

This issue critiques governmental policies and organizational structures, but never loses sight of the fact that arts funding isn’t an abstract topic—access to money (or lack thereof) impacts individual people in deeply personal ways. With dynamic contributions from a group of established and emerging voices, CTR 167 features lively conversations, insightful articles, and whimsical provocations. An eclectic range of topics includes an interrogation of Justin Trudeau’s promises, a program that offers free theatre tickets, and the impact of Vancouver’s real estate market. Financial literacy might seem like a subject reserved for mature adults, but this issue’s script—The Money Tree by Robert Watson—proves otherwise. Originally produced by Roseneath Theatre, the play has toured to hundreds of elementary schools, sparking playful ideas about money, greed, and responsibility.

The online slideshow documents some of the inventive methods used by artists and organizations to fund their projects despite challenging financial circumstances. Organized in three parts the slideshow focuses on creative approaches to performance venues, novel project-based fundraising techniques, and celebrates the artist-activists who’ve protested funding cutbacks and theatre closings across the nation.

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Modern Drama, 59:3, Fall 2016 is now available at MD Online and Project MUSE – Read the issue today!

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Modern Drama, 59:2, Summer 2016, “Aging and the Life Course

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This issue of Modern Drama brings together major scholars in the fields of age studies, theatre history, and performance studies to examine how theatre, as an embodied art that unfolds over time, can both model and challenge narratives, affects, and cultural understandings (and misunderstandings) about aging. Modern drama and gerontology echo each other most directly in their search for new structures that might accommodate the pluralism and specificity of the entire life course. According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 12.3 per cent of the global population was aged 60 or over in 2015; by 2050, that figure is estimated to grow to 21.5 per cent. Each of the six new essays in this issue considers how theatre, as an art that grafts flesh to figures, helps us to imagine growing older, caring for an aging population, dementia, and “successful aging” in an era when more people will live longer than they ever have in human history.

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While reading The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears[1] by Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green, I found a footnote to the historic Know Nothing party of the mid-nineteenth century ensconced in a passage about the institutional history of U.S. slavery. The name of the party rang a bell in my memory, but I couldn’t come up with any particulars so I looked into it. After a few minutes of online research, I found myself wondering at the repetition of history, especially Marx’s (oft-cited) famous addendum, “…first as tragedy, then as farce.” Is not Donald Trump the new, more farcical version of John Bell who ran for president on the Know Nothing ticket in 1859, or, perhaps more accurately, the new Henry J. Gardner who became Massachusetts’s Know Nothing governor in 1854? What started off as a historical retracing of one trail of tears soon led to the recognition of another equally troubling road.

Several news outlets have posted articles and op-eds about the similarities between Trump, the current GOP, and the Know Nothings of the 1850s (see notes below and links/footnotes along the way). Such similarities include an overt racist-nationalist platform of exclusion, a party membership of mostly working class white men seeking personal economic improvement, and an honest (if not also ironic) embrace of ignorance (“I Know Nothing!”) as the party’s shibboleth. Indeed, the link between Trump and Gardner emerges from research into these similarities, specifically in the fact that, despite the party’s working class base, the eventual Massachusetts governor was a wool merchant who improved upon his already-considerable wealth thanks to his elite family’s connections. Like Trump, Gardner seemed to have had little in common with his constituents’ economic identities and needs.

My own addition to these publications comes in the form of a connection between Trump, the Know Nothings (past and present, official party members and merely like-minded), and that which Michel Foucault dubbed the “Ubus” of power. In the early lectures of the 1974-1975 academic year now published as Abnormal, Foucault links specific historical political leaders with the protagonist in Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. What allows this link is Foucault’s observation of “the unavoidability, the inevitability of power, which can function in its full rigor and at the extreme point of its rationality even when in the hands of someone who is effectively discredited” (13). Nero and Hitler, for example, populate what Jana Sawicki calls this “tradition of vile and buffoonish sovereigns.”[2] Hesitant to facilitate any overly simplistic connections between Trump and Hitler, thereby allowing dialogue and debate to dissolve into platitudes, I do support adding Trump to Foucault’s category of Ubu Rulers. We are witnessing not only the farcical (and, therefore, post-tragic) return of the Know Nothings today but also an index of the racist-nationalist conditions that allow such Ubus to take center stage in the U.S. theatre of politics.

Sawicki underscores a similar point in her speculation on the whereabouts of Ubu-power’s many residences: “Perhaps it also resides in a lack of critical reflection on the historical conditions in which such forms of authority arose.” Indeed, when Foucault, in his 1978 essay “What is Enlightenment?” ends by calling for a “critical ontology of ourselves,” which amounts to a historiography of the present, he is asking us all to refuse Ubu government:

The critical ontology of ourselves has to be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.[3]

The only chance we have of out-maneuvering the vile buffoonery of the persona known as “Trump” is to create a series of conditions that excoriates pride in ignorance, the likes of which we see not only in the mass of Trumpeteers but also in the belligerent leftist supporters who instigate violence at Trump rallies. As the perspicacious George Saunders has recently outlined in The New Yorker,[4] the true damage of the current political fracas has become visible not as a divisive and sickeningly facile binary opposition between Right and Left ideologies but, rather, as a perpetuation of willful ignorance that keeps the U.S. electorate from participating in meaningful conversations dedicated to the nuanced weave of our country’s political fabric.

To my mind, the disaster that has given rise to the resurgence of Know-Nothing-ness is the evacuation of (yes, I’ll say it and mean it) critical thinking from the halls of Secondary and Higher Education. Given Foucault’s astute reference to Jarry’s theatricality, and my own predilection for performance theory and theatre historiography, I am confident that theatre education (both theory and practice) can thrive as a system capable of performing a critical ontology of ourselves, particularly through its recourse to the study of theatricality in everyday life and the performativity of language. Conversely, however, I am fearful that the ossification of theatre and performance studies in higher education, not to mention the almost complete absence of a fine-arts based critical vocabulary in primary and secondary education, can aid in the momentum of the Know Nothings. Without a self-reflexive and philosophical appraisal of the politics of representation, theatre can easily devolve into thoroughly commodified spectacle, and from there spectacle can be freed up to celebrate the Ubus of the world.

With the highly theatrical and absurd conventions of both the Democratic and Republican parties coming up, I urge us to attend to the conditions that make specific statements possible, to the representational practices that manufacture instrumental visibility, and to the everyday silences that create moral vacuums.

[Other notes]

From Encyclopedia Britannica online

“When Congress assembled on Dec. 3, 1855, 43 representatives were avowed members of the Know-Nothing party.”[5]

  • “The Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed by the U.S. Congress on May 30, 1854. It allowed people in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery within their borders. The Act served to repeal the Missouri Compromise of 1820 which prohibited slavery north of latitude 36°30´.”[6]

“In 1849 the secret Order of the Star-Spangled Banner formed in New York City, and soon after lodges formed in nearly every other major American city. Members, when asked about their nativist organizations, were supposed to reply that they knew nothing, hence the name. As its membership and importance grew in the 1850s, the group slowly shed its clandestine character and took the official name American Party.”

“the American Party fell apart after 1856. Antislavery Know-Nothings joined the Republican Party, while Southern members flocked to the proslavery banner still held aloft by the Democratic Party. By 1859 the American Party’s strength was largely confined to the border states. In 1860 remnants of the Know-Nothings joined old-line Whigs to form the Constitutional Union Party and nominated John Bell of Tennessee for president.”

  • On Bell (from Wikipedia):[7]
    • “Planter,” or plantation owner; “Although a slaveowner, Bell was one of the few southern politicians to oppose the expansion of slavery in the 1850s…”
    • “During his 1860 presidential campaign, he argued that secession was unnecessary since the Constitution protected slavery, an argument which resonated with voters in border states, helping him capture the electoral votes of Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia.”
    • Speaker of the House (1834–1835)
    • “briefly served as Secretary of War during the administration of William Henry Harrison (1841)”

“Two other groups that took the name American Party appeared in the 1870s and ’80s. One of these, organized in California in 1886, proposed a briefly popular platform calling mainly for the exclusion of Chinese and other Asians from industrial employment.”

From Ashefield Historical Society

“Although the Know-Nothing party or the American Party was a national political organization, it was strongest in Massachusetts. This party was based on nativistic beliefs and its members were native born male Protestants who were opposed to immigrants being able to vote or hold political office.”[8]

“One of the most influential party members was Henry J. Gardner who was elected as the Commonwealth’s Governor in 1854. Most of the party’s members were from the working class and wished for many reforms that would affect their lives. Gardner, however, was a wealthy wool merchant and a member of the so-called Boston Brahmins (a small elite group of families who were extremely wealthy and well-educated).”

  • Trump parallel??!

From Op-Ed in Baltimore Sun from July 13, 2016

http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bs-ed-know-nothing-20160713-7-story.html

“Eric Heavner taught political science at Towson University for 10 years and now works for a Baltimore real estate developer.”

  • …indeed…

“Perhaps Mr. Trump will skip the convention and go it alone. Such a move would appeal to Mr. Trump’s love of sensationalism, and it would it not be unprecedented. Teddy Roosevelt, for example, broke away from the Republican Party to run for president under the Bull Moose Party banner in 1912, and Strom Thurmond bolted from the Democratic Party to run as a Dixiecrat in 1948.”

“Despite the years that separate Mr. Trump and the Know-Nothing Party, they have much in common. […] their message is virtually the same: Immigrants take away jobs from true Americans and threaten the American way of life. There are other similarities. The Know-Nothings’ were anti-Catholic. Mr. Trump is anti-Muslim. The know-Nothings believed only native-born Americans should be allowed to vote and hold public office. Mr. Trump played the native-born American card by questioning President Obama’s birthplace.”

From HuffPo’s “The GOP: The New Know Nothing Part?”

January 18, 2016

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-gop-the-new-know-noth_b_9010454

John W. Traphagan, Professor of Religious Studies and Human Dimensions of Organizations, University of Texas, Austin

Conclusion: “When we look at the GOP of 2016, it seems very much as though we are witnessing a new version of the Know Nothings of the 1850s. One can only hope that this time it is equally short-lived.”

ENDNOTES

[1] http://www.penguin.com/book/the-cherokee-nation-and-the-trail-of-tears-by-theda-perdue-and-michael-d-green/9780143113676

[2] http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/23977-abnormal-lectures-at-the-college-de-france-1974-1975/

[3] http://philosophy.eserver.org/foucault/what-is-enlightenment.html

[4] http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/07/11/george-saunders-goes-to-trump-rallies

[5] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Know-Nothing-party

[6] http://www.historyplace.com/lincoln/kansas.htm

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Bell_(Tennessee_politician)

[8] http://www.ashfieldhistorical.org/nothing.htm

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On TAP is a new podcast dedicated to theatre and performance studies. Practically, it’s a downloadable audio chat show hosted by three professors, Sarah Bay-Cheng, Pannill Camp, and Harvey Young. Each episode looks at a variety of topics of field-wide interest, new ideas in research, trends in the profession, pedagogy, artist/scholar dynamics and recent events. In some ways this enterprise is very conventional in 2015. There are tens of thousands of podcasts, and after the success of programs like Serial, about half of Americans know what a podcast is.

In other ways, though, On TAP feels like a fun experiment. How will this non-traditional medium fit with the established modes of communication that permeate our field? Can we translate the pleasure of the conference hotel bar chat into a form that someone would want to listen to? Simply, if we build it, will they come?

Part of the initial impulse for creating this podcast was, unsurprisingly, the pleasure of podcasts themselves, which are steadily reaching more people. Pannill has been an avid podcast listener since 2007, when a handful of downloadable audio programs helped him pass a lonely year of dissertation research in Paris (very sad, we know!). About two years ago he began to imagine the possibility of adapting the Slate.com format (three co-hosts discuss three topics in a casual, hour-long chat) for the field of theatre and performance studies. Last summer he made his pitch to Sarah and Harvey, and was thrilled that they were willing to dedicate their time and energy to the project.

But more than just for fun, the podcast seems well-suited to our field; a dynamic, collaborative, social medium is a good match for theatre geeks of all types. It’s a little bit rebellious, too. Like those of many academic disciplines, most of our interactions are orchestrated within established institutions: universities and colleges, publishers of books and journals, and associations that organize conferences. These organizations create and disseminate high quality research, facilitate communication among people with overlapping interests, and advocate for the professional well-being of scholars, teachers, and artists. They work well, and Theatre and Performance Studies is a growing, dynamic field that is holding up relatively well against the economic and cultural forces that are decimating other disciplines in the humanities.

However! There are two patterns that can slow down and even stifle field-wide communication. First, it can be challenging for scholars to keep up with ideas that are circulating outside of our particular areas of interest. A great wealth of research is published year-round, but the pressures of specialization, and the mounting administrative, mentoring, and teaching duties typical of work in today’s academy make it hard to keep up with what is being written.

Second, the rhythms of field-wide communication are slow. We inherit our cycles of contact from the creeping pace of peer-reviewed journal and book publishing, from the quarter, semester, and year periodization of teaching, and from the yearly cycle of conference planning. Compared to the accelerated rhythm of mass communication in the digital age, this pace of work is positively glacial.

We thus offer On TAP as complement and corrective to the traditional ways we theater/performance academics interact and share ideas. Working on a comparatively short cycle (roughly monthly releases during the academic year; one or two days from recording to release) and with a broad field-wide perspective, we hope to offer a new mode of communication that is both immediate and more inclusive. We also aim to incorporate the best parts of theatre and performance into our work: dialogue instead of lecture; improvisation instead of carefully planned remarks; and the pleasure of a good joke or bad pun. We hope listeners will come to think of On TAP as a unique and sometimes irreverent way to gain both a bird’s-eye view of the field, and a sense of what is on people’s (or at least our) minds at the moment. We hope you’ll join us soon.

The next round’s on us!

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Hipolita and Luis changingHipolita and Luis changing, The Force of Habit,
University of Puget Sound, 2015

If, as a theatre historian and director, you teach in a program where part of the department goals are to present a variety of shows that allow students and the community to experience theatre of diverse style, content, and form from a variety of historical periods (love that bulletin copy), there comes a time to plan to do a classical show. Inspired by a translation evaluation assignment I had been doing at University of Puget Sound with my first year seminars where we evaluated multiple English-language versions of a play from the Spanish Golden Age, I decided to direct a Spanish comedia in the fall of 2015.

This blog entry tells the tale of several pieces of scholarship that deeply impacted our show, in the spirit of demonstrating the richness theatre history and historiography incorporate into a show process. In our rehearsal, theatre scholarship was deeply influential not because we were aiming for a reconstruction of period practices, but because historical and literary critical scholarship gave us the vocabulary and imagery to name and develop many of our impulses and turn them into production decisions. I want to describe how those pieces of research shaped our blocking, character interpretation, and revision of the play’s ending

But first, I must admit that I don’t read or speak Spanish. My research language is French. Like the theatre generalist I am in my program, I primarily use Fuente Ovejuna and Life is a Dream when teaching literature from the Spanish Golden Age. I knew if I wanted to direct a Spanish play, however, I would need someone with the language to be my right hand collaborator. And, when I had a student in class emerging as a dramaturg who had the Spanish and excelled at doing that very translation evaluation assignment, I realized: this is my chance! Hannah Ferguson became my dramaturg and collaborator.

In our year-long arc of development, rehearsal, and performance, the four scholarly sources that most galvanized us were:

  • “Marriage and Subversion in Comedia Endings: Problems in Art and Society” by Catherine Connor (Swietlicki) from Gender, Identity, and Representation in Spain’s Golden Age, edited by Anita K. Stoll and Dawn L. Smith (Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 2000).
  • “The Power of Transformation in Guillén de Castro’s El caballero bobo (1595-1605) and La fuerza de la costumbre (1610-15): Translation and Performance” by Kathleen Jeffs from The Reinvention of Theatre in Sixteenth Century Europe, edited by T.F. Earle and Catharine Fouto (London: Modern Humanities Research Association and Maney Publishing, Legenda, 2015).
  • “Gender Politics in Guillén de Castro’s La Fuerza de la Costumbre” by Kathleen Jeffs from On Wolves and Sheep: Exploring the Expression of Political Thought in Golden Age Spain, edited by Aaron M. Kahn (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011).
  • “Lición de llevar chapines: Drag, Footwear, and Gender Performance in Guillén de Castro’s La fuerza de la costumbre” by Harry Vélez Quiñones, Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies 14:2 (2013): 186-200.

Already this list reveals that we chose to stage a relatively lesser-known play, The Force of Habit by Guillén de Castro, rather than one of the plays I had been working with in my seminars and theatre history classes. We didn’t start with Force of Habit. Hannah and I had begun by digging in to Life is a Dream. That seemed like where we were going to go, though we wondered where our mutual interest in gender was going to find its best match: in Lope de Vega’s wronged Laurencia from Fuente Ovejuna, or in Calderon’s disguised, honor-protecting Rosaura?

Then we met Kathleen Jeffs.

Kathleen is a dramaturg, scholar, translator, and director who teaches at Gonzaga University. She persuaded us of the queer potentials of the vastly underappreciated storehouse of Golden Age comedias and shared her translation of Force of Habit with us. Moreover, she encouraged us to take her workshop adaptation of the script apart, and gave us permission to cut it or rearrange it as suited our needs. Kathleen and Hannah and I agreed that we wanted to do a production alive to our struggles about gender and identity and that that might mean reworking the play.

Going outside the canon of well-known and frequently translated plays from the Golden Age meant that the scholarship we read was even more pointedly exciting: we didn’t have any baselines with this play. We had so much to discover. Kathleen shared with me that her perspective is deeply shaped by this source:

  • Role-Play and the World as Stage in the Comedia by Jonathan Thacker (Liverpool, Liverpool UP, 2002).

Thacker introduced Kathleen to the play during her graduate work, and encouraged her to make her translation. His chapters titled “Patriarchy in Action: Guillèn de Catro’s La fuerza de la costumbre and the Distribution of Roles” and “Patriarchal Excess and the Emergence of the Desiring Self” represent the most authoritative scholarship we encountered in terms of detailing the way this play represents the gender politics of its period.

Overall, we found a spectrum of scholarship about Force of Habit, especially on the topic of the playful possibilities the play might allow in performing gender. Thacker represents one polarity that sees little evocation of liberation in the representation. Kathleen’s own scholarship rests in the middle point, suggesting that stage business makes this play much more complex in terms of gendered behavior. The work of my colleague Harry Veléz Quiñones, who is a Professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of Puget Sound, sits at the other end of the continuum, explicitly queering the play in its analysis. I can’t adjudicate these different approaches as a scholar of the period, but as a director, it was very fertile to engage with the perspectives.

Force of Habit predates Castro’s best-known work, Las mocedades del Cid, the play that Corneille later adapted and which caused a furor at the French Academy. It follows the typical three-act comedia structure and smartly employs the character types typical to the form. It directly embodies the gender anxieties and pieties of its day, presenting a story about a brother and sister separated from each other in their infancy whose parents choose to raise the children dressed in the gender opposite to the sex each child was designated at birth. So, father Pedro, exiled from their hometown with baby Hipolita, raises her as a boy and transforms her into a solider so she might live with him more safely during his twenty years fighting battles in the Netherlands. Constanza, meanwhile, shut up in her father’s house, dresses baby Felix in women’s clothing and keeps him indoors like a woman to protect him from sword-fighting and honor culture duels, the things that killed her brother and caused her to be separated from Pedro.

IMG_0701

The play begins when the family is reunited and Pedro declares that everyone can go back to their proper gender and they can resume life as a normal family. But it is soon clear that there is no going “back” for these young adult children because the reality there is to “resume” is the actuality of their lives as man-woman and woman-man. Felix and Hipolita experience their proper gender as aligning with the social habits and behaviors they were raised to present, not with the information provided by their secondary sex characteristics.

The play mixes comedy and seriousness as it tracks the collisions between Pedro’s demands and the new sense of self most of the characters must develop, but it emphasizes the comic. It is full of physical shtick about the difficulty of learning to use a sword or walk in high heels. It features budding romances. Conveniently, a brother and sister from a prominent family in town find Felix and Hipolita enchanting exactly because of their hybrid gender identities. A gracioso amps up practical jokes and intrigues. There’s also a set of double-crossings and duels that must be fought to preserve Felix and Hipolita’s honor.

It’s a high context premise played out in an over-laden plot, and, most complicated for us as contemporary artists, it seems to resolve in an uncomplicated way. By the final scene, everyone is clearly defined as a man OR a woman and the play ends with a firmly heterosexual marriage for both Felix and Hipolita. Though we were intrigued by the potential in performing this play, our very first challenges were to come to terms with that ending, or to shatter it. And here’s where the scholarship first supported us and freed us.

Pedro and Hipolita in their skirts with Luis, Otavio and Marcelo in their gearPedro and Hipolita in their skirts,
Luis, Octavio, and Marcelo in their gear

The question of genre and the question of the ending dominated our early conversations with Kathleen. One approach would be to reframe the comic business so that it showed and intensified the characters’ suffering with trying to master various technologies of gender, and to emphasize the tragic themes about identity and social oppression running beneath the surface of the play. This would be to focus primarily on showing the “patriarchy in action” as Thacker frames it. Thinking this way, Hannah described the play as a tragedy demonstrating of the awfulness of conversion therapy. That’s not where my heart was, however, and that became completely clear to me when I read Connor’s article on marriage and subversion in the ending of comedias.

Connor’s analysis of the meaning of conventional wedding scenes and her explication of “hard” and “soft” approaches to the narrative closure provided by weddings allowed me to articulate that I wanted to honor the combination of tragedy and comedy typical in comedias and have the final sequence be a marriage that doesn’t foreclose subversion. Connor voices the way that feminist criticism “seems uncomfortable with the presumed defeat of the formerly subversive heroine by the forces of the patriarchal order, tradition, and stability” represented by traditional wedding endings. She advocates accounting for the difference between the past and the present in both literary and material history rather than collapsing our understanding of Golden Age theatre directly into our own signifiers (23). She investigates how a female spectator in the Golden Age might have interpreted wedding endings of comedias and concludes that they would have reacted to them as representing variegated, compelling negotiations of complex social options.

Connor writes: “For the spectators of any culture, weddings are extremely important socio-cultural markers of change, transition, and new foundations in the lives of individuals and their immediate society” (25). Connor helped me name the way I see weddings (on stage and in life, in fact, I would describe my own wedding this way) as “symbolically central” and “essentially ambiguous” social rites of passage (27-29). Working with concepts of law and temporality as well as gender and drawing on documentation about married women’s work in the 17th century, Connor does a masterful job arguing that that weddings provide ending structures that are open even as they are closed. Rather than simply restoring order, Connor suggests wedding endings represent the creation of new orders still open to the indeterminacies in life and in art.

Using the idea of social rite of passage, it became my goal to stage a wedding at the end of Force of Habit that opened identity options even as it closed the narrative. Planning this production across the summer of 2015, as the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision removing federal barriers to same-sex marriage, I went to the costume designer with my developing plan. What if, I said, we ended with a big, queer wedding? What if everyone got to re-dress onstage, and ended up in gender mixed outfits? Felix could wear a skirt and doublet. Hipolita could have a veil and a codpiece and her sword (which she gives up, painfully, in Act I of the play). This wedding, like weddings in contemporary culture, could be about self-fashioning. About making a version of sex-gender-partnership with a beloved that suits that particular union: a narrative closure that is also an opening.

Soon we expanded the range. We aimed to out-As-You-Like-It As You Like It. I wanted the play to end with not just two weddings, but with four. We’d have Hipolita and Luis, Felix and Leonor, but also a marriage between Luis’s two best friends Marcelo and Otavio, and a marriage between Galvan, the clown, played by a woman in our production, and Ines, Leonor’s maid. Everyone would change clothes on stage, fashioning their preferred combination of male and female clothing. Then we pushed it to five couples because it became imperative that Pedro and Costanza be included. We established their official wedding in Act II—because their terrible shame, the reason for Pedro’s exile, is that they were only “secretly” married in their youth, and had been hiding their relationship and children.

Felix and Costanza and Leonor in their “dressses”Felix, Costanza, and Leonor in their “dresses”

Therefore, in our production, at the end, Pedro and Costanza also changed habits and wore both male and female clothing, at the request of their children. This plays against the text, which ends with Pedro declaring he is glad he returned everyone to their own nature. Instead, everyone was transformed our production, and we adjusted Pedro’s line to celebrate everyone “turning” to their own nature. That turning happened in different directions for different characters.

In short, we flipped the dynamics of Castro’s finale. Instead of the children transforming themselves because of the father’s demands and hardening the existing social order, the parents transformed themselves because of their children’s discoveries. Onstage, space opened for a renewed and transformed social order because the characters were able to change. Kathleen’s article on the “power of transformation” argues that comedias use language and create stage business that shows love transforming the characters confirmed and affirmed this interpretive pathway. Kathleen’s point about Leonor’s cruel enforcement of masculine heroics onto Felix starkly made us reconsider her character and pushed us to truly articulate the ways that each of the characters had to be understood as working both within and against the gender norms they had inherited.

Felix and Hipolita trading clothesFelix and Hipolita trading clothes

As we chose to create a transformative wedding, replete with high-stakes character decisions and sexy connections, we also frankly acknowledged that the story we were telling exploded the temporal bounds of Castro’s work. We weren’t trying to indicate that the wedding we presented represented the historical reality of Golden Age Spain, though both Kathleen and Harry’s research provided us with examples of much more complicated public and private gender identity than official representation might allow. Because he is here, it was a great joy to that Harry could join us in rehearsal for a discussion of his article about the lesson of the chapines (the platform footwear women wore outside at the time). In his presentation, Harry shared knowledge about hidden histories of sexuality in the Golden Age, and told us, among other things, about the dildo collections of Spanish nuns.

This was somewhat how our research worked: we encountered the past in all sorts of strange and delightful specificity, but we also had to wrestle with the “official line” about gender and marriage from social tracts and dogma from the day that the most powerful characters in Force of Habit reiterate. Hannah, the dramaturg, was helping Kathleen on a soon to be published facing-pages Spanish/English version of Force of Habit during our pre-rehearsal research and during our rehearsal period. Because of that, she started working with a 17th century Spanish dictionary that she found quite marvelous in its strangeness and the way its entries relied as much on Catalan and Latin as they did on what she recognizes as Spanish. One of our favorite resonances from the dictionary was a definition of habit—a word we had been thinking of in terms of repeated behaviors, clothing, and Bourdieu’s notion of habitus—that linked the word to menstrual cycles.

Across our summer preparation, we developed our notion that in our production, we started telling a story set in 1610, but by the time we ended the story, we were in a place of conversation between the past and the present. I wrote in my program note about how we were having a “new-old” experience staging the play because of this conversation across time, and also because our process resembled doing new work (working from manuscript pages, revising and adjusting the script) at the same time it needed the techniques for staging classical plays (voice and text work for elevated language, dancing, sword fighting, working in a presentational word-driven style).

Our decision about time allowed the story to journey to the wedding at the end and the way we used dance mattered to that too. We added three dances to the action. First, we used a slow, period tarantella that Pedro and Costanza performed in a very formal fashion when they first saw each other again. The early phases of the play where we were more fully in the past moved in a more stylized way, slower, with deeper breath. For a medial moment, Marisela Flietes Lear created a solo for Hipolita to a spare flamenco beat known as the martinete. Hipolita danced this during her frustration with learning to walk in the chapines. The measured pace but intense energy of this dance and the way Hipolita rebelliously ripped off her costume’s sleeves and shoes during it helped index our temporal quickening. At the end, as a finale everyone danced a traditional sevillanas to a pop music version of the form by the contemporary band Las Ketchups called “Sevillanas Pink.”

Once we figured out how we wanted the end to work, we had to move backward through the script to set up how we got there. We wanted to create a subtextual relationship between Marcelo and Otavio, and were fascinated to hear from Kathleen and Harry about same-sex couples in the Golden Age. We needed to allow Felix and Hipolita to struggle with how they are asked to change their habits (literally and figuratively) and emerge as people acting with agency rather than leaving them as social ciphers.Kathleen had already edited her full English translation when she made the performance version we were working from. We made choices to streamline the action even further in Act II and III to reduce the double-crossing plot complications and allow Marcelo and Otavio’s roles more time to breathe.

As we built their relationship, we brought the final duel between Otavio and Felix onstage, instead of leaving it only narrated as it is in the original play. We created its storytelling arc as one that wasn’t only about Felix establishing his manhood, it was also about him using his own fluidity as he bested Otavio. The fight ended when Felix disarmed Otavio and then kissed him before reclaiming Leonor’s glove from him (our Felix grabbed Otavio’s hat then tore the glove out of the hat with his mouth and held it in his teeth, growling). Otavio fell to the ground when Felix took his hat and Marcelo rushed to him and, relieved he was unhurt, kissed Otavio as well. What was hidden was revealed.

Felix kissing OctavioPedro meeting Felix for the first time,
while Felix is still in his “long skirts”

The duel kisses were one of several such moments of instability and revelation, including the moment when Hipoilta emerged in breeches for the wedding and Luis admired her codpiece. We aimed to be both serious and playful about gender, identity, and representation in our performance. We had performers with Latino and Asian-American backgrounds in the cast. We had cast members who prefer “they” pronouns to describe themselves. Our choice to cast a female performer to play Galvan also meant we asked whether or not the character was a man, or a woman, or, in one tradition for fools and soothsayers, both and neither. Hannah and I knew that our Galvan’s talent for physical comedy and rebellious antics meant that nothing she (the actor) was doing played by the class rules of Golden Age Spanish society, but we embraced the character (he/she/they) as an irruption of the carnivalesque in the space. The costume designer dressed her in a parti-colored skirt and breeches with codpiece that featured an embedded squeaky toy, which Galvan honked for emphasis whenever a prank went well.

These types of choices traded on the play’s investigation of interiority and exteriority, the relationship of social roles and inner self that Kathleen’s articles imagine into possibility. Our set designer, my colleague Kurt Walls, created set that referenced the architecture of corrales, but also added a curved ramp to the front of our stage that encouraged and allowed our direct interaction with the audience. Galvan was always talking to the audience and hiding on the ramp. This sense of projecting out into the audience space contributed to our decision to interpolate four speeches from Life is a Dream into the proceedings to give the main characters time and words to reflect on the monumental decisions facing them. Castro provides fewer of those moments in his text, though his great speech for Hipolita when she surrenders her sword is a heart breaker and her speech about needing to take revenge on Luis when she thinks he’s betrayed her won applause every night.

In Kathleen’s article about Force of Habit and El Caballero Bobo (The Foolish Young Gentleman), she notes the thematic and intertextual resonances between El Caballero Bobo and Life is a Dream. Some scholarship she cites suggests that Calderon knew of Castro’s play and borrowed details. Flipping that idea on its head, Hannah and I imagined what would happen if Castro’s characters got to read Calderon’s play. What parts would speak to their hearts? We also talked with Kathleen about the choice, and, as a collaborator, she challenged us to create more moments using blocking and business to increase Hipolita and Felix’s accessibility to the audience, and to see if, after exploring the text as written first, we still felt the need to add the interpolated text from Life is a Dream.

Heeding that prompt, we took a blocking suggestion from Kathleen’s other article very seriously. This article, about gender politics in Force of Habit, considers the interplay of words and staging extensively. Kathleen proposes that one effective way of foregrounding what’s at stake for Hipolita and Felix is to have them directly exchange as many of the clothes they are wearing as possible when they are first asked to change “back” into men’s clothing and women’s clothing in Act I. We went after Kathleen’s ideas about staging and stage business gusto. Our Felix and Hipolita indeed exchanged key pieces of clothing as they changed onstage in a moment of Brechtian gestus demonstrating what it takes to construct a man and construct a woman with clothes.

Then, following up on an important comparison Harry made, we maximized every bit of awkwardness and complication that we could about their complete failure to adapt to the new clothing or to attain the new skills they are supposed to master to be a good man or good woman. Harry’s brilliant article points up several things about how gender gets performed in Force of Habit, and one key insight is that Golden Age comedias abound with gender disguising/cross dressing, but that Force of Habit uses the convention differently. First, Felix and Hipolita are not disguising themselves in order to get something.

Second, in many comedias, when the main character disguises himself or herself, usually they are depicted as immediately being masterful at portraying the “other” gender. Seamlessly, they can sword fight, or dance, or walk like a lady, and they are convincing to others on this front. Felix and Hipolita, however, can’t do anything well except what they are used to doing; and the whole first and second act show the work it takes to get anywhere near being mediocre at new gender skills, especially the cursed walking in high platform shoes. These sequences must have made Force of Habit funny at its first performance, and it’s still wonderful and poignant stage business today.

Finally, Harry enumerates, typically once the character is disguised, he or she becomes overwhelmingly sexually attractive to other characters, so the woman disguised as a man gets pursued by other women relentlessly and vice versa for the man disguised as a woman. This type of set-up evokes and offloads homoeroticism and also suggests that gender fluidity has romantic potency in ways that are hard to pin down. On this front, Hipolita and Felix don’t so much fail as present a unique case study. Because they are not in disguise, the characters who fall in love with them have to be “open” in some ways about being attracted to them exactly because they are gender fluid. We found this to be very powerful in performance. “I never thought there could be anyone like her,” enthuses Luis in the script, and his status silences Marcelo and Otavio when they want to give him a bad time for his desire.

Working with Harry’s scholarship also opened for us the script’s implications about Pedro and Costanza’s youthful transgressions of gender norms and that was extremely generative for moments at both the beginning and the end of the play. In the opening scene of the play, Costanza tells Felix about his father and explains their hidden affair, noting how Pedro snuck into her room from the balcony. A scene later, when she meets Hipolita, who is dressed in men’s clothes, she reacts by describing Hipolita as a mirror image of herself at that age. For Costanza as a youth to look exactly like Hipolita at that moment would mean for Costanza to be dressed in male clothing as well. Harry’s close read of this moment helped us create a character biography about Costanza disguising herself in men’s clothes to sneak out of the house, and made us wonder about Pedro disguising himself as a woman to get in.

We were working imaginatively rather than historiographically at that point, of course, creating character biography in dialogue with Harry’s provocations (and one of the scholars he most directly takes on is Thacker). What was most important to telling our version of this story was that we were spurred to wonder about what other ways the parents too could be fluid and playful and desperate about gender, in ways that paralleled the younger generation. This made the moment we created when Pedro takes a skirt from Hipolita and puts it on before the play’s envoi speech feel very connected. In short, Harry’s scholarship helped us situate the play in a much sexier, more subcultural world than its surface text about gender might suggest.

Though I will stop here, there’s much more to consider about how we grappled with this text and what informed us. We produced the play in the midst of national and local discussions about the representation of transgender identities that impacted us, though our approach did not frame Hipolita or Felix as transgender in our current sense of the word. We also struggled with what the Golden Age emphasis on sexual purity and honor/shame mean in a time when college campuses are consistently thinking about rape and consent.

And, in a matter of performance technique, it was only when the student actors unlocked how to do the asides that the play truly began to work. That made me want to read more scholarship about asides as a matter of actor training, actor-audience relationship, and as indicators about historical shifts in the nature of dramatic storytelling and live performance. Perhaps that will be my next scholarly quest, when the calendar cycle turns and its time to do a classical play once again. In this process, the foundational and bold scholarship we read became utterly central to the performance experience we created.

 

Click here for Kathleen Jeffs’s entry on The Force of Habit on Out of the Wings, the Spanish-language play resource for English-speaking practitioners and researchers

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MD_58_4_2015

Modern Drama, Volume 58, Number 4, Winter 2015 is now available at Modern Drama Online and Project MUSE.

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“The photograph of Aylan Kurdi [http://media.breitbart.com/media/2015/09/ap_ap-photo219-640×497.jpg], the Syrian child from Kobane whose body washed up on a Turkish beach, has sparked a “light bulb moment” in the heads and hearts of European public and policymakers alike – forcing both significant debate and new policy towards the refugee crisis.”

-James Denselow, Al Jazeera English 8 Sept. 2015 http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2015/09/europe-light-bulb-moment-150907115044435.html

What is a light bulb moment?

In David Grieg’s eerily prescient play Europe (1994), the cast of characters assemble as a chorus at the beginning of each act (Scenes 2 and 9, to be specific)—each actor identified in the script as a number, not as a named character—and offer descriptions of the play’s time and place to the audience:

1 Ours is a small town on the border, at various times on this side,

2 and,

3 at various times,

2 on the other,

1 but always

1,2,3 on the border.

4 We’re famous for our soup,

5 for our factory which makes lightbulbs

1 and for being on the border.

These manufacturers of soup and light live in a town that, like a rock in the sea, has been washed over by the ebb and flow of warring armies, political and economic interests, and, soon, inevitably, tourists. The identity of the town has been rubbed off. The text hints at the erasure of the town and its people even before the characters speak: “Setting: A small decaying provincial town in Europe. Autumn.” Unlike Autumn, however, a natural and recurring event, or for that matter a rock smoothed into sand by the sea, the decay and erosion of this unnamed European border town results from man-made causes.

I am not sure why Grieg chooses soup and lightbulbs, except that, by doing so, perhaps he offers a spectrum of use-values. Soup to sustain the body. Light to protect the body from darkness. Together, soup and light to nourish the soul and the intellect. Regardless of the meaning, I am confident that Grieg offered a synecdoche of 1994 Europe in his depiction of this small decaying town and by doing so should have sparked a “light bulb moment” to ward off the darkness of racism and economic exploitation that was, at that time, mounting.

The play comments on numerous issues through Grieg multi-layered dramaturgical style. One worth mentioning here is the connection between monetary (in)stability (perhaps thinking of the coming Euro currency) and the hocus-pocus of money changing. The character Morocco, a man who has discovered how to make a living through his mastery of the magic of trade, lays the situation bare:

Morocco         This is what the border is. See…?

Berlin             What?

Morocco         A magic money line. See. You pass something across it and it’s suddenly worth more. Pass it across again and now it’s cheaper. More…less…less…more…fags, drink, jobs, cars…less is more, more or less…see? Magic money just for crossing a magic line. I’m not a smuggler, I’m a magician, an illusionist. There’s no crime in that.

[…]

Morocco         I swear to God it’s a conjuring trick. Swear to God. Give me a dollar…abracadabra…I give you roubles back…give me some roubles…come on…give…hey presto…Deutschmarks. It’s all imaginary…none of it’s real, none. You just have to think up the trick…it’s easy.

Looking for contemporary resonance? If we shift our attention to Greece and the never-ending discussion of bailouts, I think we’ll be able to return to Grieg’s play and discern the satire in Morocco’s character. But Berlin, the character with whom Morocco shares his secrets, does not find anything amusing. Berlin—a name laden with historical significance—seems to prove Dan Rebellato’s statement in Theatre & Globalization: “The geographical boundaries of a country are often the arbitrary sediment of centuries of historical processes. Yet they can take on symbolic importance in the national imagination and any penetration of these boundaries, real or imagined, can cause a convulsion of national feeling” (xvi). For Morocco, who no longer pledges any allegiance to the small town where he and Berlin grew up, the border is porous. For Berlin, this porosity and Morocco’s carefree jaunts back and forth through the pores, such a situation amounts to an attack on his way of life.

These two causes in particular bring tragedy to Fret, the local station agent, and his daughter Adele: economic destabilization at the cusp of Europe’s transformation into the European Union and rage; rage focused at the flood of immigrants coming into the town by locals Berlin, Horse, and Billy who believe immigrants—whom they refer to as Flying Boat People—will take their jobs and their money. Again, this twenty-year-old play starts to sound familiar. Grieg managed to capture not only the social, political, and economic forces that contributed to Europe’s internal fracturing in 1994 but also the human habits that ensure the repetition of history. (Consider and consult the following links:

http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/9560982/the-invasion-of-italy/

http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2015/05/graphics

http://www.blazingcatfur.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/African-Boat-people-very-crowded-620×451.jpg)

Economic decline shows itself in the play’s setting, a train station that Grieg describes as “a forgotten place [that] bears witness to the past century’s methods of government.” The rage of the townspeople amplifies upon news of the station’s closing, the announcement of layoffs at the light bulb factory, and the arrival of Sava and Katia, a father and daughter who are escaping an unnamed war-torn landscape. For Sava and Katia, the train station acts as a threshold between an old life of violence and uncertainty, to one side, and a new life of stability and hope, to the other. The townspeople, however, see the same train station, which becomes a makeshift immigrant camp for the two refugees, as the threshold between the old Europe that brought them economic stability and the new Europe that makes no promises at all.

Due to their different ages, Sava and Katia have different expectations about the Europe of the north to which they are fleeing. Grieg crafts the viewpoints of all his characters into a kaleidoscopic view of 1994 Europe. In particular, though, Sava’s and Katia’s perspective from the bottom, as it were, offer his European (at first English and Scottish) audience members a vivid portrait of the violence waging just to the south as well as the myth of Northern European Enlightenment that supposedly keeps the north safe.

Sava    […] Katia, we’re not in some savage country on the other side of the world. Look around you, look at the architecture. Listen to the sounds from the street. You can smell the forest. We’re a long way from home but we’re still in Europe. We’ll be looked after. Our situation will be understood.

Katia  Europe. Snipers on the roofs, mortars in the suburbs, and you said: ‘This is Europe…we must stay in Europe.’ So we stayed, even after the food ran out: ‘This is Europe.’ When the hospitals were left with nothing but alcohol and dirty bandages. I warned you and you still said: ‘This is Europe. Honesty will prevail, sense will win, this war is an aberration…a tear in the fabric. In time it’ll be sewn up again and things will look as good as new.’

Things, however, do not begin to improve for the two immigrants or for Fret and Adele who would like to help them. Berlin and Horse conspire to enact revenge against these boat people who will surely take their jobs and steal their way of life. Fueled by hate and ignorance, the two characters eventually set the train station ablaze. Grieg dramatizes this action by having Berlin narrate the events to the audience:

Berlin On the news the fireman said the station was a tinderbox. He said it was criminal. Criminal that it could have been left in that condition. They didn’t have a chance he said. No one stood a chance in that place. Criminal.

LOOK AT IT LOOK AT IT LOOK AT IT! … IT’S BEAUTIFUL.

At first we just saw the light inside. Just an orange glow inside and then some smore. It was a clear night so we could see the smoke rising. Even from that distance we could feel it warm. AMAZING. (He holds out the back of his hand.)

Katia and Adele manage to make it out. They escape on a train for destinations unknown before the bombing occurs. Fret and Sava do not escape. The darkness of the scene culminates in the final words, which Grieg decides to give to Berlin: “They know that, in our own way, we’re also Europe.”

That is to say, “we,” the good and the bad, the left and the right, the center and the margins, the awake and the sleeping, the hopeful and the hopeless, the terrorists and the terrorized, we’re all Europe. If this play, written 20 years ago, didn’t have the power to enact lasting change for the minorities of Europe or to prevent the public from being duped about the sleight-of-hand economics of the European Union, it is hard to imagine that an image of a dead child on a beach will make an impact now. The “light bulb moment” alluded to by the Al Jazeera journalist may only be a flash, more like the final moments of the forgotten light bulb factory in Europe than an enduring Enlightenment.

 

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