Madrid, Beauty, Darwin, Trump and #MeToo
Mentions : Richard Maxwell, Sean Lewis, Pirandello, Linda Wise, Bibiana Monje.
The Theatre of Sexuality is a title I have often used in the last years, covering a topic I consider fundamental: how theatre can comment on what we humans have done with sexuality and with the mechanisms of reproduction. I am currently studying Richard O. Prum’s book, The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us. It relativizes, at long last, the neo-darwinian iron-hold on so-called natural selection, Darwin’s first theory of evolution. I hope soon to write a review of the book from the point of view of The Theatre of Sexuality (and LUCK).
This article interconnects three events that happened on the weekend of October 7/8, 2018, the weekend that saw Brett Kavanaugh appointed (for life!) to the U.S. supreme court, and Jair Bolsonaro be practically elected as president of Brasil (46%). It started as a letter to Linda Wise, my beloved companion in life and co-director of Pantheatre. It includes relatively intimate aspects of our artistic and marital life-equation, at a somewhat fraught moment with the start of Pantheatre’s season and projects in Paris while Linda is away for over two months directing a piece in New York. The perspective is one of two artists entering old age: I am over seventy, Linda, nearing seventy. We are both doing well and still very active, or, let’s say, and certainly in my case, I want to be very selective about my time and work, and especially in terms of what I call The Theatre of Sexuality. Also in the correlated terms of what philosophy calls la buona vita – the good life, esthetically and ethically, of our last years. La buona vita includes, for me, deep, adult, daring, bold and especially politically and “sentimentally sophisticated” thinking and gestures to do with sexuality and what we humans are doing with it. Hence my enthusiasm at the inclusion of Beauty in Prum’s book. The title could be James Hillman’s – but more on that in the coming review.
Here are the three events around the 7/8 October weekend :
1 – A performance by Richard Maxwell and New York City Players, titled PARADISO (Théâtre Les Amandiers, Nanterre, Paris, October 2, 2018). It was recommended to me by Sean Lewis, a long-time collaborator whose work I have qualified as “the best in Brooklyn, that is, in New York, that is, in the USA.” Sean recommended Maxwell’s piece in these terms: “Enrique, please try and see if u can, not sure youll like but will give us fantastic discussion point. Rmaxwell super important nyc artist of the moment. Hes coming out and supporting lilac also and his longest collaborating actor jim fletcher (not in paris piece) did magic agency with me last jan. Xxx sean »
2 – Pogüergul (Powerful), a Spanish twist on magical power: a new performance by Bibiana Monje which I am directing and which I spent five days workshopping in Madrid (October 4 to 8), with the cast of four and other professional performers. It is due to open in April 2019 in the Canary Islands. It was some of the most psychologically adventurous laboratory work I have done.
3 – A letter from Linda Wise to Sean Lewis asking him in no uncertain terms not to come to the performance she is directing in New York. The performance, opening on October 18 (I will be there), is titled Inside the Wild Heart. It is based on the life and work of Clarice Lispector (1920, Ukraine – 1977, Rio de Janeiro), Brasil’s most renowned woman-writer. It is a complex, immersive installation project conceived and produced by Group.BR, Andressa Furletti and Debara Balardini who has hosted Pantheatre (PanNYC) for some years now, at her Manhattan Punto Space, which she co-directs with Sandie Luna.
I will start by trying to re-articulate why I think so highly of Sean Lewis’ theatre performances, and then come to Richard Maxwell’s piece. I am thinking mainly of Sean’s ensemble pieces: he gathers wonderful if very unstable ensembles around his performance ventures. Sean’s work clearly belongs to the New York artistic ethos of the last thirty or so years or more, though he is from California, and I would still call it post-modern – like Maxwell’s (maybe like mine too…) Sean’s is quintessentially so, and ‘poor’, as in Grotowski’s definition of a Poor Theatre, but also as in penniless. Years of first class theatre work (writing, acting and directing) with no comforting success.
Some of his best pieces were performed in a tiny Brooklyn shop-front, lent to him by the Pizzeria owner right across the street, also glass-fronted. There was talk of detectives in one play, and there were two (real) policemen waving at us from the pizzeria. Etcetera: magical, street-wise, funny, with passion, pathos and pizza inventiveness. A lot of Godard / Belmondo nouvelle vague, maverick (and very masculine) anarchy. Sometimes violence; sometimes, more recently, its opposite: male masochism – of the Gilles Deleuze kind, to my perception: i.e. men need long, masochistic gender-compensation therapy. Paul B. Preciado speaks of a gender war longer than the Religion Wars… Gender and sexual violence come up a lot with Sean, sometimes as rehearsal, sometimes as performance, sometimes as real life. Borders get blurred, transgressed. Sean must be near fifty and it is not at all simple for a woman actor to be directed by such a character. Some appeared at their very best. For others it feel like going over the border; seriously.
I do not want to joke on these matters, nor claim some kind of charismatic mentorship, but every time I have been present the balance has been, to my eyes, right, ‘correct’ even, within a consensual adult understanding, and with wonderful erotic complexity and depth. This state of grace has not always been present in the case of impromptu personal presentations. And, sometimes I could see the women actors really struggling; but no abuse. Some days ago, a woman actor in Linda’s New York cast broke into tears hearing that Sean might come to see the performance: she said in her case there had been public/private transgression. No question, there is troubled behavior in some of these ‘case-histories’ – blurred, presumably, by provocative and interventionist, impulsive theories of acting.
Turning now to Richard Maxwell’s PARADISO: my impressions went through different stages. Goodwill predisposition to start with, acceptance of the long wait in white light until the side-doors opened and a very big shining white American pick-up appeared, was driven around and parked on the stage. Then another longish wait till the people listening to music on the radio (I was told it was Pink Floyd) got out of the car, to what seemed like a white picnic (is paradise white?) The appearance of a talking robot, ET-like, was, as always, a funny gag. OK. Then the gestures and texts started. I had to concentrate hard to decipher the texts; intelligent and intelligently weaved. Up to there, alright. Then I started abandoning adherence because of the use of irony. The characters were what to me (a non-American) were well-off, semi-country semi-yuppies, rather tight in behavior, especially the women. The man was more ploddy, gentle, maybe a bit sheepish, but polite and even courteous with the ladies (masochistic? ironic dummy?)
The gestures were semaphoric and deadpan (a lifeline problem for a ‘Pan’ theatre). The quite dense texts kept coming up, mostly as downplayed monologues, sometimes slightly irritated in tone in one of the women, who seemed to want to be more efficient than the others with the white Connecticut paradise picnic. The fact that I had to work so hard to decipher the changing levels of irony started to annoy me: the picnic sandwiches were simply too thin and monotonous, dramatically. The texts, i.e. the menu, promised more but remained virtual, horizontal, not enacted. There was no, or too little ‘libido’ compensation due to the lack of emotion, sensuality, and serious Eros; and practically no Psyche outside suburban mall dilemmas, reported or metaphorical. No Pan. Only elaborate, indirect, semi-ironic manifestoes.
Sean departs from Maxwell, for the (much) better in my view, by playwriting, taking on and acting out strong shadow subjects, including violence – or ‘masochistic’ anti-violence as I have mentioned. I have on occasions seen him numb the stage, numb the audience, and himself, with violence, which can be, in his case, extremely sudden – not of the ‘terrorist’ kind (jolting explosions to wake up the ‘bourgeois’ audience); his are more like schizophrenic bursts, or call them cubist-schisms. If too recurrent these can be unbearable. When ‘lucky’ (i.e. with panic spontaneity) repetitions can be magical. When not (like in Maxwell’s case, in my view), the acting can be soulless, voided into autistic zombies, lingering on in ironic-moronic cool attitudes. In his very early days in New York, Sean did a piece titled something like A Cowboy in Steinland (venturing into Getrude Stein’s Parisian territory – not unlike Hemingway…) I found magnificent the choreographic theatre links between the projected texts of Gertrude Stein’s and Sean’s cowboy listening and commenting ‘dance’, his rodeo roundabouts. I persuaded the programmers of La Mamma to go see it. They were horrified; apparently Sean spent half the performance in his cowboy boots jumping onto, crushing and destroying a metal tools box – in itself not a bad iconoclastic image: breaking your toolbox.
Sean and Punto (our Brazilian friends’ event venue in Manhattan) have always been, out of necessity even, radical antipodes. Punto was set up as a fashion venue on W. 38th Street, Fashion area. A long shot away from Sean’s Pizza storefront. My friendship stands by both – which can be a difficult balancing act. And maybe these contraries constellate in Linda’s and my pathways as ‘psychopathic’ shadows (irrational rigidities, excessive niceties or preferences, silly conventions, silly rebellions and cravings for loving differences, like all couples fabricate.) It certainly bears on the strong words she and I have had about artistic projects, especially the long New York separation, and my wish for the good life together in the years we have left. The tears of the woman actor in Linda’s rehearsal are an epiphany that must be talked about in depth, i.e. in Nekyia-mode, especially given my endorsement of Sean’s performance work. Is his harassing wolf present in it? Of course it is and must be, for us all to deal inclusively with the ‘prehistorical’ fantasy – and ALL fantasies – within the Theatre of Sexuality; it must be worked and re-presented qualitatively through fiction and play acting – and with embedded, implicit ethical comments – not necessarily explicit. But, certainly not limited to sheer regressive acting out. The question raised by Clarice Spector, on the other hand, is not so much sexuality, I understand, but suicide, another massive contra-natura human monster that must be worked and included. It was James Hillman’s first counter-move in psychotherapy, in his Suicide and the Soul: the soul’s need to experience suicide to the very edge.
Now for a cathartic, and partly humorous fantasy. Given everything that has come up during the ‘weekend’, I feel I want to go to New York like Joseph Beuys did, in his famous coyote piece, I like America and America likes me (1974): wrapped in thick felt, transported directly from Air Lingus (cheap ticket) and JFK to the installation-theatre, in some kind of limo-ambulance, and for three consecutive performances; then back in the same manner. Sleeping overnight in a corner of the Manhattan mansion where the “immersive” will take place, with no contact with anyone. Maybe with the cleaners who pick up the dust of the performance; if they give it to me (Alchemy: “do not vilipend the leftover ashes”). Isolated. Later, Linda and I can meet, as if nothing had happened. We would meet knowingly, of course, in something like Harold Pinter formal mode: a theatricality which should eradicate all couple-bickering. Realistic anti-realism. And meet in order to have a series of Nekyia talks – and prepare and care for the time we have left to live. (Algorithms and shamanisms say around 12 years, which would not be bad, if we are lucky and in reasonable health; but it is preciously short. The augurs do not commit on who would go first (algorithms could, but do we really want to hear?) We would meet at the Villa Igiea, in Palermo, which is my idea of luxury Hades. More on Sicily below.
So, why am I flying to New York? To see this performance insomuch and particularly, as it is Linda’s performance – knowing, of course, it is not hers alone. I want to, as it were, expose myself to it, because she is the woman-companion of my life, of my present life, and now, surely, likely « until one of us dies ». Linda is also an experienced soul-artist – and a very different one from me. I’m a lucky hu-man on those counts. For some time now I have been saying that going to see a performance or an exhibition is for me like offering my arm to receive a blood transfusion: I have to think twice before doing it, seriously, consulting oracles and augurs. In the case of going into the Wild Heart, and given the circumstances, all the circumstances, including Kavanaugh at the supreme court, Bolsonaro in Brasil, and Linda’s letter to Sean, I do not see my journey to New York so much as a blood transfusion but more like being exposed to radiations, including this time some unavoidable toxic ones, like Trump’s dreadful magic. In fact, my aim is exposure to Linda’s ‘blessed’ radiations. I say « blessed » not out of some kind of saintly piety, but as an apotropaic move: a blessing can protect all parties involved in the exposure. A pagan blessing – seeking “pagan grace” (Ginette Paris). X-rays are used, we all know, as a means of ‘seeing through’ – Hillman’s favorite psychological expression; to see through the performance, including into Linda’s own wild heart. As we know, no use of x-rays is 100% safe. Radiations can cause mutations. Medicine says that the doses are so small it is worth the risk, given what can be discovered. I buy that, cautiously and mostly metaphorically. In many ways, theatre is about mutations and metamorphosis. But you can also be unlucky: miss something or discover bad news. These dimensions are part of the LUCK theme to be explore at our 2019 Myth and Theatre Festival. And obviously, with radiations, the crab of cancer will be there, waiting to hear what we have to say about luck and psychosomatics.
Over to Madrid now, where I spent five days workshopping with Bibiana Monje and her team. An experimental laboratory which, again, I described as “the most psychologically adventurous I have undertaken”: no-holds-barred directing and acting, addressing mostly questions of sexual politics, stemming from Bibiana’s very good texts, and from the audacious, and even wild risks these Spanish actors are able to take – again: psychologically. No physical violence; in fact, I might have to train them in what I call the economy of violence, because real violence does not work theatrically. As mentioned above: it numbs the mind. A ‘good’ scream can be a weapon of self-defense. Zoologically, it can disarm and numb an aggressor. But, as artists, we want to make music out of it, so that the potential for violence is used with trained ‘musical’ muscles and with ethical, narrative control. And sophisticated will-power: what Pogüerful should be about, in my view. This take on violence links with Roy Hart’s philosophy: “Madam, I break my voice every day”, and with Richard Prum’s (after Darwin) emphasis on mate choice.
I direct laboratories mostly by playing the piano, singing and vocalizing: it communicates moods and ideas without having to stop and instruct with words. This time I let fly my own vocal interactions with the performers and, for the first time, I took on characters, often radical ones, and made them speak: echo, drive-on, comment, but also challenge the tone and stand the performers took as interpreters. One example here, which I hope rounds off this article and the complexities of what I have been addressing in terms of crossing the borders between personal and fictional – especially in the Theatre of Sexuality.
Bibiana Monje’s written proposals are complex and multilayered, particularly in the roles she gives herself. She plays the author, sometimes the director; she plays herself; she plays an alter-ego character that emerged in the previous performance, Lacura. The title compacts Locura (Madness) and La Cura (The Cure) – almost homonyms in Spanish. Her name is Sheila Monje. I proposed Sheila as a critical gibe, to counter the danger of I-know-better or New Age science fiction discourses. Sheila is now a freshly graduated ethnologist (Californian) out of her depth when visiting a ghostly shamanic family. Echoes of Carlos Castañeda. The family roles (mother, daughter and son) mutate, and, for sure, know better. The author loses all authority, cannot control her characters, breaks down.
I heard echoes of Pirandello (Sicilian, 1934 Nobel Prize) and took a good look at Six characters in search of an author, 1927 (!), and at Pirandello’s life. Here is what Spanish critic, Francisco Nieves, writes in his impressive prelude to his Spanish translation of the play:
“Getting to know Pirandello’s life confirms the fact that the great writer never made emotions out of ideas, that he was possessed by life and its more complex emotions, a tortured and ardent soul. Pirandello’s whole work exudes Sicilian fire, a metaphysical mafia, a powerful outcast who had dog-pangs of anxiety : he loved a woman who was mad. A mad woman who inflicted upon him torturous emotions that made him think like no anti-psychiatrist has yet dared to think, without being as mad as Pirandello ‘was not’: knowing that society could be completely upside down and that this would not matter in the least. On the contrary, society would be fairer by giving an opportunity to what we now believe to be the darkest side of man. How can it not be dark, if we never want to cast light on it?” (My translation).
Pirandello made love with a mad woman : are we not in the wild heart of the theatre of sexuality? Is not sex, especially as we, humans, are using it, glorious mad magic?
In one of her monologues, Sheila says: “The promised land is in my cunt and orgasm is the secret metaphor of the universe.” Some statement ! But the tone was not there to my ears, so I called her into check with the broken voice of an old shaman: “And what do you know about orgasm?” I then took the young ethnologist to task with a very tough, long rant. It was filmed and might end up in the performance, knowing Bibiana. (And it would be The Brother who says it: the young brother turns into a seventy years old shaman.) I even managed to say she was the daughter of Indiana Jones, who mostly crashed like Herakles into shaman-land. And I added how sex and orgasms are and feel after seventy. At one of the great gatherings of the Men’s Movement with Robert Bly in California’s Red Woods (five hundred men isolated for five days), James Hillman (I was his assistant) said: “after-seventy, orgasms are the best ever; if you can get it up.” (I break the promise not to divulge what was said in those meetings because I am now over seventy. And I endorse – and honor their memory.)
My intention was not to resolve or to take sides or, certainly not, to moralize in this article. But to go at the topics with Pirandello-like complexity, hoping for good Nekyia talks and performances, including all the characters mentioned in this article. Nekyia, by the way, was the theme of the 2018 Myth and Theatre Festival. It is the Greek for descent to the underworld, in search of a certain under-worldly under-standing.
Enrique Pardo, Paris, October 11, 2018.