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A Sign of Life from the Post-Dramatic

Wooster Group & New York City Players,
Early Plays, directed by Richard MaxwellREDCAT, February 21-24, 2013 —

I’m in 7-11 – the one on Silver Lake Boulevard. I’m buying ice for a field trip my daughter’s 6th grade class is taking later in the day. There’s nothing unusual about the errand, but something about the way the sunlight slants across the surfaces of the Salt Snack displays and the Slurpee counter, or maybe it’s the warmth in the smile of the woman at the register as she hands me my change – she’s from the Indian subcontinent and seems so happy to be here I imagine she’s a new arrival still in the honeymoon phase of the American dream – or perhaps it’s the small courtesy shown me by the young woman who holds the door as I walk out, a tiny diamond glinting in the side of her nose – all of these occurrences combine into a minor symphony of humble beauty, and my enjoyment of this beauty is darkened only a shade by the nagging sense that I have seen something very much like this particular sequence of images and sense impressions somewhere before…seen it somewhere not long ago …and then my enjoyment is compromised again as I slide in behind the wheel of my minivan and it comes to me that it was on a video monitor that I have seen something very much like this sequence – not the exact particulars maybe but definitely the precise feel of the experience, the sense of it – a video monitor hanging in a retail store or perhaps a bank – yes, exactly – it was in the Bank of America on Glendale Boulevard a few days before. While waiting in line for a teller my attention had been captured by a lavishly produced sixty-second spot the bank had paid for in order to let its customers – me among them – know that Bank of America shares our core values and our concerns too, the burdens and the quiet joys of being a person, and is really one of us, a friend maybe, certainly an upstanding member of our community. And sitting there behind the wheel in the parking lot of the 7-11 on Silver Lake Boulevard the recognition that an a-moral if not downright demonic corporate entity like B of A has somehow managed to seamlessly merge with my own capacity to appreciate quiet beauty is something I feel called upon to think a bit about, and to share my thoughts with someone like you.

A few days after my experience in the 7-11 on Silver Lake Boulevard I find myself sitting in REDCAT watching the director Richard Maxwell’s production of Early Plays, in which he and his cast ring some postmodern changes on Eugene O’Neil’s Glencairn Plays. Set during the years of the First World War, these short dramas take place in the Merchant Marines, aboard a ship or in port, and Maxwell mines this time and place for all the exoticism it holds for well-heeled (more or less) theater patrons in the hyper-mediated second decade of the 21st century. Since he began to attract attention in the 1990s, the hallmarks of Maxwell’s style include a conspicuously flat vocal delivery, and a stiffness and formality of gesture and movement. Maxwell has performers say something real, but he removes all the affective weight so the dialogue begins to merge with the silence around it. Something analogous happens with the gestural aspect of his stage work. Each motion registers as naively intentional and also over-committed and awkwardly forceful.

If the hallmark of the Wooster Group is the deconstruction of over-determined dramatic tropes, and then the simultaneous presentation of the originating drama sandwiched together with its deconstructed replica, Maxwell takes things one step further, down into the level of speech act and gesture at the zero degree. The performers’ delivery tends toward an uninflected, quasi-machinic cadence, and this sends the language dipping across the line that separates the meaning of a word from its presence as pure sound, as purely aural event.

In Early Plays, O’Neil’s nautical locutions amplifies this effect – Maxwell loves the anachronistic pronunciations of words like “yours” and “are” that are strikingly different from current usage, but still convey the meaning of the word. This is the tension – between representation on the one hand and pure sensation on the other – that, forced into the same frame, arguably makes for the most transformative artwork.

To understand why the “post-dramatic” has become such a dominant performative aesthetic in the past two or three decades, just pull back from the Performance Garage on Wooster Street in Lower Manhattan (Early Plays is a co-production between the Wooster Group and Maxwell’s New York City Players) and witness the transformation of the surrounding urban landscape in the years since LeCompte and crew began their creative project. Although this work does the exact opposite of wearing its politics on its sleeve, it’s no coincidence that this group of artists have devoted themselves to pulling apart the dominant modes of affective manipulation deployed by the American elite since the 1970s to rob the rest of the population of the majority of its wealth. Fraudulence on the massive scale that surrounds those artists tends to result in a balancing action, and so, on one level, Maxwell’s Early Plays can be viewed as a refuge from the kind of assaultive entrainment Bank of America is deploying as described above, where our natural empathetic responses to the sequences of sensation out of which we derive meaning and connection – narrative, in other words – are manipulated for commercial and political purposes.

But I think Maxwell’s work, and the whole post-dramatic movement of which it is a part, represents a much deeper artistic response to what I’m describing. The way Maxwell’s flatness of delivery and the gestural stiffness call attention to the fact of performance, for example, can be seen to reduce the distinctions between the characters his actors are playing. This is where Maxwell’s approach to movement cannot be confused with Brechtian “gestus”, which depends on a gestural virtuosity on the part of the actor to illustrate the social construction of identity. Maxwell is interested instead in a careful modulation of differential intensity; if he brought it any lower we feel his characters might suddenly fuse together the way soap bubbles sometimes do. On the level of topology, the surface tension of the stage space is being maintained at a very low level precisely in order to inhibit change. O’Neal’s work is the perfect foil for Maxwell because of how his drama embodies the opposite tendency – O’Neil offers Maxwell and the Woosters a dramatic body that can be drained of life but still retain enough primal energy to hold a shape. The romantic masculinity and working class vitality on display are being mined for their energies, as if to trigger excess affect in the audience and then, through the discontinuities of delivery and movement, create a negative space into which that affect will drain off.

A new structure of feeling (to use Raymond Williams’ term) is being minted here. Its main characteristic is a disinclination to engage in differential processes, and an insistence on an immanence that avoids unity or hierarchy through the cultivation of a kind of sociable autism. If schizophrenia, a pathology linked to multiplicity rather than unity, was the emblematic disorder of anti-authoritarian resistance in the 1960s, autism is quite possibly the emblematic disorder of such resistance today. Since the relationality of becoming appears to have been co-opted by late-phase Capitalism and transformed into an instrument of social control, our impulse is to explore an absence of relationally and to suppress becoming. That’s not exactly right because the feeling after Early Plays is not one of detachment, but rather what might be called equanimity – a resilient sobriety in the face of threatening hyper-processes, such as global warming and financial collapse, that we are subject to, but not necessarily implicated by. This is a structure of feeling impervious to the inequities of Capitalism, in other words, and to the environmental cataclysm it is bringing towards us at a gallop from the not-too-distant future. If traditional tragic drama was designed to generate and amplify becomings, the post-dramatic is designed to inhibit and retard the becomings that have been so thoroughly captured by Capitalism, and to re-locate humanity in something deeper and in-the-background. Not a structure, but an absence of structure. Not an emergence but a capacity that remains in the virtual where it has free play and cannot be co-opted and encoded.


  1. Chris Kelley says:

    Great post Guy, I think you really capture and describe well the tone and feeling of the Maxwell piece. I agree with your position and appreciate, always, your take on the place of theater but I have a question regarding your implication of the political in the piece.

    We’ve spoken many times about the forty year dismantling of the middle class and I agree with you on this, although I would argue that the official commencement of the dismantling of the new deal was November 1963. But whenever it began or where, there is no doubt that the relocation of treasure has been an ongoing, pervasive cultural shift orchestrated by a powerful and politically adroit elite.

    I gather that you’re not suggesting that the show was about this, that O’Neil was writing about the destruction of the middle class or that Maxwell set out to expose the right wing’s motives since Kennedy, but rather that the show inspired you to think about it. Which is, of course, the great effect of good art. It makes us recon how f**ked we are.

    Good art, by nature, is going to reverberate in the political and cultural atmosphere, draw your thoughts out into the larger picture, make you think, “where are we?”. I look at portraits of sixteenth century Dutch merchants and wonder where we’d be if the rich hadn’t hired artists… and then I wonder how the rich (and by extension, our entire culture) treat artists today. We are no longer invited to the big table unless, as you point out, we are valuable to the business of selling shit to people.

    Steppling had a great quote from George Jackson, “The uniform attracts the psychotic mind.” People don’t join the LAPD because they have vivid imaginations and a desire to investigate how life works. They do so because they are children of broken homes, abused personalities, fractured psyches etc. And the same can be said, generally, of the uniform of politics. There’s an article in this week’s New Yorker about Eric Cantor in which I was struck by his utter lack of originality or eloquence. For instance, he blames his party’s failure to show in the recent election not on politics but on how “…we’ve been portrayed” and talks about “turning it around.” Not the policy, merely the reaction. And goes on to quip, “…people don’t care about how much you know until they know you care.” Again, here’s a high powered individual, positioned in authority and influence evincing little or no individuality or originality, let alone compassion. No creativity, in other words. It boggles the mind until you think, well he’s not endeavoring for insight. He’s not about an inspired view of the world or life… or his own thoughts. He, like anyone aspiring to wear a uniform, wants authority and, subjectively, deep down, what he really wants is authority over his own mind. He wants to solve (or simply obliterate) mystery and darkness. In this way (among others) he’s unlike the artist.

    These ideas were on my mind watching “Early Days” (or maybe they are now that I’m thinking about what was on my mind then…). There was a deep view into the shadows (literally in the case of the wonderful death scene in the fo’c’sle) which, I think, yes, connects to the political world outside. But O’Neil wasn’t writing about the destruction of the middle class, was he? I think I was inspired more toward a meditation on the effects of the uniform. A look into the mind of those who work and drink and die in desperation, all at once the “characters” of O”Neil and the actors laboring against, as you say, the “flatness of delivery and the gestural stiffness…”.

    The politics of the play (although I agree with the over arching “mission” of the Wooster Group) would seem, to me, best captured not just in the death of “Yank” and his fears of being alone, but really, in the off stage, shadow figure in the uniform of the bridge officer, leaning across the drama intermittently to push the button that sounded the fog horn.

  2. Well, I like what you have to say here, Chris. And I totally agree that the politics of O’Neil’s original text lies in that aspect of working in the Merchant Marines. I’ve had long discussions about the O’Neil with a mutual friend (Gray Palmer) about the labor politics of the Glencairn Plays…but it didn’t feel to me as if Maxwell was really all that interested in any of that. My sense was that even the notion of labor politics would seem exotic to Maxwell for reasons that are complex (NAFTA and the globalization of the economy) and also simple – labor has been systematically de-valued and politically undermined by the forty-year swing you describe and is no longer a cultural reality for most of the arts-consuming public. But I’m locating a political aspect in the formal dimension of Maxwell’s work – in his approach to speech and gesture and his overall style. I have much more to say about it, but that’s my initial response.

  3. Guy Zimmerman says:

    Chris, the comment above says it’s by “Timothy A” but it’s really by me.

  4. Chris Kelley says:

    Yes I think we’re circling the same notion here (Tim). I wish we could hear Maxwell speak to this.

    I want to just simmer a minute on something that’s still with me. Yank’s death scene is still buzzing in my mind as possibly one of the most compelling hunks of staging I’ve seen in a while. Staged as it was in near darkness except for a few, practical lanterns and the action situated as close to off stage as you can get without leaving the theater entirely. But particularly notable for me was that off stage shadow figure in oil-skins, almost like a stage hand given a costume (although obviously not) charged with the job of leaning in intermittently to press the key (on a Macbook Pro, no less) that sounded the fog horn. Of everything, the songs, the lanterns, the language, this image is still for me the most striking. It’s one of those nearly marginalized fragments of stage craft that was probably a brief decision but, none the less, no damn accident. It unified the stage and solidified my trust in the director and may have been the thing that, being a new comer to Maxwell, brought me over the threshold into the style fully.


  5. Guy Zimmerman says:

    Maxwell made some very smart choices there, no question. All that darkness and all that distance and you realize, yes, that’s how we die. The world continuing on. And Maxwell was savvy enough also there to let O’Neil be O’Neil, and the lantern figure was quite beautiful, I agree. Seems like Maxwell is allowing himself more lyricism than he used to. That’s my sense about Wes Anderson too, who I think resembles Maxwell in certain ways. Moonrise Kingdom had a similar sweetness around the edges of the mordant, off-beat irony.

  6. Guy,
    I performed “LSD Part I” with the Wooster Group in 1982 or around that time. Spalding Gray was alive then. We’ll talk about it sometime. Best, Ray

  7. Guy, always a pleasure to read your perceptive writing.

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