Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Screens, by Jean Genet

Theatrical elements and the sanctity of sin in The Screens,
by Susana Cook


I am interested in looking at the way in which Genet uses theatrical devices in The Screens to unfold his poetic and political ideas of colonialism, poverty and death, and the way in which he succeeds at sanctifying evil.
The Screens is an epical ceremony set in the Algerian War. It starts with Said and his mother walking to his wedding, and ends in the world of the dead.
Said, the poorest, has to marry Leila, the ugliest. Their journey becomes an act of dethroning of what is sacred and elevating to sainthood what is consider sin or un-sacred. Robbery, prostitution, violence and war are glorified in Genet’s world. Colonialism, patriotism, order and obedience are shown dirty and pathetic.
The screens displayed onstage create the scenery by having actors drawing different elements of the changing set on them. This device allows him to take the story to all kinds of fantastic and extreme places. The landscape of war, the realm of the dead, fire and total destruction become layers of the multidimensional reality that will be displayed on the screens. The screens also display the power of the symbolic. Power and authority are representations, drawings on the screens. The characters obey and submit to these authoritarian figures. Sir Harold, a colonialist, displays his manly authority when he is onstage by playing with his glove and whip and giving orders to Jewell, his horse off stage. When he has to go, he leaves onstage a big glove pointing as an act of surveillance. This presence will be reinforced by the Arabs who work for the colonizers. “Every finger is listening with an ear as big as an umbrella… Be careful! (33) says Habib, trying to perpetrate Sir Harold’s authority in his absence. Sir Harold’s orders are represented in the glove and looked after by Habib. The presence of the glove is then enough to subjugate the Arabs. The representation of authority creates order. The objects become animated. Leila subdues and worships Said’s trousers left in the house. Her relationship with his trousers is more free and erotic than the relationship she can have with the real Said, because he rejects her. The sound effects are performed by the actors, and their words create a reality that they will enact and fall victim to. Said says, “it’s getting windy—both men imitate the sound of the wind, and shiver” (34)
Said, Leila, and his mother are very poor and miserable. But they are not pathetic or looking up at the rich people. The characters sink deeper in misery, unhappiness, poverty, and corruption, but as they do it they become more and more the heroes of the story. Genet creates such deep, carefully drawn characters. Said is walking to his wedding and he says to his mother, “don’t joke. Today I want to be sad. I’d hurt myself on purpose to be sad” (12). The mother doesn’t try to give him consolation or to make him happy, she encourages him to go deeper into that feeling of unhappiness, “vomit on her” (13) she tells him.
The brothel is another strong image used by Genet to sanctify sin. Malika and Warda, the prostitutes, are proud of their rituals, they are the goddesses of the ceremony. Malika’s seduction style is “the tooth cleaning with a hatpin” (21). We normally would find that image pretty gross, but when executed by this professional of lovemaking and seduction it becomes a sensual ceremony.
Genet glorifies the dead more than life. Death is not an end but a passing to a new dimension. In The Screens we can see Genet’s idea of theater as a ‘dialogue with the dead’. Genet expressed the idea that the true site of theater was the cemetery . The people of the town know how to communicate with the dead. “Your funeral is also part of your life as a living man” (57) says the mother to The Mouth.
During the reading of the play I was to try to look at how does Genet so successfully accomplishes his goal of making the miserable characters the heroes of the story. My answer was, by giving them the complexity that is usually denied to them. For the most part we are exposed to writing that is affected by a view that will follow the same treatment. The heroes are the characters who are written with specific individual characteristics. The “evil” ones are usually more similar to a stereotype. When writing people of color, for example, the traits attached to the characters are mostly part of their cultural background. The white protagonists’ traits are individual, personal, and complex. Genet reverses the treatment that most writers give to characters. He presents the oppressors as funny caricatures, and he gives the Arabs, the people of color, the sinners, the robbers, and miserable characters a complexity that is usually denied to them by most authors. We enter their lives and their psychology in a way we usually are not allowed to, we follow them to their deaths, their sinking into sin is heroic, poetic and beautiful.

Book Cited:
Genet, Jean. The Screens. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Grove Press, 1961.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

so many lines dying

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Poetics. Aristotle

Aristotle’s Poetics 2370 years later, by Susana Cook

I am interested in looking at The Poetics’ legacy and how after 2370 years it still stands as a ruling force in the world of drama and playwriting. Besides being a thorough compendium of the elements of the tragedy and comedy, The Poetics shows the power of the written word, shaping a culture that will grow at the shadows of the immutable classics. Experimental or innovative efforts in the world of drama or performance end up creating new categories. It is as if the Drama/ Theater/ Playwriting realm could not be transformed or subject to change. When the new form becomes too distant or foreign to the classical ancestor then it becomes something else, a sub-discipline or genre. The domain of theater or drama conserves the specific rules spelled by Aristotle in The Poetics. It is the norm, and moving away from the norm carries the price of expulsion from the world of Tragedy and Comedy. The authors who subverted the rules established at The Poetics become in a way an evidence of the lasting effects of The Poetics and how its mandates survived in contemporary cultural expressions, (although the poetics only address Tragedy, his poetics of Comedy have never been found).
“Whether tragedy has fully realized its possible forms or has not yet done so may be left for another discussion. Its beginnings, certainly were in improvisation. After passing through many changes it came to a stop, being now in possession of its specific nature.” (49) The stop expressed by Aristotle as a present moment was over two millenniums ago, but the dramatic form certainly came then to an irrevocable stop. The shape or specific nature that it had acquired at the moment described by Aristotle created the mold that shapes dramatic writing to this day.
The idea of order that exhumes from The Poetics creates a confining and organized environment. It assumes a unified audience that will respond or react to certain elements of the tragedy in the same way. Aristotle starts his Poetics by establishing universal moral values and a uniformed human nature. Tragedy imitates people who are better than us and Comedy people who are lower than us, “goodness and badness being universal criteria or character” (46). Aristotle refers to human nature as a universal (hierarchical) category with specific characteristics. He attributes then the creation of Tragedy to the “instinct to imitate rooted in human nature” (47). The audience becomes a uniformed entity as well. “We have evidence of this in actual experience, for the forms of those things that are distressful to see in reality, we contemplate with pleasure when we find them represented with perfect realism in images” (47). After establishing a uniformed motivation to the creative act; an identical response to it and universal values of goodness and badness, he describes then the effects. The actions onstage have the purpose to effect fear and or pity in the audience and the play will eventually create the catharsis of those emotions.
I obtained my BA in Drama in Buenos Aires over twenty years ago. As a student, I had to read and write essays about The Poetics. After I graduated I spent many years doing theater in every capacity. I never talked again about The Poetics. I didn’t hear anybody talking about it and I didn’t read any book that cited the work. I recently returned to school to do my MFA, and The Poetics came back as a deja vu in workshops and classes and readings. Maybe because I am myself a person who does not respond to stories with a plot the way that Aristotle expected his audience to react, or maybe it is because I see The Poetics as inevitably connected with school, but it makes me think that institutionalized knowledge of drama relies on The Poetics for the creation of uniformity and order necessary to the narrative of artistic value. The organization of events into a consistent plot structure proposed by Aristotle can be found mostly in mainstream theater and film.
According to Aristotle “the basic principle is imitation” (45) Brecht argued with that statement with his famous: “Theater is not a mirror of reality but a hammer to shape it”. His theater it's usually referred to as Epic or Political Theater. The Poetics teach us that “The soul of tragedy is the plot”. Some authors, like Gertrude Stein argue that “A play doesn’t have to tell a story”. According to Stein, what’s happening during the drama is the theater experience itself. The creation of an experience, according to Stein is more important than the representation of an event. Many people wouldn’t consider Gertrude Stein’s plays to be real theater or playwriting. The same could be said for many people who created new forms, their work was named alternative theater, performance art, interventionists theater, etc. It’s interesting to see how the world of visual arts for example went through so many movements and changes that transformed it essentially but theater rules seem to be frozen in time. Aristotle describes the work of the painters of his time, Polygnotus, Pauson and Dionysius. Looking at those paintings and at contemporary paintings you can see the millennia that went by in the history of fine arts. Contemporary painters don’t seem to be following the rules of composition and structure that the painters of that time were following. But in drama, most of the teachings of Aristotle remain intact and alive at the heart of most contemporary dramas. However a classicist strain runs through all arts, though perhaps it is strongest in theatre.
I find The Poetics to be a valuable historical document of the Tragedy of that time. But I think that it also has served through the millennia the purpose of creating a normative discourse of structure and a hierarchical and unified set of values in the world of drama.

Book cited:
Aristotle’s Poetics. Translated with an Introduction and Notes by James Hutton. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Cancer Walking Through These Woods, by Sarah Hammond

The use of mosquitoes in Sarah Hammond’s Cancer Walking Through These Woods

From the second line of the first stage directions we can see that flies are important characters in Sarah Hammond’s play. She uses them in every possible way to tell us things about the characters and the story. They become a tool to create spells, measure time, and show frustration. They create a physical action that keeps repeating itself in a situation that carries a level of timid intimacy and trust. The mosquitoes become a tool of communication, to express through physical action the way they feel and at moments an obstacle that separates them. When they finally connect and decide to trust each other, then the mosquitoes disappear.
Slaughter is waiting for Chesnutt in the woods “slapping mosquitoes as they land on her arms, neck, legs” (38). She is killing time by killing mosquitoes. She catches one bug in both hands, holds it for a moment and then Chesnutt arrives. It’s as if by catching the bug she made magic, and Chesnutt appears because of her spell.
The bugs and mosquitoes are the first thing they talk about when they see each other. “You know, at night, the mosquitoes become large. They grow teeth, stand up on two legs,” (38) says Slaughter to Chesnutt, as if she was measuring the time she was waiting for Chesnutt in the woods through the life and transformations of the mosquitoes.
Then “the bug flies away and Chesnutt finds her,” the author says in the stage directions. We don’t know if he catches the bug or if he kills her -- we just know that he finds her.
The mosquitoes create invisible lines between the characters, keeping them somehow connected through illness and infestation.
“They stand on two legs, and they walk up beside you with their invisible bodies. Beside you in the dark, they slip their threadline lips into your ear so soft you just hear the buzz, and then, sip by sip, they siphon off your brain,” explains Slaughter to Chesnutt, adding that she is “down to three quarters brain matter” (38). She measures time through the mosquitoes sucking of her blood, emptying her brain. Soon we’ll find out that Chesnutt is afraid that that is exactly what Slaughter is doing to him, making him a hypochondriac, washing his brain. He shows his frustration scratching frenetically a mosquito bite. “You have me brainwashed,” he complains, searching for the mythical tumor. (40) Cancer, tumors and family curses are the themes flying around them with the mosquitoes. A bug flies away from Slaughter and Chesnutt catches her. They are still connected through the insects. The fear of infestation and death is expressed though the fantasy of mosquitoes siphoning off their brain. They touch their own body to scratch mosquito bites; Slaughter touches Chesnutt’s body in search of tumors; Chesnutt comes to Slaughter because he has a headache and fears it could be the beginning of the family spell that will kill him before 30.
But trust is the main theme of the play. Slaughter wants Chesnutt to trust her and Chesnutt wants Slaughter to trust him. The obstacles they have to overcome to finally get close is shown through the device of the mosquitoes. The insect becomes so animated that it seems at moments to be Tommy (Chesnutt’s dead brother, who had a strong relationship with Slaughter) coming in between the two characters as a ghostly presence embodied in the mosquito surrounding them. Tommy trusted Slaughter, in spite of her trench coat. He didn’t think she was a terrorist. Chesnutt is aware what other kids think of her, that she looks “like those Columbine kids. That she is gonna shoot up the place”. She is an outcast and she is not allowed to enter his baseball game. She doesn’t trust anyone enough to tell them her name, a girl’s name. She feels more powerful and protected in her trench coat, using a non-gendered last name. But she knows Chesnutt is “better than regular people” (40) as Tommy was.
Chesnutt finally gets from Slaughter what Tommy couldn’t get from her. She tells him her first name: Elizabeth. He then gives in to her powers, holding still and letting her perform some kind of mystical-surgical operation of his tumor in the woods. They are finally close. The flies then disappear.

Book cited:
Sarah Hammond, Sarah. Cancer Walking Through These Woods. Hanover: Smith and Kraus, Inc. 2004.