Monday, November 08, 2010

How many Republicans does it take to destroy the planet?

Sunday, November 07, 2010

The thing is the right wing is easier to organize: you say God! and they align. Then you can proceed to other unifying principles: racism, xenophobia, homophobia, anti-abortion, anti-women, destroy the environment and more money to the rich

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Animals Onstage

by Susana Cook

From spiritual creatures and fabulous mythic beasts to live theater props and art supplies — tortured, killed, cut into pieces and reassembled – the current role of animals in the world of art brings up ethical issues of artistic freedom versus animal ethics and make evident the complications inherent in representing the Other.
I propose a look at the relationship that humans have created through time with animals in the spaces of Western philosophy, theater, art and performance, in an effort to understand the current trend of animal abuse in the work of several highly celebrated contemporary artists. I will discuss the work of selected ancient poets and philosophers who dealt with the issue of the animal and contemporary artists who present animals onstage or use pieces of them in their work.
I begin by engaging in a brief account on the history of ideas regarding animals to prove that (contrary to popular belief) historically, people have been sensitive to the suffering of animals, and we have proof of this in prominent. The “origins of man” are usually cited as a justification on the abuse and consuming of animals: for example, in dominant thought, people usually refer to cave men and their dietary habits as a way of normalizing the killing and eating of animals as a primal human activity. Cave men were most likely killing animals to survive, and at best meat composed a small percentage of their overall diet, but much of philosophical thinking on the issue of animals distances itself significantly from the practices of troglodytes.
Ancient Roman and Greek philosophers like Ovid, Pythagoras, Empedokles, Epicurus, Plutarch and Seneca were all vegetarian who gave us a strong legacy on animal ethics. In the field of contemporary playwriting, I will look at Edward Albee’s The Goat and Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Both plays bring animals to central roles and explore the complicated issues that arise when presenting animals in close relationship to humans.
I will then talk about the work of Argentinean playwright/director Rodrigo Garcia, German theater director Thomas Ostermeier, visual artists Marco Evaristti (Chile), Guillermo Vargas (Costa Rica) and Demian Hirscht (England), all male artists who use animals in their artistic productions. I argue that these artists are not an exception but exponents of a trend in the theater world that celebrates animal abuse as artistic genius.
Animals have historically served all kinds of purposes for humans; they provided company, food, transportation, clothing, entertainment and became objects of human power and anthropocentrism. They have been objects of visual art, literature, fables, theater, circus acts, performance art, paintings, cinema, and theater plays. Animals have been made into healers, gods, creatures without a soul, recipients of deep knowledge, enslaved, tortured, killed, mutilated and eaten.
Many prominent ancient Greek and Roman poets and philosophers rejected the abuse of animals as immoral. Pythagorean ethics, for instance, first appeared between 490-430 BC with a desire to create a universal and absolute law including injunctions not to kill "living creatures," to abstain from "harsh-sounding bloodshed," in particular animal sacrifice, and "never to eat meat."
Empedokles (?480-430 B.C) was a Greek philosopher and scientist who continued the Pythagorean tradition. He left no doubt about his opinion of flesh foods: "Will you not put an end to this accursed slaughter? Will you not see that you are destroying yourselves in blind ignorance of soul?" He wrote his doctrines in his poems “exhorting the world to abandon the foul diet of blood." He once exclaimed, "Will ye not cease from evil slaughter? See ye not that ye are devouring each other in heedlessness of mind?'"
The Roman poet Ovid died in A.D. 18 when Jesus was still a very young man. He wrote the famous Metamorphosis as a series of poems where animals and humans mutate constantly into each other. He repudiated animal sacrifice and human carnivorism as a perversion of human nature. In Metamorphosis he writes: "From whence such hunger in man after unnatural and unlawful foods? Do you dare, O mortal race, to continue to feed on flesh? Cease, I adjure you, and give heed to my admonition”. Ovid also condemned the killing of the gentle animals who had no defense against man's savagery. He asked: "To what wicked habits does he accustom his palate...who cuts the throat of a calf, turning a deaf ear to its piteous moans. Or, who has the heart to pierce the throat of a kid which utters cries like those of a child, or, who can feed on the bird whom he had fed with his own hand?"
Even though the poets and philosophers of antiquity wrote extensively about the suffering of animals, things changed for the worse for un-human creatures when the definitions of men became a dialectic model of animals as opposite to humans. In 1637, in his Discourse on the Method, Descartes defined animals as machines lacking all reason and thought, as creatures without mind and sensory experience, and as such unable to feel pain. His famous quotation Je pense, donc je suis (I think, therefore I am) was probably the beginning of a heavy omen that fell on animals as creatures inferior to the ‘thinking’ humans.
As a result of all these contradictory traditions we grow up immersed in a very complicated relationship to animals. As kids, many of us had loving pets, and we often heard stories featuring fables that make animals speak, feel, and act as recipients and porters of hidden knowledge and wisdom. At the same time, we open the fridge and find some animal in pieces, or we walk through supermarket aisles that look like an animal’s morgue and we are not supposed to cry or be horrified; we just have to buy it.
All these contradictory feelings became pacified and normalized. The animal is the Other, from a different species. It is not fully clear what’s the proper way to treat them. These contradictions reveal themselves often in works of art.
By making the death of the animal the tragedy, Edward Albee’s play The Goat is one of the few examples of contemporary theater that dares to move the presence of the animal to a complicated zone of equality to humans, challenging our definition of the animal’s otherness. He places the main character, Martin, at the limits of his humanity by involving him in a love affair with a goat. There are plenty of stories of humans and animals loving each other, but in most of them the animal is subjugated to the human; it’s either a pet, a work animal, or a wild animal that could or should be killed. But in The Goat the animal is moved up to a strange category of equality to a human being.
Albee adds the subtitle: Notes Towards a Ddefinition of Tragedy. By exploring what is a tragedy or who’s death constitutes a tragedy he is the boundaries of what could be considered human or the relationship of human beings with un-human beings.
The play is all the time on the verge of comedy. A human loving an animal in a romantic way it’s tragic and at the same time funny. The death of the goat becomes then the moment when we will measure the tragedy. It’s just an animal. How can you take its death seriously?
Martin, a New York architect, will be the character that will disorganize and rearrange the established hierarchical relationship between animals and humans. He starts the play in a daze, not being able to remember anything. He can’t relate to the way things are, he can’t remember how they were because all his values are being challenged. By moving an animal to a place of equality the organized sense of his own human-ness gets challenged and all his moral assumptions have to be reexamined. The play will end in tragedy because the order he intended to create is not viable under the present scheme of things where animals and humans exist within relations of power.
Martin is so distracted that he can’t even remember his name; he acts like somebody in love. That could be seen as funny if you think that the object of his love is a goat, but it could also be read as somebody who has lost the possibility of reading reality the same way and as such needs to rebuild his inner and outer universe because he can’t remember the way things were - even his own name.
Martin, married to Stevie, tries to confess to his friend Ross. He is embarrassed and confused; he knows that what is happening is wrong. He explains how loyal he has always been to his wife and how deeply he feels for her. Until one day he saw ‘her,’ Sylvia. Ross then tells the news to Martin’s wife and his son Billy, and the tragedy begins. Stevie admits that her first reaction to the news was to laugh “ at the awfulness and the absurdity of it.”
The play keeps traveling on a thin line between comedy and tragedy. Martin and Stevie wrestle with definitions. Martin calls the goat Sylvia. Stevie denies her a name, trying to take the goat back to the animal kingdom, where she exists as an object, an “it,” stressing a line of division that obviously doesn’t exist anymore in her husband’s mind or soul. Stevie realizes that what her husband has done could not be undone. They all know that the rules have been broken but they don’t know what’s next after such an affair.
At the end of the play, Stevie enters, dragging a dead goat. The goat’s throat is cut; the blood is down her clothes and on her arms.
The situation between Stevie and Martin could very easily be translated to any situation of a person falling in love with the wrong or forbidden person, or breaking apart a marriage through romantic infidelity. The fact that the other is a goat makes the reader think about bestiality, but also about otherness.
By killing the goat, Stevie restores order. This is not only because her husband doesn’t have a goat lover anymore, but because the goat became fully an animal, dragged through the streets by a human.
In The lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh the figure of the cat plays a very important role, introducing the humor in the play because animal suffering can be ultimately ‘funny’. Padraic is a heartless torturer. Everybody is terrified of him. He commits the most brutal acts against people as lieutenant of the Irish National Liberation Army. He has no compassion or empathic feeling for any human. But he adores his cat.
The cat is the irony of the play. Torture becomes funny because it is compared all the time with the compassion and love Padraic feels for his cat. After seeing Padraic removing the nails of his victims, cutting their nipples, wielding a cut-throat razor in front of a victim hanging upside down, with his hands bloody, the image of his little friend Mairead shooting the eyes out of ten cows provides the laugh. The violence against humans is paralleled with the violence against animals to make the play funny. If the only violence shown onstage was Padraic torturing his human victims, arguably it would not be read a funny play. But because torturing animals is in a way funny to most audiences, the extreme violence of the play gets softened. The contrast is also underscored by the fact that Padraic is a super macho guy and the fact that he loves his little cat is kind of a feminine thing about him.
Even if in The Goat and The Lieutenant of Inishmore no real animals need to be hurt or killed, these plays are important examples of our complicated relationship with animals’ pain and suffering. In both cases the presence and death of the animal is crucial to the plot.
But sometimes animals do die. They become the victims of artists intending to create a sense of shock in theater and performance.
Rodrigo Garcia is a theater artist from Argentina, living in Spain. His company is called “La Carnicería” (The Butchery) and his work honors the title of his company by featuring all kinds of torture and killing of animals. Rodrigo Garcia’s father was actually a butcher, so Garcia grew up surrounded by pieces of dead animals that constituted his father’s job. He obviously normalized that relationship to animals and decided to follow his father’s footsteps and makes a living in the arts by exploiting animals as well. Several animal rights groups have brought attention to the gratuitous mistreatment and killing of animals in his work and managed, in some cases, to stop some of his performances.
Still, Garcia’s work is very celebrated in prominent theater circles. In 2009, Garcia won the XIII Europe Theatre Prize for his play Matar Para Comer (Killing to Eat). The play features a lobster that will slowly die in front of our eyes. An actor hangs a live lobster from a hook in the center of the performance space and attaches a microphone to the animal’s chest. We can see the animal squirming, suffering, in agony, and we hear the lobster’s heartbeat amplified through a microphone stuck to its chest. The slow death is an awful thing to witness but it becomes even worse because Garcia extends the agony and suffering of the lobster. As the animal begins to die, and we can hear the heartbeats slowing down, the actor throws water from a bottle on the hanging lobster to revive it and then let it suffocate again. He repeats this procedure two or three times. He then takes the dying lobster off the hook, stabs it with a knife, cuts it in pieces, cooks it and eats it.
Before seeing this “performance” in December 2007, I also attended Garcia’s play Ronald McDonald at The Festival de Teatro Iberoamericano de Cádiz, Spain in 2004. In that show Garcia was shocking the audience among other things by torturing a fish. One of the actors was sucking the water from a fish tank with small sips. The fish was getting gradually more desperate as the water diminished. When the tank was dry and the fish about to die, the actor was leaving the stage and presumably putting new water in the tank. The spectacle was over. The fish may not have died but it experienced suffering.
At Trapholt Art Museum in Denmark, Chilean artist Marco Evaristti put goldfish in a blender, and the visitors were given the option of pressing the “on” button. As a result many of the fish were of course liquefied.
In August 2007, Guillermo Vargaas, an artist from Costa Rica, featured a dog confined in a bare art gallery without food or water until it starved to death (though he claimed he “freed” the dog after the performance). After this exhibit he was chosen to represent his country at the Bienal Centroamericana Honduras 2008.
These artists stage otherness and place themselves in a power situation towards animals. But the fact that they are all male and from Latin America and celebrated in Europe brings to mind issues of gender and a different kind otherness. They enact in their performances a power relation towards animals but they are themselves ‘the racial other’ and probably look exotic and ‘primitive’ to the eyes of the European audience. In my view, their actions are not measured with the same parameters that they would use to criticize their fellow European artists.
Under dominant logics, people like to look at the primitive in search for answers. The mysterious buried knowledge and wisdom of the ‘uncivilized’ savage is similar to the hidden wisdom attributed to animals in some stories. Both the primitive and the animal are posited as close to nature. The abusive relationship that these men create with animals onstage is, I argue, using a European eye to frame the primitive male as dominating nature and in some ways creating an authentic relationship with it.
When I attended Garcia’s performance of Killing to Eat at Martin E. Segal Theatre Center at CUNY on December 10th, 2007, several audience members protested the performance and some left. During the Q+A a member from the audience, Anurima Banerji asked Garcia: Why are you doing this? His response in Spanish was: “Porque se me canta en los cojones” which means ‘because I want to,’ but the literal translation is: ‘I want it from my balls’. I thought it was interesting that he felt the need to mention his balls in the response, with an expression that insinuates that the genitalia authorize the enactment of any male desire.
- Why did you make the lobster suffer? Asked Anurima Banerji.
- Oh, well, responded Garcia, if you think that the lobster feels something, that is the problem.
Maybe Garcia was reading Descartes, because he had no doubt that the lobster could not experience any suffering even if we just witnessed the animal’s agony in front of our eyes. He then explained that they do that in restaurants every day and that he learned how to cut and cook the lobster at a restaurant to incorporate that scene in the show.
Garcia was invoking the law: If this is done legally in restaurants, it’s ok for me to do it here. This is just a re-presentation of what happens in quotidian life. He was just putting the lobster-killing out of context, taking it from the restaurant to the theater.
But Latin American men are not alone; some European men also like to measure their manhood using animals. Damian Hirst - a white, rich, European artist - is seen as the ‘rebel kid,’ a mischievous child who will play with pieces of big animals to show humans our own mortality. Jonathan Jones from The Guardian compares Hirst with Darwin and God: “Hirst's grisly masterpiece, A Thousand Years (1990), in which a race of flies are born in a white cube inside one half of a long glass tank; in the other half of the tank rests a rotting cow head. To feed on it, the flies have to find their way through specially created openings into that part of their sealed world - which is also where Hirst has placed an insect-o-cutor. In the rush to feed, they are massacred; to live is to die.” And he adds: “The artist who created it resembles the God you would have to believe in… You can see how Hirst's reading of Darwin would have helped him to think that.”
Thomas Ostermeier, a German theater director, subjected a bird to extreme suffering during his production of Cat on a Hot Roof. In April 3rd, 2009 Helen Shaw describes the performance in Time Out New York: “The Plexiglas set functioned as a giant birdcage for one captive hawk. It was unbearable. Ostermeier really enjoys loud, punky scene changes, and as music would blast across the stage, we could see the bird hunching into itself. Birds do die of stress, and this was the kind of stress tactic the U.S. Army used to blast Noriega out of Papal asylum. Did Ostermeier want the bird to surrender? Did the bird initiate hostilities?”
Then she asks herself at the end of the article: “What are the limits? Are we being weak and sentimental when we want to keep animals off the stage? Aren’t we exposing ourselves as monsters who can watch human carnage as we eat our breakfasts but cry foul when a puppy gets his tail snipped? Where do we draw the line?” (Sadly she didn’t mention what was the breakfast made of, probably bacon or eggs). The question should not be “are we being weak and sentimental when we want to keep animals off the stage?” The question should be: “Aren’t we being weak when we kill and torture animals onstage? Doesn’t this simply showcase human brutality and power, a lack of ethics and empathy on our part?”
Artists like Rodrigo Garcia and his Latino American fellows serve to the European art scene as circus freaks that will do onstage what they (the ‘civilized’ people) would probably not dare to do. Damian Hirst’s work, however, is generally seen as some kind of philosophical inquiry into issues of meat and mortality.
These male artists use animals as a metaphor for humans. They would probably use humans (I would guess, women) if they were allowed to. They have a big investment in the suffering being “real,” and happening onstage; animals serve the purpose because these “artists” can legally torture and kill them without consequence.
The presence of the real animal onstage – dead or alive - serves two purposes: On one hand they are a metaphor for humans, and on the other hand they re-present the power relationship of humans with animals.
The Spanish group Igualdad Animal (Animal Equality) smartly reverses the formula and uses humans as a metaphor for animals instead. In one public event, members wrapped themselves naked in Styrofoam trays to replicate and the look and posture of many of the food animals we see every day in the supermarket. The substitution of the animal by a human brings attention to the similarities of ‘meat’ except that instead of seeing an animal, the human viewer see him or herself bagged, and sold. Igualdad Animal’s work is of course much less celebrated and critically, it is considered activism, not art.
When Rodrigo Garcia was questioned about the cruelty of his work and the unnecessary suffering and killing of animals in it, he emphasized his ‘artistic freedom.’ Artists who torture animals don’t want their supposed creative freedom to be restrained. But, as we know, as romantic as artistic freedom sounds, it’s really not full freedom anyway. If their artistic impulses would demand the killing of humans onstage they will certainly not be able to invoke artistic freedom as the reason, and would self-censhor themselves or at least require consent from the human victims for such performances. Why is that - because they respect humans more than animals? Perhaps. But also because animals are framed as objects and can be purchased and used as theater props in whatever way they want. They can be tortured or killed for the pleasure or shock of the audience attending their show.
Garcia claims that the death of the lobster is irrelevant in the theater because many lobsters die everyday in restaurants. But if it is so irrelevant, why kill it onstage? Something about it must be relevant because Garcia is counting on our feelings of repulsion and compassion when we are witnessing the animals’ slow and painful death.
The killing and torturing of animals onstage provides a dose of danger and an element of ritual to the performance. The performance becomes more vibrant: the act is happening right there in front of our eyes. Garcia can buy as many lobsters as he want for as many performances as he want. Hirst can cut up as many cows as he wants to create his artistic “installations” for contemplating death and mortality.
Why do these artists torture and kill animals? Because they can. If animals could defend themselves, those performances wouldn’t exist. But many human beings wouldn’t be able to defend themselves against abuse, like children, for example, or disabled persons, and so there are laws designed to protect them. If the same laws would be implemented for animals, those performances of torture would be illegal, and theater artists like Rodrigo Garcia and the others will have to re-define the limits of their artistic freedom. Even though animals are legally considered ‘property’ and as such can be purchased and made victims of pain and abuse, the ethical issues that arise with those spectacles of suffering should be urgently discussed. Plays like The Goat and The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and the performance interventions of Igualidad Animal are important avenues for opening the debate on the complicated relationship of humans with animals, and what animal suffering means in performance, as well as in everyday life.


Albee, Edward. The Goat or Who is Sylvia? New York: Dramatists Play Service Inc. 2003.

Chauduri, Una. (De)Facing the Animals Zooësis and Performance. TDR: The Drama Review, Volume 51, Number 1 (T 193), Spring 2007, pp. 8-20 (Article)g

Descartes, Rene. Discourse on the Method. New York: Cosimo Classics, 2008.


International Vegetarian Union

Jones, Jonathan. ON ART: Why Darwin and Hirst are more believable than God

McDonagh, Martin. The Lieutenant of Inishmore. New York: Dramatists Play Service Inc. 2003.

Ovid. Metamorphosis. Trans. Charles Martin. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004

Shaw, Helen. Theater of cruelty: Animals on stage? 
Posted in Upstaged The World of Theater Edited by David Coteon April 3rd, 2009 at 10:35 am.

The Ethics of Diet - A Catena
by Howard Williams M.A. (1837-1931)
First published in book format in 1883: London: F. Pitman, 20, Paternoster Row : John Heywood, 11, Paternoster Buildings. Manchester: John Heywood, Deansgate and Ridgefield.

Williams, Howard M.A. (1837-1931) The Ethics of Diet, A Biographical History of the Literature of Human Dietetics, From the Earliest Period to the Present Day . Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

The part that I don't like about being a butch is opening the jars. And people asking me to carry their 100 gallons bottles of water into their apartments
When I came out as a lesbian people were asking me - so how do you do it? When I came out as a vegetarian they asked me - so what do you eat?

Monday, August 16, 2010

From Manhood to Humankind to...

Manhood excludes women. Humankind excludes animals. We need a word that includes all living beings

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

My dog wants to find his biological father

We went to see The Kids Are All Right

Monday, June 14, 2010

Wednesday, June 09, 2010


Today I went into a regular supermarket after a longtime of eating Urban Organic. I felt I was in a prophetic exhibit from the 80s showing how food was gonna look in the year 2010. I knew that if I stayed 10 more minutes that stuff was gonna start looking like food again.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Bleaching Arizona

ethnic cleansing in the heart of the US.
Do they really believe in an an impermeable border?
They might kill a lot of people but they dream will not become true

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Hirst, Damien. Mother and Child, Divided, 1993

Dead body in a container by Susana Cook

Hirst, Damien. Mother and Child, Divided, 1993

Hirscht is reputed to be the richest living artist in the world. Most of his work relies in using animals as a metaphor for humans. I see his art as very consistent with the norm, relying more in signification and exploitation than in craft.
Mother and Child, Divided, consists of a cow and a calf each sliced in half, and put in a box full of formaldehyde solution. According to critics in this piece Hirst is exploring ideas of death. His artistic genius consists in ordering the death and cutting in half of a big amount of cows that will be exhibited in different parts of the world. The cut animals that Hirst presents in his exhibits usually begin to decay before the exhibit it’s over so they have to be replaced by new ones, making his art work a series of unnecessary deaths.
If the beauty of his craft would reside in the composition of the installation, a fake cow would do the trick. But the main part of his piece is that the cow is real, that it was killed and cut in half for the exhibit. So in this case the piece is a spectacle of cruelty and human supremacy over animals more than a piece of art in the aesthetic sense of the term.
Hirst explorations on death went onto bigger animals, in 2006 he exhibited a pickled shark. The piece was titled "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living". Hirst is inviting the audience to think about death. What is not clear is what is that he wants us to think about it. There are many thoughts we could have about death. The first one that comes to mind when watching his work is: the life or death of an animal doesn’t have the same value as the life and death of a human.
What interests me about this kind of art is the huge amount of meanings and significations that emanate from the piece and the way the art world decides to select the meanings in order to attribute value to a piece that ultimately reinforces and perpetrates the status quo and the constant exploitation and slavery of animals by humans. The selection of the artists that will reach fame is not innocent or arbitrary or based on talent.
Hirst has to overpass several regulations and laws in many countries in order to stage his work. The bans on British beef in Japan for example, stopped the cows at the airport in 2006. But every time he manages to bypass laws and regulations, the cows clear customs and the exhibit ends up taking place in very important museums around the world. This kind of work not only ends up getting all the necessary permissions and passports but it also gets highly rewarded.
Hirst is not the only artist torturing or killing animals as art work. The artist Marco Evaristti, for example, at Trapholt art museum in Denmark, put goldfish in a blender, and the visitors were given the option of pressing the “on” button. As a result many of the fish were of course liquidized. In August 2007 the artist from Costa Rica Guillermo Vargas featured a dog confined in a bare art gallery floor without food, water or bedding until it starved to death and after this exhibit he was chosen to represent his country at the Bienal centroamericana Honduras 2008. And the list goes on.
Why is it that humans are not a metaphor for humans? What would happen if Demain Hirst would exhibit the body of a human mother and her child cut in half in a box full of formaldehyde solution? What if we were invited to liquidized a fetus? What would happen if we were to trap a person in a gallery without food or water until she dies? The exhibits would certainly be banned, illegal and the artists would end up in jail. That would be considered murder. But killing an animal for artistic purposes is considered rebellious. It makes the artist respectable, filled with international recognition and rich.

Work cited:
Hirst, Damien. Mother and Child, Divided, 1993
Steel, GRP composites, glass, silicone sealants, cow, calf, formaldehyde solution; dimensions variable.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Backwards and Forwards, by David Ball

Just backwards
by Susana Cook

A manual is a set of instructions on how to use a machine that already exists. This manual is for reading plays, so the idea behind it is that plays are a device with a purpose and David Ball will teach us how to unveil the mechanism that moves the machine, so we can understand it better and hopefully build similar ones. Ball very deliberately leaves out any room for interpretation, creativity, or diversity in the theater world. He focuses on the technicalities of “drama”. If he would prefix the word “traditional” every time he mentions theater, narrative or drama he would be more accurate with his statements. But the way he deliberately appropriates those words as if the whole genre was ruled by these formulas makes the whole book a new attempt to make traditional narrative the only option, the only thing we can call drama, or good drama, the only technique that works.
His statements are bold and clear from the first pages and throughout the book.
“People who talk about, write about, or do theater agree on little. But there is one thing: “Drama is conflict!” we all cry in rare unanimity” (25). Really? The way that Ball ignores and makes invisible the huge amount of theater that was and continues being created that does not follow those rules and predicaments is unbelievable.
I think there’s two ways that people maintain the hegemony of these formulas. One is ignoring the existence of any other kind of theater that doesn’t follow these rules, and another one (this one would apply to theater that is more known and cannot be ignored) is to make extreme efforts to prove that those plays, even if not evident, are secretly following the same formula. This strategy reinforces the notion that these rules are inescapable.
Aristotle defines tragedy as Action and a set of Actions, David Ball writes a new book, that explains in detail that “A play is a series of actions” (9). In the introduction he sets the rules, “the techniques in this book will help you read analytically to discern how the play works. What the play means should not be the first consideration” (3). Leaving out meanings when talking about theater is a bold decision that ignores numerous and important authors whose work is concerned with meaning, and who made a huge contribution to the world.
He doesn’t acknowledge at any point during the book the existence of postmodern, postdramatic or avant-garde theater.
Ball moves forward and backwards in the succession of actions analyzing mostly Hamlet, King Lear and Greek Tragedies. He explains to us conflict, with bold letters as if revealing a new truth: “a play’s conflict is between what someone wants and what hinders the want: the obstacle” (28)
The audience is described as some sort of collection of puppets, easy to manipulate into whatever state we want if we master the right techniques. We are doing it for them after all, to entertain them. “Dramatic tension requires that the audience desire to find out what is coming up. The greater the desire, the greater –and more active—the audience involvement” (59)

“Don’t deprive anyone of theater’s greatest pleasure: the delicious, often suspenseful thirst to know what comes next… often the core of dramatic tension resides in keeping information from the audience. Don’t negate the tension by premature revelation” (34). I guess the word “often” is enough to acknowledge the importance of Brecht’s epic theater and the Verfremdungseffekt (distancing effect).
Another very interesting note about this book is that it has no notes and no bibliography. David Ball is a professor of playwriting, acting, theater history, and literature at Carnegie-Mellon University, but his book seems to be informed just by him, his impressions and beliefs. It is lacking a lot of information, or deliberately leaving out half of the history of theater.

Book Cited:
Ball, David. Backwards and Forwards. Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The Virgin Molly, by Quincy Long

The theme of gays in the military and the arrival of the Messiah in Virgin Molly, by Susana Cook

I was getting to the end of Virgin Molly and there was no pregnancy in the story yet. How is he going to deal with the guy getting pregnant in just 9 pages? I thought. Until that point the main theme seems to be gays in the military; this is the track Long creates for his story. He carves deep into the psychology of these fanatic men creating very intense scenes with the erotic at the center of it. Scenes of role-playing, authoritarian abuse and humiliation lead us to the cathartic moment when the abusive Corporeal puts in action some kind of torture session to force the accusing homophobe Harmon to confess. The torture inflicted on him is to become a woman, to act effeminate. The drag queen theme appears (as in The Bacchae) as humiliation and punishment.
The author explores the theme of gender normative behavior and the military’s antiseptic idea of manhood. Quincy Long insinuates at the beginning that Molly Petersen is androgynous, maybe even a hermaphrodite. “My mom. She was sure in her heart I was going to be a girl… I am built kind of funny. Kind of a girl and everything.” (13-14) He says to the Captain. Molly is a gender variant person; he is not gay.
The tension begins to grow through a fantastic element introduced in the story: the letters and phone calls that start pouring in the military headquarters. Some of them are sent anonymously, some of them from very important people who are concerned about the development of Molly’s evaluation. This element creates a powerful reaction in the viewer/reader. It gives us the illusion that the forgotten and oppressed nobody will be rescued by some anonymous hero. It could also be interpreted as a call to action by showing us how external pressure can make a difference in an abusive situation.
When the letters start arriving it resembles Amnesty International’s work (sending letters to prisons where they keep captive political prisoners) Then it becomes exactly the device J.K. Rowling uses in Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone (The letters keep arriving from everywhere, warning his adoptive family that they had somebody important in their house, a kid that they were abusing and neglecting). The captain inquires to Molly about his family or special contacts he may have with powerful people. Exactly like Harry Potter, Virgin Molly has no idea who could care about him. He is innocent and abused, but he is also special.
The mysterious letters, phone calls and the pregnancy all get resolved in the last pages by the addition of a new element, a religious mystical moment: “Jones and Private enter from the head amidst a brilliant light, holding hands” (83). Molly is giving birth. We hear voices from offstage announcing the birth of the messiah, “Leading us to the promise land” (91).
Then we realize that the magical- mystical element was somehow present throughout the play in the character of The Civilian. Nobody seems to see him, except Molly, and the audience. He carries a suitcase with a homemade bedspread. I guess the Civilian character represents God and it seems as if it was added after the first part was written. It feels like a device that was probably added to give some anchor to the very religious magical ending.
I am not taking the play as a realistic effort but the problematic issue presented is very real: homophobia and abuse in the military. He carves deeply into this theme, even through satire and extreme portrayals. But after presenting a real problem he runs away from it by introducing a new magic or religious element that will solve or end the story.
I was trying to draw a message or concept transpiring from the play it would be: The only thing that could save the androgynous -gays in the military, is the arrival of the Messiah.

Book cited:
Long, Quincy. The Virgin Molly. New York: Playscripts, Inc, 2007.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

The Good and Faithful Servant by Joe Orton

The meaning of work

The play starts and we are already landing in the most exciting part of the Passover Night. Buchanan and Edith meet again after 40 years. The play takes us to the action very fast, without preludes or preparation. The big event is right there, and Buchanan receives the big news of his life from Edith immediately after they meet. Edith was his only love. He finds out that she had twins after he abandoned her pregnant. The twins died in a sanitary system of an alien country and they “produced” a boy, but nobody knows which one of them was the father. The mother of the twins killed herself when she heard that the twins died. Buchanan is a grandfather. Edith breaks all this news to Buchanan very casually in a few lines. The satirical dark humor is very engaging. Buchanan is retiring after 50 years from a firm. Orton’s portrayal of the corporate approach to his worker’s life is very funny. They own his life, they took his arm and they also want the grandchild he just found out he has. Buchanan is retiring after 50 years of working in that company and all he has left is the presents they give him in his retirement party: a bad working toaster and a bad working clock. But the action pretty much stops there. From now on we’ll just follow him to his death.
Buchanan’s life seems meaningless because he devoted 50 years to work for a firm and nobody remembers him. He has nothing left, not even a friend. Orton is not focusing exclusively on corporate work; he is making a statement about work in general.
- I don’t work, says his grandson Ray
- Not work!? (Stares, open mouthed Buchanan), What do you do then?
- I enjoy myself, responds Ray.
- That’s a terrible thing to do… claims Buchanan. (167)
Orton’s sarcastic humor leaves us with two options, enjoy yourself or be a slave of a corporate firm. The beginning is playful, audacious, dark, funny, but then he seems to be telling us a simple statement: work sucks. He leaves us without any creative option besides enjoying yourself, and he has no more humor when describing Buchanan’s life as a retired man.
Not that the play should present a recipe for a happy life, but since it is presenting a recipe for disaster it would probably be great to see a hint of something other than that lonely, unhappy life. Looking at Buchanan’s story you would think that working full time is not a good idea. But Edith, who spent her life working too, scrubbing floors in the same company, seems to be content. Maybe it’s not good for a man, but for a woman it doesn’t seem to be that bad?
On another note: Abandoning your first love pregnant seems like a very bad idea in Durrenmatt’s play The Visit, but in The Good and Faithful Servant the results are very different. Buchanan finds the woman after many years, she is not upset and she becomes his wife, taking care of him on his last days and he also gets a grandson.

Orton, Joe. The Good and Faithful Servant. The Complete Plays. New York: Grove Press, 1977.

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

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

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.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Lesbian Erotica Instalation

Moon Cup Poem

This poem was written in collaboration with my fiancee:
Moon Cup Poem
Go from the Mountains of my breasts to the valley of my navel
Into the silky forest
Take in the Fresh scent!
And turn into the hidden driveway
Drive along my dangerous curves
Watch out for children, deer and falling rocks
Turn left at the red light. No need to obey the speed limit. BUT Slow down before merging. Watch Out!
Slippery when wet!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Somebody is swallowing your sign

Some people seem to forget that trees are alive

Saturday, February 06, 2010

What have they done to us? It looks like all we want is to get married and serve in the military

Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Bacchae


Even though The Bacchae was written in 408 B.C, we can recognize in the play themes, values and prejudices that are so engrained in our Western culture to this day. Greek gods and goddesses had gender and their dynamics were similar to the contemporary ones. Dionysus is a manly god, his battle with Pentheus resembles two men fighting for power, protecting their pride and manhood against mockery. They both feel complete authority and send grandiose threats for disobedience to their God/King authority.
In this annotation I am looking at the gender normative narrative embedded in The Bacchae. The gender mandates are expressed in the assigned clothing for each gender. Men dress as men and women dress as women. The violation of this mandate carries shame and humiliation. Euripides ridicules the old men dressing as women to join the Bachcae’s rituals: “He is incongruously dressed in the bacchant’s fawn skin and he is crowned with ivy”, he says in the stage directions when referring to Teiresias. “He is an incongruous and pathetic figure” (161), he adds when referring to Cadmus.
A man dressed as a woman will be ridiculed and reduced to a joke but also will carry with him the ultimate destruction of his dignity. Pentheus will succumb, after losing his fight with Dionysus, facing what seems to be the supreme offense and humiliation a man can face, he will walk to his death dressed as a woman.
Convinced by Dionysus, Pentheus agrees to dress in a woman’s dress to see the revels in the mountains. Even though at the beginning he thinks that he “would die of
shame” (191) by doing it, he allows Dionysus to lead his cross- dressing. This ritual between the two manly figures becomes particularly relevant because Dionysus is secretly planning Pentheus destruction but Pentheus is innocently enjoying the ceremony. Dionysus puts a wig on him with long curls. (191). Next, robes to his feet and a net for his hair. Then a thyrsus for his hand and a skin of dappled fawn. (192). After showing resistance to dress in women’s clothes, Pentheus begins to enjoy his transformation becoming a real drag queen. “One of your curls has come loose from under the snood where I tucked it”, Dionysus complains. “It must have worked loose when I was dancing for joy and shaking my head” , Pentheus responds. Dionysus sees Pentheus’s transformation as his victory and enjoys humiliating him.
There’s an apparent bonding between the two men during the cross-dressing, Pentheus gives himself to Dionysus, “ I am completely in your hands” (196), he tells him.
But Dionysus sees his transformation as his victory. This way he plans the ultimate punishment for Pentheus. He will die twice, first by being ridiculed: “I want him made the laughingstock of Thebes, paraded through the streets, a woman” (193). And then “butchered by the hands of his mother.” (193).
The fall and destruction of Pentheus is marked by his transformation into a woman. That’s the death we see onstage. The death in the hands of his mother happens off stage. At the end Agave, his mother, enters carrying Pentheus head on her thyrsus.
The struggle for power between the two manly figures, King and God, ends with the triumph of the god Dionysus and the collapse of the king Pentheus, whose image is shattered to pieces.
Even though Euripides guides our feelings through the stage directions, stressing how ridicule and pathetic men look when dressing as women, the feminization of Pentheus before his horrible death makes him in a way a martyr in the story. We end with a feeling of sympathy for this man who was at the beginning arrogant and manly, and dies wearing a wig with long curls and jewelry, a woman. Laughter or pity seem to be the only two feelings we are allowed to experience in the face of this gender bending scene. Losing his manly appearance as a king seems to mark Pentheus’ defeat in the hands of Dionysus.

Book Cited:
Euripides. Euripides V. The Bacchae. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1959.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Practitioners

I find annoying when academics call artists "practitioners". I think the thought behind it is: They might be able to swim. But we are the ones who know how deep are the waters.