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6 Ways to Transgress

January 20th, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

Naomi Wallace’s article, which I began reviewing in my last post, continues with an enumeration of ways to transgress when writing. She outlines six, specifically:

  1. Ways of Seeing — she points to John Berger’s book.
  2. Interestingly, I have several copies of John Berger’s book. When I worked for AmeriCorps in 1994 one of the VISTAs with whom I worked managed to get Penguin Books to donate tens of thousands of its overstocked books to the program. We filled the shelves of the ABLE program and had many duplicates to take for ourselves. I have looked at it several times, but always assumed it was an “art” book. Guess I should go dig it out.

  3. Write against YOUR traditional ways of seeing.

    I’ll have to read it to gain the perspective necessary to fully understand what Wallace is talking about here; but I have no doubt about it’s validity. I was amazed by the immediate progress I made when I changed the MANNER in which I approached playwriting. I can’t imagine how beneficial approaching the matter from a different way of SEEING will be.

  4. Study how language is used to oppress
  5. From the various forms of literary criticism that I’ve read, I’ve certainly come to understand the validity of claims regarding how language conveys power relationships and affects self-perception. When researching my play about midwives I looked into misogyny in medicine and power relationships in the medical world; it should come as no surprise to anyone who has spent time in a hospital that language is one of the key mechanisms that medical professionals use to control interactions: from the mechanistic view of the body to the manner in which they use “medical-ese” to keep patients at arms length (nephrology–kidney; oncology–cancer, etc.). I still find the way Wallace loads this item with her communist polemic distasteful, but hey, to each her own. Regardless, language is certainly something that should be important to playwrights, and how one group uses it against another is key to many aspects of play creation.

  6. Disrupt cliches and the “cluttered mind”
  7. I always strive to do this. Cliches are THE key indicator that you are not original…unless, of course, you’re writing an entire play using cliches, which I have thought of doing.

  8. Explore other writers
  9. Probably the single most valuable aspect of the MFA program I’m in. Just the sheer exposure to other writers and other “ways of seeing.”

  10. Research thoroughly what you’re writing about
  11. I always am thorough in my research. In fact, I am afraid that my calling may be to just do research and not to write at all. In each major work that I have done–two big plays and a children’s book–I’ve spent, collectively, six years researching: gathering, reading, analyzing, following citations, working the interlibrary loan machine…

Wallace goes on, after this, to express her “highest aspiration” as a writer: which is to “re-imagine ourselves and our communities” which I think is very noble, indeed. And despite my disagreement with the language in which Wallace often couches her propositions, I do very much agree with her on this point–as well as her “6 Ways to Transgress.”

The next thing that Wallace considers is of great import to me, I’m glad to see it is for her, too. Of course, I am forced to admit that Wallace’s language in her plays and her often stunning stage images leaves my constructs to shame–but with Geither’s help and my re-constructed view of playwriting and the stage I have began to cultivate powerful stage images of my own. Regardless, the item of concern here is the question of “dryness” and “sex” that she puts.

The question of “dryness” refers to “writing devoid of passion and complexity and entertainment”–that is, the fear that if you write plays that are political they will be “dry” and uninteresting. This certainly should be a concern, but I would state that it ALWAYS should be a concern REGARDLESS of the subject matter. If characters in a play are viewed humanely and honestly and one utilizes imagination in the staging and dimensionality of the work and one exercises the “standard” toolkit of playwriting techniques: such as timing and tension, etc., then a play should NOT be “dry.” Wallace goes on to expand the dryness to encompass a subject matter that is just plain boring (again, as viewed by students). But Wallace ably fends off this question by simply pointing to the blood press that is history–that is, one throws apples into a press to get cider; history throws people into a press to get blood, consequence, and the problems of the future.

The question of “sex” is what Wallace re-phrases as a question of intimacy. And again, Wallace ably defends that both economics and politics are sexy, especially when couched in the terms of their consequence on the smallest of lives throughout all time: for instance, the prejudice of a pope makes four generations of Jews live in a ghetto. The consequences on the lives of all those people is pretty intimate. Here Wallace quotes Terry Eagleton who somewhere wrote that “our economic world is about ‘the plundering of the body of its sensuous wealth'” and again, she couches the argument in terms of capitalism, etc. But, in this case I agree–in that our lives are spent pursuing a course other than that which we would were it possible for us to live without selling 40+ of our human hours every week: our body hours, our dreaming hours, our life hours. Now that I have children I realize more acutely what the sale of my time–my life–means.

Here, Wallace begins to make some of her more powerful and beautifully worded appeals. For instance, “What could be more intimate and personal than the history of our bodies and their relationship to the world?” or:

History itself is a study in intimacy, or our lack of it, with others. What else is history and politics but the struggle of people to define who they are and what they can and cannot do?

But still, I think the statements that she makes apply to a certain type of writing, a certain type of play. What has been referred to by others, with some amount of distaste, as “social plays” or plays about “issues”: Ibsen, Miller, Wilson, etc. But when I think of the early plays of Sam Shepard, I am less inclined to agree that these elements apply. But one certainly could argue for them in his later family trilogy plays, and so on. They play out less on the national political level than at the metapolitical level of the family or the interpersonal/personal level of the self and its relation to family members. If anything, of course, Shepard’s plays approach the idea of masculinity in our culture: its manifestation, consequences, and meaning. But, as Wallace states, “we are involved in the job of drama,” each of us.

I am relieved that on page 102 Wallace writes that she is “not calling for a condescending theatre or a ‘preaching to the converted’ theatre but a welcoming, vigorous, inquisitive and brutal theatre…to challenge normative ways of seeing, to get uncomfortable, to get unsafe, to get unsure.” For really, there is nothing worse than a condescending political theatre. It becomes very like the current national campaign for president.

In the end, true to form, and true to good writing, Wallace leaves us with as many questions as possible answers. Some of the questions that I felt particularly drawn to were those that Wallace posited for playwrights–what she refers to as a “how” state of mind:

“How did it come to this? How am I diminished by my own ignorance? How have I been silenced in ways that I am not aware of?” These are good questions, and while I know Wallace points us toward a full human condition, I am still disappointed that the questions (and her pointing) are couched in the lesser language of a blatant political philosophy that I would say, diminishes the discussion.

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