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Keyword: ‘Mud’


September 10th, 2009 No comments

I’ve been reading a book entitled New Playwriting Strategies: A Language-Based Approach to Playwriting by Paul C Castagno and liked it right off due to his focus on Bakhtin and the nature of polyvocal and multivocal texts.  Not that I am inherently just fascinated by these ideas in and of themselves, but for what they bring to an experience in the theater: characters who are complex, multidimensional, constantly shifting, identity is in flux.  As this book takes a language-based approach, so does it contain works by playwrights who really throw the rest of play creation in to flux as well.  For instance, I’m ready Native Speech by Eric Overmyer right now and am just blown away by not only the language variations in each character, but the collage of theatrical elements: the way a woman’s voice on the loud speaker announces a scene shift with subtlety and that scene shift happens without any dramatic re-set to the stage set, just simple movement through stage space–including the end of Act I, which is a Tableaux Vivant.

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari

This leads me to one of the things that fascinated me about Mud: each scene ends with a tableau, what Fornes describes as a “stage picture.”  Having only read, and not seen, the play, I can only imagine the effect of this, but it must be startling.  The end of a scene with a stage picture: 1) emphasizes spatial constructions; and 2) provides a contemplative moment; 3) shakes up the flow of the theater piece.

By emphasizing spatial constructions I mean that as an audience member I would be interested in the physical, spatial relationships between the characters on the stage–the blocking–where they are physically in relation to each other, to the room, etc.  Spatial constructions are part of what the theater is all about. Theater, by its nature, is a spatial art form; in fact, I just picked up a book that is all about the use of space in theater.  Distance is just as important as proximity.  A character’s proximity to another character, and that character’s reaction to that proximity, can speak volumes that dialogue cannot.  Humans are visual creatures and most of communication takes place through visual sign stimuli, not through language.  Recognizing this is part of making living theater, not just stale recitations or monologues.  Spatial constructions can also lead to layered meaning, or even contradictory meaning for instance, when a character tells another she is happy, while aggressively ironing clothes and slamming the iron down on the board.  In another Fornes play, which I detested, Sarita, the set itself is very like that in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, whose exaggerated, surreal set reflects the interior psychology of the main character.  The set description reads:

Livingroom in New York’s South Bronx…the proportions are not realistic. The ceiling is inordinately high. There are no windows except for a small one, ten feet high on each side wall…

Such as set casts a dominating influence over the action that takes place within.  Mud is similar, set in a “wooden room…on an earth promontory.” The room is so small and oppressive, the poverty in which the characters live, that the three characters barely have room to move around each other.

The freezes allow for contemplation.  This is something that generally only happens with breaks between Acts, if you believe people are actually contemplating and not just rushing out to smoke or drink or whatever.  The freezes in Mud last 8 seconds, allowing for consideration of not only the characters frozen on stage, but also the relationships between them and a review of what events occurred in the previous sequence.

The freezes shake the flow of the piece, not allowing for the rhythm or rush to get too far ahead of the audience; but it’s not as intrusive as a blackout, to which some people are opposed.

I’m currently working on a piece and I may experiment with tableaux in it; although I am interested in how Overmyer handles the transitions in Native Speech, too.

Mud feels like a mix between an Absurdist piece and an Expressionist piece.  Fornes originally studied painting and I think it is easy to see the influence that has had on how she envisions sets and space in her plays.  Read, for instance, the set notes on Mud:

The set is a wooden room which sits on an earth promontory.  The promontory is five feet high and covers the same periphery as the room. The wood has the color and texture of bone that has dried in the sun.  It is ashen and cold.  The earth in the promontory is red and soft and so is the earth around it.  There is no greenery.  Behind the promontory there is a vast blue sky…

And on she goes.  The visual contrast of the colors in this set is strong.  I have always been personally fascinated by the contrast of red and yellow; but the strong bone color is set off by the red of the earth and the blue of the sky–a contrast in elements as strong as the contrast between Mae’s desires and the mud in which she is stuck.

The physical set is not the only Absurdist/Expressionist element.  The language of the play is the equal to the physical set.

MAE: You don’t know numbers.

LLOYD: Yes I do. (He stands.) I’m Lloyd.  I have two pigs. My mother died. I was seven. My father left. He is dead. (He gets three coins from his pocket.) This is money. It’s mine. It’s three nickels. I’m Lloyd.  That’s arithmetic.

MAE: That is not arithmetic.

And much of the play is like that.  Simple sentences constructed of a noun, verb, and direct object.

 MAE: I’m pressing, jerk! What are you doing! I’m pressing.  What are you doing! (He looks away.) I’m pressing what are you doing! You’re a jerk. (She continues ironing.) I work.  See, I work. I’m working. I learned to work. I wake up and I work. Open my eyes and I work. I work. What do you do! Yeah, what do you do!–Work!

LLOYD: So what. (He sits in a corner on the floor.)

The use of language in this manner (very simple constructions, powerful images, high levels of repetition) create language equivalents to the visual design: that is, highly impressive images that stay with you and create a strong sense of character, event, and purpose.

Mud is a tough play, one that comes out and punches you in the mouth and makes you spit blood.


September 15th, 2017 No comments

Went and saw Rhinoceros last night at convergence. For those of you unfamiliar with this play, you can read about it on Wikipedia. What is of most interest is the background experiences of Ionesco as he grew and became a man, specifically, his Jewish ethnicity, an ethnicity which the Radical Right in Romania would begin to attack in 1930s under the guise of “illegal immigration” and “fraudulent citizenship.” These themes and ideas should be familiar, as, today, it is clear that they come from a very old playbook.

Convergence puts up a timely play, to be sure. What is an ostensibly sensible, refined, and cultured town (country? USA?) supposed to do when a rhinoceros appears and begins smashing things, killing a poor kitten, and destroying everything in his path? What, further, should said town do when its own sensible and refined citizens begin turning into rhinoceroses? They all begin to fit in, play along, and do what everyone else is doing. But events take a more ominous tone as the entire town begins to change. The arguments should sound familiar:

BOTARD: I never believe journalists. They’re all liars. I don’t need them to tell me what to think; I believe what I see with my own eyes. Speaking as a former teacher, I like things to be precise, scientifically valid; I’ve got a methodical mind.

BOTARD: Please forgive me, Mr. Papillon. But you can’t deny that the colour problem is one of the great stumbling blocks of our time.
DUDARD: I know that, we all know that, but it has nothing to do with …
BOTARD: It’s not an issue to be dismissed lightly, Mr. Dudard. The course of history has shown that racial prejudice …

BERENGER: You shouldn’t reject medical advice.
JEAN: Doctors invent illnesses that don’t exist.
BERENGER: They do it in good faith-just for the pleasure of looking after people.
JEAN: They invent illnesses, they invent them, I tell you.
BERENGER: Perhaps they do-but after they invent them they cure them.
JEAN: I only have confidence in veterinary surgeons.

Throughout, Ionesco uses syllogisms from a few side characters to expose the absurd logic that comes into play when people attempt to discuss what they believe and why. The insertion of these sections creates a meta-dialog with the audience as it can begin to see the nature of the conversations regarding sensible people transforming into rhinoceroses:

LOGICIAN: [to the OLD GENTLEMAN] Here is an example of a syllogism. The cat has four paws. Isidore and Fricot both have four paws. Therefore Isidore and Fricot are cats.
OLD GENTLEMAN: [to the LOGICIAN] My dog has got four paws.
LOGICIAN: [to the OLD GENTLEMAN] Then it’s a cat.

These absurd arguments become all-too-real as Berenger begins to see his own friends and co-workers transform into Rhinos.

JEAN: I tell you it’s not as bad as all that. After all, rhinoceroses are living creatures the same as us; they’ve got as much right to life as we have !
BERENGER: As long as they don’t destroy ours in the process. You must admit the difference in mentality.
JEAN: [pacing up and down the room, and in and out of the bathroom] Are you under the impression that our way of life is superior?
BERENGER: Well at any rate, we have our own moral standards which I consider incompatible with the standards of these animals.
JEAN: Moral standards! I’m sick of moral standards ! We need to go beyond moral standards !
BERENGER: What would you put in their place?
JEAN: [still pacing] Nature!
JEAN: Nature has its own laws. Morality’s against Nature.
BERENGER: Are you suggesting we replace our moral laws by the law of the jungle?
JEAN: It would suit me, suit me fine.

One only need recall Charlottesville and the “fine young men” and their torches to see that greater numbers appear to be turning into rhinoceroses right in front of our eyes. Morality begins to unwind and transform to the Hobbesian “bellum omnium contra omnes”.

And soon, we see people begin to change what they believe, through the simple constant exposure to the ideas, accommodating things that were abhorrent:

DUDARD: What if you do? You only have to keep out of their way. And there aren’t as many as all that.
BERENGER: I see them all over the place. You’ll probably say that’s being morbid, too.
DUDARD: They don’t attack you. If you leave them alone, they just ignore you. You can’t say they’re spiteful. They’ve even got a certain natural innocence, a sort of frankness. Besides I walked right along the avenue to get to you today. I got here safe and sound, didn’t I? No trouble at all.
BERENGER: Just the sight of them upsets me. It’s a nervous thing. I don’t get angry–no, it doesn’t pay to get angry, you never know where it’ll lead to, I watch out for that. But it does something to me, here! [He points to his heart.] I get a tight feeling inside.
DUDARD: I think you’re right to a certain extent to have some reaction. But you go too far. You’ve no sense of humour, that’s your trouble, none at all. You must learn to be more detached, and try and see the funny side of things.
BERENGER: I feel responsible for everything that happens. I feel involved, I just can’t be indifferent.
DUDARD: Judge not lest ye he judged. If you start worrying about everything that happens you’d never be able to go on living.
BERENGER: If only it had happened somewhere else, in some other country, and we’d just read about it in the papers, one could discuss it quietly, examine the question from all points of view and come to an objective conclusion. We could organize debates with professors and writers and lawyers, and blue-stockings and artists and people. And the ordinary man in the street, as well-it would be very interesting and instructive. But when you’ re involved yourself, when you suddenly find yourself up against the brutal facts you can’t help feeling directly concerned-the shock is too violent for you to stay cool and detached. I’m frankly surprised, I’m very very surprised. I can’t get over it.
DUDARD: Well I’m surprised, too. Or rather I was. Now I’m starting to get used to it.

Things become more ominous, as Berenger and Daisy become the only humans left.

BERENGER: [darting to the radio] Let’s turn on the radio for the news!
DAISY: Yes, we must find out how things stand!
[The sound of trumpeting comes from the radio. BERENGER peremptorily switches it off. But in the distance other trumpetings, like echoes, can be heard.]
BERENGER: Things are getting really serious! I tell you frankly, I don’t like it!
[She is trembling.]
BERENGER: [very agitated] Keep calm! Keep calm!
DAISY: They’ve taken over the radio stations!
BERENGER: [agitated and trembling] Keep calm, keep calm!
[DAISY runs to the up-stage window, then to the down-stage window and looks out; BERENGER does the same in the opposite order, then the two come and face each other centre-stage.]
DAISY: It’s no joke any longer. They mean business!
BERENGER: There’s only them left now; nobody but them. Even the authorities have joined them.
[They cross to the windows as before, and meet again centre-stage.]
DAISY: Not a soul left anywhere.
BERENGER: We’re all alone, we’re left all alone.

Berenger attempts to save the world with Daisy, but even Daisy turns in the end, leaving Berenger all alone.

BERENGER: How can we save the world, if you don’t?
DAISY: Why bother to save it?
BERENGER: What a thing to say l Do it for me, Daisy. Let’s save the world.
DAISY: After all, perhaps it’s we who need saving. Perhaps we’re the abnormal ones.
BERENGER: You’re not yourself, Daisy, you’ve got a touch off ever.
DAISY: There aren’t any more of our kind about anywhere, are there?
BERENGER: Daisy, you’re not to talk like that!
[DAISY looks all around at the rhinoceros heads on the walls, on the landing door, and now starting to appear along the footlights.]
DAISY: Those are the real people. They look happy. They’re content to be what they are. They don’t look insane. They look very natural. They were right to do what they did.
BERENGER: [clasping his hands and looking despairingly at DAISY] We’re the ones who are doing right, Daisy, I assure you.
DAISY: That’s very presumptuous of you!
BERENGER: You know perfectly well I’m right.
DAISY: There’s no such thing as absolute right. It’s the world that’s right–not you and me.

To the end, when Berenger realizes that he alone must fight:

BERENGER: People who try to hang on to their individuality always come to a bad end! Oh well, too bad! I’ll take on the whole of them ! I’ll put up a fight against the lot of them, the whole lot of them! I’m the last man left, and I’m staying that way until the end. I’m not capitulating !

Once again, a timely play from convergence that was well-directed by Jonathan Wilhelm, with a fantastic set by Wilhelm as well—stark white set-pieces with black and white costumes, which stand in contrast to the muddled mess that humans make of belief and logic. Tom Kondilas is wonderful as the increasingly frantic Berenger, and he even rocks a ‘fro like Gene Wilder in the movie. It’s a long show, but definitely worth seeing.

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