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On Writing…and on Writing about Sex

June 2nd, 2008 No comments

Just now getting to the article in American Theatre highlighting the work of Wallace Shawn. The first that I’ll talk about is “Writing about Sex” which is the first article.

First, I found his commentary on writing to be not only amusing, but accurate. Shawn notes that,

“I don’t do my own writing. I personally sometimes express the point, when pressed, by saying that I see my writing as a sort of collaboration between my rational self (“me”) and the voice that comes from outside the window, the voice that comes in through the window, whose words I write down in a state of weirded-out puzzlement, thinking, “Jesus Christ, what the fuck is he saying?” The collaboration is really quite an unequal partnership, I’d have to admit. The voice contributes everything, and I contribute nothing, frankly, except some modest organizing abilities and (if I may say so) a certain skill in finding, among the voice’s many utterances, those that are most successful.” Pp24

There are many such examples of writers talking about how they write. The muses of course being the oldest, but always the notion that somehow one is channeling the voice or channeling the impulse, guiding it, stewarding it onto paper, into the laptop, whatever… The writers as a vehicle to impart the raging voice of the gods. The writer as a lightning rod. Or in the case above, the writer as the person sitting closest to the open window. But I find the notion of the “modest organizing” quite interesting at this point. The small kudos paid to the logical dweller in the great cavern who’s only pedantic offering is to sort things out. And I don’t underestimate this by any stretch of the imagination. Shawn is quite right to point to the “skill” required, for it is that. It is one that I am still honing. I can catch the torrent and ensure that it pours out onto a page. It is that skill at going back and doing the “modest organizing” and the “finding” that is most important. To pare down the utterance. To select. And yet NOT TO HARM or DISTORT the voice. My “modest” parcel always tries to tamper. Tries to adjust. And the only thing that I can think of right now is Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice who dabbles a bit too much and all of a sudden the whole damn thing is spinning out of control—brooms and water everywhere.

And like Shawn, I am tempted to just call the voice the unconscious. Especially after my stints reading Jung and Campbell. But I am interested in the fact that he ties the unconscious to society—that:

“I’m forced to conclude that, if the unconscious has thoughts, it has to have heard these thoughts, or at least their constituent fragments, from human beings of some description—from the people I’ve met, the people I’ve read about, the people I’ve happened to overhear on the street. So, it’s not just a theory that society is speaking to itself through me.”

Here, Shawn really is pointing to the idea of society being channeled through the writer, and not the collective unconscious. This notion is somewhat different for me as I think the images that I have put out are somewhat more raw than something that would be formed by society. Shawn’s work is very talky and full of ideas that must be imparted—usually with a quick, breathless flurry. My images tend to stride and swagger around the room and fart. Yet, I find his notion of channeling the rest of society very compelling. And it is to this voice that Shawn attributes his focused interest in sex.

“So,” Shawn writes “at a certain point—and with a certain sadness, because of how I knew I would be seen by other people—I decided I was going to trust the voice I was hearing. And of course, like every writer, I hope I’ll be one of the ones who will be led to do something truly worthwhile.” 25

There are two things I would comment on here: first, the notion of how others will see you. Certainly, I have found, and am slowly wrestling with, that there is this realization that if you want to have an authentic voice you must speak the truth. I am reminded of the scene in Labute’s The Shape of Things where it is stated that there is no place for morality in art. Or, as Oscar Wilde put it, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book; books are well written or badly written.” And yet, the people you know DO SEE YOU DIFFERENTLY based on what you put out into the world. Dare you be daring and shock them all? Or do you stay domesticated and dish out lukewarm, tasteless paste? The second is that the hope that this voice will take him to election. That is, a sort of disembodied method of selection. An almost spiritual notion of selection for greatness. And not the notion of greatness for greatness in and of itself, but rather of being led to see something. That the reward is where you are taken, not in any outward dressings that are applied to it.

But more to the point of the article, the “voice outside the window” for Shawn kept returning to the topic of sex. So, the article asks, “why is sex interesting to write about?”

Well, for Shawn it has as much to do with the utter animal nature or bestial nature of the activity as anything—the shocking realization that he, as a human, in engaging in an activity that “pigs, flies, wolves, lions and tigers, also engage in…” 80. And that this fact disrupts his view of himself—“violently disrupts,” in fact. Although, he expands on this rather nicely by noting that sex is nature and that, as such, sex is really nature “coming into our home or apartment and taking root inside our own minds. It comes out of the mud where the earliest creatures swam; it comes up and appears in our brains in the form of feelings and thoughts.” That is to say, it insinuates itself into our whole being on nearly every level—and this, I suppose, is appropriate as it is the single imperative that nature outlines for us—all of we living beings on this planet, large or small, self-aware or not, by whatever definition, with souls or without, again by whatever definition—namely, to generate new versions of ourselves—to keep this Passion Play rolling along, regardless of the individual or personal character and the importance we attach to it—that is, our ‘self’. As Shawn comments, sex “sweeps other feelings and other thoughts completely out of the way.” Again, affirming its primal authority. It is the prime mover, the first cause, and it will not be bested.

Then, working his evolutionary magic, Shawn draws us into the absurdity of our own existence, as he always manages to do in his writing. By mis-direction he first, he draws our attention to the “big toe” and then compares it to the penis—noting that the two are made fundamentally similar materials. And then by spinning the logic of his argument out, he notes that men “buy magazines containing pictures of breasts, but not magazines with pictures of knees or elbows.” (Of course, during the Victorian-era, I’m sure this was in-fact the choice material—as societies at different times fetish-ize different things.) And then Shawn goes on to the demagoguery surrounding the choice of where to put that penis, and how, generally, the success or failure of an enterprise aimed at sexual gratification can make or break a poor human being. And expands to suggest that the power of desire (for anything: body, meadow, horse, painting, etc.) may reflect the power of love flowing through the individual. Hopefully, that is, not the likely more mundane rapacity of the lower Chakras—the third of possession in particular.

Shawn goes on to talk about the taboos and other barriers erected around sex, the idea of sex, the likelihood of sex, as well as the other features: jealousy, possessiveness, etc. And even notes evidence from a recent sociological survey that found, when Americans were asked the question: “What is very important for a successful marriage?” That 93% said their partner’s faithfulness, while only 70% said a “happy sexual relationship” thus drawing up the high irony that 23% of the respondents feel it is more important that their spouse not be having sex at all—or rather, as Shawn puts it “more important that they and their partner should not have sex with others than that they themselves should enjoy sex.” Yet another example of how the American individual is always more focused on the activities of others than engaged in that form of self-reflection that may lead to personal improvement and general happiness for the greater good. Further, Shawn notes that sex seems to lead to anarchy and thus those who are “committed to predictability and order find themselves inevitably either standing opposite to it, or occasionally trying to pretend to themselves that it doesn’t even exist.”

And at long last, Shawn concludes his tour by discussing what we may deem to be the ultimate point of this lively narrated escapade: that “perhaps it would be a good thing if people saw themselves as a part of nature, connected to the environment in which they live. Sex can be a very humbling, equalizing force…naked people do not wear medals, and weapons are forbidden inside the pleasure garden” and he even points out that when we find out some sexual tidbit about our leaders they somehow lose a measure of their superiority or power—they are lessened in our minds by the revelation. Again, connecting the impulse to sex back to the poor creatures of the earth, reminding ourselves that we are in fact one of them.

I am reminded of a movie that was on HBO frequently when I was a teen: Maxwell Smart and the Nude Bomb. It has been a while since I thought of this movie. The premise can be inferred from the title. The moment that I remember most, however, is a conference which must have been a mock representation of the United Nations. Maxwell Smart, or someone, makes the observation that a nude bomb would be great—it would end war—you can’t kill someone on a battlefield if you can’t tell him apart. You’d be unable to make the distinction. At which point an African states boldly, “We would.”

Some differences then are impossible to be got rid of. But the overall message of Shawn in this article is valid and enjoyably delivered.

Spawn of the Petrolsexuals: an Underground Comic by Christopher Johnston

August 13th, 2007 No comments

I went and saw Spawn of the Petrolsexuals: an underground comic again last night at Convergence Continuum‘s Liminis theatre. Seeing it a second time gave me the opportunity to step back and more thoughtfully consider the work given that the first time I watched it I was overcome by the often dense diatribes, the explosive multimedia components, and the shocking difference between its overall theatricality and style from that of most any other production I’ve ever seen.

To be a true reductionist about it, the play is about a group of homeless people who assume the identities of superheroes: Anger Boy, Holy Man, Free Girl, and another woman whose identity escapes me. Each character is defined by our modern environment: Anger Boy, subjected to a society dominated by machismo images and rampant sexuality, aggressiveness, etc.; Holy Man, defined by a life with people who were overly reliant on religious zeal (Christian) and the re-direction of sexuality into religious experience; Free Girl, who will not be bound physically or intellectually or socially; and the unnamed woman, who is defined by her once over-inculcation of domesticity in modern America and a continuous exposure to microwave ovens, etc. All speak the slogan, ‘Entropy reigns’ throughout. A constant reminder of the chaos and danger inherent in closed systems (intellectually) such as the United States seems to be (of which this play is a great criticism).

The play itself operates in a frame: that is, it begins and ends at the same place, so presumably the present action at the beginning and end contain all that is in-between (happening in the past); but the timeframe of this past is difficult to determine–a day, a week, etc. The play begins with Anger Boy and Holy Man naked, excepting a loin cloth, and brandishing crude weapons. They grunt and howl. The only distinctly elevated aspect of their behavior is Holy Man’s intercession on both their behalves for ‘grace.’ That is, howls Anger Boy, ‘all we ever wanted.’ The two then begin a hunt of sorts and the quarry soon appears, a man dressed in Middle Eastern garb; whom the other two catch, and beat, presumably to death. The parallel between the rage of America, the Christian influence on this rage, and the subjection of the Middle East is apparent. This first scene of action is then blacked out giving way to the first of several fascinating and well-developed multimedia pieces. The piece begins with a light-hearted example of 50’s/60’s propaganda (new convertible driving down the road with the whole family inside smiling and waving, a tractor and idyllic farm with a farmer waving, etc.) to a dominate and menacing industrial landscape (very like that in Cleveland at the turn of the last century): dominated by filthy smoke stacks gushing black soot and a hard dissonant metal guitar riff as an aerial shot zooms toward the precipice of our modern industrial chaos. During the whole, a homeless man passes under the screen (live in the theatre) and gathers up clothing that (we will find out later) belongs to the dead Free Girl. As the homeless man passes outs stage left, the lights come up and give way to the four super heroes. All stand down front on stage and lip-sync words that blare out through house speakers above as their virtual, heroic counterparts appear in Marvel Comic-style on-screen. ‘I am Anger Boy. The source of my superpowers comes from years of unrequited lust’ etc.

A big chunk of hard-to-digest exposition follows, once the superheroes are done talking, but it is immanently necessary to contextualize the audience. I’ll have to think hard about other ways of introducing this material, as I’m sure the playwright, Chris Johnston did. We’re given background that the group is trying to get to the distant Underdevelopments and out of the Center City, where they’re stuck. The main difficulty in getting out is a lack of fuel—and much comedy is drawn discussing possible sources: including shit and gas by-products of human consumption.

Various elements of the theatre space itself are employed to add a sense of involvement for the audience. Things fall from the sky (ceiling) the total space is used (pipes and bars that are behind the audience are held onto, swung upon), actors enter the seats, threaten the audience, solicit water from the audience, a garage door at the front of the theatre opens onto the street and is used as an entrance and exit as real traffic passes by, a trap door at the back of the stage is used for a very intense and highly interesting sequence when Anger Boy descends into the underground to visit Dark Angel–a sort of negative version of the hero visiting the wise person. It is a descent that the audience sees through the trap door, but as the door opens a camera shoots up from below and this image is on the main screen. It is as though one is seeing live theatre and participating in the creation of a 70s b-movie all at once and the effect is quite intense. Clearly, after Anger Boy descends, portions of the video were pre-recorded, for the screen is split and shows two angles–one from behind Dark Angel (of Anger Boy’s face) and one from behind Anger Boy (showing Dark Angel’s face). Down below, Anger Boy seeks the best method of gaining Free Girl’s unconditional love (he wants to possess her). Anger Boy is torn, Free Girl rejects his violence; but to Anger Boy, it is his super strength–what motivates him and the manner in which he protects Free Girl and how he leads the band of superheroes.

Other plot elements and characters are soon after introduced. A group of ruffians (whose names I forget but refer to we ‘normal’ citizens of the cities of America–we who have jobs, live in homes, etc.) comes in an attacks the superheroes, who aren’t so super after all. Anger Boy is beaten and made “bitch raped” (he performs humiliating acts of abasement while the three ruffians stand and laugh at him). And the Middle Eastern character who tells a highly poetic story of how green onions saved his life, cleaning rugs from his grandmother, and the terror of living in a world torn apart by violence: bombings, shootings, occupations, etc; and the arrogance of western powers (“we had electric lights thousands of years ago; we were the most glorious civilization in the world”) etc. I will call him the Arab for brevity’s sake and it sounds more superhero-ish anyway; the Arab is wooing Free Girl, too. Setting up a tension between the two strong male leads in the play. The act ends with this tension in full tilt between Anger Boy and the Arab, and the potential for the group of superheroes to make the journey out of the Center City and into the new land of the Underdevelopments.

The Second Act, of course, dissolves any silver lining that may have existed for the group. Messengers tell that the path out of the Center City has been cut; the heroes failed to find any viable fuel; and slowly the coherence and loyalty of the superhero band disintegrates.

Perhaps the best use of theatricality in the whole play occurs during the second act when the homeless man from earlier and Anger Boy bring in a broken tv set and put on a talk-show for the gathering of superheroes. The whole of the talk show format/discussion occurs on the main screen (filmed earlier) while the homeless man and Anger Boy mime what is happening on the screen through the broken tv set on stage–it is just the frame of the set with the glass/tube broken out. The homeless man pretends to be God and Anger Boy pretends to interview him. The conversation is irreverent and hilarious. God’s common phrase throughout the interview is “Oh, me.” (i.e ‘Oh, God’). I won’t attempt to cover the rambling philosophical and practical aspects of being God that God bemoans during this segment, but it is truly, beautifully comic. The plot thrust of this event is God convincing Free Girl to join (marry) Anger Boy. After it’s over, God is given a bottle of liquor for his trouble and the homeless man wanders off drinking.

To be continued…

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