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7 Blowjobs

February 11th, 2009 No comments

Just read the play. Haven’t seen it, so I’ll caveat it.  There’s more to a play than reading, an issue that I’ve discussed before.

A timely read for me as I have written a couple of blog entries on morality and art—or maybe I’ve written one and have just been thinking about the issue so long that I think I’ve written more about it.  This play is a very sarcastic response to the whole NEA flap of a few years back.  One is keyed into this fact almost immediately, as the dedication to the play is to Jesse Helms and Pat Robertson: two pillars standing as ass-backward heroes on the plains of our modern moral landscape. Wellman makes this point very clear toward the end of the play where Dot says:

These photos are art, Dot
says, the other Dot that is,
art funded by a public
agency and performed by
artists in his own state.

The plot is simple: seven photographs are delivered to a Republican Senator’s office in Washington, DC.  The rest of the play is the reaction to the photos by the Senator, his staff, and a televangelist. It took me two reads to get the gist of this thing, but its meaning, I think, lies in the fact that the pictures are art pieces, very like the Robert Mapplethorpe photos that kicked off a shit storm in 1990 in Cincinnati, whose artistic nature is overlooked in favor of a sexually explicit interpretation by those who position themselves to all of society as having thoughts as clean as the newly driven snow.  Plainly, these people who are supposed to be pure of thought and mind and chaste of conscience and brimming with positivistic notions for all mankind are pitched into a frothy sexual stew by some art pictures.

As the Reverend Tom states:

“…even though, in these
photos the things are not
in actual contact with the
other things, and therefore
the 7 blowjobs are seven
unconsummated blowjobs
but they suggest the worst,
worse than the actual act
would have done did…”

The ultimate point here being that art corrupts by what it leads people to think (and to crave):

Dot:         It’s
only a picture. A picture can’t
torture and rape you…a picture….

Eileen: A picture can too torture and
rape your mind, Dot, I mean
can’t you imagine that, being
bend and wiggled and so
forth…like that…

 Wellman’s work is a different way of approaching what LaBute does in The Shape of Things, where the corruptive power of art is posited by the external manipulation of the physical body of a young man by a malicious female art student.  Nevertheless, the ironical point made by both pieces argues the well-documented position by conservative politicians and religious leaders that art has a corruptive influence on the minds and souls of those who observe it; as we are clearly incapable of making informed decisions on our own behalf.  Like children, we need guidance through the confusing night landscape of our lives.

Despite some of the absurdist elements of the play, which work well, Wellman goes a bit overboard such that the absurdity takes on an all too clearly cynical message—for instance, when the reveal is made that Senator So-and-So passed on the pictures to Senator Bob (after he died) that he himself was going to use to distract his constituents from the part he played in a parking scandal—the implication, of course, being that all politicians are conviction-less thieves who only wish to defraud the public by posturing one way and behaving another.  While true for some, and perhaps more true than I’d like to think, I cannot bring myself to paint with such a broad brush all representatives in the Congress.  Hypocrisy for sure exists and should be beaten down wherever it is found: especially amongst those representative pushing homophobic agendas only to disclose, albeit accidentally, their own predilections in that direction.  As I’ve said before, when a piece of art takes on too much of a political message, I think it borders more on journalism or essay and wanders too far astray from a pure experience.  It is fair to say that the whole of Wellman’s piece can be interpreted as a cynical slap at conservatives in Congress and can be too overt for my tastes:

…Surveillance
that watches out for stuff
just like this, bad stuff,
meant to injure the mind
and screw up public morals.

But, that being what it is, it has some very entertaining moments:

Reverend Tom. You make the
people think religious thoughts
tending to the re-election of the
saved and eternal damnation
for the published poets…

And:

Look at Bruce, Dot, look at
his eyes, how empty and ill
they are, like an animal who
has seen too much of human
life ever to be an animal again.

And:

Senator: That is not a blowjob.  That is the Pope.

And several instances where the first thing seen in the photo is a small dog:

Eileen: No, Senator, that’s not the
blowjob.  That is a borzoi dog…

Or:

…this is it, this is the
fatal blowjob, the blowjob in question.

One of the inherent tensions in the piece is that between “the real thing” and a representation of what is real: hence the photographs and again the argument of what art is or means—as a representation of something or the thought of the artist.  Constantly, throughout the play, one character or another looks at pictures and interprets the content as being “the real thing.”  Added to this is the contrast between the acts portrayed in the photographs and judgments regarding what is “normal;” the senator and staff and religious representatives, again, positing themselves as the examples of what is normal.  Early in the play, Eileen, the senator’s administrative assistant comes close to seeing the “reality” of the photos, only to have it knocked away by Dot:

Eileen:
Do you think that is what
it actually looks like? Or,
how else do you explain
what it really is, if that’s
not right? I mean, well,
if what we are seeing is
photos—of stuff—say…

Dot: The real thing, I would say.

Or later:

Tom here is deacon of the Television
Church of the Tachistical Wonder
of Jesus Christ, Autodidact. Ain’t
it that, Tom? A real TV Church.

Or charges against Eileen that she isn’t a real conservative:

…Dot and me
know you’re faking it
when you write those speeches
…your heart’s not in it, Eileen.
Face it, you’re an imitation.

Further, even in moments when the possibility that the photographs are meant to spark the imagination of the viewer occurs to one of the characters, this possibility becomes lost in some equally confounding interpretation:

Bruce: …Can you not
please use your imagination?
This is a possible evidence.

So, imagination can only be conjured for a more imposing practical explanation for the photographs—that is, they aren’t just really about sex, they have to be hyperreally about a crime: evidence of something… but what?  The senator and his staff would point to evidence of a “smear” or an indiscretion or a crime or a moral failing.  But could it be that the evidence is of some other mode of existence?  Thus, late in the play we find Reverend Tom again, in full rant, saying:

“That blowjob, being a
child of Satan still in
his or her heart would
leer, and say: “Tom,
GO TO HELL! MIND YOUR
OWN BEESWAX BECAUSE
I AM HAVING A GOOD TIME
THANK YOU!” Thus the fate
of that blowjob would be
sealed, in the full horror
and knowledge of sin, and
photos of unnatural acts,
photos of unnatural acts
capable of rendering a
full-grown man, happy!

So not only is there another possibility for how one can live (and enjoy) life, but there is documented evidence of it.  What is perhaps of greater dismay to those involved is the effect it has on them: Bruce drools, Dot gets leveled, and Eileen gets wiggly.  All this because of the “real stuff” they are getting a look at.  Wellman, here, is at his best in showing how the reactions to art by some conservative personages are nothing more than a juvenile misinterpretation: the deviant projections of sexually stunted minds.  In fact, in many places the language and attitudes of the senator, staff, and reverend devolve into a sort of adolescent logic representing a dimwitted primitivism.

A constant mistrust runs though Wellman’s play as well.  He represents in these Republicans a deep mistrust of everything, a mistrust that I think points more broadly to a theme in government today period: that no one can really trust what is said or believe that something is sincere.  Dot expresses this well:

…I have seen all this
before, back in Oil City,
Pennsylvania…
I knew such things happened
because it was a fact they
were not talked about, and
you can be sure that when an
activity is not being talked
about, it is going on.  It is
definitely going on when it
is not being talked about…

Or, as both Bob Junior and BobBob Junior state:

I know you don’t believe
me, Dad.  You never believe
me, Dad.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around why the play is written in verse. Obviously, for the person in the audience this would make little difference, unless the slight pauses between each turn are perceptible even in memorization and would cause enough pause at each line to be noted.  But even then, often as not the line breaks don’t fall on any word or word after or phrase that is noteworthy.

Wellman spends a lot of time putting malapropisms into the mouths of his characters too (no Freudian metaphor intended); no character is immune.  Here’s a sample: obsquatulated; (of the photo) it’s hypoallergenic; I was being euphuistic; Dot is circumscribed; sado-momo-statistical drive; a case of sado-botomy; foul pismire that is the human heart; horripilation; and one nice rant by Reverend Tom toward the end that I won’t type out, but which includes the nice phrase, “pan-psycho-super-maniacal-dodo-gomorrahmy…”; apocalyptoplectic attack;

Further, the characters often have lot of incomplete thoughts and an inability to adequately express themselves—a failure of words, again, almost adolescent-like in a failure to grasp a mature understanding and express oneself appropriately, fully—again, stunted.

Other features:

Naivety (again, almost immature):

wiggly (for sexual excitement);

“I think you are
a liberal underneath your
clothes and underwear, all
women are”;

God intended, when he placed
it, modestly, where it is, back
inside, nestled like a little
pink wildflower.  Inside,
nestled like a little, pink
wildflower on the woodsy…thing
there.  In the soft, woodsy part.

Sexism underlies much of the interactions: men are reduced to “making claims” about their sexual escapades and women are reduced to traditional roles:

Bruce: Women get wiggly when they look
at the real thing.  We men do
not, having been hardened by
the war experience and hardship.
…you don’t know how bad
a place the world is, having
been a girl at some, I bet
Ivy League place…

“I think you are
a liberal underneath your
clothes and underwear, all
women are”;

Furthermore, Eileen and Dot become interchangeable in terms of “secretarial” tasks: fetching drinks, or other menial tasks for the men; a fact which Eileen resents, even as her resentment is ignored.

Eileen: Dot is the secretary, I am the
Administrative Assistant, why
must I get Bruce the glass of
water, it really bothers me…
really, really, really, really

Or, as Reverend Tom praises Eileen:

…you can resist the cloven
hoof on the forehead of your…
wom…wom…womanliness

There’s also some good old homophobia:

Senator:
He was another pecker-watcher.
He was a confirmed pecker-watcher.

In fact, everyone the senator has issues with or of whom he disapproves is a “fag:” the play ending with a long listing of all the men who are fags according to him.

Wellman uses the repetition of phrases throughout his play to great effect: demonstrating the sort of circular logic (or illogic) that fuels much of the shallow thinking that feeds the arguments about the “immorality of art” in our “culture wars;” and a great many other things as well.

A smattering of anti-Catholic rhetoric:

Tom: It couldn’t be the Pope.  He’s
still a Christian gentleman—
even if he is fullblown antichrist.

Wellman waxes philosophical (comically so), as Reverend Tom struggles with the fact that the human soul can be connected to this human body, and even goes into a bit of Hamlet:

…this human soul…
is attached to a human body…
by a thing, by a thing like
that…and there’s the rub,
and that rub is where the
trouble starts…because
if you rub a thing like that,
a thing like this thing here,
up jumps the devil and the
devil is a creature of rubbing,
touching, stretching and all the
damned contortions the human
body is heir to.

I read this play for two reasons: 1) convergence put it up a few years back and I want to familiarize myself with the plays in their oeuvre; and 2) I am looking to other writers for guidance in experimentation with form.  Wellman’s play goes a bit beyond what I expected—not so much in the dramatic events that occur on the stage as in the features of the writing itself: the verse form, the repetition of phrases, concepts, words; the cyclical nature of the arguments; the bright colors used to paint the character types; the interspersion of malapropisms and almost intelligible babbling; and, in general, the free word play that he allows in all the characters in this play.  For the reasons immediately above, I like it very much.

A House with No Walls

February 2nd, 2009 No comments

Went and saw “A House with No Walls,” (written by Thomas Gibbons; directed by Terrence Spivey) on Sunday at Karamu.  In the end, I must say, I enjoyed myself quite a bit. 

(Aside from the young girl in the far left corner of the house who, yes, let her cell phone ring—but alas, not only let it ring, no… that wouldn’t be enough…yes, she answered it…answered it and talked…until someone hissed and shushed her…is that the end…oh, no…did it ring again, you ask?…yes, it did…and she didn’t answer it…just let it ring.  I was tempted to stand up and ask the actors to stop and then pull a Lawrence Fishburne on the girl…I don’t know how that would have gone over.)

Regardless, I had a good time.  Clyde was in it playing three roles including that of a George Washington impersonator.  After the show there was a meet-and-greet line (which is the first time I’ve encountered that, by the way) and I quipped to Clyde that he continues to look remarkably good in wigs.

I was a bit shaky at the outset because I have grown so used to watching theater of a certain type: in your face, no fourth wall, etc., that I have been having a tough time seeing other plays.  It was the same sort of experience with Boom at CPT.  The experiences seem to move in slow motion and I am overly-conscious of the construction of the things: oh, here’s a big helping of exposition, here’s a detail that will mean something later on, and so on.  For the most part, this is the way that A House starts off.  The first “grand opening” is a bit overwhelming and the sensory overload actually confused me some.  But, I did like the activity of it.  Cadence Lane (played with an extraordinary, seething integrity by Katrice Headd) is at a podium, stage left, speaking passionately about race in America and timing, what turns out to be salvos of Oreo cookies being thrown at her; Salif Camara (played with strength and heart-felt moral outrage by Peter Lawson Jones) and Allen Rosen (Tony Zanoni as a convincing academic) use measuring tape and stakes to allot the slave quarters on Washington’s property; and Oney Judge (Taresa Willingham: timid, fresh, and with conviction) are all moving about at once.  I was enthralled by the measuring tape and stakes—maybe it’s a man thing—but lost complete track of whatever Headd was saying.

Overall, I think the message of the play was strong and I certainly felt compelled by it at times—at others I felt it was redundant and, as others have remarked, preachy.  But I felt that Gibbons did a good job of keeping the tension up by the use of the modern-American- political-drama shtick—you know, the one that plays out daily in newspapers…the one of rhetorical blaming and finger pointing and posturing for news papers and inciting mobs to do this thing or throw that thing or misbehave one way or another for the performance art of it all.  It hit every racial theme and every hot button racial issue—like reparation, interracial lovin’, mulattos and mixed blood, cultural and linguistic signifying, double-talk, righteous revenge, white guilt, etc. 

But most of all, I think Gibbons did a great job mixing it up.  I LEARNED from watching this play, and that is what strikes me the most.  This play wasn’t simply a dull exercise in ratcheting tension and getting people to yell in self-righteous fury; Gibbons used the space of the theater and the power of theater to create visual images: the most striking of which comes right at intermission, when Lane and Judge come face-to-face with one another—holding out, every so lightly, a hand toward one another—over the distance of 200+ years.  Their symbolic meaning, to the play, being that both are black women being “used” as political tools: Lane as a “token” Republican and Judge as a “token” run-away slave.  The house with no walls is a powerful symbol as well—as one would expect.  The demarcation on the ground of where the slave quarters stood, as well as Gibbons notion that the walls that once did exist were philosophically non-existent, as any white person could violate the privacy of the slaves’ “house” at any time.  I haven’t thought long and hard on the overall meaning of the play and what that image means for both of the women in the play—perhaps that their boundaries are constantly threatened, uncertain, and justify their tough exteriors.  I would move into a Bakhtinian analysis of the temporal dialog going on in this play between “the present” and “the past” but I won’t bore you with my lame attempt. 

(Although, I did write a very nice article on the subject with regard to Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, which I’ll post here just for the hell of it sometime.  On a gossipy aside, I met her when I was at Ohio University, where they have a very nice literary festival; and there are great rumors out there about a feud with Louise Erdrich.)

Regardless, Gibbon’s play draws very rich parallels between the two characters in time and has given me good structural possibilities for my play The Empiric, and ways that I can mix it up with the original idea that got me writing plays.  I like, as well, his playfulness with the characters in historical re-enactments then doubling into the characters from 200+ years earlier.  Very novel.  The use of the house with no walls as a boundary on the ground over which / through which the “past” slave characters do not step—until a dramatic moment late in the play—is equally compelling and theatrical.  The off-stage sound cues supplement the action on the stage in effective ways as well: the shouting of crowds, the droning beep of construction equipment and the loud diesel engines on a site.

I enjoyed the performance very much, found it thought provoking (when it wasn’t droning on) and visually / theatrically interesting, too.

On another note, I just thought I’d give a shout out to Terrence Spivey and Karamu for getting some well-deserved recognition in this month’s American Theatre magazine, pages 42-45. Very nice!

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