APRIL 24, 2020
WITHIN THE WORLD of performance, “printed matter” is often encountered as an archival trace. Seeking insight into how a previously produced work sounded, looked, and felt, scholars and curators often turn to durable, two-dimensional documents — scrawled stage manager notes, scribbled sound cues, photographic contact sheets. If we are lucky, we find these materials preserved in institutional archives. If we are less lucky, we might learn that these materials have been decaying for decades somewhere in a Manhattan storage locker, too fragile to yield to the fingers of researchers. To “trace” is to investigate, to search for something hidden in the past. To “trace” is also to reproduce something, perhaps hastily, in a medium that might be different from the original. A common refrain is heard when one asks the artists and audiences who witnessed a performance whether these mediated materials can even convey what the production was really like: “You had to be there.”
Print can also take the form of the dramatic playscript. As a genre of printed matter, the playscript projects forward, not backward — it prescribes rather than describes. Spilling forth from the playwright’s pen or keyboard, the playscript is, to borrow from Aristotle, an unmoved mover. Static yet authoritative, it is the urtext that propels a future theater production into being through basic linear progression, “from page to stage.” Conventionally understood, the playwright’s word is both first and final — the duty of the director, designers, and actors is to simply use their creative talents to execute the playwright’s original vision.
Performance’s relationship to print is, in other words, typically Janus-faced. The playscript generates a performance, and the archive preserves its paper traces, but ultimately, neither is considered the thing itself. And yet, from the earliest days of the historical avant-garde, artists have sought to move beyond this bind, to imagine new ways of using print and text within performance. Two new monographs, Jennifer Buckley’s Beyond Text: Theater and Performance in Print After 1900 and Heidi R. Bean’s Acts of Poetry: American Poets’ Theater and the Politics of Performance, bring these artistic experiments to the fore. The poets in Bean’s study write plays that are polysemous and polyvocal: they treat the text not as authority, but as a shared material that can be used to actively incite audience engagement. The theater directors and performance artists in Buckley’s study, meanwhile, produce multimedia artist’s books using pre- and post-Gutenberg techniques. By engaging the reader in a variety of sensory ways, these books are designed to create new performances at the same time that they reproduce printed material from earlier ones.
Bean and Buckley both launch significant interventions into the field of Performance Studies by unsettling the binary between anti-textual “performance” and conventional, written drama. Collectively devised by a group of artists for the purpose of generating an authentic encounter between actor and spectator, “performance” is, within this model, exalted for its vitality, its physicality, its liveness. Drama, meanwhile, is taken to be the domain of the “well-made play.” Cohering tightly to a set of narrative conventions, its stories are not just scripted, but expected — and formulated to be preserved in a codex, where its dialogue and stage directions can be easily read from recto to verso.
We largely owe the persistence of this binary to the popularity of the ideas of Antonin Artaud. The conventions of drama, Artaud thought, made theater feel less real, made it incapable of capturing the metaphysical struggles at the core of human existence. Instead, he championed the athleticism of the actor and the ritual of Balinese dance-theater, famously declaring that there should be “no more masterpieces!” Scholars writing about contemporary performance often echo Artaud’s insurgent language. In his field-defining book Postdramatic Theatre, for example, Hans-Thies Lehmann framed the relationship between theatrical discourse and literary discourse as one requiring the “emancipation” of the former from the latter.
At the same time, many of the artists who heeded Artaud’s rattling rebuke of conventional drama have engaged with literary and print cultures in capacious, if not entirely straightforward, ways. The influence of Judith Malina’s friendship with the poet Allen Ginsberg is felt everywhere in the Living Theatre’s seminal Paradise Now, and Ginsberg’s famous description of his generation in Howl, “starving hysterical naked,” could easily be a gloss of the play. Iranian-American director Reza Abdoh, never one to respect copyright, freely pilfered passages for his playscripts from the library books he stockpiled in his West Hollywood bungalow. Plugged into alternative queer and punk publications like Diseased Pariah News and RE/Search, he also developed a zine for his play Bogeyman with the members of his theater company dar a luz. Even Robert Wilson, trained as an architect and known for creating stunning, often wordless works of visual theater, is surprisingly soldered to the worlds of text and print. In the documentary Absolute Wilson, Wilson blithely recalled his father chiding him for “not reading books.” But he is also clearly fascinated by the medium of poetry, recruiting Christopher Knowles to write Gertrude Stein–like librettos for his operas and adapting Shakespeare’s sonnets for the stage with singer Rufus Wainwright. And the images of Albert Einstein that form the raw material of Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach originally circulated — where else? — in magazines and broadsheets.
Though these examples are mine, they help fortify the thesis at the heart of Buckley’s and Bean’s books: that within the realm of performance, print and text need not be associated with conservatism or stasis. Malina, Abdoh, and Wilson were drawn to print not for its ability to preserve, but for its ability to move. Ginsberg’s poems pulse with life, anxious as their diagnoses of postwar social conditions may be. Knowles’s librettos are neither tethered to narrative nor meant to voice the perspective of a single speaker, but instead seek to draw our attentions to sound, to breath, to the shapeliness of words themselves. This, then, is what Buckley and Bean argue is missing from many scholarly appraisals of the relationship between print, text, and 20th-century performance — an acknowledgment that even within literature and bookmaking, diverse experiments to make the mediums more interactive, to bring them closer to “life itself,” were already underway. Then, as now, the mediums were not monoliths.
For Buckley, the scholarly preoccupation with the relationship between text and performance has foreclosed a greater appreciation for the ways in which avant-garde theater and performance artists have experimented with print. None of the artists in Buckley’s study manifest much of an interest in conventional dramatic literature, but they are interested in the book as art and cultural artifact. Buckley’s study begins circa 1900, with the fin-de-siècle period that design historians have called the “golden age of illustration.” Against the backdrop of Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, and, later, the print cultures of the European avant-garde’s various “–isms,” theater directors Edward Gordon Craig and Lothar Schreyer employed pre-industrial bookmaking techniques such as xylography to produce elaborate manuscripts that visually captured their theories for a new, modernist theater.
Bean’s book also begins with a landmark figure of the early European avant-garde: Gertrude Stein. As a poet, Stein composed plays using language rather than images, but in her desire to arrest narrative time — to create “landscape” plays that don’t follow simple progression, but that both “move” and “stay” as they explore a given subject from all angles — Stein developed an approach to theater that had more in common with portraiture than conventional drama. In her chapter on Stein, Bean closely analyzes the libretto that Stein wrote for Four Saints in Three Acts (1927–’28). But she also studies the printed matter that accompanied it, particularly the souvenir program that reproduced Stein’s verbal portrait of Virgil Thomson (the opera’s composer) and Kristian Tonny’s and Christian Bérard’s visual portraits of the two writers. These multiplied, multi-medial renderings are, according to Bean, designed to encourage “participatory engagement” by asking the audience to mindfully consider the “materiality of representational conventions,” to contemplate how, and why, a given subject can be rendered via pencil, paint, or words.
The audience, not the bard — this is the principal concern of Bean’s study. Inspired by Beckett, Jarry, García Lorca, Cocteau, Brecht, and Japanese Noh theater, the postwar poets at the center of Bean’s book distinguish themselves from the verse dramatists of Modernism — W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound — by interrogating the ideal of the solitary genius artist and the notion that the poet can be an “objective interpreter of the world’s truths.” In lieu of dramas that stage “universal conflicts steeped in poetic language and symbolism,” they create meta-theatrical plays that invite the audience into active participation. “Poetry,” here, is the language of the New York School, of Black Mountain, of the San Francisco Renaissance. The poets in Bean’s study evince varying degrees of commitment to the belief that poetry can “transcend the world’s harshness.” Some are idealists; some are skeptics. But they are all committed to multivocality — to the idea that poetic language, when used in the context of a play that deliberately emphasizes the constructed-ness of the work, can “foster an active collaboration between artist, art, and audience” by inviting us to ponder the shaky boundaries between art and life.
In Richard Eberhart’s The Apparition, couples gather for an evening of amateur theater in a private living room. In John Ashbery’s The Heroes, Greek thinkers congregate at a seaside house for a weekend of homoerotic revelry. Everywhere in Bean’s study, the poets show an interest in how people behave in groups. Even Frank O’Hara’s Try! Try!, later presented on the inaugural bill of the Poets’ Theatre in Cambridge in 1950, was borne from feelings of homesickness — the famously affable poet wrote it while in graduate school in Michigan, missing his Harvard friends. Bean’s analysis is often granular (in Chapter Five, she conducts a sustained close reading of a few key lines from Amiri Baraka’s Home on the Range). But, extending outward, she is also attentive to the various ways that these poets and their plays circulated, forming both real and imagined communities.
Buckley shares Bean’s investment in exploring the ability of print and poetry to create living, breathing social networks. Artaud may have rejected literature and text in their more fossilized formations, but he also relied on print to circulate his theories. As Buckley notes, Artaud’s famous treatise, The Theater and Its Double, was only made available in English after the composer David Tudor, who had been working in France, picked up a copy and, transfixed by its ideas, handed it over to his lover M. C. Richards, who then completed the text’s landmark translation for Grove Press in 1958. Richards shared copies of the manuscript with her friends Julian Beck and Judith Malina, directors of the Living Theatre, who invited her to lecture on Artaud at the company’s storefront space. On that stage, Carolee Schneemann (the subject of Buckley’s fourth chapter) also performed. So, too, did O’Hara and Ashbery, who portrayed clownish “bow wows” in the Living Theatre’s 1952 production of Pablo Picasso’s Desire Trapped by the Tail. And Picasso and Stein, well …
Like a Möbius strip, the entangled webs of the avant-garde spin, and span, into infinity. But in what remains of this review, I want to extend Buckley’s and Bean’s commitment to the “network” by gesturing to a few ways in which the two scholars’ case studies can speak to, and augment, one another.
The artists of the Living Theatre, at the center of both Buckley’s and Bean’s books, are known not for their engagement with literature or print, but for their “body-centered dramaturgy.” Paradise Now, which opened at the Festival d’Avignon in 1968 and toured throughout Europe, is often taken to be a shorthand for ’60s avant-garde performance. A “collective creation” that relied heavily on audience participation, Paradise Now consisted of a series of rituals, visions, and actions in which its participants moved up a spiritual ladder, rung-by-rung, toward paradise. The play, Malina and Beck maintained, was not written down until after it was developed, rehearsed, and premiered. As such, it is taken by critics to mark a radical break from the Living Theatre’s earlier work, focused, as it was, on staging plays by Stein, Ashbery, Picasso, and William Carlos Williams. Malina and Beck had discovered Artaud, so the logic goes, and promptly rejected the poets. And yet, as Bean argues, even the Living Theatre’s earliest experiments in poets’ theater demonstrated an investment in involving the audience in the action of the play.
Perhaps surprisingly, they also embraced mass media forms: as Buckley notes, Malina and Beck employed a cadre of photographers and videographers to document Paradise Now’s European tour, and they subsequently produced films and trade publications filled with photographs, charts, and other ephemera related to the play. The books that Malina and Beck created, however, were not meant to stand as a record of Paradise Now as it had already happened, but as a “collection of texts and images” that readers could use to create their own performances in pursuit of what the Living Theatre’s directors called “the Beautiful Nonviolent Anarchist Revolution.” Because of their anarchist politics, Malina and Beck often ran into conflict with their editors at Hill & Wang and Random House, regarding any attempt to standardize their syntax, grammar, and punctuation as an “aggressive act of censorship.” But they still prized print for its reproducibility, for its potential to reach “far-flung sympathizers” who never got a chance to experience Paradise Now firsthand.
While Malina and Beck valued print for its populist spread, Schneemann and Suzan-Lori Parks, in two of their best-known works, incorporated print into live performance for the purpose of excavating lives at the margin of popular history. Schneemann’s Interior Scroll (1975) is famous for the moment in which the artist puts down the book from which she has been reading and pulls a serpentine scroll from her vagina. But Buckley is more interested in the book that Schneemann sets aside: a zine-like pamphlet composed of hole-punched copy paper, titled Cezanne, She Was a Great Painter. As a child, Schneemann mistook painter Paul Cézanne for a woman, believing his name pronounced “Says-Annie,” and imprinted on the book’s cover is a drawing in which Schneemann reaches through a mirror in an attempt to touch the false female painter. Collaged from correspondence, notes, diaries, scripts, sketches, and photographs, Cezanne was Schneemann’s attempt to uncover the “buried women” of art history, to rebuild the roots that the canon had cut off. Cezanne is the result of years of library research. But it also evinces Schneemann’s commitment to unsettling the mind/body divide that so often marks the way we engage with printed material. Hence why, in the Interior Scroll performance, the artist not only read from the manuscript, but interacted with it in a multitude of corporeal ways.
Suzan-Lori Parks’s The America Play (1993) dramatizes the life of a Black man, called the “Lesser Known,” who makes a living impersonating Abraham Lincoln at a replica of a theme park called “The Great Hole of History.” When playing Lincoln, whom he calls the “Great Man,” the Lesser Known wears a fake blonde beard, a cosmetic misquotation that rhymes with Schneemann’s mispronunciation of “Cezanne.” Missing the mark of the patriarch, the Lesser Known and “Says-Annie” underscore the structural inequalities that have barred African Americans and women entry into different arenas of history. With great garrulity, the Lesser Known spends the first half of Parks’s play declaiming the facts of American history, knitting together anecdotes borne from multiple genres of knowledge-making — testimony, conjecture, hearsay, trivial observation. But excess is a mere cover for erasure. As Bean argues, the diverse illustrations and footnotes printed in the program for The America Play parody the “conventions of historical documentation” as much as they model them, drawing our attentions to the gaps that often exist within historical records. Parks’s play and its accompanying program are designed, in Bean’s view, to “arouse the dramaturg in each of us.” They ask us to question how, and why, history is created — imploring us, as Schneemann asked of her own readers, “to go to the library” in search of silenced voices.
Buckley’s book ends with a study of Guillermo Gómez-Peña, a Chicanx-American performance artist interested not only in roots, but also in borders — in literal, and symbolic, crossings. Collaborating with the members of his performance collective La Pocha Nostra, Gómez-Peña creates elaborate bookworks that, rather than following the linear, recto-verso model of the Western codex, function more like the folding amate books that proliferated in Mesoamerica prior to Spanish colonization. Housed in boxes and adorned with fake-fur panels and Bronze Age–style mirrors, these books become “border kits,” compelling readers to interrogate their own identities, at the same time that they document the various linguistic, artistic, and national borders that the artists who created them have crossed. As dressing-up boxes filled with a variety of interactive materials, they ask their readers to view the Mexican immigrant not as an “Other,” but as an identity that they can, for themselves, temporarily inhabit through engagement with the books’ bits-and-pieces.
For Gómez-Peña, identities are transitory: we are all potential immigrants, just as we are all responsible for the histories in which we are imbricated. Carla Harryman, the focus of Bean’s fifth chapter, demonstrates a similar ethics in her post-9/11 performance, The Ear of the Poet in the Mouth of the Performer (2003). In the piece, Harryman remembers wearing a pin emblazoned with the term “Iraqi” during a street performance that she had participated in during the first Gulf War. Some passersby took her pin to be a confession; others expressed confusion. Harryman’s opposition to the war was self-evident. But, unlike the safety pin that many upper-class white Americans affixed to their lapels after Donald Trump’s election in 2016, the “Iraqi” pin was not intended to be a facile declaration of solidarity. Rather, it was designed, in Harryman’s own words, to generate a “dialogic meditation” in which conventional social and political narratives could be drawn into question.
That pin, too, was a piece of printed matter, fabricated with paper, ink, and metal. The meaning of the word on it, “Iraqi,” was not fixed; rather, the pin compelled both performer and passerby to question what the word “Iraqi” meant and to contemplate what their own relationship, and responsibility, was to it. As if in a Stein play, the pin asked spectators to consider the meaning of a single word from all sides. For the artists in both Bean’s and Buckley’s studies, this is how print and poetry should function in performance: not as stasis, but as process. The plays and books these artists create probe the way meaning is created. Often fabricated by hand, they also pass from hand to hand. Circulating in unexpected ways, they create networks and communities — and remind us of the responsibilities we owe to others.