Brechtian Knots Performing a Poetics of Constructed Memory
My relationship with performance provides a complex series of braided knots as I reflect on it and try to untangle its influences in my life and creative work. While the make-believe of child’s play and the various attempts to “show” myself to adults as a child certainly root this tangle, my first recollection of a formal role goes back to Kindergarten.
In some drama acted by 5 year-olds, I had a short spoken part. The performance was scheduled during the class hours, at a time when most families where I lived had only one parent working (the father, of course). I recollect tears and devastation when my mother, a teacher herself, explained to me the morning of the performance that she would not be there. She had asked a neighbor lady, who watched me after the half-day class, to come instead. I was not happy.
The ending was Hollywood (or at least Hallmark), however—when I was on the stage, ready to read my lines, I saw my mother in a seat, not the neighbor. Apparently her principal had offered to take her class so she could come. How stereotypical is that ending?
My next memory really begins the tale I want to tell, though, one of politics and drama. In 1966–1967, I was in sixth grade, and it was the Cold War era. Our class play, chosen no-doubt by our good teacher, was pure anti-Soviet propaganda. My role? Commissar Strolovitch, of the Supreme Soviet Union. I was, of course, the bad guy. The plot unfolded a simple line of propaganda—students in the Soviet Union could not choose their own destinies, the State dictated them. And, horror of horrors, this was done on the basis of an exam.
Near the end of the play, I stomped on stage in military rigor, wearing an old Civil Air Patrol coat and leather riding boots, saluted, and declared that the hero of the play had failed the test and would go to work on a farm, or something like that. Maybe it was a farm. Someone else, who wanted to work on a farm or whatever it was (my memory is not precise on this) would go to university. After all, this is what the exam results determined. No choice for the poor individuals caught up in this Communist trap.
The students wore old Boy Scout shirts and red kerchiefs, young Communists all. Now, I see the irony of the fact that the Civil Air Patrol and the Boy Scouts were U.S. proto-military youth groups whose apparel were being used to critique the proto-militaristic U.S.S.R.
During dress rehearsal, or maybe it was even the performance in front of our parents (scheduled in the evening, both of my parents attended), the back wall of the “classroom,” painted brown paper held between some boards, fell backwards. Our teacher declared (in my reconstruction, but something like this): “How realistic. They Communists build so poorly, their buildings literally fall apart around them.” We all laughed. Those Commies.
I grew up in an almost-all white suburb of Chicago. I had not yet heard of Cabrini-Green, the most notorious (but not the only) Chicago public housing project. The Projects of Chicago, LA, New York, and other cities, were notorious for poor construction, inadequate public services and maintenance, and breeding grounds for despair and violence. I doubt that my sixth grade teacher new much about them at the time, other than perhaps that white people didn’t live or go to them, if that much.
These realities of U.S. life were across racial lines, and at this time, only two years since the signing of the Civil Rights Act, still largely ignored. The Watts Rebellion (also called the Watts Riots) of 1965 were considered a “Negro problem.” The Detroit Rebellion (also referred to as Riots) lay in the summer ahead, as did those in Newark, New York, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Tampa—159 U.S. cities, total in the “long hot summer” of 1967 (according to Wikipedia). Other uprisings by the “uppity Negros” also lay ahead, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in the spring of 1968.
At the time I also had not yet, of course, heard Noam Chomsky speak or read his writing on such things as mass media or how governments tend to point to other governments and say—hey, those guys do this and that which is really nasty to its citizens and the world, but not us, we’re different. Of course, he says it more elegantly and I’m oversimplifying from global impressions, but his point is that if a government says all of the “bad” governments use these strategies for staying in power, likely that government does it, too.
I will return to this political theme in the story, but first, a bit of Shakespeare and The Bible, followed by a ballet.
Lord of the Court
My next formal performance was actually in a theatre auditorium, albeit in my high school. I was an extra, one of the lords in Theseus’ court. I wore a tuxedo for the first time. I walked around and spoke quietly to others, but without lines—we just populated the court behind the actual characters of the story, as needed. I was white, privileged, and even in my essentially supernumerary position, I got to wear a tuxedo. After all, I lived in white (upper) middle class suburbia. Upper is parenthesized, because my family was middle class, hence we lived in the development houses, not the nicer houses in the older part of town where executives who commuted to Chicago lived. Still, I benefitted from a good education and got to wear that tux in a high school described (because of its architecture) as “the castle on the hill,” and its football team called “The Hilltoppers.”
Shortly after this time, I started playing guitar and listening to folk music, sixties music (hey, it was 1969), singer song-writers, and, influentially, protest music. Actually, I had been listening to the music for years, as all three of my older brothers played guitar (we all still play) and brought home records and copies of Sing Out! I was still beginning to play guitar.
So it should be no surprise that my early attempts to play in local “coffeehouses” geared to youth (and run in such places as church basements) proved less than successful. Someone threw peanuts at me one night. Another night, possibly unrelated to my playing, a black-leather jacketed wannabe motorcycle gang member tried to kick me in the chest, but I stepped back just in time so that he only grazed me. (I actually think it was because I was a “hippie” and he thought he should attack me for it).
I still play music, but people now occasionally ask me to do it, and no one throws peanuts. Or tries to kick me. Well, not usually, anyway.
Job suffered, in the Archibald Macleish play, J.B., as a result of a bet between Zuss (Zeus) and Nickles (Old Nick) playing God and Satan in a circus tent. History, Science, and Religion come to offer conflicting comfort to J.B. after Zuss / God destroys his life. Unlike the Biblical story, J.B. rejects both God and Satan and finds comfort in human companionship. This time, I took a role back stage, setting up lights and running the light board—dramatizing the performing actors below (the board was up above the stage). I was still in high school, but had by now moved to a middle class suburb of Minneapolis. It was a good school, too. I mostly remember wanting to date another student who was also working on lights. And a great cast party after opening night.
As a boy, I had a Bowdlerized copy of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights. Much was missing, including, at least in my recollection of it, the framing story of Scheherhezade and the reason she was telling the stories. It just had the stories, watered down. In my first year out of high school, I learned of the much spicier frame for those stories of a Sultan, his unfaithful favorite wife (did he really have a harem?), and his distrust of all future lovers to the point of killing them after their first night of marriage, so they couldn’t cheat on him.
Scheherhezade tells him a story on their wedding night, and he asks for another. She starts, but stops just when it gets interesting (the original cliff hanger?), falling asleep. He spares her—she continues to tell her stories, interrupting them by falling asleep at a crucial point. He continues to spare her, for 1,001 nights, then realizes he doesn’t want to kill her.
I had another supernumerary role—a soldier in the Nijinsky ballet for Rimsky-Korsakov (Russians, both), Scheherhezade. There was a harem orgy, with the Golden Slave and the favorite wife of the Shah. It was all a trap of course, as the Shah had told his wives he was going on a hunting trip, when in fact he was trying to prove to his advisor (brother?) that his wives were faithful. They weren’t, hence the orgy.
In something of a return to my sixth grade role of Commissar Strolovitch, I came on stage marching like a soldier in the midst of this orgy, at the climactic moment, as it were—an orgasm of military presence. The director wanted us to appear almost like wooden soldiers, so I did. I even got to be the lead soldier, killing the Golden Slave. I also continued with backstage work, this time with sets and canvas that is stretched, tacked to the floor, and coated with rosin, for the dancers.
This was at a professional auditorium, for a semi-professional ballet company, and it was reviewed in the local newspapers. The review that I remember loved the ballet, except for the soldiers, who were too wooden. As I was wooden in response to the director’s wishes, I figured, “good boy, you did what you were supposed to do.” That’s part of the story of my privilege. I get to excuse criticism if I was following orders.
The whole framework of the story, of the sexism, masters, slaves, women owned and their live threatened by men—this only came to my consciousness later. This despite growing up in an abusive and violent home. It wasn’t until I started working with runaways, a few years later, then in crisis intervention and suicide prevention, for about a decade, before I started to recognize how much men’s violence—itself a performance of toxic masculinity—impacted women’s lives.
The “exotic erotic other” (Edward Said‘s term, which I did not at the time know—like the words of Chomsky or the troubling erasure of U.S. realities from a propagandistic education before it) of the Middle Eastern foreigner and its Colonial view, as projected by the ballet, seemed to me to be entertainment, merely the art of dance, at the time.
I began to study theatre more seriously in the Spring term of that same year, although perhaps my chronology becomes suspicious at this point, as my memory can’t recall which year I was actually in Scheherhezade, only which year I started to study theatre in university. Actually, I studied the ballet Petruschka in my first-term Humanities course, and I think that may have coincided with performing in Scheherhezade. Or, perhaps, the ballet came the next year.
In the Spring of my first year, though, I enrolled in a study abroad program offered by my university, in London. The courses I was eligible to take, as a first-year student, were Shakespeare’s plays. The professor was a drama professor from the English Department of my university.
The courses I was not allowed to take, but benefited from anyway, were in contemporary British drama. All of the students could attend the plays at the Young Vic Theatre. We saw John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, Harold Pinter’s Old Times, and others by these and other (white, male) playwrights. A lot of Osborne showed at the Young Vic, as I recall. I don’t blame the professor for the lack of diversity of the playwrights—the course was contemporary British drama, and it was only a few years into the 1970s, and he arranged group tickets at the Young Vic, a “hotbed” of contemporary British drama at the time. What was not white and male likely wasn’t very visible.
However, the playwrights did open my eyes to other ways of seeing plays. And the professor interested me enough to continue studying with him for several courses in drama, after we returned to our home campus. In the course of those studies, I learned about Bertolt Brecht and Luigi Pirandello, and somehow without realizing it, started becoming post-modern. Brecht influenced my thinking about performance, drama, and literature a lot. I risk oversimplification, but I point in particular to notions of disrupting the smooth viewing experience of “getting lost” in the play, so that the audience “finds” that they are witnessing a production, a constructed reality, in a world of social and political realities. Brecht resisted escapism and entertainment. He early on introduced “multi-media” to do some of this disruption, as well.
Since these introductions, I have gone further—in performance (studying improvisational music and performance with well-known musicians, for example), in theory (in this account, Genet, French Feminism, post-modern novels, literary theory, language poetry, and more remain in the future). Still, this part that I have conveyed of the knotted memories, reflections, paths of my relationship to what I call performance remains a formative base of my poetics.
In my poetry, I try to disrupt the reader, to get the reader to take a skeptical stance toward the text, the constructions, my own flawed perception as the builder of the text, to find social and political inconvenient truths—all while still exploring language and sound as music (dissonant and consonant) to entice the reader to move forward, play, and dance with the words and possibilities of meaning, even if imprecise or even false.
Conclusions, such as they are
Through this Brechtian lens I have offered here: a fallen backdrop, Boy Scout and Civil Air Patrol uniforms, riding boots, Cabrini-Green, the 1960s racial rebellions by African-Americans; a tuxedo-clad supernumerary lord in a Greek myth’s court; suffering on the basis of a bet in a circus tent (bet is also the second letter of the Hebrew aleph-bet, or alphabet, in the Greek); and a Middle-Eastern orgy story where the threatening (golden) male slave is killed by yours truly—a white, American, Jewish poet, living in Israel—and itself frames and motivates a woman’s need to offer exciting tales to her husband in his, not their, bed, just to stay alive.
All of this might be taken as a cracked and broken metaphor for the destructiveness of what we now call toxic masculinity. Or, as the psychologist Alfred Adler is supposed to have said (or written on the blackboard) after his lectures—then again, the case might be completely different.
In the end, this text itself is a performance of my activist poetics. Beware of how it constructs others, but even more so, beware of how it constructs me. Zeus (Zuss) is no hero. I am (not) a performer. This text is (not) performance, thus performs an illusion / delusion / lesion (that is, rupture).
My (better) poems perform disruptive communication (I claim) that cannot always be understood or interpreted (I explain). In reality (“What is reality? Brouhaha…“), the poems may work against interpretation, also the title of an influential book from my past that, like much that shapes this essay, comes later than the performances discussed in it. My better performances pull the audience in and then shakes water all over them, like a wet dog, hoping to wake myself up or dry the audience off. I have yet to really achieve such a performance, I simply imagine it to happen. However, the audience gets wet (or wetter) nevertheless, covered in imaginary spray. And I have yet to dry off.