The Unfortunate Truth of My Situation
Richard Foreman Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (A True Romance)
The Public Theater, New York, the performance I attended was on Saturday, May 4, 2013.
After years and years of enigmatic and provocative plays, and after having announced that he was giving up playwriting for filmmaking, Richard Foreman has come back with a new play that at times almost appears to be a kind of film script, Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (A True Romance). Like most of his works, this play is set upon a stage decked out with numerous alphabetical configurations, portraits of “significant” people, numerous odd props, and the strings that outline the horizontal shell of the stage, a kind of mix between a metaphorical representation of string theory and an eruv, the defining territory of the traditional Jewish community that outlines the boundaries through which certain objects can be moved or carried on holy days. The effect, no matter what Foreman’s precise purposes, is to draw a line between what occurs on “stage” and the audience. Above all else, Foreman’s plays are definitely not narrative representations that draw their audiences into the “romance” of the story, but are purposefully puzzling brain twisters that demand the audience think about what is being said and done within the author’s domain.
Even Foreman’s title is enigmatic: what are “old fashioned prostitutes?” And how can a romance, usually defined as a form dedicated to idealism and a preoccupation with idealized love, be “true?” In fact, the central character of Foreman’s new work, Samuel (theater veteran Rocco Sisto), never once has sex with the prostitutes he encounters, and although the central figure, Suzie (Alenka Kraigher) invites Samuel to her room and even spikes his gin, no love occurs—unless one speaks of the love of language and philosophical speculation. The only physical contact that Samuel has with anyone is a sudden hug between Samuel and the mysterious “pimp-like” figure accompanying the two “prostitutes,” Alfredo (David Skeist)
Alfredo, Samuel hug
SAMUEL: I do — beg of you, friend Alfredo
ALFREDO: (He grabs Alfredo's lapels)
— Convince beautiful Suzie
That when I speak to her directly
This is always the unfortunate truth of my situation
Suzie and Gabriella are not women of love as much as they are women who flirt, “coquettes,” as Samuel describes them, whose major activities include “sipping afternoon alcohol under the roar of distant traffic” and attempting to catch the gaze of passing men.
As Suzie convincingly argues, she is more a “teacher” than a lover, a woman who shows men the way. And she spends most of her time in this play grappling with Samuel’s attempt to come to terms with what “reality” is, what is the self, and what does it all mean in every day experience.
There is never a clear set of answers or even a set of codefied speculations to precisely what Foreman is arguing for or against in his provocative plays, but there are often clues to the animus behind them. In this case Samuel expresses it quite early in the work:
But perhaps, ladies and gentleman,
it is best never to speak openly about
But it did happen
That travelling these streets
In bright sunlight
An old man with white hair
Shabbily dressed, trudging slowly
In the direction opposite to the one
In which I was traveling
Carrying a large, soiled cardboard box
with what personal belongings
I could not guess
But — whispered hoarsely under his breath
"Go to Berkeley, make film".
I did not respond.
But I frowned
And a few seconds later
turned to watch him proceed, slowly
Down the street
Later in the day
Lying on the bed in my hotel room
I wondered -- I wondered should I have approached him
To ask for clarification.
Was he speaking to me
Or to himself
— yet it seemed appropriate to my concerns
And my possible
Go to Berkeley, my friend
Which could have meant, not the city in sun drenched
But possibly the long dead Irish
A philosopher of idealism, Bishop George Berkeley himself,
whose view of reality might be poetically re-imagined
as a vision of the world in which experience
itself was but a thin film, spread in illusionary fashion
upon human consciousness.
"Go to Berkeley, make film", could have meant, go
deeper into the notion of the world as
a transparent surface only —
depending upon the impress of a mental apparatus —
snapping the world into apparent being only —
Accordingly, Old-Fashioned Prostitutes does serve as a kind of “thin film” exploring the “illusionary” experience of consciousness, a bit like Proust (and the mysterious city in which Samuel exists reminds me of Paris) steeped in sensual appreciation. Even now and then a voice cries out “hold,” reminding us a bit of a film command. But of course it also suggests that the audience might “hold” that idea a bit longer in the mind.
Samuel, obviously, is also Samuel Beckett, and Foreman’s seemingly personal memories are often channeled through the great author, vaguely paralleling, in particular, works such as “First Love” and, at play’s end, “Imagine Dead Imagine.” It is not this play’s story is even similar to Beckett’s first love; there are simply associated threads between the character of the Beckett story who meets a woman, “Lulu,” upon a park bench, a woman just as determined as Suzie to bring home her man. Unlike Suzie, the fat Lulu does eventually lure the narrator of Beckett’s tale into her home, but the two sleep in separate rooms, yet as in Foreman’s play her coquetry (numerous visits to the same park bench) results in very little “love” and ends with some of the same questions about reality and experience that Foreman’s Samuel poses. Similar to many of Beckett’s characters, Foreman’s Samuel cannot even move when he is asked to follow Suzie home, his legs being suddenly frozen in space, wrapped in the production in a gunny sack.
Since, in Berkeley’s “film of consciousness,” however, nothing is precisely determinable even the memory of such experiences and the identity of self comes into question. If Beckett may lie under Foreman’s Samuel, so too does Foreman’s own persona, Rainer Thompson, recently appearing in his autobiographical film, I Am Rainer Thompson, and I Have Lost It Completely, lie behind this play’s character, as Samuel suddenly declares he is Rainer. And in this sense—although it seems preposterous to claim this in a oeuvre that has always been highly personal and autobiographical—Old-Fashioned Prostitutes seems to be one of Foreman’s most intimate works, a kind of strange memory play made up of his own and other writer’s intellectual detritus.
In the end, however, it is nearly pure Beckett in the final words of a play which has struggled with self-knowing and reality, with illusion and consciousness:
Emptiness is here
all to wall, then pause, then back: Music
Imagine no world but this world
Imagine no world but this world (THUD)
End of play. (THUD)
End of play.
Despite the play’s declaration of “emptiness,” Foreman, like Beckett, has embraced this world with his hundreds of questions and speculations over the course of his career, surely representing a “true romance” with “this world” with which we have such a difficult relationship.
New York-Los Angeles, May 5-May 13, 2013
A conservation with a rawlings
This naturally leads to questions about reading: What can we read? How can we read? She writes, that “Gibber hinges on exploring notions that humans read their environments and/or that humans are in conversation with landscapes and the inhabiting non-human species.”
For rawlings, reading becomes a biological and ecological act, one inextricably connected to environmental ethics. Poethics: “Similar to immersion in foreign human languages, immersion in foreign bioregions also heightens my capacity to sense environments partly removed from the immediate superimposed semantics I have inherited.”
She writes of the “Vialence” section of Gibber from which the above image of the vials is taken, that “Glass vials enact a moment when the urge to identify, name, possess grips the body. These vials extend beyond encoded messages in bottles to become synaesthetic museums of soundscapes. Land is collected, sorted, pinned for preservation.”
I spoke to a rawlings in her aerie/studio in Reykjavik. I was in Hamilton, Ontario at ground level.
GB: In Gibber, you explore how language names/claims the land, how it ‘marks’ it. But, you seem to say that, through a lively, engaged and aware reading, we can unpack the assumptions of language and consider how it can or cannot become part of the ecosystem and/or biosemantic lang/dscape. You explore how the landscape can be read as its own text as opposed to how we read the landscape through our preconceptions, through the conceptual (textual) frame work of our naming, our categorization. Thinking about Barthes’ Pleasure of the Text, would you say that we might imagine the environment a ‘writerly’ text as opposed to a ‘readerly’ one?
ar: I thought about Barthes’ Pleasure of the Text, and looked at Gibber gestures through Pleasure’s lens. Marveled at this potential revision: “That is the pleasure of the text: value shifted to the sumptuous rank of the” signified.
What does it help us to fashion an ecosystem (or any ecosystem components) as a text, or to fashion an ecosystem (or any…) as a writer of its own text? What does it help us to imagine an ecosystem (or…) as a collaborator? Each analogy roots the relational seed of interconnection; it pursues hope that we can sense our way into healthier relationship with all that surrounds, sustains, confounds.
Look again: is language an only / a lonely sense for conceiving the world? What sensory components build the linguistic? Listen well. Gibber may be more about conversation than text. Or if text, then text as representing, archiving, recreating the conversation. The conversation between (human and other-than-human) bodies.
Gary, as a fellow Ontario resident, you might get a kick out of this. You’re familiar with Ministry of Natural Resources conservation officers? I grew up in rural Northern Ontario, so conservation officers had greater presence in my formative years than police officers. And here I am, nowadays, always mis-typing as ‘conversation officers’ — though doesn’t that, avec plaisir, demark their craft, too?
GB: Maybe I should title this discussion, "A conservation with Ministry of Post-National Resources Conversation Officer, a rawlings." Indeed, I imagine your work in Gibber as some kind of Eco-post-colonialism. Of course this relates very specifically to the Australian context in terms of social colonialism, but also to your other work (e.g. Icelandic) that is eco-post-colonial. There is both a celebration of language, its ability to name, to sound, to make the mouth (and speech, writing, and sound) a landscape to explore, to live in, to celebrate, but language if not carefully and self-consciously considered, limits the landscape QED or OED.
I keep thinking about some notion of “eco-slave names” as opposed to a more aware, empathic, and listening awareness of the environment.
I imagine that the vials containing text point to how ‘language’ is separated from the world. How they are samples taken, contained, removed from what might otherwise be a more natural and in-flux biosemantic relationship the environment.
Vials are samples taken. Labels transported. Glass is sand subjected to intense semantic heat. But they are also messages in a bottle. An attempt at communication, often over a long distance. (B)each to (b)each. What washes up/ is washed over? Language? Just wash us.
From vials which are invialate and maybe vialating, to a more musical and polyvialent relationship. Viols in polyphony. Let language have no central nervous system but like a jellyfish be everywhere aware.
ar: Consider the (ages-old) impacts of soundscape and landscape on linguistic formation — on letter forms, syntactic construction, pronunciation. Imagine, too, the importation / introduction of languages into foreign ecosystems. With the slip of a tongue, what loss?
Each of the contained texts (“Land. Song. Landscape. Place. Island. Name.”) makes the reader/view consider how the contained text relates to its meaning in the context of its specific physical location.
Land? Sand is a kind of almost land. Liminal. Litoral. Does this land have a specific name beyond the generic category? (And I note that there are many little “land” labels in the vial. It would matter to those living there, yet we abstract with language. That can be helpful but also allows us to blunder on/over.
Song? Is this song? Can a song be in a little tactile vial? Is naming song? Is sand? Is the creative interplay between human and nonhuman? Is language a kind of song? Is there a specific song?
ar: Gibber is part of a larger project with the cheeky working title Sound Poetry & Visual Poetry. At North of Invention in NYC, Jeff Derksen suggested that I might consider redefining ‘sound poetry’ — a term whose history causes me itchiness. Offering a re-definition also made me itchy (as did coming up with another term which might define/claim the work I do), but I got a giggle from the idea of labeling an entire work Sound Poetry & Visual Poetry without clearly delineating what was what within the work. (Is this a conservationist gesture? Is it more the introduction of an alien species into the fold?) The synaesthetic gesture present within much of the Gibber work interests me. When I listen to an audio recording, what I receive is visual in that I construct the place, its inhabitants based on one sensory input; I subconsciously assume the task, as listener, of crafting the visual. If there is visual poetry on offer in Gibber, then, perhaps it’s (also?) in the audio recordings. And in there, then, is your writerly pleasure.
You know, the authorities on cartography would have us believe it’s a visual medium. But consider asking for directions, the verbal disclosure an act of counter-mapping against a dominant hegemonic authority. Consider Aboriginal songlines, a traditional aural cartography. Consider that voice in your head, whenever your eyes wash over an image (of land, of map, with or without text). If there is sound poetry on offer in Gibber, then (also?)… And here, your writing aloud.
GB: Gibber asks: What is landscape? It supposes a viewer, a namer, a framer. An inscape, perhaps. Are these few words landscape? Or construction set for a landscape? Is this ‘field poetics’ – words strewn about the page of the sand – landscape? Sandscape?
Often language (our conceptual rationalist framework) is our only ‘sense’ for conceiving of the world. But your image in its sensory vividness and details shows us a presentness, a different kind of language listening. Multisensory: Language. Langtennae. Landtennae. &tennae.
GB: And in order to read it, I think the image is telling us, we need to take into account the natural world where it is found, where our words and thoughts wash up, where currents pull us, a specific landscape and the tidings it bring us.
Gibber is available entirely online.
a rawlings is a poet, arts educator, and interdisciplinarian currently based in Iceland. More about her can be found at her website.
Outsider Poems, a Mini-Anthology in Progress (53): Daniel Paul Schreber (1842-1911), from Memoirs of My Nervous Illness
The talking of all free flying birds has persisted without interruption in the past years in which I frequently changed my residence, and it persists to this day … I would now prefer to use the expression “talking bird” to “miraculously created bird” which is used in the text. Earlier on I thought I could not explain the talking of the birds other than by assuming that they were as such created by miracle, that is to say were created anew each time. After what I have observed meantime I consider it more likely that they were birds produced by natural reproduction, into whose bodies the remnants of the “forecourts of heaven,” that is to say erstwhile blessed human souls, had been inserted in some supernatural way or were inserted anew each time. But that these souls [nerves] were actually inside the bodies of these birds [perhaps in addition to the nerves which these birds naturally possess and in any case without awareness of their previous identity] remains as before without any doubt for me for reasons developed in the text.
The system of not-finishing-a-sentence became more and more prevalent in the course of years, the more the souls lacked their own thoughts. In particular, for years single conjunctions or adverbs have been spoken into my nerves thousands of times; those ought only to introduce clauses, but it is left to my nerves to complete them in a manner satisfactory to a thinking mind. Thus for years I have heard daily in hundred-fold repetition incoherent words spoken into my nerves without any context, such as “Why not?,” “Why, if,” “Why, because I,” “Be it,” “With respect to him,” (that is to say that something or other has to be thought or said with respect to myself), further an absolutely senseless “Oh” thrown into my nerves; finally, certain fragments of sentences which were earlier on expressed completely; as for instance
1. “Now I shall,”
2. You were too,”
3. “I shall,”
4. “It will be,”
5. “This of course was,”
6. “Lacking now is,”
etc. In order to give the reader some idea of the original meaning of these incomplete phrases I will add the way they used to be completed, but are not omitted and left to be completed by my nerves. The phrases ought to have been:
1. Now I shall resign myself to being stupid;
2. You were to be represented as denying God, as given to voluptuous excesses, etc.;
3. I shall have to think about that first;
4. It will be done now, the joint of pork;
5. This of course was too much from the soul’s point of view;
6. Lacking now is only the leading idea, that is – we, the rays, have no thou
The infringement of the freedom of human thinking or more correctly thinking nothing, which constitutes the essence of compulsive thinking, became more unbearable in the course of years with the slowing down of the talk of the voices, This is connected with the increased soul-voluptuousness of my body and — despite all writing-down — with the great shortage of speech-materials at the disposal of the rays with which to bridge the vast distances separating the stars, where they are suspended, from my body.
No one who has not personally experienced these phenomena like I have can have any idea of the extent to which speech has slowed down. To say “But naturally” is spoken B.b.b.u.u.u.t.t.t. n.n.n.a.a.a.t.t.t.u.u.u.r.r.r.a.a.a.l.l.l.l.l.l.y.y.y. or “Why do you not then shit?” W.w.w.h.h.h.y.y.y. d.d.d.o.o.o………….; and each requires perhaps thirty to sixty seconds to be completed. This would be bound to cause such nervous impatience in every human being not like myself more and more inventive in using methods of defense, as to make him jump out of his skin …
Translation from German by Ida McAlpine and Richard A Hunter
with John Bloomberg-Rissman
Source: Daniel Paul Schreber, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, New York Review Books Classics, 2000.
(1) “In November 1893, Daniel Paul Schreber, recently named presiding judge of the Saxon Supreme Court, was on the verge of a psychotic breakdown and entered a Leipzig psychiatric clinic. He would spend the rest of the nineteenth century in mental institutions. Once released, he published his Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1903), a harrowing account of real and delusional persecution, political intrigue, and states of sexual ecstasy as God's private concubine. Freud's famous case study of Schreber elevated the Memoirs into the most important psychiatric textbook of paranoia … Schreber's text becomes legible as a sort of ‘nerve bible’ of fin-de-siècle preoccupations and obsessions, an archive of the very phantasms that would, after the traumas of war, revolution, and the end of empire … cross the threshold of modernity into a pervasive atmosphere of crisis and uncertainty … [It is possible to argue] that Schreber's delusional system--his own private Germany--actually prefigured the totalitarian solution to this defining structural crisis of modernity … [and to show] how this tragic figure succeeded in avoiding the totalitarian temptation by way of his own series of perverse identifications, above all with women and Jews.” (Eric L Santner, My Own Private Germany: Daniel Paul Schreber’s Secret History of Modernity)
(2) It is not hard to see Schreber’s encounter with voices & rays & so forth as a crisis of humanist reading. On some level, he seems to have experienced modernist art practice avant la lettre, with a kind of awareness of just how threatening that would be to the humanist project. One could also argue that he not only experienced modernism, he also experienced what came to be called postmodernism & what Jeffrey T. Nealon calls its present “post-postmodern intensification” (Post-Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism). In which case it seems possible to understand Schreber’s memoirs as a kind of reading of a less & less familiar, more & more threatening world, which continues to resonate. And the innovative strategies with language, as presented here, bring it still more surely into our present mix.
Translated from Yiddish by Faith Jones, Jennifer Kronovet, and Samuel Solomon
[From the bilingual book forthcoming from Tebot Bach Press]
My hands, two little bits
of my body I'm never
ashamed to show. With fingers—
the branches of coral,
of white serpents,
of a nymphomaniac.
I FALL TO THE GROUND
Like juicy red apples
my cheeks flare up
in the sun
with a red flame.
I hold on—barely—
to the tree, and not
fall to the ground,
and when someone,
dazzled by my red
cheeks, lifts me up
from the dirt, he then
tosses me aside with disgust
and pity because
my heart is eaten up
by the worms,
and that fat worm—passion—
just won't crawl out
of my juicy body.
I am left, discarded, as it
rots me to death.
You revel, I revel,
in us revels the God
who ruins everything,
who won’t forbid.
Hammer my hands,
nail my feet to a cross:
burn me, be burned,
take all my ardor
and leave me deeply ashamed:
suck it from me and throw it away,
become estranged, alienated
and go your own way.
You plowed deep
into me—fertile earth—
and sowed there.
Tall stalks grew—love-stalks—
with roots down deep in the ground
and golden heads to the sky.
Surrounding your stalks, red poppies
You stood, suspicious,
and thought: Who planted poppies?
A wind passed through;
you had an impulse
to show it the way.
A bird flew through;
you followed him
away with your eyes.
you had been fussed over
by many women’s hands
when I came across you,
young Adam. And before I pressed
my lips to you
you pleaded, your face paler
and more gentle
than the gentlest lily:
Don’t bite, don’t bite.
I saw that teethmarks covered
your entire body. Trembling,
I bit into you—you breathed
over me through thin nostrils
and edged up to me
like the hot horizon to a field.
IN SULLIVAN COUNTY
Today in the first light hour after the rain,
the sun shines calmly, softly on me.
The fields in the valleys of Sullivan County
stretch far from the narrow path.
Somewhere out there trees turn blue
on the mountainside. The fields are sown
with raspberries, but it’s often not easy
to eat enough of them: you quickly lose yourself
in a labyrinth of outstretched green stabbing arms,
a braided, thorny wall of branches.
Yet after the rain there are tons of raspberries.
The sun shines calmly, softly on me.
Fresh milk awaits, but I don’t hurry to the farm.
My arm tears on the jagged twigs.
Yellow and red mosaic of fields,
cultivated rows of trees—
here and there a lone tree.
You can barely see the mountain.
A world hemmed in by trees,
the mountain obscured by fog.
No mountains—this is better.
The horizon gets farther, bigger,
in the soft distance.
My soul wanders, aimless.
In the soft distance, it blurs
and lightens. The whole world
swims in a tender gray.
No world—this is better.
My eye gentler, bigger.
In the tender gray,
no world, no earth.
In the tender gray,
I swim undisturbed.
I went up on the mountain and saw
fields like golden rivers
and trees on them like sails on ships:
green sails on golden rivers.
Close, in a deep, green abyss,
the road wound through the endless
seeming forest—a pink serpent
twisting between green sails of ships.
How insignificant, how small
was my valley, my little green valley:
it carried to me, as on wings of wind,
a lamenting sound.
My baby was calling to me.
But I was welded to the mountain,
and for a long time sorrow swung around me
and for a long time the baby cried and called out
until the valley heard my steps again.
NEW YORK AT NIGHT BY THE BANKS OF THE HUDSON
Seeping from the cells of your skyscrapers
is golden honey, light,
through millions of windows,
as through the cells of gigantic honey-combs,
you can see golden honey,
human honey, light.
Immense bees built their beehives here,
a forest of beehives,
and filled them until they overflowed with honey,
The Hudson at night is black as pitch,
and the honey flows
and swallows the pitch on the shores of New York.
* * *
Trees like these with golden fruit,
a forest of golden fruit,
hung with lanterns.
[NOTE. Among the more experimental Yiddish poets in early twentieth-century New York, Dropkin (1887-1956) was significant both for her exploration of open verse as a compositional strategy & for her assertions of female desire beyond the limits observed by most of her contemporaries, both in Yiddish & in English. Born Zipporah Levine in present-day Belarus, she wrote first in Russian but turned to Yiddish on arrival in New York circa 1910, where she participated in the already active Yiddish poetry world, including the experimental In-Zikh (Introspectivist) poets, while developing more markedly transgressive themes than theirs: sexuality, depression, guilt & longing, fury, violence, even at its limits the representation of sado-masochism & other taboo, once hidden subjects. Her work in that sense is a further confirmation of Kenneth Rexroth’s observation of a Yiddish avant-garde & Futurist presence in his own early years in New York: “A good case could be made for the claim that the best writing done in America in the first quarter of the [twentieth] century was in Yiddish. I don’t think it’s really true, but it is sufficiently true to be passionately arguable in one of those passionate arguments that used to sprinkle the whiskers with sour cream in the Café Royale.” And despite Kenneth’s charmingly flippant tone, the active historical presence of two languages & their attendant poetries in a single American city is itself worth noting. (J.R.)]