March 2010

Elizabeth Bachner


Genius, Goddess: Reading Theatre

I was sitting with a man in a bar, sexy, older than me, a man I kind of have it bad for, and he said, “I think you’ll be a famous playwright.” And I decided that, yes, exactly! That’s what I’m going to do with the rest of my life. Or, maybe not a famous one, but a playwright for sure. Or at least, that’s what I’m going to do tonight. Or later, after the weekend. You write a play, and then other people take care of it, right? They animate it. It’s like making a golem out of stone, and then someone kisses its forehead. Or however golems work.

I got David Mamet’s new book, Theatre, and figured I would master the art of playwriting from there. I read it. I showed it to an acquaintance (a musician, not an actor), and he said, “Oh, yeah, I know what that book says. It says actors shouldn’t mess with the script. He wants everybody to act like Rebecca Pidgeon.” After a few days, it became clear that whatever David Mamet did or didn’t say, in order to become a famous playwright, I would probably have to write and finish some plays, when in fact, for some reason, I just keep writing prose, or poems. Work that will never have actors in it. Work that is lonely. I decided to put off the playwriting and the fame and to figure out the differences between writing and performing. Writing is a kind of performance, isn’t it? Even journaling. When actors go onstage, they play someone else. They do it with method acting, delving into the deepest reaches of their own experience. Or they do it with magic, channeling some crazy daemon. Or they do it as simply as they can, to advance the plot. What do writers do?

In between writing about wildcats and darkness and Heraclitus, Borges neatly solved this problem in “Borges and I”:

The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to… I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, I let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things. Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and I went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.

I do not know which of us has written this page.

In 1882, twenty-six-year-old Oscar Wilde -- a master of self-promotion -- had written just one volume of poems. Gilbert and Sullivan wrote an opera making fun of him and the “Aesthetic Movement” he represented -- he was brought on a yearlong magical mystery tour of North America to give lectures and to show everyone what he looked like. He was the subject of ninety-one interviews, many of them with people who hated him. Forty-eight of the interviews are collected in a new volume, Oscar Wilde in America: The Interviews, edited by Matthew Hofer and Gary Scharnhorst. In February, Lilian Whiting of the Chicago Inter-Ocean tartly observed that “without being at all an original genius, [Wilde] is yet remarkably assimilative of genius. He is one of the people who produce the right atmosphere for art. He is not an artist, but he is artistic; not creative, but intensely appreciative. The truly poetic mind is reverent. ‘Poets become such through scorning nothing.’ Mr. Wilde is perceptively egotistic, and, in so far, is not a poet.”

Of course, Mr. Wilde became a famous playwright. And of course, he stopped being twenty-six and became thirty-two. He wrote a genius novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is about a pretty young man who has a double, the Other Dorian, who only really exists in a piece of art, but then which Dorian exists where? Dorian stays beautiful. His picture ages. There’s an actress in there, also, Sibyl, who falls in love and stops being able to act anymore. Dorian was only really into the Other Sibyl, the beauty, the actress, and not the woman who was up there onstage being Sibyl. (Although, who is who, which is which?) He rejects her, and before he can come back to her, before he can make up for it, she poisons herself with prussic acid, and dies. Wilde, writing about the novel, said he saw himself not as Dorian (although that’s who he would’ve liked to be, beautiful, debauched, “in other ages, perhaps”), but as Basil Hallward, the smitten artist who paints him.

It must be strange to be an icon, even if that’s what you’ve chosen for yourself. Although, I guess in this world, of branding, of Facebook, of photo-retouching and plastic surgery and cybersex and virtual everything, we’re all icons, things instead of people, things instead of artists, and our art, if we have any, is a product, like our lives and bodies. Maybe the difference is that some people are good at being icons, and others mediocre. I don’t really need to be a famous playwright. But, I don’t want to be an image, or a thing. If you have to be a thing, instead of a full person, maybe it’s best to be a famous icon?

I went through a phase where I read all the literature I could find about Marilyn Monroe. A lot of it is bitter, people who are equal parts fascinated and angry and jealous, wanting to tear her down, and then talking about her vulnerability, about her secret innocence, about the way she was a tragedy -- but their sympathy seems tinny. It’s been a while since I thought much about Marilyn, but now I’m reading Jeffrey Meyers’s The Genius and the Goddess: Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, about the marriage between two all-American icons. Meyers finds Arthur Miller very dignified. He (Jeffrey Meyers) has written forty-seven books, and his wife Valerie always assists with his archival research, reads and improves each chapter, and compiles his indices. (I know this from the acknowledgements section.) The women in The Genius and the Goddess -- Marilyn, Paula Strasberg, Mary Slattery Miller (the wife that got dumped for Marilyn), Natasha Lytess and others -- all come off as unhinged crazies, but the book is an interesting account of a pivotal moment in American history, and especially in the history of the intersection between art and icon-making.

Marilyn Monroe was always trying to shake off being Marilyn Monroe. She wanted to be a serious actress, to play Shakespearean heroines, to open herself up in that way. During my old reading-about-Marilyn phase, I took it as a given that theatrical genius wouldn’t have been possible for her -- that, though she was bright and talented, her gifts were best suited to comedy and charisma, to being loveable and luminous. But now that I am thirty-five, the age Marilyn was the year before she died, I think maybe she could’ve done it. Maybe she could’ve stopped with the drugs and the loneliness, maybe she could’ve quit with the sexy older men and the entourage and the voguing and the performing, maybe she could’ve killed off the Other Marilyn or the Other Norma Jeane or whoever the other one was, and taken charge of her performance. Maybe she could’ve transformed into a genius instead of a girl, or a genius and a girl. But then again, I live in a time when the whole icon thing has mutated into unforeseen forms, past the glossy desolation of the fifties and into something even worse.

Sylvia Plath had a dream about Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn visited her in her sleep. Plath died -- committed suicide -- five months after Marilyn died. This journal entry came three years before: “Marilyn Monroe appeared to me last night in a dream as a kind of fairy godmother… I spoke, almost in tears, of how much she and Arthur Miller meant to us, although they could, of course, not know us at all. She gave me an expert manicure. I had not washed my hair, and asked her about hairdressers… She invited me to visit her during the Christmas holidays, promising a new, flowering life.” It’s funny, because just a day or two before I started reading The Genius and the Goddess, I was reading Plath’s journals, later ones. Plath quotes part of Finnegans Wake, the part I love the most, one of the parts I love the most, the part at the very end or the very beginning, depending on how you want to look at it. The part where the girl doesn’t get rescued. Or maybe she does. And Plath writes: “[Only] left to myself, what a poet I will flay myself into.” I will flay myself.

There’s a beautiful photo of Marilyn reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. She liked Joyce and Dostoevsky and Rilke. Everyone made fun of that. Once, Marilyn was chucked into a loony bin, like Sylvia, like Mary McCarthy, like Carson McCullers, like apparently most women artists and icons. Marilyn and Sylvia and the others were always feeling lonely and unloved and un-rescued, to hear it told in history. They were mooning over sexy older men. Fame or beauty or poetry or brilliance or icon status never seemed to save them. Arthur Schlesinger described Marilyn as exquisite, beguiling, and desperate. Maybe I will someday come across an account of a straight male icon, a writer, a David Mamet or an Arthur Miller, or one of the ones who went nuts, a genius who shot himself or gassed himself, and it will describe him as “desperate.” But I doubt it.

The most fascinating part of The Genius and the Goddess is an appendix, a list of Marilyn’s illnesses and hospitalizations. She tried to kill herself so many more times than Sylvia Plath -- eight, by this count, not just with pills but with gas. She got her nose and her chin redone. She had her tonsils and her appendix and her gallbladder and her wisdom teeth removed. She had thirteen (documented) abortions and a number of miscarriages. She lived in her famous body, and really couldn’t get rid of it except by dying in it. Ultimately, however many Elton John funeral dirges to Norma Jeane play on the world’s radio stations, there was no Other Marilyn. Just the one.

Lee Strasberg ranked Marilyn with Sarah Bernhardt and Eleanora Duse, declaring that if she had lived, “without a doubt she would have been one of the really great actresses of the stage.” Jeffrey Meyers says, “[T]here was no sign of this genius, even after years of tuition… it is far more likely that he believed Marilyn could help him compensate for his failure in Hollywood and revive his own theatrical career.” Meyers describes the principles of the Stanislavsky Method that Strasburg used as “rather abstract and confusing, especially to a dreamy, uneducated novice like Marilyn”:

"Justification requires the Method actor to find some emotional, logical, or factual reason for every action he performs. Objectification is relating oneself to the physical objects, the props, in a scene. Concentration is the immersion of oneself in the story to such an extent that one achieves a trance-like state, existing entirely in terms of the make-believe world.” Don’t writers do that, too? At least, the concentration part. But then Arthur Miller explains why the Method is a problem -- it subordinates the actors’ performance to their egoism, making it less about the script and the audience than about their own “secret” navel-gazing and pondering of their own psyches: “The problem is that the actor is now working out his private fate through his role, and the idea of communicating the meaning of the play is the last thing that occurs to him."

Of course, in all of the arts, it has to be the very opposite -- that the artist sacrifices his or her psyche, ego, navel, body, life, entirely into the work, losing everything, so that “everything belongs to oblivion,” to the audience, to the Other Borges, to no Borges. That’s why most of the work that comes from workshop-loving confessional writers who use their art to heal themselves lacks piercing genius or electricity. They might survive better than real artists, taming their moods and managing a financially stable suburban family life, but the risk of flaying yourself is probably worth it, probably more worth it than cranking out market-friendly pap, since we are all destined to perish, definitively. Some writers and artists manage both, after all -- they live long lives doing real work. Like Borges, and like the Other Borges. I’m not sure how this plays out for great actors, though. Do they carry around their brilliance with them, or just create it onstage? How do they find it and use it?

Marilyn Monroe was trying to show us something. And now, looking at her, looking at it, again, I think Lee Strasborg might have been right. She might have grown up to play Hecuba, like Vanessa Redgrave. Maybe the Actors Studio was a cult, and maybe Marilyn was “one-dimensional, melodramatic, even hysterical” in her serious roles… best when “playing a character who was essentially like herself.” But maybe she could’ve flayed herself into an actor. The trick would’ve been to stop, or ignore, all the other kinds of flaying.

Michael Chekov, one of Marilyn’s acting teachers, wrote: “You must try to consider your body as an instrument for expressing your creative ideas.”

And this is certainly something that Marilyn did. But using the body to perform can be perilous, close to the bone. It’s such precious material, our cells, our neurons, our legs. We can’t destroy and replace it easily, the way we might destroy and replace pages of words, crumbing them into the trash, or, now that we have harmed our forests, hitting delete so that they disappear forever. The idea of your body as an instrument, instead of an object for others to categorize and use, would probably sound like salvation to most normal girls, let alone to an iconic sex goddess. Writers have to use their bodies to work, too, just like actors. But it’s different, isn’t it? Less intimate, maybe? More intimate? In both cases, the artist is sharing his or her body with strangers. Edmond Jabès told his translator: “Writing is not the activity of a single person… It is an interaction between the writer and language. So the gender of the writer is of very limited importance, except in as far as it determines the experiences the writer draws from.” The sum total of our life experiences is no small matter, though. And it must be more intense, more physical, for a stage actor, throwing her body, as-is, in front of an audience. Or trying to turn it, right in the present moment, into a different body.

I haven’t done any playwriting. I curled up with a paperback, The Colony, by Jillian Weise. It’s about five people with genetic “defects” who are brought to a colony in Cold Spring Harbor to have their genes altered. There’s a thin girl with the fat gene, a happy, hot guy with the suicide gene, and Anne Hatley, the protagonist -- a sassy twenty-five year-old with long brown hair who was born with one leg. The geneticists want to regrow the leg on her body -- Anne is not so sure. Charles Darwin is a character, too, who comes to talk to Anne. Weise addresses the relationship between science, the earth, “nature” and the human body in a deep way -- with poetry and pluck. The tiny chapter titled “Goal of Cold Spring Colony” is followed by a chapter called “Goal of Springs That Are Cold” -- the goal of the actual springs is to “open the earth, form pools, flow and overflow, make rivers, run down mountains, carve caves, and, ultimately, reach negative degrees, freeze, fossilize bones, provide safety for life on Mars.” The novel is funny and loveable. It made me think about sex and legs and science and control of human beings and what it might be like to be a different person. I read that the author, like Anne Hatley, has a prosthetic leg. I went to see Jillian Weise at KGB Bar, and, also like Anne Hatley, she’s young and sassy, with long brown hair. She looked just the way I had pictured Anne. When we hear a writer read in public, it changes the way we assimilate the work. Or does it? When you meet a writer, are you meeting Borges, or the Other Borges? I met Arthur Miller in London at a small workshop. He was old and charismatic. I can’t remember what he said about theatre.

At the KGB reading, Jillian Weise started with an appendix, a list, taken from a real 1912 book, of “Files on Twenty Defectives.” It reminded me of that Marilyn Monroe suicide appendix, and of Marilyn’s real appendix that got taken out of the creamy white body she tried not to scar. The work I like best uses the author’s body a lot, his skin color and genitals, her defects. I went home and read Weise’s inscription in my book and it said, “Hi Elizabeth, thanks for putting my words in your neurons.”

And I did. I put Jillian Weise, or the Other Jillian Weise, inside my neurons, along with Arthur and Marilyn and Jeffrey Meyers and his index-making wife and Borges and the Other Borges and Oscar Wilde, and now you have me deep inside your neurons, patterning the thoughts in your very body. Or -- did I put her in my skull, or just her words? There’s a great scene in The Colony where Anne is annoyed by her boyfriend's lunches with his ex: “One time before Grayson went on a lunch, I told him it made me feel strange because he’d been inside her body. ‘Annie,’ he’d said. ‘What? It’s true. You’ve been literally five inches inside that woman’s body.’”

When we read a person’s book, or see their performance, they get even deeper inside of us than that. Because they stay in there. They stay in our neurons. I’m glad I chose Jillian Weise. But lots of times, we choose the wrong person, or the wrong book, to put inside of us. Sometimes we choose the wrong play to put inside of us, or the wrong tableau from real life. Sometimes we don’t choose, we just sit there in the audience, waiting to be entertained. Does the audience end up inside of the actors’ bodies, the way that Jillian Weise ended up inside of me? Or is it a one-way street, like Marilyn getting mobbed by her fans, fans who tried to touch her, who tried to take pieces of her, like she was less than a person and not just more than one?

Last night I went to see a production of Jeremy Bloom’s La Boheme (Spoken) at the Flea theatre, off, off-Broadway. It had no singing and dancing, white costumes, bare-bones sets. It’s this old story of people giving over their lives for art, starving and freezing in their garrets -- so of course it’s about the young, hungry actors, too. (There’s that joke: “I’m an actor.” “Oh really, which restaurant?”) According to the script, this La Boheme is meant to be “to be spoken conversationally and dynamically and in a most thrilling way,” and some of the actors (like the hilarious Tommy Crawford in a modern version of the government minister/lapdog Alcindoro) pull this off. The show is best at its most operatic. I wonder what David Mamet would think of it.

“Mommy, what is a tragedy?” asks a little-girl character. “Well each of us was born somewhere,” answers the mommy, “We're born into our bodies, our families, our place. We're born into the mystery of our own predilections which change as we become conscious of what governs choice, but which change little.”

Why would anyone become a playwright, or an actor, or a poet?

David Mamet writes, “The theatre does not need more teachers or more directors; it needs more writers and actors, and both come from the same applicant pool: those who are affronted, bemused, fascinated, or saddened by the infinite variety of human interaction, which always bodes so promising and usually ends so ill.”

No. It’s not just a fascination with human interaction, because you can have that sitting in the audience, sitting in your family, sitting in your place. No. It’s wanting to get into everyone’s neurons, to perform, to show how things work, to rip things open, to flay yourself into a new creature, to (possibly) transform the audience. To change the world, really. It sounds grandiose. It is grandiose. It sounds huge. It is huge. Doing it on a small stage, on a big stage, in a blockbuster, in a dark room, it’s still all the same vast opera.

Maybe it isn’t only playwriting that has to be given up to collaboration -- maybe all valid pages must be thrown to the wolves with their angry teeth, taken over by actors, collected into colorful books that get sold in the market like fruits, flayed, given over to the other Borges, given over to the hungry monster of the language itself, twisted by some new reader into a new language, lost or found in history. “What is good belongs to no one.” Do I believe that? I might believe that. He meant, what is good belongs to everyone. So maybe we should insist that production teams -- the marketers who figure out if a book will sell, if a film should get made, if a painting deserves to be shown -- take what’s written, what’s painted, as it is, and find a way to deliver in its rawest, purest form to the passive audience. And maybe we should never, any one of us, consent to being a passive audience.

I was introduced to one of the actors after La Boheme. He asked if I’ve been writing any plays. I said, No, I’ve been writing about not writing plays.

Oscar Wilde stopped being twenty-six. He got to be thirty-five, the age Marilyn was the year before she died. He wrote a novel. In it, he wrote, “The ugly and the stupid have the best of it in this world. They can sit at their ease and gape at the play.” He wrote, “The reason I will not exhibit this picture is that I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my own soul.” He wrote, “My dear boy, no woman is a genius.” He wrote, “An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them.” He wrote, “(Y)ou must think of that lonely death in the tawdry dressing-room simply as a strange lurid fragment from some Jacobean tragedy, as a wonderful scene from Webster, or Ford, or Cyril Tourneur. The girl never really lived, and so she has never really died.”

(Note: “Borges and I”, trans. by James E. Irby, is from Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris, Eds. The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry.)