To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artists Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney of Fire Drill shares their perspective on RED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE by Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental and Wilhelm Bros. & Co. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
RED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE is a story of stories. The piece is inspired by historical record, and also incorporates several pieces of writing—many of them stories—written by Edgar Allan Poe. The history sampled surrounds Edgar Allan Poe’s final days, letters, and train rides. The story synthesized from these elements however—the Capital-S Story—is conspicuously not Poe. It is a metanarrative, The Tortured Genius, and Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental / Wilhelm Bros. & Co.’s engagement with Poe’s life and work fit him inside this narrative. The Tortured Genius is a romantic trope—in that it dates literally from the Romantic era, when our social understanding of both art and mental illness were shaped quite differently. In considering RED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE, we are most curious about how the representational practice of quoting historical source material–both historical facts as well as Poe’s writing—is deployed to shape history into metanarrative.
RED-EYE is full of stunning images and considered design, and its creators clearly value virtuosity, creativity, and clarity. Relatively few set pieces are used to create a multitude of scenes—three long tables become doors, trains, a bar, a hotel room, as well as various imaginative spaces. A small number of lighting instruments create stark lines and shadows, heightening the drama and pathos of each image. Though we grew tired of the constant set transitions, the visual composition was resonant throughout the piece, demonstrating a type of formal attention. We believe these images are Lucidity Suitcase et al. at their finest, and we as an audience did not require a grounding of these images in history to appreciate their intrinsic aesthetic and choreographic value.
The stage pictures in RED-EYE were often inspired by and illustrative of the quoted text. This “physicalizing” of the text ranged from tricks like acrobatics, stilts, aerial arts, mime, and gestural choreography. The tricks were clearly physical metaphors for the text being excerpted—an ultimately self-defeating desire to be abstract with history while at the same time being very clear about how they abstracted it. The historical justification was built fully into the piece. Take, for example, the Ranger character, whose function at times was to directly address the audience, interpreting the abstractions. He explained a scene where a wearied Poe removes a sock and shoe to touch his bare foot on astroturf, and this appeared in the play because Poe was actually known to do this on grass. Not only were isolated poetic images explained by our Ranger guide, but the whole of the narrative. He telegraphed from the opening that many instances of a women characters in Poe’s work (and ostensibly therefore, the performance) were references to Poe’s dead wife Virginia. However this literal, one-to-one clarity undercut the poetry of the few, silent images. Could the images stand on their own, without justifying their existence with the text?
Ranger aside, the major tool the production used to ground the narrative in history were the supertitles, which announced every sourced poem, story, letter and essay. Why was this piece so invested in citing its sources? It wants to tell us it has done its research, shoring up historical capital. Without the supertitles, or even grounding the metanarrative specifically in an artist such as Poe, the story would read as an age-worn archetype. The historical research places it beyond reproach—perhaps instead of Colbert’s “truthiness”, here we have “historyness”. The production’s specificity about Poe’s life actually obscures its other ideological moves—and when history is used to justify a narrative that is damaging in other respects, it becomes problematic.
RED-EYE displayed classic vintage sexism, presented without comment. Virginia Poe (played by Alessandra L. Larson) haunts E.A. throughout the piece, darting in and out of scenes, under tables and past curtains. As narrative, she is Poe’s deceased wife and cousin, the young and sickly woman who appears in many of his works as Annabel Lee, Lenore, etc. As image and history, she is the classic sylph: the white female figures appearing in contemporaneous Romantic ballets, wispy, ethereal, alluring, cunning. They hover between life and death, often luring men to their downfall. Virginia traps Edgar under a table, grazes over his shoulders from behind, slides down a white fabric from a suspended bed, and plunges from a ledge into a reservoir. There’s an extended gesture phrase where her hands play as birds. In the third act of the play, she transitions into another sexist trope, the siren. Now she’s in stilts and a red dress, more overtly sexual and dangerous. Still she does not speak.
As good third wave feminists, we do not object to women being portrayed as sexual or dangerous, but the female tropes in RED-EYE are regressive and handled uncritically by the production. These tropes are the root of why women are still portrayed without agency or complexity in our cultural texts, important only insofar as they relate to men. Yes, they are taken from Poe’s work, but shouldn’t they be afforded some recontextualization in a contemporary work? Instead, they just become the most visible figment of Poe’s mental illness—which is similarly treated in a dehistoricized light. Perhaps there’s a subtext that the way we view mental illness has changed since the 1840s: Poe would likely have received diagnosis and treatment today, rather than been left to his destructive habits. But actually the production highlighted the ways in which our culture still does treat mental illness in an antiquated fashion: most crucially in the way that it links creativity and madness.
What we find most disturbing about this production is its romantic portrayal of the artist and the source of art. It promotes the image of the artist as a solitary genius, a tortured soul, a sensitive being driven to reveal their emotional truths in a hostile world. In the context of Poe’s implied mental illness, his artistic production also becomes pathologized, and his works become symptoms of his unconscious impulses. Poe’s obituary in the closing moments of the show pays homage to “genius and the frailties too often attending it”. RED-EYE caricatures insanity, gaining comedic or even poetic mileage to make behavior the right blend of tragic and zany, supporting the just-so narrative of the tormented genius.
This image is, of course, taken straight from Poe’s era–but just like the female archetypes, we must question the presentation of the Romantic model of the artist in 2015. Since then, our culture has cycled through a few other models of the artist in society, the credentialed professional and the creative entrepreneur among them. The Romantic solitary genius model, however, remains present in the popular imagination, and RED-EYE treats it more as an essential truth than a historic object. The production did not interrogate its relationship to history or to the present, and we were alarmed to experience this dehistoricized Romantic idea within the context of a contemporary art center. To perpetuate that model has dire consequences: it delimits the scope of art to the personal and the emotional, and narrows the interpretation of art to individual pathology. These ideas work against the field of art when artists want their labor to be valued as work instead of treated as personal indulgence (an issue that affected Poe as well). They work against artists who want their work to impact fields beyond art, like the social, political, or economic. This model also prevails in mainstream American culture (including among right-wing pundits who see artists as indulgent freeloaders) and contributes to the continued ghettoization of contemporary art in our country.
The slick visuals paired with the macabre narrative creates a tricky result. Poe’s alcoholism, (probably) schizophrenia, and marriage to his 13-year-old cousin are transformed into a beautiful, cathartic, digestible whole. The tension of this aesthetic treatment is present in Poe’s work as well, but in the context of the RED-EYE production in 2015, we take it as part of a different trend: the elision of art and entertainment. In week two of Out There, we discussed this issue in relation to the conceptual themes of aggression and the commodity, but in RED-EYE the entertainment issue arises from the style and aesthetics of the piece. The polished staging reminds us of commercial more than experimental theater, and the metanarrative is familiar and pleasing. The body of the tortured artist passes from this mortal coil, yet his work of genius lives on: no loose ends or productive questions remain. Frankly, we have higher hopes for art and its capacity to provoke and disturb. We also have higher hopes for the contemporary–that it will fundamentally alter preexisting ideas, rather than create slick packaging for old tropes.
RED-EYE to HAVRE de GRACE continues at 8pm tonight, January 30, 2015 and tomorrow night, January 31, 2015, in the McGuire Theater.