Around this time last year I was busy writing my thoughts on a lot of the theater I was attending here in New York City. A post, 21st Century Capitalism on Stage at the Public Theater was an exploration of two shows there that directly confronted the human dimension of this economic crisis in interesting ways. One of them was the now-notorious one-man show by Mike Daisy about his trip to China to visit the Apple factories there (“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”) ; the other was Ethan Lipton’s wry and absurd jazzy song cycle about his being laid off from a survival job titled “No Place to Go.”
This spring finds me attending a show at the Public again, but a show by the avant-garde theatrical experimenter Richard Foreman. Foreman is by now a legend in this area of post-dramatic theater and it is a treat to see an artist born in 1937 and who lived through and pushed forward that whole 1960s experimental era get his slot at a quality theater in NYC to present his latest bizarre creation. In an era obsessed with youth and the next big thing, it is nice that the Public has reached out to a few of these figures (Sondheim, born in 1930, got his troubled musical “Wise Guys” mounted there a few years back. No one else in NYC wanted to produce it. I saw the show in D.C. back in 2002 when it was still called “Bounce.” The musical has had four titles. As they say: If you don’t know what your title is, you don’t know what your show is about. But Sondheim is a genius and geniuses should be given a stage and actors and a budget to present their failures to us. Or at least that’s how it should be.)
I have only seen one other Richard Foreman show, “DEEP TRANCE BEHAVIOR IN POTATOLAND” back in 2008. What struck me most of all about that show was how claustrophobic the set was; how the set was constructed, close in to the audience in a space (the Theater at St. Marks) that I have seen so many times completely open and empty; how the actors were allowed no freedom at all, every move and gesture and even facial position and emotion seemed choreographed (as opposed to watching an actor “be real” or really “become” her character in an identificatory way; how the male actors played characters who were like vampires and how the female actors were very feminine; how loud his sound design was at times; how the film at the end had images shot in Japan?; and perhaps most of all (this is the key thing I remember) is that in the hour of the play’s duration I became quite aware of the physicality of my own body, my own weight. How I was sitting, how my legs were crossed, these became conscious as the post-dramatic nature of the “show” took me away from that affective head space I usually find myself when viewing art. Time did not fly by, it sank. Time sank down into my body, time became material and uncomfortable.
And the last time I had felt such a feeling was sitting in church, in a hard pew with a soft cushion that attempted to ameliorate the hardness of the seat. I wouldn’t call this boredom necessarily. Boredom is an emotion engendered more from a deeper unexpressed anxiety that in contemporary society time is money–The monetization of time and the greater and greater monetization of every aspect of our private experience has widened to a totalitarian extent and created the conditions where something like “boredom” can be felt. Thus the wonder Westerners and other citizens of capitalist megalopolises feel when they encounter societies that still have a whiff of that “old” world where wages were not earned by giving one’s time, but by giving the fruits of one’s labor, or one’s whole person in the case of slavery. Even in so-called “developing” societies where capital still has a long way to go in its primary process of uprooting millions of peasants from their land the psychological regime in place is closer to a world where “boredom” is impossible. One should also think how the risk of boredom is so great in countries such as the USA that an absurd fraction of our economy, workers and time is spent in different ways to create and consume the enchanting puzzles of the culture and entertainment and media industry. Or the other side of the coin of boredom is synthetic entertainment. And to be clear: A world without boredom, such as a feudal society, a slavery society or primitive society is not “better” but one in which the mediating emotions are unnecessary– As the wage relation becomes general and experience itself becomes quantified and monetized the emotions also find themselves internalized. The genius of the wage form and the mystery of how surplus value is extracted (As Marx spent his whole career analyzing, researching and theorizing) is that the previous labor forms of giving a share of the fruits of one’s labor to the lord, or emperor or tax collector (or “giving” one’s whole self in the case of slavery) make the collection of surplus value explicit and spectacular; with the generalization of the wage form, the collection of surplus value is mystified, hidden and the old anger and fury against one’s lord or emperor, say, is now internalized against one self– “I need a new job”, “I agreed to work this crappy job for this crappy pay”, “I need to work harder and get a promotion.”
Back to the church– The Protestant church and the internalization process of the personal God is of key importance in the study of the development of markets and the emergence of capitalism and the wage form. But I would say boredom is not what I felt at church when I sat there most Sundays of my youth. It was more an awareness of myself, my body and the incoherence of my thoughts. If the converse of boredom is entertainment and the church services I attended were certainly not entertainment then boredom was not what I felt. Perhaps I could call it “awareness” with a healthy dose of impatience. The explosion of Yoga in contemporary USA (and perhaps worldwide?) as an “exercise” phenomena probably has something to do with fitness, but much more to do with this religious head space that eschews “entertainment”, which leads us towards the body.
Where did that Protestant religious head space that is so closely tied to the emergence of capitalism go? And what exactly is its relationship to capital? Is it really the Weberian cliché of the “Protestant Work Ethic” that is almost synonymous with the “spirit”of capitalism. What if the Protestant head space is instead a sort of sanity check against the oncoming poison gas of capital that is on the verge of annihilating our time, subdividing it into nanoseconds of billable moments, annihilating our space? A question for a different post or different time – - But there can be no doubt that in the era of “Enjoy!” and the totalitarian grip “entertainment” has over our lives that the religious headspace has fallen off and many churches even see their services as forms of entertainment– What has been lost is that mental sphere of “awareness” with a healthy dose of annoyance, annoyance because it is simply not possible to wage a battle against entertainment with non-dramatic forms without annoying a good percentage of your entertainment-drunk audience.
Think of your time– Your work and how your work shapes your time. That is your work and your work is intimately connected to your money and your self-reproduction. This is one headspace of the wage, or the salary. Then think about your non-work time. This will be eating, sleeping, communicating, sex and entertainment. Eating and sleeping time are twinned with our work time because it is our money which allows us to eat and our sleeping which allows us to restore our headspace so that we can work. It is “entertainment” time where there is a gap, a gap that can be filled by contemporary “boredom”, but more likely it will become an oversaturated, mediated zone where our sexual phantasies or revolutionary dreaming play out and intersect and fuse and forge and spill over into the other zones. This is not the religious space. The religious space confronts itself partially as the negation of the entertainment space–and under a commiditized temporality this negation takes on a dangerously negative aspect because if it seriously presents itself as anti-entertainment then this would lead us to question its content, which must be political. So as I wrote religion becomes entertainment in many instances, but also “devotional” forms of entertainment like yoga and “exercise” also find a more widespread acceptance.
So what if theater itself were to lead in this direction? It already has in many ways and many forms. I don’t think Richard Foreman is interested in anything “religious” and I haven’t read enough of his journals online to really know what his overarching concerns are. I’m also not really aware of what his explicit theoretical approach is. But to experience one of his plays is to be taken into a new headspace that will be unfamiliar to most contemporary audiences. I have avoided speaking of the content of this play, “Old-Fashioned Prostitutes”, but I can only say that watching the work is like swimming around the mind of an older man and watching the ego, id and superego duke it out against a dyad of desirable coquettes: The main character “Samuel” speaks in a vague southern accent with the grammar of an ego struggling with memories interrupted by a judgmental, superegoish recorded voice harshly interjecting its opinion: “OKAY”. All the while an impish ID scrambles across the stage like a character from MAD Magazine, holding a mirror to deflect the gaze back onto the viewer– Then the prostitutes lean seductively on poles and talk in gnomic utterances and slowly grow more and more confrontational. Both “Samuel” and the prostitute “Suzie” have “best friends”, narcissistic doubles that fill out the action, heighten the chaos, and shuffle the variety of character combinations while lights blink then glow and fade, sound crashes, walls move upstage and quickly close, doors slam, and characters drop boxes off the front of the stage, a sort of ritualized menstruation.
There is poetry and it is evocative, but we are in another man’s mind and only so much signal can come from so much noise. There is no history here except a personal internal history– “Old-fashioned” gives us an idea that there is a sort of literary nostalgia at play, but beyond that… It is much easier to write of plays that confront a historical situation such as the two I wrote about last year and linked to above, but a play such as this (even if unconsciously) tells us something about our contemporaneity, our time, the material passing of time and specifically what that passing of time feels like, or can feel like, or did feel like.