Guest Post: A Dispatch from Carrie Preston's Seminar - Between the Vile and the Uncomfortable

Last week in seminar, I had opinions. On the second day we met in Carrie Preston’s session, we considered Ibsen’s A Doll House. Alongside the play, we read Richard Hornby’s objection to Ibsen’s canonization as a crusader and composer of social theses. Hornby claims Ibsen is “our contemporary” due to his “sense of the bizarre, the unexpected, the unexplainable, which is one of his defining traits” (“Ibsen Our Contemporary,” New Theatre Quarterly 30, no. 3 [2014]: 243). It was delightful to read Hornby’s maneuvers as he wrenched Ibsen’s “grotesquerie” from the yawn-inducing genre of potentially impertinent problem plays. In addition to Hornby’s assessment, we considered Mabou Mines’s production of Ibsen’s Doll House. The director Lee Breuer cast actors of short stature in the male roles and as many tall women as he could find in the female roles.

I referred to the concept as “vile” and suggested it aligns with Barnum-esque strategies of “enfreakment,” as connoted by David Hevey (The Creatures Time Forgot: Photography and Disability Imagery. London: Routledge, 1992). In a 2006 interview, Breuer said of his conceit:

There’s kind of a metaphor in the air: Are these little people supersexual? So, while the feminism isn’t new — it was new 127 year ago when A Doll’s House came out — what’s new, fresh, and raw, and what makes people vulnerable, is the politics of little people. Look, Peter Dinklage is a star now. It’s all about the beginning of a movement. The fact is a little person playing Torvald is plowing new ground. (Leonard Jacobs, “Industry Insider: Lee Breuer: Playing with Dolls,”  Backstage East, Dec. 7-13, 2006, 19, 51).

Notwithstanding Breuer’s misconception of Ibsen’s supposed feminism, I claimed in our seminar that the casting strategy, as well as Breuer’s bizarre and seemingly unprompted interest in the sexuality of non-normative adults, constituted a “vile” work of art. I claimed it trafficked in perceptions of freakery by normative audiences. I claimed Breuer’s production differs little from TLC’s The Little Couple in its exploitation of human biological anomalies for the benefit of the (supposed) normative. ‘I see how different you are; thank you, I’m not.’ Or, to reconfigure the title of America’s first modern self-help guide, “I’m ok, you’re not ok.” 

I had a similar visceral reaction two days later when we read O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones and considered the Wooster Group’s 1995 (re)mounting, which toured globally for the subsequent decade and a half. I’m hardly the first to point out the problematic aspects of Kate Volk’s blackface performance. At the Comparative Drama Conference in 2013, Elizabeth Cizmar, in claiming that “blackface does not a black body make,” suggested Volk’s performance was an act of erasure. Volk’s interpretation occluded the performance of the original interpreter of Emperor Jones, the African-American actor Charles Gilpin; Cizmar argued that Volk’s interpretation expunges Gilpin’s performance and the significance of the integrated production from the public record and collective memory. In Cizmar’s formulation, Volk’s performance then, alas, posited that Gilpin deserves no place in either the archive or the repertoire.

In the video on the Wooster Group’s webpage, I suggest there is something more problematic about the production’s conceit. Volk’s blackface can only index the whiteness that both she and her castmate embody. Some critics, including Aiofe Monks (“‘Genuine Negroes and Real Bloodhounds’: Cross-Dressing, Eugene O’Neill, the Wooster Group, and The Emperor Jones,” Modern Drama 48, no. 3 [2005], 540-64), have suggested the blackface performance points to the constructedness of race (to be sure, Monks is not wholly persuaded by that argument). I suggest Volk’s blackface performance points only to whiteness. Volk’s performance erases the black body, replacing it with her own, supported by her white scene partners. She is always already read as white. Read the scene, as you would a book, from left to right, and you’ll land on the white body. I blurted out in seminar that if Lee Breuer’s exploitation of short-statured men was “vile,” the Wooster Group’s conceit verges on… I don’t know that I finished the sentence. I’d like to think I finished it with “criminal.”

Naturally, my colleagues in seminar agreed and disagreed to varying extents, and one colleague pointed out that the discomfort each performance provoked can be productive, can induce reflection, can denaturalize the social constructions we take for granted. In that light, perhaps the (re)interpretations offered by Breuer and Volk rise to the level of a Brechtian gestus. I agreed with my colleagues’ suggestions. Such targets deserve our quivers. But, to risk the cliché, do the ends justify the means? Are the goals more important than the ways in which we pursue them? In our dramaturgy roundtable, Heather Nathans suggested a curatorial approach may be necessary in contextualizing plays deemed “unproduceable.” Did Breuer and the Wooster Group curate sufficiently? As we continue to consider what gets performed, should we not also consider how it is those things, peoples, and places get performed?


See also: Matt DiCintio