“NEUTRAL HERO“ BY RICHARD MAXWELL DURING WIENER FESTWOCHEN
By Yosi Wanunu
Three types of U.S. based performances are particularly popular with the taste-makers of the European festival circus. These performances – together with the usual suspects from Europe (same old, same old), and a roster of “new world” shows (one year Africa, then South-America, then East Europe, then…you get the point) – form the cultural diet we are all being fed, year in and year out, around our well meaning continent. We are being served with a cultural tasting menu from around the world, just like in the old days…
The first type are – the “in your face” provocation shows; usually accompanied with a fair amount of bodily fluid and a lot of nudity. Let’s admit it, the Americans are just better at it. They go for it full-on with lots of energy and naive simplicity and without the need to intellectualize it European style. The shows’ raw approach fits the high ticket prices of the festivals, it is an expensive provocation.
The second type are - the “digital spectacle” spectacles; usually accompanied with a large number of TV monitors/video beamers, green screen trickery and well orchestrated sound effects. Again, let’s admit it, the Americans are just better at it. For a nation that lives on a TV/Cable/Hollywood diet, these types of shows come easily and effortlessly. The “digital spectacle” has the appearance of the new, young and hip and that seems to be enough to fill in a certain niche in the festivals' programs. The problem is, if you strip the shows from all the visual trickery, you are left with a mediocre soap opera.
The third type are - “we mess with the text” theatrical performances; usually accompanied with new plays, literary materials or documentary texts put into play-like structures. In this case, the Americans are not better at it, just different. They seem to have a more relaxed attitude to language, a fact that provides them greater freedom in dealing with text and speech formats.
How language operates within the “new American play”
While in some parts of Western Europe the “language police” is still in full operation, many theatre and performance makers from the U.S. hold the notion that “good writing” can be a limiting, oppressive, totalitarian factor, because, as Roland Barthes suggested, it limits the free play of truth’s energy in a text. Barthes maintained that “good writing” is a manifestation of power exercised by a certain social class, and to be recognized as a “good writer” you must think and perform in accordance with the habits of that class – the exploitative class. Therefore vernacular, undisciplined, or “bad” writing has the potential to express important ideas that “good” writing cannot touch; ideas that exist, for instance, in the unconscious. Of course, such bad writing isn’t normally imagined to include the efforts of educated writers who specifically choose to write “badly”, which is the case of Richard Maxwell or The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, to name a few.
The show Neutral Hero by Richard Maxwell, shown recently as part of the Vienna Festival, is a good example of how language operates within the “new American play”; but also how the experiment with “good” and “bad” writing is reaching a dead end after many years of fruitful experimentation.
Maxwell is interested in the American myth, in what constitutes an American Hero and anti-hero. If in Ode to the Man Who Kneels he was busy with the manhood-myth via the old western movies; in Neutral Hero it is the myth of the American family. If you really need a storyline, you can make one: it involves an All-American town, a family, some unresolved family affairs, a lover and some mysterious characters that appear and disappear for no apparent reason. Maxwell is not interested in stories and for that matter in real exchanges of dialogue between the different characters. He builds a basic situation and then lets the characters speak and sing about their inner lives in a series of existential soliloquies that hide more than they reveal. Maxwell’s characters are simultaneously “ordinary” and eccentric – indeed, as he tries to persuade us that the ordinary is eccentric, and that eccentricity is what turns it into myth. The problem with that strategy is that, as the years pass by, it resembles more and more a Beckettian universe, but without the poetry that elevates it into a spiritual experience or gives it a mythological dimension. The characters stay flat, eccentric and a bit cartoonish, a two dimensional myth. They came, they talked, they sang, they left, leaving us with nothing to sing about.
He is looking for a way out
The staging has all the Maxwell ingredients; the minimal set, the flat/deadpan delivery, the simple stage movements, the detached singing, the crude visuals. Maxwell plays with theatrical realism; for him, what you see is, well, what you see. What's on stage is real and the only reality that is possible, so, away with mimetic duties and other theatrical eccentricities. He would like to see himself as a pure anti-illusionist theatre maker, but in the end the rich minimalism that he is employing is as formalized and artificial as a proper realistic stage design. It reminds me of Peter Brook’s empty stages over the years; the empty became more and more meaningful to a point where it was suffocating. The half circle of chairs on the Neutral Hero’s stage is way too holy to be just a half circle of chairs.
Concerning deadpan, at a certain point a female performer stands front-stage and repeats the words: “the woman” several times. After a while you get the feeling that Maxwell would like to give her a warmer tone but he doesn't know how; so, she stands and repeats the words with the hope that if you repeat them long enough, and in flat delivery, they will be filled with meaning. It doesn’t happen. Instead, all the experience has the smell of a bad religion play. Maxwell’s words are aiming upward, but they sound preachy instead.
Michael Feingold, the Village Voice critic, wrote about Richard Maxwell, after attending The End of Reality: “He’s struggling to invent a theatrical form in which to harmonize a mass of conflicting and even competing impulses. The gnomic, incomplete quality of his work makes clear that he hasn’t yet found that form; the self-conscious little hints of put-on that salt the piece imply a certain regret at being unable to go about things more conventionally. What will come after The End of Reality (significant title!) is anybody’s guess, like the meaning of the event itself. For me the two fascinating points are, first, that Maxwell’s much hyped gifts are genuine, and second, that our theatrical discourse overall has slipped so low that those celebrating Maxwell haven’t been able to convey, to a reasonably informed person like me, any sense of his actual qualities. Under those circumstances, it’s no wonder his work has a faintly puzzled air.”
I appreciate Maxwell’s work a lot, but the last few pieces went nowhere. I agree with Feingold that it seems like he is looking for a way out, for some warmth, for some emotional connections. The problem is that employing theatricality, in a more conventional way, will put him in trouble with the European festivals. He will lose, god forbid, his signature. But, maybe, it’s a risk worth taking for some better shows.