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Profile: the "queerest" conclusions: the theater of Stuart Sherman.


Stuart Sherman, who died 14 September 2001 at the age of 55, was most often called a miniaturist because he appeared on stage, particularly in his "Spectacles," in ordinary clothing, with only a rickety stand (like those waiters use for serving food), a small sample case (not unlike that of a traveling salesman) set upon it, and a set of cue cards in the pocket of his (often flannel) shirt, to which he referred almost haphazardly for guidance. (1) In at least one "Spectacle" (Yes and Noh, 1993) they were blank playing cards. However, in his "Eighteenth Spectacle" (The Spaghetti Works, also 1993), his script/scenario sheets numbered 22 and were set out in meticulous detail, suggesting that the pocket cards might well often be genuine and his absent-minded handling of them a deliberate distraction. The sample case itself contained a miscellany of objects--mostly cheap (often plastic), some found or chanced upon, some modified for some arcane "coherence" either in themselves or with other objects (mini-dramas within a mini-drama), often subsumed under thematic subtitles like Time, The Erotic, The Spaghetti Works, that wryly engage large fundamental parameters. The objects, when their stage life was over (a matter of seconds), were either dropped or thrown negligently back into the sample case, creating the need for "rummaging" for later "events" or "scenes," or discarded on the stage floor, creating a cosmic disarray (for it is a world we are talking about, a universe, even). Finally, Sherman's "skits" were performed deadpan a la Buster Keaton. There was no emotive hint from the world you entered the theater with and later (mentally) staggered back to. Or if there was (occasionally), it happened in the merest blink of an eye that one found disorienting. This lack of emotive content was not a neo-Brechtian distancing for the (ultimate) purpose of seeing and constructive political engagement and action, but rather the bleak nothingness of Beckett's landscapes, the frozen look of futility and resignation, the certainty of doom in a world without foundation, without validated direction or guide posts, where game theory might well equal theology. When it was all over, there was the merest indication of "end." Indeed, "end" was not an applicable word; if we had been attentive, we had been moved beyond "end" and all other consoling terms. A pro forma bow and somewhat awkward exit completed the evening. We were left with the unmasked stage and its props (our lives, in other terms, if you like).

So what exactly constituted a "Spectacle" for Sherman? Absolutely anything and everything, particularly what was hidden, forgotten, edited from, or beneath our notice. Sherman's dramatic terrain was profoundly not comfortable.

Now, of course, the term "miniaturist" must be qualified. The writer to whom Sherman is most often compared is Richard Foreman (of the Ontological-Hysteric theater--his own, for more than 30 years), who might be described as a maximalist, but in the same line of philosophical-dramatic work. Both use an abundance of props, but whereas Sherman's are confined to a small suitcase, Foreman's are spread across a normal stage, a set. And although they share a Dada-Surreal dimension in their props and much the same derivation (detritus, inventions, amalgamations), their use of them is fundamentally different. They are on different sides of the epistemological/ontological wall. Foreman's entire dramaturgy of props, including the geometry of his strings, tricks of perspective, solemn pronunciamentos, shocking noises, verbal conundrums, disorienting tempi, his neatness, and so on, are all intended as an assault on the finitude of unknowingness, or human inability to break through that wall to a raw feel of truth, reality, what is. They delineate, as do the performers (who are props also), an agent that has neither reprieve nor resolution. Sherman is on the other side of that wall and does not see anything there except contingency, impermanence, disconnected and unreal bits and pieces, no foundational meaning, no grand vistas. The one is late modernist, the other postmodernist. Foreman agonizes, again and again, brilliantly. Sherman "plays," lives dangerously, creating a devastating drama out of nothingness. In the end, the terms minimalist and maximalist might well be reversed.

Minimalist in the Sherman sense might also well include other collectors of shards, scraps, fragments, quotations for the sake of uncovering or discovering (breaking through) like Walter Benjamin, Walter Walser, Nietzsche, E.M. Cioran, and Wittgenstein, whose collection strategies become end-runs around the constructions of formal, traditional, rational exegesis of "reality." Hannah Arendt, in her introduction to Benjamin's Illuminations, is provocative on the strategy of collecting:
 Tradition puts the past in order, not just chronologically
 but first of all systematically in that it
 separates the positive from the negative, the
 orthodox from the heretical, and {that} which is
 obligatory and relevant from the mass of irrelevant
 or merely interesting opinions and data. The
 collector's passion on the other hand is not only
 unsystematic but borders on the chaotic ... something
 that defies classification.

She goes on to quote Benjamin, who writes:
 The true, greatly misunderstood passion of the
 collector is always anarchistic, destructive. For
 this is its dialectic: to combine with loyalty to an
 object, to individual items, to things sheltered in
 his care, a stubborn subversive protest against the
 typical, the classifiable.

Echoing Benjamin further, she says:
 collecting is the passion of children, for whom
 things are not yet commodities and not valued
 according to their usefulness, and it is also the
 hobby of the rich, who own enough not to need
 anything useful and hence can afford to make the
 "transfiguration of objects {Benjamin}" their

Both Foreman and Sherman excel in the "transfiguration of objects", but as we have indicated, they marshal their objects for different purposes. Of Walser (Selected Stories), Christopher Middleton wrote: "Well before the 1920s, the text for Walser is a non-thing, as much so as a Cubist guitar or Magritte's apple ("Ceci n'est pas une pomme").

This brings us to a cardinal point of Sherman's work, namely the Wittengensteinian idea that anything can be anything else, that is, the world can be re-created an infinite number of times. This idea has been lurking for some time in Western culture, but it has become more explicit since the early twentieth century. It is not only a matter of meaning but also of designation. Wittgenstein, for example, in Philosophical Investigations on the plasticity of language and therefore of object (and the experienced world):
 Naming appears a queer connexion of a word
 with an object.
 nothing so far has been done, when a thing has
 been named.
 explanation is never completed.
 That we are therefore as it were entangled in our
 own rules.
 But can't the meaning of a word ... fit the meaning
 of another?

Dada, Surrealism, and the principle of collage, with varying degrees of attachment to fixity, make the same point. Or, as Roger Shattuck put it in a review dealing with the art of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century (New York Review of Books, 27 March 1997): "Using verbal, visual, and metaphysical punning, one can transform anything into anything else." Sherman conceptualized sculptures, and others fabricated them into being. His daily poetic practice (admittedly hit or miss) was to fix idly (by chance) on a word or phrase of whatever he happened to be reading (a book, the daily newspaper, an advertisement) and from it to create a poem with "meaning." For example, this excerpt from his poem for 19 April 1998:
 Circumsize your speech,
 Or your tongue's length
 May never again
 Politically abbreviate
 What's not there to say ...

I suspect the word he chanced upon was "circumsize." Similarly, his films often focus on seemingly trivial objects (fire escapes, shadows) or events, which then by his choice and visual obsession take on new significance. The common thread is a wholesale renaming and redesignation of things, a willingness to experience the world anew.

This last suggests what is perhaps the obverse of his method, namely his isolation from familiar contexts. Sherman seeks to restore the sovereignty of things, to free them from the associations and encrustations no longer questioned. If he at times seems to adhere to a superstructure of traditional meaning (sequence, fittingness, progression, the salesman peddling his wares), it is again the wry magician playing with us, a comic, somewhat mad commentary on the frailty of our securities. No object can ever be exhausted of its possible uses and meanings. To think that it can is to live a diminished life in a diminished and dying world. This, of course, touches on an old problem (and, increasingly, a new global one)--namely the (necessary) reductionism of the civilized (post-Enlightenment) world vs. the overwhelming particularity of the real world, the increasingly lost, hidden, dismissed world that remains finally in shards, traces, dreams, nightmares, the recovery of which is the project, at least in part, of the postmodernist, deconstructionist thrust. With Sherman, things in their pristine mystery do reign, and with them Sherman ventures new (or recovered) worlds. This is what Sherman, with his numerous Spectacles, invites us to come and see (at our peril).

We might also note that long before the contemporary concept of multiculturalism came into use (and misuse), Dada, Surrealism, and the strategy of collage were training us to see the merit of the discarded, the unnoticed, the incompatible, the culturally infra dig, a training later validated and expanded (e.g. to the meretricious, the commercial and industrial, and camp) by pop artists like Andy Warhol, loners like Joseph Cornell, personalities like Ondine, Holly Woodlawn, and Jackie Curtis, and critics like Susan Sontag. Much of this became the substance of the two versions of the American Ridiculous Theater--that of Charles Ludlam and that of John Vaccaro--with all its "mess" and screeching, apocalyptic and irreverent improprieties. Even before the early twentieth century's artistic and intellectual dislocations and challenges, the European explorers to the Americas and elsewhere were bringing back objects that had no attachment or context in the civilized world, could not be categorized, could not even be named properly (unless "mutilated" and therefore lost into an acceptable context). These ended up often in decorative and titillating curio cabinets (both in fact and in our minds) for idle and probably risque commentary, resulting, ultimately, in correctives like Edward Said's Orientalism and new academic disciplines.

The objects that Foreman (with more cultural sweep) and Sherman collect, combine, and create are anomalous objects (dramatic curio cabinets) but from our own world and traditions, and as such they impinge on the unknown, the hidden, the unacceptable, opening to us vistas of great alarm. This is, in effect, a rediscovery of America and the world, without the weight of authorized versions of truth and reality, a shattering of "curio cabinets." The incomprehension and the titters, the attempts to minimize, trivialize, and dismiss, are still there, but also a pervading unease: what might there be that we do not know? Or more specifically, what has been there all along that we've allowed to disappear (into language, into concepts), and what does it mean for our safety and security in this our world and these our lives?

The most serious charge against Sherman is that of solipsism: that he is making mud-pies in a very private sandbox. I hope that as time passes this charge will fade away. Anyone who does not play by society's foundational rules runs this risk (and others). But also, many who have been thus transgressive have broadened, even changed or shattered, the boundaries of foundational certitude. Certainly, postmodernism, even in its various metamorphoses (e.g. political, feminist, queer) has at its core been such a challenge and accordingly feared, reviled, resented, misperceived, etc. Sherman is very much in this vein. In his theater, he appears to make existential decisions, but they are oddly or superficially based on the "rational" world we all know. Occasionally, in subtitles like The Erotic or Time, he projects a challenge to very large certitudes, but mostly he is content simply to impose on his objects an aura of transience, randomness, and provisionality. He suffers no compunction in abandoning (discarding) them and moving on to one or another "irrational" scheme. It is a world, a cosmos, fraught with anxiety and ongoing collapse, but also ongoing (meaningless) constructions sufficient only for the moment: life as a stop-gap, a series of provisional constructions that will, at one moment or another, be rudely discarded because they fail to shore up anything, like the elaborate Rube Goldberg contraptions that fail to reach sufficiently edifying conclusions.

The difference between them and earlier constructions is that there is no moral, cultural, or political weight to them; there is no substantive hope. Nothing hinges on them. Unlike Richard Foreman's work, which rests on a belief in and yearning for ontological and epistemological certitude, if only we could figure out how to get to them; and unlike the new political opportunists, who revel in the destructions in the wake of postmodernism and seek to fill the void thus created with visions of a correct and even inevitable society based on old and new platitudes, what Susan Sontag perhaps alludes to (but does not spell out) in a recent essay (Times Literary Supplement, 9 April 1904), namely the "other illusions--other lies" that we in the early twenty-first have moved on to; Sherman is quite satisfied with postmodernism's shattered world--without center, without transcendence--and seeks (or plays with) ways to maybe make something out of it on its own terms. Whether such a project has been realized by Sherman, whether it can be realized, is of course open to question. At the moment we must, I think, give Sherman credit for having the courage, with great personal sacrifice, to present us with a thoroughly dismaying vista, but nevertheless one relevant to the disintegrating global village we are told we live in.

Now, Stuart Sherman, a shy and gentle but determined man in my brief acquaintance with him the last decade of his life, is dead. It is unfortunate that "dreck" (cultural and intellectual fast food) that passes for much theater today is rewarded and well attended. Sherman sometimes had only a dozen or so people in his audience, and he certainly was not particularly rewarded for his work. Yet the range of what he attempted far exceeded the content of more "successful" plays and performances. He had the foresight to film much of his work, so it can be seen, if unlikely to be reproduced by anyone (Foreman's problem also). I do not know how much he intellectualized what he was doing. Foreman is more of an intellectual in his work. Yet, reading issues of Sherman's magazine The Quotidian Review, gives one pause. For example, it was he who persuaded Charles Ludlam to read Nietzsche, to apparently great effect. Still, he was, I think, basically an intuitive artist, retaining a childlike wonder about a reality, a world, that had not yet, for him, in Richard Foreman's word, "coagulated." He had clearly cut himself off from the certitudes of tradition and leapt into the postmodern aporetic abyss, without consoling asides. Wittgenstein, elsewhere in Philosophical Investigations, writes: "I must not saw off the branch on which I am sitting," meaning we must maintain some (minimal) contact with the truth and world we are born into: our language, for example, even with its infinite contradictions and constrictions. Sherman seems to have cut off the branch. With what result we cannot yet say, but his courage in doing so is undeniable. The extraordinary "unpresence" of his theater is also undeniable. But perhaps, to cite another of Wittgenstein's aphorisms, he was seeking in his own unique way "to repair a torn spider's web with his fingers."

II. Observations of Performance on Stuart Sherman's Eighteenth Spectacle (The Spaghetti Works). Theater for the New City, NYC, 10-20 June 1993.

Stuart Sherman's "Eighteenth Spectacle" reveals its boldness in its subtitle (The Spaghetti Works), which can mean either "the spaghetti works," as in "the screw driver works" or "the formula works," or "The Spaghetti Works," as in "the Iron Works" or "The Metaphysical Works," i.e. a plant, a system. Or both. What he is doing is turning what is often pejoratively called his solipsism back on his critics. Why is a "spaghetti" system, he is asking, any less viable or more solipsistic than the discourse and rhetoric of other metaphysical/theoretical projections, like, for example, the Age of Reason? That he is phrasing the question outrageously and ridiculously in terms of spaghetti is both playful and combative; it should not lessen the force of his query.

The discourse of other systems of confronting and explaining the world is usually couched in language, word inventions that lay imperialistic claim to representation of reality, as Antonio de Nebrija, grammarian to the court of Queen Isabella, noted when in 1492 he wrote, "language is the instrument of empire," so well borne out in what followed that fateful year. Sherman has two strategies to counter such claims. First, he uses language to ridicule language. The structure of his "spectacle" is, in part, a series of "cultural" readings from a "menu," representing a variety of human accents, dialects, types of discourse--all purporting expressiveness and representation. In fact, because of their distorting deliveries (Sherman, for example, reads like a drunk), they are not expressive or representational of anything more than, say, the choices one might have among various metaphysical approaches to reality, just as one might choose items on a real menu for dinner: there are many avenues to digestion. To emphasize this, each return to the dinner table ends with such universalizing questions by Sherman or his partner as "Do you like Thai food?" Are you fond of fondu?" "Do you keep kosher?" and "Do you like Milky Ways?" In fact, the only item on the table is, in increasing amounts, spaghetti. Wherever you are philosophically, it's all just so much spaghetti.

Sherman's second strategy is to use spaghetti (and corollary materials like sauce and parmesan cheese) as the fundamental fabric or building blocks with which to manipulate varieties of reality in his miniature "solipsistic" world. He puts his spaghetti armada through a variety of "representations" and "expressions." For example, he pokes uncooked spaghetti through a colander hole or through a hole in an open umbrella. He puts a cut up Oreo cookie box inside a cut up Ronzoni spaghetti box. He puts a Band-Aid over a tomato sauce "wound," then another over his mouth, i.e. the mouth as the source of the wound of words (i.e. the raw material of more usual and acceptable metaphysical constructs). He "combs" spaghetti. He "smokes" spaghetti. He has a tomato pincushion. He even "emotes" with spaghetti, running a spaghetti strand around the grooves of a record and reflecting on his face the "passion" and "sentiments" in his manipulations. Spaghetti, like anything else, can do anything, if only we will see it so.

Sherman's last Spectacle (Yes and Noh) was defensive and angry, an understandable response to what he (correctly) perceived to be the idiocies of critics. Performed after hours on the quite compatible and nearly mainstream set of Richard Foreman's "Samuel's Major Problems," Sherman got his largest audiences. With "Eighteenth Spectacle," he was back to a more natural milieu, an airless basement room at Theater for the New City. There were no directions to it, and the night I went, no one seemed to know where it was, so I arrived late, after some wandering around. Since he was running it only two weekends, useful reviews were precluded, just as last time out he accepted no reservations. The space seats about 30 people; 9 including myself and spouse were there the night I went. Sherman is a specialized interest and requires some fortitude. I don't think he expects much understanding; he does not particularly put himself out to accommodate the world. Increasingly, an artist like Sherman is becoming a new "other," particularly since his overt political/ideological effluence is low.

His usual parameters were present. In addition to miniaturization and his surreal and magical modes, there is the usual suitcase with a miscellany of props (objects, products), a rickety folding stand on which he "performs" his universe, and two more on which the dramatic (and instructional) eating action occurs. A whimsical nod to representation is the pink and white-checkered motif on the oilskin tablecloth on the wall. Although Sherman has included a great deal more language than usual, it is anti-language language, just as his "coherence" is anti-coherence.

In some earlier Spectacles, Sherman made attempts to clean up after himself, to repackage and reorder the discarded objects of his routines, his discourse, to leave no spillage into the post-performance world. Perhaps he thought that would be disturbing, disequilibrious. Now the mess is clearly out of control, reflecting, I think, panic. Sherman throws objects away, sweeps off his table, with an end-of-the-world abandon. He rummages in the increasing mess anxiously and furiously, making manic retrievals for still another "coherence," another fumble on the tight wire of life. Although he still refers to his cue card as if it conferred order, it clearly does not, his glance barely touching it. In his last Spectacle it was blank. Most of all, in this respect, one must notice the increasing mounds of spaghetti in the bowls upon each return to the table. No one could eat that much spaghetti (except perhaps a monstrosity, e.g. a philosopher? a true believer?). It is indigestible. Systems, even anti-systems like Sherman's, ultimately run amok, escape containments, threaten to become mutilating and annihilating. His spaghetti system, The Spaghetti Works, becomes as exponentially complex and overwhelming as any other. In fact, then, the spaghetti ultimately doesn't work, but the suggestion is clearly there that neither do other systems, for all their purported "edification" and "applicability." Their infra-, super- structures share the contingency of his performance table. Sherman, the deadpan, sloppy salesman-purveyor, an inspired but frightening clown, doesn't have very pleasant things in his sample case.


(1.) Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1968) writes: "When we do philosophy we are like savages, primitive people, who hear the expression s of civilized men, put a false interpretation on them, and then draw the queerest conclusion from it."
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Author:Bernard, Kenneth
Publication:American Drama
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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