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Tedium: an essay on drag, attunement, theater, and translation.

In Tedium, a play by Chicago-based playwright Mickle Maher, a single speaker recounts the story of a tedious theater event that turned, over the course of its run, into something else entirely. The play begins with the account of what seems at first to be an ordinary failure: "Greg has written, and made us put up, what many people, myself included, consider to be his worst play ever. Worst in all ways--from the initial bland, unfocused concept, to the writing up of that bland, unfocused concept in play form (the worst form this particular concept could have been expressed in), to the production itself ..., the self-conscious over-reaching actors, the green unitards ... clinging and bunching on the actors' bodies ..., and the length of the play, which, not counting the one intermission, runs over eight hours." (1) And yet, the speaker recounts, this play becomes the "biggest hit ever" (2) of the company in the "little theater above the funeral parlor" (3). This unexpected success apparently derives from two moments in the performance, in which the audience experiences something that penetrates the tedium of the play, something that the speaker describes as the "sensation of 'having been in this place before,"' a sensation that transcends his summary label of "deja-vu" to approach something that "dissolves one's present self in another's ..., one more attuned to a certain strength of patience, and one especially aware of the generosity of Time" (4). The speaker attributes this note on the generosity of Time to an unnamed "critic" but uses it to counter the complaint from the insistently avant-gardist director that this sensation was merely a by-product of theatrical gimmickry. Despite the charge of gimmickry, the moments in question--first, a "dialogue" between "two marionette orchids adrift in a pool of jasmine-scented salt water" (3), and second, a "long set-change" in which stage-hand Todd" used a coffee can to transfer at a very slow pace an "anthill" of dirt from an up-stage corner to down-center (10-11), lead the audience to a moment of unexpected attunement. The speaker asserts that this attunement is created not through "magic--that tired term" (8) but through a "dense boredom" whose "particular pace or pulse acts somehow as an incantation against itself," and that this moment "would be impossible to experience without the boredom that precedes it" (9). In other words, it is only through boredom or tedium that a piece of theater--"even the worst"--can by way of the "chance collision" between stage and audience produce a moment of fundamental attunement (9).

Tedium was first performed in June 2001 by Theater Oobleck, a company of writers and players which has been based in Chicago since 1987, even though some of its original members, who met at the University of Michigan, now live elsewhere, as far afield as Los Angeles and Puerto Rico. This production did not take place in the "little theatre above the funeral parlor" which was then and is still the realm of Greg Allen's Neo-Futurists, but at another Chicago venue whose name has changed several times since. Playwright-player Maher sat on stage illuminated by the subtle effects of theater lights in the darkened space and backed by a cabinet from whose drawers popped the marionettes and other objects mentioned in the account, but the event has left few traces. The cabinet has long since disappeared and the text remains unpublished but the play's enactment of the experience of and reflection on tedium struck a responsive chord. In 2010, I invited the playwright to read it again for a seminar on Catharsis, Tedium, and Other Aesthetic Responses. The seminar began with Aristotle's notoriously brief comments on catharsis and went on to explore, among other phenomena, the aesthetic mediation of pity and terror performed by the tragic audience and the apparent failures instantiated by boredom and its likenesses. Performing as the guest in the session on tedium in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and others, Maher read his own work in an ordinary classroom with unremarkable furniture, lit by daylight supplemented by the usual fluorescent tubes. Maher's unadorned reading nonetheless enabled the small audience of seminar participants to catch the rhythm of the performance, from concentration through tedium to something like attunement, accompanied by their own thoughts along with the rustle of paper and the scraping of chairs. This Tedium unadorned by lights, curtain, or mysterious properties invited comparison not with the theatrical premiere, which was unknown to all in the room but the playwright and the professor, but rather with the full stage revival for a single evening on campus of Mahers published and more frequently performed play The Hunchback Variations, which had been paired with Tedium on one previous occasion, in September 2001. In addition to exploring tedium, The Hunchback Variations also enacts, in a series of exchanges using sounds and silences as well as dialogue, the aspiration towards attunement, and thus play with the tension between attunement and the drag of tedium.

The performances of Tedium and its companion in the theater and in the classroom together offer a distinctive opportunity for investigating the tension between and interpenetration of magic and disillusion, absorption and distraction, play and labor. Before we can determine just what distinguishes Maher's work and what invites more attention than the positive reviews and the single critical analysis it has so far received, we should begin by noting points of intersection between his experiments and other explorations of failure and tedium in performance. (2) Whatever the opinion of the playwright, who has the right to remain silent or to allow his plays to speak in his stead, the performance of failure prompts critics to recall Samuel Beckett. The well-known sentence from Worstward Ho--"Fail better"--may be, despite its appearance on the opening page of a text advertised as "prose fiction," a comment on past performance or a command to future action; in the latter guise, it orders a performer to enact the impossible and the reader to ponder the paradox of the imperative to do better at failure. (3) Beckett's example remains a more pertinent comparison for Maher's work than more self-consciously ironic attempts to perform failure, most conspicuously the work of Forced Entertainment. While the latter company deliberately stages failed performances by expertly mimicking bad actors in all their awkwardness, Tedium and its companion may begin with parody but move beyond the point of indulging a knowing or "talented audience" (Tedium, 8) to something else that is both more moving and more discomforting.

The shape of that "something else" will, I hope, emerge over the course of this essay and offer in the exploration of the apparently mundane experience of tedium a counterpoint to my previous article for this journal, on the tragedy of the commoner. For the moment, I would suggest provisionally that the enactments of tedium and its others in both Tedium and The Hunchback Variations allow us to explore and possibly to explain the power of theater to hold our attention. Teaching Tedium alongside philosophical reflections on Langeweile and other forms of tedium highlighted affinities between philosophizing and theater-making and the potential of both kinds of texts to provoke the experience of tedium and attunement through the performance and the critical analysis of that experience. In stressing the process of making and reflecting, I am departing from studies such as Martin Puchner's Drama of Ideas, which, as its title indicates, treats the intersection between philosophy and drama as an object of representation, examining first theatrical elements in philosophy since Plato, followed by readings of plays that dramatize ideas borrowed from philosophers. (4) "Thinking Performance," Freddie Rokem's subtitle for his book Philosophers and Thespians, points to process and experience as well as the ideational content of drama and his introduction draws attention to philosophers who "appropriate] theatrical practices" and to thespians who apply "philosophical tools and modes of thinking" to theater, and thus to the "discursive practices" between these domains. (5) His case studies, however, focus on achieved form and content rather than the processes of making and unmaking; they juxtapose theatrical content (discussion of plays and playwrights) and the dialogue form in Plato's Symposium with philosophical ideas expressed in plays from Shakespeare's Hamlet to Bertolt Brecht's Galileo, as well as the theatrical and philosophical content in apparently non-theatrical texts, such as August Strindberg's letters to Nietzsche, or Brecht's discussion of Kafka with Walter Benjamin. Both Puchner and Rokem offer thoughtful readings of the productive exchange between philosophy and theater, but what interests me here is less production than process and interruption: the starts and stops, the snags between and the drag beneath performing and philosophizing.

This rhythm of process and interruption, attunement and drag, invites what Henri Lefebvre calls in another context (that of observing everyday activity on city streets) "rhythm-analysis" or analysis in rhythm. Translating Lefebvre's original French title Rythmanalyse as "analysis in rhythm' highlights the rhythms of process and experience in performance and a provisionally dialectic interaction with the analysis of rhythm and, with another dialectical movement that Lefebvre identifies, between structure and play in performance and everyday life. (6) "Analysis in rhythm" may in turn invite comparison with Brecht's concept of "kritische Haltung," which Brecht understood to encompass "bearing" as well as "attitude" and "opinion" and thus the embodiment of thinking (denkendes Verhalten) in the intelligent actor as well as the work of the ensemble of actors, director, and playwright to represent the "conduct" (Verhalten) of people in society. (7) For the moment, however, I would hold Brecht at bay or at least in reserve. For all his interest in play, even fun (,Spafi), Brechts commitment to an Enlightenment theater in the tradition of Denis Diderot and critical practice in the tradition of Marx may put his theoretical and stage practice at odds with or at least at one remove from the task of investigating an as yet unclarified "something else" or, to follow Diderot, a new "paradox on the actor," which might emerge, as I have suggested, from the investigation of the snags and drags between performing and thinking, feeling, and sober presentation. (8)

As this preliminary work with translation suggests, translating keywords not only from their original languages but also across disciplinary boundaries, from philosophy to theater and back, enables us to pinpoint shifts in the meaning and experience of drag and attunement. (9) Translation matters because translating theory is the best way to understand the resonance and boundaries of concepts and their articulations. Close attention to the friction between languages spotlights points of conflict, ambiguity, and perhaps also attunement in argument and enactments, work and play. In Die frohliche Wissenschaft (which translates best as Cheerful Learning--rather than Gay Science--highlighting its key insight about the entwinement of learning and play), Nietzsche asserts that Tragheit (inertia, lethargy, or idleness) and Langeweile (boredom or tedium) are necessary preconditions for creativity. (10) This provocation resonates also with the notion, floated by writers in French from Charles Baudelaire to Roland Barthes, that the artist's ennui stimulates creativity even if it might threaten to stymie production. (11) However, the key text that brings tedium into contact with attunement is Heidegger's lecture series on Langeweile. Maher disavowed knowledge of these lectures but his Theater Oobleck colleague David Isaacson had in 1995 alluded to Heideggerian being, time, and "thrown-ness" (Geworfenheit) in "The Spy Who Threw His Voice," an as yet unpublished play on political intrigues and language games that might have played out in the 1990s between Cold War pundit William F. Buckley (played by Maher) and Czech dissident and later President Vaclav Havel (by Danny Thompson). Further, the interplay among members of the group who typically act as "outside eyes" for their colleagues' work in progress creates a good environment for the informal and often subconscious dissemination of ideas.

More than merely thematizing the idea of tedium, Tedium's enactment of "deep boredom" as the portal to "attunement" (both expressions in Maher's text) suggests even if the playwright does not quote Heidegger's representation of tiefe Langeweile as the necessary condition for Grundstimmung, his text terms of art and the arc from tedium to attunement suggest an affinity between its dramaturgy and Heidegger's method of philosophizing in public. (12) This affinity prompts further exploration of Heidegger's key concepts in the process of their unfolding in his lectures from 1929 to 1930, an exploration which might in its turn illuminate the enacted thinking of Maher's text. While Stimmung is colloquially translated as "mood" and Langeweile as "boredom, " William McNeill and Nicholas Walker's translation of Stimmung as "attunement" and Grundstimmung as "fundamental attunement" stresses the process of tuning rather than as yet unattained perfect pitch. This emphasis on process resonates with Heidegger's advocacy for philosophizing as against the notion of philosophy as a body of knowledge. The treatment of philosophizing as a form of comportment (Verhalten) between speaker and hearer (Grundbegrijfe, 17; Fundamental Concepts, 12) invites the companion translation of Langeweile as tedium and its explication or unfolding as the drag through the long while. This translation highlights not only embodiment but also the important distinction between Langweiligkeit (Grundbegrijfe, 126), which McNeill and Walker translate as boringness (Fundamental Concepts, 82), but which could be simply rendered as the state--or stasis--of boredom, and Langeweile, which as the drag through the long while highlights the experience of time passing that might yet pull us in the direction of a still unknown end.

While their intended outcomes may differ, playing and thinking share trajectories of experimentation with word, thought, and deed which can help us trace the unlikely entanglement of deep tedium and fundamental attunement. In his introductory remarks to the Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, which include the lectures on Langeweile, Heidegger describes "our philosophizing" as Verhalten, as the comportment or embodied conduct of both speaker and listeners. Despite his perhaps unexpected acknowledgment of conduct as performance, however, his conception of philosophizing Verhalten differs from Brecht's understanding of conduct as the way not only to understanding the world but also to changing it, along Marxist lines. (13) Heidegger presents the conduct of philosophizing as an expression of and a protest against the breach between Heimweh (pining or paining for home, rather than the state of homesickness) and Dasein (best translated as "being there"; Grundbegriffe, 10; Fundamental Concepts, 5), but holds at bay, in this text at least, any final closure of this breach. (14) Heimweh in his account is the displacement or "being away" (Weg-sein; 91, 63) from oneself, the awareness of which wakens the philosopher to the potential of attunement in "being there. " The connection between Heimweh and awakening (Weckung; 89, 59) sketches what will later become the link between tiefe Langeweile and Grundstimmung. Before he can forge this link, however, Heidegger acknowledges that it might be "questionable" (fraglich; 89, 59), and so begins by identifying the state of ordinary boredom as a point of departure. The expression "being bored by something" attributes cause to an outside "thing, a book, a play, a ceremony," but this attribution rests in his view on a superficial assessment of "boringness" and thus cannot account for the tedium that exceeds any simple impulse "provoked" by an object (124, 82). This deeper tedium Heidegger names as "das Langweilende, das Langweilige, das Hinhaltende und doch Leerlassende' (Grundbegriffe, 130) so as to highlight not only the boring (langweilige) as in the published translation, but above all the dragging through the long while (das Langweilende) "that holds us at bay and yet leaves us empty" (Fundamental Concepts, 87; emphasis in original). My translation of das Hinhaltende as "holding at bay" rather than as "holding in limbo" (87) shows the affinity between tedium and "being absent" (Nicht-Dasein) and thus the attuning potential of "emptying out" and opening up that might bring tedium into resonance with "being there" instead.

Opening up does not automatically invite resonant attunement, however; the emptied self may instead feel paralyzed by tedium. While we may drive away (wegtreiben) superficial boredom by passing the time (zeitvertreiben; 140,93), the deeper second form of tedium appears rather to "affect us with paralysis" as time drags on, thus holding us at bay from "being there." In this stage, Heidegger argues, we are no longer "bored [gelangweilt] by" a particular object or situation but we rather "become bored with" some "I know not what" (Fundamental Concepts, 117; "ich weiss nicht was," Grundbegriffe, 180). The reflexive verb sich langweilen bei (Grundbegriffe, 124) allows us to differentiate this second form of tedium more clearly from the first by saying not, as the published translation has it, that we are "bored with" something but rather that we become bored in the process of--or while--"we know not what." In other words, we are no longer provoked by a boring event but left emptied (leergelassen; 175, 116) by the long while itself. Even without citing French, Heideggers phrase "ich weiss nicht was" translates the "je ne sais quoi" at the heart of ennui, an experience of emptiness or pining rather than mere boredom. In this emptiness, Langeweile, the drag through the long while, "stretches" (dehnt sich) into a "singular Now" (einzige Jetzt; 188, 125). In "this now at a stand-still"(dieses stehende Jetzt; 189, 125) we are held at bay both from our future and from our "having-been" (Gewesenheit; 186, 125). No longer able to make time flow, we experience tedium, as does Tedium's speaker, with time rather than merely with its passing.

At once "casual" (lassig; 180, 120)--or nonchalant--and profound, tedium becomes much more than drag through the long while. As we give ourselves over to this "now" and at the same time "leav[e] ourselves behind" (180, 119), we open ourselves to depths below the superficial response to some boring something, to an emptying that "grasps at the roots of our being there" (an die Wurzel unseres Dasein greift). Recalling his initial caution about the "questionable" link between tedium and attunement, Heidegger acknowledges that this third form, deep tedium, the experience of the long while that "drags in and for oneself" (es ist einem langweilig), could lead the self to radical doubt (Verzweifulung; 211, 140), but he moves his reader nonetheless to attend to its possibility. In the first form of tedium that is the state of boredom, we attempt to pass time by "shoutjing] down" (Fundamental Concepts, 136; iiberschreien, Grundbegriffe, 205) the thing that bores us so as not to listen to the drag of time. In the second, we hear this drag while it bores us but still resist listening to it. In the third form of tedium, "we are compelled to listen" to the long while that is tedious to us (haben wir jetzt das Gezwungensein zu einem Horen; Grundbegriffe, 205; Fundamental Concepts, 136) and, I would argue, "tedium within us," to let go and to open ourselves to the distinctive (eigentiimliche-not peculiar) truth of attunement (209, 139). Letting go of the individual self, the self that is marked by "name, status and the like," brings the now unbounded (unbestimmtes) self to itself (215; 143), the moment enabling (das Ermoglichende) essential possibilities (wesenhafte Moglichkeiten) of being there (des Daseins; 216, 143). In this deep tedium, we are in thrall (gebannt) to time, held at bay from ourselves and yet "attuned through and through" (durchstimmt; 226, 150) in this long while to the possibility of becoming free (sichbefreien) in being there (225, 149). The temporal thrall (das Zeitbann) made manifest in the "long while in us" can be broken only through time itself (226, 150), through an Augenblick, a moment of vision that is also an instant, a bli(n)k of an eye that brings together present, future and "having been" (Gewesenheit) in the "look" of Dasein (Blick des Daseins; 226, 151). It is only through the extremity (Spitze) of the long while, the truly whiling long (das eigentliche Langweilende; 236,157) that we can arrive at the moment of vision that breaks the thrall, and so enables the possibility of fundamental attunement in the deep tedium of our existence (die Langeweile unseres Daseins or the long while of our being there).

At this extreme point, the Augenblick (bli-n-k of an eye, moment of vision) is as fragile as it is momentary, and in its nonchalance, also never quite as weighty as "fundamental" implies. Having brought his audience to this point, Heidegger pulls us up short at the start of the final chapter on Langeweile, noting that we have come only as far as the possibility of attunement. Only in letting ourselves be emptied or held at bay can we become receptive to attunement (239, 160). We can be attuned through and through (durchstimmt) by deep tedium if we do not fight it. Only in openness, in the absence of oppressiveness (Ausbleiben des Bedrangnis) can deep tedium awaken in us the process of thorough questioning (voile Fragen) through which deep tedium enables the fundamental attunement of our being there (Grundstimmung unseres Daseins; 245, 164). Heideggers paradox--that tedium is the enabling condition of full awakening and thus of fundamental attunement--echoes Nietzsches assertion in Cheerful Knowledge that, for thinkers, "boredom is that disagreeable 'windless calm' of the soul that precedes a happy voyage." (15) But, where Nietzsche grants to the thinker, artist, and other "sensitive spirits" (empfindsame Geister) agency over tedium in the apparent oxymoron "resolute idleness" (entschlossene Tragheit), Heidegger reads Tragheit as inertia, as the experience of the unbounded and thus undefined (unbestimmtes) "I" (215, 143) left emptied and open to the experience of the long while and thus the essential possibilities (wesenhafte Moglichkeiten) of being there (Daseitv, 216, 143). Although Heidegger's lecture podium is not exactly a stage, his sense of the fleeing fragility of attunement enabled by letting go of the self in deep tedium resonates with the speakers avowal in Mahers play, as the latter's testimony tracks the "exhaustingly dull" (Tedium, 4) drag of the play up to the unpredictable moment of vision in tedium that "catches by complete surprise" (14) not only the speaker and other audience members but also the stagehand, every time every night he slowly moves that pile of dirt.

The play's attentiveness to the upending effect of this surprise allows for humor in its nonchalance but still keeps at bay the loud ring of postmodern parody that audiences, especially the "talented audience" (Tedium, 8) that the speaker addresses, might expect from an evidently meta-theatrical piece that begins by indicting the "bland, unfocused concept" and the "self-conscious, over-reaching actors" (1) and ends by leaving Greg, the creator of the play-within-the-play frustrated that the "mysterious and inexplicable" (8) moment of vision has apparently thwarted "the tedium he aspires to create" (16). Greg may bear a superficial resemblance to a director of expert ineptness of the sort perfected by Forced Entertainment but his disdain for his audience is only one of several perspectives articulated in Tedium. (16) Although the play has only one speaker, it has several characters, each of whom expresses a different view of a supposed link between tedium and attunement. For stage-hand Todd, it is tedium itself, not any momentary relief or vision, which "surprises" him every night (14). For Greg, the moment that unexpectedly attunes the members of audience is a maddening distraction from his avowed mission to subject them to deep tedium. The speaker quotes him saying that the "gimmicky, mawkish' moments" should be "publicly ridiculed and then cut from the play" (6). Expressing avant-garde disdain for the idea of Time's generosity or "Time as Gift" that might counteract the "most crushing boredom" (12) which defines human existence, Greg takes his share of the profits from his unexpected hit, "a considerable cut," according to the speaker, to mount another attempt across town to "pull the audience, back to that inaugural mind-set which felt the tick of each moment to be a paralyzing, soul-drowning drag" (13). Greg's emphatic rejection of the speaker's experience of attunement as mere nostalgia is prompted, oddly enough, by his estranged ex-girlfriend, who condemns the "first instance of deja-vu," the moment when the floating orchids "recede wave-like back into the play's sea of tedium," (5) by ostentatiously leaving the theater, "fake boo-hooing, holding a soaked hankie to her eye, the back of her hand to her forehead in mock swoon, the whole tawdry bit, night after night" (6), but affirms his second attempt to create tedium, in the new show across town, by "applauding his courage" even though she is "no longer on speaking terms" with him (15), and thus, in her "excitement," "completely undermining" his "valiant endeavor" (15-16) to generate soul-destroying drag.

These lines elicited laughter in the theater and in the classroom, but the play's note of attunement pierces both Paula's mockery of the note that she dismisses as bad pathos in the first instance and that she affirmatively enacts in the second. The speaker acknowledges that talk of the "immediacy of theater--how a play is performed and absorbed in the crunch and spark of the present second" (4)--is nothing new, and that attempts to explain a play's "magic" may well elicit common boredom if not the studied performance of scorn that this play scripts for Paula. Nonetheless, the reverberation of "chance collision between the efforts made on stage and the efforts made by those watching" (8) may yet outlast the drag through the long while. The play ends with the speaker observing that playwright Greg, even though he appears to want to pull audiences away from the "crunch and spark" (4) of theatrical immediacy back to the "soul-destroying drag" (13; emphasis in original) of tedium, cannot bring himself to extinguish the spark between stage and house, perhaps because, as the last words have it, this emphatic act would amount to "overblown theatrics" (16). While neither the speaker nor the author of this play can claim to have explained how tedium or Tedium might avoid theatrics and enable attunement, the performance of tedium and attunement, including the audience's performance, lends corporeal weight to the link. As the word "lends" implies, the movements from sensation to sense or from enactment through drag and perhaps towards attunement are transient and capricious, but the effort persists.

In contrast to Tedium, The Hunchback Variations play the drag through the long while against a sought-after moment of extraordinary vision or in this case extraordinary audition that might penetrate deep tedium, all the while without the words "boredom," "tedium," or "attunement." Written and staged initially for a festival of experiments in sound and voice that took place at Links Hall Chicago in February 2001, The Hunchback Variations was revived in tandem with Tedium in September. This play shares with its companion the performance of failure, and the sense, suspended somewhere between speakers, that even the most profound failure, the kind that elicits a silence so saturated that "all that is heard is the sound of our wicked planet turning in space," may yet express the inexpressible. But while the conflicting voices in Tedium are heard through the account of a single unnamed speaker, The Hunchback Variations presents iterations of a panel discussion between two speakers identified respectively as Ludwig van Beethoven and Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre Dame, the latter who expresses the silent response to profound failure which I have just quoted. (17)

While attunement in Tedium arises only through tedium and thus apparently inadvertently, The Hunchback Variations begin with a quest for attunement, a quest to create "an impossible, mysterious sound" (?Hunchback, 39) but ends nonetheless in failure. The stage directions tell us that the lights come up on "Quasimodo and Beethoven seated at a table with two microphones, a pitcher of water, and glasses" (37) but not how the creators approached their roles. Performing at the premiere and at several revivals since, Maher took the stage in street clothes and a baseball cap, and spoke clearly the lines that he wrote for an old and deaf Beethoven, beginning each iteration of the panel discussion that starts anew after the lights fade and return, with a note of welcome and good cheer that plays oddly but insistently with the impossible task and the record of failure. In contrast, Colm O'Reilly as Quasimodo wore a frayed cassock and hunched in his chair with his face hidden in a full mask. As Quasimodo he periodically selected musical instruments and other noise makers from a pile on the table to make a sound that might have approximated the mysterious, impossible sound but that ultimately could not, and in between spoke slowly and gloomily as though impeded less by his character's deafness than by a grudge against Beethoven for not offering his "nice, large apartment" for rehearsal and escape from Quasimodos "small and muddy" hut in the marshes (43), and by the miserable memory of their joint failure. A critic might see in these contrasting styles of performance a duel between dramatic embodiment in O'Reilly's absorption in his character and Brechtian citation in Mahers matter-of-fact presentation of words attributed to Beethoven, but something other than the theater of enlightenment is in the offing here. Maher's presentation of Beethoven's lines generated a certain estrangement to be sure, but O'Reilly's grotesque mask and distended voice were stranger still, opening a gap between actor and character that threatened to absorb the audience's puzzlement into the dark matter between words and sounds.

Although Maher speaking as Beethoven announced the object of their collaboration as "Creating the Impossible, Mysterious Sound" (Hunchback, 38; italics in original) and appeared for the most part to determine the start and end of each iteration of the panel discussion, the text of the play stages a conflict rather than a collaboration. Only in the third iteration of a discussion that seems to begin anew and end abruptly each time, after Beethoven has twice nixed Quasimodo's note with the sentence, "that is not the sound" (42), do the characters describe their quest in detail. Beethoven says that he and Quasimodo "attempted to bring into being" (45) the sound that Chekhov called for in Act II of his last play The Cherry Orchard, but avows that he cannot recall the stage direction. Nor, as he later admits, has he even read the play. Quasimodo finds the place in Chekhov's text where Ranyevskaia and company are sitting in silence, and quotes the familiar translation: "suddenly a distant sound is heard, coming as if out of the sky, like the sound of a string snapping, slowly and sadly dying away" (Hunchback, 45-46). (18) After this quotation, however, he says nothing more in this scene, punctuating Beethoven's repetition of and skeptical commentary on Chekhov's directions only with a series of experimental sounds. This scene may invite retrospective reading as a summary of the play as a whole in so far as it rehearses the effort to create the mysterious, impossible sound, reiterates the dynamic established at the outset between a Beethoven at once hopeful and contrary and a Quasimodo gloomy but doggedly persistent, and ends with both an admission of failure and an appeal for recognition.

This retrospective reading favors Beethoven, lending his closing remarks in this scene the authority of authorship--"as you leave we ask you to not let what you've seen and heard here tonight seep too quickly from your minds. For our best lives are lived, like yours, in the memories of others (Hunchback, 47-48). But, although these lines may suggest a desire for recognition, the tone of the next scene dips into a presentiment of profound failure. Quasimodo repudiates the very idea of faith: "I seek a total lack of faith..., a state of knowing fully that ... all is ruin, and beyond ruin, grief and a vacuum" even as Beethoven makes a gesture toward the great deal of faith that is needed when tackling the problem of expressing the inexpressible" (49). Scourging Beethoven and perhaps also the audience when he says "I curse you," Quasimodo demands "release from this impossible problem,... release altogether from the urge to create" (49-50), emphasizing his repudiation with a particularly discordant noise, which prompts Beethoven's cheerful "let's take a little break" (50). In scene five, Quasimodo hears Beethoven's recollection of his mind quiver [ing] with inspiration" as he walked through the marshes, apparently certain, as Quasimodo hears him, that "our collaboration could be nothing but a success" (52), but he punctuates Beethoven's account with the leaden recollection of the latter's "spongy tread" through the mud to the nightly ordeal in the hut (53). In scene six, however, despite his lack of faith, Quasimodo emphasizes his persistence with "all manner of instruments and objects to strum to strike to blow to pluck. All in the service of Dr. Anton Chekhov and his diabolical instruction" (55-56). He contrasts these endeavors with Beethoven's single effort, "the sound of the pages of Emily Dickinson's collected poems being fanned with his thumb" (56). Quasimodo's indictment of what he calls "the most perverse sentimentality" of Beethoven's act of "amplify[ing]" the fluttering of poems by a "not born, lonely recluse" (57) flips all at once into comic absurdity as he sketches the picture of two deaf men supposedly meeting "in the year 1825" (56) in the attempt to create the mysterious sound in the as yet unwritten play by an unborn Chekhov, and ending up with the substitute sound of fanning the pages, as the stage directions demand--"again and again and again" (57)--of the collected works of an as yet unborn Dickinson. This gloomy but hilarious deflation of meaning is a trick that we might associate with Beckett, but Maher's play with the language and the sheer sound of his sources is more exuberantly playful, closer perhaps to Beckett's mentor and primary antagonist James Joyce than to Sam's stringent reduction of the elements of play.

Despite this comic undoing of dramatic seriousness, it is an apparently unexpected pathos that sounds the depths of the imagined place in Quasimodo's question in section seven: "Where is the place for the uncreated in this modern world? ... Where is the room for keeping all the nothings?" (Hunchback, 59). Like Heidegger's Heimweh for attunement, this evocation of a non-space (or outopia) for the uncreated awakens the sense of being away but also the anticipation of the being there and thus of the good place (or eutopia). This attunement of emptying and anticipation, like the almost subsonic notes that run through much of the performance, vibrates in the spaces between sometimes abstruse, sometimes funny dialogue, from Quasimodo's initial comment on the profound silence that greeted the failure of their collaboration to the final words of the play. In the penultimate (tenth) reiteration of the panel discussion, which opens, on this occasion only, not with Beethoven as usual but with a statement by Quasimodo who declares that rehearsing with Beethoven was "true horror" (66). Recalling both Beethovens "eager genius" and his contribution of "nothing to an impossible task" (66), Quasimodo calls once again for "pure disbelief, a state of knowing fully that there is nothing above or below the sky" (66). Beethoven responds only with the familiar lines "Good evening ... and welcome " (67) but, contrariwise, they close rather than open this scene. Coming after Quasimodo's indictment and the angry discord that follows, Beethoven's cheer sounds more like inertia, perhaps "cheerful inertia," a mysterious, impossible frohliche Tragheit that might hold at bay further quests after the elusive sound. In the final scene, Beethoven begins once again in this state we might call "cheerful inertia" with "Welcome," and despite a recollection of historical triumphs like the Ninth Symphony (68), can otherwise only reread Chekhov's directions again, and remark: "In all the worlds, both actual and theatrical, there is no such sound." After Beethoven once again flutters the pages of Dickinson's collected poems (69), Quasimodo ends the play by repeating Ranyevskaia's last farewell--"Oh my darling, my precious, my beautiful orchard! My life, my youth, my happiness ... Goodbye" (69, 70), as if his capacity to go on and the playwright's ability to generate words were both spent and dragged to a halt.

In this breach between Quasimodo's lament and Beethoven's cheerful inertia, drag rather than climax appears to bring the long while to a close, holding at bay any moment of transcendent vision that might rise up in an Augenblick. The cheer that Mahers Beethoven appears to share with the artists imagined by Nietzsche does not fill or fulfill the house. Audiences have certainly applauded The Hunchback Variations, but comments on the performances have resonated with the pathos in Quasimodos last words, as well as with the elements of irony that occasionally puncture it. The notes of longing that end both The Hunchback Variations and Tedium keep lightness and gravity in play but also hold at bay attachments to forceful interpretations that critics may be inclined to favor. I sound this note of caution while recalling the question posed by an auditor of an early version of this essay, who wondered--without having seen either play--whether the inertia marked by the drag of the long while might have more in common with the paralysis of the alienated subject under capitalism. One might, to be sure, see in cheerful inertia an instance of the "waning of affect" that Fredric Jameson has attributed to late capitalism, in which context cheerfulness may appear to be only a thin veneer over alienation, and thus the very negation of attunement. (19) Or one might find in Beethovens cheerful inertia an instance of "wanton optimism" (straflicher Optimismus), which Marxist philosopher (and reader of both Brecht and Heidegger) Ernst Bloch critiqued as irresponsible enthusiasm for things as they are, and this find may in turn prompt us to note that Bloch met this wantonness by proposing as an alternative a critical optimism tempered with the anticipation of setbacks and thus with sober if not pessimistic understanding of persistent if not intractable social contradictions. (20) While the waning or, more likely, the contamination of affect under capitalism is a topic worthy of serious investigation, the resonance between tedium and attunement, as it emerges in the theater and the classroom, leads us for the moment rather to the more modest question: what kind of rhythm of performance enables the affective and possibly also effective resonance between tedium and attunement?

Rather than writing (off) tedium or the drag through the long while as simply and only painful or depressing, we might return in conclusion to my initial placement of tedium as an aesthetic response in the company of catharsis. Reading Aristotle's catharsis as an aesthetic response, Jonathan Lear notes that, "in addition to the pity and fear one feels in response to tragic events, one is also capable of feeling a certain pleasure." (21) Lear's insight that this pleasure does not eliminate pain but incorporates it into an experience of wonder anticipates Brian Massumi's thought, not so much his insistence on the "autonomy of affect" as his influential title has it, but rather on the resonance and interference of pleasure and un-pleasure. Opening his essay with an account of a brief televisual narrative about a man who makes a snow figure and, when this figure begins to melt, takes it to the mountains, where it stops melting (83), Massumi records that audiences found the sad elements of this narrative "the most pleasant" (84: emphasis in original). (22) While he highlights the physiological symptoms of intense affect in for example the prickling of the skin (84), Massumi is less interested and less interesting in the empirical tracking of nervous impulses than in the reflection on intense feeling as "incipient action and expression" (91) and thus, in my translation, in potential comportment. Although Massumi insists that the character of affect as incipience puts affect at a "critical point" before analysis (93) and thus before the thinking comportment that Heidegger calls philosophy and Brecht calls theater, his association of intensity with "action and experience" pulls somatic reflexes towards the action of experience that Teresa Brennan identifies as the movement of feeling from person to person in an assembled group, which enables the "transmission of affect," and that Erin Hurley, in her elegant study of Theatre & Feeling calls "feeling-work," the labors that performers and audiences perform with and on feeling to make sense of theatre. (23) This action of experience constitutes aesthetic response, or as Adorno puts it, at once somatic impulse, as in gooseflesh (Gansehaut), and manifestation (Erscheinung) of meaning. (24)

Although the aesthetic may appear to some to hold society at bay, Adorno's insight that art engages with social relations and contradictions even when it negates society, and Hurley's concept of "feeling-work," both point to the range of possible engagements from the apparently inadvertent emptying out of tedium that Heidegger sees as enabling attunement to deliberate articulation of "opinions and objectives" (Ansichten und Absichten, by which play on words Brecht suggests that purposefulness need not be ponderousness). (25) Despite their very different projects, Brecht and Beckett, Heidegger and Maher cross paths in their investigation of the intersection of theater and thinking, performance and comportment, as the Augenblick, the "chance collision of stage and house," the process and interruption of rhythm in sites, sights, and sounds that appear to be mundane rather than magical, whether the street scene or the classroom. Even though Brecht and Beckett are often placed at opposite ends of a spectrum that is understood to run from theatre of instruction at one extreme to theatre of the absurd of the other, Maher's scenario brings them up against each other. The panel discussion in The Hunchback Variations that is repeatedly aborted and once again initiated weaves together Beckett's enigmatic injunction "Fail better" with his likewise enigmatic "I'll go on," the final line of The Unnameable, across the warp and woof of tedium, even as it stubbornly pokes holes in this fabrication with moments of estrangement that recall Brecht without necessarily invoking his goals or authority. While tedium may appear to undermine a theater of pleasure as surely as a theater of instruction and thus to dissipate rather than concentrate the intense experience of the Augenblick, the "crunch and spark" of the moment, the experience of the drag through the long while nonetheless suggests that deep tedium nears intensity as it approaches attunement. While Tedium and The Hunchback Variations do not aspire to tragedy nor to rouse pity or terror, their play between tedium and attunement, interference and resonance, the pain of longing and the pleasure of anticipation, enables and awakens the participants' sense of "being there," in its many senses, from existence to conscious presence, to the mindful habitation that accommodates understanding, room not only for "all the nothings" but for the somethings whose meanings we hope to explore in the future.

The University of Chicago


(1) Mickle Maher, "Tedium--script for dramatic performance" (Evanston, IL: n.p., 2001), 1. Unpublished manuscript provided by the playwright. Subsequent citation in the text.

(2) David Gravers article, "Playing over and Playing out," Playing Culture, ed. Vicki Cremona, Rikard Hoogland, Gay Morris, and Wilmar Sauter (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2014), 263-84, discusses another play by Maher, The Strangerer (Chicago: Hope and Nonthings, 2008) alongside a play by his Oobleck colleague David Isaacson: Letter Purloined-, the latter is published in More If You've Got It: Five Plays from Theater Oobleck (Chicago: Hope and Nonthings, 2012). Graver does not mention Beckett but Sara Jane Bailes argues in Performance Theatre and the Poetics of Failure (London: Routledge, 2011) that Forced Entertainment s expert impersonations of inept actors share with Beckett an "interrogatfion]" of the "way in which written text can be made to function differently in drama" (67) but this claim misses the sharp divergence between Beckett's via negativa, his quest for ever sparer texts and emptier stages, and Forced Entertainments displays of the clutter and excess of amateur performances.

(3) Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho (New York: Grove Press, 1983), 7. The label "work of prose fiction" appears on the back cover of this edition.

(4) Martin Puchner, The Drama of Ideas: Platonic Provocations in Theater and Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

(5) Freddie Rokem, Philosophers and Thespians: Thinking Performance (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), 2-3.

(6) Henri Lefebvre, Rythmanalyse (Paris: Editions Syllepse, 1992), 9-11; trans. Stuart Elden and Gerald Moore, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life (London: Continuum, 2004), 9-11; for structure and play, see Henri Lefebvre, Le Droit a la ville (Paris: Anthropos, 1968), 139; trans. Eleanor Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas, Writings on Cities (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 173.

(7) Bertolt Brecht, "Kurze Beschreibung einer neuen Technik der Schauspielkunst, die einen Verfremdungseffekt hervorbringt," in Werke: Grosse kommentierte Ausgahe (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1998), vol. 22:642,659; trans. John Willett, "Short Description of a New Technique of Acting Which Produces an Estrangement Effect," Brecht on Theater (New York: Hill and Wange, 1964), 136-47. I have modified the translation to highlight Brecht's signature distinction between "alienation" (dispossession--of property, liberty or happiness, for instance; rendered in German by the Hegelian-Marxian term Entfremdung) and Brecht's influential neologism Ver-fremd-ung, which translates accurately as e-strange-ment' but which can also be usefully rendered as "dis-illusion," the critical deconstruction of theatrical fakery, as in the first published translation of the Brecht's "Verfremdungseffekte in der chinesischen Schauspielkunst" (1935), Werke 22: 200-211, by Eric Walker White, "The Fourth Wall of China: Effects of Dis-illusion in the Chinese Theatre" (1936), reprinted in English in Brecht, Werke 22: 960-68. For the legacy of this translation problem, see Loren Kruger, "The Political History of Theatre and Theory," Post-imperial Brecht: Politics and Performance, East and South (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 19-55.

(8) Denis Diderot, Le Paradoxe sur le comedien (1777: Paris: Seuil, 1994). The text is usually rendered in English as The Paradox of the Actor, as in Diderot, Selected Writings on Art and Literature, translated by Geoffrey Bremner (London: Penguin, 1994), but Diderot uses the title to highlight the performer's play on herself as on an instrument tuned to show emotion most effectively when she maintains a professional distance from it. Brecht's admiration of Diderot is expressed in his 1938 proposal for a "Diderot Society" that might assemble an archive of best practices for representing the world so as to further knowledge about its workings; Werke 22: 274-77. Brecht's debt to Marx has been well documented in German, English and other languages; useful English-language studies include Siegfried Mews, ed., Bertolt Brecht Reference Companion (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1997); Steve Giles, Bertolt Brecht and Critical Theory: Marx, Modernity, and the Threepenny Lawsuit (Bern: Peter Lang, 1997); John Willett, Brecht in Context, rev. ed. (London: Methuen, 1998); and Fredric Jameson, Brecht and Method (New York: Verso, 1998).

(9) On the multiple factors involved in translating theory in and for theater, see Loren Kruger, "Keywords and Contexts: Translating Theatre Theory," Theatre Journal 59:3 (2007), 355-58.

(10) Friedrich Nietzsche, Frohliche Wissenschaft, in Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Leipzig: E. W. Fritsch, 1887), vol. 5 (2), 408; trans. Walter Kaufmann, The Gay Science (New York: Vintage, 1974), 106. Kaufmann takes his translation from Nietzsche's alternate title, La gaya scienza (Translator's Introduction; Gay Science 4) but scienza in Italian like its counterpart in French and Spanish encompasses humanistic learning, which "science" in English does not. Moreover, "gay" tends today to connote sexual orientation primarily, which is not immediately relevant to this context. In contrast Cheerful Learning captures both the lightness and expansiveness of Nietzsche's play with knowledge.

(11) Roland Barthes, Le plaisir du texte (Paris: Seuil 1973); trans. Richard Miller, The Pleasure of the Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975). The key sentence that captures both the proximity and the rupture between ennui and jouissance is: "l'ennui n'est pas loin de la jouisance; il est la jouissance vue des rives du plaisir" (Plaisir; 37); "tedium is not far from rapture; it is rapture seen from the shores of pleasure" (Pleasure, 26; translated modified to highlight the force of desire for jouissance; Miller's bliss is rather too tame and boredom does not, as I will demonstrate, allow for the element of desire as well as drag in ennui).

(12) Martin Heidegger, Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik. Gesamtausgable (Frankfurt a. M: Klostermann, 1983) 29: 230; trans. William McNeill and Nicholas Walker, Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 153. Unless otherwise indicated, parenthetical references in the body of the text cite first the German original followed by the English translation. Modifications to McNeill and Walkers translations are indicated in italics; my goal is primarily to render Heideggers text as precisely as possible but on some key occasions Heidegger's own practice of foregrounding etymology or the component meanings of compound words prompts me to explicate or unfold hidden connotations that illuminate Heidegger's argument and its resonance with Maher's plays.

(13) Inserting Brecht (and Marx) in the same sentence as Heidegger may provoke comments about the great ideological and bloody battles of the twentieth century. Rather than attempt to refight those battles, I would acknowledge Heidegger's opportunistic alliance with the Nazi regime, which appears most notoriously in his inaugural lecture of 1933, Die Selbstbehauptung der deutschen Universitat: Rede gehalten bei der feierlichen Ubernahme des Rektorats der Universitat Freiburg am 27.5. 1933 (Frankfurt a. M.: Klostermann, 1983) but note also that his lectures and publications from the 1920s, including Being and Time and The Fundamental Concepts influenced writers on the left, even those such as Ernst Bloch and T. W. Adorno, who disagreed with him, and provided the basis for the reintroduction of his work to a worldwide audience in the 1950s and 1960 by his most famous former student, Hannah Arendt.

(14) McNeill and Walker leave Dasein as is in their text but often separate the two syllables thus "Da-Sein" to highlight its component parts and thus to invite the translation "being there."

(15) Nietzsche, Frohliche Wissenschaft, 408; Gay Science, 108.

(16) Any resemblance between this character and Greg Allen, real-life director of the Neo-Futurarium in the "little theater above the funeral parlor" seems casually ironic. In contrast to the director of the eight-hour drag in Tedium, who appears to despise his audience, the Neo-Futurists version of avant-garde, self-reflexive, even deconstructive performance always invites active audience involvement in the shape of the evening's events, inside the theater space and sometimes also on the streets outside.

(17) Mickle Maher, An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening and The Hunchback Variations (Chicago: Hope and Nonthings, 2001), 40; hereafter cited as Hunchback in the text. My comments on the performance draw on observations of the 2001 and 2010 performances and on an audio CD recording: The Hunchback Variations; text by Mickle Maher; sound by Colm O'Reilly (Chicago: Experimental Sound Studio, 2003).

(18) Maher does not identify his source but this citation comes from Elisaveta Fen's well-known translation published in Chekhov's Plays (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1959), 365. This commonly staged version sounds more abstract and possibly more mysterious than the more recent translation by the late actor and dramaturg Paul Schmidt which follows the analogy between the sound and a harp string in the Russian ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [Vishnevyi sad; The Cherry Orchard]); http://ilibrary.rU/text/472/p.2/index.html, even though it compresses the original's multiple phrases as follows: "suddenly a distant sound seems to fall from the sky, a sad sound, like a harp string breaking. It dies away" (The Plays of Anton Chekhov [New York: Harper, 1998], 358), and so makes the sad note sound more matter-of-fact than romantic-melancholy.

(19) Fredric Jameson, "Postmodernism--or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism," New Left Review no. 146 (1984): 53-92 (61).

(20) Ernst Bloch, "Jules Verne statt Karl Marx" (1970), in Gesprache mit Ernst Bloch, ed. Rainer Traub and Harald Wieser (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1975), 145-61 (154). Blochs notion of "wanton optimism" sketched in this as yet untranslated conversation with Adelbert Reif bears a striking resemblance to the "cruel optimism" proposed by Lauren Berlant to characterize the optimism that a person generates in response to a "scene that ignites a sense of possibility" while also mak[ing] it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which a person ... risks striving" (Cruel Optimism [Durham: Duke University Press, 2011], 2). Bloch hoped that optimism might be redeemed from wantonness by collective action in the "militant" form borrowed from Antonio Gramsci's characterization of himself, in a 1929 letter from prison, as an "optimist by will" (per la volonta; contrasted with "pessimism by intellect; per la intelligenza."-, Gramsci, Lettere del carcere. (Turin: Einaudi, 1971), 115. Berlant suggests instead that in our era of structural precarity, there may be no form of uncontaminated optimism that can will us out of the "impasse" as a time both of "dithering" and of "hypervigilance" from which holding pattern one "cannot move forward" (Cruel Optimism, 4).

(21) Jonathan Lear, "Katharsis," Phronesis 33:3 (1988), 297-326 (302).

(22) Brian Massumi, "The Autonomy of Affect," Cultural Critique 31 (1995), 83-109 (83, 84); further citation in the text.

(23) Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004), 1. Erin Hurley, Theatre & Feeling (Houndsmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 76.

(24) T. W. Adorno, Aesthetische Theorie (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1970), 489; trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor, Aesthetic Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 331.

(25) Brecht, "Kleines Organon fur das Theater," Werke 23:86; trans. Willett, "Short Organon for the Theater," in Brecht on Theater, 196.
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Author:Kruger, Loren
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Date:Dec 22, 2014
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