zingmagazine10 autumn 1999







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The Wooster Group, house lights, 1999

As the lights dim on this millennium a woman (Stein-LeCompte-Valk) raises her arm and holds lamp. High! >

She, a woman, lights the lights [Stein-LeCompte-Valk is Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel], an image which will recall Marcel Duchamp's ETANT DONNES"-you remember, through a hole on the door we see a scene from another time, not Duchamp's time, but older, of an idealized past: a naked woman, her face obliterated, lying on the grass and holding a flickering lamp. The woman as the being who lights the lights, who gives birth, who illuminates the path is an archaic allegory, one that populates several mythologies. And allegory suits the Wooster Group's theater enormously. There has always been something Baroque about the Wooster Group with its bent towards heavily ornate texts (e.g., Flaubert's Temptations of Saint Anthony). Stein provide several occasions for such ornery such as, for example, when Dr. Faustus says that "there is no snake to grind under one's heel." (Vermeer's allegory of faith comes to mind.)

[By the way, is Stein here making a reference to a sudden change of role for women, here on this stage, on the stage of history, on the stage of writing, in the beginning of the twentieth century? Women are not the keepers of the flame any longer? Who stole the torch from the woman's hand? Dr. Faustus? Is enlightenment to be read, under this light, as a sort of coup de╚tat. A coup on the state of things?] Not ever since Socrates appropriated Xanthippe's technique at the beginning of our tired narrative has the issue of the light robber been so pregnant, I mean significant. Did Faustus steal the light from Gretchen? Who cares? Let 'em bathe in light, Gertrude Stein seems to say. She is writing. And in writing Stein restores the light to its rightful owner. Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights flips each word in their hinges making them ambivalent and slippery. The result is a scintillating effect, like walking through a hazy, powdery atmosphere. The words bounce and pivot like the particles of a solution in suspension. Writing is luminous.

A play should be playful, Gertrude Stein seems to say. As the play plays itself out we, ourselves, play the play. Elizabeth LeCompte plays Gertrude Stein's play and sees in this play of words a play of words. She seizes the act, and this game of capture will be central to this production; words should be captured, souls would be captured, personas will be captured, that's the act: words are put to spin. This production of Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights is wonderful.

Gertrude Stein's writing is the kind that inspires and makes us want to write, to write a play, to play with writing. She makes one think endlessly about plays. That is an enormous challenge. An invitation to allow language to speak itself. Consider the present state of writing. Is writing possible? What are the possibilities of writing? More importantly, what are the writings that have been made possible? Is writing possible outside the agent-publisher-book deal system? (Consider yet a few of our era's most characteristic literary outputs: Ted Kazinsky's "The Unabomber Manifesto", Anonymous" Primary Colors and Kenneth Starr's "The Starr Report" . Through writing, these authors sought to tap into history and perhaps even overturn its course (and curse). Of course. Consider still other characteristic writing samples of our era: Maureen Dawd's and William Safire's OpEd pieces for the New York Times. Dowd does not play at work, pun intended, although her writing invests heavily in power-playing, yes, pun intended. This kind of writing sacrifices the friend, or the enemy, for the sake of the joke. (For writing can be a joke, which is the opposite of play.) But it also subjugates writing, wraps it in a sort of straitjacket of intentionality, tries too hard to prove a point. Furthermore what makes this state of writing (State of Writing!) so depressing is the fact that a sense of fair play has been lost turned into a stupid food fight where the writer personifies the pariah, the anonymous, the creepˇa sniper preying for victims. Who is to be blamed for our current infatuation with reality, for this stubborn pursuit of "truth"? (The Devil probably).

But back at the garage, the Performing Garage, writing is lit up again, alive and well, in flesh. Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel and Stein-LeCompte-Valk-Roche are all the women of the world, from Eve to Monica, continuously brokering a deal with the viper. All these women, just one really, are wired in LeCompte vision, the voices modulated to a high pitch through electronic modulation. The effect again is of deferral, of suspension. We listen to the incantation tone in Kate Valk's delivery as if it were the echo of our own ramblings.] (Outside mirroring inside.) Gertrude Stein planned this set up very carefully. In the performance notes we find an excerpt of her musing on play: your emotion concerning the play is always either behind or ahead of the play at which you are looking and to which you are listening. This is endlessly troubled, she wrote, and the trouble is the disynchronicity one finds oneself at at the onset of a play. A play, in its timing, attacks our sense of time. Nice, very nice!

In Gertrude Stein, the Wooster Group finally finds its textual match. The technical sophistication that had previously felt stiff in less experimental texts (, "Neal's Hairy Ape, for instance) suits Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights like a glove. In her zany way of playing with play's structures, Stein classified this play as an opera, although there is no indication that the work was ever set to music. The Wooster Group's production captures Stein's original ambition and enlightens us on that matter: this play is an opera, or, better yet, a grand opera complete with long arias and dance numbers. (Here, every technical element of the mise-en-scene works for the benefit of the text.) The multiple use of video images, fantastically choreographed, works both to advance the narrative and, at the same time, undermine it. That, of course, is what Stein is doing in the text; she re-tells Goethe and at the same time she implodes the Goethe myth. Her sentences are like a con-man street gamble: she has three cards on the table and dares you to guess behind which there is meaning hidden:

Faustus. You fool you devil how can you know, how can you tell me so, if I am the only one who can know what I know then no devil can know what I know and no devil can tell me so and I could know without any soul to sell, without being anything in hell. What I know I know, I know how I do what I do when I see the way through and always any day I will see another day and you old devil you know very well you never see any other way than just the way to hell, you only know one way. You only know one thing, you are never ready for anything, and I everything is always now and now and now perhaps through you I begin to know that it is all just so, that light however bright will never be other than light, and any light is just a light and now there is nothing more either by day or by night but just a light. Oh you devil go to hell, that is all you know to tell, and who is interested in hell just a devil is interested in hell because that is all he can tell, whether I stamp or whether I cry whether I live or whether I die, I can know that all a devil can say is just about going to hell the same way, get out of here devil, it does not interest me whether you can buy or I can sell, get out of here devil just you go to hell.

It's a wonder to listen to the constant rhyming in Stein text as it is recited by Valk. Through repetition, the simplest of words acquire extremely rich resonances which go beyond mere difference in meaning. (How many ways are there to explore the [word] devil?) Words are repeated and inflected in so many ways, they verge on losing all meaning. Valk, of course, is on top of her game. She in(corpo)rated this text to such a degree, one feels like she is creating it as it goes. In the performance I attended, at the beginning of the second act, she ad-libed on a minor incident to no detriment to the play. Dangerous playing. A less disciplined actor would have been badly bruised. But in the coziness of the garage, her improvisation was received warmly as an extra bonus, so eager was the audience for her each utterance.

PS: Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights is paired with Olga's House of Shame, a 1964 film by Joseph Mawra. House overlaps Lights and provides several scenic elements for Stein's wordy play (the most memorable moment being a dance-of-the-seven-veils seen in original footage on several video screens, and emulated by Valk on stage). It would also be a mistake trying to read too much into this fold, but at least this should be said: Olga's House of Shame accentuates the mimetic element in Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights. (Yes, mimesis becomes a central strategy, Stein, who mimed Goethe [not without violence], is here duplicated, replicated, duped, counterfeited in the weirdest ways.) And again, this strategy of excess verging on nonsense wouldn't sound foreign to Stein.


Sergio Bessa

Brooklyn, New York