Category Archives: Long, Interactive Essays

Writing cup black and white photo

I am writing a novel…

5 May 2016. It gives me great pleasure to share a few extracts from the first few chapters of my novel-in-progress here on Mirrorlamp.  These were featured in my recent reading with my wonderful mentor, Ros Barber (rosbarber.com) at the Espresso Library in Cambridge on 28 April 2016.

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Extract 1

(This is from the beginning of the novel, and it is where we meet our main character and learn that our narrator is a ghost. The scene is set in Manchester, England.)

She is staying in a hotel on Princess Street, in a room with an avant-garde colour scheme – fuchsia and black – Chinese-themed decorative motifs, and a modernist four-poster bed.  I watch her always now, with the love that goes beyond death…although all real love goes beyond death.  What is not real disappears. This is not something you know for sure until you have died.

At the moment, she thinks I am still alive and simply that our relationship is over.  It is midnight, and she is entertaining a clown, a jester who she met at the club across the street, and who has charmed his way into her room for a cup of tea.  He is tall, lean and rangy, dark-haired and unkempt.  But she finds his tall roughness attractive - a wild Northern poet, she thinks.  The kettle has just boiled and clicked itself off, and she is making tea self-consciously as he talks about his work, stand-up poetry…the audiences in the States are just so open and willing to applaud and cheer, not like the cynical fuckers in this country…he pauses and gives an impression of a British person, clapping grudgingly (she looks over, smiling)…no, in the States, they properly stand up and give it some if they like you.  He moves over to where she is standing at the counter of the room’s little kitchenette, and before she can turn around and hand him a cup of tea, says, you’re lovely, and bends down to kiss her neck, pressing her against the counter with his hips.

She closes her eyes while her mind flies around, measuring the situation, the time of night, and how she feels.  And then she asks herself if this is a betrayal of me and answers to herself, sadly, no.  And then the hunger of the jester floods into an emptiness inside her left by me, and she decides – and turns around and offers up her mouth.

I don’t hate him (I can feel hate as if it is one colour in a spectrum, but I am simply all of the colours at once now…), and for the next hour, I become him…and her. I am reminded of how the blood rushes into her lips and cheeks, and the startling contrast between her pinks and whites, and the metallic blonde of her hair – but discover how alive her nerves are, how she feels everything with the range and power of an orchestra.  He senses that her sublimity is closer to the surface than most he’s met, because he is a poet; but he has fucked hundreds of women, and in his mind she is also merely ‘this one’: he thinks this one moves like a dancer and this one has lovely, rosy nipples. She thinks she is ready to have sex with him, but when his hands slide into her jeans, she feels like she is falling off a cliff edge, feels sick, and pulls his hands out.  He keeps trying, his attitude pragmatic, and eventually she rolls away from him and says Sorry – I can’t.  She is thinking Why should I feel sorry? Jesus.

After he leaves, she falls asleep and dreams that he – the poet – is calling out for her in a forest, but with all the wrong names… ‘Eve!’… ‘Poppy!’ … ‘Ruby!’ … She is wandering in the dark under the trees, and I realise for the first time that I can communicate to her through her dreams.  I make myself appear as an image on the trees, as if cast there by our old film projector, with its broken pixels in the same place.  And then I point to the sky, where the stars have clustered together to spell out her name: ‘S-T-E-L-L-A’.

She wakes and stares up at the ceiling.  The thought that hits her first is that she means nothing to the poet, and she feels a spitting fury mixed with rejection.  This dies down and leads her deeper into herself, where she finds the fat toad of pain that crouches in her stomach, because I have left her and because she thinks that I don’t love her.

She cries then, her face wrinkled and one hand clutching the white pillow and her body shaking with sobs.  She is good at crying.  She knows that it cleans away pain.  It is what makes her heart so strong – much stronger than mine was.  Her mind tries to measure the amount of tears she will need to cry over me, but at this point, it is too many, and she can’t see the end.  She cries herself out while her memory plays, like short films, the little moments when I started to leave her – and then the time I walked away across the Sunday afternoon park and never came back.  She finishes as dawn begins to light the edges of the room’s shutters, asks God to help her understand it, looks once at the clock, and then, exhausted, falls back asleep.

——-

Extract 2

(Stella works as a lighting designer for the theatre, and she is in Manchester working on The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter at the Royal Exchange Theatre.  This next extract takes place two days after she has found out that Tom, our narrator-ghost, has died.  It is opening night of the play.)

She rummages in her bag for her ticket, and queues at one of the stairways, fervently hoping nobody talks to her.  The force of this thought surrounds her like a cloud, and it doesn’t happen.  Inside the theatre, she finds her seat, one on the aisle, and sits down.  The scene is already set on the round, central stage encircled by the audience’s seats – a humble, retro English living room.  She listens to the murmuring crowd and breathes in the smell, a chemistry from the theatre’s ongoing creation of illusory worlds: fresh paint from the sets mixed with the must of old clothes and bric-a-brac for costumes and props, and raw wood, recently carpentered, and actors’ greasepaint and sweat – all of it stewed more intensely together by the warmth of her own beloved lanterns, floating above the stage, casting heat and light through precisely designed gels.

She automatically looks up at the lighting rigs, and from where she is sitting, they look correct, as she designed their placement, as she left them three days ago.  At this thought, three days ago, a thought of the time before she found out I was dead, she is momentarily catapulted back into full pain, into the before and after-ness of it, and she stiffens, but she is held outwardly still by her situation – by the crowd around her, by her awareness of the woman in a long floral dress sitting on her left, by the theatre itself somehow, its red plush carpet in the aisle and the black painted circular stage – and it passes.

And then the house lights go down, the audience quiets, and this triggers an automatic response in Stella. When we were together, and I was alive, I always used to glance sideways at her in this moment, just as the lights went down, to catch the look on her face, and watch for the gentle spasm of happiness that would flash through her body.  It was mostly internal, but sometimes it showed…and then only to someone who was looking very closely. And now I can feel the energy of habitual delight moving around inside her, mingled in with her grief, because I am there, inside, too.  I can see and feel it all now.

There is much beauty and pleasure in being released from a body into this other state of being.  The individual human consciousness may pipe in only relatively small channels of love, compared to all there actually is.  It is wonderful to be released into pure seeing, and pure being.  All humans are pulled moment by moment through their lives, via the consequences of their actions, to experience more and more of this truth.  But in release, in transformation out of the body, what humans call ‘death’, the limitations fall away, and now I am as I truly am, a specific flowing current of love.  I love her, and she both knows it and doesn’t know it.  I am still here, loving her, my specific love loving specifically her, as she is, both human and spirit.  Now the pain will pull her to knowledge.  The pain is not what The Energies wish for us, but it is a tool to bring us light when we are dark.

Now the play begins, and Pinter’s words, laden with fertility, but abstract, buzz harmonically together, meaningful but meaningless, and melancholy – and Stella relaxes into it like it is music.  In this state, and as the minutes flow by, her psyche begins to reconfigure her sense of loss, and endogenous compounds rush to her heart, which is stressed from the biochemical reactions of the past two days’ emotional pain, and begin repair work.  She doesn’t know at all what is happening.  Most alive people do not.  She just knows she feels a little better for the first time since Matty’s phone call.

After two hours’ thoughtful yet thoughtless absorption in the brightly lit circle of the stage, she is tranquil, except for the small snag on her attention that the technicians missed one of the light cues in the second act.  The play comes to an end, and the stage goes dark, and then all the stage and house lights come up as the actors join together in a line, holding hands.  The applause is so loud it makes Stella jump, and her transition out of the dream world of the play back into reality takes much longer than usual.  She shakes her head and blinks.  She comes back better than she was before.

As she claps, she remembers that now she has to go speak to people backstage and act normal, and she makes her plan: a double vodka in…orange juice. Clean, but effective.  And a quick talk with Sam – just hi and congratulations…and Antonio about that missed cue.  And then back to the hotel. And then tomorrow: home.

She walks towards the backstage area via a brightly lit bar in the Great Hall, where she stops to order a drink.  She downs her double vodka and orange juice in one long drink of several gulps, handing the glass straight back to the surprised barman.  Outwardly, she looks elegant, like a serious grown-up theatregoer in her black cocktail dress, her blonde hair pulled up on top of her head.

She realises how wild, how incongruous she just acted, and she glances down and laughs a little to herself for the first time since she heard the news about me.  That’s my girl.  She has a strong heart, full of light.  Her intuitive channel is bright, with clearly defined edges, and she has strong instincts against the untrue.  However, right now Stella is poised at the fertile place where two paths diverge.  I have no control over the future, although I can see the likeliness of patterns linked to people’s choices as they stretch forward into the dimension of time.  Two tracks of possibility lay patterned ahead of her, one dark, one bright, and she will choose.

When I turned out of my body and into space, one of the things I learned about her was the number of times she has thought about killing herself: 1,604.  Eight of those thoughts have occurred in the past two days. But her soul keeps urging to her to brightness. The Energies will bring her the stories and messages she needs, and when she hears them, the words will glow inside her.

As Stella stands at the bar, her chuckle at herself for her behaviour turns into a thought thread that leads her mind back to Tom is dead.  Reality seems to ripple around her, and her knees go weak for a moment.  She leans against the bar and concentrates on breathing. She only wants to look down at the ground.  Her head is so heavy, it feels weighted with steel balls, and it seems to tip forward and to the side with a rolling lurch, as she tries to move it.

The Energies whisper chandelier inside her mind. At this thought, she turns herself around and looks up at the chandelier hanging above her here, in the Great Hall.  She has asked around the building stewards to see if they know who made it, but nobody she has met knows, so she has been trying to unlock the secrets of its making by repeated, attentive observation.  She  chokes back a sob and bites the inside of her cheek, trying to keep her control.  Its beauty distracts her, begins to soothe her, and after a few moments, her mind starts to play the game: It is Bohemian style, not Venetian, because the droplets are lead crystal, not Murano glass.  It looks as if it was originally made for candles, then converted for electricity, which with its styling would make it 18th not 19th century, and therefore it must have been originally made for a different building. Where, though? Neoclassical, 5 tiers of concentric festoons, and roughly 6 feet across.  It must weigh nearly a ton. Spectacular light refraction…some master crafter…the crystal drops have been ingeniously cut so the light explodes outwards.  She takes a deep breath and decides to keep going with the night.

——-

Extract 3

(At the opening night reception backstage, Stella sees her friend Rory, who is an actor playing the lead role of Stanley Webber in The Birthday Party, and they go out in Manchester afterwards, to a pub, a club, and then an underground arts festival in an abandoned mansion.)

After the cab driver drops them off, Rory and Stella head down the lane. They can hear the crowd before they see it.  There is a wooden gate set into a tall, overgrown hedge, behind which are towering ancient plane trees.  They go through the gate into a dirt courtyard sheltered under the leaves of the massive trees.  There are marquees set up around the outer edge of the courtyard, and on the other side is the mansion, with a door at ground level, and a flight of steps leading up to another door a level above.  Music is pouring out of the top door, and the sound of applause comes splashing out of one of the marquees on the side.  People are milling around, some of them dressed fancifully, and most are holding drinks, and there are circles of smokers. Stella tips her head back to look up at the dark blue night sky filtered through the leaves.  The sight of the strings of coloured bulbs threaded above them in the tree branches makes her happy. Their specific beauty, a small, sweet beauty, plays in Stella’s heart.  It is like this – I found out when I died – that the beauty of the world may play in a human heart and as it does so, it lights up that person’s being in relative magnitudes.  Although different people see different beauties, and define the edges of what they think is beautiful, and decide that what is outside their edges is not beautiful, is ugly.  To The Energies, all is beautiful.  Even dysfunction is beautiful.  All is beautiful.  To The Energies, even hate, murder, pain are beautiful, because they are the instruments of growth, and what grows is love out of those dark experiences.

Rory is looking busily around for anyone they might know.  He suggests they check out what is going on inside.  They walk up the stairs to the upper level where they can hear music, and make their way through a corridor lined with people into a foyer, which has doors leading off of it and a grand staircase with an ornate balustrade winding gracefully up several more storeys.  Paint in exquisite antique colours, eggshell blue and pond green, is in interesting and elegant decay, peeling from the ceilings and walls, and debris – old dust covers, two legs from a long-gone piano, dried leaves and twigs – are scattered strangely around.  They follow the sound of the music and eventually walk into an enormous room, with parquet flooring, the old ballroom, probably, which is dark and filled with a crowd listening to tiered, layered, faceted electronic music pouring out of speakers on either side of a small stage. The musician is dressed as a spaceman, in a silver fabric suit with a glass ball helmet, and he is surrounded by synthesizers, computers, power cables, and wires.  People around the edges are standing and bouncing their heads with the music’s funk beat, but the centre of the floor is a roil of dancing.

Stella drops her bag and coat by the wall at the edge of the room and jumps in.  She stops thinking.  She is like a wire, with energy flowing from the music to her, through her body, and into the floor.  Pain is shoved completely to the side, and her molecules are energetically rewriting, as they did during the play, although in a different way this time.  Rory joins her, and then they dance together, the dance floor in almost pitch dark, the only light in the room reflected off the stage, and Stella feels safe in the dark, safe with Rory, safe inside the music.  After five songs which Stella and the rest of the crowd deem to be excellent, the musician finishes to thunderous applause, whistles, shouts and pleas for encores. Stella and Rory whistle along with the rest, and clap their hands high over their heads.  Then, sweaty and happy, they head back into the foyer, where amidst the jostling crowd Rory sees his friend Benjamin, a performance artist with wild brown hair and soulful dark eyes in a brown corduroy jacket.

[Then later, still at the festival...]

They take a break to smoke cigarettes in the tree and dirt courtyard outside, and Stella keeps looking up at the lights woven into the darkness of the tree leaves above them.  They talk about performance theatre, and Benjamin asks Stella to light his next show, and she agrees and hopes she will remember tomorrow.

Three women performance artists dressed in black bodystockings, with gold-painted faces and wigs of wild colours are moving like human mercury around the outside crowd, exploring the space with a primal grace and luxurious tactility that captivates Stella. They trace the outlines of smoke rising from cigarettes with their fingers, curve their bodies sideways around the massive old tree trunks, and turn upside down to walk on their hands.  They are deeply in their trance of expression and focused intently on the flow of energy that comes from the crack in the worlds that artistic creation opens up.  The dancer in the dark purple wig has learned how to feel her way into the other planes of existence, where I am, and she can sense me around Stella like a loving cloud.  She is standing still for just a moment now, watching Stella. Then she mimes pulling an arrow from a quiver on her back, grandly brings up a bow, and arcing backward, releases her arrow up into the sky.  She catches an imaginary star that falls and reverently holding this shows the other two dancers.  The three huddle, staring into the purple-haired dancer’s empty hands, and when they look up into her dark-lined eyes, she holds their gazes and then glances over at Stella.

They move towards Stella liquidly, like wild creatures.  As they draw close, they link hands and encircle her completely, dance slowly around her like the Three Graces.  Rory and Benjamin who are in a giddy flow of conversation about the rise of devised theatre and problems of commercialism, step back to give them room.  Stella stands quietly in the centre of this turning circle of women, and then she notices that each dancer’s black-lined eyes are sweeping over her every angle with deep, long looks – their eyes sliding from the smooth, blonde crown of her head, to the curve of her ear, the arch of her eyebrow, the sharp corner her elbow makes as her hand comes up to touch her throat – the attentive, slow, adoring gazes of a mother, sister, aunt, or grandmother.  She is shocked by the way this feels, raw as she is right now.  Her head falls forward, and she looks down at the ground and takes a deep breath.  She closes her eyes for a moment and quiets down, accepting it, and then feeling it, love, wash over her. Finally, they break hands, and one by one, embrace her.  The last one, the purple dancer hugs her and says, ‘he is still here’.  Stella’s eyes go wide, and this message flashes through every one of her molecules, lighting her up for a moment like a firework.  Rory, overhearing, says, who?  And then Stella says, Rory, can we go?  And in the cab with Rory and Benjamin, she tells them I am dead, and Rory’s eyes and mouth gape, and he just says, Oh, Stella.  Oh, Stella.  Oh, Stella.  And Benjamin silently passes her the whiskey bottle.

She wakes up late the next morning in her hotel room on Princess St, with Rory fully clothed and curled around her on the bed, snoring, and Benjamin asleep on the floor under the window, and she thinks, Today, home.  

 

 

stand up comedy

The Artistry of Stand Up Comedy

1 October 2015.  I think there is a quiet prejudice against comedy as an art form circulating in our current cultural environment, and I think I unconsciously absorbed this prejudice without realising it.  The Arts Council does not fund comedians, and in August The Independent reported on a letter sent from prominent comedy organisations to the Arts Council’s Chief Executive, asking that comedy be supported alongside the other art forms, particularly emerging comedians.  The Arts Council’s rationale is not that comedy is not a relevant art form, but that it is already commercially self-sustaining as a sector. But I wonder if there is something a bit unconscious, a bit ambiguous at work here.  The nature of my own prejudice was like that – unconscious, ambiguous, ambient – but it seems as if the trickster spirit of the Edinburgh festival this year decided it was time for me to understand, explore and ultimately transform this into a more mature awareness of comedy as a serious art form, with its own powers, techniques and peculiarities of expression.

I could feel the jostling of different artistic worlds at the festival – dance, comedy, burlesque, circus, visual art, and of course the full spectrum of theatres – and it was almost as if they were tribes, assigned the colours that flag their category in the pages of the huge festival programme. This year the festival seemed to unfurl a yellow brick road of comedy in front of me, in a slightly insistent way, and which was somewhat contrary to my inclinations.  I was extremely curious about the way this happened, and it made me realise I was unconsciously harbouring a quiet prejudice against comedy, which felt like something that was floating in the air, something I accidentally picked up along with my flyers on the Royal Mile. It was a refrain you heard: ‘comedy is taking over the festival’. And at first I judged that comedy would not answer my deeper soul’s urgings to be moved in a profound way by artistry. Of course I was wrong.

Of the comedians I saw at Edinburgh this year, there were two young, newish comics, a seasoned regular and one Old Master that tipped me into deep consideration of the artistry in comedy: Sofie Hagen, Mark Dean Quinn, James Acaster and Stewart Lee. 

Sofie Hagen is a Danish comedian based in London who enchanted me with her show Bubblewrap.  She has perfect, whimsical, poetic English, is deliciously funny, and I was deeply impressed by the power, vision and subtlety of her mind and material.

Sofie’s show laid bare a deeply personal and painful aspect of her childhood and explored her teen self’s mentally disordered coping mechanism in response to it, which was an obsession with the boy band Westlife.  She became Denmark’s Number One Westlife fan and was somewhat famous herself in this capacity, appearing on television and radio, and getting the chance to meet the band on several occasions.

The Westlife material was presented as an illustrative flashback to a story from her more recent life that explored her journey to accept her beauty and sexuality, against a backdrop of self-harm and self-rejection.  This makes it sound dark, but every idea Sofie touched turned into mirth, so that the show as a whole was a balanced tragicomic shimmer.  I found this act of excavation of the most deeply personal aspects of self very powerful, because it was as if she was saying, ‘here, let’s look at this together, because it is my personal experience of a universal aspect of being human, and I’ll show you how to laugh about it, and by laughing we can transform it together in this theatrical space.’

Another show I had seen earlier in the day was Rituals for Change by None of Us is Yet a Robot, featuring Emma Frankland, whose performance in Don Quijote  (when she was Tom Frankland) was one of my favourites of late.  In Rituals for Change I found Emma using the same kind of theatrical expression that had enthralled me in Don Quijote, this time to explore her gender transformation.  The show was a progression of physical theatre gestures that were brilliant and rich metaphors exploring progressive angles of Emma’s transformation – the set was a building site, fertile with piled dirt, buckets of water, planks of wood, tools and scaffolding, which was constructed, de-constructed, moulded, made, and un-made in a beautiful evocation of the fluid materiality of the human body and gender.

The two shows were similar for the raw depths of personal excavation in their respective theatrical spaces.  It made me reflect that similar artistic magics were being performed, though one performer used a serious tone, physical theatre staging and props, a structure of linked vignettes, narrative and music, and the other used a comedic tone, a long thread of linked autobiographical stories, the setting of a warmly lit room, a different and more direct dialogue with the audience and sophisticated wordplay with frequent full-chord presses of the multiple levels of meaning, which made the audience laugh a lot.

At this point, I began to realise that comedy is just a different quadrant on the spectrum of theatres, with its own particular artistic materials, and to see that there are some artists making this sort of theatre with depth, nuance and subtlety (and some who are not, of course). Brecht was famously influenced by the comedians Karl Valentin and Charlie Chaplin, and he traced the origins of his idea of the epic (or dialectical) theatre to them.   In a way, the different theories of theatre all ask the same questions:  ‘what is the point of theatre?’ and ‘what does it do to the audience’ and ‘is this valuable?’

The belief behind Brecht’s ideology of the epic theatre was that the emotional catharsis that came from an audience’s immersion in a piece of theatre was not effective for moving the audience to change the real society outside the theatre.  He believed that in order to effect change, the theatre needed to encourage the audience to develop a critical perspective on society, to stand back and reflect upon it from a distance.  And he believed that this was best done by reminding the audience that the theatre was a representation of reality and not reality itself.

Stand-up comedy is so very Brechtian.  It is as if all comedians, consciously or unconsciously, exist at this pole of theatrical theory.  The frame of comedy itself is a large, obviously unreal, artistic construction, where every element of life is turned on its head and viewed from a comedic distance. And one of the most important aspects of comedy’s artistic world is its social conscience.  This is like the passionately beating heart around which all good comedy comes to life.

And it is interesting that wrapping the dark stuff of human existence around with laughter makes us feel more distant from it, and then perhaps more safe, more comfortable, and maybe more able to act in our own lives and societies…?  Although I’m not arguing here against immersion as a theatrical technique…how could I?  I’m so into it.  But there is room for both theories, for different ways of affecting people using art.  And it is true that catharsis and immersion feel really good – I had gone to Edinburgh hungry for it.  But the artistry of the comedians I saw also moved me, also changed me, but in a different way, and using different theatrical effects.

And speaking of Chaplin, the second comedy newcomer whose show made a deep impression on me was Mark Dean Quinn.  His show More Observation Without Comedy was a fascinating, poignant and extremely entertaining study in deadpan tragicomedy.  Quinn has an exquisitely light touch as a performer using comic materials, which is one of the ways it reminded me of Chaplin – he used silence, space, symbolic gestures, and gentle self-mockery to show glimpses of a real and private pain.

Like Emma Frankland’s show, it was a progression of vignettes and gestures, which explored the power dynamics in the unspoken social agreements we make in relationships, like, ‘I’ve just met you – can I trust you? At what point does trust begin between us?’ He unearthed profound and universal questions from the general field of ambiguity that we all live in, and it was fascinating to watch him explore them using a beautiful comedic language of absurdity and surreality.  He was a sad clown, exploring his sadness.  It was a beautiful and powerful show.

Both Hagen’s and Quinn’s shows are still carved into my imagination and memory several weeks later, in a way I can still go back to revisit.  They both had a sort of piercing quality.  This is not a definitive (or even clear) way of measuring their quality, but it feels significant to me.  And they felt different from the other ha-ha, laugh-a-minute, still enjoyable, but more blunt and less memorable comedy shows I saw.  It felt like they were both real artists who had chosen the materials of comedy as their frame and philosophical stance.

I saw both Hagen and Quinn in rooms in pubs, in tiny, cosy venues where I could practically reach out and touch them.  By contrast, I saw the famous comedian Stewart Lee in grander style in the Georgian Assembly Rooms: there were chandeliers, velvety seats, a big crowd of adoring fans, and a much larger literal distance from us to him.  He came on stage to the music from Bill’s death scene in Kill Bill, which I thought was a tremendously subtle and interesting opening flourish, considering that the common slang for a comedian’s failure is ‘dying’.

His comedy is like a series of concentric rings of meta-awareness, like inception inside the world of a single joke.  His whole set is one amazing joke, and within this he tells really, really long stories, each of which turns out to be a single, amazing joke, and these relate ironically, harmonically to the overarching joke, and when everything comes home in a big moment of coherence, it is hilarious, ingenious and satisfying.

His language is deeply poetic, and he pushes the boundaries of concepts practically off the edge of meaning, in a fascinating and thematically conscious way.  One of the most powerful themes he contemplated was the Fatal Risk of Doing Comedy.  He compared being a comedian to being a war hero and called the ghosts of dead clowns, like Robin Williams and Bill Hicks, onto the stage.

This was profound because it was a palpable reminder of the personal mechanics at work in comedy: that what a comedian does for his or her art is excavate  innermost soul and psyche, bring its deepest material up to the light, and ring this around with irony in a transformative way…and that he or she does this for the audience, for the greater good of society, because this process transforms what is deep, dark, ambiguous and scary into a new, enlightening awareness, which helps us to handle it and understand it.

It was serious and tragic at the same time that it was brilliant, funny, enlightening and reflective of the art of comedy, because it reminded us that some of the artists who are called to this sort of service don’t make it, because the dark is too dark, and the fear is too much, and the ambiguity too overwhelming.  And so here it was again: that tragicomic shimmering of things that were funny/sad/true/universal… and I felt contemplative, expanded and lit up on different levels by this Old Master.

And I need to at least mention James Acaster.  I want to tell you how much I liked him and why.  But his was the last show I saw in Edinburgh, and by the time I reached his comedy doorway and fell through it, I was pretty much like the guy who sits in the middle of the backseat of Wayne Campbell’s Pacer during Wayne’s World’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ scene.  That is to say, I was partied out.  I was barely hanging onto consciousness and sanity at that point…but James, sweet James, kept me hanging on a bit longer, until I could have another coffee and crawl back to the absinthe bar.  I do remember that his show included a rather adorable and deft depiction of an existential crisis, and that through the haze of my exhaustion, I kept thinking ‘…beautiful, theatrical, beautiful writing…oh my God, the end of the show is incredible…I wish I could lift my pen to take noteszzzzz.’

Of course I partied a lot in Edinburgh.  It was brilliant. And exhausting.  But my exhaustion revealed another interesting thing about comedy – its physiological effects, which are different to the other arts.  I started thinking about this on my second morning, when I was talking to my friend and Edinburgh roommate Sarah in a post-party haze of desultory girl chat, both of us just awake but not really ready to get out of bed.

Sarah is a doctor, a consultant in palliative medicine at a hospice, and we were talking about her upcoming course in acupuncture.  She was explaining the theory behind it, which is that the human body makes its own medicinal molecular cures for itself, which are called ‘endogenous compounds’, and apparently acupuncture stimulates the production of these healing compounds, which fit onto our broken cells in a perfectly complementary way that drugs can only clumsily replicate. I kept thinking about this all through my festival whirl, about how endogenous compounds were bubbling up inside me every time I laughed, circulating around in my blood, and it was as if the laughter kept healing and re-charging me.

It is nearly time to kiss you on both cheeks and say good-bye, but I have one more point to make about comedy, which I’ll make via Shaun Keaveny.  For those of you who don’t know, he is the morning show DJ on BBC Radio 6. I started listening to him eight years ago, and he is the purveyor of comedy who drops into my life in the most regular way, because of the format of his distribution.  He is brilliant, lyrical, high-concept and deeply silly in a way that I particularly adore.  He is right at the top of my Fantasy Boyfriend list, fighting it out with Jon Stewart.  One of the only painful parts of my festival was that I missed seeing his Edinburgh run of stand-up by only hours because of my travel.  Deep sigh.

But on my last night I was standing in a queue for the ladies loo in the Pleasance Courtyard, and at some point I glanced up to the wall of posters running up the stairs beside me, and I saw the man himself, in flat avatar poster form, posed in a suave GQ kind of way, of thoughtful mien and looking absolutely gorgeous in a grey jumper, advertising his show: ‘Shaun Keaveny: Live and Languorous’.  So I ripped the poster off the wall, along with a fair few fragments of baby blue Pleasance wall paint, rolled it up and put in my bag, and he’s now living on the wall in my writing nook, my first pin-up in 25 years.

It has been interesting to write this essay and think about Shaun in terms of comedic artistry.  It has prompted me to deconstruct and understand my adoration of him, which until now has been instinctive but unexamined.  And what I think about Shaun is that he is like swans.  I live in Cambridge on a street that goes down to the river, and I see swans every day.  I see them quiet in the dawn with the sun rising over the river, and I see them sleeping and still, floating with their heads tucked away, with one awake sentry, when I am cycling home along the river late at night in the dark.  And I never think that they are less sublime and beautiful because they are so common.  I think, ‘if they were rare, people would travel from all over the world to see them – just to get one glimpse!’  And Shaun’s comedy feels like that to me…like artistry that happens to be just easily available.

And in general, this is what comedy feels like to me – like something powerful, sublime and special that is everywhere, and which perhaps as a result is somewhat taken for granted as an art form.  And perhaps it is the case that the commercial success of more blunt, less artistic comedy has tainted our perception of the whole genre.  But I think it’s time to have a closer look at the way subtle, nuanced and artistic comedy is valued in our cultural oeuvre.  I found truth, beauty and depth in some of the comedy I saw at Edinburgh, which are the subtle fragrances that, to me, signal artistry.  And I felt that parts of me were healed and enlightened by these encounters.  And, of course, I laughed and laughed and laughed.  For which, Sofie Hagen, Mark Dean Quinn, James Acaster and Stewart Lee, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

[An edited version of this essay was published in Exeunt Magazine on 1 October 2015.]

Nightwatch

Nightwatch, the Day After…

Sunday 15 June, 21:32

So I left the house yesterday afternoon around 4pm, cycled to Clifton Way and fell down a rabbit hole, and I have just returned home. My skin is still gently exhaling Leffe-scented molecules, several large strands of my hair are twined with a delicate cement of dried applesauce, my right thumb is dyed red, and the spider-bite on my left arm is now the size of an espresso cup’s mouth.  I feel like a liminal creature, still between-worlds.

Where did I go?  And what happened to me there?  For nearly a full spin of the planet I have been in the Cambridge Junction for the Nightwatch festival.  It was, literally, a junction for 24 hours – with doors, vortexes and permeable mirrors into the parallel universe of modern theatre, from 12 noon yesterday (Saturday 14 June) to 12 noon today.  The acts included Figs in Wigs, Sleepwalk Collective, Search Party, Christopher Brett Bailey, GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN, Ann Liv Young, The Anna Williams Trust and Lemonade and Laughing Gas, to name just a few.

I arrived at the festival yesterday in the early evening.  The sun had begun to gentle down, and the light in the paved plaza outside the theatre was starting to look a little rosy.  The Junction had added a couple of picnic tables to the space just outside its doors, and a bright red burger van that looked like a child’s toy truck was parked there, too. The only other adornments in honour of the festival were several square, steel flower pots containing rosebushes, thick with clustered pink buds. I went inside to the Box Office and was presented with my ticket to the adventures of the next 18 hours, which was a pink paper wristband.

Then I saw Jennifer Pick from GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN on the stairs up to the theatre. I went to tell her that I’m me, curious to know if she read my recent review of their latest show.  She and her performing partner Lucy McCormick were the Comperes of the festival and were vamping around in slinky red dresses with microphones (in a conscious and satirical performance of presenting), holding the edges of the festival magic intact with their commentary.  I was a little nervous to talk to Jen, because I like her and Lucy so much.  (Do you know the space inside yourself where laughter starts?  And how the light that emits from that space awakens multiple layers of seeing and understanding stacked on top of each other in your mind?  And how it feels warm, joyous, delicious?  My favourite people and performers activate this inner glowing, and seeing Jen and Lucy always sets me alight.)

So I said, ‘Hi Jen.  I’m Joy – .  I don’t know if you – . Um, I wrote a review – .  Did you – ?’  These fragments tumbled out of me inarticulately. Layered over the top of the last two, Jen said, ‘You’re Joy? I love what you wrote.’  I don’t know what I said after that – something – because my brain was popping and fizzing, to find love on the stairs. My writing confidence has been a bit crumbly lately, and to hear this was to be given a foundation stone.

Next, I saw my friend Christopher Brett Bailey outside by the burger van, surrounded by the musicians for his new show This is How We Die, which was about to play in a few hours.  His hair, which we have never discussed, as usual hovered timelessly suspended 6 inches up from his face, like the wild and vivid concepts he conjures in his performances.  It gives the impression that he is upside-down in this reality.  After a hug and introduction to his band, the first thing we said was how excited we were that Nightwatch had a big room for sleeping, which made the whole thing feel like a giant kids’ sleepover, except with liquor and great theatre performances.  Also, the sleeping room looked really, really cool: the Junction had transformed the black-painted, cavernous gig room in J1 into a cuddly, peaceful space, with a white, tented ceiling hanging over a flotilla of smooth-sheeted double mattresses piled with pillows.  A giant disco ball hung at the peak of the tent like a mobile.  It epitomised cosiness.  It also made you feel at home, to have this safe place – a bed, some quietness, a retreat – there, whenever you might need it.

Then Chris and the band went off for pre-show prep, I got my first beer, saw that my spider-bite had grown smaller – it was now about the size of a tea cup’s rim – and I went into my first show, which was Karaoke by Spain-based company Sleepwalk Collective, at 7pm.

I was six hours late for Nightwatch, which started at noon, because I’ve been living inside a tin of molasses for a couple of weeks.  I think over here you call it treacle. I’ve been in the UK for fifteen years, but I still call treacle molasses.  I’ve been trying to write a new essay for Mirrorlamp, but it’s been impossible because my laptop doesn’t fit inside my tin of molasses.  (Something happened to me two weeks ago, which I can’t tell you about, and it was the kind of thing that makes you seek a hiding place, fast, and stay there for a long time.  It was the kind of thing that makes you feel like your voice disappears, and like you can’t hear or see or think very well.)  But after two weeks of dark, sticky slowness, the night before Nightwatch, my friends Hayley and Rob invited me for a drink at the Mill Pond, and this felt like the lid popping off the tin and a glimpse of sky.

Rob Baskerville – how can I describe him?  He’s the kind of a man who breaks the river speed limit with his Dutch barge (4 mph) so he can ride a surfboard attached to the back (which rocks the other boats, and the old people inside probably spill their tea), who attaches a zip line between the Stourbridge Common railway bridge and his boat so he can fly down into the river on a hot day, who gets a leftover house foundation lining from his father-in-law and decides to manually dig a big, big hole in the garden, line it, fill it with the garden hose and make a pool so he can do cannonballs off the roof, who says ‘I love you’ to his wife Hayley on her birthday by stripping naked, laying down in the party-filled back garden at midnight with only a firework cassette to cover his modesty and setting light to it.  He is like a human embodiment of the Native American trickster Coyote.  After my friend Julie met him, she said with wonder in her voice, ‘He’s Loki’.

When I arrived at the Mill Pond, Rob, Hayley, Ali, Will, and Jesse were all lounging by the weir on the bridge, just across from the pub.  As I hugged round the circle in hello, with my back to Rob, Hayley said, ‘Rob, no!’, and I realised the back of my skirt was lifted up and my pants were on view to the evening crowd.  When I twirled around, Rob held his hands up, then pointed at Ali.  He does a very convincing innocent face.  Although it could have been Ali.  Sometimes he is innocent. The laugh arrived in my chest like medicine.  Then they said, ‘We’re moving to the Fort St. George (another pub on the river).  Come with us…we’re going by canoe.’  Rob is the kind of man who travels through Cambridge by canoe.

I love canoeing.  As mentioned in previous Mirrorlamp essays, being in water is bliss to me. But, I was very treacly, and at first I hesitated while worries broadcast across my mind – I had my bike and it would be a pain to have to get it later, maybe I should cycle and meet them there, it’s easy to tip a canoe, what if the canoe tipped and me and Louis (my dog) fell in the river and I lost my phone and I got that disease you get from from rat’s pee; but of course, these were all just fear and suppression – they are the thugs of my psyche, and although I am compassionate for the reasons why they haunt me, I don’t want them to choose which roads I travel through life.  This decision about how to get to the pub felt strangely important, because I was so conscious of the real psychic junction it symbolised, with paths leading off in two directions: one toward fear, one toward joy. The path I clearly wanted and deserved was the river in the sun-suffused evening, in a boat with friends.

So I told my fear to fuck off, right off, and I chose well – and ten minutes later I was sitting on the front seat of an American canoe paddling quietly through the lush, enclaved gardens of the ancient colleges on the river, delight blossoming in my core, with Will at the back, and Ali holding Louis perfectly safely in the middle, and Rob, Hayley and Jesse darting around us in kayaks. It’s probably been ten years since I was in a canoe, and I felt the Cherokee in my blood wake up.  We arrived at the Fort St. George, pulled the boats out of the water, and I drank beer and laughed and laughed and laughed as the day gave way to night.  I went to sleep happy.

When I woke up in the morning, I discovered that I had a spider-bite on my left arm that had swollen up in a circle the size of a coffee mug ring imprinted on a piece of paper.  With the Cherokee part of me still awake, I remembered how Native Americans believe that a spider is a symbol for the infinite possibilities of creation, because the two lobes of its body mirror the number 8, the symbol for infinity, and because it weaves its web.  I have always interpreted tête-à-têtes with spiders as a message from the esoteric forces telling me to get busy creating, writing, choosing, and living.  So this enormous spider-bite, discovered the morning of Nightwatch after two weeks of being unable to write, felt interesting.

But even so, I was still treacly when I woke up, and under the influence of a gentle hangover, so I was stuck to my bed all morning, and I was six hours late to Nightwatch.  But finally I made it and took my seat in the J2 theatre for my first show: Sleepwalk Collective’s Karaoke.  The stage setting was interesting and strange: a black box and karaoke monitor facing away from the audience, a fluffy, pastel blue piñata in the shape of a bomb suspended from above, and an oasis of plastic, inflatable palm trees.  A large projector screen covered the back of the stage. A beautiful, Spanish roller-girl stood on stage next to a boyish man who was wearing a t-shirt that said ‘I love Sarajevo’.  She held a microphone and stood in front of the karaoke machine, watching it and projecting an air of skittish fragility.  When the show started, the words of the karaoke machine were projected onto the screen behind them, so we could read the words, too.

From the beginning, the dialogue between the karaoke machine, roller-girl and boy was highly poetic, and I could feel the poetry fucking with my mind, in a way I liked; it was elegant and existential, like the koans that Zen masters pose to their students, to encourage their minds to tip into a state of perfect clarity.  It told us to ‘stretch our ears toward silence.’ I inhaled, deeply grateful, when the first poetry started to wash over me.  This was why I came to Nightwatch – so that art could reach inside of me, shake me up and light me up so I could perceive in a new way, a truer way.  The pace of the piece was languid, contemplative, lulling.  The experience made for a gentle emergence of my soul from its molasses coating, and I was grateful for this.

The karaoke machine symbolised the elements in our psyches that unconsciously sing words that someone else tells us to sing.  But it also felt like the voice of a universal consciousness, speaking through a machine. It reminded me of the otherworld poetry that is broadcast through the car radio to Orpheus in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée.  It was light and charming to start with – like when the machine gave a long list of instructions, ordering the boy and girl to pose in a variety of ways – for ‘a holiday snap’, ‘like porn stars’ (and we all laughed).  But then it asked them to pose ‘like newlyweds’, then ‘like two people deeply in love’, and at that point, they both stopped posing and stared sadly down at the ground, like they wanted to play the game, but they just couldn’t because it seemed to hurt them too much, in a moment that made you wonder about their real relationship and which was quietly heartbreaking.

Towards the end, when the show’s main metaphor was dyed deeply in itself, and the words from the karaoke machine felt like the pure, abstract sublime, and beyond theatre somehow, the words that appeared on the screen were ‘I love you’, and then repeated again, ‘I love you’, and then repeated again, ‘I love you’.  And even though it was (just) theatre, I felt loved, truly, simply by the air around me, the world around me.

(I found love in all of the worlds at the festival – they all cracked open at some point to reveal that love was at their core, that they were spinning around love, and that love was holding all of us there like gravity.)

Afterwards, I went to the burger van parked outside the Junction’s main doors.  As I was handed my hot, paper-wrapped Classic, I asked where the ketchup was.  The lady in the van paused and replied politely, but with a significant look in her eye that caught my attention, ‘we’ve already put…everything on it’, and that was the first moment I realised that this burger might be special.  When I took my first bite, it was confirmed: this burger was made by burger artists.  There was an ideal balance of bun, perfectly seasoned (incredibly juicy) medium-rare beef, red onion, ketchup, mustard and pickle.  The elements felt curated, to be quintessential but also fine.  On bite 4, a thin stream of beef juice escaped the wrapping and coursed down my arm.  With my consciousness totally absorbed and chewing meditatively, I walked slowly back into the Junction and got caught up in the eddying stream of people headed into the next show.  I wondered if I should go in – I kind of just wanted to be alone with my burger.  When I paused at the door of the theatre, the steward, my friend Lewis, noticing my furrowed, questioning brow and obsessive fixation, said, ‘it’s okay, you can take it in with you’.  So I tried to lick the juice somewhat surreptitiously off my arm as I walked into J3, the studio theatre space hidden away behind the box office that most people don’t realise exists.  Oh boy, did I like what happened next.

I hadn’t checked the line-up board and didn’t know what I was about to see, so I pushed my epicurean rapture to one side for a moment, swallowed, and asked the person next to me what the show was.  It was called My Son and Heir by the company Search Party.  I had decided not to take notes at Nightwatch for this write-up – I wanted to absorb all of the shows naturally and see what floated to the surface afterwards (and to be honest, I wanted to absorb a gentle but adequate amount of fine lager and feel free from responsibility, post-treacle tin time)…but five minutes into show, after my burger and I finished becoming one, I dove into my bag for pen and notebook and wrote My Son and Heir, OMG so fucking good!!! and started scribbling away as the show unfolded.  And then the idea of writing about it didn’t feel like a chore or constraint on freedom, it felt like an act of freedom.  I wanted to write, for you, the way Search Party constructed My Son and Heir for me (and also for you…even though maybe you didn’t go. But that’s okay, because I went, and I took notes).

The stage set-up for Search Party was tubular: the audience sat on either side of the room in long rows, looking across at each other, with the performance space in between.  It was carpeted (in beige), with children’s toys scattered around it.  At one end of the space there was a life-sized cardboard cut-out of their royal highnesses Kate, Wills and George and a small television soundlessly playing a Disney princess film. ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ by Elgar started blasting loudly and tinnily over the sound system, and then Search Party artists Pete Phillips and Jodie Hawkes walked into the warmly-lit, faux suburban living room, with Jodie in a big, white wedding dress, with layers and layers of gauzy fabric.  They started playing paddle-tether-ball with each other in the middle of the space, comically, teasingly, at first, and then they started hitting harder and harder, and grunting with each hit, which escalated to deadly intensity and screaming, animal-like groans; and all of a sudden, we were at Wimbledon, and it was a hilariously satirical moment that conjured Britishness with a capital B.

The show playfully explored the fairy tale frame around the royals, Kate, Wills and baby George and the images of happy families, and, most particularly, manhood, that are soaked into our culture by the media, via the parallel story of Jodie, Pete and their baby son, born the same year as Prince George. The show modulated interestingly between different movements, from Wimbledon-reminiscent paddle-tether-ball to wedding toast monologue, to dialogue, to wordless vignettes; and it was highly, delectably entertaining throughout.  I didn’t want it to end.  It had the appeal of a candy-coated Hollywood vehicle that has been engineered solely to carry you to dreamland for two hours, which is evidence of pure storytelling power, but what it did with the power and humour was crack your mind open once you were laughing and in thrall to make a serious social and philosophical point.

One of the most brilliant parts of the show was a comic monologue by Jodie in the form of a wedding toast to Pete, which cycled through types of man via the media tropes used to symbolise exemplary manhood in our culture – ‘the kind of man who is…’ bearded, tough, tender, a rock musician, a knight (meanwhile, Pete’s face was obscured by a medieval knight’s helmet while he played rock guitar for us), and strong, ‘with his rough hands and dusty face…’  It built to a rousing rhetorical peak that felt on the surface like a celebration of manhood, until the sheer length of the chain of images revealed itself to be just images flickering past on the telly – just flat, surface, fictional pictures – showing these to be essentially hollow.  This was contrasted with a second monologue on manhood later in the show, a ‘toast to the man of the house – the rented house’, which turned dark:  into a suburban housewife’s bitter, sneering harangue of her husband for not living up to those images, bitchily saying: ‘he does this thing…he is so funny – come on, Pete, put on the dress.  Come on, you do it all the time at home’.  Meanwhile, Pete’s shoulders slumped and he went very still and silent, with his eyes on the floor, with occasional pained looks at Jodie; and it was really awkward and sad.  There was an interesting ambiguity in the moment: it had echoes of both the story of Desmond from Ob-la-dee, Ob-la-dah, with its idea of hidden, repressed transvestism, as well as of the perceived emasculation of men from switching/sharing household roles traditionally associated with women.  Then he sadly puts the dress on and starts vacuuming while the harangue goes on and moves to his ability as a father: ‘What sort of father would do it like that? Where are the boys’ toys, Pete?  Why is he so lazy and so selfish, Pete? Why isn’t he in private school, Pete?  Why isn’t he in a field galloping around on his own fucking pony, Pete? What about Spanish lessons, Pete?  What do you do all day, Pete?  Why doesn’t he listen to you, Pete?’ and then, screamed, ‘Why aren’t you getting it right, Pete?!’   Then it feels like she breaks out of the theatre, out of the role, and walks around muttering.

I found the way the show explored manhood, and the ‘kind of man’ men seem to be on the surface and feel expected to be by society, poignant and fascinating; and it drew out, and felt based upon, the artists’ very real anxiety about the ‘kind of man’ Jodie and Pete’s real son would grow up to be.  After Jodie’s sneering monologue/toast, Pete took off his dress and gave a toast to his son.  ‘…he’s going to be one of those strong, silent, don’t cry, happily-ever-after-men.  He’s not going to be one of those men with power and no integrity.  He’s not going to be one of those in-and-out-of-prison men, caught-on-CCTV-robbing-an-offie men.  He’ll stay calm.  He’s not going to be one of those aggressive men.  He’s not going to be one of those in-the-car-in-the-garage-with-a-hosepipe men. One of those in-the-loft-with-a-rope-and-a-chair men, is he, Jodie?  No, he’s going to be all right.’

Amongst the mirth, the toy pink castle tent, the giant silver platter filled with peas, wedding dresses, skanky, snarled Kate wigs, knight’s helmet and guitar, the booming orchestral British hymns, the processions and toasts, the fairy tales, peppa pig bubble machine and simulated cunnilingus – the  heart of the show beat with naked love for Jodie and Pete’s real son.  After Pete processed in a satire of a coronation, in a cape lined with Barclaycard bills, and was crowned, there was one final monologue from Jodie about their son: ‘We have nothing for him.  There’s nothing for him.  There’s no fucking duchy…  But he can have bike rides, trips to the seaside, laughter, being chased up the stairs, games of pirate and spaceman that go on for hours, kisses, cuddles and smiles…it’s all his.’  This was really beautiful, and so tenderly said by Jodie…and I loved how in that moment, as in a lot of modern theatre, the real overlaps with the fiction.  And like I said before, every theatrical world I stepped into at Nightwatch cracked open to reveal love at the heart of everything.

So…by this point (9pm), I had been soothed and gently piqued into a brighter state of being by Karaoke, I had come further back to life via a sublime hamburger, had soaked up every crackling, rich, joyous bit of the excellent My Son and Heir, had two Leffe’s steeping happily in my blood, and now it was time for my own friend’s show, This is How We Die by Christopher Brett Bailey.  It would be an interesting fulfilment of the pattern set in motion in this paragraph, and the narrative arc of the essay, for Chris’s show to combine mind-bending poetry, sublimity, and joyous theatrical excellence in a highlight performance of the whole festival for me…and – although not fulfilling patterns and playfully departing from narrative tradition is what modern theatre excels at - that’s what happened next.

The crowd was back in the J2 theatre for this one, and it was interesting to sense the space rising up two stories above us to the balcony, and stretching behind the stage all the way back to a black-painted wall, in contrast to the smaller studio of J3.  Chris appeared in a retro Americana western button-down shirt with flat mother of pearl buttons and took a seat at a smallish wooden table, upon which rested a sheaf of papers.  His hair, as previously mentioned, hovered.  The stage around him was dark, and he sat in a spotlight.  It had the feel of being his own writing desk in his bedroom somewhere in London, and as though we were voyeurs in the process that happens between his mind and the empty page.

He picked up the papers, shuffled them and started talking – really fast, and my brain had to jump and start running to keep up with the stream of motoring words. But it did – I could follow it, because the high concepts and lightning-bright poetry were wrapped around a solid, magic beanstalk core of a story that transported the imagination and pulled your attention effortlessly along with it.  And he is funny – like stand-up comedy funny.  (The minutes on Earth that I spend in laughter feel, um, just better than most of the other minutes.  I also like minutes of sublime joy sourced from observing the beauty of life.  And crystalline clarity is also nice.)  So I sat quietly, radiating a lush, delighted glow in my core to be having this experience, to be absorbed in total enjoyment.  And actually it is this quality, this kind of storytelling magic, that all of my favourite arts consumables have: Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Dickens, Hardy, Judd Apatow, Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell.  They all have a delicious arc that keeps you hanging from second-to-second, and spins your emotions in loops, and sometimes withholds, and sometimes satisfyingly delivers, but always keeps you pleasurably absorbed.  But what was happening here during Chris’s show, and generally at the Junction during Nightwatch, was more than just absorption – it is the thing that makes the literary jewellers sit back in their chairs, take their monocle eyeglass off for a moment and decide to put a particular diamond in the ‘canon’ tray.  It was fineness, a dance of idea and execution – a play of beauty, truth and philosophy deployed within virtuosic poetic or theatrical technique.  I wish more people had come to see it.  I wish more people understood how brilliant, appealing and rich the edges of modern theatre are right now.  We’re so blessed, and the audiences are too small.

Anyway, I was there. I was absorbed. And I was having a brilliant time.  Chris’s poetry is particularly vivid; he conjures an imaginary world that feels distinctly cinematic and magical, but the magic comes from metaphor: the metaphors actually come to life in the story.  His fictional world is highly conscious of itself, and this meta-consciousness also seems to be conscious of itself (I guess we are living in the post-post-modern era).  One of my notes was simply ‘metametametametameta’.  The story flavours are retro Americana noir, with a love story at its heart, and with embedded musings upon language, masculinity, the deconstruction of materiality, religion, sex and violence.  It is told in first-person, and Chris and his narrator-hero shimmer over each other interestingly.

The story begins when our narrator meets his girlfriend at the school gate: she is dressed in black, her beehive is ‘immaculate’, and she has given up smoking and outsourced it as an activity to a mouse that sits on her shoulder, who is smoking. They go to her house for dinner, and Chris discovers that when she has said that her mother is ‘the strong, silent type’, it means that her mother is actually a body-builder who has stapled her own mouth shut, and that her father, who she has described as ‘a walking swastika’, was actually involved in a body-crushing accident and chose to have his bones re-set in the shape of a swastika.  ‘You are so literal; I love that’, he thinks towards Beehive.  In these living character-metaphors, there is the sense of facades peeled away to reveal the viscerality of the truth underneath.  This is poetry discussing itself, and cracking open the conceptual spaces that exist between language and the realm of meaning that lies behind the symbols, the codes. It’s dark but deliciously sugar-coated by its literariness.

After dinner has been interrupted by a car crashing through the dining room wall and decapitating Beehive’s father (the car is a Volkswagon with a bumper sticker that says ‘Anti-Fascist League’), and the couple are alone again, they have an argument about the way language puts boundaries around concepts, as in the case of ‘-isms’.  And here there was a virtuosic display of wordplay that kind of made my mouth hang open in respect and awe, and which ended, hilariously, childishly, rudely, with the destruction of a word and its meaning through the game of repeating it over and over until it ceases to be itself and turns into nonsense, non-sense.  And the word was ‘jism’: ‘Jism. Jism. Jism. Jism. Jism. Jism. Jism. Jism. Jism. Jism.’  At this point Beehive tells our narrator to go fuck himself, and he says ‘I knew she meant this literally.  So I started texting myself a couple of times a day, messages that started with “heyyyy”.  I asked myself out for dinner, and when I arrived at my house, I kept myself waiting.  At the restaurant, I made a lot of jokes and paid for everything, and then towards the end of the evening stared into my eyes just a second too long…’ And then follows a tenderly poetic description of wanking… I kept thinking of the surprising delicacy of the layers of elements in this performance.  Because the viscerality, violence and profanity are shocking, and because they share the limelight with jokes punching your funny button delightfully all the way through, it might be easy to not particularly notice the complexity of this fabric’s weave:  for example, the audience roared at this bit, and wanking is always funny, but the social observation was as fine-toothed and witty as Jane Austen, and there was a shadowing poignance in its very bravado.  It was one of my favourite parts of the show.

After this, Beehive and our narrator take the money she inherits from her dead Nazi father and travel across America’s dusty route 66 in a Cadillac, pursued by a Hell’s Angel-style priest who righteously attempts to purge their sinning through violence, and who gradually morphs into a copy of Chris during their battle at a deserted gas station in the desert. I found this twinning of Chris and the Priest to be an interesting element of the show: on the surface, it is comical magical-realism and cinema-noir, but underneath it’s revelatory about my friend (and you and me): it’s symbolic of the ways we can stalk ourselves, haunt ourselves, hurt ourselves with judgement and hate.  And that stirred my compassion for both of us – for me, personally, my self-judgement has been strangling my ability to write, and I had been locked in a pretty vicious and depressing battle in the two weeks leading up to the show.

This is How We Die has some of the crashing, epic feel of The Odyssey and Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra, but mixed with a childish/serious, Bill Hicks kind of dark irreverence. It is profane and blasphemous – the priest’s car has a metal hood ornament in the shape of Jesus, who comes to life and wanks during the violent battle of sin-purging between Christ and Priest Chris – but the profanity contains a sacred-feeling contemplation of itself: it asks, ‘What am I?’, ‘Where are my edges?’ and ‘Am I word, a concept, a slippery, spiralling meaning?’  The story’s metaphors are laden with echoing corridors leading off to various nuances and subtleties, so the poetry feels LOUDER from all its echoes.  They resonate in the background like chords accompanying the moving melody of the surface story. The themes in the corridors were many: the edges words, concepts and material reality, the edges or particulation of selves – the way our selves can feel fragmented and dual – the way language defines being, the destruction of concepts and paradigms via the deconstruction of language, and the processing that transforms one state of being into another.  The echoes and tremors from the subterranean activity under the language and story gradually felt louder and increasing in intensity and complexity…

And then the story ends because the language…b r e a k s, the stage goes black, and Chris disappears into the darkness behind the desk.

Then music – heavy, metal, classical chords – starts grinding out from the darkness, and car headlights on the stage floor switch on and beam out into the audience, so we were caught in pure sound and pure glare.  It felt like an exhilarated expression of ‘fuck the fucking boundaries in this fucking language…only music can say what I need to say now.’  And the music, like the literary tonality of the story, was a mix of ancient and modern on an epic scale, with electric guitars and strings and long, slow, sublimely beautiful chords; and it was really, really fucking loud.  And then it got louder.  The music was so loud you could feel it physically as vibration in your body, and I felt it most in my heart.  It felt like the sound and beauty was actually transforming my heart into a different state of being itself.  I started to feel a pure, ferocious joy.  The lights dimmed for just a moment at one point, to reveal the musicians standing behind the lights, and then came back – and I loved this flickering moment that reminded me that artists were engineering this experience.  As it went on, and the joy arrived, and I could feel the end of the piece approaching, I knew I wanted to jump to my feet and yell out my thanks, clap and stomp and whistle, and I wondered about the other people, but didn’t care; but then it ended, and we all went crazy.

Having this experience at Nightwatch and seeing how small the audience was, even though the Guardian’s uber-critic Lyn Gardner picked the festival as the best theatre event nationwide for the weekend, made me think about ancient Greek tragedy, and how theatre-going for 4th century BCE Athenians was a sacred event.  The whole city of Athens attended the drama competitions as a part of the Festival of Dionysus, and theatre was recognised for its power to move souls and ‘accomplish a catharsis of pity and fear’ (Aristotle, Poetics).  This happened for me at Nightwatch – but it makes me perplexed, and a bit sad, that the Junction provided this feast of incredibly powerful and enjoyable modern theatre to the city of Cambridge, and that Cambridge chose not to come.  Just sayin’.

So afterwards, I congratulated Chris in the J2 bar, and we had drinks.  I chatted some more with Chris’ musicians, and then we went to see more stuff.  The edges of my memories from this point onward are fluffier.  I remember that around 1 a.m. we all went up to the Mezzanine level, where the arty caterers Lemonade and Laughing Gas invited us to make bread with them. They dressed us in white boiler suits and hairnets, and handed us little wands covered in thick, paint-like food dye – red, yellow, green and blue – to flick into the mix, and we kneaded bright-coloured bread.  But they were playing excellent dance music, and we kept neglecting our work to dance to the sick beats like derelict oompa-loompahs.

Then at 2.30am we went to see Ann Liv Young (hot performance art import from the New York scene – everyone was buzzing about her), and her show Us was great…it was set in an Emo poetry class and explored friendships between outcasts.  It was a breath of culture from America that reminded me that it’s harder to be different there.  It’s one of the reasons I can’t live there anymore. You have to be strong to resist the bullying demand to conform to a painfully unhealthy mainstream way of living and being.  There were enjoyably slippery edges of nuance in the show, and like my other favourite work, it wrapped me around with its story and was extremely enjoyable – even the part where she and her best friend took a shit in a couple of buckets and then started flinging it at the crowd.  Ah, theatre, though!: it was applesauce, playing the role of shit.  The crowd started shouting, laughing and diving for cover.  Significantly, I think, this made me bond with my new mate Nicky, because we sheltered in each others’ arms.  Afterwards, Ann stayed in character and sold eclectic kitsch in the theatre lobby.

Then there’s an hour or so I can’t really remember, and around 5.30am I went to the mattresses.  When I lay down, I realised the room was spinning, and I debated whether I should go throw up, but during this conversation with myself, I drifted off mid-thought.  I had set my alarm for 6.20, so I could see Figs in Wigs at 6.30, because I heard they were wonderful, but I woke up at 8.30 with my alarm still going off quietly under my pillow and a sleeping body next to me.  I got up and wandered out, and discovered that I woke up just in time for breakfast.  I was handed my bacon breakfast sandwich by Lemonade and Laughing Gas, out of a ‘hatch’ in a giant cardboard ‘breakfast machine’, and the bread was bright red.  I reflected that the poor attendance numbers meant I could probably get away with drinking three glasses of strawberry juice, so I did that, and then I got a coffee from the little coffee truck that had appeared outside.  Then I watched the absolutely brilliant Woman’s Hour by The Anna Williams Trust. I would like to write more about this show, but might save that for another post.

Afterwards, I wandered around and found Chris on a bench outside the sleeping area, and we had a lazy, tired, post-party chat, where we told each other stories about the night and pieced together the hazy bits, and laughed again at the funny parts.  I told him that I had been asking people at breakfast about their highlights from the night before, and most people said it was his show.  I knew it would mean a lot to him to hear this.  And I told him that I had drifted off with the room spinning.  And he said, ‘you know, what’s interesting is that the disco ball in there wasn’t spinning’, and we found it funny that for me, it was.  And then he told me that when he finally crashed, the only space available was on an already-occupied mattress, and he was worried how close he had to sleep to a strange girl, and then he realised that it was me…and so he knew it was just fine, and went contentedly off to sleep. When I got up, I hadn’t realised it was him next to me.  I liked that we discovered the whole, sweet story of our friends’ sleepover by piecing together our two halves.

I love being friends with Chris.  He is kind and supportive, and he will occasionally start an e-mail with things like ‘yo, nigga’, which is interestingly transgressive and also funny.  I remember I replied to that one with ‘hey, blood’; and I never mentioned this to him, but at that point, I stopped writing the e-mail and thought about that slang – ‘blood’: it means ‘you’re my kin – you’re mine’.  I thought about how that is the thing that always makes me start crying at the end of Million Dollar Baby: the main character Maggie Fitzgerald, who is a people-less, kind, lonely, hard-working wanderer, is re-named by someone who loves her, but she doesn’t find out what her new name means until the very end: ‘Mo Cuishle’ : ‘my darling, my blood.’  It is so hard to be lonely, to wander, and then it feels so good to find your people. Because sometimes the people who are supposed to be your people, aren’t actually your people.  And then you have to search and wander, sometimes for a long, long time.  But you keep going, and then one day you find them.

And the thing I like about art with a story in it is the thing I like about friendship: we tell stories to each other, about each other, and the stories make the hours spinning by on this planet more magical, but they also cast light that helps us understand ourselves, and sometimes they help heal our broken parts, our broken hearts.

There is more to write about Nightwatch – it was a high-class, utterly delectable feast of modern theatre, and I’m so grateful to the two Daniels at the Cambridge Junction (Daniel Brine, Artistic Director, and Daniel Pitt, Arts Producer and lead curator of Nightwatch) for making it happen – but it’s time to wind this essay down.  It’s mid-afternoon on Thursday, and you can see that my writer’s block has been, demonstrably, demolished.  I think I am going to sleep now.  My spider-bite is almost completely gone – it is now the size of a drop of green tea.

Stoner novel image

On Stoner, Men and Compassion

I just finished reading the novel Stoner by John Williams, and it is a real literary gem with many rich facets for contemplation (by the way, it’s not about the love of ‘Mary Jane’ – the book’s main character is called William Stoner)…but the most fascinating thing to me about Stoner is the effect it seems to be having on men.  This winter men kept asking me, ‘Have you read this book?’, and when I said ‘No’, they would describe it to me with a quality of raw and deep awe, which felt unusually emotionally naked, from a man.  When I mentioned this to my friend Julie, she said that she had also witnessed such a moment occurring between two men and had also been struck by it.  To me, it felt like there was an earnest subtext in these moments; it felt as if they were metaphorically pushing the book into my hands and asking, ‘Please read this – please…understand.

Then – well, perhaps you will remember from my last long, interactive essay about Made in China’s Gym Party that I had a short spell of romance earlier this winter.  It was very short – lasting only about three weeks and including only three dates.  But have you ever had a really short affair with someone that pressed its shape deeply into your heart, very quickly?  This was like that.  I think he felt it, too.  On our third date, the time flew by like galloping horses, and realisation dawned on me with each new turning of conversation that we could talk about everything, that we could map the world together through our conversation.  As I discovered him, and felt him discovering me, a subtle sense of mundane social repression lifted, and I began to see there was pure freedom in the space between us, and it felt like I could breathe more deeply, relax, and be perfectly myself.  I’m old enough now to know this is rare.  It made me feel giddy and amazed.  It made me sling back red wine every time it felt so good that it felt unreal.  I invited him to stay the night…but there was something about our connection with each other that called up what seemed to be a kind of gentle innocence…to me, it felt like I was starting over again, as a teenager, in a pure heart space.  Things were sweet and quite chaste.  We kissed, held each other, and slept.

He had to get up before dawn to catch a train, and we said a sleepy good-bye in the dark at my front door.  After he left, I turned away from the door to walk back up to my bedroom through the pre-dawn stillness in the house, and I noticed a book on the arm of the sofa in the living room.  I went to look at it, thinking he must have pulled it out of his rucksack and forgotten it.  It was Stoner.  Opening it, I found a message written to me on the second page, and I realised he had left it for me to discover after he was gone.

And so here the subtle sense of entreaty I had sensed and wondered about before was made tangible: the book had actually been pushed into my hands, with a message for me written inside it, urging me to read it.  This was the point where the repeated incidences suggesting something intriguing about the book’s appeal to men turned into a perceivable glitch in the matrix, for me.  I took it up to bed and started reading it immediately.

Stoner has an interesting publishing story: it was actually published in 1965 to modest critical praise and sales, and a few years later it went out of print.  The author, John Williams, was a professor of English at the University of Denver for thirty years, and his largest literary success came in 1972 with his next book, Augustus, which won half of the National Book Award that year.  After languishing out of print for many years, Stoner  was reissued in 2003.  This was followed by several years of a quietly growing swell of re-valuation by various critics and word-of-mouth praise, which has culminated this winter  in a flurry of attention, accolades and bestseller status.

The story of Stoner is simple – it follows the life of one man, William Stoner, from birth to death, 1891 – 1956 (a time period which covers the Great Depression and both world wars).  He is the son of a silent, poor, farming couple in Missouri.  He goes to college, falls in love with literature and becomes a university English teacher.  Initially, I was not very interested in reading the book, because it sounded, well, boring.  But I was highly curious about the quality of naked emotion that it seemed to elicit in the men who told me about it, and then having the book actually pushed into my hands, and as a romantic gift, made me want to start reading it, and then very quickly the book performed that magic trick that some books can do – it pulled me instantly, powerfully into its fictional world and held me.   Added to the power of this holding was a deep enjoyment of the clarity and beauty of the writing.

The first aesthetic  thing that struck me about the book was the sombre, grand tonality of its prose, and the pervasive evocation of silence, which is reminiscent of Steinbeck, Hemingway, and also Jim Harrison, perhaps.  The prevailing expressive palette of the book is quiet, sad and weather beaten, like the Stoner family farm.  The colours in the book are mostly grey, black and white.  Like Steinbeck and Hemingway’s work, the silences and muting of colour evoke the vastness of the American landscape, the spaces in between families created by the settler diaspora that was a by-product of the American Dream, and the loneliness of the Midwestern farmer.  But these aesthetic effects are just the stage props which hold the fiction within the specific time and space of its setting – and while these are coherently and satisfyingly bound up with the themes of the book, its lifeblood is really the depiction of Stoner’s inner world of thought and emotion.  The book is really about the quiet, weather beaten psyche of Stoner, and the profound changes that occur in him as his life unfurls step by step.

The story begins when William Stoner leaves the family farm to study agriculture at the University of Missouri, and one day in a Sophomore English survey class that he is required to take, he experiences an awakening brought about by Shakespeare’s sonnet number 73.  His professor, Archer Sloane, says ‘Mr Shakespeare speaks to you across three hundred years, Mr Stoner; do you hear him?’, and in the next moment, William Stoner does:

‘He looked away from Sloane about the room.  Light slanted from the windows and settled upon the faces of his fellow students, so that the illumination seemed to come from within them and go out against a dimness; a student blinked, and a thin shadow fell upon a cheek whose down had caught the sunlight.  Stoner became aware that his fingers were unclenching their hard grip on his desk-top.  He turned his hands about under his gaze, marvelling at their brownness, at the intricate way the nails fit into his blunt finger-ends; he thought he could feel the blood flowing invisibly through the tiny veins and arteries, throbbing delicately and precariously from his fingertips through his body’ (p. 11).

The character study of William Stoner is a beautiful exploration of the human instinct to grow towards light and love, to endure through conditions of barrenness as unexpressed potential until circumstances shift to allow a flowering.  It is an exploration of how an individual human nature responds in different ways to the various types of nurture surrounding it.  When the basic nature of William Stoner’s psyche is exposed to the sunlight of Shakespeare’s dance of concepts and poetry after many years spent in a state of darkness and silence, he is flooded with a new aliveness in response.  The conditions creating the muffled darkness surrounding Stoner at the beginning of the book are poignantly barren:

‘It was a lonely household, of which he was an only child, and it was bound together by the necessity of its toil. In the evenings the three of them sat in the small kitchen lighted by a single kerosene lamp, staring into the yellow flame; often during the hour or so between supper and bed, the only sound that could be heard was the weary movement of a body in a straight chair and the soft creak of a timber giving a little beneath the age of the house’. (p. 2)

One of the profound beauties of the book is that into the barren aches of the silences, separations and muted colours of Stoner’s perceived world, Williams eventually pours light, love, beauty and joy, in repeating patterns of connection and disconnection, exploring the powers of these two states, and showing how they work upon the psyche.  Stoner has a brave persistence: he is nearly a cipher at the beginning of the novel, yet an instinct for love and expansion wells up again and again in defiance of the confining nature of the behaviours created by his strange, silent, distant nurture.  His parents are characterised as two-dimensional, dour, silent, grim people.  This may be a significant evocation of the extremely hard times and circumstances that formed the American people of John Williams’ time, but it is also a picture of a barren and joyless existence.  And the child who was formed by it emerged deeply silent, dissociated and lonely.  Yet he just keeps growing towards light, and I found his moments of expansion and gravitation towards toward beauty and love to be heroic, considering the conditions of his nurture.

Stoner American Gothic Grant Wood painting

As I read Stoner I began to realise that the book’s structure is strangely simple and almost un-novelistic.  It is simply the story of ‘a life’.  However, I approached the book primed by a deep wondering about its appeal to men, and I realised that out of all the minute and significant moments that ‘a life’ has to offer, and the infinite possibilities for the creation of stories out of them, Williams selected the moments that represent the male rites of passage in our Western society of the twentieth century.  Stoner goes through university, takes the first steps into his career as a university English teacher, makes a decision whether to fight in WWI, marries, buys a house, has a child, finds fulfilment with his work, has an affair with a woman he truly loves, faces turmoil and enemies in his job, loses his parents, watches his daughter grow up, faces a serious illness, and dies.  On the surface, it seems like a boring life and a boring story.  But along the way, Williams describes with beautiful and precise poetry how these moments feel in Stoner’s psyche, and also how they reconfigure his psyche in a continual process of becoming.  The theme of awakening, of becoming, is intertwined with the depiction of each of these thresholds, and via the breathtaking intimacy of the encounter with Stoner’s interior world of thought and emotion, the novel expresses the universal through the minute.

Although I enjoyed reading it, was held quite happily in its thrall and felt a deep enjoyment in the brilliance of its artistry (Williams’ clarity of expression is really something quite special), Stoner didn’t work quite the same on me as it clearly did on the men who had spoken to me about it.  At first, I found the sombre tone occasionally a bit too much, a bit too…unlike real life, and perhaps purposefully and somewhat artificially reaching for the tonal register of Steinbeck and Hemingway.   It was as if they were composers, and Williams, noticing that Steinbeck and Hemingway composed certain pieces in B minor for certain effects (i.e. depicting the grand, sad, empty spaces of the American Midwest), decided to use B minor, too, just because they did; and at first I questioned whether this was a genuinely felt artistic choice or a striving to be great like them by being like them.

But then I wondered about the men who loved the book.  The sombre tone probably wasn’t too much for them – and perhaps they soaked it in, needed it, resonated with it in some way…?  And then I thought about the books that do produce the same effect of awe and resonance in me, which Stoner did not: these are the books that also heal, teach and reflect me in a deeply powerful process that re-makes my being in some profound way.  I long to disappear into them at regular intervals, turn to them for comfort during difficult times, and I am extremely excited whenever I discover a new one.  And it often feels as if they say something about me that I am not able to consciously articulate yet – often they are teaching me something in a deeply poignant process that represents the frontier of my psyche as it is expanding or healing.  They bring something new into me, which, before I am able to understand it in a conscious way, is simply held in the ambiguous, unique energies of the book.  And I usually feel a desire to share these books with people who are close to me, almost as a way of saying, ‘this is where I am right now – it’s important to me, even though I can’t yet say why.’  And I can see that the tonalities or messages of these books are not as compelling to other people as they are to me, because the specifics of my personal expansion are unique; and this has to do with resonance, a mysterious harmony that happens between our basic nature, the particular stepping stone we are standing on in our personal process of expansion, and the works of art that come into our sphere of consciousness, in a totally unique combination of individual self and artistic piece.   With Stoner, it seemed that the way the book had been pushed into my hands, both metaphorically and literally, echoed the moments when I had done the same, in a gesture of appeal for connection and understanding.

But the effect of Stoner seemed to be particular to men.  At a certain point while reading it, a couple of chapters in, I looked back at the cover and ran my eyes down the listed quotes from reviews to discover the gender of the rave reviewers: all men, save one review from a woman on one of the inner, opening pages.  And so I wondered about what appeared to be a larger resonance between Stoner and men , and in the midst of this wondering, I attended a lecture on 16 March 2014 which was a part of Cambridge University’s Science Festival.  It was titled ‘Buddhism and Science: Healing Ancestral Patterns in Psychotherapy’ and was given by Dr. Bronwen Rees, who is a practising psychotherapist, academic, and Buddhist teacher who uses mindfulness (an ancient Buddhist practice of self-awareness and self-management) as a tool in her psychotherapy work.

Dr. Rees gave a fascinating talk that examined the psychological fallout of trauma as it passes through successive generations (you can read the paper accompanying the talk here).   One of the most important general points she made was that the term ‘mental health’ is an alienating definition for the process of developing a complement of skills and types of awareness which are, as she said, essentially just the ‘processes of being human’.

She spoke about trauma in childhood and made a point that interacted interestingly in my mind with my question about Stoner’s appeal to men: where abuse of one child has happened in a family, the entire family experiences profoundly negative effects arising from it.  Rees writes in the paper accompanying the talk, ‘the family system, as a feedback organisation, is compromised through denial – leaving the victim isolated and traumatised, with other members of the family living narrow lives, trying to keep their own partial version of truth going.’ (Rees, p. 7).

She gave the example of a family where the youngest child is being emotionally abused by a parent and pointed out that the older children will copy the pattern of the abusive parent and learn to bully the victim, too.  In order ‘to keep their own partial version of truth going’, in order to keep themselves safe, and their idea of the family as a ‘good’ family, the older children will suppress their natural responses to seeing the abuse, and experience dissociation from normal emotions, like compassion, and the result is ‘silence and secrecy’ about the abuse, as well as a family organised around power dynamics instead of honest emotional expression and responses (Rees, p. 7).

When I heard this, compassion bloomed in my heart for the older children, the bullies – because they are driven into a state of emotional and relational disconnection, and therefore also denied the healthy, nurturing warmth of connection that is our natural due from relationships.  (And here I thought of E.M. Forster’s ‘Only Connect…’ from Howard’s End.)  They don’t comply with the abuse because they are cruel or immoral; they do it because their sense of survival and safety is based on the need to belong to the family and to believe that the family is okay.  The dynamic happens to them when they are young, and they don’t have the ability to understand it and its destructive power, or the strength or maturity to fight against it.  And the nature of the dynamic is to make them blind to it at an early age.

I saw an enlightening parallel to this idea, between men and women.  It seemed to me that on a societal level men are like the older children in an abusive family dynamic running cyclically for hundreds of years (with women as the suffering younger sibling), who have been drawn unconsciously to participate in our society’s unfair, gendered power imbalance, and who are suffering their own quiet share of sadness resulting from the broken system.  I wondered if Stoner, and its great theme of connection/disconnection and sombre tonality, somehow taps and brings to the surface a truth about a current state of collective male ennui at the far end of the cycle: after the older child has been taught to bully and dissociate from his emotions as a means of participating in the ‘family’ (i.e. society), he then finds that he is unable to sustain the relationships that mean the most to him, that the unconscious behaviours he was taught have driven away the true warmth and fullness of love possible in relationships.

I looked at my relationships with men – my Dad, my ex-husband, my ex-boyfriends and male friends, and I started to see them all in terms of the fictional older child in Dr. Rees’ example.  I could see how Dr. Rees’ point applied, in various permutations and degrees, to most of them.  This child would have a lack of insight into how emotions work from a lifetime of suppressing or denying them.  He would have relationships based on power dynamics rather than emotional honesty and emotional connection – not out of a desire for power, but because he was sorted at birth into a category that had certain conditions: where a tenuous sense of belonging required participation in social power games and a muting of his natural emotions.  Underneath the suppression, and amidst emotional confusion, he would feel strong surges of love, anger, or grief, and these would find expression sometimes, somehow, but probably through his actions rather than his words.  My dad is a quiet, hard-working man – in some respects very similar to William Stoner.  I remember that after I grew past the age of free and exuberant child hugs, and he had to respect my physical apart-ness, he used to clap me four times on the back – pop, pop, pop, pop – in moments of pride or love, with such force that my back would smart afterwards.  It really annoyed me as a teenager, but of course I know now that it was his oceanic father’s love forced  into the only size and type of expression available to him, to the particular sort of man he was raised to be, in the particular society he was raised in.

When I think about how often and how much I have needed to cry to process grief over losses old and new, and how crying has washed my heart and psyche clean over time, and how in our society, and especially for men, this is considered a ‘weakness’ (language which comes from a social paradigm about power, rather than a social paradigm of health or honesty) – I wonder how many unshed tears pool in the hearts of all the men walking around out there.  How much grief is stored in their minds and bodies?  How dissociated are they from their natural emotional responses?  How much guilt do they feel underneath a superficial participation in the rules of a ‘civilization’ that still oppresses women, albeit in more subtle ways now?  How asleep are their true natures?  How stifled are their needs?  Are they…okay?

I live in a sort of Modern Family house-share: it’s been running for ten years, has been lodged in two different houses along the way, and although the house members have changed with time, the ethos of behaving like a family with each other has stayed the same.  It’s a happy and peaceful place.  Two of my housemates are a gay couple: Paul and Jose.  I love them like brothers, and we relate to each other like family.  Although it is a stereotype of gay men, it happens to be true that they are beautiful and stylish. I find it endearing how their chiselled beauty and innate style turns various angles of the rooms they inhabit into inadvertent GQ photo spreads – and they are charmingly unaware of this, although sometimes I point it out, and then they flash modest smiles at me.  They are good, kind, intelligent and funny.  At dinner a few nights ago we talked about the ideas in this essay and the question of emotional suppression in straight men.  Here is what they said:

Jose [imagine a sexy Andalucian Spanish accent]: When I came out, um… Being gay gives – a licence. Is that the right word?

Joy and Paul: Yes.

Paul [imagine a resonant, sophisticated British accent with Aussie inflections]: If you go to the pub with a group of straight men, it’s a totally different experience.  The emotional language has certain… You express certain things in a joking…  Guys can express some of these things, but only indirectly.  I find being in a straight male environment very uncomfortable.

Jose: I like being in any groups of people who are a bit freer.  I know a straight guy, Pablo – and he is really free.  You can talk about anything with him.  He loves cunt, though.  You should see his girlfriends. [He looks heavenward and the fingers of one hand expand like a lotus flower to express rapture.]

[We stop talking and laugh. A wish blooms inside me to meet a guy like Pablo.]

Jose: But I don’t feel comfortable in gay bars, either… It’s all stereotypes.  It’s another place you don’t feel free.

It was interesting to think about this idea of freedom and suppression in terms of Stoner, and how when we’re talking about freedom, what we’re talking about is the freedom to have a natural emotional response, which is what, as Dr. Rees explains, is suppressed in a broken relational dynamic.  The brokenness of Stoner’s surrounding culture is strongly evoked by the characterisation of his wife, Edith, who is a disturbing, mentally ill figure, and whose childhood is described as ‘typical of that of most girls of her time and circumstance’ (p. 53).  Her conditions of nurture are described in terms of emotional stifling: ‘Her childhood was an exceedingly formal one, even in the most ordinary moments of family life.  Her parents behaved towards each other with a distant courtesy; Edith never saw pass between them the spontaneous warmth of either anger or love.  Anger was days of courteous silence, and love was a word of courteous endearment.  She was an only child, and loneliness was one of the earliest conditions of her life. (p. 54)

The failed marriage between Edith and Stoner is one of the sources of sadness in the book, but it is no wonder that their marriage is a failure.  It is no surprise that left to their own blind and damaged devices, and without any chance of a supportive, intervening circumstance in their culture to teach them how to break free of their programming, they will recreate their childhood atmospheric prisons with each other – with Stoner as a silent submissive, and Edith as an actress playing the role of ‘woman’ as it was written by early 20th century American culture, and slowly going mad.

When Stoner encounters real love, something in him is freed.  As he falls in love with a young postgraduate English student named Katherine Driscoll, Williams writes: ‘Day by day the layers of reserve that protected them dropped away, so that at last they were like many who are extraordinarily shy, each open to the other, unprotected, perfectly and unselfconsciously at ease’ (p. 200).

The theme of love found, of connection, and the resulting feeling states in the male psyche – and consequently the exploration of the feeling states of loneliness, disconnection and silence – is probably the most important theme of Stoner.  The grand modulations between tonalities in the book follow Stoner’s progressions from the dark, muffled aches of separation and loneliness to connection, clarity and light. When Stoner finally experiences real love, the writing comes alive. And then I realised that the sombre, b minor tonality of the other parts of the book form a rich contrast to the bright Major chords of the writing about love and fulfilment, which is a meta-statement of the book’s largest theme.  Qualities of aliveness – colour, light, warmth and movement – come into the novel with Stoner’s love for Katherine:

‘Her eyes, that he had thought to be a dark brown or black, were a deep violet.  Sometimes they caught the dim light of a lamp in the room and glittered moistly; he could turn his head one way and another, and the eyes beneath his gaze would change colour as he moved, so that it seemed, even in repose, they were never still.  Her flesh, that had at a distance seemed so cool and pale had beneath it a warm ruddy undertone like light flowing beneath a milky translucence’ (p. 199).

And he experiences an awakening brought about by this love:

‘In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia.  Now in his middle age he began to know it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart’ (p. 201).

I am beginning to wind down towards a conclusion, but I have one more point to explore, and I also have to finish the personal story I started telling you at the beginning.  One of the things that fascinated me as I read Stoner was the clarity with which Williams depicts Stoner’s inner emotional world – and it was apparent to me that this was a peculiarly, particularly male inner emotional world, even though I had never been inside of one before.  It was kind of exhilarating to be in it, via the book, after a lifetime of observing the behaviour of men and often scratching my head in bewilderment.   It felt as if Stoner allowed me to put on ‘boy glasses’ and see the world for the first time through their eyes.  And, quite interestingly, what I saw with my Stoner glasses was that men are also bewildered by me, by us, by women.  Of course, I have grasped our mutual, staring bewilderment with each other across this gender divide before, but Stoner showed me an array of things about men I had never seen before so intimately –  like the vast, elemental expanse of the male emotional range, which, from my perspective as a woman in a culture of emotionally suppressed men, is so pervasively hidden.  And I wondered if that is why the silences depicted in the book feel so poignant.  When Stoner sees his daughter Grace for the last time before he dies, he simply cannot get the words out to explain how he feels to her, in a beautiful and sad moment of inarticulateness.  She says,

‘Mamma and I – we’ve both been disappointments to you, haven’t we?’ He moved his hand upward, as if to touch her. ‘Oh, no,’ he said with a dim passion.  ‘You mustn’t…’  He wanted to say more, to explain; but he could not go on.  He closed his eyes and felt his mind loosen. Images crowded there, and changed, as if on a screen.  He saw Edith as she had been that first evening they had met at old Claremont’s house – the blue gown and the slender fingers and the fair, delicate face that smiled softly, the pale eyes that looked eagerly upon each moment as if it were a sweet surprise. ‘Your mother…’ he said.  ‘She was not always…’

‘You were a beautiful child,’ he heard himself saying, and for a moment he did not know to whom he spoke.  Light swam before his eyes, found shape and became the face of his daughter, lined and somber and worn with care.  He closed his eyes again. ‘In the study.  Remember?  You used to sit with me when I worked.  You were so still, and the light…the light…’

These are the last words he speaks to her.  Moments like these in the book helped me see the richness and complexity of feelings about love and connection in the male psyche, and how the truth of the feelings may find only partial expression, how they may be muted in their outward expression.  I saw the diamond-like brilliance of emotional insight possible within the male psyche, as in the passage above when Stoner contemplates the true nature of love as a ‘becoming’.  And I saw how much men care about the people they love, and about love itself…and the depth of sadness possible, and silently held, within a man who is unable to create or sustain it.  I wondered if the moments of intense connection with the book that I had witnessed with various men during the winter had to do with the way the book articulates for them something they are not able to articulate for themselves, if it shows with depth and precision what men are generally not able to express, and if that is one reason for its profound resonance with men.

I have to admit, though, that I struggled sometimes with writing this essay, because at points I got really angry.  It was as if the release of compassion inside myself stirred up the entire section of my psyche bound up with the dynamics between men and women, which has threads leading off to various complexes and memories of moments of injustice, suppression and suffering as a result of being a woman in a male-dominated culture.  The suppression is much more subtle now – it is hidden away, but still embedded in innocuous-seeming habits, casual turns of language, and traditions – and it still accumulates in the female psyche, and it still hurts.

And another thing that stirred up my heart, and interacted with my reading of Stoner, was what happened after I discovered Stoner in my living room, in the early morning stillness.  The book felt like a tangible expression of the sweetness of feelings passing between this man and me.  The date itself – spending time talking to him, looking at him, listening to his voice – set off a reaction of buzzing delight in me, which felt like an energy current through my body.  And it seemed like it was happening between us – I mean, it seemed like it was happening to him, too.  After the date, I waited to hear from him, trusting that things were going well.  But several days passed, and there was no word from him.  It felt jarring, in comparison to how he had communicated before, and in the context of how well things had seemed to be going.

After the second day, I started to feel a distinctly uncomfortable caving sensation in the centre of my chest, and bad feeling in my gut.  I wanted to ignore these. I consulted my Past Self: She said, ‘Do you remember what has happened in the past?  Like the time you met this amazing guy, who made you feel instantly electric, delighted and free, and then he stood you up on your first date.  When he eventually came to apologise and ask you out again, you ignored your instincts, told him it was fine, and then for the next three years he walked all over you.  He stood you up many more times after that, because you told him, ‘that’s okay’.  You have doormat tendencies.  You need to evolve now.  Tell this new guy it’s not okay to spend time in your bed and then not be in touch about whether he wants to see you again for days.’  It was hard to hear this – she was so unsentimental.  It clashed painfully with how much I liked him and how badly I wanted things to go well.

I also consulted Paul.  In the wide spectrum of gayness, Paul’s way of seeing things is more typically masculine.  Jose is more like me in how he thinks about these things.  Paul said a very wise and important thing, which I took to heart: ‘You have to remember that there’s nothing philosophically wrong with him not getting in touch.  People are free, and he’s not bound by anything to behave in a certain way.  If you are asking him to be in touch, remember that you’re making a request that he can choose to respond to, or not.  But you also have a right to your feelings, and a right to ask for ways of behaving that feel respectful to you and make you feel good, not bad.’  It was an important nuance to this question.  My girlfriends all responded to the situation with a straight-up, ‘No, it’s not okay for him to do that. That’s so disrespectful, if he still wants to see you.’  Of course, maybe he didn’t, was the unspoken thought.

So, I decided to write an e-mail to him somehow expressing how I felt, and I found that doing this was at the frontier of a psychological issue for me.  I felt really shaky about it.  I had the image in my mind of a field with boundary posts in it, and a little girl version of myself determined, but scared, putting a new post in the ground and then standing by it, her arms crossed over her chest, looking fierce.  I think I knew that saying something had the power to snap us out of the spell we were in, that it would be one of the steps that would begin to turn our romantic enchantment into a more awake kind of behaving, and I knew that it would bring up any lurking, fundamental disharmonies.  Basically, I knew it would flush out the truth, whatever that was. However, I also felt strongly compelled to stretch towards this new way of being, to honour my feelings and only be in relationships that felt respectful, and I genuinely wanted to know what was really true about him and the situation, no matter what that truth might be.

In my fear to lose a sweet thing, I embroidered the e-mail with the finest charm.  At one point, I cutely adopted the language formulations of his profession – the law – and sprinkled in a little French; and the topper was pasting in a link to a clip of The Three Degrees performing in front of a live studio audience from the 70s, perched elegantly, identically, on stools in glitzy floor-length gold lame dresses, swaying, and singing ‘When Will I See You Again?’

There was no reply that night or the entire following day.  Then, finally, a cryptic one-line e-mail arrived saying he would write more the following day.  No kisses.  No ‘my darling’ – as there had been before.  So, I knew already, from that, and the minor erosion that had begun in my heart progressed to a full-on dropping of the cliff into the ocean.  All the sweetness I had felt flowing through my veins officially turned into disappointment at that point.  But he didn’t write the next day, either.  Finally, he wrote the day after that, six days after our date, to say he didn’t have time in his life and couldn’t continue seeing me.

It was a fair reason, and I felt very sad, but I understood.  But aside from that, by the end of the fourth day of silence from him, and pondering how in our current world of technology communication takes seconds, the bottom dropped out of the market for me for this pairing.  No matter how sweet, buzzy and deep the connection, my soul had begun to shout ‘No!’ to this, to any, to all situations that don’t flow in a correct-feeling rhythm and harmony, that don’t feel instinctively good, or where I have earnestly asked, ‘Can you…?’ and someone cannot.  But as in Paul’s wise nuance, nobody should be judged if they ‘cannot’ – they simply cannot, because life moves us in patterns where we are genuinely restricted by circumstances or the frontiers of our unfolding psychological abilities.   In this situation, although I had to endure the decay of sweetness into disappointment and wait for my psyche to metabolise my sadness, I was comforted by the little girl on the field in my imagination, standing with determination in front of a new boundary post.

A week later, I would find out more: I bumped into his ex/girlfriend, who would refer to him as her current (i.e. non-ex) /‘boyfriend’, and this was how I learned that, although he had represented himself as wholly single to me, he was still involved with her.  I e-mailed him to say I had just had this experience and wasn’t pleased, and his response was to become defensive and angry with me, and say that it wasn’t my business (i.e. that I didn’t have a right to know whether he was single or not before getting involved with him).  This made me really, really fucking angry.  At the same time I was having this experience, I felt strongly compelled to write this essay about Stoner, men, and compassion, and in the midst of it all, I had attended Dr. Rees’ talk.  My anger and compulsion to write about these things held each other at bay in a force field and eventually they spun into each other and turned into a transformative process, during which I had to examine and re-configure my own psyche in order to circle back, to try to find compassion and balance.

I gradually realised that as I was reading Stoner, I was carrying a disgruntlement from what happened with this man that prejudiced me towards the character of William Stoner, which was also just unfair. It felt like grains of my anger were falling onto the diamond-like prose and ruining it.  Towards the end of the book, especially when Stoner reaches its most sublime point, the starkness of the grains of anger became more clearly defined and more dark, set against the brilliant light reflecting out from the book’s ending.  That coincided with the peak of my turbulent feelings and the intensity of wanting to write this essay…and in the presence of the profound beauty at the end of the book, I found I just wanted peace.  I wanted to brush away the grains of anger.  I wanted to do justice to Stoner.  As a writer, I wanted to truly enjoy and honour John Williams’ artistry.  I wanted to step out of a cycle of exchanged anger and sadness.  I wanted to see clearly and with an open heart.  I wanted to forgive.

I set about doing this using tools I have learned from psychotherapy.  I wrote an uncensored stream-of-consciousness journal entry about my feelings of anger, which (more messily and with many more swear words than I will write here) circled from

‘he – this experience – made me feel really angry and sad’

to

‘it felt just like the disrespect I felt throughout my last relationship…a lot of the anger and sadness is really about that relationship…about Him.’

to

‘and with Him… that relationship mirrored the disrespect and disregard I was forced to absorb from my parents as a child…a lot of the anger and sadness is probably really about that…about Them.’

to

‘I just loved All of them so much’

to

‘I just wanted them to love me back…to show me love…to love me the way I loved them’.

And at that point, I stopped writing, put down my pen and cried really hard for my past self.  And then the thought that came next was ‘but they didn’t know any better; they were all just repeating the patterns programmed into them…they were asleep, and just as hurt as me.’  And so instead of crying just for me, I ended up crying for him, Him, Them, and Us.

After I finished, I could see Stoner better.  I could see everything better.  I could go back to the e-mails written by this man and hear the anguish hidden behind his language: he hadn’t wanted our sweet, unfolding discovery of each other to stop either, and I knew enough about his other relationship to see that the circumstances surrounding it were really painful to him, and that he was trying to end it and act well, although he was not succeeding.  I could see that behind the negative behaviour of my last boyfriend was a tragic blindness and inability to participate in the relationship with healthy emotional responses and connection, because he didn’t know any better.  When I could feel our love dying away because of his confusion and silence about important things, I asked him to try to learn about his psyche, and how things from his past were hurting our relationship, and his answer was not ‘I will not’, it was ‘I cannot’.   And I could see that his love for me was deep, profound, true.

After I circled back to a state of peace, compassion and clarity, I felt a kinship with the character of Stoner, because I grew up with barren nurture, too.  But to be named ‘Joy’ - I have always felt like it was a spark thrown to me from my mother’s true self, a clue that I could follow back to my true nature, even though she wasn’t able to give me much else.  Like Stoner, I keep going towards it, towards the truth of myself.  After I circled back to a place of compassion, I was able to write this essay, to see the sublime beauty in Stoner and what it says about the nature of the male psyche, and to look at men in our culture and say to them, ‘It’s okay.  I think…I understand.’

smallGym-Party-confetti-shot-624x593edited

On Gym Party, Beauty and Marshmallows

On Wednesday 19 February 2014, the live art company Made in China brought their show Gym Party to the Cambridge Junction.  It was the first night of a national tour which will take them to 15 venues over the next 3 months, including the Edinburgh Traverse, Manchester Royal Exchange, Colchester Arts Centre and Pulse Festival in Ipswich.  Made in China was founded by Jessica Latowski and playwright Tim Cowbury.  I’m friends with the other two people in the company, Christopher Brett Bailey and Ira Brand.

I work at the Cambridge Junction, and so for several months I have been looking up from my computer to gaze at the large wall in the theatre’s foyer opposite the Box Office, which houses a profuse jostling of closely-pasted theatre, music and comedy posters.  My eyes would travel across the wall and pause at the pictures of Chris and Ira on the Gym Party poster, because it was interesting to know the flesh-and-blood human counterparts to the tiny, flat avatars on the paper, to have gotten drunk with the human Chris the last time he was in Cambridge and staying in my spare room.

Gym Party is situated on the nebulous borderline between theatre and ‘live art’, a genre of artistic performance that struggles with conventional definitions and boundaries, but which is usually an experimental, conceptual, raw type of live performance.  Gym Party is scripted and theatrically conceived, but it is also interactive and highly conceptual.  It draws heavily on the true personal experiences of the performers, who use their real names and perform as their real selves (to a certain, unknown extent).  It obeys the ancient formula of theatre by weaving a dramatic narrative to please, entice and entertain the audience; but into the enchanted space that Gym Party creates, it heaves vast philosophical questions and both the light and darkness embedded in the human experience. This is the story of how Gym Party would interact with me, particularly, and how it would tease up from the subconscious mulch of my psyche several poignant matters for consideration.

On the night that Gym Party came to Cambridge, Oberon had also drifted through town on a fairy whim and instructed Puck to smear wild pansy juice on my eyelids; or, to put it more plainly: just before the show started, and after a long, long spell of mourning my last relationship and being single, I was asked on a date by a man I had known for a while and liked very much – a drink in The Flying Pig, to happen immediately after Gym Party finished.  So I settled into my seat in J2 (the Cambridge Junction’s theatre space) with Amazonian butterflies flapping around in my stomach, and with my heart and mind peculiarly opened to hear what Gym Party might have to say.

The house lights went down, and against the black of the stage appeared three names in glowing, cursive, neon tubing: ‘CHRIS’, ‘JESS, and ‘IRA’.  Then more of the stage lights came up, and the three of them bounded onto the stage, dressed in identical outfits of white tank tops and white gym shorts, reminiscent of school PE kits, each wearing a differently-coloured chin-length wig from the spectrum of improbable hair colours that ultra-cool Japanese teenagers would favour: apple green, bubblegum pink and chemical blue.  They introduced themselves and their individual ‘theme tunes’ – three pumping, popular anthems – and they explained that there were now going to be a series of ‘contests’, and only one of them could win each one.  Then a man’s deep, stylish voice boomed out over the theatre’s sound system like the announcer on an American game show from the Eighties – a voice that is only ever a voice and never connected back to a real person – who organised, controlled and summarised the contests.  This was a type of voice I knew well from my childhood in America, which was spent watching a lot of television, prior to my permanent transplantation to the UK at the age of 23. At this point, all was light and happy.

 

Round 1

The first contest in Round 1 was Marshmallows.  How many marshmallows could Chris, Jess and Ira fit into their mouths before being compelled by their gag reflexes to spit them all out?  Winner: Jess! The second contest in Round 1 was Skittles.  How many Skittles thrown in bursts from the audience could each of them catch?  Winner: Chris!  The third contest in Round 1 was Dizzy Racing.  Who could run to the finish line first after spinning around ‘lots and lots of times’?  Winner: Jess!

Gym Party marshmallows

It was genuinely hilarious and sweet.  In Dizzy Racing, Ira simply fell down with her legs splayed like a toddler and sat, dazed, not even attempting the finish line.  And, of course, these are the types of games that little kids would think of playing. The audience was thoroughly entertained and laughed uproariously.  The feel of the piece was jokey, safe, well-lit.

But towards the end of Round 1, the perfectly conceived, childlike abstraction of the games began to subtly reflect the philosophical questions that Gym Party would ask in various ways throughout, and much more directly towards the end: Why do we play the games we do, as adults?  Are they the right games?  Who is a ‘winner’?  Who is a ‘loser’?

At the end of Round 1, Chris, Jess and Ira put their arms around each other and spoke of their togetherness, taking turns finishing each others’ sentences.  They said that they were really close: they were ‘one, a pack, a whole’.  This would become a refrain they would chime throughout the piece.  It was a significant conceptual shift that highlighted the different ways we can we view other people: moving from a paradigm of competition and separation to an idea of dissolved boundaries and oneness.  The movement between these two conceptual poles would continue during the rest of the show; but the show would also explore deeper nuances in these concepts than simply aligning togetherness with ‘good’ and separateness with ‘bad’.  However, this moment of togetherness was warm and felt good.  Then the announcer informed the audience that it was now time for the winner, Jess, to give her winner’s speech.  Her neon name on the back of the stage was lit up, the other two names went dark, and Chris and Ira left the stage.  Jess gave a comic, effusive speech.

After Jess finished speaking, the announcer told us that it was time for the losers to do their ‘Penalisation’.  When Chris and Ira came back on stage, a thin trickle of blood spilled from each of their noses.  The red from the blood was in sharp contrast to their pale faces, their white gym outfits, and to the upbeat game show atmosphere they had created in the first part of the piece.  It was a bit chilling.  Then the stage lights went dark and they each stood in a small pool of white light and hit themselves, hard, on the chest, with a fist, in a slow rhythm, with the sound of each smack reverberating out into the now completely silent audience.  You could see the force they were using in the shaking rebound of their hands and hear the volume of each hit as it landed.

The silence in the audience became thick as we absorbed the change in atmosphere.  This dramatic emotional gear-shift was a powerful re-enactment of the outward re-positioning in life that follows ‘outcomes’, and the psychological darkness that can fall inside ourselves when we have ‘lost’.  The physical violence suggested by the nosebleeds evoked both the penalisations we suffer from society for ‘losing’ at something, and the inner violence we feel…like when we ‘beat ourselves up’ after we’ve lost.  It was a bold, violent, dark dramatic move that showed Made in China’s artistic prowess.  It showed us that as much as they intended to explore this issue playfully, abstractly, humorously, and philosophically – they were also going to explore it darkly.

For me, this part of the show struck a personal chord.  All of my close friends at one point or another have pointed out that I am extraordinarily hard on myself when I feel I have failed at something.  I don’t think this is actually a natural characteristic of my true self.  I think it results from the particular nature of the philosophies woven around me by my parents and culture as I grew up.  I can remember being about 11-years-old and with my Mom in the changing room in the Holiday Inn in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, where I grew up.  They had an indoor pool and a little hot-tub and sauna, and you could pay $10 to go there and swim.  I was crazy for water.  I was one of those naturally fish-like children who can amuse themselves for hours in water.  When I was older and doing casual jobs as a teenager, I worked as a lifeguard at various pools and waterfronts, and when I came to Cambridge to study, I worked as a tour guide on the river here – I went for any job that would let me be near water.  My middle name is Lorelei, which is German for ‘mermaid’, and that’s what I felt like.  And occasionally for a treat, my Mom would take me to the Holiday Inn pool.

There was another woman in the changing room with us, and as American women will do when they are getting completely naked with each other, the two of them began to chat.  I remember being in my usual water-junkie state of agitation when the payoff was close – I just wanted to get to the pool as quickly as possible.  The changing room at the Holiday Inn was a tiny labyrinth, with little, separate areas for the different elements – lockers, benches, toilets, showers, mirrors – branching off in different directions, with different corridors and doors leading to the hotel shop, main hotel area, outdoor patio, and –the only direction I cared about – the POOL.  We were not a well-off family, and this was a rare treat, so I could never remember which door led to the pool, but I used to find it by smell: the sweet cleanness of chlorine water dripped on stone and warmed by the tropical temperature in the pool area would seep through the edges of the pool door.  But first I had to get my swimsuit on.  I couldn’t help but listen to what they were saying as I stripped off my clothes and pulled my swimsuit out of the plastic carrier bag we used to take our stuff in.  I remember being half-naked as they started to discuss the nice range of swimsuits available for sale in the hotel shop.  ‘Of course, there’s nothing in there that would fit me’, my overweight mother said…‘they don’t sell swimsuits for baby whales’.  I remember sensing the discomfort radiating from the other woman, who didn’t know what to say and fell silent.  And I remember looking down at my chubby body and feeling really fat and ugly, like my mom thought she was.  And it felt like we were outsiders to regular female beauty, like it was a club we could never get into, because the size and shape of our body was just wrong.  Imbibing this philosophy about self-image from my mother during my childhood and adolescence eventually resulted in a violent form of self-hate based on how I looked.  It was the memory of this past damage and its still-existing shards that were summoned up from the bottom of my psyche by the sound of Chris and Ira’s fists striking themselves.

 

Teen Dance

Into the contemplative mood introduced by Penalisation and the new knowledge that Gym Party was going to entertain and delight us, but possibly also rend us, came the Teen Dance.  A rock ballad from the late 80’s played over the sound system, and Chris and Ira began to slow dance together in a spotlight, with straight arms and a square, awkward, poignant gap of air between them –the position that teens dance when they dance slow, paired off for the first time.  While Chris and Ira danced, Jess spoke a monologue about a moment from her adolescence when she was rejected from her group of friends and made an outcast.  Her monologue depicted her teen anguish and, significantly, its transformation into a blunt wish to be ‘be prettier, thinner, smarter, go with better looking boys than them’ .  I thought there was something very profound about the way Gym Party went into the past to examine the provenance and power of these moments of painful awakening to competitive aspects in our society.  For example, as in Jess’ story, school groups will form around power dynamics, where secretly insecure kids will dominate and reject other kids to make themselves feel stronger, creating a competitive hierarchy of social power.

Gym Party’s scrutiny of this issue helps unfold an awareness of how these moments reverberate into our adult lives, and of how these reverberations have the power to become our society – how these moments can become collectivised competitive wishes born out of unexamined past hurts and insecurities.   Gym Party subtly suggests that these moments could be both the result and the cause of the way things work at the moment – that we are all, to some extent, participating in a giant, regenerating chain of loss, hurt, betrayal, suppression that is asleep to its own nature – and which is transformed into the philosophies that surround us in our current culture: it’s better to be rich, powerful, pretty, and smart.  Gym Party would also explore the transformation of the ‘it’s better’ philosophy into its ugly cousin, ‘You are better if you are rich, powerful, pretty, smart.’

Of course not all kids will grow up and unconsciously recycle their hurts into competitive wishes, and therefore unconsciously uphold the dominant cultural philosophies in our society. Some of the kids will grow up to be artists and will thoughtfully explore their pain.  They will become conscious of what it’s about, where it came from, and then question the set of philosophies governing their culture, like the kids in Made in China.  They will ask, with a sense of childlike innocence, ‘Should society really be like this?’  In a way, the childlike innocence of the games in the first part of Gym Party becomes a philosophical vantage point in the piece, asking simply ‘Why can’t society be nicer?  Have nicer values?  Value people whether they win or lose?  Include everybody no matter what they look like or how much money they have?  Be one, a pack, a whole?’  Ask, ‘How much of the competition that surrounds us in society is actually unconscious, unexamined units of past pain?  Ask, ‘How asleep are we to all the ways we are unconsciously recycling old hurts…that we didn’t deserve and never should have had in the first place?’

Ira and Chris had stories, too…while Jess danced with Chris, Ira told a story about the sports day where suddenly losing meant that she was a loser, in the view of another girl.  And then, while Jess and Ira danced, Chris told his story about the time he was at a school dance and liked a girl, and confided this to his friend, who agreed to help him get her.  A ‘friend’ who Chris would discover later kissing the girl he liked in a dark corner of the school.   At the end of Chris’s story, he said, ‘And then I did this…’, and he walked over to a platform on the stage, climbed up onto it, picked up a guitar and sang a heart-wrenching indie-rock ballad, beautifully.  To me this felt symbolic of the bravery of art and art’s power during moments of loss to help us deconstruct our personal pain, strip it down to its elements, take its strength and insight, defuse its harmful aspects, and then transform ourselves into something new in its presence.  It was interesting that because he had moved from telling the story in a monologue to acting it out, his past self shimmered over his present self during the song, which was an evocation of how we are our past selves, our past stories, but we have become something new, too.

I don’t want to spoil the Gym Party for you if you haven’t seen it yet, so I won’t describe much more of the show, but I will tell you that in Rounds 2 and 3 it continues to thoughtfully explore these questions in surprising, rich, nuanced, and thought-provoking ways, showing a mastery of theatre as an artistic language.  Also, because it is a hybrid of theatre and live art, it has a kaleidoscopic feel – its elements are like variously coloured beads scrambled together in different patterns by the audience interaction – so the show will be slightly different each time it is performed, which is quite a fascinating update of the theatrical artistic medium.  I will tell you that there is a rousing bit of kissing that worked its charm particularly well on me, who was sitting in the audience speculating upon whether I was about to be kissed in roughly two hours’ time.  [Answer: I was.]

However, what came with the sweetness of a first kiss was the discovery of a few still-active shards of my old self-hate in the days after Gym Party and my first date.  It was as if they were shaken up to the top layer of my psyche by the warmth and turbulence of new romantic feelings combined with the magnifying glass of art which Gym Party trained upon these issues.  There was a particularly raw and salient moment in a later round of Penalisation, when Jess climbed up onto a pedestal, stripped to her underwear and stood in a spotlight, while Chris voiced a series of cutting remarks about her body (which had the feel of being her inner thoughts): ‘…for someone who is otherwise in pretty good shape – your thighs, Jess… the only polite word for your thighs would be chunky.   And the thing about that is that it’s just genetics.  It doesn’t matter how much you work out or go to the gym, they’re just gonna get bigger and bigger and bigger…You get this heat rash, this little constellation of pimples on your inner thigh, when you sweat.  It is disgusting to the audience and has been a major turn off to anyone who has been unlucky enough to go down on you.’

But the thing is, Jess is actually beautiful, and the moment had raw artistic power derived from its raw truth, because she stood there looking beautiful almost naked in the epicentre of a piece of art that she helped create with her beautiful mind and rich creative intuition.  The interplay of her actual beauty and power with the sneering criticism made up of broken units of psyche from a broken system of ideas showed each element in starker, truer definition through their contrast with each other: her intrinsic worth, beauty and power felt more true, and her critical thoughts felt more broken, more false.

So, post-Gym Party, I had a heightened awareness of these ideas.  Having known the new man casually for six months, I also knew his ex-girlfriend through the same friend network.  She is small, lithe and pretty.  I am not small or lithe, and I have never been sure whether I am pretty or not.  Gradually, in the days following our first date, the sweetness of looking forward to our second date kept being interrupted by a pop-up window in my mind comparing myself to her, unfavourably, and an uncomfortable, gnawing feeling of unworthiness.

I spent my adolescence measuring my appearance against girls in films, girls on television, descriptions of girls in books, and other girls in my high school – where our social hierarchies were arranged around the powers of beauty and wealth.  But the place I charted my own appearance, in line with the I Am A Baby Whale philosophy taught to me by my mother (and let’s not blame her – it was a gift from her mother and culture), was not even in the competition. As far as I was concerned, I was already a loser in that game.  I guess that a philosophical positioning on this for each child comes first from their parents, and then from the stories that surround them.  In the stories that surrounded me from American television, movies and books, only pretty girls ever had boys fall in love with them.  Have you ever noticed that 98% of romantic stories are only about attractive people?

So, something significant happened in my psyche – the birth of a logic theorem – which was a natural outcome of these two cultural/familial philosophies in combination (which I accepted as absolutely true, being only a child): ‘If only pretty girls experience romantic love, and I am not pretty – therefore I cannot experience romantic love’.  I experienced a sort of strange and stifled adolescent sexual awakening as a result of this blight in my psyche.

There was a really awesome teenage boy in my high school who really liked me when I was 15 – Chad.  He was like the real equivalent of Seth Cohen from the O.C.  He was a hot nerd.  He used to gaze at me across the cafeteria table and say sexily intelligent and inappropriate things like, ‘I want to lick your mouth’.  His naked teenage-boy desire, the constancy of his affection (lasting a year or two), the way he harnessed the combined social power of our friends to persuade me to go to the Homecoming Dance with him –all of this fell into a void inside myself created by my unquestioning acceptance of the Romance/Beauty Theorem in my psyche, where instead there should have been a normal, instinctive romantic and sexual response.  At the Homecoming Dance, when we were slow dancing, he said he wanted to kiss me.  I remember just feeling numb and saying, ‘no, no…no’.  I was unable to compute this situation.  It did not align with the program that my mother and culture had written for me.  I was like a robot whose wires were short-circuiting.  I still remember how we continued our shuffling two-step, straight-armed dance to an 80’s rock ballad, like Chris, Ira and Jess, in mutual sadness and confusion.

I had followed a broken path away from my natural child-like sense of feeling like a mermaid, a lorelei, towards a conception of female beauty as a competitive grid in which people with the ‘wrong’ shapes are ‘losers’ and ‘unworthy’ of love.  And I think my moment in the Holiday Inn changing room with my mother is so vivid in my memory because that was my moment of waking up to the broken game.  In many ways, Gym Party is a beautiful exploration of the sweet sleepiness of teenagers and the moments of awakening from that sleep.  It explores the progression from childhood to adulthood, and from unconsciousness to consciousness.  And it is about the sad shock of waking up to discover these strange contests embedded in adult life.  Like how in Gym Party the childlike wonder and gaiety of dizzy racing turns into nosebleeds and penance, as a kid becoming an adult you play these games, and then things get dark and sad.  You lose, but you don’t know why.

At some point several years later, I realised that I had really liked Chad, too.  We would have probably had a really sweet teen relationship.  He was obsessed with lizards.  He still is, as I see on Facebook.  I would have totally supported his fanaticism about lizards.

Two years after my slow-dance with Chad, I won a music scholarship to attend a high school for the performing arts, a boarding school in northern Michigan, and so I transferred away for our senior year.  My new high school, called Interlochen Arts Academy, was a strange and wondrous place compared to regular American high school.  We lived in dormitories, with two girls to each tiny room, with pairs of rooms connected by a bathroom, forming a ‘suite’.  Everyone studied their art form – music, dance, theatre, visual art, creative writing or photography – intensively for several hours a day, in addition to the usual academic subjects.  The school was a collection of scattered buildings in a forest between two big inland lakes, only about fifteen miles from the shore of Lake Michigan.  My suitemates were all robustly instinctive and healthy girls who loved me unreservedly from the beginning.

Interlochen girls dorm

One of the first things they did was strip off my two-sizes too big, unfashionable clothes one afternoon in the first week of school and put their own clothes on me.  I kept saying, ‘No, no – nothing you guys have will fit me.  I’m too big.  Stop – this is pointless.’  They just plowed on and had to actually manhandle me into Valerie’s navy Gap jeans while I protested and tried to stop them.  Valerie, you see, was beautiful.  She was tall with gorgeous legs, a skinny waist and lovely, full breasts.  I wanted them to stop because it would just hurt to have my ugliness displayed so nakedly to these beautiful creatures, and I already loved them and wanted them to love me back.  But when they pulled the jeans over my hips, I realised that they fit over my hips, and then they lifted my arms up like a baby and fastened the button around my waist, and I was wearing the jeans as if my body were similarly proportioned to Valerie’s body.   I can still remember my conceptual confusion over this.  Like the way my Romance/Beauty logic theorem collided with Chad’s behaviour towards me (which I had been unable to process), this moment of buttoning collided with the I Am An Ugly Baby Whale theorem.

I kept looking down at myself, puzzled.  Then they took my top off, and put one of Hilary’s pale blue jersey ballerina tops on me, which terrified me because a wide swath of skin from bra strap to bra strap and plunging down to the top slope of my breasts was alarmingly bare.  Then they put make up on me and pulled me into the bathroom to look at myself in the mirror.  I still couldn’t see anything good there, but I was in a state of shock.  Then they pushed me out into the corridor, said, ‘Don’t come back until you’ve talked to a boy’, and slammed the door.  I found a boy to talk to in the dining hall, whom I had met briefly the day before, called Nick, and after chatting to him for several minutes, I realised that he thought I was a different girl.  Many years later and after several years of counselling, I would realise that I probably had some form of body dysmorphic disorder, which resulted from not having a healthy philosophical understanding of beauty and a genuine belief in my own, unique, multi-faceted beauty.

But I still believed in the Romance/Beauty Theorem, and what changed was that evidence kept appearing suggesting that I was, possibly, sometimes in the ‘pretty’ range of the beauty chart.  I would spend my twenties and early thirties stacking and weighing evidence, still obeying the paradigm of a Romance/Beauty Theorem, but cautiously encouraged by certain evidence to believe I had a right to at least play the game.

[Monologuic Aside:

Once in 11th grade French, in my normal high school, Mrs. Johnson, noticing that I was staring out the window at the teacher’s parking lot and trying to attract my attention back to the lesson, said: ‘And Joy thinks she’s a natural beauty’, obviously commenting on the fact that I never did my hair or wore make-up, a bit unusually in comparison to the other 16-year-old girls in my high school.

Joy, aged 38, finally replies to Mrs Johnson (Joy, aged 16, had no fucking idea what to say to that): ‘Mrs. Johnson, I didn’t know how to do my hair or make-up, and I didn’t think I was any kind of beauty at all, and I was shocked to hear that word used in reference to me.  But I want to take this opportunity to tell you that even though your calling was to be a stand-up comedienne and spread mirth via sarcasm throughout our great nation, I’m so glad that you were my teacher instead, in both English and French, because although you said that to me, I could tell you genuinely cared about me and were trying to tell me something about the importance of developing womanly arts, and that because you stood in front of the class and lost your shit when we said ‘femme’ to rhyme with ‘them’ (incorrect), and shouted the correct pronunciation, ‘femme’ to rhyme with ‘on’, ‘Femme! Femme! Femme!’, my correct pronunciation years later in actual France would convince many French people that I know French much better than I actually do, and assist me when two French men, who had just waged a quiet war to pull me, discussed me between them en Francais, the victor to the loser saying, ‘Elle et une belle femme’, with a quintessential Gallic shrug.  Because I really needed to hear that.]

Now in my late thirties, and more awake to the destructive and incorrect nature of many of the programs that were written into me, I am trying to un-write them out of my psyche.  My perception of beauty (and romantic and sexual desirability) is much different, much more natural, and based on the idea that every single person has an intrinsic beauty that goes way, way beyond form, but which also animates form.  I am more likely to get angry and throw the fucking chart out of the window whenever it pops up in my consciousness.

However, the psychic damage from spilled toxic waste can go deep.  With my e-mail inbox peppered with sweet missives from the new man, and a second date scheduled and sitting like a red rose amongst the other entries in my diary, I discovered that my psyche trembled with fear and sadness because rogue elements in my sub-conscious still measure whether I deserve love on an axis of beauty, that my perception of my own beauty can still be tremulous and inclining downward to ‘not beautiful and, therefore, not deserving of love’.

But there is a cleansing power in art.  On the day that these issues and feelings crystallised out of vague, uncomfortable feelings about the new guy’s ex, and musings upon the themes thrown up by Gym Party and into a sharp, painful awareness, I walked into my house to find my Spanish housemate Jose playing his new ukulele and singing ‘Tree Hugger’ by Kimya Dawson. The lyrics are

‘The flower said “I wish I was a tree”

The tree said “I wish I could be

A different kind of tree”

The cat wished that it was a bee

The turtle wished that it could fly

Really high into the sky

Over rooftops and then dive

Deep into the sea.

 

And in the sea there is a fish

A fish that has a secret wish

A wish to be a big cactus

With a pink flower on it…

 

And the flower

Would be its offering

Of love

To the desert

So dry and lonely

That the creatures all appreciate the effort.’

 

I sat down and really listened as he sang.  Then I went up to my room and cried hard about how sad it is for intrinsically beautiful people (i.e. all of us, including me) to doubt their own beauty because the messages from our mothers and culture are broken.  Then I carried the song, the thought of Jess’ beauty winning out over her hating internal thoughts, and Gym Party’s courage around with me for several days, and gradually my belief in my own intrinsic, unique beauty grew stronger again.

(By the way, I didn’t make this up for thematic consistency in this essay.  It really happened.  You can ask Jose. )

To wind down towards a conclusion, this essay is really about the power of art to bring transformation and enlightenment to the psyche – because that is how it works upon me.  Aesthetic theory is a vast field, and there are many possible ways to value the gem that is Gym Party, but as a humanities student and amateur logician seeing the immutable subjectivity of art valuation, in the end it only makes sense to me to claim value for pieces of art based on the personal value they have to me.  This essay has considered Gym Party’s comment upon what I have referred to as ‘broken philosophies’ in our culture; and to be completely honest, I do tend to look compassionately at our society as sweetly insane, and sweetly asleep to its insanity – and I see art, with its beautiful abstraction and power to engage individually with each gaze that falls upon it, as a powerful means for reflection, illumination and awakening.  Peter Brook, in The Empty Space, discusses the need for theatre to be ‘necessary’ to society and not simply a pleasurable accessory to it. He gives an example of the truest type of ‘necessary theatre-going’, which is ‘a psycho-drama session in an asylum’, where the inmates participate in a therapeutic drama session. He writes,

‘They may laugh.  They may cry.  They may not react at all.  But behind all that goes on, amongst the so-called insane, lurks a very simple, very sane basis.  They all share a wish to be helped to emerge from their anguish, even if they don’t know what this help may be, or what form it could take… In the immediate event there is an unmistakable result…something is more animated, something flows more freely, some embryonic contacts are being made between previously sealed-off souls.  When they leave the room, they are not quite the same as when they entered.’ (Peter Brook, The Empty Space, pp 148 – 149, Penguin, 1990.)

For me, Gym Party was a brilliant piece of necessary theatre, and I was not quite the same afterwards.

 

Epilogue, part 1

Ok, so what happened after the second date?  At a certain point during this experience, I realised that I had wild pansy juice on my eyelids – i.e. that I was strongly gripped by a romantic enchantment – and I knew that sometimes pansy juice is just puckish meddling with the heart, and sometimes it turns into real love.  As I was going through this, it was interesting to think about how the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are all passing into sleep, through enchantments, and then into awakening.  Some of the enchantments dissolve into nothingness upon awakening – they are just a dream – but some of them hold true in the light of day.   This one turned out to be the kind of enchantment that dissolves in sunlight…but it was nice to have a wander through the forest at night, still.

 

Epilogue, part 2

After all this, I bet you (you, Reader), want to know what I look like.  Well, I am descended from the the Dutch and German immigrants who settled Michigan in the 19th Century.  My eyes are dark blue, the same colour as Lake Michigan.   My hair is the colour of the golden sand at the lakeshore.  My skin is pale white, like the froth on top of the waves.  I have strong shoulders and long, graceful arms and legs – a good body for swimming.

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Naked Ladies

#1: I’ve been watching ‘Girls’ recently, and as a result seeing a lot of Lena Dunham’s naked body — Lena’s ass, breasts, stomach, arms, legs. And although the way her character physically inhabits her lush, lolling body is fascinating, what I find artistically exhilarating is knowing how closely the show is sourced from Lena’s life: you sense Lena-the-real-woman glimmering through Hannah-the-fictional-character, but it’s a shimmer of one image upon another, and you can’t tell where one begins and the other ends. The sense that Lena is there, naked, so close underneath Hannah, is tantalizing. To the credit of her brilliance, the shimmer is an oscillation moving too quickly to ever allow us to see whether the image is Hannah or Lena.
#2: I saw the live art performing troupe GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN recently at the Cambridge Junction, in a show called ‘Big Hits’. The show was a purposefully awkward meditation on the insanity of popular music culture’s treatment of the female body. A beautiful woman playing the part of a music starlet started off in a revealing dress, gradually hiked parts of it higher, lower, pulled parts of it off, pulled her breast out, licked her nipple, took her pants off, showed one ass cheek, then both, then bent over completely naked and showed the audience her asshole and vagina for a good five minutes. It seemed insane. And after several minutes, I felt insane. In breaking an unspoken societal contract, she also popped the bubble of a complacent set of assumptions and blindnesses I have carried as an indoctrinated member of Western society. I haven’t seen a piece of art that has so powerfully shifted the way I view the world in a long time. I can’t look at women in music videos any more without seeing the sexualization of their bodies as tragic twisting of the feminine nature. GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN used insanity to reflect truthfully on an insane culture. And the image – the asshole – turned out to be an aperture for a new way of truer seeing. How strange and powerful. And absurd. And brave.
#3: I’m writing my first book. When I first started writing, I felt like a little kid each time I sat down at the computer, like I was fingerpainting with strawberry and chocolate flavoured edible paint in a magical room where everything I dreamed up happened in real life, too; I was held in a suspended state of contented joy. And then I showed what I had written to several people. And this was like opening a window in my playroom and having a dust storm blow in, and my creation was covered with a debris made out of other people’s looking. And as their looking landed on my writing, I realised that it was landing on me. And although my writing feels like it comes from some mysterious place inside me that is not me, it is flowing through the particular, peculiar contours of my psyche – and the looping curves of my emotions –and the canals dug by my education. This realisation unleashed in equal parts joy and terror at exposing myself. Terror won, and for a long time I threw down my tools and left my magic room. But this morning I woke up from a dream. It was set in a festival tent at midnight. An unknown Eddie Izzard stepped onto the stage for the first time in front of a sparse, drugged audience. He unfolded a lyrical line of ideas previously kept stuffed inside himself, wrapped up and muffled, exposing it sentence by sentence and building to a sublime pinnacle of comedy revealed… and, sitting in the audience, I laughed, in a state of pure joy, like a little girl discovering the world’s best joke, rolling on the floor of the tent, pounding the floor and howling, and I woke up, and I was…still laughing.