Theater commentary: A crazy vision of violence – “Gary: a sequel to Titus Andronicus”
By Bill Marx
Finally, a sign that American theater may be confronting the world of violence outside of its usual provincial jurisdiction.
Gary: A sequel to Titus Andronicus by Taylor Mac. TCG, 93 pages, $15.95.
Right now there is the violence of Russia’s war against Ukraine, from the destruction of cities to the murder of non-combatants leading to charges of genocide. And there is the growing unrest in the civil war in Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, which has left an estimated 20.7 million people in need of humanitarian aid and killed nearly 111,000. people since 2015. The UN says both sides in the civil war – the Saudi-led coalition (backed by the US) and the Houthi rebels backed by Iran – may have committed war crimes . Both fighters deny the allegation. Sure, it’s a sample of today’s global chaos, but the gory trend got me thinking about how theater has dramatized mass death over the centuries. Needless to say, the American drama, mired in the domestic for security and box office reasons, steers clear of such nasty doings. Anti-war coins are rare in the United States.
My sense is that mainstream theater’s acknowledgment of mass murder – oh so elusive and superficial – is no longer acceptable in the face of what is and is to come. Is it possible for a playwright to imagine a world on stage in which terrorism (in the name of war) eradicates hundreds of thousands of non-combatants, including women and children? Or is it better to leave this reality in silence, in order to leave the public edified rather than shaken?
My research wasn’t extensive, but it wasn’t until the theater was forced to deal with the technology-assisted slaughter of World War I that mass death became a stage presence. Until then, the disappearance of thousands of people was evoked via the eradication of the upper crust. Bread and puppet theater upcoming production of Aeschylus’ The Persians (at the University of Conn on April 23-24) referred me to the play, based on the rout of the Persian Empire by the Greek city-states in the naval battle of Salamis. The Persians lost around 400 ships, but the chorus mainly focuses on the disappearance of the high ranks of the army and how that signifies the end of the empire. As for Shakespeare, his chorus can, in the preface to Henry Vask us to believe that “a twisted figure can/ Attesting to the small place a million, “ but you don’t spend much time lamenting the mass killings in this room or his other war rooms.
In the early 1930s, the poet and actor Antonin Artaud imagined the concept of the Théâtre de la Cruauté. His idea was no doubt influenced by the popularity of Big puppet, late 19th century French entertainments in which bodies were (by stage illusion) sliced and diced and bled for fun. World War I, with its poison gas attacks and massacred civilians, robbed this genre of its amusement. The First World War highlighted the porous fragility of the body and this led to a radical view of elemental equality. No matter where you crouch in the pecking order, high or low, the bottom line remains: we are bags of blood, shit and guts. Mechanized, science-assisted warfare underscored the collective vulnerability to puncture, poison, and pain. Karl Kraus, in his monumental anti-war satire The last days of mankind, portrayed how this mental and physical frailty (“humanity decaying”) was exploited by the powerful and their cowardly enablers in the media. (The epic drama turns 100; the text was published in full in 1922.)
It was the unprecedented violence and bloodshed of the 20th century that revealed and targeted the vulnerability of the community rather than the individual. And there were literary artists, like Artaud, Celine, Beckett and others whose dark comedy focused on the dark comedy generated by our discomfort with our liquidity, the squishy elemental stuff – shit, gore, spit, etc. . – which oozes crushed, mutilated and exploded bodies. For them, only macabre humor could reflect the ease with which hundreds of thousands of people could be disembowelled or gassed. Predictably, this embrace of aggressive satire had little impact on the American drama. British playwrights were more receptive, especially one of my favourites, Peter Barnes, who in his 1985 play red noses limned the human antics of a band of evil pranksters commissioned (by the Catholic Church) to alleviate the plague in the 14th century by making the dying laugh. Barnes went even further in tastelessness with his controversial short piece Auschwitzthe second part of an evening entitled Laugh! Here the playwright ridiculed Germany’s bureaucratization of the Holocaust, revealing the hideous reality behind the numbers game crowned by a far-fetched conclusion to the titular death camp. Barnes used the juxtaposition of humor and horror to underscore the savage incomprehensibility of mass death – and to piss off audiences.
Finally, a sign that American theater may be confronting the world of violence outside of its usual provincial jurisdiction. Taylor Mac’s 2019 mass grave prank Gary: A sequel to Titus Andronicus is in the tradition of cruelty theater (with lots of Barnes’ curdled showbiz antics mixed in). A sin Auschwitz and red noses, the slaughter of thousands of people is seen through a parody vaudevillian lens. The stage directions detail the rotten and stinking props of the evening entertainment: “There is the appearance of at least a thousand corpses on stage (a painted set or other theatrical techniques which give the illusion of a thousand corpses may be used there must still be at least a few hundred corpses in three dimensions). The heaps of lifeless bodies, the bags of blood, shit and guts, await a clownish cleanup crew, Gary and Janice, tasked with tidying up the epic mess – after the coup, the massacres and the fall of Rome – left behind in General Titus Andronicus’ banquet hall. The bladders and intestines of the “corpses” must be emptied. Heads, arms and legs must be torn off. Gary, an inept pigeon juggler, dreams of becoming a court jerk (so he can tell the truth via his jokes and change the world for the better). He begins to manipulate corpses, whole or in pieces, as raw material for his funny sketches. Janice asks Gary a question that Artaud and company would no doubt acquiesce in: “Oh so you’re also going to use the dead for laughs now?”
Predictably, the 2019 Broadway production of Gary had 45 previews and only 65 regular performances. Starring Nathan Lane, the show was directed by George C. Wolfe and received seven Tony Award nominations. New York audiences didn’t find the play funny — and didn’t realize it wasn’t meant to be. I have been an admirer of Taylor Mac’s plays and have criticized Hir for the artistic fuse. Gary only reinforces my admiration for his nerve. Unlike Beckett, Barnes and Céline, the playwright does not always have the courage of his nihilism. But may his catastrophic circus inspire other American playwrights to break free from the hermetically sealed escape of our theater and recognize the emerging violence and bloodshed of the 21st century.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of artistic fuse. For just over four decades he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast and online. He has been a regular theater commentator for national public radio station WBUR and the boston globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine which in 2004 won an online journalism award for specialized journalism. In 2007, he created the artistic fusean online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.