Illusion and Mystery

6 Feb

The chronology of this blog is weird. I haven’t seen these shows in the order they were made so what’s here is my own idiosyncratic encounter with the work. First Night was made in 2001, the year I began teaching on September 11. (It was a wash; most of my students came from New York and for the very first and only time I can remember in the US, no-one could say anything. Unfortunately, that’s been rectified with a vengeance.)

In First Night, structured as a kind of desperate and bad vaudeville performance, there’s a sequence where the performers emerge from behind red velvet curtains and form a line downstage, smiling fixedly at the audience. Even though I saw this on video, I could smell the sweaty fear and resentment emanating from the performer’s faces. They each hold a large letter; the letters spell ILLUSION. They flip the letters. Now they spell MYSTERY. They begin a dance, or rather a clumsy step routine, weaving upstage and between one another, the letters always facing front. They reform the deadly and frightening line of smiles and once again spell ILLUSION. Finally Claire speaks. I remember it as something like:

Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like you to forget everything that’s outside the theatre during the show. Try not to think about cigarettes. And drinking in the bar afterwards. Forget about cars. And car crashes. And regrets… Don’t think about hospitals or nurses. And shit on the sheets. I want you to forget about the shit on the sheets.

(this goes on for about TEN MINUTES)

This scene neatly and effectively skewers the fourth wall theatre’s open secret—the pretence of being elsewhere (on stage) and nowhere (in person). Without at least the amiable attempt at this pretense, the suspension of disbelief that representational drama nominally requires collapses like the soggy letters of ILLUSION. Yet is this “suspension of disbelief” ever really what happens at the theatre? One is always in at least two places at once, watching the stage-action yet in the dark with others. Bert States describes the combination of semiotic and phenomenological registers involved in being at the theatre as a kind of “binocular vision” that together focuses an experience of the event.

What the grim and hilarious list of things not to think about does, however, is to move beyond the visual trope, with its attendant fantasies of detachment and control, into the embarrassing fact of bodily presence. This lugubrious list isn’t about looking as much as about what is shelved in order to look—the hidden body of the voyeur; the machine of desire, pleasure, shame and fear that drives it; the uncomfortable awareness of sitting next to strangers, and (most strange and hard to put into words) the flow of images, memories, thoughts, sensations, perceptions and kinesthetic impressions that continue during the performance and weave in and through it in what is not so much a dialogue as a sort of physically suppressed polyphony.

I don’t think it’s just the date coincidence. The palpable wretchedness of my first class, the feeling of compulsory performance which none of us had the wit or sense of occasion to cancel on Sept 11 2001, is light years from the


of staging First Night but very close to the fear and confusion of facing off against something unknown, some requirement to perform, that expects… what?


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