August 15th, 2014 / 10:00 am
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A THEATRICAL ESSAY ON TRANSFORMATIVE THEATER FROM THE WORKS OF A FEW CONTEMPORARY FEM WRITERS

gurlesque

The second e-version of Gurlesque, an anthology of “the new grrly, grotesque, burlesque poetics,” is coming out soon with an expanded number of amazing female writers, including Jennifer Tamayo, Marisa Crawford, K. Lorraine Graham, Kate Durbin, Kate Degentesh, among others— along with the original contributors, one of whom is Stacy Doris.

When I read Doris’ funny, edgy, cerebral, and (dis)sensual Paramour in college, I knew I needed to go to San Francisco State for my MFA so that I could work with her in person. Stacy proved to not only be a phenomenal writer but also a caring mentor. Her passing in 2012 still feels raw today.

After reading an excerpt of Doris’ book The Cake Part [1] which was published in the first edition of Gurlesque, I decided to read the full version and then (circuitously) write the following essay, incorporating other writers that used theater the way she did (or did not) in that book.

Only, since I was writing about transformative theater, I figured the traditional essay format wouldn’t lend itself as well as a more dramatic format…

***

Scene: In a spaceship in a parallel universe. Android GERALDINE KIM types commands into the complicated lit-up dashboard as her ship is being attacked by a multitudinous tentacled alien race.

GERALDINE KIM: (ignores cosmic blasts while typing furiously.) I tried to write an essay on theatrical writing (not to be confused with the genre but more a leitmotif within other genres of writing—namely poetry) and then I realized that there are actually only a handful of instances of this in contemporary fem writing (that I could find).

GERALDINE KIM’s BEST FRIEND WHO WISHES NOT TO BE IDENTIFIED: (enters.) How many instances did you find?

GERALDINE KIM: Four.

GERALDINE KIM’s BEST FRIEND WHO WISHES NOT TO BE IDENTIFIED: That’s enough for an essay. (exits.)

GERALDINE KIM: OK. Let’s first look at Stacy Doris’ The Cake Part. Here, the dramatic form is employed to display the grotesque indulgence of 18th century French monarchy via orgiastic explosion. In the following scene, courtesans Lamballe and Hébée struggle to arouse Marie Antoinette’s parched sex.

marie antoinette sex

Scene II

Of the Same Home Movie Triptych, with
(Life-Like) Speaking Parts
(Cartoon Version)
 

Close-up of HER MAJESTY’S SEX (blonde pubes). HER MAJESTY’S SEX, whimpering: Thirst! I’m thirsty!

LAMBALLE: Toinette! Your sex whimpers!

HÉBÉE: (Voice off.) Hélas.

LAMBALLE: (Attempts to rouse the sex with her little fingers.) It’s listless! (Disgusted.)

H.M.’s SEX: Water me!

LAMBALLE: Poor thing! (Still tickling.)

HÉBÉE: (distant). Alack!

LAMBALLE: The Queen’s SEX thirsty from neglect! It’s treason!

HÉBÉE: (once again.) Hélas.

LAMBALLE: Oh infamy! That this source of pure lubricity run dry! Outrage! Quick: paper! A pen! (They drop from on high.)(Turning to H.M.’s SEX.) Speak!

HER MAJESTY’S SEX: J’ai soif! [2]

LAMBALLE: That’s what we’re here for. To make a list of suitable partners. Well: fire away.

H.M.’s SEX: (choking from parched excitement.)

LAMBALLE: Okay. If the cat’s got your tongue, just nod your head. Ready? Men.

H.M.’s S.: (nods.)

LAMBALLE: Enormous men.

H.M.’s S.: (nods.)

LAMBALLE: Baby girls.

H.M.’s S.: (nods.)

LAMBALLE: Lambkins.

H.M.’s S.: (nods.)

LAMBALLE: Teams of oxen.

H.M.’s S.: (nods; continues nodding in uncontrollable paroxysms of joy.)

LAMBALLE, excited by the vision of such convulsings, drops her pen, falls into a triumphal fury of masturbation.

H.M.’s SEX: (pours out buckets of glorious sperm.) (27-29)

GERALDINE KIM: Maybe that last image of sperm erupting out of Marie Antoinette’s sex is sperm that she held within her vagina and let loose or she has a penis and poured it out the conventional way or maybe both, as it’s called “sex” which could be either and/or both. Anyway, this previous scene is used as a scene of conception for the subsequent violent birth of French revolution—seen/scene here with the king (Louis Capet)’s execution…

LOUIS CAPET: (Softly, to head Executioner.) I say, old boy, is there any way to stop that drumming for a moment?

EXECUTIONER: (shrugs)

LOUIS CAPET: (Teetering on the very edge of the scaffold.) I hope the people/will find my blood useful.

CROWD: (bellowing to Executioners.) Hurry up!

LOUIS CAPET sighs and places his neck, unassisted, on the chopping pedestal. WHOMP. The severed head is stopped from rolling and lifted to the crowd by SANSON. All cheer. Some join hands and dance in a circle. Others snatch up bits of the king’s shorn hair and trampled clothing, offering it for sale for a variety of prices. Still others rush up to the scaffold and eagerly sop up LOUIS CAPET’S blood with handkerchiefs, scabbards or their hands. SANSON obligingly produces a basin for easier access to the blood. A man scrambles onto the platform, stains fistfuls of pebbles with the TYRANT’s blood and throws them on the foreheads of those below in sacrificial jubilation.

French SAYING: “The blood of kings spreads joy.”

ONCE the king is dead, the guillotine assumes the form of an old-fashioned Dutch door.

ENTER (for real this time) The Terror.

The Appeased Crowd: (ooohs and ahs).

Terror: (crosses the threshold).

YEAR I (94-95)

GERALDINE KIM: By using a dramatic format, Doris creates an immediacy to the grotesque conception and violent birth of French Revolution that perhaps one could not otherwise achieve in a conventional “poetic” format. However, in Severo Sarduy’s Cobra, theater is used to distance the protagonist, Cobra, during a painful [3] male-to-female (MTF) transition surgical procedure. Sarduy even has Cobra’s miniature likeness, Pup, engaged in the scene, thus making it unclear who exactly the surgical subject is (or, perhaps, they’re having a simultaneous operation?) furthering the protagonist’s distance from the procedure…

The Alterer’s face is uncovered, smooth, clear, impassive, cold like a newly washed white onion; a cloth hides the faces of the Instructors, robed in black. Cobra lies naked on the metal table; arms and legs spread out; Pup on an amianthus sheet. On a cart being wheeled in clink test tubes filled with blood. Someone coughs. In the corridor someone murmurs. Receptacles dragged along floor slabs.

ALTERER—“And if we pretend it’s a game,”
COBRA’S INSTRUCTOR—“like something reversible:”
ALTERER—“a sound which is repeated?”
COBRA’S INSTRUCTOR—“Man is a bundle: neither its elements nor the forces that unite them are at all real.”
ALTERER—“Cobra, you enter the intermediate state: empty heaven things,”
COBRA’S INSTRUCTOR—“clear intelligence, transparent void”
ALTERER—“without circumference or center.”
COBRA’S INSTRUCTOR—“Concentrate. You have learned to deflect pain. Lucidly. I take you to the test.”

PUP—“What are they going to do to me with that astrolabe?” (63-64)

GERALDINE KIM: I was wondering why an astrolabe was chosen as the key surgical instrument for this book—I mean, it’s a random antiquated navigational device. But then I investigated further (Google searched) and found that the word “astrolabe” comes from the Greek word astrolabes, as in astron “star” and lambanein meaning “to take.” The “star” being taken, in this case, is Cobra/Pup’s manhood.

Pup screams. Splashes. Big drops of think ink flee toward the edges of Cobra’s body. Lightning. Rupture. Red branches that descend, forking rapidly along the sides of a triangle—the vertex torn out—over the white skin of the thighs, along the nickel surface, following the contours of the hips, between the trunk and the arms forming puddles in the armpits, thin speeding threads over the shoulders, matting the hair: two streams of blood, down to the floor. (64-65)

GERALDINE KIM: That image of a misshapen triangle is similar [4] to that of the astrolabe/surgical instrument itself…

1

Theater can also be used to distance via an actual image, in the following case, a fish emoji. In Lara Glenum’s Pop Corpse, the mermaid XXX goes to the Sea Witch so that she can change into a human, thus hoping to gain the affections of the male protagonist, The Smear.

SEA WITCH: As long as The Smear wants to tap yr shizz, you can keep your human form. He loses interest? You’re iced. You forfeit your life.

XXX: Um, no freaking way!

SEA WITCH: No deal, no Smear!

2

XXX: Christ. Fine.

XXX:

On land I jibber-jabber
Eee eeeing like a dolphin
Toddling about on my bowling-pin legs

Look at me now
I’m a sexoid gooch snuffler

crawling straight out of my own private freakopolis (120-121)

GERALDINE KIM: Both Pop Corpse and Cobra use theater to conjure an image of transformation, literally shown in the former with the unspoken fish death and suggested in the latter with the image of the astrolabe representing MTF transition.

In Dorothea Lasky’s “The Moss Play,” a homophone is used as a means of theatrical transformation. The play begins with a warning: “Readers and Listeners, you must not be confused. I mean Moss (M-O-S-S), not moth, the bug.” (164) This warning seems to actually be a suggestion, as the word “moth” could be easily substituted for moss throughout the play/poem.

Scene one: The moss sits and grows.
The moss is green, ashy green and
There are red and blue birds flying
And landing on the moss.

(Enter the old soldier)

moss

The old soldier: I am not old. Even as they tear down my house the moss grows on it, I will not age. As the moss decomposes my eyes and grows over my bones, I will not eat ice-cream. I will not grow old.

Biography: They are tearing down my house. When I was two we moved into this house and I have lost everything here, except my virginity. My virginity they took from me out in the back, Maggie Sullivan’s brother and her other brother and her father and the grandfather, too, God rest his soul. (164)

GERALDINE KIM: A source of drama/trauma, a rape by generations of men, is the backdrop or subtext for the old soldier/biography subject [5] denying death/moss. Moths, a creature of the dark/death, are also subject to transformation from their previous caterpillar/youth state.

Biography: The heart grows like moss and that is all I will ever say about that. I want to go into the past, the warm past. I want to feel the warmth of the past, the past encasing me and making me break. My eyes are glass, and in contained the glass is the eyeball and the God. (165)

GERALDINE KIM: The “past” or “glass” which encases the auto/biography subject is like a chrysalis for a moth, a previous nostalgic/static state of youth. Yet we the readers, the eyeballs, only watch wordlessly, as this drama unfolds. Though, it seems that it’s only through the act of reading a play rather than watching the play performed, that we can go back and relive scenes, experiencing the before and after of things—whether it be regime change, gender, species transmogrification, or the loss of innocence. It’s the text itself that transforms time, that stays static yet alive, as we the audience/readers/listeners pass through it.

(Sonic eruptions throughout the spaceship, exposing its inner hull to the void. GERALDINE KIM, like anything written or alive, is immediately frozen by the cruel vacuum of space.)

space vacuum

***

References

Stacy Doris, The Cake Part (Portland: Publication Studio, 2011).

Lara Glenum, Pop Corpse (Notre Dame: Action Books, 2013).

Dorothea Lasky, “The Moss Play,” Gurlesque (Ardmore: Saturnalia Books, 2010).

Severo Sarduy, Cobra, trans. Suzanne Jill Levine (Normal: Dalkey Archive, 1995).

***

[1] See a host of poets read from it on Vimeo.

[2] “I thirst!” in French.

[3] Could it be anything else?

[4] The vertex was actually ripped so it wouldn’t necessarily be exactly like an astrolabe but it’s similar!

[5] Also, a biography subject using “I” would be an autobiography but that term is not used here, thus separating the “I” from the auto/biographer.

***

Geraldine Kim is the author of Povel (Fence, 2005) which was featured in the Believer and Village Voice‘s top 25 books of the year. She has contributed to Starting Today (2010), a collection of 100 poems for Obama’s first 100 days, and to Gurlesque (2010) and the e-version of Gurlesque (forthcoming). She also wrote the play Donning Cheadle which was performed in venues in San Francisco and Oakland.

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