at the Museum of Contemporary Art, February 5-8
The synagogue I attend has a special alternative service on Saturday mornings for problem Jews who have a hard time with the conventional liturgy. There's no sermon at this service; instead, some member of the group reads the weekly Torah portion and somebody else leads a discussion of it. Now, I have the greatest love and respect for the people who participate in this group. Honestly, some of my best friends are problem Jews. But the discussions always seem to go the same way. Each week the ancient book offers some new affront to our rationalism or our humanism or our feminism or our queasy modern sense of justice, and each week we sit around for 20 minutes talking about how affronted we are. It gets tedious. Last Saturday I found myself asserting that the parting of the Red Sea happened exactly as stated in the Torah just because I was so tired of being sure it didn't.
The members of the English company Forced Entertainment would feel right at home at the special alternative service. Really, all of what used to be called the avant-garde would. Like me and my problem Jews, they insist on making the same critique over and over again.
Consider First Night, which Forced Entertainment performed during its engagement at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Created in 2001 as a commission for Dutch and German presenters, First Night confronts us with a troupe of eight old-style music hall performers wearing loud clothes, garish makeup, and smiles so wide and tight they look like they were fashioned in a wind tunnel. (Think Archie Rice, the doomed comic from John Osborne's The Entertainer.) The troupe lines up onstage, apparently poised to commit an act of third-rate razzle-dazzle. But then something happens. They start channeling unseen conflicts, tapping into unexplained reservoirs of anger, despair, and confusion. Their ingratiating little showbiz turns devolve into displays of happy-faced cruelty or cheery dissociation, directed both at one another and at us. The emcee is held in a headlock as he tries to put a jolly spin on things. A clairvoyant moves from reading audience members' thoughts about lost keys to predicting the manner of their deaths. A card trick mutates into a kind of rape. A comic starts jokes--a horse in a bar, seven nuns in a tub--that spin in wild circles away from their punch lines. An unctuous invitation to forget our troubles becomes an excruciating litany of them. "Try not to think about agonies and bitterness and smiles," we're told. "And sadness. And the kind of bitterness that comes from making one really big mistake. And the kind of regret that comes from making many many many many small mistakes..." There's a whole section on the kinds of bombs we're not supposed to think about.
Some of this is funny and interesting. Some of it projects a somber lyricism. Some of it, like the card trick-cum-sexual assault, is hysterical in every sense of the word. But the Forced Entertainment people don't ultimately care about First Night being funny, interesting, lyrical, or hysterical. They care about it being experimental, which for them means exploring issues of performance and identity and the performative nature of identity and the gaze of the audience and the gaze of the audience turned back on itself and on and on, so that performance--onstage and off--is finally exposed for the hypocrisy that it is.
Again. This same stuff has been a subject of theatrical explorations stretching back through Ionesco, Brecht, Pirandello, Tzara, and Jarry. It's not an experiment anymore, it's a tradition.
And like the antitraditional traditions of the problem Jews, it gets tedious. Also annoying. In order to press their so-called experiment, Forced Entertainment extends each section of First Night far beyond the point at which it might still be considered acceptable bourgeois entertainment. Litany is piled on litany, list on list, in an attempt to alienate us by attacking our endurance. After a while even the characters onstage make a show of being bored. The effect is compounded by a series of false endings, by set pieces that formally echo other set pieces (triggering what might be called the Oh-No-Here-We-Go-Again reaction), and by an apparently conscious decision to deprive us of a character with whom we can identify. The strategy works. People walked out on the performance I attended, and I found myself wondering if the performers were intending to go on until the audience rose up and stopped them.
So yes, I was alienated. But to what end? To make me see that there's an etiquette governing performance? To make me realize that I'm implicated in the culture of artifice? In the era of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, this is not news. When are we going to get over this? Everybody knows about it, and the continual rediscovery of it is no longer brave. It's tendentious. I think my friends the problem Jews assert disbelief as a way of separating themselves from the fanaticism that's doing so much harm in the world. Maybe our experimental artists have a similar motive. But all that can come of this strategy now is solipsism. The only thing to do is to apply ourselves to experiments in belief, sincerity, and transcendence: to find ways to take them back.