- Invisible PublicsCloset Dramas for the Contemporary Stage
In a recent New York Review of Books essay titled "The Tea Party Jacobins," Mark Lilla charts the development of a new pattern of "radical individualism" in American politics—loosely affiliated groups that, like the right-wing Tea Party movement, rebel not only against specific leaders or parties, but also against government and leadership as a whole. This new populism, he writes, "fires up emotions by appealing to individual opinion, individual autonomy, and individual choice … It gives voice to those who feel they are being bullied, but this voice has only one, Garbo-like thing to say: I want to be left alone."1 Lilla reveals an atomized America, where millions of solitary citizens enact private dramas in the comforts of home, untroubled by public opinion or collective needs.
In the winter of 2010, two New York theatre productions echoed this eerie phenomenon, staging solo shows with national and historical scope. David Greenspan's The Myopia, presented by the Foundry Theatre in a double bill with his solo performance of Gertrude Stein's essay "Plays," forges Stein's poetic antitheatricalism into compulsively watchable drama, then uses it as an entryway to his own maze-like American history. Meanwhile, at P.S. 122, Sibyl Kempson's Crime or Emergency, a histrionically expansive survey of contemporary Americana, interspersed with Bruce Springsteen songs performed as cabaret numbers, gestured toward American loneliness while conjuring grotesque imaginary theatres of American excess. In the gaps between lone performers on empty stages and the vast Americas they described, these performances gestured toward the disjuncture between historical rhetoric and historical reality, between grandiose national images and lonely individual experiences. Moving beyond the conventions of solo performance, both productions employed the theatrical tools of closet drama as figures for the national histories and mythologies they presented: Greenspan and [End Page 71] Kempson staged self-conscious closet dramas for an age of American cultural isolation.
Greenspan performed The Myopia alone, seated on a brown leather chair in the center of an otherwise bare stage. From this unassuming perch, he told, among other tales, the story of Warren G. Harding's improbable ascent to the White House in 1921, as well as a distorted Rapunzel-esque fable featuring a cranky tower-bound damsel named Korinne, and her rescuer, Febus, a writer struggling to compose a musical drama about the life and times of Warren G. Harding. Further complicating this set of narrative nesting-dolls are an "orator" and his Döppelganger, who ponder the story and structure of The Myopia, and the odd figure of Barclay, who consists of a single enormous eyeball. These eclectic personalities are united by their roles as storytellers: Greenspan's is a world of fabulists, each attempting to conjure grandiose tales, each measuring the distance between national myth and the realities of stagecraft, between the stasis they embody and the dynamic expansiveness they imagine. Greenspan carefully channels these contradictions in his acting, fusing precise, minutely contained gestures with portrayals of deep, agonized cogitation—performing the paradoxical dynamics of the writing process itself.
In his 2002 study Stage Fright, Martin Puchner proposes a tradition of modernist closet drama that does not reject the theatre completely, but instead, attempts to interrupt and disturb theatricality as a means of resisting the kinds of political totalities it can represent. Modern closet dramatists, Puchner explains, create various strategies for troubling and destabilizing embodied performance: stage directions controlling the action, narrators commenting upon it. Greenspan employs precisely these tactics in The Myopia, portraying a panoply of self-aggrandizing narrators, all anxiously scribbling and frantically erasing the national myths they are attempting to codify. Early in the play, for instance, the writer Febus (played, like every character, by Greenspan) huddles in his bathroom, agonizing on the phone to his mistress over the minutiae of his dramatic rendering of Harding's rise to power. Greenspan's elegant chair becomes Febus...