- Playing with Fire-Space: Site-Specific Placement and the Techno-pharmacology of Maria Irene Fornes’s Mud
Many who write about the playwright Maria Irene Fornes’s work comment with reverence about the experience of watching those productions she herself directed.1 Managing somehow to combine frank depictions of cruelty and violence with an odd, otherworldly charm, Fornes’s direction conveyed a distinct sui generis quality that has deflected analytic scrutiny—the exterior operates in such an exquisite fashion one hesitates to lift the hood and look beneath.
1. Fractal Echoing
The set is a wooden room which sits on an earth promontory. The promontory is five feet high and covers the same periphery as the room. The wood has the color and texture of bone that has dried in the sun. It is ashen and cold.(Fornes 1234)
In Mud’s opening notes, Fornes provides the reader with a vivid and precise stage picture that underscores her background as a painter,2 and that links her work to the image-based directorial signatures of both Samuel Beckett and Robert Wilson. Those familiar with Fornes’s work as a director will recognize this visual precision as the source of the relaxed but hallucinatory clarity that characterized her staging. Objects also figure prominently in Mud’s preliminary stage directions—an ironing board, a plate with green beans on it, an axe, etc.—as do the two doors at the back of the playing space, one leading to the blue sky, So-Cal exterior, the other to a dark corridor. In performance, the role of objects and the uncanny precision of Fornes’s direction give her work a palpable aura of discontinuity in which the part seems subtly privileged at the expense of the whole, as if the work were resisting the allure of unity. This reluctance to embrace synthesis has the effect of defamiliarizing or “queering” Fornes’s work in ways that illustrate how the pharmacological capacity of tragic drama relates to its technical nature.
Fornes’s emphasis on discontinuity within the precise image is amplified in Mud’s scene transitions, where the playwright specifies an [End Page 98] explicitly photographic freeze effect that dis-places us in temporal terms even while the play—which was first staged by Fornes in site-specific mode in Claremont, outside of Los Angeles, in 1983—insists on its own placement. This emphatic placement, in turn, gains additional force from its local context—the outskirts of a city that, with its history as one extended real estate speculation, can credibly claim to be the capital of placelessness (Davis 23). The play enforces a kind of epochal displacement as well. With its doorway in the upstage wall, the box-like set is a rough facsimile of the Theatre of Dionysus after Aeschylus added the shed-like skênê (Seaford 161). The play begins with two characters in a chorus-protagonist dyad, a third entering in ways that echo Aeschylus’s addition of a second autonomous character. Near the close, one of the characters, Lloyd, also fulfills the role of the ekkyklema, entering from offstage with a dead body in his arms. During performance, all the machinic elements of the artistic form first actualized by Aeschylus arrive in the correct sequence, as if to recapitulate the concretization of the technical object of tragic drama.
The more recent influence of Beckett can also be felt in the minimalist imagery of Fornes’s text, and in its prevailing tone of mordant comedy. Godot’s Pozzo and Lucky are echoed in the abusive dyad that forms between Henry and Lloyd, the reversal in their power dynamic after Scene 12 also echoing the shift between the two characters in Godot. The absent father who brought Lloyd into the house in the distant past calls to mind Watt’s patriarch Mr. Knott, and also Endgame’s Hamm. Mud’s bare bones enclosure of a set is also a variant of the set of Endgame. And yet, while Mud is rooted in the end-ness that characterizes Beckett’s play, it also takes place from within what Agamben calls the “anthropogenic event,” placing arche—origin—as its central concern. Agamben...