- Death and Country
Roger Shattuck once dismissed a heavily marked-up, critical edition of À la recherche du temps perdu as epitomizing the genetic fallacy. In his mind, Proust did not contrive a succession of drafts or variants but a realized work deserved of a sense of closure. No need to dig up corpses.1 I imagine the editors would have disagreed, given no “discourse” is stable, and traces of how something is composed are dispositive of its meaning. That is to say, it is not always so clear where to draw the line. You can bind a text between two covers, but the idealization needed to make something legible often feels like a sham. I suppose a text is a lot like one’s life. No one wants to be consigned solely to origins—false starts, unfulfilled promises, and reopened wounds.
How is it that we allow something to ever end or begin? This seems to be a key concern throughout Richard Maxwell’s latest collection of plays, all of which were composed and first staged during the Trump era. Maxwell, a writer, director, visual artist, and founder of New York City Players, is the author of a dozen or so works, often sublime exhibits of ugly little lives, bare descriptions of which often decay the mind in their staggering inanity—see, for example, his Burger King (1997). They are not quite abstractions, but something akin to photographic blow-ups of seemingly way too little, amounting to prescient distillations of the rhythm and texture of living now, precisely right now, taken at the time of recording. Maxwell has likely achieved a new dramatic language, as the logic and quality of these words and silences are distinctly his own. And while it seems plain as day how these plays are meant to resonate at this moment, it will be interesting to see how they age as traces of both public life and many of our interior sufferings.
In Evening Plays, Richard Maxwell gives us three slippery, oblique texts about tolls to be paid, usually at the threshold between life and death. These people are made to be what they owe, or what is owed them, whether they like it or [End Page 112] not. In Samara (2017), a messenger demands his money from a dead man’s son. The son kills him. Then the mother of the messenger tells this killer that his debt is now owed to an entire civilization, as the (unnamed) old country wants its culture back. The Evening (2015) begins with a story of an old man dying in bed. A woman remembers her father feeding a drunk Native American who had broken into their home. The play then finds itself in the middle of a bar fight. Apparently, no one ever leaves this shit town. They all got dreams, but they can only dream of each other. And in Paradiso (2018) we hear from some patriots who believed in some codewords like “community” and “possession” whose America descended into a civil war. Now they are indebted to compromising and gentrifying liberals, artists, and philanthropists who are ready to heal this here fractured land.
It does not seem like any of these characters could ever pay off these cosmic, operatic debts. The only release comes with death, as Maxwell’s references to an afterlife seem to be grounded on this mortal coil. Paradiso closes with a stuttering robot begging not to be burdened with love for a culture being left behind, as its patriot masters leave it to die. Perhaps these heartland folk make it to paradise? Or is the failed paradise the life they were forced to abjure? Or maybe some heaven of metropolitan values awaits lady patriots cackling at the machine, with their past canceled and records expunged. They have left the ledger with a willing recipient and made sure that it died. It seems that in the dying robot’s mind is some idealized prairie vision of white America. The play opens with the machine soliloquizing about the superstitions and the verdant spirituality and bucolic fantasia...