PRINT May 1973

Meredith Monk: A Metamorphic Theater

THE CONCEPT OF AN ABSTRACT and purely formal theater extends back to the turn of the century and the kinetic visions of Gordon Craig. Based on an integration of light, sound, color, and movement, his Theater of the Future eliminated plot and verbalization. The Bauhaus in the ’20s similarly experimented with ideas of an abstract dance-theater as a form of kinetic art. The technological orientation of Gordon Craig virtually eliminated the performer, while in the Bauhaus’ dance productions, the “dancer” was essentially little more than a highly stylized marionette. These experiments in formalism reached their recent apogee in the 1966 marriage of art and technology, the Nine Evenings: Theater and Engineering, presented at the 26th Street Armory in New York.

While Meredith Monk was aware of this objectivist stream in contemporary dance and theater, her work is better viewed in terms of the development of the Happenings. These performance events of the late ’50s and early ’60s were the productions of a group of visual artists concerned with extending the boundaries of object-oriented art which was discrete, static, and timeless into an environmental, kinetic, and temporal format. They began to realize one of Antonin Artaud’s major aims: to create a kind of environmental theatrical space in which all forms of art—music, dancing, mime, painting, sculpture, lighting, chanting, singing, incantation, and gesture—could be combined into a new theatrical experience. The unique quality and strength of Meredith Monk’s theater derives from her ability to explore and expand upon this aspect of nonverbal collage theater within a narrative format. Elements of character and interpretation, heroes and heroines, plots and subplots, development and climax are all present, but kept in a state of flux: a metamorphic ordering of segmental parts that shift focus, disassemble and reassemble, spreading out in a multidimensional, musically organized tableau.

In the first part of Juice, four performers painted a blood red, clutching each other to form a single multipedal figure, lumbered up the ramp of the Guggenheim Museum. A humming chorus of 100 white-robed figures hovered over the edges of the ramp, expanding and compressing the space of the red figure’s journey. A simple repetitive phrase on a violin filled the space with a neutral density, underscoring the contrast between the earthbound red figure, and the airiness of the white chorus. A sense of watching a ritualized reenactment of some epic myth or legend was evoked. As in the transformations wrought upon verbal histories passed through generations of a culture, the symbolically evocative images of the performance presented themselves as an archetypal synthesis of dimly remembered tribal realities.

The second and third parts of Juice dramatically shifted. With each change of location and environment, the journey spread and expanded itself on a horizontal plane, literally as well as metaphorically, bringing other levels of reality content to bear upon each of the preceding parts. Part two took place on a conventional proscenium stage, with its characteristic picture space and planar barrier between audience and performers. At one point, the red figure segmented itself and became four distinct people: real persons with names, addresses, likes, and dislikes—an abrupt transformation from theatrical artifice to daily reality. A performer from stage front declared “My name is Meredith Monk and I live at 9 Great Jones St. and I have a cat named Isadora . . . etc.,” confronting the audience with a set of ambivalent apperceptive demands. Likewise, others of the group came forward with a similarly personal recital. Was this Meredith Monk, and Daniel Ira Sverdlik, and Madelyne Lloyd, and Dick Higgins as realities, or the artifice of theater, that was being presented? The mystery in this metamorphosis is as if someone wearing a mask slowly peels it off only to reveal the exact same face beneath the mask. The relationship between the Greek word for actor’s mask “persona,” and our own word “person” for individual, becomes meaningfully clear.

Part three of Juice peels away another layer, or, depending upon the perceptual set of the spectator, adds another layer. In an unfurnished loft, costumes and props of the previous two parts were arranged as if on exhibit in a gallery. Physical objects were presented in their literal aspects as prime materials divorced from their previous roles yet retaining their associations with these roles. Like the shed exoskeleton of a molted spider, they presented a similitude to the original form but without the life substance itself. The four red performers were present at one end of the loft in videotape verité, conversing on the phone, frying eggs, talking, singing, presenting another aspect of themselves as reality content, but in a new context. The intimate activity viewed on the video screen as reality was created through the time-space illusionism of electronic imprinting.

The concept of narrative format is intrinsic to Meredith Monk’s theatrical structuring, but within it there is some degree of variability and indeterminacy that relates her work to the Happenings. For example, in part two of Vessel during the series of journeys of the Traveler around the ramp of the Performing Garage, each of the main characters performed definite activities, the ordering of which was left to the individual performer. Thus, a different arrangement of contiguous states of activities occurred in each performance. Seeing such compartmented activities, in varying series, each spectator structured relationships between them differently. This open-ended situation would then be radically altered by a cue: a stamped foot, a shout, a knock, a sung note, a plucked instrument, or a musical passage, which reordered the performers into a “matrixed” ensemble.

Also central to Monk’s work are permutations wrought upon the environments of a performance. Needle-brain Lloyd and the Systems Kid was performed out-of-doors at the Arboretum and College Green of Connecticut College. In scene one, the two neutral gray figures seemed to rise out of the Arboretum pool carrying a rowboat and gave the isolated nature of the space an even more hermetic and fairy-tale quality than it initially had. The disjunctive quality of the images and the activities of the performers in this scene, and the appearance of a papier-mâché monster, reinforced an unreal atmosphere. The red multiple-figure group seen previously in Juice appeared again, and as in Juice, broke the continuity of an illusion. The relationship of painted red figures to the natural green of the environment dramatically altered when the performers were presented to the audience as personalities, particularly at one point when each of the red figures mimicked the characteristic walk of another red figure who was named.

The activities in scene two on the Green presented another set of contrasts: within the realm of real activity in the outdoor setting in a large open field, the garden party playing croquet, and the horseback riders had a certain naturalistic connection. Another group of performers, the pioneer group, however, while in character in terms of place, gave an ambivalent edge because of its “other-time” quality. Many of the activities began across the open field, at some distance from the audience, and were out-of-focus and ambivalent in the setting, being seen primarily as spots of activated color in an open field. As these activities moved down the field, closer to the audience and into focus, they became more unreal. The resultant tableau of lawn party, screaming and falling black figures, crawling and running white figures, horses and riders, a lumbering red multipedal figure, a monster, a jeep of performing clowns, yellow figure on stilts, and so on, completely transformed the Green into a hallucinatory collage.

The manipulation of the environment was likewise intricately developed in the three parts of Vessel. In the first act, performed in Meredith Monk’s own loft, the character of a real, contemporary living space gave an oblique focus to the “unreal” performance within it. The loft evoked the interior of a dark and dank medieval castle, not through effects of costuming and props, but by the activities of a group of dimly lit and black-clothed figures, engaged in a set of arcane tasks, whose ambiguous and involuted nature gave an aura of suspension and mystery. This diffused and non matrixed collage of activities was intermittently broken as each performer individually left his or her tasks and disappeared into some undefined space. Reappearing in another costume, as a new character, each performed a short scene and disappeared again into the undefined space, reappearing in the original black outfit to resume his or her original activity and role. The character of the environment as a space and a set was abruptly shifted when a group of pioneers entered the loft. As they moved, they alternated between a stylized plodding gait, and settling to the floor, engaged in naturalistic activities such as eating, reading, cooking, playing musical instruments. The performing space was refocused again when Meredith Monk rose from the organ which she had been playing, and cutting through the darkened room with a brusque walk, turned on an overhead electric bulb, then recited a passage from Shaw’s Saint Joan. This passage was repeated in a whisper, the bulb was turned off, and Meredith Monk returned to the organ. Duality became layered upon duality.

In part two of Vessel, the costumed characters performed by the black people of part one now appeared as the main characters of the Mountain, in a theatrical setting. Once again this set was broken, paralleling the dualities of part one. At one point the Mountain people took on new roles as a third set of performers, articulating a section of the Performing Garage space as a proscenium stage within the illusory space of the Mountain. In part three, in a final and infinitely subtle layering of artifice and reality, the black-clothed House people reappeared, but in a mood and amid props which were similar to, but not the same as in part one, and most unexpectedly, in the outdoor setting of a parking lot.

The constant shifting of focus between varying layers embodies itself as a field of vectors in a fugal relationship. The allusion to musical form is not gratuitous. Vessel is subtitled “An Opera Epic.” It is not merely the use of singing voices and musical instruments that defines it as such, but rather the clear polyphonic and polytonal structure underscoring the narrative content and the textural field. Though not referred to as an “opera,” Needle-brain Lloyd and the Systems Kid is, at least, an orchestration of phased activity clusters and flowing images. From the simple, repetitive violin phrase, humming chorus, and vocalizations of Juice, Meredith Monk’s musical ideas have expanded greatly through Needle-brain Lloyd and Vessel. Beyond accompaniment, the music and singing become another form of generative activity.

Like a musical composer elaborating musical themes, Monk weaves images from one work to another. The multiped red figure of Juice appeared again in Needle-brain Lloyd. The monster of Needle-brain Lloyd climaxed the action in Vessel. The pantomiming fairy-tale narrator of Needle-brain Lloyd continued her dream stories in Vessel. The thematic elements, though altered from piece to piece in the narrative content, become potent archetypal images that carry us on an ineluctable journey.

Mark Berger