PRINT December 1990


Martha Clarke's Endangered Species

MARTHA CLARKE'S most recent theater piece, Endangered Species, was supposedly about animals. As Clarke tells it, the piece took root when her Miracolo d’Amore, which included scenes of nudity and sexual cruelty, drew charges of obscenity at the 1988 Spoleto Festival. Wounded, Clarke took refuge by spending time with the Circus Flora, a small circus that was also performing at Spoleto. There she made friends with the eponymous Flora, a nine-year-old African elephant; there she learned about elephant poaching from one of the circus’ co-owners, Ivor David Balding.

Out of this idea of innocent animality (her own, I believe, as well as Flora’s) under attack grew her new play, whose cast came to include 7 animals as well as 11 humans. Nor were the animals to be considered supporting actors. During the rehearsals Clarke was at pains to tell journalists that the animals had their own personalities, their own points to make, their own influence on the creative process. They got equal billing too, and bios. The latter are a hoot. You look down the bio page and you see “Felix Blaska (Company) was born in Russia . . . co-founded Crowsnest with Martha Clarke,” et cetera, et cetera. And right in front of Blaska, in strict alphabetical order, you see “Bert (Miniature Goat), originally from Bob Commerford’s farm in Connecticut, is one and a half years old,” et cetera, et cetera. Of course, the animals have fewer et ceteras than the humans, they being, well, animals, but Clarke is making a point. “The animals in the piece take up roles alongside the human company members and perform as sentient creatures,” says the press release.

Animal rights, however, is only the first of Endangered Species’ good causes. The year after meeting Flora, Clarke made the acquaintance of black dancer Valarie Eileen Henry, who apparently set her thinking about slavery and racism. This, in turn, seems to have put her in mind of the Holocaust. Finally, when Charles Mee, who had been writing the text for the new piece, pulled out of the project, she got to reading Walt Whitman, whose Civil War poems seemed to unite all these themes—creature love, race hatred, killing—at the same time adding a fourth, very up-to-date oppression issue, for Whitman’s undeclared homosexuality deeply informed his love of humankind.

So Clarke got the writer Robert Coe to develop a new text out of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. For the other elements of the production she turned to her usual collaborators—Robert Israel as set and costume designer, the masterful Paul Gallo for lighting, Richard Peaslee (joined by Stanley Walden) for the score—and with them she put together one of her usual dreamscapes. Like the 1984 Garden of Earthly Delights, like Vienna: Lusthaus, 1986, The Hunger Artist, 1987, and Miracolo d’Amore, 1988, Endangered Species is a kind of three-dimensional surrealist painting. The stage space is a plot of dirt with a chair here, a bed there. At the back is a wall of blue clouds, broken, at its center, by a pair of massive white doors that open now and then to reveal something like an elephant (Flora) walking by. But the real action is in the dirt pile, where people drop from the sky, pop out from under a bed, rise up out of the soil like mushrooms.

Nor are these just any people. There’s a dwarf (Michael J. Anderson) and a child (Courtney Earl) and a blond child/woman (Lisa Dalton) who keeps getting herself into positions where we can look up her dress. There’s a handsome European (Blaska), naked much of the time, and two handsome African-Americans (Henry and Alistair Butler) who keep getting beaten up. Then there are some white people in grotty old overcoats who wander through, singing songs, reciting Whitman.

A problem in all this is that the animals become yet another decorative adjunct, another piquant ingredient in the surrealist collage. They are there not for their naturalness but, in truth, for their unnaturalness—for the fact that you would not expect, upon opening those doors, to see an elephant walk by. They are rendered unnatural also in their selection: these are not your average beasts of the earth. There are no crows here, no mongrels, no alley cats, but four breathtakingly beautiful horses, one elephant, and a little white goat (Bert) so cute that when he walked onstage the whole audience, men included, involuntarily went “Aw!”

Nor do they just hang around and do their animal thing. Flora closes doors with her trunk; Mike the miniature horse sits down on the bed—first time I’ve ever seen a horse do that. Mr. Grey, the Percheron, performs the feat of standing still while the blond nymphet splays herself on his bare back and writhes in a most unambiguous fashion. I don’t have any real objection to this, or not to what Flora and Mike are asked to do. It’s just that the deluxe, specialized use of these animals accords very poorly with the sort of Sierra Club sentiment that was supposedly responsible for their presence there.

But that’s nothing compared to what happens with slavery, the Holocaust, and Walt Whitman. As always in Clarke’s work, each scene is woven of many sensations, many images. Stripes of light cut across the floor; an old Galli-Curci record plays in the distance; a horse trots through; a man recites a poem; somebody gets into bed with somebody else. Acts of violation and cruelty happen, but in this context of sensuality and twilight, it’s hard to know what to think of them. In one scene, for example, Dalton, the blond girl, sits in the lap of the black man, Butler, and soon we see his large brown hand in her small white crotch. Now Mike the miniature horse ambles through. Now Blaska runs around naked and gets shot. Now we hear a tape of Hitler at a Nuremberg rally: “Deutschland!” all the Nazis scream. Now an older man recites Whitman’s words on the death of a 17-year-old soldier: “All were covered with the boy’s blood.” Now a younger man quotes another passage from Leaves of Grass: “Where has the earth disposed of so many corpses? It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions.”

What are we to make of this? Slavery, genocide, war: it’s all ground up together, and then sauced with that nice quotation at the end. But is Hitler really one of the corruptions from which Whitman would have the bluebells grow? It’s not just the deflations of evil that I mind. What about sensuality? The scene between the black man and the white girl is very effective; the smoke comes out of your ears. Not for long, though, because immediately you are plunged back into the atmosphere of liberal protest—here come the animals, here comes the Holocaust—and you pack those feelings away swiftly and guiltily, as if you had caused them. But, of course, it wasn’t you who caused them, it was Clarke, and well she might. This is her longtime subject, her heart’s home—dark thoughts, underclothing excitements—and the implications here of incest and miscegenation are no surprise. Her sexual imagination is powerfully infantile, powerfully perverse. But that too is only peeped at, and then the door is closed.

As for the liberal sentiment that all this is sacrificed to, it could not be more shallowly conceived: a thing of pat contrasts, thudding ironies. The audience actually laughed when, after everyone onstage had been mowed down by machine-gun fire—no, everyone except Blaska, who was already hanging dead from a rope overhead—a man wandered in reciting Whitman’s famous words, “I think I could turn and live with animals.” Well, when you put it that way, so could I.

In all this sticky business nothing is more awkward than the use of Whitman. Elsewhere it is just a horse, a goat, a sex scene that get sacrificed to Endangered Species’ attempt at noble-mindedness. But with Whitman it is actual art, advanced art, somebody else’s. Clarke, who comes to theater from dance, has always had trouble with language; in her pieces, the text is always the thing that works least well. But never has any text of hers worked less well than these quotes from Whitman. Even when beautifully spoken, as they are by Frank Raiter, their essential inappropriateness always shines through. Whitman’s spirit is expansive, utopian, all embracing: the main thing, he said, was “the average, . . . the democratic, the popular.” Nothing could be further from the hot, gamy, cultivated mind of Martha Clarke. In consequence, Whitman’s presence always seems a little lumbering, a little embarrassing. It’s as if one of the three bears had stumbled into The Story of O.

The problem lies not in the nature of Clarke’s imagination—she has made beautiful work, notably Vienna: Lusthaus—but in its inappropriateness to its chosen subject: hence the general atmosphere of bad faith. There’s a lot of righteousness around these days, and it doesn’t look good on everybody. Endangered Species took two years and a million dollars to make. Scheduled for 35 performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, it closed after 14 ill-sold performances. Flora went back to the circus.

Joan Acocella a a dance critic who lives in New York. She is writing a book on Mark Morris.