New York

Holly Hughes

Performance Space 122

Thanks to some heavy breathing in the halls of congress, Holly Hughes’ World Without End, 1989, a very intimate production, which was never intended for a mass audience, has captured the imagination of the mainstream media. Since World Without End premiered at P.S. 122 last season, it has gone full circle around the country (Los Angeles, Seattle, Washington D.C.); indeed, no one could invent a better trailblazer for their work than the lurid, tale-telling media that finds evil in the things artists say, rather than in the things congressmen do.

Who would expect a work to hold up to such overwhelmingly bombastic hype? For World Without End, a highly personal, largely autobiographical monologue, written and performed by the artist, is in many ways predictable. It is an example of a genre that has its roots in the late ’70s in the work of Laurie Anderson, Eric Bogosian, or Lily Tomlin, and that in the ’80s became the favored vehicle for a broad range of performers. Like the work of these artists, Hughes’ piece is well written, professionally staged, and the texts are delivered in distinctive voices and with distinctive American dialects; together these performers have drawn a picture of growing up American, and in telling their secrets, they have created an aural landscape made up of disturbing social and domestic sounds.

The setting of World Without End employs only a chair, simple lighting, and atmospheric music. Languishing behind a velvet armchair, in black pumps and a full-skirted party dress, Hughes situates us in suburbia. Her first punch line, “She didn’t know what else to do but go on living in the mess her mother’d made,” sets the pace for a verbal roller-coaster ride with Mom. For 90 minutes this waiflike woman careens around corners and wooshes up vertical inclines, yelling all the while with delight and sheer terror. She manages to make the ride funny and sad, desperate and utterly dislocating.

Suddenly Mother is dead, and Hughes examines her with the excruciating detail of a mortician. Surprisingly, her mother comes through all of this loved, and hated, and loved again. Sexy, depressed, and funny, Mom is Everywoman. Coupled with her daughter’s terrific sexuality (enjoyed mostly by the lesbian community), they were quite a team. In the end, even her father makes a momentary appearance: “When she got sick, he took very good care of her. He could understand her at last, she was like work to him.”

Mother is only half the story; for in this work Hughes tries to knit together her searing and beloved portrait with a far more conventional gay feminist text. Certainly the rhetoric is familiar to those who attended women’s groups in the ’70s and probably also to most of the rest of her audience of largely female followers who have probably heard these stories, and more ribald ones, countless times before. If the straight men in the audience feel somewhat left out, or even attacked, that is par for the course. Addressing them directly, Hughes resorts to slapstick. “Are you mad at me?” she asks, after declaring she’s a man-hater. “Are you gonna leave? So leave. If you all leave I get to go home early.”

The unevenness of Hughes’ work may yet be ironed out by the heat of the media spotlight that has suddenly and unexpectedly been trained upon her. She could continue to work in her acutely intimate way, lending her voice to the battle against the fainthearted politics of our times, while honing her skills as a storyteller and editing out the didactic fare that overshadows much of her originality. Or she might take a different pathway, and blow the work up in scale, so that it can carry the bold, visionary manifestos that we need from artists in the ’90s. In any case, Hughes is being forced to examine her work in a far larger context, and this is precisely what she needs to do.

RoseLee Goldberg