- 1 In other words, the figure represents the two poles anchoring Parks’ work: a modernist, mostly Eur (...)
1The short monologue Pickling may come across as atypical in Suzan-Lori Parks’ (1963) body of work, better known for its expansive, sprawling dramaturgy pervaded by the intermingled voices of the living and the dead. Written early in her career, Pickling has been likened to a Beckett-inspired variation on the soliloquizing old-timer, also incorporating a reworking of the archetypal figure of the slightly demented church lady, an American literary topos (Geis 30)1. When Krapp taped and preserved his own voice, Miss Miss, the protagonist and sole character, feels the obsessive urge to trap artifacts associated with other people’s memories in jars. Memory and voice stand in analogical relation to preservation: both are characterized by their elusiveness and incapacity to be held and captured over time. They may be recorded, replayed, reenacted, but not enclosed, unless transferred to another medium, thereby undergoing a transformation.
- 2 From here onwards, when a page number is mentioned without further information, it refers to the 1 (...)
2In Pickling, the performative apparatus is reduced to the bare minimum: a single actor on a presumably empty stage; the only stage property alluded to in the course of the dialogue being a series of jars. In them the protagonist keeps various artifacts and body parts associated with personal memories: her mother’s smile, pickled hair and gums, a sample of her mother’s milk, sand on which her assumed former lover Charles left his footprints, and nuts and bolts referred to as “memory of old icebox” (Parks 1995, 932). All tend to lend themselves only problematically to preservation – either because such a process is prevented by their very nature (the most striking example possibly being the smile) or because the operation significantly alters their chemical/ontological makeup (fresh milk dries out, the spare parts of the old icebox cannot recapture the function/life of the appliance, and the process of pickling amounts to a form of embalming). The jars themselves are used as musical instruments by Miss Miss, who sings and accompanies herself with them. The latter are endowed with a specific acoustic signature, thus giving voice and life to their otherwise altered, desiccated, emptied out or spectral presence within the jar: “Each jar has a distinctly different sound. Not just uh sound that differs from their shape” (94). So that the jar, although theoretically a container devoid of any distinctive qualities, becomes the catalyst through which the metamorphosis can happen, and through which phenomena and artifacts not usually associated with their auditory qualities (once again, what sound might a smile, a footprint, hair, produce other than a barely audible one, if any?) are translated into a voice using another medium.
3On a rhetorical level, Parks’ works tend to rely not so much on metamorphosis and semantic transfer as on conflation and polysemy. In other words, transformations are more likely to be based on the opening up of a signifier to other signifieds to create an effect of semantic juxtaposition – in rhetorical terms, antanaclasis, and its close, near-perfect relative, paronomasia – than on the association of different signifiers. Put plainly, Parks makes a recurrent use of puns, which reflects her inward-looking, dissective outlook on American history. This exploration of the past is by no means exceptional in American drama (“Drop down almost at random into the serious American theater and you’re amid “catacombs” and “cemeteries”, archeological sites, scenes of ruin and failure.” (Robinson 315)), or more generally in drama of the so-called postmodern kind (“postmodernism is crucially bound up with agendas of remembrance and forgetting, serving, at least in part, to re-call the past from repression or from its canonized “shape” in order to renegotiate the traumas, oppressions, and exclusions of the past.” (Malkin 1)). The objective of this essay is to define the play beyond the all too easily affixed – though perfectly valid – postmodern tag and identify the specificities of Parks’ interpretation, which could be tentatively summed up as a tongue-in-cheek, obsessively metadramatic approach coupled with a pervading reworking of national myths.
4The title of this article is meant to be an echo of sorts to Parks’ own title: to pickle, as a present participle, to which can be added an apocryphal and dubious derivation as a substantive based on the use of the diminutive suffix, i.e., a creature that has undergone a process of pickling. And to jar as a present participle, as in “to place into a jar”, and as an adjective, as in “to clash, to produce a jarring sound” – in the case of this play, it is meant to reflect not the actual sound that the jars and singer produce together (which may actually be harmonious) but the ontological division between the fullness of the voice coming out of the jar and the barely present content it is supposed to extend and illustrate.
5The theatrical apparatus offers a typical situation of mise en abyme. First, Miss Miss portrays herself as a performer, giving little, if any, information about a possible occupation outside of singing and performing drama, and announces her upcoming performance of “Uh short drama in ten short pages” (95), roughly the length of the playlet itself. To put it differently, the character has no identity outside of her performing self and is purposefully rendered one-dimensional, all the more conspicuously so given the self-referential anchoring of the play. This creates an effect of exact juxtaposition between the character and her actress-self, by means of a lack of distinctive, non-performative traits. She addresses herself regularly in the third person as “Miss Miss” – her specular relationship to herself involving the spectator in return, so that there is a superposition on another level, between the specular and the spectacular; she also mentions her “guests” and a future performance (“I am to perform” (95)). Her name can be read as an ironic comment on the theatre as being cut off from reality. Parks makes extensive use of the trope of antanaclasis, meaning an exact repetition hinging on polysemy – a trope which in itself relies on a language game, on a narcissistic play with signifiers, which here adds a further layer to the conflation game: Miss can be read as a spinster, someone who has missed out (she stays indoors at all times: “Ive got everythin I need right here at my fingertips never need to go out outside is overwhelming sssstoomuch.” (94)), who lacks something, or who longs for something or someone (in that case, a former lover, Charles, whose symbolically charged profession was that of a “lifeguard” (95)). The space inhabited by Miss Miss is defined only by her presence and that of her instruments, in other words the house she refuses to leave corresponds to the theatrical house as well. Which echoes the definition that Parks offers of her own theatrical project: that of turning the stage into an incubator:
The bones tell us what was, is, will be; and because their song is a play – something that through a production actually happens – I’m working theatre like an incubator to create “new” historical events. I’m re-membering and staging historical events which, through their happening on stage, are ripe for inclusion in the canon of history. (4-5)
6 An incubator, that is to say a chamber, is another metaphor for the theatrical box; Parks’ objective is to trap voices inside a space in order to create artificial conditions favorable to their rebirth and growth, while being aware that this process of entrapment can also alter the original object it sought to stay faithful to. In Pickling, Miss Miss is unapologetic about these alterations, even relishing them, finding the jarred artifacts superior to the originals: “Your icebox, Miss Miss, what has happened to your lovely icebox? Ssgone. And in ssplace Ive something better, whowhowho much much better than old icebox […] So much better than the real thing.” (93) Artifice is glorified, and the image of the icebox taken apart and stripped of its original function serves to illustrate the transfer of power (to freeze, i.e. to control the passage from life to dormancy and potential resurrection, to shut down in order to maintain alive) from the object to the character.
7Just as she destroyed the appliance rivaling her own desire to preside over all transformations, Miss Miss maintains a dictatorial control over the content of the jars and their preservation. Not only because of a fear of infection and invasion (“Little-green-bacteria”, “dont want it to go bad” (95)), but essentially because she can include and edit out the material of her choice. The sealed off jars’ hard glass structure blocks access to reality, though their transparency gives the illusion of direct access, thus signaling the character’s authoritative/authoritarian power over it, and illustrating her vision of mimesis. Miss Miss readily admits her less-than-successful handling of reality, which explains her enjoyable retreat into self-absorption and control. Of her mother’s pickled gums, she confesses, “Such good sounds they make. Rattlerettle and they say anything you want them to say: not like when she was around. Not at all like when the big ball was uhlive. Livin. In thuh flesh.” (96) The parched artifact becomes a palimpsest on which a new version of reality can be orally reinscribed, in that case in a disjunctive relation to the truth (or at least Miss Miss' version of the latter, as she is the one asserting the discrepancy in the connection between past and present). Miss Miss draws an analogy between a picture of her mother and her pickled “parts”: photographs (“Only show one side of a person the pictures do” (96)) provide a trace, an illusion of physical presence pointing out absence, and a partial view of reality (a close-up of her mother fails to show her rotund figure – “she was a circle from the shoulders down” (96)); jarred objects give access to actual presence, but significantly altered, and their three-dimensionality gives the illusion of an omniscient absence of perspective, though only parts are on display, and the selection is established by the jarrer/performer/author (Miss Miss herself admits to excluding the icebox’s door handle from the selection of parts enclosed in the jar in order to keep out a trace of her mother’s presence (“Wanted tuh keep thuh door handle – but no. […] Door handle was soiled. Coulda washed it. But. No. Soiled with mothers milk” (93)). In the end, neither the pictorial likeness nor the transformed, spectral presence are satisfying substitutes, and the belief in intact preservation stands in parallel relation to the artistic myth of immediate capture. Which means that resurrecting the past is not so much about breathing life into it (the poetic topos of inspiration, and its dramatic extension as Aristotle’s “beautiful animal” metaphor) as engaging in a messy dialectic of destruction/construction – an image that seems to be obliquely referred to in the repeated allusion to a (peach) cobbler.
8Far from admitting it, Miss Miss tries to restore that myth by giving voice to the jars by proxy, literally instrumentalizing other voices. She claims that sound has the power to resurrect and make whole what has been chemically altered and taken apart. The jars should then be approached not visually but aurally, in order to supersede the apparent logical flaw already pointed out in the opposition between the mother’s photograph and her pickled parts (“Picture shows uh part”/”Sound shows all round” (96)). The transformation undergone by the contents is not seen as threatening as long as it holds the promise of a possible reversal, which can be guaranteed by a foolproof tightening of the lid (“taut” is obsessively repeated throughout the play). The mother’s milk may have turned to powder, as long as the character maintains control over the jar enclosing it, she can retrieve her parent’s voice, which will then by metonymic extension express and stand for her mother as a whole, live being: “Put thuh lid on tight and itll keep. Then soon itll go back tuh powder. Powdermilk. Dust. Then for guests we will have to reactivate. Rise up from thuh dead. Thuh right amount of saliva. Stir. Heat” (94) Language –saliva – is the means through which memory can be brought back to life, and conversely, life is defined as the ability to occupy verbal space. None of this differs from traditional definitions of drama, except that here, voice and body do not overlap – or at least seem inseparable –, and the exercise in remembrance turns out to be a display of dis-re-memberment. In that respect, Parks’ imaginaire illustrates a wider phenomenon in contemporary drama:
La voix et le corps se sont disassemblés. Tandis que la première erre dans l’indéfini du langage, le second paraît hanté par son propre anéantissement dans le Nirvana de la terre, du sable, des cendres ou de l’enveloppe fœtale. La figure consacre ainsi une perte d’identité progressive du personnage et sa définitive non-correspondance avec son passé. (Sarrazac 86)
9The voices salvaged are then highly ambiguous, depending on the interpretation of the separation between their two essential components, body and speech (« La voix est à la jonction du corps et du langage articulé : elle est une médiation entre la pure corporéité non codifiable et la textualité inhérente au discours. » (Pavis 404)) They can be interpreted as either a positive resurgence of a lost presence, albeit fleeting and impalpable, or as the artificial substitute that signals absence and death even as it pretends to bring back life, and would then represent the ultimate regression on the scale of presence:
As characters fall, so too does the idea of character. […] This erosion of character has its equivalents in just about every Parks play. Bodies turn to maimed bodies, which fracture into body parts. The latter give way to facsimiles of body parts, which are themselves replaced, finally, by mere words for those parts. (Chaudhuri 342)
10So that the voices coming out of the jars would stand in analogical relation to their spectral quality, their evanescence marking their failure to rekindle life – a failure materialized by the absence of a live actor onstage to embody the individual voices. This predictable defeat is illustrated in the play by Miss Miss’s postponement of the moment of resurrection, her “farewell” contained in a jar in the form of a written script: “I am to perform. A short drama. Uh short drama in ten short pages. My farewell. Ive got it right here. On thuh top shelf. Hasnt spoiled – oh no – see? The lid on this one is very tight” (95). So that the play itself is actually presented as an absence, or a play around an uncovered play, that never gets to the core contained in a too closely guarded jar:
Parks’ theater occupies a perforated landscape. Her stages are pockmarked with ditches, pools, and graves; the text with lacunae; the bodies with wounds; the narratives with secrets and other recesses from which authoritative meaning won’t emerge. This is a theater in perpetual retreat from visual, verbal, and physical presence, recoiling as readers and viewers reach toward it.(Chaudhuri 339)
11Miss Miss’s retreat before the performance (“Been saving. Saving it up. For guests.” (94)), far from sparing her from the predictable silence and symbolic death associated with the exhaustion of the script, does not yield victory either. “Cast blocked”, she announces, meaning the rehearsal process seems to have been completed, with the technical phrase taking on an additional, ironic sense: as the only cast member, she is effectively blocked, that is to say unable to move forward and escape her self-imposed, deadlocked state. Cheating by displacing the primary components of theatre (either spatially (“He said “center”. I said “Uh little off””) (95)) or temporally (“prell-yude”/“pray-lude” (95)) does little else than emphasize the perforation. The confession that “Alls thats left is the doing of it” (97) amounts to negating the essence of performance, whose definition relies on doing and getting done. Just as the jars serve as pretexts (pre-texts) for Miss Miss to improvise on and recreate a past whose alethic value cannot be externally validated (the character being the sole source of authority), the physical presence of the jarred play gives anything but flimsy evidence. Its actual content remains enigmatic (included clues feature: songs, but as a prelude to the play; applause from spectators of previous performances, but nothing more specific that could characterize the reception beyond a standard reaction – once again, peripheral elements revealing nothing of the object itself). The postponement on which the dramaturgical principle hinges is not akin to a headfront refusal, which would have led down a repetitive, circular logical path. Miss Miss's delaying tactics are closer to a tease, a non-confrontational approach meant to cover up a potential frustration by doling out personal information, albeit as a means to circumvent the expected discovery. Even though her deferred promises to begin are reiterated, she does offer circumstantial revelations about the past in connection to the jarred artifacts, adding to the web of associations she weaves throughout the play. The network built up does not progress beyond fragmentary episodes or fleeting, metonymic images but it provides glimpses of a self-portrait. In other words, the harder Miss Miss attempts to flee her condition as the future performer of the scripted, invisible play, the more solidly she affirms her status as the reluctant performer of a pre-play (prelude). But Parks does not merely intimate a transfer of focus from a dead center to the periphery. She creates a series of parallels between what can be reconstructed about the absent play, and the one actually and unwittingly performed by Miss Miss, so that the two appear to be conflated despite the contradictory nature of their juxtaposition. Or, in the words of Rebecca Schneider, borrowing from one of Parks' own puns:
That which is given to reappear is never the “whole” without the hole in the whole. Which is to say that the stuff and details of history's exclusions are as chiastically and palpably present as its inclusions are palpably (re)presented as absent. Present and absent come undone at the pass.” (67-68)
12In addition to the numerous metatheatrical references, the most obvious (already mentioned) hint is the quasi-identical length of the printed and jarred plays. The performance opens with a song, just as the confined work is supposed to be preceded by a musical prelude. The temporal situation is blurry at best, as the character constantly alternates between recollections and prospects ; the past and the potential future of the would-be performance overlap, creating a sense of disorientation underscoring the ostensible obliteration of the present (“My farewell performance. First I sang.”/”I am to perform […] My farewell” (95)). Miss Miss's exercise in retention is based on a presumed fear of decomposition, yet the final episode she recounts is one of metaphorical sexual intercourse ending in loss of control and the conventional image of sex-as-death, explicited in the paronomastic play on the warmth of the bodies likened to fodder for the “worms” (“Warm. Oh: to thuh worms.” (98)) – so that her apprehension is rhetorically and performatively illustrated almost simultaneously.
- 3 Erika Fischer-Lichte develops the notion of “autopoiesis” (i.e., being both the producer and the p (...)
- 4 Venus, as a freak of nature, is immediately threatened by dissective pickling; here is another exa (...)
13Parks has the protagonist noticeably refrain from voicing a lone jar, the one that could legitimately use (re)activation and whose dehydrated state does not point to a past, mortiferous condition but a prospective one. Although Parks bases her playwriting mythology on the metaphor of resurrection (the singing bones), she readily admits her work is a reinvention with little connection to or ambition as historically accurate reconstruction, and exposing the artifice of the process plays an integral part. The facticiousness and awkwardness of the gesture of re-membering – crystallized elsewhere in the recurrent paronomastic, contradictory pun: faux/fore – is embraced, as well as its ultimate failure – the resurrection sought hinging primarily on the aesthetic success of the attempt, not on any actual, physical result. This re-membering is a morbid business and the seams of the reconstructed body still show. There is explicit pleasure derived from keeping reality at bay, carefully enclosed (the tightening of the lid conjures up the image of the lover's bulging biceps performing the same gesture: “Charles tightened this lid. Such arms he had. Such bicepts. Like steel.” (95)). If the hypothesis of the performative conflation is validated, the parched script then stands in analogical relation to the other containers instead of being the odd jar out (the jarring one). The sole difference being Miss Miss's reluctance to consciously voice it (“thuh inside dust clogged my pipes” (96)); unaware of performing a play while muffling another one, she nonetheless enables an underlying transfer of voices as the hidden play seeps into and takes over her performance. The actual content of the invisible play matters little in the end, as long as the performance accomplishes what Miss Miss sought to protect herself from: doing. In other words, what Parks activates and toys around with here is the definition of performance, articulating it around a logical impossibility: having a character try to negate its autopoietic nature3, predictably leading to her self-inflicted entrapment. Bringing up past and future performances, commenting on others – including herself in her self-addresses – in the third person (epic mode) while skirting the present does not suffice to escape the dramatic incarnation, as long as voice, body and I are presented onstage as continuous. So that Miss Miss's fate does not hinge on whether or not she opens the container – which serves here as a Macguffin – or on the nature of the play enclosed: her anguished wallowing in being alive and in control thus takes on an ironic dimension but cannot prevent her ultimate demise. Despite the character's obsession with decay, her status as a performer leaves her vulnerable to a clean, sudden exit (“performance […] becomes itself through disappearance” (Phelan 146)) rather than a progressive decline and reduction to a trail of debris. The catch being that Parks has to rely on the preservation enabled by writing to express the disappearance. In other words, Parks replicates in a victorious way the jarring process that her protagonist could not extend to herself due to her performative (autopoietic) condition. To use a pun that is activated in her later play Venus (1997)4: Miss Miss is in a pickle, i.e., metaphorically speaking, she cannot find a way out of her predicament; and literally, she is pickled, jarred and exposed as such by the playwright, the theatrical incubator becoming a replica of the glass container on a macro-level.
- 5 Geis comments that besides being a reference to a death image (rigidity, rigor mortis), taut “is a (...)
14The authorship of the jarred play remains unknown, yet signs point to Miss Miss being its creator, if only through her contribution as a performer and the control she exercizes over its outcome. Regardless, she dispenses enough self-advice while resisting performing the intended play that the didactic dimension (the ubiquitous “taut” can be read as “taught”5) calls for an evaluation of the teachings' validity. As Deborah Geis remarks, the onomastic semantism seems to point to flawed, incorrect lessons. Yet the redoubling of the name could also make the opposite statement (that is to say, a positive arising of a double negation). Once again Parks engineers an implosive juxtaposition of logical impossibilities: both can be justified alongside each other but not together. In one way the protagonist acts as a foil for Parks. Her belief in shutting off the past and keeping it from spoiling, her practice of deferment, her editing out of the more distressing details (the mother's fingerprints on the icebox handle), contradict Parks' entreprise as a vital reexamination of the wounds of the past, which requires a painful/playful prying open. And in other respects the character revives the past with devices analogical to Parks', basing her poetics on an awareness of discontinuity and artificiality, and refraining from illusory techniques. As noted before, her conception of mimesis, as reflected in the handling of the jars, is close to Parks' digging process involving alterations, selection, reshuffling; playwriting is then akin to a cunning montage with the author as editor, turning on and off, and rearranging the voices she ultimately wishes to listen to – much like Miss Miss playing the jars as the sole composer of the music – far from the idea of unmediated inspiration, of possession by voices that would be more of less directly transcribed (an image Parks also draws on to counterbalance her dissective strand). Wry allusions to Parks' own rhetoric and theatrical vision can also be traced in Miss Miss' desire to “reactivate”, in her belief in the performative power to resurrect (“Rise up from thuh dead.” (94)) and in the use of the metaphor of theatre as nourishment (compare: “Words are spells which an actor consumes and digests – and through digesting creates a performance on stage.” (“Elements of Style”, 11); “There are people starving you know. People going without. Right next door.” (Pickling, 94)). The portrayal of the audience as hungry gives a somewhat sadistic slant to the tease and refusal to perform, with a Tantalus-like mistress of ceremonies dangling the promise of satiety while leaving the spectators in a state of limbo, which, if the logic of the metaphor is fully extended, would cause them to end up in the same parched condition as the trapped artifacts.
15Yet the protagonist's obsessive carceral urge could be reversed and read in conjunction with the playwright's poetics : while Miss Miss egregiously keeps the performance at bay, Parks trespasses on the performative domain, leading to a tightening of the lid on a different level. She fashions her writing as a transcription of voices heard during the creative process, leading her to impose vocal (and by extension physical) constraints on potential performers. Although it could be argued that any kind of (dramatic) writing engages in this to some extent through the prescription of specific syntactic, rhythmic choices, Parks reinforces the tendency by offering clearer (and therefore more restrictive) pronunciation guidelines: “Each word is configured to give the actor a clue to their physical life. Look at the difference between “the” and “thuh”. The “uh” requires the actor to employ a different physical, emotional, vocal attack.” (11-12) In the example above, in which she contrasts the more standard “the” with her own common spelling “thuh”, the use of “thuh” would not fundamentally change the phonetic outcome of “the”, only restrict the possibility to pronounce it by contextualizing it and indicating a substandard or more relaxed use. The same can said of the disappearance of stage directions, systematically included in the cues, thus much harder to do away with than the purely indicative italics in parentheses that may signal the author’s presence: “The action goes in the line of dialogue instead of always in a prissy set of parentheses. How the line should be delivered is contained in the line itself. Stage directions disappear. Dialogue becomes rich and strange.” (16) By specifying vocal details, Parks creates the illusion that the play may have been staged before, that it is the trace of a previous performance, producing an effect of liveness – thereby enriching the script while reducing the scope of possibilities for potential reactivations of the playtext.
- 6 See for example Phelan: “Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participa (...)
- 7 Although my analysis is based on a single recorded performance, there is no reason to believe that (...)
- 8 “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst s (...)
- 9 A few months prior (March 14-May 31, 2010), Marina Abramovic had presented a series of performance (...)
16Instead of examining the play through a conventional performance/text dichotomy, the perspective could be shifted to an exclusively performative outlook. One definition of performance being the reproduction of a missing original6, the cryptic script (and performance based on it) withdrawn from the audience could then be viewed as a self-referential, ironic comment on the “vanishing point” (Blau) of performative discourses and practices and more specifically on performance art – the latter's main definitional trait being to elude duplication and exist through disappearance, so that it cannot theoretically be scripted for future resurrection (or jarred for potential consumption). Whether Miss Miss is an stand-in or a foil for Parks – and possibly both –, let us examine the strategy Parks adopted when she placed herself in the character's position in her November 2010 series of performances Watch Me Work7. It seems that, aware of the risks and failures she had portrayed in Pickling, she designed an apparatus geared towards dodging Miss Miss's fate. The self-explanatory title sums up the performance: the general public was welcome to watch the playwright work in the lobby of New York City's Public Theater, where Parks would sit at a work desk before two vintage red typewriters, with only one being used briefly. The stationary nature of the setup was offset by the fulfillment of the minimal requirements for theatre to take place8; little seemed to be happening beyond the initial co-presence9. Prior to the performance, Parks invited the spectators to bring their own work and do it in her company, exchanging a few words before setting a timer and sitting down, after which no verbal exchange would take place until the timer went off 75 minutes later. She rhythmically typed in a few words or lines on the noisy typewriter, before putting it away and pulling out a laptop from her bag, typing silently from then on. Perverting the artist/addressee, active/passive relationship by dehierarchizing it (claiming to involve the audience in the same activity as the playwright) while drawing the spectators in because of the artist's presence, can be viewed as a foolproofing stratagem. In other words, Parks created a mirror image of herself (the spectator as artist) and offered it as a substitute for herself. The ambiguity of the relation guaranteed hermeneutic hesitation and deadlock, preventing Parks from being tricked by her audience: there was neither delay nor refusal to perform yet the playwright hid her work from view while pretending to expose it, and the only work the public could hope to access was their own (either as spectator or fellow writer, or both). The muted theatron gave away nothing while seeming to reveal everything – the clear glass bowl remained tightened and obscure.