Friday, January 11, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "Even the Thought" (on Wallace Shawn's A Thought in Three Parts)

even the thought
by Douglas Messerli
Wallace Shawn A Thought in Three Parts / 1977

 Wallace Shawn’s triptych, first performed in 1977 in London, was visited by the London vice squad, led to calls from The House of Lords to cease funding to the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and nearly resulted in Shawn’s expulsion from the country! A hue and cry far beyond the nudity and simulated sex of all sorts performed in the second part of this work, “The Youth Hostel.” I’ve never been to a youth hostel, but I’ve stayed—a year after this play’s premiere—at the New York Sloane House YMCA, where I lived through homosexual events not far different from the heterosexual ones played out in Shawn’s play. I guess the Brits just weren’t ready to know what went on behind those easily opened doors. A more recent, 2007, production in Austin, Texas’ Rubber Repertory—although much written about—received a far more felicitous reception.

       If sex is apparently behind whatever linking thought of the three parts of this play, two of the plays' sections talk about it rather than presenting it. In the hilarious “Summer Evening,” a couple in a foreign hotel, speaking sometimes to themselves and at other times simultaneously in a pace that the author describes as “very fast, much faster than people really speak,” cautiously tiptoe around the subject. David and Sarah at first appear to have a felicitous relationship, as they carefully maneuver their attempted conversations by trying to outguess each other’s feelings before they can be spoken:
 David: —I just thought we might go down to the—
                                  (Sarah enters.)
 Sarah: What?
 David: —to the restaurant and—Love dress, love—the—
 Sarah: Well? Don’t you think just our chocolates, maybe?
            Do we really—
 David: Well—it might be nice—Some sort of a soup, or one
             of those—
 Sarah: I’d rather—my skirt’s ripped—
 David: Oh really, darling? I was only thinking that maybe some
  Sarah: Well then why not go down—
  David: I—
  Sarah: You probably—
  David: —what?
  Sarah: You could still get some—
  David: What? I know, but I really rather would—what? Did you
              want to wash?

     The conversation continues like this, each interrupting the other, exploring tonal changes and emotional responses to carefully as to make their conversation almost painful. In fact, it gradually becomes clear, David would love to have sex, but Sarah is so involved with denial and contradiction that we can only see her as frigid, her seemingly friendly conversation soon turning sour, as she attacks the appearance of the room, the hotel, the country which they are visiting, and, ultimately, David: “Maybe I will burn you.” The frothy conversation of the first part is revealed as only a cover for each of their fears and hates.
      If this first part represents a permanently precoital sparring, the second part is all about coitus itself, The five men and women of “The Youth Hostel,” Dick, Helen, Judy, Bob, and Tom, move in and out the two rooms of the set as they jump into bed with one another, seeking out any pleasure combination of sexual acts. Coitus transforms into masturbation, masturbation into voyeurism—all peppered with obscenities about the other partners, present and past. Despite the comic sexual posturings of these figures (and, although I have never seen a production of the play, I presume they are presented comically), they find cold comfort in one another:

Judy: “Here we finally are, Judy.”
Tom: Do you want to help me now. I could use
          a fuck.
Judy: “I think I understand you, Judy.” (They sit for a
          long time. Both feel cold. Judy shudders. Silence)

Surely these characters have everything that both David and Sarah were seeking in the first scene, but this quintet don’t even have the lightness of possibility that the language of the earlier couple attempt to express. In “The Youth Hostel” everything is coldly coarse, with excrement, sperm, and verbal venom covering every bodily crevice.

      By comparison, Shawn’s last short monologue seems positively romantic, as the dreamer “Mr. Frivolous” awakens to his morning breakfast, following the flights of the birds outside his window and posting a comical put-down of all the joys to be found in nature. But Mr. Frivolous’ post-coital conversation soon becomes even colder than the sexual splendors of “The Youth Hostel”: “I ask you to love. I ask you to love. I ask to be taken, out to the toilet. And washed. And cleaned. And washed. And cleaned. I ask. I ask. I ask. I ask. I ask. For your arms. To be there. And your shoulders. There. ….Our bodies slippery. And cold. And cold. And cold. And cold.
      Suddenly what has seemed a kind of prayer of heterosexual love shifts to a paean to abusive love, to illicit love, the love of priests: “Then I speak, to my priest, and I say, Priest, touch me. Priest, Father, I have asked you to come here, to tell you, these clothes of yours have stayed here with me too long. Lie down here beside me. (Pause.) Precious are the priests who lie by the side of their lovers.”
      But even the illicit love between priest and confessor, between Father and son is insufficient to this desperate romantic, as he imagines a love with holy beings themselves, a sexual interlude, with he closes his monologue, with angels: “With wings unfurled, our angels scattered light across the grass. …You, the littlest angel, ran under my robe and held my legs.”  
      So is love, future, present, and past explored by the playwright in a world where the sensual seems always allusive, never fully satisfying, seldom fulfilling the desperate desires for bodily embracement. How such a dire statement of sex might interrupted as societally immoral is incomprehensible. But then, for some, just the word is enough. Even, as the title suggests, “a thought.”

Los Angeles, January 11, 2003

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