Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "Freeing the Family" (on Djuna Barnes' Biography of Julie van Bartmann)

freeing the family
by Douglas Messerli
Djuna Barnes Biography of Julie van Bartmann (unpublished)

Written in Cagnes sur Mer and the Maritimes Alps in France between November 1923 and April 1924, Djuna Barnes’ three-act play, Biography of Julie van Bartmann, related to several of her early stories—particularly “A Night Among the Horses”—and to her 1928 fiction Ryder. Like the father, Wendell, of that book, the father of this early play, Basil Born, refuses to let his children attend public school, and faces down with the school authorities, challenging them with their teaching methodologies: he wins. And like the early short story, one of Barnes’ best, a strong and sophisticated woman verbally destroys her “bestial” horse groom, which ends in his death.

       Yet it is hard even speak of “events’ such as these in Barnes’ work. Unlike most US plays, which lay out a “story” through which their character’s lives are revealed, Barnes’ highly artificed theater is centered in what one might describe as “revelations,” most long statements about oneself and life, alternating with a questions or sparring conversations, such as those between the powerful opera singer Julie van Bartmann and the strong-minded “landholder,” Born. And even the “revelations” are less revealing of how the characters think than how they perceive the world morally and philosophically; yet since these statements are presented in a highly literary language, filled with aphorisms, puns, extended metaphors, and dualities, we cannot even be sure that the character is speaking honestly or attempting to play out a desired notion of themselves.

       Barnes begins the play in simple anticipation as Born’s two sons, Gart and Costa (Barnes generally stocks her works with strangely named figures—not unlike her own name and those of brothers) who await the arrival of their father and a new boarder, Julie, who is apparently staying at the house—the boys do some farming, but Born seems to have retired—to rest up before she returns to the stage. Evidently, she is not the first grand person to stay with them, women who, throughout the years, have had had passionate relations with their father, even while their mother, now dead, was still living.

       Gart, the elder son, is thin and handsome, a gentle soul who plays the organ well. The younger son, Costa, is shorter and more broad shouldered, a figure described as a kind of “beast,” having a connection with the soil. The daughter, Gustava, nineteen years of age, is an excitable young woman who cares for pigeons and garden. All three are in awe of their dominating father.

      The rest of the drama plays out various encounters between these figures, in which each falls in love, in some respect, with the grand Julie. The first such “encounter” is understandably between Basil Born and Julie, and she questions him about himself, his children, and the house in which she is to stay. These passages, in particular, have the feel of a tennis match as each of these strong figures sends out charged and even barbed messages about their temperaments and sexualities:


 I am not married, that is—not married. I have not
 money worries.I love—peculiarity, perhaps you
 would call it vice (she raises her  eyes watching him).
 Nothing astonishes me. In the night, when it
 rains, when the lightning flashes and the thunder rolls,
 I do no not draw my toes up, I sleep, and leave terror
 and superstition to the people.

  At a pinch madame, I can be a little peculiar myself.


   It begins to be something of which I am aware. I have
   heard that you are savage. Is it so?


   Not at all. I have a certain influence with my family,
   but the state does not like me.

At this point, he goes on to explain his encounter with “peoples in places of dictatorship” (i.e. the local school board). But the passage also clearly suggests Basil’s interest in her, and she in him. The act ends indeed in a kind a double entendre as Julie suggests “I am willing you should play a little,” suggesting that she might hear him play a hymn upon the organ they have their home; but with the end of that sentence, “but—I am noted for my detours!” hints that the “playing” and “organ” might mean something else. Basil’s command to his daughter, “Show that splendor to bed!” makes his desires, if not intentions, quite clear.

      But the second scene of Act I, it is not Basil who visits Julie’s bed, but Gustava, who snuggles up to Julie before pouring out a biography of the woman as she has been following her for years in fan magazines. Indeed, perhaps she has been following the career of the diva, since she is seen in another moment of the play as cutting out a picture from a magazine, several of which are posted on the Born walls. The vision she has of the grand lady is almost an inhuman one:

Wait, don’t laugh. It is like this: You were born. You
were laid in a bassinet, you did not cry. You learned to
walk before other children, you watched everything, and
then one day, when you were three or four, you realized
that you were terrible, a child of destiny.

As Julie quickly perceives, Gustava is not quite simple country girl she appears to be, soon moving even closer to the beautiful woman: “Let me put my head on your arm, your perfume is so strong, and so sweet—“ And by the end of their long conversation, she has hinted that Julie must come to terms with her—and her brothers—with Julie suggesting “I have never reckoned with children,” and Gustava responding, “Now you have to it, we are here, wat are you going to do?” Julie sends her away.

     The second act begins with an extended conversation between Gustava and Costa, in which recounts her morning activities to the girl, both admitting their admiration for her (“She is beautiful.”). When, soon after, Julie approaches Gart in an attempt to the seemingly shy twenty-year-old out by describing her own past selves, Costa ends their conversation by striking his brother, the two of them violently wrestling, while Julie looks on, clearly recognizing the emotion chaos she has created in them: “It has begun.”

      In the second scene of Act II, Barnes again creates a strangely ambiguous sexual scene, wherein Gart, troubled and unable to sleep, crawls into his father’s bed, querying him about the dazzling visitor in their house (“Is Julie von Bartmann a good woman?” “Beautiful, damaged, there more beautiful.” Finally moving to his own perceived condition, “What is passion in man?”)

     The father, strongly demeaning Julie, is quite obviously trying, as he puts it, “trying to make Gart safe for tragedy.” Nothing, however, can calm the excited young man, who almost dares his father to kill him (“No, you must finish my life. You have begun it and you must see it through.”) before he threatens either suicide or murder: “I have come to something that I do not understand, or only in one way, I think it would not be your way. …Whether I must kill myself, or you.”

      There is only one way this tragedy can now play out. For the first time in the elder Born’s life, he has meant less to a woman than his now nearly-grown children. At the age of 50, time has changed everything. In an attempt to demand she chose him, what he describes as demanding “victory,” she fends off his invitation to his bed off, ultimately proclaiming she prefers “the shy, gentle elder son, half musician, half human.”

      By the end of the play, Born has shot himself, dying before the towering Julie, while Gustav demands the intrude leave:
Go, go, it is all over. You see what he has managed—accomplished. Go,
go, take everything and go. You see yourself—we are reunited—we need
nothing—it is all finished—settled.

Leaving, Julie’s slightly inexplicably reply, “Immense! Immense!”, seems to suggest she perceives Born’s act as a sort of sacrifice, an attempt to keep his family as a tightly knit unit opposed to the ridiculousness of other’s lives. Yet one can only wonder if his act is not also a highly selfish one, the act of, as he describes himself, the Beast, desperate to hold onto what he has created and his insufferable pride.

       Barnes does not answer the question, but surely we recognize, at play’s end, the father’s death, which closes both his and Julie’s biography, has freed these isolated orphans to enter the world, to now lead their own lives, if slightly wary of the foolishness that may face them. And in that sense, Barnes’ theatrical family drama, ends, like Chekhov plays, with a somewhat comedic, rather than tragic, resolution.

Los Angeles, January 15, 2010

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