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Trigger Alert (a little late)


To the weekly writing group, regarding continuing the story I began reading last week:

I realized, in the sudorific silence that followed my oral presentation of the opening quarter of "The Pygmy," that I should have prefaced it with an explanation of what it is. It seems obvious, now, that the piece requires some context in order to be heard, let alone appreciated and criticized objectively.

Back in the late sixties/early seventies, I was interested in the French absurdist playwrights, especially Alfred Jarry, Eugene Ionesco and Antonin Artaud. Being an aspiring playwright myself, my own writing understandably showed influences from those and other writers. Artaud in particular fascinated me, and although I never set out to write in the mode he described, or to copy his style in any way, in retrospect the influence is unmistakable. I believe now, after some extensive contemplation, that I had, at that time, a visceral understanding of what Artaud was all about, and I found his so-called Theater of Cruelty to be a perfect vehicle for my artistic vision; in fact I wrote several plays in that mode. Three of them, which I wrote one right after the other, are especially recognizable as the Jerry Stubblefield, if you will, brand of Theatre of Cruelty. One of them is "The Pygmy," one is called "Gila Monster," and the other one is called "365 Ways to Prepare Capybara."

Encyclopædia Britannica describes Artaud's Theater of Cruelty as "a primitive ceremonial experience intended to liberate the human subconscious and reveal man to himself." His 1932 “Manifesto of the Theatre of Cruelty” and his 1938 The Theatre and Its Double both called for "communion between actor and audience in a magic exorcism; gestures, sounds, unusual scenery, and lighting combine to form a language, superior to words, that can be used to subvert thought and logic and to shock the spectator into seeing the baseness of his world."

These concepts spoke to me as a young man, and in a real sense, they still do, even though mainstream theatre has long since moved on from the surrealists and absurdists, and so have I.

From Wikipedia: "Artaud believed that 'man was savage under the skin', but also that people could be pushed to overcome savage impulses if they were confronted with the violence behind their desires. His goal was to make the audience more aware of their instinctual feelings through psychological shock. The audiences were quite shocked when they attended Artaud's plays; people were often sick!"

So, maybe we can count ourselves lucky that last week nobody actually threw up in here. Maybe it's just that my fictionalized theater piece was not as powerful as Artaud's work. Or maybe it's that we only got one quarter of the way into it.

Now, why did I convert this play into a piece of fiction? I have several partial answers. The plays were presented as script-in-hand readings at the Ensemble Studio Theater in New York, but were never fully produced. So one thing is that I never felt they were realized in their dramatic form. Also I've wondered from time to time if fictionalizing my stage plays would be a workable way to convey through narrative the subtleties I thought were often missing on the stage, even in full productions. I tried it first with the play called "Oil," re-titled "The Wrong Oil for the Job" when I read it here a few weeks ago. And now "The Pgymy" is the second attempt, which I feel comes a bit closer to realizing what I'm after than "Oil" did. Remember that these stories are first drafts, and I'm learning how the conversion process works as I go along. Ultimately, I'd like to adapt seven of my plays in this manner to create a single longer piece. They're connected thematically and sometimes by characters recurring from story to story.

Here's a bit more about Theater of Cruelty that I found on Study.com: "Artaud's use of the word cruelty did not intend to mean brutal or mean. Instead, he meant that it was up to the actors to show the audience things they didn't want to see."

[Substitute a couple of words and you get: it was up to the writer to show the readers things they didn't want to see.]

"Artaud did not demand a system of exercises or instructions to follow. But we can draw some conclusions based on his ideas and his work.

  • Artaud's theatre wanted to transfer a sense of pain, suffering, and evil, using gestures, sounds, and symbols instead of words.

  • The screams, cries, and other noises that were the focus of the Theatre of Cruelty meant to jar the mind and make people face their fears.

  • Because the Theatre of Cruelty dealt with dark universal concepts like madness and perversion, there were often graphic portrayals of such things on stage."

"Artaud attempted to stage his theories in 1935 with The Cenci. Count Cenci is murdered on stage. Light and sound are used to enhance the audience's shock at the torture, incest, and rape happening in front of them.

"Artaud's "The Spurt of Blood" has generic characters such as a Young Man, a Young Girl, a Knight, and a Wet-Nurse. The stage directions are surreal in nature and ask for such things as hurricanes and live pieces of human bodies to fall from the sky." One stage direction that stayed stuck in my mind after I read this play says, "An army of scorpions comes out from under the Wet-Nurse's dress and swarms over her sex, which swells, cracks open, becomes glassy and shimmers like the sun."

In my plays, several times an audience member or members will speak up. Also the actors will sometimes address the audience directly, or go out into the audience. To convert these dramas to fiction, I had to decide how to deal with those kinds of issues. One way I've done it is to refer to the audience as a jury, so that a group of people is evoked more or less outside the visible action of the story. It remains to be seen what the overall effect on readers, as opposed to audiences, will turn out to be. And that is why I wanted to bring the stories in for the writing group to hear.

© Jerry Stubblefield. Return to top of page.
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