blackbirdonline journalFall 2017  Vol. 16 No. 2

1917 Suite Intro
(opens v17n1)
Claudia Emerson
Bernard Martin
Dan O'Brien

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Playwright’s Notes

Nude in Front of the Garden
I read an article from the New York Times that stayed with me for quite some time, entitled “A Picasso Is Severely Slashed by a Dutch Mental Patient” and written by Marlise Simons. The article states, “A Dutch psychiatric patient wielding a kitchen knife severely slashed a Picasso painting called ‘Nude in Front of the Garden’ in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art.” It also mentions that “the man ripped a large circular hole in the center of the canvas with a blunt knife before fleeing.” My first response, not unusual for a writer, was to want to get inside the man’s head, to figure out why he disfigured the painting. I didn’t want to dismiss him as merely disturbed, though a less clinical definition of disturbed did play a role. I started with the painting as a way in. The article refers to it as “a naked woman reclining in a chair against a backdrop of a garden.” To me, that doesn’t come close to describing the painting. Some have said it’s a celebration of desire. Perhaps. But I can imagine the representation of the woman in the painting to be somewhat disturbing to some as well, precisely because it is a representation, not a “realistic” depiction. I wondered if that might be unsettling for someone such as this patient who might be wrestling with the literal versus the figurative or metaphorical. The way the woman is constructed might arouse powerful emotions in the viewer—less “a celebration of desire” than a somewhat disjointed step into it, losing himself in it because the distance the literal can provide is unavailable. This was the first idea I explored.

The second was the idea of security. This sentence stood out to me: “By some standards, security in Dutch museums is casual, although the debate about what kind of security is desirable and what is acceptable will no doubt reopen, Amsterdam officials said.” I started to think less about security that prevents crime, though that comes into play, and more about emotional security. What is the effect of stepping into a room replete with paintings such as these for someone who might have emotional dysregulation? They’re not just pretty pictures, they’re arousing strong emotions in someone who might consequently feel very unsettled and insecure. Was this extreme action an attempt to gain control over the work, over his inner chaos, and once again find that place of security?

Covenant (or . . . bagels and butchery)
I was asked by David Chapman, a director who knew my work, if I’d like to take part in a festival of short plays. He was commissioning writers to respond to—to use as inspiration—the recent Pew Research Center’s study entitled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” I’m deeply ambivalent about my religion, about religion in general, so of course I said yes. I’d get to wrestle with myself on the page through my characters. The premise of the play came from actual experience. The first bris I attended was for my nephew. When my brother answered the door, standing before him was a mohel, but not just any mohel. He was cross-eyed. A cross-eyed mohel. This was the man who was going to perform the circumcision. My brother promptly gathered up his son, sprinted to his bedroom, and locked the door. With this as the inciting incident, it wasn’t hard to explore issues of Judaism, of ceremony, of my conflicted feelings around a ritual that includes a bunch of people standing around eating bagels and lox while watching an infant’s foreskin get removed.

This was another play that was inspired by something I read, an article in the Telegraph titled “Four Women Starved Themselves to Death.” In Ireland, four women, “83-year-old Frances Mulrooney and her three nieces,” made a pact to starve themselves to death. They locked the doors and proceeded to do just that. They wrote a few letters during the period of their starvation, one of which asked friends “not to grieve for me” and spoke of “going into a spiritual world.” As you might surmise by reading these three plays, I’m fascinated and compelled by extreme acts.

After thirty-six days of starvation, one of the women’s letters said that none of them could have thought “our deaths would be so slow and while the idea of ascending into heaven together is a good one, we did not envisage this.” And yet they continued, until their deaths. Whatever else one can say about what they did, it was a tremendous act of will. I was mulling this act over when I came across an article about climbers who, when climbing the final three thousand feet to the summit of Everest, go through the exact same biological process as starvation. (This final section of the mountain is referred to as the death zone.) These mountaineers’ extreme act of will juxtaposed with the four women’s extreme act of will inspired the play. What further informed it was the spiritual element of each: the women ascending to heaven together and the spiritual/religious experience many extreme climbers talk about when they reach the peak.  end

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