Metatheatre: Wednesday Workshop

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Metatheatre
Wednesday Workshop
22 March 2017

It sounds complicated and, in the ivory tower of academia, it can be. Wikipedia describes metatheatre (or metatheater), as describing “aspects of a play that draw attention to its nature as drama or theatre (theater), or to the circumstances of its performance.” A more complex description of metatheatre and its effects follows.

“Metatheatre” is a convenient name for the quality or force in a play which challenges theatre’s claim to be simply realistic — to be nothing but a mirror in which we view the actions and sufferings of characters like ourselves, suspending our disbelief in their reality. Metatheatre begins by sharpening our awareness of the unlikeness of life to dramatic art; it may end by making us aware of life’s uncanny likeness to art or illusion. By calling attention to the strangeness, artificiality, illusoriness, or arbitrariness — in short, the theatricality — of the life we live, it marks those frames and boundaries that conventional dramatic realism would hide. It may present action so alien, improbable, stylized, or absurd that we are forced to acknowledge the estranging frame that encloses a whole play. It may, on the other hand, break the frame of the “fourth wall” of conventional theatre, reaching out to assault the audience or to draw it into the realm of the play. It may — by devices like plays within plays, self-consciously “theatrical” characters, and commentary on the theatre itself — dwell on the boundaries between “illusion” or artifice and “reality” within a play, making us speculate on the complex mixture of illusion and reality in our ordinary experience. Any theatrical device can work metatheatrically if we sense in it a certain deliberate reflexiveness, a tendency to refer to itself or to its context in a more general mode: to theatre itself; to art, artifice, and illusion; and perhaps above all to language as such. (Quoted from https://courses.cit.cornell.edu/engl3270/327.meta.html)

While metatheatre is usually connected with the theatre, it occurs in other areas as well. Miguel de Cervantes, for example, uses it as a device early in the Quixote. Don Quixote returns from his first venture to find that his library has been boarded up and no longer exists. When he asks how this has happened he is told that a magician appeared on a fiery dragon and magicked the library away. DQ is left wondering how and why these sage enchanters have picked him for an enemy and delight in tormenting him. At one level, this is comic. At another, it is tragic. Metatheatre often has this tragi-comic edge to it. Comic: that anybody would believe the lie in the first place; comic when the reactions of the deceived are viewed in light of the lie. Tragic when the fabric of the real world is destroyed by deceit.

Later, in Part One of the Quixote, the priest and the barber set up an elaborate play in which they act out their roles as supplicants to the knight. The priest is saved from the necessity of wearing an ox-tail beard by the appearance of a beautiful young lady who plays the role of distressed maiden to perfection. In this play within the novel, the plan is for Don Quixote to be persuaded to return home under oath and not to wander anymore. Of course, it all goes wrong with emphasis throughout on the comic, rather than the tragic, nature of deceit believed.

In Part Two of Don Quixote, published some ten years after Part one (1605 / 1615), metatheatre takes on a more sinister role. In the castle of the Duke and Duchess, an elaborate theatrical plot is laid out in which Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are the principal actors. Crucial to this plot is the episode of Clavileño in which DQ and SP are blindfolded, set on the back of a wooden horse, and flown to the moon and the stars. Lies within lies within lies: the entrapment and enhancement of madness, and who is the real madman when the mad lead the insane on a spectacular and fictitious dance?

Again, when Sancho receives the long-promised governorship of his island, the cruelties, beatings, purges, and indignities that descend upon him in the name of a third party’s so-called humor, make him walk a thin tight-trope between comedy on one side and tragedy on the other. And what can we say about the appearance of the Knight of the Woods and the Knight of the Mirrors? Real knights (apparently), out of time and out of place, as mad as the madman they are baiting, and they bait him by challenging him to fanciful, dressed-up jousting duels on horse-back. Mind you, the ‘they’ is fictitious too, since ‘they’ are yet another character, a single character, who engages falsely in two different but equally fictitious roles.

As with all academic and artistic concepts, much depends on how you define and frame your terms. At its most simple level, metatheatre is crying wolf. When the little boy cries “Wolf!” he creates a situation in which other people believe the lie (there is no wolf) and come running to the rescue. Of course, when the wolf does appear, the boy cries “Wolf!” but nobody believes him. That is when comedy turns to tragedy and the boy and his flock of sheep are devoured. There may be amusement as the elders of the village mill around looking for the wolf, but there can be no comedy when the elders are absent, or refuse to turn out in force, and both sheep and boy disappear down the wolf’s dark throat.

So, in addition to crying “wolf,” one can set out simple or elaborate plans to enmesh other people in a new and mendacious reality. By distorting this reality so that the false appears to be true, we get metatheatre, even though there is no theatre present, save in the minds of those, manipulators and manipulated, who are engaged in the action. All of these things are used in literature, both poetry and prose, to create theatre within theatre, plots within plots, deceits within lies. But what happens when we encounter the same thing, not in literature, but in real life?

In exile from the land of my birth, I come face to face with doubt and fear. I am deceived by my senses; in what can I put my trust? I am subject to delusions. I cannot separate wakefulness from sleep nor dreams from reality nor the truth from these pictures I create in the wood-fire’s flames. And in my philosophy book I read that “… there is no earth, no heaven, no extended body, no magnitude, no place and that nonetheless I perceive these things and they seem good to me. And this is the most harrowing possibility of all, that our world is commanded by a deity who deceives humanity and we cannot avoid being misled for there may be systematic deception and then all is lost. And even the most reliable information is dubious, for we may be faced with an evil genius who is deceiving us and then there can be no reassurance in the foundations of our knowledge.”

René Descartes wrote those last words to express in philosophical terms what Cervantes, and other members of Spain’s literary circles, especially the theatre, had created in literary terms about fifty years earlier. Spain’s Golden Age may be a long way away and it may even have been re- named the Early Modern Period, but the danger of the application of a literary device, metatheatre, to real life is ever-present.

What if our world is indeed commanded, not by a deity, but by a human being, or a set of human beings, who deceive humanity on a regular basis? What if there is systematic deception? What if the most reliable information is dubious and we can no longer trust it? What if we are faced with an evil genius who deceives us with misinformation, disinformation, false knowledge, and outright lies that destroy the foundations of our knowledge? If such is the case, when our knowledge is suddenly without foundation, then we are indeed in deep trouble.

Intertextuality: Wednesday Workshop

Intertextuality

Intertextuality is the dialog that takes place between texts or as Merriam-Webster explains it: “the complex interrelationship between a text and other texts taken as a basic to the creation or interpretation of the text.”

Often we write from an intertextual perspective when we respond to other writers and their thoughts and imagery. This is why, in the creative process, reading can be as important as writing. Reading expands our vocabulary. It reinforces some of our own opinions and challenges others. Without reading, we are lonely rocks in sunless seas.

To be creative, we need to be aware of what others are writing and how they view the world we inhabit. When we read creatively we read with an eye to improving our creativity and our structures. We look for new ideas, new images, new words, new ways of expressing our thoughts.

Often we think we are being original when in fact we are re-processing, just as I am now, the ideas of other people. Given the nature of modern media, we are not always aware of all the multiple sources of our material: telephone, twitter, blogs, radio, television, newspapers (less and less), books, chapbooks, magazines, e-sources, lectures, chat groups, Facebook, and general conversations with other people who are also unaware of their sources. Thus ideas abound, float in the air, circulate and recirculate, submerge and resurface, shift their shapes and colors.

As writers we dip into that enormous moving mass of current and past culture and creativity and we choose our narrative lines, our characters, our structures, our images, our metaphors. As Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Molière, once wrote, “Mes idées? Je les prends où je les trouve.” My ideas? I take them from wherever I find them.

Imitation is the best form of flattery. Indeed it is. We cannot, however, borrow wholesale and just copy. Miguel de Cervantes borrowed the first five chapters of Don Quixote (the first sortie) from an earlier entremés entitled El Entremés de los romances. For a very long time, critics thought that Cervantes was the author of both pieces: they are very similar. However, even a quick analysis also shows that they are very different. The language of the entremés is much older while the conversion of theatre into narrative distinguishes them at a very basic level. Cervantes borrowed: but in borrowing, he adapted, he changed, he took the old form and converted it into something new and completely original. Nevertheless, we are still aware of the origins of the great novel that has many other borrowings woven into its fabric.

So, we indulge in intertextuality when we engage in a dialog with other texts and ‘borrow’ from other authors. To be original, we have to take that borrowing and turn it into something entirely different, something that becomes a part of ourselves and no longer exists as a part of that other text. Intertextuality is not copying. If we take a text in its entirety, if we ‘copy’, then we must acknowledge the source. However, when we indulge in a dialog with a text, when we transform a text, when we are ourselves transformed by a text, then that is a totally different situation. Think of the links between Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film, The Seven Samurai, and its offspring, the 1960 western entitled The Magnificent Seven. They are very similar in so many ways … and yet they are so very different.

While intertextuality refers more to the larger elements of character and narrative structure, it also exists at the level of metaphor and image. Sometimes, without thinking, we use metaphors that we have heard before. Often we like the sound of a group of words, shuffle them around, and come up with a new meaning for them, a new metaphoric reality. This too is intertextuality.

At its best it is a very valuable addition to our creative tool kit.

While on the topic of creativity, let us spare a thought for our needs for creative time and space. We cannot create when we lack the blessings of time and space. Creativity is greatly hindered when we go hungry and need to complete back-breaking work just to sustain our lives and feed our families. Our relative wealth and leisure is a blessing: without them, we would be floundering in the pre-industrial world of subsistence farming, working at manual labor from dawn to dusk.

Let us spare a thought too for those oral societies that existed when people could not write. Or those early societies in which only the few, the happy few, were educated to the level at which they could actually read and write.

Intertextuality is a blessing, not a curse. Use it wisely, use it well.

Comment: I would like to thank Meg Sorick who suggested that I expand an earlier conversation that we had on the topic of Intertextuality. If you have other literary topics that you would like me to investigate, please suggest them to me and I’ll see what I can do.

 

Sun and Moon 1

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Sun and Moon 1

Last week an old man squeezed the moon;
tonight, she’s a shrunken orange in the sky.

“Tell me, Moon:
when all the stars have been caught in my net,
what will I harvest?”

Silence descends a ladder of moonlight
bearing an offering of gift-wrapped stars.

“Wise Old Woman who lives in the sky:
what man tore your bones apart
and gave me your face?”

Dead leaves rush out through my eyes.
My hands stretch out before my face
and I wash them in moonlight.

“One day, I’ll climb to your silver palace
and steal all your secrets.”

Comment: Sun and Moon 2 (as sung by Cat Leblanc) is introduced and complemented by Sun and Moon 1. These are the first two poems in the ten poem title sequence of Sun and Moon. The eagle costumes, shown in the photo, belong to the original dance sequence from Sun and Moon as performed on Monte Albán.

Alebrijes or Inspiration

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 Alebrijes or Inspiration

 Are they half-grasped dreams
that wake, wide eyed, to a new day’s sun?

Or are they alive and thriving
when they fall from the tree?

Does the carver fish their color and shape
from his own interior sea?

Or does he watch and wait for the spirit
to emerge from its wooden cocoon
to be reborn in a fiery block of color?

Daybreak:
in a secluded corner of my waking mind,
my neighbor’s dog greets the dawn:
sparks of bright color born from his barks.

My waking dream:
dark angels with butterfly bodies,
their inverted wings spread over my head
keeping me comforted.

In the town square, the  artist
plucks dreams from my head
and paints them on carved wood.

Comment:   Alebrijes step out from dried wood and stand in the shower of paint that falls from the brush’s tip. Yellow flash of lightning, pointillistic rain, garish colors that mirror those of the códices. The carvings take the form of fantasy figures, anthropomorphic animals,
 and mythological creatures.

Sometimes one individual selects the wood, carves it, then covers it in paint. Occasionally an entire family takes part in the work of making the alebrije. One person collects the wood and prepares it for carving. Another carves and sands it. A third works on the undercoat, and a fourth applies the final patterns of paint.

The great debate: does the form in the wood 
reveal itself to the carver
 or do the carvers impose their own visions on the wood? In the case of the team, do the family members debate and come to a joint conclusion?

These thoughts, exchanged with wood-carvers in Oaxaca, have led to a series of interesting conversations. What exactly is creativity? Where does it come from? Do we, as artists, impose it upon our creations? Or do we merely observe and watch as new ideas float to the surface of our minds? How does the creative mind function? And, by extension, how much of the sub-conscious creative sequence can be placed into words?

These questions lead us into our own minds. How do we, as writers, frame our inspiration? Do we wait for the muse to descend? And what if she or he (for there are masculine muses, too) doesn’t? Does this waiting for the muse lead us into the dreaded realm of Writer’s Block where we sit and twiddle our thumbs and wait and hope? Or does it lead us into the land of positive expectations where we use basic writing exercises and look for inspiration among our thoughts and words?

A practical solution for inspiration is regular writing in the journal … regular writing. From this practice, we soon learn to recognize beauty for we often generate small gems that can be dug out and polished. Sure, there is a great deal of dross, but a good wood carving leaves lots of shavings, and a few cut thumbs. That’s the nature of artistic discovery … and remember, it is the beauty in ourselves and the world around us that we are seeing and describing. Reading the words of others also generates small sparks to which we respond and the corresponding interplay of ‘their words with ours’ is not to be under-estimated.

By extension, the Bakhtinian Chronotopos is also important: man’s dialog with his time and place. Bahktin uses the masculine ‘man’; a woman’s dialog may well differ, but her dialog with her time and her place is equally as important as a man’s. Sometimes more so, and we do not pay sufficient attention to this fact. That said, we must always remember St. Teresa of Avila’s delightful line: “También anda Dios en la cocina entre las pucheras” / God also walks in the kitchen among the pots and pans.

One of our tasks, as writers, is to find the beauty of our time and place. It may seem insignificant at first for we are such tiny beings in an enormous and often anonymous universe, but when we sit in the sunshine and see the dust motes rise and count the angels dancing in the sunbeams before our eyes, we are indeed witnessing the daily beauty that surrounds us. It is our task to name that beauty and to describe it. And remember, too, that it is there in the flying snowflakes, in the pale disc of the sun peering through clouds, in the slide of the raindrop down the window pane.

My job as a writer, as I see and feel it, is to sense and see the beauty that surrounds me. Then my task is to describe it and bear witness to it. To bear witness … sometimes, that beauty is brutal and the bearing witness is painful in itself. The knife or chisel slips, the blood flows, and the musty cobwebs applied to the open wound seem to do no staunching. But there is beauty in injury too and we must also bear witness to the brutal beauty of blood.

Such brutal beauty can be found in Tanya Cliff’s latest book, A Haiku for Ricky Baker. In this volume of poetry, Tanya exposes some of the problems inherent in child abuse.  Her inspiration is taken from real events and her poems describe the lives of real people. This poetry reveals the color of blood and hurts with the deep slice of the knife into the carver’s thumb. Tanya has two main tasks: the first is to bear witness and the second is to gather funds by offering the proceeds from this collection to the very children who need help. I wish her all the best in her endeavor and I encourage all my readers to explore this project of Tanya’s for themselves.

The Dancer and the Dance

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The Dancer and the Dance

 1

she comes here to dance for me
only for me does she dress this way

 she shows me her dreams
unfolding them one by one
silk and cotton garments
drawn fresh from her scented closet

thin copper bracelets
carved wooden mask

 only her eyes reveal
subversive flesh and blood

 2

she orchestrates her story
skin drum
rattle of seeds in a sun-dried pod
single violin string
stretched across an armadillo’s shell

 I too am tense like an instrument
waiting to be played

 the bones of my love
reach out towards her

3

when she makes her music
familiar spirits return to the earth
dancing in a sash of moonlight

 she recreates an ancient spell
gold letters plucked from dark scrolls
no wands no words
just water’s purity
flicked fresh
across lips and face

 she binds me with the string of notes
she undoes with her hair
our bodies form an open altar
we worship with mysterious offerings
drawn from wells set deep within us

4

rain falls from the sky
Moon turns his face away
suddenly in darkened alleys
clouds hold hands and dance

dense streamers of light
dangle from street lamps
shadows remember their forgotten steps

gently she draws me to her
I try to follow
frail whirlpools of withered leaves
fragment weak sunshine
in light’s watery pool

 5

her magic grows
I take my first step
an unmapped journey
into desert space

we move to old rhythms
across moon flecked clouds

raindrops fall more slowly
faltering drum beat
diminishing water

6

high above us
the ghost of a melody
shaking its head
wringing its hands

 we return at last
to light and air
the moon’s vacant face
scowls in an empty field

someone has plucked the stars
one by one
and threaded them like a chain of daisies

 now there are no sky flowers
to adorn the night

7

noche de rábanos
someone has taken a knife
and peeled an enormous radish

this cartoon moon face
this full skull hanging from nothing
this lantern lighting from above

 now my lover sculpts time
and space
into small chunks

 each sacrifice
a jewel between her fingers

 I pin to my chest
three small notes
and a skeleton of words

8

inside my dancing head
the fires have gone out

 without her hands to guide me
my feet have turned clumsy

 scars layer my wrists and ankles
star crossed bindings
cutting against the grain

 I gather a harvest of stars
she holds them in her eyes

 her fingers are grasshoppers
making love in my hair

when she kisses my fingernails
one by one
we both know our bodies will never be the same

9

together we weave a slender cage
she cuts out my heart with her tongue
placing it on an altar inside the bars

she locks the tiny door
a silvery key wrought from moonstone

 my fluttering heart grows miniature wings
next time the door is opened
my wings will fly me to her lips

my heart is a caged bird on a tiny perch
it chirrups a love song
its image in the mirror answers back

breathless it scrapes its wings on the moon
its body striving upwards to the stars

10

on Monte Albán the danzantes
sway to soft music
their shadows dance in and on stone
as they have danced for centuries

wind rustles the grass
moon casts sharp shapes

darkness ascends the temple steps
huge fingers grasping upwards
an owl’s feathers clutching at the skies

at dawn tomorrow
the sun will rise beneath our feet
we will squint down on its majesty
we will pluck the ripeness of its orange
in our outstretched hands

11

our last night together
I pluck a blossom from the tulipán tree
a final offering of my love

 she gives it back
I place it in the pocket of flesh
where I once kept my heart

 tomorrow when the flower breaks
it will stain my shirt
a damp splash of blood
no longer running in my veins

 the scent of our happiness
will cling forever to my fingers

Fire

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Fire

Fire
a double sword

Fire
the beginning
and fire the end

Fire
the means of forging
the Omega and Alpha
that surround us
day by day

Fire
surrounds us
but leads us
nowhere

we must create
our own path through
fire

to the life beyond
fire

so many things
to save from
fire

so many things
to be consumed
by fire and flame

Comment: Fire is a raw poem, written this morning, based on two other posts by two other writers, Meg Sorick and Mr. Cake. It is nice to receive a creative spark from other bloggers. Thank you both. Here are the links:

Meg Sorick

https://drmegsorick.com/2017/02/22/fire-creeps-in/

Mr. Cake

https://cakeordeathsite.wordpress.com/2017/02/21/fire/https: