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Theater In Dialogue

YOUNG JEAN LEE with Gary Winter

Groundwork for New Writing

In Young Jean Lee’s play Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (produced at The Ontological-Hysteric Theater’s Blueprint Series at St. Mark’s Church in 2003), the father of not-so-helpless damsel Sheila has been kidnapped by Fu Manchu’s henchmen and brought back to China so that he can help Fu Manchu find the mask and shield that will allow Fu Manchu to defeat the West.

Sound like a parody of the 1930s film, Mask of Fu Manchu, with Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy? Well, sort of, but in Young Jean Lee’s hands the stereotypes were danced on their heads, transformed into a raucous play more akin to a 1970s exploitation film where everyone is, as Fah Lo See, Fu Manchu’s daughter says, "really fucked up."

This was the first time I had seen Young Jean’s work. It intrigued me because I’d never quite seen anything like it, and while goofy and unpretentious, it also seemed to have a life of its own. What also impressed me was that even though she is an artist at the beginning of her career, her direction was bold—she seemed never to hesitate, and was fully committed to her vision.

In his essay "New York Babel," Paul Auster cites George Bataille’s idea that literature is "an essentially disruptive force" and "that it is capable of revealing the truth of life in its excessive possibilities." "Excessive" and "disruptive" seem to be appropriate words in describing Groundwork.

It made me happy to see a playwright embracing madness.

In April, Soho Rep will produce young Young Jean’s new play, The Appeal. The year is 1800: In Act I, William and Dorothy Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge meet up in the Wordsworths’ cottage in Grasmere; in Act II, they lounge about with Byron at his castle in the Alps. The Appeal is probably the last play you’d want to read if you were interested in any accurate historical account of these people.

Throughout the play, Wordsworth and Coleridge bicker constantly—about writing poetry, the imagination, truth, and nature as a driving force for creativity. Later on, Byron talks about furniture. One would expect to hear these illustrious characters speak some sort of elevated vernacular, but instead the language in The Appeal is so under-elevated it’s more like listening to squabbling kids:

COLERIDGE: It’s not confusing—you’re just stupid.

WORDSWORTH: You’re stupid! You couldn’t understand anything I was saying.

As Young Jean describes it: "I sat down and thought, ‘What’s the worst possible play I could write—the last kind of play I would ever think about writing.’ I just thought it was such a pretentious, horrible idea for a play and thought it would be interesting to try to write it." The result is The Appeal.

As might be expected, the poets do eventually get down to a discussing ideas about their work. For example, they have an intriguing take on the influence of nature in their poetry:

WORDSWORTH: What is a poet?

Well, I think a poet is someone who has more sensitivities than other people. Let me tell you what I mean. For example, a base ordinary man will look at a frog and just think "frog." With a poet, it’s completely different. Do you know why? Because he is pleased and satisfied to contemplate the spirit of life which flows through himself, so that when he views the frog he sees his own inherent glories reflected in that animal. And then it gets even more sophisticated. Because say for example there is no frog. Then the poet can look at a frog in his imagination and see his glories reflected therein.

Ah, to see all the world in a frog.

So why the sly jab at these poets? Young Jean explains: "I always kind of hated the English romantic poets, except for Blake. I never had much interest in nature and just thought there was something kind of sissy and vacuous about their whole ethos."

Despite Young Jean’s wry antipathy towards the poets and blatant disregard for their literary style, in reading The Appeal I can’t help but enjoy the stripped-down colloquial language. In fact, the clumsiness, obsessions and silliness of their inner lives on display here sound startlingly accurate. It’s sort of like watching incredibly articulate people become suddenly inarticulate when forced to articulate what they do every day.

When a famous poet thinks to himself, why shouldn’t his language be as paranoid and un-elegant as the rest of ours?

BYRON: I am panicking because I am afraid that Wordsworth thinks that I am a psychopath asshole loser undesirable person and that everyone is talking about me behind my back and that I am going to be told that my presence is no longer desired.

There are moments of clarity and nuggets of real literary insight in The Appeal, and I suspect this can’t be helped, since Young Jean spent time with the English Romantic poets as an English major at UC Berkeley. When she went on to Berkeley’s PhD program, she specialized in Shakespeare, but she was also interested in modernists such as Pound, Eliot, Stevens and Joyce.

In talking with Young Jean, and given her academic background, I was interested in how a writer first comes to an "idea" of writing for the theater, what aesthetic influences invade the writer’s brain before s/he decides to tackle writing for the stage.

Besides the modernists, Young Jean mentions contemporary playwrights Jim Strahs, Mac Wellman, Richard Maxwell and Richard Foreman as influences, and she is "obsessed" with (writer/director/designer) John Jesurun. She also cites plays written by John Ashbery and Wallace Stevens as having an impact on her work. She also likes the collaborative groups— Radiohole, Collapsable Giraffe, The Wooster group and The National Theater of the United States of America (NTUSA), in whose recent production she even acted (What’s That On My Head which ran in February, in DUMBO).

Directing one’s own plays is a particularly tricky area. So many playwrights are dissuaded from directing early on by teachers who, when pressed for an explanation, really don’t have one (other than they can’t direct, so why should anyone else?). And yet some playwrights, given the chance, find that they are naturals at it.

As a director, Young Jean says she is intuitive, focused on details yet wanting to give the actors breathing room: "When I’m directing, the only thought I have in my head is "do I like watching this." The answer is usually "no," so then I flail around trying a bunch of really dumb things until something eventually clicks. I think it can be a frightening experience for the performers, because they don’t necessarily feel that they’re in the hands of some visionary mastermind-genius."

She says that one has to strike a balance "between choreographing everything exactly the way you want it and giving the performers enough space to respond to the moment of performance."

"For me," says Young Jean, "another big part of directing is having some idea in your head of what things are going to be like, while being totally aware that your ideas are going to get messed up and thwarted, and being open and welcoming to those obstacles instead of clamping down on your initial vision and getting hysterical about it."

As for her next project, Pullman, WA at PS 122 (March 2005), Young Jean will, not surprisingly, turn politically correct: "My next show is hopefully going to be a huge feminist/anti-feminist rant in which I’ll be dealing with all the issues I’ve always kind of skirted by fixating on these major boys’ clubs."

Soho Rep presents: THE APPEAL. Written and directed by Young Jean Lee. With music by Matmos. Featuring: Maggie Hoffman, Michael Portnoy, Pete Simpson, and James Stanley. April 9-May 2. Reservations: www.smarttix.comIN DIALOGUE is a column written by playwrights about playwrights, with a focus on showcasing new texts. If you are a playwright, and would like to write a column, please contact Emily DeVoti at:


Gary Winter

GARY WINTER is a member of (soon to implode) 13P.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2004

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