See, I have this day set thee over the nation and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant. —Jeremiah 1:10
The above passage is one that Carrie A. Nation marked in her Bible, with a one-word note beside it that read: “Smashing.” You may or may not have learned about Ms. Nation in your American History lessons. If you did, it was probably in one of those highlighted boxes amidst all the text that tried to add color and personality to an otherwise dry retelling of history. Carrie A. Nation is all color and personality. And yes, it’s on purpose that her name reads like a righteous phrase, she trademarked it. So, it’s probably best not to run around using it too lightly, unless you enjoy invoking hatchet-wielding ghosts with pretty miserable bedside manners.
Born Carrie Moore in 1846 in a small town in Kentucky, her youth was not an altogether pleasant one, as she was quite sickly and her family moved a number of times. Not only that, but it seems mental illness ran in the family—her mother had regular delusions of grandeur, imagining herself to be none other than Queen Victoria. After enduring what was by all accounts a difficult childhood, Carrie fell in love with Dr. Charles Gloyd at the age of 19 and married him two years later. Unfortunately, Gloyd turned out to be a rather serious drunk. A couple of years into their troubled union, Carrie became pregnant and soon thereafter decided to leave her alcoholic husband. He died less than a year later, from a broken liver, not a broken heart.
A single mother, she decided to become a teacher to support herself, but couldn’t survive and raise a child on the money she was earning (imagine that, teachers in the U.S. not making enough to live). Soon enough Carrie met and then married a new man, Dr. David Nation, an attorney, a minister and a newspaper editor. Eventually the new family moved to Kansas where Carrie began the work that would make her famous. She found her calling after joining a local Women’s Temperance league. Though her efforts on behalf of prohibition started off low key, she soon adopted a much more militant stance. The image you will remember, if you ever did learn about Carrie, is of a rather tall and sturdy white-haired lady wielding a large hatchet, either about to or in the midst of smashing up a saloon and its evil goods. More often than not, she accompanied her ‘smashing’ with recitations from the Bible and hymns, sung by herself or by a choir of women standing behind her. Who’s to say if she was following in her mother’s delusional footsteps. What’s important is that she and her hatchet became, among Christians and prohibitionists, a cause celebre.
The thing that is most striking about Nation’s folk-hero status, is that it’s a very short stretch from her particular style of fanaticism to the gun and bomb-weilding fanaticism of a handful of anti-abortion zealots here in the U.S. But that seems to be how we roll here in America. Our Puritanical streak is pretty famous for its often extreme manifestations. The same can often be said for our particular style of hedonism. This is the dichotomy that the now 10-year- old Brooklyn-based performance group Radiohole is taking on in their newest piece, "Anger/Nation," set to have its U.S. premiere at The Kitchen this September, after receiving two productions abroad at the Donau Festival in Austria earlier this year and a second appearance at the Noorderzon Festival in the Netherlands in August.
"Anger/Nation" first began life in summer 2007 at the Orchard Project, a residency program aimed specifically at incubating experimental theater work located in Hunter, NY in the Catskill Mountains. There they worked with a handful of other artists to develop the initial ideas—a combination of Radiohole member Maggie Hoffman’s ideas about the sobriety of Carrie A. Nation met with fellow member Eric Dyer’s interest in the “decadence” of the films of Kenneth Anger, the titular names and personalities that create the central focus of the piece.
While there are many choices for hedonic American personalities to match Nation’s manic temperance, Anger seems like a pretty good fit. A more contemporary figure than Nation, Anger is still living in southern California, where he has lived since his birth in 1930. He is probably the film-maker to which the term ‘cult’ is most aptly applied. Though the specific themes in his short films vary across the career he began in the late 1940s, his interest in the occult has remained strong throughout. And it’s that focus that leads me to imagine some kind of excellent Jesus vs. the Devil pairing when the two meet up on Radiohole’s stage.
Some of his most well-known films, which almost all begin with the highly trademarkable title “A film by Anger,” include Lucifer Rising and the motorcycle-themed Scorpio Rising. One of my favorites among the few that I’ve seen is Rabbit’s Moon (which is a perfect marriage of the silents of the 1920s and the best epic music videos, particularly a certain moonlit Michael Jackson video). Music is absolutely central to the work, as are pop culture, music, and the occult. Though Anger’s films weren’t popularly released and were primarily screened at small festivals, he was well-respected among his peers and is considered to be among the most important avant garde filmmakers.
It’s hard to imagine what a show with two such over-the-top characters will look like, particularly in the hands of Radiohole, who are well-known for their frenetic and gadgetry filled performances. But it’s also hard to imagine that with such rich sources they won’t deliver something to remember. And if they keep up with tradition, despite the fancy digs at The Kitchen, there will still be the usual bucket of beers and sticking around afterwards to chat about what the heck you just witnessed.
Radiohole’s Anger/Nation performs at The Kitchen, 512 W. 19th St., Manhattan, Sept. 11-13, 18-20, 24-27. Please visit www.thekitchen.org for more info.
Alexis Clements is a writer and filmmaker based in Brooklyn. Her film All We’ve Got, examining LGBTQ women’s communities, is available for screenings. Her podcast, The Answer is No, which shares stories of artists challenging the conditions under which work, is available on podcast apps. Learn more: alexisclements.com.