It was 1677 when Racine’s Phèdre—probably the best-known (anti-)heroine of the French neoclassical stage—drank poison as punishment for the crime of falling in love with the wrong man. It’s been even longer since the Greek tragic character she’s based on, the central figure in Euripides’s Hippolytus, hanged herself for the same reason. And through all the centuries since, we’ve persisted in understanding women’s sexualities as disgusting, and female desire as maybe even a little bit reprehensible. So suggests playwright Julia Jarcho’s Pathetic, a gruesome, playful teen-girl riff on Racine’s tragedy, produced by her company Minor Theater and premiering at Abrons Arts Center this month. Pathetic refracts the story of the lovesick queen onto multiple characters ranging from adolescence to adulthood, each negotiating spiritual and bodily appetites as well as the social costs of growing older in a female body. The play explores “society’s sick need to experience female desire as embarrassment,” as Ásta Bennie Hostetter, production designer and founding company member, puts it.
June 5 – June 23
466 Grand Street, Manhattan
Pathetic is about misogyny and its devastations. But it’s also about fifteen-year-old girls performing ritual sacrifices to the Goddess of Love, speaking in rigorously constructed hexameter, eating Tater Tots, and seducing their creative writing teacher, Mister Goader, in the desert outside El Paso, Texas. Racine’s original drama positions Phèdre opposite her stepson Hippolytus, for whom she’s been cursed to feel all-consuming lust. This passion, both unwanted and unrequited, grows more ravenous when circulating rumors report that Phèdre’s husband, the adventuring king Theseus, has died, leaving her free to remarry. Phèdre’s scheming maid Oenone convinces the queen to confess her love to the horrified Hippolytus, who is himself in the throes of passion for the age-appropriate—but politically controversial—princess Aricia. (Of the five characters mentioned above, three end up dead.) Pathetic features multiple kinds of Phèdres: fifteen-year-old Consuelo, who plays Racine’s queen in a high-school French class production of the play; Consuelo’s mother Rosario, who flirts with her daughter’s male classmates; and Consuelo’s friend Clara, embroiled in an affair with Mister Goader. And every once in a while, the goddess Venus herself appears onstage, hungry for blood sacrifice.
Jarcho was drawn to writing a Phèdre play partially because of its very canonicity; she often teaches Phèdre in her introductory dramatic literature classes at NYU. The idea that the Western tradition has enshrined and celebrated a work equating female sexuality to a death sentence was disturbing and interesting, and is as true now as it ever has been. University faculty today, notes Jarcho, are “so hip to how evil [the Western canon] is, and we destabilize it in these various ways, but for me, I’m still teaching the canon, and I identify with it. So yes, I’m thinking about the way that teaching functions as a reinscription of all bad things.” Scenes of instruction and education form the dramatic architecture of Pathetic, and misogynistic literature is implicitly compared to the real-life drama of a student-teacher love affair. For Jarcho, these analogies aren’t so much an indictment of education’s role in inculcating misogyny and violence. Instead, they’re more about exploring how canonically “problematic” works of literature can hold the same charge for us as societally inappropriate sex. “There’s something so suffocating about the endless task of reminding yourself how evil the world is,” she says, reflecting on the professorial obligation to diligently demonstrate for students the indictment of each act of violence canonical literature contains. “The acknowledging of violence, which in a certain way is what #MeToo is about—you could say that our society is a kind of disavowal of violence, but there is another level on which it is something that we all already know. What if theater can be a space where that evil is assumed,” she asks, “and we can be relieved of the task of acknowledging it?”
Jarcho loves evil, and horror, and the pleasurable contemplation of presumably unpleasant things. Her plays often talk back to Freud and explore the darkness and complexity of our collective emotional life, and they often hold conversations with familiar genres without falling into those genres’ clichés. 2017’s The Terrifying, her first premiere with Minor Theater (and also staged at Abrons Arts Center), was a theatrical investigation of the horror genre as it relates to the female body. 2013’s Grimly Handsome, which won an Obie for Best New American play, was a noir of sorts, featuring threatening Christmas tree vendors who later turn into red pandas. Between Grimly Handsome and The Terrifying, she launched her company, Minor Theater, with longtime collaborators Hostetter, Ben Williams, and Jenny Seastone (Williams contributes sound design and Seastone video design for Pathetic, and both will also perform). The company’s name speaks to multiple interests of Jarcho’s and her collaborators’ fascinations with the minor key, the less celebrated emotions, and the experiences of marginalization.
For Pathetic, Jarcho returns to Abrons’s cement-block Underground Theater, where she staged Dreamless Land with New York City Players in 2011. The space is low and institutional, and fairly unique among the architectures of New York’s downtown theater landscape. “The Underground has a real communist vibe,” reflects Hostetter. “Which feels sort of moody and negative in the way that Minor Theater is a little bit moody and negative. We’re going to be arranging the audience like a thrust—the shape of the design helps us to push the tension of theatricality versus teen drama: the part of the play that’s a cover of Racine’s Phèdre and the part of the play that’s actually just teenagers.”
Part of Minor Theater’s own history involves the teenagerhood of the company members themselves. Hostetter and Jarcho were friends in high school, both pursuing theater but in different contexts. As Hostetter tells it, Jarcho was immersed in the downtown theater scene even then: “She was doing [the work of playwright] Richard Maxwell, and I would go see it and go off to my drama club. I was the nerd who liked well-made plays, and she was not into that.” (Maxwell and his company, New York City Players, have continued to be collaborators and supporters of Jarcho’s work.) As adults, Jarcho and Hostetter negotiated a new artistic relationship, thrifting costumes from The Salvation Army, unearthing the deep humor and the feminist core in Jarcho’s writing.
Pathetic, though explicitly set in the present day, deeply evokes the 1990s—when Jarcho, Hostetter, and Seastone were all teenagers themselves (and I, writing this, was too). The plot explicitly plays with the ghosts of teen-girl movies like Heathers, and the company’s marketing aesthetic has a 1990s vibe. For Jarcho, “the ’90s were part of a widespread cultural acknowledgement of teenage sexuality, with heroin chic and Riot Grrls….the period feels like a formal resource for people of our generation.” The recent reemergence of interest in Chris Kraus’s 1997 cult-hit feminist novel I Love Dick after Jill Soloway adapted it for television suggests that Jarcho is not the only artist interested in rethinking the inheritance of 1990s feminisms. (I Love Dick is perhaps the paradigmatic modern literary work when it comes to female patheticness.) “The 90s was a hilariously self-important time, full of angstiness,” says Hostetter, “but, now I think in 2019, also pretty tone-deaf in its apolitical nature. I, as a teenager, was incredibly self-serious but—because there wasn’t a cultural conversation about it—we loved PJ Harvey and ‘fuck the patriarchy,’ but I also judged and ostracized feminism in the way that patriarchy has taught us to.”
In Pathetic, Minor Theater not only contemplates the significance of the adolescent experience but also inhabits it, as Seastone and fellow performers Kim Gainer and Kristine Haruna Lee, all adult women, play teenage girls (Jordan Baum plays the teenage boys in the cast). For Seastone, playing a teenager is exciting precisely because of her distance from her character’s age. “There’s something interesting in an adult playing a teenager who is judging the adult who is the age that I am,” she says. “I think that teenager knows that they have power.” Pathetic’s teenage girls speak to one another in rigorously constructed hexameter, reflecting the form of Racine’s original play. They commit acts of violence both ritual and spontaneous and display a level of maturity equal to the supposed adults in their lives.
They also live in a border city, and the presence and pressures of borders of all kind surround them. Consuelo’s father is incarcerated, and the play ripples with a sense of harsh landscapes and the possibility of violence. Jarcho’s husband grew up in El Paso, which provided the most immediate inspiration for the setting, but she notes that the significance of Texas is larger and more metaphorical, too. El Paso, for her, invokes the politics and geographies of the original drama, which takes place in the politically fragmented city-state of Troezen, where Phèdre, though royalty, is not at home. “It’s this idea of a border city,” Jarcho says, “a place where different regimes edge up against one another. The kingdom is about to fall apart, there’s Phèdre’s foreignness, and the encroachment of the ‘barbarian,’ not as a specific figure but as a kind of wildness that keeps threatening to take over.”
But the end of Pathetic suggests that the wildness is neither solely across the border—the border of politics, or age, or gender—nor completely an internal phenomenon. It’s both, which is what makes the play interesting. The goddess Venus is not only a mythical force; she’s a character who shows up onstage (in contrast with the offstage deities in Racine’s neoclassically contained original). And when she shows up, she wants carnage in her honor—real blood, women’s and men’s—and though she’s funny, she means it, too. “It’s been very hard trying to write press releases and say, the violence of gender is hilarious!” laughs Hostetter. “We can’t say that. But comedy exists for us to be real with ourselves.”
Minor Theater’s Pathetic, Written and Directed by Julia Jarcho, runs June 5 – 23 at Abrons Arts Center (466 Grand Street, Manhattan). For tickets and further info: https://www.abronsartscenter.org/program/world-premiere-minor-theater-pathetic/