Howard Barker: The Castle

Text: In Howard Barker: Plays Two (Oberon Books, 2006).

Howard Barker’s 1985 play The Castle shows no signs of aging. At the end of the Crusades, a soldier named Stucley returns home to find that the culture he left behind has been turned entirely on its head: in the absence of the soldiers, the community has become a communitarian matriarchy, presided over by a witch named Skinner. He enlists an Arab architect, Krak, to build an impenetrable castle on a hill overlooking the community to re-establish the patriarchy, with predictably devastating results for all concerned.

Authoritarian security in the face of chaos and perceived threat is, unfortunately, still in the headlines. This is a fine mid-period Barker play, exhibiting high vicious satire and an ambivalent perspective on both matriarchy and patriarchy; it’s also among his most spare middle-period works, lacking the 17th-century elegance of Victory and the dizzying intellectual debate of Scenes from an Execution. Two samples of monologues from the first act of the play demonstrate the jagged language, and the jagged thought, of the drama:

First there was the bailiff, and we broke the bailiff. And then there was God, and we broke God. And lastly there was cock, and we broke that, too. Freed the ground, freed religion, freed the body. And went up this hill, standing together naked like the old female pack, growing to eat and not to market, friends to cattle who we milked but never slaughtered, joining the strips and dancing in the commons, the three days’ labour that we gave to priests gave instead to the hungry, turned the tithe barn into a hospital and FOUND CUNT BEAUTIFUL that we had hidden and suffered shame for, its lovely shapelessness, its colour all miraculous, what they had made dirty or worshipped out of ignorance, do we now –

They talk of a love-life, don’t they? Do you know the phrase “love-life,” as if somehow this thing ran under or beside, as if you stepped from one life to the other, banality to love, love to banality, no, love is in the cooking and the washing and the milking, no matter what, the colour of the love stains everything, I say so anyway, being admittedly of a most peculiar disposition …

Both of these are speeches from Skinner, the first describing the establishment of the commune and the second a groping attempt to communicate with her lover Ann, Stucley’s wife. But the play hums with this kind of linguistic energy, both exhibiting and undermining a sense of self-awareness in all of the characters. If that kind of language (and the thought of the Divine Jan Maxwell’s delivery of it in the production reviewed below) doesn’t get you into the theatre for The Castle — well, there’s no helping you, and I leave you to the mopey mumbling pseudo-naturalistic Surrealism Lite and the mawkish self-interested and self-celebratory flapdoodle that infests most of our stages these days. What it’s doing in the sub-basement of a theatre on West 16th Street and not at Lincoln Center or one of New York’s tonier venues is a question only the gods can answer.

The Castle by Howard Barker. New York premiere. Directed by Richard Romagnoli. Scenic design: Jon Craine. Lighting design: Hallie Zieselman. Costume design: Jule Emerson. Sound design: Cormac Bluestone. With Steven Dykes (Batter), Quentin Maré (Krak), David Barlow (Stucley), Christina Fox (Cant), Jennifer Van Dyck (Ann), Jan Maxwell (Skinner), Robert Zuckerman (Hush/Holiday/Pool), Brent Langdon (Nailer), Stephen Mrowiec (Brian), Aubrey Dube (Sponge), Melissa MacDonald, and Rachel Goodgal. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes (1 intermission). A PTP/NYC production at Atlantic Stage 2, through August 4, 2013.

“The castle is not a home,” Krak, a prisoner-of-war and architect, tells his patron, Stucley, in the first act of Howard Barker’s 1985 The Castle, set in 12th century England but written in the waning years of the Cold War. “No place is not watched by another place. … The heights are actually depths. … The weak points are actually strong points. … The entrances are exits. … The doors lead into pits. … It resembles a defence but is really an attack. … It cannot be destroyed … Therefore it is a threat … It will make enemies where there are none. … It makes war necessary.” But the castle, though it may not be a home, is both a community dedicated to security and a self dedicated to confidence. That it ends up an entirely fruitless and pointless endeavor comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with Barker’s work, a 43-year-long exploration of the means by which the self undermines the self, and desire — whether sexual, political, or spiritual — destroys certainty.

The Potomac Theatre Project has joined Barker in this exploration since 1987. Their work with Barker’s mid-period plays crystallizes with this production of The Castle, one of his greatest works and that which most directly points forward into his even more precise investigations with the Theatre of Catastrophe and The Wrestling School. It is, in Richard Romagnoli’s hands, a thrilling, hilarious, and heart-stopping night in the theatre.

British Crusaders, returning home from the holy wars, find that their society has been utterly uprooted: the knight Stucley finds that his estate has become the home of a matriarchal, atheistic collective, and relying on the military for his power, he decides to put things back in order with the erection (and the word is carefully chosen) of the largest castle ever built, to surround the community within its five walls and keep the forces of chaos at bay. The women, led by Skinner, a witch, attempt to stop its construction, but in vain: the castle is completed. Immediately upon its completion, other fortresses and castles spring up throughout the land — as the castle’s architect Krak predicted. Fuelling both the castle’s construction and its destruction is desire: Stucley’s desire for power and certainty, his wife Ann’s desire to express her fecundity (Stucley is impotent), Skinner’s idealistic desire for peace and egalitarianism, and even Krak’s late-awakening desire for Ann.

It is an extraordinarily rich play, and Barker’s voluptuous language brings out the best — as it always has — in actors and actresses, perhaps the greatest enthusiasts of his plays. In the PTP productions, Jan Maxwell has made a career of defining for American audiences what we might call “the Barker woman” — strong but vulnerable, sure, witty, and capable of a self-definition not available to men wrapped in the trappings of ideological identity. Ms. Maxwell uses her own body as a canvas, shaped and colored from within, upon which is pictured a body and a culture both vivified and destroyed by a transgressive — and betrayed — sensuality and love. In the first act, her decline is slow until a futile and violent attempt to halt the castle’s construction, strength weakening to vulnerability; her bloodied and dirtied body, quivering with fear and anger, expressive of fear and powerlessness in the courtroom scene which opens the second act; and finally a fleshed embodiment of cynicism and caustic wit by the final ironic curtain. Her performance is a summation of the Barker women she has played over the past few years, kin to Scenes from an Execution‘s Galactia, Victory‘s Bradshaw, and the title role of Judith.

But of all these plays, The Castle is not a “star vehicle” and is most dependent upon ensemble work: Skinner is only one of a variety of extraordinary personalities who populate The Castle. And Maxwell, I think, is on stage for only about half the play. Jennifer Van Dyck is equally vulnerable and desiring as Ann, Stucley’s wife; Quentin Maré as Krak wittily inscrutible as his rationality falls victim to his own late-life sexual awakening; David Barlow, his face a portrait of growing desperation, catches the utter despair with which his obsession with the castle is fuelled. Robert Zukerman performs in a variety of smaller roles with his eyes agleam and aglint; and Steven Dykes and Brent Langdon also merit praise for negotiating two of Barker’s most comic creations with scarcely concealed brutality and wheedling sycophancy respectively.

The Castle is among Barker’s more aesthetically spare work; here this austerity is reflected in Jon Craine’s scenic design — a few pale green drapes for the English countryside, the black cinderblock walls of the theatre, as well as three coils of razorwire, for the castle itself — and keep an eye too on Jule Emerson’s costumes, which evolve through the two-and-a-half hours of the play as much as the performer’s bodies.

The timeless nature of Barker’s plays becomes more obvious with the passage of the years. Though The Castle was written in response to the nuclear arms race, it is hard not to think of Egypt when the military takes the government in its own hands at the end of The Castle, and Skinner’s refusal of power at the end of the play — “I can’t be kind. How I have wanted to be kind. But lost all feeling for it. … I shall be too cruel …” — rings especially deeply a few days after the George Zimmerman verdict. The Castle‘s subtitle is the ironic “A triumph” — but there’s no irony in using the word to describe PTP’s production …

Cafe Katja’s triumphant return

The redesigned Cafe Katja at 79 Orchard Street on New York's Lower East Side.
The redesigned Cafe Katja at 79 Orchard Street on New York’s Lower East Side.

It is a delight to report that Cafe Katja‘s reopening at 79 Orchard Street this past Wednesday was such a wonderful pleasure. Owners Erwin Schröttner and Andrew Chase have doubled the restaurant’s space without sacrificing the intimacy of the original; the redesign features attractive lighting fixtures, charming ceramic pieces along the walls, and a less crowded ambiance when at capacity. There’s aromatherapy too, from the new first-floor kitchen openly visible from the bar, wafting the scent of Central European-style food that was a mainstay of the original menu, which will be expanded bit by bit over the coming weeks (to include — finally — schnitzel).

We are very glad indeed that Cafe Katja (especially with its wine list of Austrian whites and reds) has reopened to reveal a thoughtful, relaxing and attractive setting for a comfortable evening out. I originally wrote about Cafe Katja last June in the short essay below; The Lo-Down has more on the restaurant’s history and its expansion.

On those rare occasions when Marilyn and I find ourselves free of the children on a weekday evening, we’re lucky enough to have a wide choice of restaurants on the Lower East Side, but most of the time we end up at Cafe Katja at 79 Orchard Street. Katja is not quite an Austria-style cafe; in his review of the restaurant for The New York Times in 2007, Peter Meehan described it as a buschenschank: “Traditional buschenschanks spring up toward the end of the year in the south of Austria. (Nearer to Vienna they’re called heurigers.) They are places of simple eating and drinking, where farmers can sell as much of anything they’ve grown, raised, fermented, preserved or otherwise wrangled from their land before the government assesses taxes on it.”

Cafe Katja is certainly in the tradition: a neighborhood joint without pretension, with many items on the menu possessed of local origins, and the Austrian-ness of the restaurant is more in its intimacy and conviviality than in any attempt to replicate the setting of a Vienna cafe. It is one of the few bars in the neighborhood that lacks television or a jukebox, and I don’t think it can comfortably seat more than 25, at the bar and at the tables, at any one time. But it is warm, and pleasant, and (unfortunately for those who must stand in line to wait for tables) invites a long alcoholic, conversational stay.

The food is “Austrian-style” rather than an assertive imitation of the cuisine as well. There’s a fine selection of wurst, honestly the best selection I’ve come across outside of any German specialty restaurant, and I am often drawn to the fine cheese-stuffed krainer sausages and the delightful spätzle — neither too chewy or mushy — though on a splurge there are excellent Austrian meatballs as well. On our most recent visit Marilyn and I shared the aufschnitt-teller — cured meats served with crisp toast, with a dollop of liverwurst on the side — and a red cabbage salad large enough for two. The serving sizes and the character of the food were perfect for a warmish late-spring evening.

I am convinced that Central European red wines give Western European reds more than a run for their money, and the Cafe Katja’s wine list offers a magnificent selection of Austrian zweigelts and blaufrankisches and a long, tempting array of liqueurs and schnapps. On occasion there are also excellent Hungarian reds — very hard to come by, and when they appear on the menu, I am tempted to order up the whole case to drag the remainder home.

But the primary reason Marilyn and I keep returning is that it is very much a neighborhood watering hole, and unusually welcoming. The wait staff is, to a person, attentive and good-natured; owners Erwin Schröttner and Andrew Chase (who himself lives on the Lower East Side) can often be found in convivial conversation with patrons. This is what happens when a local business springs up in a local community and remains dedicated to serving it well.

Fortunately they will be able to serve more of it soon; in the next few months the cafe will complete an expansion into the storefront next door, and if all goes well none of the intimacy will be lost in the expansion. There is more about Cafe Katja in a recent issue of the print edition of another fine Lower East Side tradition, The Lo-Down (more about the expansion can be found in this 2011 post). Prost to the restaurant’s continued good health.

Howard Barker: Victory

Play in two acts. First presented by the Joint Stock Theatre Group in association with the Royal Court Theatre on 23 March 1983. Directed by Danny Boyle; designed by Dierdre Clancy; lighting by Gareth Jones. With Julie Covington (Bradshaw), Toby Salaman (Scrope), Kenny Ireland (Ball), Nigel Terry (Charles Stuart/John Milton), David Lyon (Hambro), Eleanor David (Devonshire) and Martin Stone (McConochie). Published in Howard Barker: Plays One, Oberon Books, 2006.

SCROPE: A man may be beaten, and his wife violated, and his house burned, and his children murdered by his enemies, and yet stay whole. But to be so treated by his friends … you encourage madness.
BRADSHAW: I DO KNOW THAT. Do you think I found it easy? It wasn’t easy. But that’s my triumph. Any fool can rob his enemy. What’s the victory in that? (43)

Set in the immediate aftermath of the restoration of Charles II to the English crown in 1660, Victory: Choices in Reaction may be the most accomplished play of Howard Barker’s first full decade in the theatre. And it’s surprising in that it is not a tragedy but a comedy, though a comedy of the darkest, most Swiftian hue — a satire of both revolutionaries and royalists, possessed of several reconciliations, even a victorious homecoming, at the final curtain. The Oberon Books edition lists 35 speaking roles, and the locales reach from a village hut to the vaults of the Bank of England.

Victory takes the form of an epic, if unusual, quest. Upon the Cavaliers’ return to England, they have begun collecting up the bodies of the Puritan republicans to be posted on spikes in front of the palace as a fit if posthumous punishment for their 1649 regicide of Charles Stuart’s father, Charles I. One of these bodies is that of John Bradshaw, the judge who presided over the execution of Charles I; his widow Susan then sets out to collect the pieces of the corpse which have been scattered around London. She is accompanied by Scrope, her husband’s former secretary who still adheres to the principles of the Utopia that Bradshaw laid out in a book, the Harmonia Brittania, written in Latin and a copy of which also accompanies them. As she collects the pieces of her husband’s dead body, she also begins to construct her own identity in the post-catastrophic landscape, making those “choices in reaction” that would constitute a valid self in the world. Her own story dovetails with that of Ball, a violent Cavalier who is smitten with desire for the widow, and that of Charles Stuart himself, whose mistress Devonshire hires the widow to run her domestic staff.

The quest belongs to Bradshaw, but to accomplish it she first realizes that the landscape of the post-Restoration, post-catastrophic world has changed, and so must she, in the interest of mere survival: “Because we must crawl now, go down on all fours, be a dog or a rabbit, no more standing up now, standing is over, standing up’s for men with sin and dignity. No, got to be a dog now, and keep our teeth.” (31) Her emerging consciousness of the world shocks Scrope, her husband’s secretary, who retains his faith in the republican principles of the Harmonia – as it would Ball, the Cavalier who remains devoted to the ideas of the monarchy. Both Scrope and Ball fail in their attempts to put their ideals into practice, leading to death for Scrope and mutilation for Ball, although the comic highpoint of the play is when Ball pathetically pleads to the King, “Oh, come on, be a FUCKING MONARCHIST” (80).

At the other end of the social spectrum from Bradshaw is Charles Stuart himself, the monarch who has been restored. He is in many ways the most entertaining figure of the play — a cynic who fully recognizes that the monarch in the Restoration era has become a mere figurehead, a front for the machinations of the technocrats and bankers who brought him back from France and restored him to the throne. Because he has no meaningful power, Charles is largely bored, whiling away his time with licentiousness as the country is administered by the business class. But he is not stupid. He quotes at length, and not without some approval, from the Harmonia (“I know my Bradshaw, banned book but I got him in my library. … Word perfect, ain’t I?” (54) ), and at the end of the play he provides the most melancholic, because honest and clear, understanding of his own condition to Bradshaw:

The cavalier [Ball], he thought he stabbed for me … he loved something I’m only pretending … I don’t think anybody cares whether monarchs live or die now. No, no, don’t be shallow, don’t make soft replies, the cavalier, he knew after my dad there would be no English monarch would do anything but tickle crowds for bankers, I looked in that man’s eyes and I was all humiliation, may I touch your belly? It’s round as a football. I think a woman in late life and pregnant is a precious sight. … Pity me, will you? I make you very gently, I am no rocking billy, overlook my shallowness if I say that I love you, but I do now, you kind woman … (82)

And, his speech finished, Charles falls asleep in the lap of Bradshaw, who in a heartbreaking gesture of compassion “covers the sleeping figure with a cloak.” And with this show of compassion, Bradshaw’s education complete, there is nothing left but for her to return home, pregnant with Ball’s child, to find that her own daughter Cropper may be instigating the circle all over again. “I read his book,” she tells her mother. “By night. Run my dirty finger through the words. … The sentence coming to me like a birth in the pale morning. I am translating it. ‘Harmonia Brittania.’ I am printing it.” (85) Her admission is greeted with silence from Bradshaw, who leads her new husband — formerly the enemy of both herself and her first husband — into the shelter of Cropper’s house.

Upon the play’s premiere in 1983, Victory was interpreted as Barker’s comment on Thatcherite England and the threadbare weakness of the progressive left, but since then its more enduring virtues have become apparent (Kenny Ireland directed the play for Barker’s Wrestling School company in 1991, and it was also revived by the Arcola Theatre in 2009). It is a landmark play in Barker’s career, closing his early period of satiric state-of-the-nation plays — The Castle, Scenes from an Execution and Women Beware Women would follow in the next three years, launching a new direction in Barker’s aesthetic. Many traits of this new path can be seen in utero here, including the power of sexual desire to transform both self and world (exemplified in Victory by Ball), the tortured and liberating nature of the master/servant relationship and Barker’s refusal to provide figures with whom the spectators can easily empathize. And — because Barack Obama as well as most of the other leaders of the world continue to be sustained by financiers, businessmen and bankers — Victory is likely to remain viable and speak to contemporary audiences for the foreseeable future.

Victory: Choices in Reaction by Howard Barker. A PTP/NYC production directed by Richard Romagnoli. Scenic design: Hallie Zieselman. Lighting design: Mark Evancho. Costume design: Carlie Crawford and Jule Emerson. Sound design: Allison Rimmer. With Jan Maxwell (Bradshaw), Robert Emmet Lunney (Ball), Steven Dykes (Scrope), Michaela Lieberman (Devonshire), David Barlow (Charles Stuart) and others. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (with one 10-minute intermission). At Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street, 5-31 July 2011.

It has taken nearly 30 years for Howard Barker’s 1983 play Victory: Choices in Reaction (written only eight years after his first major play, Claw) to receive its U.S. professional premiere. The production that began performances last night, offered by PTP/NYC and directed by long-time Barker enthusiast and Wrestling School associate Richard Romagnoli, is the most accomplished and winning of PTP/NYC’s series of Barker productions, which have been a staple of PTP/NYC’s own 23-year history. Romagnoli energetically directs Jan Maxwell, Robert Emmet Lunney and others in this most lavish play of Barker’s early career. It is an unmissable production, and like Soho Rep’s U.S. premiere of Blasted a few years ago, essential viewing for anyone with the slightest interest in the progress of an alternative school of contemporary English-language drama, a stream parallel to the more popular offerings of writers like Tom Stoppard and David Hare, but far more significant.

PTP/NYC produces the Barker play uncut, which leads to a running time of slightly less than three hours with one intermission — but it moves. The 33 speaking roles are divided among a company of about a dozen actors, and Restoration England itself is a post-catastrophic world: Hallie Zieselman’s scenic design is a bare stage in disarray, mirrors affixed awkwardly to the walls, chairs and screens strewn about the arena in which the story of widow Bradshaw transpires. The costumes by Carlie Crawford and Jule Emerson are carefully anachronistic, the Puritan Bradshaw in plain textiles, the Cavalier Ball in black jeans and leather, the bankers and technocrats of the new English bureaucracy in staid Victorian dress. Though the play, like all of Barker’s work, is extraordinarily language-rich and even Shakespearean in its lyricism, Romagnoli keeps physical activity spinning through the larger ensemble scenes as well as the several scene changes: a stage itself, like the culture that it represents, in the midst of violent rapid transformation.

The cast gathered here features both long-time PTP/NYC stalwarts and student performers new to the company. Of the first, it must be said that Jan Maxwell and Robert Emmet Lunney (who with Romagnoli formed a loose confederation dedicated to the performance of Barker’s plays, The Barker Project, two decades ago) achieve something of an apotheosis in Victory. Maxwell, who over the past few years has appeared in productions of Scenes from an Execution (for which she received a Drama Desk nomination) and Judith for PTP/NYC and Barker’s more recent Gertrude – The Cry at the Red Bull Theater, simultaneously exhibits arrogance, viciousness, compassion and desire, first as the long-suffering wife of a Puritan leader and then during her course of reconstruction after the Restoration; Robert Emmet Lunney’s Ball, as fiercely loyal to the ideals of the monarchy as Bradshaw becomes fiercely disloyal to any ideology, is grossly crude and mawkishly romantic when he falls in love with the widow. Among other members of the standout cast are Steven Dykes as Scrope, Bradshaw’s former secretary; Robert Zuckerman as the opportunistic and mediocre poet laureate Clegg; an excellently smug Alex Cranmer as the banker responsible for the return of the monarch to England’s shores; and finally, David Barlow as Charles Stuart himself, who bears cynicism, lasciviousness and melancholy as a compound out of which the individual elements cannot be separated.

Victory, as I’ve written before, is a comedy, however much it takes a turn for bitter darkness in the second act, and Romagnoli handles the transition well (the lynchpin of this change being the “Interlude” with the bankers and technocrats that closes the first act). As the play ultimately descends into horror at the end, a wedding celebration careering inevitably towards bloody violence in the climax of the play, five or six characters experience their recognitions near-simultaneously. As needfully chaotic as this may be, they are rendered here with absolute clarity, especially the recognition between Bradshaw and her son McConochie (a delightfully feckless Willy McKay) — from extreme left and extreme right, framing a chaotic center stage, they draw remarkable attention just standing silently, looking at each other.

I have only a few quibbles with the production. Barker’s text appears to render Bradshaw a creature more capable of compassion for her former enemies than presented here; in that penultimate scene, a dialogue between Bradshaw and Charles Stuart ends with Bradshaw cradling the monarch’s head in her lap. When Charles is finally asleep, Bradshaw slips out from under him with disgust; but Barker’s stage directions “She strokes his head” and “covers the sleeping figure with a cloak” suggest pity, not revulsion — central clues as to what the widow Bradshaw has learned over the course of the play. Second, while the use of music from the period of the play’s writing is effective — punk rock from the Sex Pistols and other bands, played quite loudly — the pasty makeup and excessively glittery couture of the costumes suggest more of a resemblance to glam-rock of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane period.

This aside, PTP/NYC’s production of Victory confronts Barker’s language and vision with pitch-perfect precision, with performances and a staging that mark a new level of sublime accomplishment for the company’s dedication to the work of this dramatist.

Wallace Shawn: Grasses of a Thousand Colors

At the worst, a few people will conclude that it’s worthless. And I will have spent 10 years doing something ridiculous. But I’ve decided to take a bet on my subconscious. Isn’t all writing to some extent about trying to get through the layers of propaganda and false interpretations and received ideas and clichés that prevent us from seeing what’s going on? I think that’s the enterprise.
Wallace Shawn

Issues of power, and more specifically hegemony, and how they are writ in both the broader cultural and more private landscapes of human relationships have always been at the center of Wallace Shawn’s plays. His dramatic voice, also, is unique and unmistakable. In both these senses he is an American equivalent to Harold Pinter. The seemingly intimate disclosures, emotional violence and manipulations of Shawn’s early plays like Our Late Night (1975) and Marie and Bruce (1978) became more and more politically and culturally acute, without losing the sense of sexual dynamics and hostility, through the 1980s with Aunt Dan and Lemon (1985, which explored how political hegemony is exploited in the personal realm through the relationship between a girl and a family friend) and, especially, The Fever (1990, a monologue about a Western traveler in a foreign country under siege) and The Designated Mourner (about the role of intellectuals in an increasingly authoritarian Western culture, 1997, perhaps Shawn’s masterpiece to date). As the dates here indicate, many years separate one Shawn play from another, and in the immediate aftermath of 11 September 2001 Shawn expressed his concerns about changing American culture not on the stage but through editing Final Edition (2004), a single-issue periodical which included Shawn’s interview with Noam Chomsky, essays by himself and Jonathan Schell, and fiction by Mark Strand and Deborah Eisenberg.

There is no mention of 11 September nor, indeed, of the United States in Grasses of a Thousand Colors. The geographical setting of the play itself may indeed be Great Britain (placenames in the text include the British-tinged “Pushbroom Lane” and “Apple Street”), and chronologically the play is set somewhat in the future, not the past. But at its center, the drama is about the unconscious play of technological and emotional hegemony through fantasy and contemporary sexual relationships. The three-act play is, at the outset, presented as a reading from a memoir: Ben, a scientist who has achieved a certain level of celebrity, begins to read from his autobiography, Loaves, with Fishes, for Dinner, a title with a Biblical undertone. Ben is a distinctly American pragmatist and optimist, he admits:

You see, I’m an optimist — I come from an optimistic generation. Everyone I know from my generation — we’re fixers, improvers. That’s what we are. We were born that way, apparently. Do  you have a problem? Fine. Problems can be solved. Are you dissatisfied with how fast you can run? Are you dissatisfied with how fast you can think? These are problems that can be solved. So if something isn’t right, for God’s sake, fix it. (10)

The problem that scientist Ben has apparently fixed is the problem of world hunger, and he has done so by genetically changing the nature of the world itself. He explains:

There was, on the one hand, an enormous crowd of entities — ourselves and others — roaming the planet, trying to sustain themselves, or in other words, looking for something to eat; and on the other hand, there was a tiny, inadequate crowd of entities available on the planet to be eaten. So it was a problem of food. It was all about food. There wasn’t enough food. So, as a generation, working really across all the nationalities and all the continents, we figured out ways to create food where there’d been no food — whether it was by giving a certain frog a simple injection so that he and his friends could live off the corpses of other frogs, when, formerly, a dead frog would have worked as a poison in the body of a frog, or by forcing certain substances into the upper atmosphere, so that an odd sort of rain would sprinkle down onto fields full of cows, so that cows who formerly could only live off grass could happily live off skunks and rats and foxes instead … that was the work of our generation. And, in the way of things, we ended up deriving some benefit ourselves from that, through various ridiculous instrumentalities we call salaries, stocks, investments, what have you. …

[Showing a photograph of himself and a dog] This was one of our earliest successes, because my good friend Rufus here was the very first large mammal ever to be raised entirely on the meat of members of his own species. … (11-12)

The American expression of capitalistic competition, “dog eat dog,” indeed — and problem solved, evidently, until the genetic mutations that Ben has introduced mutate beyond the control of science, turning meat (and eventually vegetation) not only inedible but poisonous to human beings. (So much, too, for “man’s best friend.”) It soon becomes clear that this has catastrophic implications for the future of the human race; in changing life to solve life’s own problems, technocratic rationalism has signed its own death sentence.

Ben is interrupted by a memory of his first wife, Cerise, who appears to introduce a second metaphor of the animal kingdom, one which will grow to control the unconscious lives of all the characters and the structure of Grasses of a Thousand Colors itself. “I’m going to be very frank with you and tell you something true rather than being euphemistic about it,” she tells the audience:

Cats like to tease mice. They like to play with them a little. … Cats like to tease mice. In other words, I’m saying, it’s not something that happens by accident when they’re pursuing some other more respectable purpose. No. They like to do it. … And of course everyone knows that cats punish mice. They inflict many different types of punishment on mice — they can inflict capital punishment, life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, and many other sorts of punishments. So they tease mice, they play with them, and they punish them. They pummel them, and they eat them. But what’s not generally known is that cats also sometimes protect mice. They protect them, they pardon them, and sometimes they reward them, way beyond what any person would think they deserve.

Oh yes, and there’s one other thing I know about cats which is not generally known, and that is the interesting fact that cats mate for life. That’s right. You heard me. They mate for life. Like humans. (17)

Ben’s professional and personal life is the content of the first act of the play;  however, the metaphors of the animal world soon mutate themselves into a picture of the unconscious sexual life of all three characters, mutating this sexual life as well into a series of pornographic fairy tales about the animal kingdom that reflect the irrationalism that lies beneath technocratic rationalism and ultimately determines the direction of its hegemony and cultural force. This direction allows for the freer play of the arbitrary and capricious love, hate and emotional devastation of intimate human relationships. This irrationalism also bursts out in the most casual of human relationships, as Ben’s genetic mutations poison the food upon which the human race needs to survive.

Before long, however, the monologue  becomes a memory play populated by three women from Ben’s past, his first wife Cerise, his midlife partner Robin, and finally his latelife lover Rose; as Ben grows older, his successive loves grow younger. As the global catastrophe engendered by Ben’s work begins, however, the play makes a sharp shift in the second act to an extended eruption of bestial pornography involving cats and donkeys — an unconscious eruption seemingly shared by all of the characters in the drama. The site for this fantasy is a secluded house in which Ben finds sexual comfort with a large cat, Blanche (who in the third act is transformed into a memory of Cerise), while Robin finds herself disturbed in a presentation of male sexuality exhibited by donkeys. The gross deliberate obscenity of the monologues of the second act — which turns Victorian-style children’s literature and erotica upside-down — is emphasized through its hour-long length as Ben finds his penis (with which he has what he describes as “a love affair”) an evocation of aggressive male sexuality, which yet desires to be teased and comforted by his new feline companions.

Ben’s misogynistic aggression — and the global crisis that his research has engendered — becomes more complex with the third act of the play, which combines the more realistic tone of the first with the fantastic of the second. The three women — ex-wife Cerise and mistresses Robin and Rose — form a triumvirate for mutual support even as the world is crashing down. Ben is subjected to the emotional manipulations of Robin (who uses the threat of suicide as a means of revenging herself against Ben’s abuse). At the same time the human world is quickly coming to an end outside of the increasing solitudes of all four characters; the human body reacts to the genetic mutations with vomiting, first occasionally, then frequently, then finally, as Ben puts it, “the typical end of life which everyone knows they can look forward to now, the moment when the vomiting doesn’t stop.” (78) Death comes as a release from this cultural and environmental catastrophe, and eventually Ben becomes a victim of his own hegemony over nature. ” … while vomiting was awful, and suffering was awful, death in itself was a trivial process, the fearsomeness of which had been ridiculously inflated by generations of people who apparently had had nothing else to talk about.” The play concludes with his own:

Quote unquote “death” will actually feel no different from a dreamless sleep — although everyone else will notice that you’re not waking up. Well, this was all in a certain way a little bit more than I needed to know at that particular moment — but I still suppose maybe it did sort of put me into the right frame of mind as Blanche set me off on my way across the meadow. As you might have guessed, it was just the time of day in which the direct sun on one’s face was totally agreeable and not at all too hot, and, sure enough, by the time I was halfway across the meadow I desperately wanted to lie down and fall asleep. So I found a very pleasant mossy spot and — you know — what can I say? — I mean, don’t be envious about it — I have to admit, it felt quite nice. (88)

The extremes of sexuality and violence in Shawn’s play are comically undermined by a satire of popular culture, in which sexuality and violence themselves become trivialized to the extent of becoming merely another gesture of public identity. “So you see, for me, the way things are now still seems astonishing — I mean, the fact that people talk about their penises and vaginas in public, at dinner parties, in magazines and newspapers — I can’t get over it. Ha ha ha! I can’t get over the way in interviews, not just actors but even politicians mention genitals so freely — ‘my vagina,’ ‘my penis’ — and of course all the plays, the films, whatever — well, it’s all changed so much,” Ben observes (perhaps several decades after Bill Clinton leaves semen stains on Monica Lewinsky’s dress and Lady Gaga repurposes transgressive sexuality for commercial purposes) (23). And, in this near future, Rose gives out business cards with a picture of her vagina on them (57). But the ease with which the intimate secrets of sex have entered public discourse does not alleviate, nor reveal, the power of the darker urges expressed in intimate relationships. It is a means of titillation, with which everyone eventually grows bored.

Shawn shares with Howard Barker a sense of how cultural and historic crisis can give rise to expressions of transgressive sexuality, sexualities which may serve to reconstruct the self. As in Barker’s plays, however, political power issues in Shawn’s plays do not guarantee any kind of redemption; indeed, they may make this individual valorization impossible and drive those in power, like Ben, to ever more violent disruptions of both the psyche and the body. Though they are, like Barker’s plays, often witty and very funny, they are not hopeful.

If Grasses of a Thousand Colors concludes with the end of the world, it leaves open the question of whether the world, and the people who inhabit it, are capable of saving themselves. That some human and natural traits remain unaddressable through rationalism, or because of the irrationalism of the human spirit, is neither misanthropic or pessimistic, terms which have been associated with Shawn’s plays as well as those of Barker and Neil LaBute: it may be merely a statement of fact. By repudiating any attempt to analyze or explain the emotional and physical extremes his characters seek, Shawn leaves to the spectator the question of what it means to be a human being and a citizen in a world which is becoming more thoroughly administered, militarized and delusional that these problems are soluble, especially through science and political administration. For a play which remains resolutely without reference to contemporary events, Grasses of a Thousand Colors demonstrates that Shawn may have his finger more sensitively upon the pulse of America at the beginning of the 21st century than any other American dramatist.