Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag
When difficult situations such as the abject conditions of poverty are articulated to the wider public in a mode of high art, aesthetics and ethics collide in a way that can erase our ethical response - depending on how poetic the reporting. The reports are moving, but too beautiful to move us to action. This piece is an irrational response to that collision and its limits. With help from the journals of Symbolist painter Odilon Redon, The NEW American Machinists Handbook, and ancient Assyrian mythology, and then shoved into the strict alchemical formulae of the Broadway musical.
An irrational musical contemplation of the ethical pitfalls and philosophical limitations of two makers of earliest poverty porn.
Music by Ashley Turba
The first Atelier at which I studied was as a prison to my sensibilities. (Truthfully.) Yes, I am a dreamer.
In this world of nature there are positive force and evil forces. Where evolution is unrestrained and helped by a positive force, there is beauty. If the victory goes to the evil force, or to the obstacle of free evolution, then ugliness prevails. This is what we have here, on the surface, in the immediate impression, in this squalor. Abject squalor on the surface. But if we cut into it as a surgeon puts the knife to the skin, we find something else when we have opened its flesh. And by cutting it open I mean ... that we see it. Here we see the victory of all obstacles. Here we have what has been one of man’s greatest creations, the Jacuzzi hot tub, -
Developed by the incredible inventors of machine propellers and water pumps, the seven Jacuzzi brothers. Full foam insulation. A miracle of modern technology and a symbol of status and superiority of man.
And look at it, chopped up into many piece with a mechanical saw or some such apparatus // and left out at the side of the road for the rubbish collectors to clean up.
Except that you’re wrong about one thing - nothing is ever wasted or discarded as rubbish on a farm. Look at the coils of wires and rusted buckets piled up in the one corner of the porch. None of these things is ever thrown away as it may come to some use later on. As in, I might need something, or make or invent something out of it.
I will dig and dive all the way into this reality, into its full darkness, and I won’t cry and wail and grovel at their feet as Ben. I can look without loving and love without dying. I can lift and push hard against this realitée. I can become the positive force, perhaps as the eagle, that will overcome the pitiless squalor and raise this wretched grubbiness and foul dilapidation to a state of passionate suffering. To beauty raise. You will see.
In my showbiz dream career I have been made so happy on an appearance on Queen for a Day and I won this wonderful Jacuzzi spa hot tub. Other than that, I didn’t have a penny to my name. They said, ‘Where do you want it, JAGSTAR?’ So I had it sent back here, in hopes that it would raise the status here, and show that we’ve had our good times too.
We ended up chopping it up because its pipes got jammed with a bunch of dirt and hair and dead grass. We didn’t know how to fix it. And we didn’t know about any Jacuzzi repair experts in the area, so.
You can’t do something to repair it? With all your interest in machines?
There might be something in that corner of the porch I can use … someday …
Andrew comes across the field.
Help git that supper on the table, will you Jean Ann.
Nobody does anything.
Andrew enters. He looks at the scene. He undoes one button of his overalls.
What’s she doing here.
She came to stay here with family. Things just got to be too much for her, I guess.
Jean Ann stares. Nods. Stares at Andrew. Stares at Linda. Stares at Tory. Stares at Sarah.
Well, welcome back then.
He puts down his stuff.
It stinks in here. It smells sour. I’m glad it’s my own family or I wouldn’t be able to stand it. There’s a certain smell your own family has that even when it’s bad you can live with it and on some level it even comforts you. That’s not true of some of the places I’ve stayed out there on the road. You get into a place, after you’ve been on the hot road – in the hot dust - and the blinding heat, all the damn night and day shoved in right next to somebody else on the bumps, last night’s wine dried on their lips, and you feel a little queasy… you can’t relax cause it’s got that sour milk smell and a bad old carpet wall to wall with everything from thousands of people’s bodies and skins and scabs and streets mashed down into it. It’s not any cooler inside than outside, the carpet is sticky and you hear your slippers peeling off of it every time you lift your foot to take a step; and you don’t want to touch a single thing in there. And somehow you’ve got to find a way to sleep in there. The sweat from a thousand different heads on a thousand sweaty miserable sweltering nights baked in to the pillows, drying there in the noon, making them stale? Stiff? and nasty. Same thing here. But there: worse. Everything on the cheap. Crumbling at the edges. Brown and gummy in the cracks. Other people’s hairs in the towels and on the lump of soap. And it’s not your family. So it’s that much worse.
Andrew goes over to Jean Ann.
Well, you stay as long as you need to, sister kitten. You’ll sleep right in there with me and Tory. Don’t you worry.
He kisses her on the cheek. Looks at her. Tory sees, Linda sees. Linda looks at Tory. Andrew kisses Jean Ann on the mouth. Tory goes outside taking a bucket and a baby with her. Andrew sits down at the table. Everybody else sits down too. Tory comes back in, the bucket full of water. Sits down with the baby on her lap. They say grace to the deaf heavens and eat.
Dinner is over. Andrew and the men go out onto the porch. The women clean up.
Production and Development History
Workshop at the Sheafer Theater, Duke University, Durham NC (2013).