"bobrauschenbergamerica" in tears

We went to a performance at BAM of Charles Mee's "bobrauschenbergamerica" tonight. Barry and I both found that like much of this wonderful man's work, which I've now been enjoying for several decades, this evening of theater, which was created and performed by SITI Company and directed by Anne Bogart, took a while to come together. Barry thinks it's Mee's plan, and I think I agree.

When it was finally assembled it was magnificent.

I haven't seen a decent review in the media, so I won't link to any tonight, and I don't have the nerve to try one myself, but I will at least say that I was eventually overcome by the piece' sweet sincerity and delighted with its amazing sense of place. In a dramatic account of the world which produced Robert Rauschenberg's art that would seem to mean a mission was accomplished.

But it didn't come easily. It was about halfway through an evening punched through with scattershot American vignettes, at once both perverse and ordinary, that I began to cry. The tears were for the sometime beauty and goodness of this people and for how much has been lost in recent decades, but they were also tears of joy.

Admittedly the play and its performance basically ignored the ugliness and the evil that was also a part of what we regard as the simpler, mid-century America, and it's assignment was not to dwell on how much the bad stuff remains or has multiplied today. Still, when the stage was emptied tonight, only warmth and especially hope remained behind. Amazingly, there was no sugar on the floor of the theater, but there was also not a wit of jingoism in the air, no rhetoric of any stripe. Quite an accomplishment that, especially these days.

The most moving moment in the theater this evening was an oration whose conceit is that it begins by appearing to be an actor's address to the audience about this play, but it very soon becomes clear that it is much more. Barney O'Hanlon played Carl, who speaks to the museum visitors immediately after his assassination.

What follows is the complete oration, delivered near the end of the evening, a beautiful ode to art and artists in general, and the art and the artists of this strange people in particular.

[Carl, who has been lying on the stage dead, sits up and gives a speech welcoming everyone to an art opening, while we hear cement mixers, pounding, banging, clanking, sawing.]

How we put the show together.
First, I want to welcome everyone
I'm glad you could all come tonight.
We don't often get to do a show like this
where we can just put on whatever we like
figure OK what the hell
lets just do whatever we feel like
and hope you'll enjoy it.
I often feel those of us who are in the museum world
are particularly blessed.
Because we get to explore our feelings
whatever they may be
that's a sort of freedom.
You know, that's how it is to deal with art
because art is made in the freedom of the imagination
with no rules
it's the only human activity like that
where it can do no one any harm
so it is possible to be completely free
and see what it may be that people think and feel
when they are completely free
in a way, what it is to be human when a human being is free
and so art lets us practice freedom
and helps us know what it is to be free
and so what it is to be human.

But, still, it often seems to me almost miraculous
how we can put things here in the museum
and ordinary folks
my mom and dad and my own neighbors
and I myself
will come to see things
sometimes things that I myself find completely incomprehensible
and really offensive
people will come to our museum
and think: oh, that's interesting
or, oh, that's stupid
but they don't really hold it against the show
they just move on and look at something else and think
oh that's cool.
And I wonder:
how do we get away with that?
And I think well, we are a free people
that's why
and we understand that
in a way maybe other people in the world don't
we like an adventure
often we might think
well, that's a piece of junk
but that's how this fellow sees the world
and there's a certain pleasure in seeing things from his point of view
we are a patient people
no matter what you hear people say
and a tolerant people
and a fearless, open people
that's how it is for us

I think that's how it is to be an American.

We're all unique.
It's a precious thing to compare ourselves to nothing else.
This is my working attitude.
I don't feel shame in my joy.

[He looks confused.]

I started out here knowing what I meant to say
and now I have to say
I don't know what I said.

But I'd just like to welcome you
and let you know
we're all glad to be here with you tonight
to share this with you
and we hope you have a swell evening.

[The text can be found on Charles Mee's own wonderful site, which amazingly and very generously makes all of his work available to the public]

About this Entry

Published on October 18, 2003 1:16 AM.

previous entry: greenmarket (sweet potatoes)

next entry: Rauschenberg