Americana Arcana: The Gory Glory of Saint Genet’s “Paradisiacal Rites”

Posted on May 28, 2013, 2:01 pm
50 mins


Photography by Dan Hawkins

Saint Genet’s “Paradisiacal Rites” made its North American premier earlier this month at On the Boards after an acclaimed run at the Donaufest in Austria. It was brutal and it was beautiful, and the reactions have been predictably mixed, both in media and in conversations I have had since. As examples: A close friend of mine and I met each other in the lobby after the show and without verbal cues embraced each other for a full minute; another friend seemed in a daze and said she was going to wander the streets as she processed it; another pair had left during the third act and were already drinking at the Tin Lizzie. They were less impressed and one—a close friend—was actually surprised that I was in such bliss.

The next day, I wrote a great deal about the show, but I hesitated to publish it because it had too many spoilers and the performance had three nights left. In biding my time, however, I realized that there was a larger, sociological problem with writing about this work or any work like it. I must address that before I can even speak to the performance itself.

Art for Artists’ Sake

Truthfully, if I could have assumed that the performance would be successful, I could have accurately guessed the reactions of each of these friends before we entered On the Boards. I would have guessed that my cerebral, recovering-Catholic artist friend would be in bliss. I would have guessed that my earnest, gentle artist friend would take it seriously, be shaken and need time to process in private. And I would have guessed that my more bourgeois, hard-to-please friend would write it off. (That isn’t intended as a jab at him because he and I agree about most everything we see together. No one I just mentioned is a pushover.)

Saint Genet’s director Ryan Mitchell makes clear that he is not interested in gentility; his work is an act of willful endurance, discomfort and exhaustion for the audience and especially for the performers. Hence, he is certain to polarize his audience when performance art is already a misunderstood idiom in America, as I explained in a primer on this problem and the aesthetics of Saint Genet (published a day before the performance). Performance art is often treated as art for artists—inaccessible to the laity, willfully abstruse, elitist. But beyond a general dismissal of the whole genre, there is in the States a special suspicion of much post-war European performance philosophy—e.g. the work of Beuys and Genet himself. Such work is often explicitly antagonistic to the audience, especially bourgeois audiences who feel entitled to be entertained above all. The two audience members who fled to the Tin Lizzie were self-aware and knew that they opened themselves up to criticism for this, and yet they couldn’t avoid the sentiment, “I didn’t spend my time and money to feel like dirt, to feel assaulted.” This was supported by their feelings that the audience was not “respected.”

This a popular and not always frivolous sentiment. It puts the critic in a precarious situation that is often ignored. Beyond taking up precious column space, to address this issue of “respect” almost requires one to sound more condescending than usual, thereby making the problem worse. It is safer to ignore it, but the critic who lauds truly challenging work without addressing the audience who feels assaulted may in turn be dismissed as an elitist tastemaker rather than an earnest interpreter. In short, risky work like that of Saint Genet passes some risk to all who engage with it in earnest. Work that lampoons or critiques a problematic value system has always scandalized people (especially the bourgeoisie), and that lack of respect for a system (which often deserves little) is translated unfairly but instinctively as a lack of respect for the individual who is part of it, especially to a conservative mindset. Therefore, until we all know to regulate this knee-jerk reaction in ourselves (i.e. never), it is worth discussing, especially when there is still plenty of bad art that does in fact hate its audience.

I can declare that accusations of disrespecting the audience are misguided in this case. Challenging an audience to the point of exhaustion is an act of respect and perhaps of love, even if the subject matter is violent, brutal and deeply unpleasant, and that is the case with Saint Genet’s “Paradisiacal Rites.” No, we don’t need this sort of demanding work every day. Yes, the messaging before the show about when it was appropriate to come and go during the performance could have been clearer. But I think most people knew to expect a challenging show—and those who didn’t know and wouldn’t have sought it out perhaps needed it most. It’s an exhausting workout for the soul, and one needn’t be an artist to appreciate it, but it helps. Let us look at some of its exercises and its fascinating equipment.

“As Though a Window Gave Upon the Sylvan Scene”

The stage design when one first enters is awing. It is the work of several visual artists, including street artist NKO and sculptor Casey Curran. Juniper Shuey created the digital projections that cover the far wall and the faces of those who stand by it. Bifurcating that back portion is an ornate throne (or holding pen) bedecked with a rich cluster of flowers rising and tapering toward the top, where threads form a canopy of geometric perfection. In this structure, a goddess figure sits vibrating. Some of the projections over the course of the show appear to emanate from her, as she does not move from this position until the third act, two hours into the show.

The stage before the wall is covered with thousands of stalks of dry grass and “wheat” (some real, some handmade by the group from more durable switches), with sections of the field undulating subtly. Is this a crop of ripe cereal, or a desiccated plain whose dry matter is barely fit for grazing beasts? This ambiguity is enriched by the presence of three entities in the field, each wearing a helm of countless, metallic straws (Curran’s design). Dancers Jim Kent and Carl Lawrence wear silver versions at stage right and left respectively. At center, before the goddess figure, Matt Drews wears a golden version. The figures repeat a slow, eerie dance even as the audience seated themselves and other characters mill about the stage—huffing nitrous oxide and (in the case of company founder Ryan Mitchell at front and center) bleeding openly from leech bites.

Photography by Dan Hawkins

Photography by Dan Hawkins

Overhead, the ambiguity of death and plurality is continued. Two sacs hang, flanking the center of the stage, and around the perimeter (and over the heads of the field entities), sculpted pelts of pheasants spin on wires. Each is a mass of wings that could stand in for a flock of birds, a single mangled thing in a vortex…or perhaps Madeline L’Engle’s vision of the Cherub(im) in her book A Wind in the Door. This may seem like an oblique reference to make, but L’Engle’s writing is actually quite relevant to the themes addressed in “Paradisiacal Rites”—sometimes opposing, but often complementary. More on that later.

This surreal tableau is completed by a strange formation at stage right: a mound of earth with a pile of petals on its surface beside an undulating structure of gold foil, whose surface is composed of many pyramidal protrusions undulating sinusoidally, slowly. This is enhanced by the lighting on the field, a golden sort of twilight that does not diffuse across the stage, keeping the margins in darkness but for where spotlights shine on the string musicians playing an ambient drone (coordinated by assistant director Lily Nguyen), punctuated by the sharp inflation and inhalation of balloons of nitrous oxide by a seated man (dancer Douglas Ridings) at stage left. These sounds will continue throughout the performance, even during the intermissions (listed as “Knees”) with a varied and always rich score by composers Brian Lawlor, Salo, and Garek Jon Druss.

The field entities repeat their eerie dance—movement at once warlike and supplicating, always turning widdershins. The heavens spin with blurred birds. The ground undulates with grass and mineral. In the background, large ghostly figures look out at the audience, pacing forwards, then backwards. The puritanically dressed characters mill around. One woman (Sara Edwards) is at once attached to the central patriarch (Mitchell), yet wary of him. Another man (NKO) is his right hand, assisting him as he bleeds into a small goblet. And then something happens. The patriarch takes a swig of wine, then leans forward to the woman and passes it into her mouth. They stare at each other—and she spews the wine back into his face, and walks away. As he wipes himself off, he declares that he would like to begin the first act. The music shifts, and so it begins.

Manifest Destiny and Eternal Returns

There is almost no dialog for the first half of the first act, as other dancers enter the stage: maidens Calie Swedberg and Jessie Smith, Darren Dewse (whose ruffled, organza collar immediately recalls commedia dell-arte) and brutish Thomas Vincent Chapel. Swedberg, Smith and Dewse each approach increasingly cult-like Mitchell and repeat the gesture with wine, but this time it is they who pass the wine to him and it is he who spews it into their faces. One by one, they suffer this rejection, are carried across the stage by the brute (Chapel) and then left to wander the fields. In turn, they remove the helms of the field entities, who then grow still.

Already, there is an air of ritualism, but also of a less self-aware repetition. That is, the characters are not so self-aware, and we the audience see that while it’s all the same to the patriarch, those he rejects react with subtle differences. One becomes disconsolate; another is dazed at first, but treats her exile with a sort of wonder as she wanders the fields. Ritual, by contrast, begins as a willful repetition that becomes second-nature and binds individuals through its familiarity. Eventually, these and other cultural forms (even of profound religious significance) can become hollow, oppressive. This opening sequence establishes wordlessly, unequivocally that this is not a narrative in a surreal setting, but a fully-realized realm of symbol wherein nothing is arbitrary and everything is liminal. These are tableaux mort-vivants of old emblems. This is shamanism of a high order.

So it is thus a bit shocking when suddenly the silence is broken by Dewse’s character, the fool, who in a fey, flippant, vapid way prattles on about the Oscars, namely all the instances when two actors within the same film were nominated for the same award. This idea of pairing based on a performance is a sly nod to the binary themes within the ongoing performance itself, but more importantly this monologue (interrupted by the sneering patriarch at times and constantly breaking the fourth wall) is bookended by references to the film Suddenly, Last Summer. This Southern Gothic mystery revolves around the fate of a late young man who, as is revealed in the film’s climax, was in fact torn apart and consumed by young boys he had been paying for sex. This is revealed only when the character Catherine (who witnessed the atrocity) is placed in an altered state by a truth serum and asked to tell the story. Not coincidentally, the original Tennessee Williams play on which the movie was based is titled Something Unspoken.

Photography by Dan Hawkins

Photography by Dan Hawkins

This primal, grisly, rather Orphic death—Orphic even in its implications of homosexual desire—dovetails into the work of the performance’s patron Saint. Jean Genet was a provocateur whose complex stagings were often surreal and symbolic. He is often categorized by his very real and unapologetic homosexuality, but in the context of his work (specifically male) homosexuality was also a symbolic act, being one of great transgression. It is transgression against insincere, oppressive value systems—especially a central, patriarchal religious structure. Among more literate fundamentalists, Genet might be held up as “proof” that homosexuality is chosen as a willfully criminal, lifeless act against god and the human race, but Genet’s work is so sordid they would probably rather not admit they have any acquaintance with it.

In Genet’s Notre Dame des Fleurs, gender ambiguity reigns and male sexuality is indeed something violent and deathly. The narrator (if not Genet, someone very much like him) has created a core group of characters to represent his desires, fantasies, and also a need to be punished. Genet’s was a porous mind that absorbed the corruption of the margins it was forced to inhabit. For civilization is not bound by a wall, but rather infolds upon itself, its edges and interiors seeping into each other in one convoluted matrix. (I believe Genet would approve of this visceral conceit. His prose was at once floral and fetid.) The bulk of his free-flowing novel is bookended by the death of the delicate, cross-dressing Divine, the main character and sin-eater whose final consciousness if of entering a pool of warm feces spreading from his/her consumptive body where it lie. Divine suffers most, is the creation of a criminal mind that adores what is fragile and wounded for its essential qualities, even (or especially) when they have ultimately become corrupted and murderous. Rather than the shaman who crosses the lines of sex, Divine is a counterfeit of both man and woman, and stands in for both with sexual sterility and moral decay, culminating—beyond other fatal betrayals—with a calculated act of infanticide.

It is Divine who is referenced throughout “Paradisiacal Rites,” specifically the lines uttered by the fanciful, fellow denizens of the demimonde who attend the mock pageant of Divine’s funeral: Divine is dead, dead and buried… Divine is dead… Once the Fool’s monologue circles back to the nominations for Suddenly, Last Summer, the lighting and music suddenly dim and he becomes more pensive, reflecting on the death of Divine and the lack of Eternal Return. There is a pervasive sense of circularity in the action on stage, thematically and physically, but what is done cannot be undone without obliterating all things, inextricably. There is no return, no salvation.

Under any circumstance, this might be a biting, nihilistic assertion, but it is truly penetrating in the context of this performance, where the leaders of the show are costumed to be distinctly American—some sort of cultish, 19th-century Protestant hybrid wandering an uncultivated prairie. These are figures from a key moment in American history—the formation of Transcendentalist thought, Adventism, fringe groups like Shakers and Cochranites, scores of fractured sects unified by a sort of pseudo-Gnostic and often equally literal and illiterate interpretation of the Bible, motivated by visions of a new Eden, a Paradise in the unspoiled west. They were literally East of Eden (the Mormons even made a point to say that Eden was, in fact, at the center of the continent), and they were returning to it, reclaiming it from the “barbaric, savage” elements (i.e. the people of the First Nations). Later doctrines of Manifest Destiny expanded on this notion, adding a more unified nationalism to the mix, but this central germ that expansion westward was an act of grace has not left us entirely. It lies at the heart of much American imperialism, optimism and exceptionalism.

It did not spring ex nihilo. To some, it was a retelling (a repeat) of the lost tribes of Israel seeking the Promised Land. This was all part of a larger spiritual pageant with God Himself dictating the course toward an eventual apocalypse and perfection. In short, this was the continuation of that old desert law and history reenacted in a new environment—history as ritual, as a reprise in a cosmic opera.

Saint Genet deftly makes this recognizable with varying degrees of subtlety and vulgarity. But while this rebuke of a broken system is being formed, this first act is above all about the personal and the intimate. The initial rejection of the patriarch (by a feminine figure) is paid forward against other women and finally to the effeminate Fool, the storyteller who wishes to weave truth into his fancies, however vapid or ridiculous they may first seem. The rejection follows a moment of intimacy (a kiss, a transmission of wine, itself a loaded symbol of truth, life, sacrifice and delusion) that occurs only a the personal level. In the second act, the conceit expands into the social sphere.

Totems, Totentanzen and Totality

The intricate stage is reaped in the “Knee” between acts one and two. Most of the stalks are removed, along with the silicon that attached each individually to the stage. The scraping and reaping is a spectacle in itself, and it leaves behind a dusty barren, something resembling asphalt or scorched earth. In the first moments of the second act, the very last of the wheat is trampled by dancers Drews, Kent, Smith and Swedberg. They then proceed to a circling and repetitive dance in center stage. The golden light of act one has been replaced by something stark, lunar, apocalyptic.

Photography by Dan Hawkins

Photography by Dan Hawkins

It is at this point that I should mention the extent to which the performers were exhausted and drugged for the performance. This was a fully immersive experience for them that deprived them of sleep and rest and pumped them full of booze and nitrous oxide. The performance itself was preceded by a Passion procession that began at dawn, miles south of the performance venue. Mitchell wanted (still wants) to better incorporate the audience into this experience, to create a performance within a whole city, not one contained corner of it, but legal limitations prevent that for now. Much of the audience, therefore, was not aware of the degree of exhaustion that these performers faced.

This could be considered self-indulgent, and will be by more cynical viewers who view art and performance as products interpolated into one’s life, not a process that consumes very real portions of it, especially for those who are creating work as intricate as Saint Genet. I think I have already tacitly stated what I think of a passive consumption of art rather than an earnest immersion in it, but I will say in defense of some audience members that the performance as it played out here felt exclusive and not in the most constructive way. This is a matter of messaging, plain and simple. I am all for this use of exhaustion and new ritual, but these things function because there is a foundational understanding between participants and viewers. There wasn’t adequate context provided in advance for these elements of the performance, which were vital to its authenticity but not to all of its themes, and this sabotaged the enjoyment of it for some, I think.

So when I say the themes expanded from the personal to the social, it is worth mentioning that parts of it could have been better explained in the program or in advance. Doing so would also prevent criticism based on another fact about the performance: The dancing was often sloppy. I do not mean to say it was not well-rehearsed, because it was astonishingly clear that the marathon choreography had been drilled into everyone on stage. However, the exhaustion prevented the dancers from displaying much virtuosity. This isn’t entirely a flaw. However, we are grappling with the shadow here, which falls “Between the idea / and the reality. / Between the motion / and the act.” Hence, a cleaner motion and a clearer idea would would have put that shadow in starker contrast. But we are dealing with human forms and limitations, and because so much of the theme is bound in that very notion I was not bothered by the imperfections in the dancing. I merely acknowledge here that others will be.

The four dancers seem much like destroying angels in a square dance. The effect is solemn and beautiful, like interludes on the Dies Irae. Indeed, this dance is interpolated with a shocking perversion of the communal act: an abusive, cacophonous “dance party” where the women and men play double dutch, scream and sway lasciviously, and chug cheap beer beneath a din of Speed Metal, lit by strobe lights. It is a teenage-style Bacchanal complete with the awkward Fool, who desperately seeks to draw attention with his stories but is only groped, molested and stripped by the Brute. The Brute forces him down on all fours and reveals his gold-foiled ass to the audience, then demands that he sing the first lines of the theme from Goldfinger in a lewd manner. This humiliation is not just a physical abuse and degradation to the stature of livestock, but an inversion of the Fool as storyteller; the ass becomes the center of attention, the scatological, not the mouth and the intellectual. In all cases, the dancers and performers and the cult leader become bestial and totemic. Again, we are reminded that primal, anarchic energy is not something pushed outside the membrane of civilization, but remains woven through it.

The scenario occurs three times, following the more graceful dance of four. The first time, the Fool accepts his treatment with some grace. The second time, he is more reluctant. The third time, he is defiant, sobbing and refusing to meet the demands of the sneering crowd, and so they lose interest in him entirely. This sort of dehumanizing abuse will be a trigger for some. On a personal note, I have faced such degradation at times, and my reaction was, “Yes, that’s how that feels.” My friend who didn’t like the performance was a little concerned that this would disturb me, but in fact it was for me a moment of catharsis through recognition. The irony of Political Correctness lies in this: The people this sensitivity is allegedly meant to protect are typically silenced or treated as too wounded and fragile to have an awareness of their own condition. Therefore, I speak from personal experience when I say we do not need to be protected from these sorts of depictions when they are done in earnest.

This violence against the individual by a group represents another form of repetition—an habituation, a forming of a person.  Undeniably, this necessarily results in behavior (the reluctant Fool, the corrupt Genet), and then reinforces these roles within social structures and mores. While the repetition of ritual helps found culture over many individuals, this culture through habituation creates identities for individuals—and attendant crises of identity. I refuse to state that this is only a method of victimization; that is reduction to the absurd and only more dehumanizing. Happily, the ways that these characters on stage show some continuity but express different roles and different powers throughout the performance shows that nothing is so fixed. The audience is told that there is no eternal return or recurrence, but individuals have multiple opportunities to hone and assert themselves. It’s the cosmos that has but one chance—but what are the cosmos without human witness? All performances before an audience rather beg that question…

It is such teleology that seems to define most debates about human religion and our fate—not just an individual fate, but the fate of the universe. The Christian teleology that states that a more perfect grace approaches and that all of human history and life is a means to this end certainly makes salvation of paramount importance and therefore gives enormous power to religious leadership. It is therefore no surprise that branches of Christianity that regard individual salvation as inevitable or moot have always been challenged.

Re-enter, Madeline L’Engle. “Paradisiacal Rites” pits American patriarchal consumption against an existential void. Not surprisingly, the void wins by an infinite margin. L’Engle, however, might represent a middle path, one that is in some ways ancient and in others distinctly American. I am referring to her espousal of Universal Salvation, which asserts that there is no perdition or annihilation of “the unsaved,” but an eventual grace for all. Unlike a doctrine of apocatastasis, there is a persistence of the individual because the individual (down to its mitochondria) is necessary to the whole, the embracing love of God. One does not dissolve, but is perfected in one’s peculiar way. Everyone gets/is a personal slice of perfection, not lost in some hierarchical, totalitarian Heaven or an undifferentiated, collective Absolute. How much more American can you get?

It is an attractive idea, certainly, but it put her at odds with both secular thinkers (who said she was too religious) and fundamentalist Christians (who deemed her heretical and sympathetic to—gasp!—secular scientific thought). Thinking like L’Engle is a way out of the logical traps of theodicy and it fosters a more loving communion, and like the informing themes of Saint Genet, the need for priestly control is removed and there is indeed no return. However, the need for salvation at all remains problematic, the need for some more exquisite state hereafter. And therein lies the great irony and what makes L’Engle a good contrast to the philosophy informing Saint Genet—the matter of non-being.

L’Engle had to subscribe to the goodness of being so fully that the villains in some of her books were demons of negation, creatures that sought to annihilate being for being’s sake, and they were held back by a process of Naming. But this dogmatic praise of being flows backwards from her teleology, and in doing so it neglects to respect the infinite plurality of non-being that surrounds all that exists. This sort of negative space, this approach to what is ineffable and cannot be named, is a hallmark of much mysticism and is—I believe—a vital part of the imagination, the creative process, and ultimately of true humility and empathy. Saint Genet explicitly affirms an appreciation for non-being, not as nihilism but as potential and freedom despite the existential horror it may inspire. L’Engle seems to be a middle path, but in fact she falls into a synthetic system of control—the microscopic certainty of science fused with the existential opiate of religion. It is still more akin to the fundamentalists who shunned her, which further illuminates the derangement of fundamentalism, of the desire for certainty and control rebuked by Saint Genet.

It is also a fine segue into the third and final act of “Paradisiacal Rites,” which is aptly titled, “The Dead.”

“The dancers are all gone under the hill.”

After the mayhem, the second act closes with all of the characters repeating a dance together, and with each repetition one leaves until the Fool is left dancing alone. At the opening of the third act, he is crumpled down-stage, lit dimly. Beneath the two sacs that have hung at center stage, gold circles are placed. The cult leaders right-hand man (NKO) uses a switch blade to puncture these sacs allowing them to leak honey onto the circles below as they sway. These later become stages of supplication, where dancers bow and seem be wracked with sobs as they are anointed by the leaking sacs, by the cult leader with another bottle of honey, and are also gilded by his right-hand man with sheets of gold leaf.


Photography by Dan Hawkins

Over the course of the third act, we see other isolated rituals, such as the burning of the paper slips—at once a votive, the burnt offering, the destruction of the heretical, the ascension, the abstraction. In the context of the performance, these quiet actions take on a sense of ritual, of awe and grace. (The dazed looks of the performers, at the brink of exhaustion, are quite genuine.) They are non-specific, resistant to interpretation, but add to the sense that over time, from place to place, there have been countless forms of ascension, of sacrifice and anointment. We are in the realm of the universal now, where supernatural beings can emerge.

Hence, the emergence of the goddess (Kate Ryan), who rises from her throne and walks forward, is unharnessed and unmsaked and then allowed to move between the sacs as she sweetly, softly sings: Divine is dead…Divine is dead… She represents something more truly akin to a divine feminine. Whether a fertility goddess, a harvest goddess, or something more primeval (Ananke herself) is not clear and is immaterial. What is certain is that after hours of bearing witness to this dense reduction of our patriarchal reality, one is starved for the presence of a Goddess by the time she emerges.

But she is not the only one who emerges. From the burial mound at stage right, beside the undulating gold, a male figure (Alan Sutherland) slowly rises, having lain dormant for the preceding hours. I call him here the Erdgeist, after both the primeval force of Goethe’s Faust and also the elemental spirit of Paracelsus. As a matter of consistency, I am tempted to call the undulating gold the Time Loom (Webstuhl der Zeit), also from Faust. This would be to impose a convenient interpretation on the matter using a secondary text—which seems perfectly appropriate following a discussion of theology. Furthermore, Goethe’s Erdgeist is the force that renders what is immaterial into reality through the powers (and prisons) of time and matter, so it is quite relevant to our discussion of non-being and dogma.

Both the Goddess and the Erdgeist represent something far beyond human knowledge and reason—or rather they represent humanity’s need to represent these things in a familiar form. They are the limited human understanding of the absolute, and the more time they spend among the humans on stage, the more despairing the Erdgeist becomes. Sutherland is perfect for this role, a hairless homunculus, a creature at once infant, man and crone. When he at last speaks, frailly announcing “Frail ghost, I love you so,” again and again, it is with genuine empathy and desire. This is the personal god, the primeval Other that L’Engle can appreciate, at least as an avatar. But not for long.

The cult leader intervenes and soon the Erdgeist is being drowned in libations of wine and honey, pointless gestures that only torture and horrify it. Soon, it is mournfully acknowledging that there can be no true reunion with the frail ghost. “Your ashes in my mouth, I can neither spit nor swallow,” it cries. There can be no preservation of self. At best, there is a mystical ego death, an acknowledgement of things beyond knowing and therefore utterly beyond our control. This is anathema to the patriarch and a society built upon both a supplication to authority and to a contrary cult of individualism. And all the while, the Goddess blithely sings, Divine is dead, less a comforting Goddess now and more a vapid Mater Dolorosa.

I used to say in my more blatantly blasphemous days that “I do not mock your god. I mock the mockery you have made of him.” The boiling down of an all powerful being to a jealous, psychopathic desert deity is so patently absurd and wounding to the imagination that even Stephenie Meyer’s perpetually adolescent, vampiric immortals in the execrable Twilight series seem like ethical intellectuals.

The Erdgeist finds comfort only with the Fool, the storyteller who embraces his powerlessness now, who is silent on matters of gold statuettes, Goldfinger and other false riches and glory. While the Fool and the Erdgeist comfort each other, the cult leader continues to pour honey into the latter’s hand, only to be slapped with it repeatedly. This hollow ritual does not develop. It ends with the same result each time, the definition of madness. While an artist allows for non-being and plurality and the simultaneity of opposing forms, the patriarch can only repeat a hollow action, rooted in dominance and that sense of rejection and scorn, a fundamentalist aesthetic. At last, he tries the trick of passing wine to the Erdgeist, who predictably spews it into his face with an especial disgust. The rejection of the cult leader is total, bookended by that first broken intimacy before act one. He fades upstage as two dancers and the Erdgeist balance on posts with nooses around their neck, presenting a mock crucifixion as the Erdgeist moans “When will this agony end?” For indeed, the central act of the Christian salvation dogma is one of suicide (in the crassest terms) and of kenosis, of being reduced from the infinite to the finite and back again, and the sacrifice involved.

That kenosis is to many the most resonant aspect of the Christ consciousness, and also one of the more overlooked. It is necessary in monotheism, in which (as opposed to the plurality of paganism and animism) the idea of alterity comes to the fore: God as the ultimate Other. It is perhaps for this reason that monotheism fostered the idea of forgiveness that ultimately gave rise to Humanism; there was but one ultimate Other, not a pantheon to appeal to and pick and choose from. Unfortunately, in the system we observe in reality (and lampooned on stage) forgiveness was perverted into the idea of salvation, which takes that higher sense of reconciliation and draws lines around it again, creating saved and unsaved, heaven and hell, reinforcing a sense of Otherness and separation in an even more potent and ghastly way.

The performance ends with a whimper, not a bang. The heavens are emptied of their spinning birds. The stage is emptied of dancers. The light dims and dies, the cult leader is left alone, stewing in the darkness.

And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.

Photography by Dan Hawkins

Photography by Dan Hawkins

Exeunt and Exhaustion

One may ask if in spite of all of this labor, this fuss, this Gesamtkunstwerk if there is not a potential flaw in the vision. Namely, if it leaves such a vacuum has it done the full work? If it confronts and encourages one to abandon these systems (which are in fact political first and foremost, not spiritual), does it shirk by not leaving an alternative map?

I believe that it is not a single artist’s role to create what that would look like, and frankly those who are good at destroying may not be the best at creating. They are roles that balance each other and it is probably too much to ask one mind to accomplish both when the matter is so large and sweeping as “How shall we live?” But Saint Genet actually does create something of a road map. Their idiom is one of exhaustion in all forms, but in embracing non-being and its potential, there is an optimism that from this exhaustion something better may arise. This is not the false optimism of those seeking a restored paradise or plenary grace, but rather a realistic acknowledgement that suffering and loss and ultimate powerlessness are fundamental to human life. The better thing that will arise is not an escape from reality, but a more empathetic perspective of it and each other.

All of this could be stated and re-stated in a number of ways (in essays longer than this one, and shorter, too), but to show rather than tell is quite the feat. These horrors in “Paradisiacal Rites” are confronted and exhausted in a dense and fully realized context. For some, it will make them more more pliant and receptive to the message. Others will leave early and have a drink instead. It has its flaws, some of which may contribute to the latter scenario. Most of them regard messaging outside the program itself, but I should add that the writing in places was the most stilted aspect. It almost got pan-handed here and there, and because the dialog was so limited this lack of craft and subtlety became all the more apparent.

It was a prodigious performance, deeply deserving of respect despite those aforementioned (and I believe faulty) claims that it did not respect its audience. This was an act of tough love, toughest on those who created it. Does that mean they love themselves most? Perhaps. And if the product is always as compelling as this, I am happy for it.

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.

2 Responses to: Americana Arcana: The Gory Glory of Saint Genet’s “Paradisiacal Rites”

  1. seymour's glasses

    June 15th, 2013

    Thanks for all the thought that went into this article. One thing that the commentaries have missed is an odd sense of ‘fun’ that permeated the piece. Perhaps as a whole the work is sad and desperate but that’s a little strange since so many of the individual moments were fanciful and childlike. The spitting, the spinning, the dismantling, the mess making, the masks, the low tech microphonage, all had the feel of acts retrieved from childhood. What 6 year old doesn’t want to be buried at the beach. A 10 year old with a helium balloon has a blast. That it ends up feeling like an adult nightmare speaks to the mastery of Mr. Mitchell.