“Fefu and her Friends” and Engaging Publics

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Cast of F&hF, Manhattan production

The play, “Fefu and Her Friends” is incredibly rich in content and gives us a lot to think and talk about. However, many of the reviews I’ve read online (here and here, for example) and even one person I overheard in the Bistro (sorry: no link here, but it wasn’t a classmate of ours) seem to be confused and dissatisfied with the play. It’s easy for us to brush of these disgruntled persons with our [at least half-] contented minds, but there is something to be said for this widespread lack of or misunderstanding of the play.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the play is outside of the text itself: its play with audience interaction. The second act takes the audience into four different rooms to see four scenes acted out at different times: On the lawn, in the study, in the bedroom and in the kitchen.

The stage direction reads: “The audience is divided into four groups. Each group is led to the spaces. These scenes are performed simultaneously. When the scenes are completed the audience moves to the next space and the scenes are performed again. This is repeated four times until each group has seen all four scenes. Then the audience is led back to the main auditorium” (4).

If the themes of the play are confusing, I can’t imagine how an off guard play-goer would react to being led from an auditorium and into four different rooms. The experience must be very disconcerting.

We talked briefly in our class about why the author may have chosen to divide the scenes in this way. We seemed to linger on the idea that the very proper space of the living needed to be disrupted by incorporating the audience into the more queer spaces of the more private discussions and relationships amongst the women.

This seems appropriate: the play deals with repressed sexualities and the second act is bringing those to light; but what about the experience of the audience? Is it also the case that the author intended to play with the audience members’ sexualities? This is certainly a viable explanation –put people out of their comfort zone and solicit an “impolite” response.

Earlier in the semester, we read Michael Warner’s work with gives the seven pillars of a public. One of the most controversial of these among public sphere theorists is the contention that “a public is constituted by mere attention.” In other words, any form of participation in a discursive arena makes you a part of that public.

I’ve been thinking about Warner since I read the stage notes; it seems noteworthy to bring up the consequences of the shuffling audience in terms of public sphere theory: how does the play make audiences interact with one another? What kind of public(s) or counterpublic(s) does it create within the audience?

By dividing the audience into four pieces, it creates four different counterpublics in relation to the overall collective of the main auditorium. Just as the women have separate interactions within their more private relationships, the members of the group you share a room with become more closely linked to you than those who you will rejoin at the end of the play. By giving your attention to that particular scene, you become part of that public, whether or not you’re interacting with everyone else or not. Your unique group knows how the actresses would have played out the scene that time around or if an audience member guffawed loudly at a certain line. You share something that is lost at large when the audience comes back together.

I guess where I’m trying to go with this is to the idea that Fornes may have been drawing attention not only to the interactions between the more intimate groups of women within the play, but to the possibilities yielded by dividing the audience into more intimate groups. What sort of discussions could surface between group members when they share something that isn’t shared by everyone else in the group? [How] would this experience change the malaise some readers felt with the play? Does the act of brushing shoulders with a certain group of people create solidarity?

Warner also tells us that a public is self-organized, so this may throw a wrench into this idea. It isn’t exactly voluntary to be divided into these groups and once you’re there, your “mere attention” may be the last damn you give about the things you experience in your group. But it seems like the conscious decision to continue to participate in the play after you’ve been split up from everyone else at all may be enough.

In a play that meditates so much on repressed sexualities and things not said, it seems as if prodding the audience into acknowledging the revelations of said things would have been right within the author or the play’s agenda. Our conversation as a class revealed more about this play than I could have ever hoped to elucidate on my own – the experience of many different minds pulling it apart seemed to bring out

TL;DR: The play’s stage directions split the audience into four rooms for Act II. It seems far too deliberate to do so without a consciousness of consequence. Perhaps Fornes hoped to create mini or counter publics within the audience in order to facilitate conversation or at least awareness of the difference between private and public spaces and interactions. Thanks Michael Warner for your public sphere theories.

Drugs, Utopia and Queerness: Reconciling Indestructible and José Muñoz.

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From Indestructible, chapter ten, by Cristy C. Road:

“That year I learned to understand substance addictions. They weren’t the choice we consciously made to promote self-help. I learned to understand how drug culture is implemented in cast-aside groups; the people with ‘problems.’ Drugs had terrorized young people who didn’t have an alternative to help them cope with their own difficulties… I saw kids my age in dire need of that outside substance – in need of mind-altering answer to self-love, fascination, and impulse… I liked the way everyone looked like an alien… Then, I would remember why we started chugging, snorting and toking at that age – why we hurt so bad and why we searched for that temporary numbness.”

After our class discussion of José Esteban Muñoz’s Disidentifications, I wanted to know more. I explored his book, Crusing Utopia, in order to get a better grasp on the idea of queerness as concerned with the present vs. hetero culture focused on the eternal. Muñoz closes the book with a conclusion entitled “Take Ecstasy With Me:” “We must vacate the here and now for a then and there…” he writes. “What we need to know is that queerness is not yet here but it approaches like a crashing wave of potentiality…Willingly we let ourselves feel queerness’s pull, knowing it as something else that we can feel, that we must feel. We must take ecstasy” (185).

Throughout Indestructible, Road includes pointed accounts with her own substance abuse, particularly of speed. True; speed isn’t quite the same as ecstasy, but in the above quote, Road seems to be arriving at a similar conclusion as Muñoz: members of “cast-aside groups” latch on to something mind-altering in order to compensate for that missing part of self-actualization.

So, my question is: how do these two authors’ arguments mesh?

Whereas Road is of course talking about actual substance and Muñoz is using the effects of the drug, ecstasy, as an allegory for the state of mind of utopian queerness, the sensations that both are evoking are where I’m finding compelling common ground.

Road discusses her bouts with speed particularly as a catalyst for self-exploration and a means for coming to terms with difficult questions: “I found a slight grip to answers… Sprawled in this chemical escape, I digressed” (VII). It’s striking to me that Road’s accounts concerning speed is the singularity of the experience – in trying to compare the states of mind illustrated by the two authors, this seems to be the glaring contradiction.

Muñoz writes, “Take ecstasy with me thus becomes a request to stand out of time together, to resist the stultifying temporality and time that is not ours, that is saturated with violence both visceral and emotional, a time that is not queerness. Taking ecstasy with one another is an invitation, a call, to a then-and-there, a not-yet-here” (187). Is it too much to speculate that Road, in her adolescent explorations, was missing this critical factor of solidarity? Certainly, a memoir, a graphic novel written and illustrated only by one person is an exercise in selfhood, not of a group therapy – it functions in the same ways that taking speed and answering difficult questions in the dark do.

In the above quote from Indestructible, Road also posits that substance addictions are not a conscious choice in order to “promote self help,” but a factor of necessity. The very language of Muñoz’s conclusion implies a willingness and a conscious choice: to take ecstasy in the ways described in the chapter stand opposed to the drug-culture “implemented” onto groups that Road evokes.

Road: “‘Here’s to feeling like shit tomorrow,’ I celebrated. ‘Isn’t living fast your only option sometimes?’ he said to me and smiled. ‘We’re all gonna die anyway, right?’”

So where Road shares a last experience of taking speed and then supposedly leaves it behind her, Muñoz seems to be advocating for just the opposite – the state of ecstasy revealed by such a drug offers a glimpse into a utopian space – the type of non-reality that Muñoz argues propels the performance of queerness – the “rejection of here and now” in order to establish the possibility for a different and better future.

Both authors are acknowledging practices that do so – using mind-altering substances offers an escape into a space that gives way to different realities. I feel a bit like I’m chasing my tail; this may be an exercise in futility attempting to compare drug effects in order to understand two very different authors’ perspectives on such states of mind, but the direct focus on drugs is difficult to ignore.

Muñoz finishes the book with this: “From shared critical dissatisfaction we arrive at collective potentiality” (189). Whereas Road attributes substance abuse to numbness, Muñoz seems to see the opportunity for togetherness. But maybe he means doing so without drugs. If Road and Muñoz met in a bar, [how] would they arrive at a conclusion for what role substance abuse and reality-altering play in queerness/utopias/coming-of-age?

TL;DR: Two different authors evoke effects of mind-altering drugs. Both illustrate that the space of such states of mind give opportunity for queer world-making. The question is: what’s the difference between speed and ecstasy, or in other words, self-exploration and group solidarities?

Video: “Take Ecstasy With Me.”