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Interview with J.P. Slote — “The Body of Loretta”

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Earlier this year we had the opportunity to host a reading/performance by New York-based writer and performer J. P. Slote of extracts from three plays from the recently published collection Loretta Auditorium Presents The Body of Loretta from Fly by Night press. The collection marks the culmination of more than 20 years of work in developing pieces of experimental theatre to address themes of sex trafficking, the pornography of power, free will on the free markets and arousal in the public realm. You can listen to the performance as a podcast here. In This exclusive interview the Berlin-based theatre director and dramaturge, Arno Kleinofen, asks J.P Slote about the themes explored in this work, how the project developed and the people who made this publication possible.

Arno Kleinofen:

Dear J.P. Slote, 

Before focusing on your new book, Loretta Auditorium Presents The Body of Loretta, I would like you to tell us a little about your publisher, Fly By Night, which might be largely unknown in Europe. As I learned recently, Steve Cannon, founder of A Gathering of the Tribes and a leading figure in the downtown/American literary scene, passed away this last summer. He has been a mentor and guiding light to generations of artists of the East Village. You yourself, a born New Yorker, living since years in the East Village, since the 1980s which you call the “heyday of the underground scene.”

Could you tell us about those days and how you came to writing? How did you get in contact with Steve Cannon?

J.P Slote

Steve was already a legend in the East Village when I met him in the 1980s. He owned a house on East Third Street, lived on the second floor in a small three-room railroad flat. He lived on the couch in the middle room. The small room at the front of the house he had turned into an art gallery which he turned over to different artists and gave them free rein to create their own shows. Steve had already lost his sight at that time (he had been a professor of literature at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn), so, as he said, he was the only blind gallery owner in NYC. The tiny back room was full of books and also had a small bed. People often crashed there or lived there for a while as long as they were willing to help him out. There was also a garden out back and down a precarious flight of stairs where he held concerts and poetry readings all summer long. Tribes, Steve’s place, was a place where anyone could go, pretty much any time of the day or night, and hang out. There were always people there talking art, politics, news, gossip, whatever. It was just a great place to go to hang out, meet people—artists, painters, writers, poets, musicians, and people passing through.

I moved into the neighborhood in the early 1980s. At that time, it had hit rock bottom. The Lower East Side (LES) was the first stop in America for generations of immigrants (including my grandparents). In the 1960s it became populated by Puerto Ricans, Eastern Europeans, and hippies, and then, in the 70s, the punk scene appeared. Immigrants tend to move on and out when they can, and when the city went bankrupt in 1975 and drugs flooded in, there was “white flight” out to the suburbs. Landlords abandoned their buildings, poverty and heroin and then smack took over, and the LES was ripe for the taking. A generation of artists moved in. Rent was cheap. Artists took over storefronts and opened performance spaces and galleries. Among the ones I frequented were No Se No and ABC No Rio on Rivington Street, Neither/Nor on East 6th Street, and Tribes.

Later on in the decade, the Living Theatre worked out of a storefront on East 3rd Street, across the street from Tribes. For a few years, Martin [Reckhaus] was a member of the company, and in 1989, Judith [Malina] and Hanon [Reznikov] produced our production of Humanity in their New Directors series, directed by Martin and Elena [Jandova] So, we were working right across the street from Tribes. We all went over there to hang out when we were not rehearsing. Judith was a frequent drop-in also. There was a syncopation….

As for how I came to writing: I studied literature and writing in my academic years. I went on to make a living as a writer and editor. Mostly as a hack. For a while I was the editor of a bank marketing newsletter. Then I got a job writing cheap pornographic novels for Times Square bookstores. Later I got a job writing language arts curricula in the textbook publishing industry.

AK:

Martin Reckhaus, co-founder of Loretta Auditorium and your longtime collaborator, writes in the Foreword of your book: “This text is not written for the theatre; with her writing, J.P. Slote joined the theatre.”

So as I understand Martin’s note, the theater swallowed you.

Has it been like that? Can you describe your first contact with New York theater at that time? What do you think the theater at that time could find in your writing because, as I know, you´d been writing before?   

JPS:

Well, when I landed in NYC in 1977, at the age of 24, I had written a book of short stories, and I was done with that genre. I wanted to work in theater.  However I wasn’t very turned on by the acting classes that I checked out at various NYC institutions. (I was always cast as the adolescent and the scenes we were doing were from plays that didn’t interest me. Neil Simon plays for example.) I also wasn’t interested in “getting into the movies” or doing tv commercials, like most acting students I met.

I went to a lot of theater at that time, looking for what interested me. I discovered Caryl Churchill, for example, at the Public Theater. Her work I found exciting. Also Ntozake Shange, Amiri Baraka, Sam Shepard, and Tadeusz Kantor. Are some I recall.

Finally one day I wandered into a tiny theater on East Fourth Street down the block from La Mama, and there I saw the Alchemical Theatre’s production of Antonin Artaud’s There is no more Firmament. With seven actors this company managed to portray an approaching apocalypse, a society in crisis, populations on the move, a society in disintegration. I hung out and met them, did a workshop with Carlo [Altomare] and Mary [Krapf] [founders of The Alchemical Theater], did some street theater with them, delivered packages, sat in on rehearsals and just basically wouldn’t go away. I helped to organize Artists Present Artists, a series the company ran for several months in that old Yiddish theater on 4th Street. I created and performed a solo piece for the series, with text by Ulrike Meinhof. That was sort of my audition piece. They invited me to join the company. 

I was drawn to the theater as the place where all the arts come together. Some come as painters or sculptors of light or set design, some as musicians, some as actors and directors. I came to the theater as a writer, but I became an actor.  After Firmament, for our next work, we turned to texts not written for the theater: essays, interviews and other texts we discovered in Autonomedia and Semiotext(e), presses that were publishing contemporary European writers in English for the first time. 

I crafted the script for our next play, Pure War/The Madness of the Day, which was a hybrid. It was spliced together from excerpts from Pure War, an interview with French political theorist and urbanist Paul Virilio (by Semiotext(e) publisher Sylvere Lotringer), specifically from their exchanges about speed and power. This was spliced together with excerpts from a novella by French author Maurice Blanchot, La Folie du Jour, the story of a man whose sight is shattered as he journeys through a city (written in occupied Paris).

So, to answer your question, it just turned out that the kind of theater I was interested in and became part of took my writing to the next phase. 

AK:

The first play in the Loretta trilogy starts with your protagonist, Loretta, telling the story of the death of her mother, her last words. On her deathbed, her mother tells Loretta, “Laugh at them, laugh at them all.” As we, reading the trilogy, get to know, it’s is a nihilistic, divine laughter she advises, a Nietzschean laughter, a triumphant laughter, in view of the nullity of human existence.

Could you speak to that?

JPS:

Yes, Loretta’s mother, we don’t know much about her. I imagine her like some of the older women we met in Cracow when we played Firmament there in 1985 [the Alchemical Theatre tour with Antonin Artaud’s There Is No More Firmament]. These women had a great sense of humor, great resilience, but behind this was also a great weariness born of decades of survival, raising families in post-war Communist Poland. I imagined Loretta’s mother as one of them.

AK:

Actually there are several Lorettas, according to the main stations in her life: Loretta of Gdansk, her native town, where she is raped by her brother; Loretta of Paris where, as we get to know in your prologue, The Offer, she is lured to the West and then entrapped as a sex worker in the consumerist/capitalistic market; later Loretta of Moscow, where she is then working as a world-class escort in the highest echelons of the international banking scene; and finally Loretta of Malibu, where she (and a “colleague”) have gone into exile in a kind of Sun City luxury paradise, both with a deep knowledge of what holds the world together in its innermost workings, both full of fear, remorse, bitterness: there is blood on their hands. She is in deep trouble.

She reminds me of the Faustian Gretchen, in her career, a criminal herself, blood on her hands, a Gretchen/Loretta, who gave herself over to the market, accepting to be a commodity, a living money, a destroyed female body, blinded by the light, having visions of buzzing desire all around her; people, traffic, lights, machines, sounds, nature itself in a turmoil of desire, a maelstrom of arousal all around her. That is what she hears, smells, acknowledges. She knows that she, with her body, has chosen to exploit herself for her own profit (instead of being exploited) in the brave new capitalistic world [after the fall of the Communist states], but also, that this movement of the global capital, the market itself, is creating a theodicy. Money, capital is the new religion.

In the final play of the trilogy, The Whore in Exile, a figure named Bocamunda asks the public: “Who dares to live in the white heat of G…d?” It is an enigmatic question. 

What did you have in mind by that question? Is it a Gretchenfrage [from Goethe’s Faust]—a question about religion, human fate?

JPS:

The figure of Bocamunda appears in the first scene of the last Loretta play, The Whore in Exile. She is described as “a force of nature” but her scene is titled “Deus Ex Machina,” a device that comes to us from Greek antiquity in which the plot is resolved through the unexpected intervention of a god. I’ve always envisioned Bocamunda’s entrance in a very mechanical way: a stagehand turning a crank that allows her to descend from the flyloft onto the stage, perhaps on a throne.

She’s an invented Deity/divinity, a world-mouth/oracle. She addresses the public directly with her prophecy and her summons. Then she stays to observe the public throughout the duration of the play. At the end, she delivers her prophecy/summons a second time, joined by Loretta and Aurore and the musicians. I envision her ascending back up into the heavens-flyloft.

Bocamunda’s question, Who dares to live in the white heat of G…d? comes to us from [German-Jewish philosopher] Erich Gutkind.

But this question is, in effect, his answer to another question:

Is man’s destiny a blind alley?

This is the Gretchenfrage. The main question that calls out for profound consideration. Gutkind’s call for a profound consideration of this question is as critical to our time as it was when he posed it in 1937. As his native city, Berlin, and his country, Germany, all of Europe itself—Gutkind’s world was being swallowed alive by the power and ideology of murderers.

Gutkind writes, An unerring feeling tells us today that man reached a point in his progress where the crumbling superstructure of civilization is beginning to rock. More ruthlessly and inevitably than ever before, the very foundations of humanity are being laid bare in a cataclysm, the results of which, though gradual, are inescapable, whether we adapt ourselves to them or fly for protection to some sheltering ideology. …Man stands at the crossroads, naked and unarmed before the ultimate realities…

These words lay bare the reality of our own time.

Truly we are naked and unarmed today though we fly for protection to the sheltering ideologies of capitalism, nationalism, religion, technology, consumerism, terrorism, reality-showmanship.  Whatever. Do we really think any of these ideologies will truly protect us from the reality of world upheaval and destruction?

Is man’s destiny a blind alley?

Gutkind answers this question with a second question:

Who dares to live in the white heat of G-d?

What does he mean? What does that mean? We are summoned to consider this question, and to answer it for ourselves.

AK:

Loretta´s national background is Polish. As you know, Poland has a special role in European history. The Polish people believe Poland to be the crucified body of Christ among the European nations: torn apart, abandoned, destroyed, occupied by foreign political forces.

Is that why you choose Loretta to be a woman from Poland?

JPS:

No, Loretta’s Polish origins are personal.

My grandfather on my father’s side came from Poland, from Warsaw. He came to America, to New York City’s Lower East Side, in the 1890s as a young man. According to my father, his father wanted to be a doctor, but he could not complete his studies because he could not attend classes on the Sabbath. There was a large migration of Jewish people at this time fleeing pogroms in Poland, Russian, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. (My grandfather on my mother’s side also emigrated from Galicia to NYC at this time).

In 1980, like so many others, I was riveted by the reportage of the Solidarnosc movement in Poland. We saw the images on the news every night. And then we watched the crushing of Solidarity and the imposition of martial law by the Communist-Polish regime.

In 1985, the Alchemical Theater was invited to perform in Poland, in Cracow, and we went there in bitterest winter with our production of Antonin Artaud’s play There is No More Firmament. We had the extraordinary experience of meeting, staying with, and performing for the Cracow public, in a city and a culture with a strong theater tradition, where theater played a dynamic role in the survival of the spirit under an authoritarian regime.

So, the figure of Loretta emerged in Poland, in Gdansk, against the backdrop of Solidarnosc.

But I want to address another part of your question.

You speak of the martyrdom of Poland as part of the Polish identity. 

In the play, Loretta is, indeed, Catholic. Her mother tells her the story of her name:  it is a vision story, a girl who experiences a miracle, she sees the Virgin Mary. And her mother tells her to “put your faith in the Virgin.”

However, for me, as a Jewish person, Poland looms larger as the site of the gas chambers of Auschwitz (which we visited in 1985 while performing in Cracow). 

History is a lot more complex than we would often like to believe, and likewise the present is more complex than we would perhaps like to believe. Poland’s role in and responsibility for the extermination of its Jewish citizens is still fiercely disputed today. Witness the controversy over the planned Warsaw Ghetto Museum, in the context of the passing of Poland’s new “Holocaust law,” which effectively outlaws the claim that the Polish nation shares responsibility for Nazi war crimes in Poland.

This view points out that Poland and all its citizens were subject to the occupying Nazi regime, which targeted and exterminated many (non-Jewish) Polish citizens. This is true. And should be included in the historical record.

Yet the Catholic faith and community survived in Poland, while the Jewish faith and its community did not.

The Catholic Church went on to play an important role in inspiring and supporting the Solidarnosc movement for freedom and liberation from Soviet oppression. In the Jewish faith, the Pesach or Passover ritual commemorates the Jewish exodus from Egypt, a holiday that rededicates people everywhere to the struggle for freedom and liberation. 

Today, more than ever, we would do well to acknowledge our common sources of faith and inspiration than fan the flames of our differences.

AK:

You choose a very specific historic moment in Poland for Loretta to step on “the train to capitalism”—Poland, Gdansk, at the time of the Solidarnocs-movement, 1980. Poland, at the time of martial law: 1981. The union, Solidarnocs, opposed the totalitarian government. The economic situation was desolate, the Polish people were on the brink of starving, there was no bread. There were mass arrests and civil-war-like conditions. There was an enormous inflow to the Solidarnocs movement. This historic situation is described as the avantgarde of change in the grim times of the so-called Cold War, a first announcement of the downfall of communism and the victory of capitalism.

According to your Loretta trilogy, that is where Loretta was born. The moment she falls in love with a young man, a member of the union. Where her brother, a black marketeer and opponent to the Solidarnocs movement, rapes her. This is basically the starting point of the Loretta trilogy.

Is your trilogy a period drama?

JPS:

No, I don’t think it’s a period drama.

The story of the Loretta trilogy, Loretta’s “story,” arises from a particular historical moment and time. However, the story is not told in a strictly linear fashion in period costumes, and does not adhere solely to that historical time.

But your question raises the issue of genre. 

In our work, Loretta Auditorium has always embraced the notion of the epic theater. By which I understand: telling the story of an individual against the backdrop of a particular historical time and place. Which is also the story of the people of that historical time and place (not just the story of an individual).

The notion of epic theater is widely known, studied, discussed in Europe, certainly in Germany. The term was, after all, coined by the great German theater director Erwin Piscator, and then embraced and developed by Brecht, Peter Weiss, and many others who followed. It is still a living idea in Germany, where the study of the art of theater is known as theater Wissenschaft, theater science, or the science of theater, in English. This term, in itself, suggests an idea that is unfamiliar to the American public.

As many have pointed out, everything is—by nature—political. History is political. Education is political. Art is political. Aesthetics is, or are, political. Often, however, as “consumers,” we are blind to this last fact. The worldwide triumph of consumerist culture, driven by a billion-dollar technological industry of advertising and marketing, has made us blind to the agenda of the aesthetics that target us.

In the U.S., theater since the post-war period has been dominated by the notion of “realism,” as popularized by Lee Strasberg and “method acting,” which is a direct descendant of the great Stanislavsky’s innovation of “realism” and “realistic acting” on the stage—iconoclastic in Stanisklavky’s time (he was director of the Moscow Art Theater in the ‘20s and 30’s) in that it exploded the stylized theater aesthetic of his time and put forward the idea that actors  could speak naturally on the stage (instead of the highly-stylized declaiming that was then popular, think Sarah Bernhardt, once called “the queen of the pose and the princess of the gesture”); and that the small everyday circumstances of daily life could themselves be the subject of tragedy.

But “method acting,” institutionalized in American theater and film for more than 70 years, has become the tool of an aesthetic that tyrannizes us. It does not permit the eye to see another way. Check out a couple of hours of commercials on American television to grasp the tyranny of this “aesthetic of realism” and its portrayal of “real” American life—which covers “everything”—from teenage privilege, sexy hot success, romantic family life, comedic work situations, middle-class worries (insurance, security, money), and fun-filled aging—to medications for a staggering array of (ever-new) physical and mental disorders for every organ of the body. 

Brought to you with the production values of a blinding hyper-realism.

Every time, every era invents or re-invent its own representation of reality. 

(See Erich Auerbach’s masterwork, Mimesis: A History of Representation in Western Literature, for a highly erudite tour of representation in Western literature from Homer and the Old Testament, through the ages, ending with his own modern era in Virginia Woolf.)

But, to return to your question: Is your trilogy a period drama?

As I said, this raises the question of genre. We are often asked: What kind of theater do you do? Is it musical theater? Well, we always work with musicians and music. Is it comedy? Well, we feel there is humor in our work. Is it drama? What’s theater without drama? Is it dance-theater? Well, we do work with physical movement. So, what kind of theater is it? Usually I answer: It’s experimental theater. Experimental in what way?

Aha. We have arrived at the crux of the matter. The answer is: In every way. 

One example: we experiment with form, with mise en scéne by which I mean not simply the set as people here understand it, but the relationship between the players and the public. We always consider: What is the relationship of the public to the spectacle we present?

For example, in the first Loretta play, God? or The Pornography of Power, the public is cast in the role of invited guests at a Libertines’ salon. The spectacle is presented for the guests’ entertainment and edification.

In the second play, La Gente/The People or Free Will on the Free Market, the public is cast in the role of the public in the agora, the public square, standing together in an open space with the action happening in different places and the public free to move around.

In the first version of the third play, La Città Assoluta or Arousal in the Public Realm, the public is again cast in the role of the public in a public meeting hall.

In the second version of the third play, The Whore in Exile, the public is the sea. This version is set in a safe-house in Malibu overlooking the sea, where two aging madams, who have left the business, retreat with their ill-gotten gains. In the High Noon scene, the public becomes the city.

We give ourselves license to draw from many genres, not to be confined to any particular one. We leave it to the public to decide the genre of the play.

AK:

The book also tells the very specific story of how Loretta came to her name: Loretta´s mother tells her about the legend of Loretta, a girl, who had a Marian apparition, an epiphany. And that´s how she got her name. At the end of her mother´s life, her final advice to Loretta – to laugh at them all – an educational advice, uttered under the statue of Virgin Mary. 

Is Loretta a figure like Jeanne d´Arc, who does not end at the pyre; who is not killed, slaughtered, executed, like nearly all female characters in classic dramatic literature, in tragedy?

JPS:

Joan of Arc is a martyr for a cause. Loretta refuses to be a martyr. Her only cause is survival.

AK: 

Loretta´s insight is into the mechanism of biopolitics, her body is that of a product of necropoliticis (as A. Mbemebe) would call it; her body a “map” of fears, desires, affects. Her body a copy of an ever-present war-machine—a sacrament, an oblation. Throughout the trilogy, Loretta doesn´t oppose being treated like a victim; her perspective on her existence is more like she gives in, her body a commodity, a tool for the mad forces of the markets.  

JPS:

Yes, she is victimized. She is raped, she is forced into prostitution, she is trafficked and sold. That doesn’t mean she gives in to being victimized, to being raped and sold. She is forced into it. When the first opportunity to escape presents itself, she takes it—without realizing that she is being further trafficked (she is lured from Gdansk and a life of petty street prostitution to Paris where she is trafficked into a „higher“ form of prostitution). Later she takes another opportunity—she crosses over from being trafficked to becoming a trafficker. She rejects the Sadean role of Justine (eternal victim) and opts for the robust role of a Sadean Juliette (entrepreneurial exploiter)—for her own profit and pleasure.

But thank you for making me aware of the work of Achilles Mbemebe, the Cameroonian philosopher and political theorist. His necropolitics analyzes how “contemporary forms of subjugation of life to the power of death” (slavery, apartheid, colonization, terrorism, human trafficking, forced migration) force large parts of the human population into a stateless status, bodies denied the right of social and civil life, forced into an inhuman existence somewhere between life and death.

As for Loretta, she understands this very clearly. She understands—her body is the commodity in question.

AK:

You even describe her becoming part of the teller booths, at the tellers’ counters of your fictional East-West Development Bank, becoming part of the machines of turbo-capitalism, functioning nowadays at the speed of light. She, her body, is bound to go along, to serve the feverish ups and downs of desire, arousal, satisfaction, arousal again, in high speed. Her body does not represent, she is not an avatar, but she is the economic curve. It is as if her body has been inscribed, like in Kafka´s “Penal Colony,” by a judgment-machine, an overall nihilistic force, and the authorship of the machine is unknown.

How did you develop this? How did you and your theater company manage to realize this on stage?

JS:

Yes, well now we come to the pornographic image of Loretta, the transgressive image, which is so unspeakably obscene: a woman whose sexual organ is offered to clients through the teller window of a bank, and whose orgasms are monitored, measured, and monetized on a digital meter.

Pornography, as a literary genre, is by nature cartoonish, a cartoonish representation of reality. 

The narrative of Loretta of Paris („Monte Carlo Night at the East-West Development Bank“) is a cartoonish pornographic fantasy. It’s intended to be titillating (it’s pornography after all). 

Yet it’s also pretty harsh as a metaphor for free will on the free market.

To answer your question about how we staged this transgressive text.

Martin conceived of a pornogram, a translucent box which would both reveal and conceal the actress inside speaking the text. 

Set and lighting designer Gary Brackett and filmmaker Jeanne Liotta developed a spectacle of lighting effects—light and images projected onto the translucent walls of the box from inside and outside. First of all, this gave the actress delivering the text from inside the box (Pat Russell) the power to be clearly seen (as she approached the screen) or retreat into obscurity (as she stepped back). This pornogram delivered images that signaled to the audience,  an enigmatic set of signs delivered in tandem with the pornographic story being told.

AK:

In the first part you also introduce two personages whose origin goes back to Sade´s writing. So, we meet again, Juliette and Madame Durand (a master poisoner, her partner-in-crime). We listen to their discourses. In your introduction notes, you refer to your longtime employment with Sade´s writing, and the perspective of Roland Barthes and Angela Carter on these writings. Both discover Sade as the source in describing the explicit relationship between power and sexuality. Sade develops the scale of passions, ranging from the pornographic to the criminal: pornography as a general mode of production within affective capitalism.

Could you point out the two different perspectives of Roland Barthes and Angela Carter on Sade, and how they have been an important influence on your writing of Loretta?

JPS:

Barthes, in his essays on Sade (Sade, Fourier, Loyola) systematically identifies and analyzes the many elements of Sade’s oeuvre. Here’s a sampling: “Politeness, Rhetorical Figures, Crudity, Watered Silk, The Handkerchief, Mirrors, Colors, Libertine Poetics, Irony, The Voyage” etc. This approach seems appropriate to Sade’s own embrace of that Enlightenment genre/invention: the Encylopedia (Sade writes, in effect, an encyclopedia of the perversion of power).

Then also, Barthes’ essays are extremely readable and edifying.

Barthes clarifies the double nature of Sade and his signs. Here’s Barthes on Sade’s Hatred of Bread

Sade does not like bread. The reason is doubly political. On the one hand, Bread is the emblem of virtue, religion, labor, difficulty, need, poverty, and it must be despised as a moral object; on the other hand, it is a means of blackmail: tyrants subject the people by threatening to take away their bread; it is a symbol of oppression. Sadean bread, therefore, is a contradictory sign: moral and immoral, condemned in the first instance by the contestatory Sade and in the second by the revolutionary Sade.

Barthes also clearly identifies the mode of production that Sade puts at the service of his libertines’ libertinage.

Barthes on The Conveyor Belt

The Sadeian Eros is obviously sterile (diatribes against reproduction). His model, however, is labor. The orgy is organized, distributed, ordered, and supervised like a studio sitting; its profitability is of the assembly line (but without a survalue)…. What is being described here is in fact a machine (the Machine is the sublimated emblem of labor insofar as it simultaneously accomplishes and exonerates); children, Ganymedes, preparers, everyone creates an immense and subtle mechanism, a meticulous clockwork, whose function is to connect the sexual discharges, to produce a continuous tempo, to bring pleasure to the subject on a conveyor belt (the subject is magnified as the outcome and final point of the entire machinery, and yet denied, reduced to a part of his body).

And here’s Barthes on the role of the narrative in the theater space:

The principal site at the Chateau de Silling is the theater of debauchery where everyone meets daily from 5 to 10 p.m. In this theater, everyone is actor and spectator. The area is therefore simultaneously that of a mimesis, here purely auditory, consigned to the storyteller’s narrative, and of a praxis (a conjunction attempted, generally unsuccessfully, by many avant-garde theaters)….

I cite these examples from Barthes because I think they speak for themselves.

As for Angela Carter, her book, The Sadean Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, is likewise a tour de force. Where to start? Where to start?

I think she presents the most cogent reading of Sade that I have read. She describes Juliette as,  

a little blasphemous guerilla of demystification in the Chapel. She uses sex as an instrument of terror; death is more frequently the result of it than birth. She lobs her sex at men and women as if it were a hand grenade; it will al- ways blow up in their faces. She is a token woman in high places; she is engaged in destroying those high places all the time that she is enjoying the pastimes they offer.

On Justine, Juliette’s sister, Carter cogently observes:

The recurring images of the novel [Justine] are the road, the place of flight and hence of momentary safety; the forest, the place of rape; and the fortress, the place of confinement and pain. [Justine] is always free only in the act of escape, for the road down which she perpetually flees is, in spite of its perils, always a safer place than the refuges she spies with such relief, that offer her only pain, humiliation and a gross genital acting-out of the hatred of men for the women whose manners they have invented, and related to this, of the pure and impersonal hatred of the strong for the weak.

[Italics are mine.]

AK:

In your writing, the focus on the Sade material is in the discursive mode. It´s as if you imagined Juliette and Durand to be some kind of Wiedergänger, Zombies, ghosts from the past (and the future?): they interrupt Loretta pornographic text, commenting and inciting her further.

JPS: The texts for the libertines’ discourses are pure Sade, his words, harvested from thousands of pages of Juliette. Sade’s work in his own time was known as philosophy (not as pornography—that term is born in the Victorian age). Sade’s scenes of enslavement, torture, and slaughter are punctuated by the libertines’ philosophical discussions on power and free will. I borrowed this format and some of his thousands of discourses.

AK:

Dramaturgically you built scenes in scenes, reflecting each other–you put also different situations, scenes and time periods and places in a “dialog.” We also find throughout the montage some examples of monologue–situations. As we know, a monologue on stage functions like a close up in film, it stops time.

JPS:

That’s very interesting what you say: “a monologue on stage functions like a close up in film, it stops time.” I have to think about that. It does stop time, because one actor, all alone, speaks. A monologue is often a reflection or meditation on a theme or an event. It can also be a narrative that relates things that happened, or are on the verge of happening (in the play). It stops the action for the moment for poetic or narrative comment. One thinks of Hamlet, for instance, but we call that a soliloquy: “an act of speaking one’s thoughts aloud when by oneself or regardless of any hearers, especially by a character in a play.” It comes from the roots solis, alone; loquy: speak. The act of speaking one’s thoughts aloud when by oneself. This could be a meditation, a rant, a prayer, obsessive thoughts, fantasies, all and any of the private voices that clamor to be heard in our minds. Speaking those thoughts without regard for the presence of the “other.” We see people like this on the streets everyday ranting their thoughts publicly. We avoid them, step to the other side of the street, to be cautious. 

Of course, in the theater, the soliloquy is a device that presumes no one else is present, while knowing, the theater is full of witnesses. 

The monologue, the modern form presumably, is defined by the dictionary as, “a long speech by one actor in a play or movie.” A second definition is “a long, tedious speech by one person during a conversation.” That’s very funny. Although I can think of many plays I’ve seen over the years where this definition definitely applies.

In the first Loretta play, Loretta of Gdansk speaks directly to the public for the purpose of being heard. What starts out as a very personal story, about a daughter and a dying mother, turns into a story of first love and arousal—and a public uprising against tyranny. It then becomes a story of rape—of a girl, and of a people. It is delivered as a kind of testimony—demanding public attention. 

AK:

The cover of the book shows a naked female body clinched to the surface of an semi-opaque cage. Looking at the cover, and I bet, looking at it on stage, one cannot decide, if this body is in pain or in an ecstatic situation. Sometimes it appears to me as if having a glimpse into a slaughter house.

JPS:

This terrifies me. The world is a slaughterhouse.

Gutkind speaks of this terror:

To be abandoned. To be nothing but an object waiting for redemption.

This is the fate of millions of the world population who are trafficked. Or victims of forced migration. Or refugees. People trapped eking out a subsistence in the factories of free market zones.

To be slaves. To be removed from the community of humanity, to be removed from the gaze of witnesses, and to have no hope of escape. This is a horror lived by millions of people in our world today. They range from migrant construction workers building new futuristic cities; people living subsistence lives scratching precious metals out of the earth for our technological devices; generations born and dying in displaced persons or refugee camps; domestic workers enslaved in their employers’ luxury homes; women, adolescents, and children bought and sold as sexual objects.

It is unspeakable. Yet we must speak of this. 

AK:

The tone, rhythm, and metric structure of your language is highly expressive, poetic; during certain passages clearly pornographic, but with a poetic pathos, which seems to have a Verfremdungseffekt on the reader. Somehow it functions like a stepping aside of the excitation effects of reading pornographic literature, pointing at the anaesthetizing effect of the overall pornography in the commercial sphere, in the increasing consumption sphere of the tele-spectacle.

Tell us more about how you come to use these techniques constructing the trilogy?  

JPS:

The so-called Verfremdungseffekt that you speak of. Most commonly associated with Brecht. Usually translated into English as alienation effect. However, Verfremdung translates better as “to make something strange.” 

(Not to be confused, for example, with the German word Entfremdung, which translates better as estrangement (both contain the root word for strange: fremd). To estrange: in Marx’ case he used it to speak of the estrangement of people from others of their species as a “consequence of living in stratified social classes.”)

Yes, to distance the audience or the reader from something, to make something strange. But what? Brecht: to distance the audience from a character and her plight to analyze more objectively characters and their situation. Method Acting: to allow the actor to inhabit or identify completely with someone not themselves, for the purpose of evoking compassion through psychological empathy.

We play very carefully with psychological identification with characters. We use it sometimes. But more often we seek to distance the actor and the audience from an all-too-familiar and all-too-easy psychological identification with a character for the purpose of stimulating an easily-evoked compassion (which evaporates all too easily as one leaves the theater and returns to one’s own life).

Perhaps that’s harsh. There is a powerful effect to be had here. The great characters of Greek theater, and others since then, attest to that. But to what purpose, the Greek idea of catharsis? To recognize within ourselves the character flaws we witness in the protagonist, to vicariously suffer the calamitous consequences of that flaw (without actually experiencing it in reality), and to send us home awed, subdued, and instructed in the catastrophic outcome of certain behavior, to instruct us in proper behavior under the current regime (not to call for or work towards changing that regime).

We seek to distance the actor and audience from what is easily perceived (through convention, even cliché). 

We seek instead to hold up reality for scrutiny in a “strange” way, for the purpose of taking another look, or experiencing it another way, considering it in a here-to-fore unconsidered way, with the effect (on actors and audience) perhaps not-entirely already-known.

Berlin-NYC, 2019

copyright Kleinofen/Slote

To order J.P. Slote’s book, Loretta Auditorium Presents The Body of Loretta:

In Europe, contact akleinofen@gmail.com

In U.S, contact jessica.slote@gmail.com

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