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by Bembo Davies
A play in book form resembles a detective story: Who done what to whom, how?
What on earth was the motive?
Larry Tremblay, if he exists at all, loves the theatre. His formula is ingenious: squirming actors give a squirming audience. Storytelling is tertiary.
Or is it? In Abraham Lincoln goes to the Theatre (available by mid-October), Tremblay has constructed a play of great intricacy.
The 1866 Good Friday assassination at the Ford Theatre may surpass the 11th of September in its inexplicability; it easily matches its capacity to derail America, spurring it into self-destructive spasms of reactive aggression. The case is long since closed, the accepted facts are clear – a youthful Matinee idol, twisted by his celebrity, bent on revenge for traumas not yet past, blew off the head of the figure of rational conciliation; he then jumped from the presidential box, misquoted Shakespeare, and headed for the hills on horseback.
Lifting the curtain on this perhaps most grievous crime ever perpetrated in his belovéd theatre, Tremblay gingerly suggests that to this very event, may be traced the contagion that has spawned what he calls ‘the Stupidity of America.’
To explore this connection, Tremblay builds a construct of progressive theatre exercises that prod, dissect, digest, divert, discard. With each twist, the narrative drops into deeper realities of the perceived themes of the play, to the actor’s relations to one other, and to the strategies of their radical genius of a director.
The script provides a tortuous treat of an ‘actor’s play’ – an actor’s play of the sort where you cruelly, finally fathom your most promising playable pathway on the last night of the run; an actor’s play that fuels ones actor’s nightmares for decades.
Written with the wisdom of a master, Tremblay’s theatre rejects the romantic notion of character: that of actors transcending their private selves to be embraced by the spirit of some idealised facet of their being, and thereby supplying the audience with some vibrant, absorbent mythical interface. Instead, he offers us a breath-taking dramaturgy of revealed truths; whisking away another layer of the genuine, his tellers of the tale repel fiction as the snake shuns its skin.
His actors are not to be characters, his characters are actors. The plot, a melodramatic given, is not to be enacted, but researched within the taut laboratory of the actors’ habitual limits.
The stage is inhabited by three instantly recognisable icons of Black&White America: an actor dressed as Stan Laurel, an actor dressed as Oliver Hardy; when a third figure appears, it is to be an actor dressed as a wax model of the title character. To portray such giants is, of course, blasphemous. Not surprisingly, Laurel and Hardy, among the last superstars of vaudeville to be kidnapped by Hollywood, resist returning to their pre-silverscreen roots. Filling the roles of these much-loved pioneers of social therapeutic sadism, proves beyond the scope of the modern close-up trained actor; try as they might, Tremblay’s actors are inadequate to the task. Mercifully, the play adroitly strips them of this responsibility; their very inadequacy is welcomed as a confirming symptom of raw, trapped humanity captured within the writer/director’s incessant invention. Naked and found wanting, the actors can only hide behind themselves.
The plot thickens…
Reading a play that progressively dismantles its running narrative, one is forced to be equally observant in examining the construction of the theatre creation itself. The piece presents an anatomy of its own rehearsal process. As each revealed detail of the tyrannical direction process: the casting compromises, the shifting framework of the fable, become in turn the stuff of the narrative, a hidden figure emerges.
The only level of the theatrical creation not ruthlessly exposed is the writing process. How can it be that the credited writer be a separate fellow from the credited director of the initial production? Is there an invisible man?
The invisible man is neither John Wilkes Booth nor Abe Lincoln; it may be the play’s director, who as hidden perpetrator, gets interrogated in absentia as to his meanings and his methods? This invisible force demonstrates a formidable theatre brain who has diabolically designed a production that encapsulates the quirky resistance of the acting process, the theatre’s inherent artifice, and the therapeutic applications of social dramaturgy .
According to the book jacket, Larry Tremblay, immersed himself in southern Indian dancing tradition.
If so, his fictive director may resemble a Kathakali master, who extracts of his devotees six months of early morning courtyard sweeping, before granting them their first lesson. Tremblay gives us a director who goads as much as he exhorts:
Play Greek, incubate the truth, act the idea of American fatness. I want clarity of tone. Internalise the bullet.
Yet behind this visionary genius, lurks yet another figure: at the appropriate juncture, the director himself joins the ranks of the corpses. We are taken in a twirling dance of concentric circles of the truth, a fictive strip-tease. Escape artiste extraordinaire, Tremblay’s dramaturgical contortions extract themselves from one interpretative level, and force the reader to absorb the narrative through yet another psychic framework of distanced personnas. Whereas the fictive production’s original cast, summonsed up from behind an evident fiction, readily discard their masks (to the point that their revealed selves dominate the story), they too are to be discarded in favour of a significantly less implausible constellation of journeymen actors wrestling within a, by now, crumbling facade of a production. At it’s most intricate, Tremblay has the actor playing the actor who originally played Oliver Hardy play Harry Hank, the actor performing the actor Asa Trenchard in the play that Lincoln attended.
The Scene of the Crime/ The Crime of the Scene
Tremblay clearly believes in the pure distilled essence of man on stage. Stories may indeed be desirable (therein lies many a truth), but the tools of telling the tale are misleading encumbrances to be discarded almost as soon as they are established. In fact, it is this obverse slight of hand, persistently revealing the transparency of his invention, that propels the piece. The ramblings of his discordant truths are barely upon one, before he deftly invokes yet another dramaturgical earthquake. Doing so he re-pitches the terrain so as to render it almost unrecognisable: silhouetting the crumbled shell of the plot against yet a deeper confession of artifice, and exposing new layers of sediment along fault lines that a conventional theatre practice would have us blithely ignore. With each new twist we question our equilibrium. We scramble among the rubble, but forget to brace ourselves for the aftershocks.
Among these steadily shifting mirror images, the dynamics of the director working his actors becomes the dynamic of John Wilkes Booth’s extended self-image working upon Lincoln’s ultimately all-too human brain. But it is also an exploration of the cul-de-sac of individal- based popular culture that has flourished since the daguerreotype. Condemning the entire post-feudal cult of the individual as a cauldron of festering self-importance, Tremblay’s primary postulate scorches the tongue:
Booth assassinated Lincoln because he was an Actor.
Ending such an investigation always invites disaster. There can be no tidy resolution. Tremblay has taken out an air-tight insurance policy. At this point into the proceedings, the audience taunt with disbelief, the actors limp with their nakedness, what remains of our resistance to the lame, operatic recipe solution that Tremblay opts for, has already been vetted. We are adroitly inoculated against the very act of generosity that the director jams down our throats.
Tremblay bravely postulates that, since the crime that so shattered the soul of ‘Our American Cousins’ was a shot in the dark committed by an Actor in a Theatre, don’t the principles of paradoxical therapy dictate that the purging dance of theatre is the only core human rite that can conceivably restore the U.S. as a nation built upon human values?
In the play’s final image, Laurel and Hardy, in a sluggish pirouette, form a Piéta around their fellow actor trapped within the figurine that seems forever banished to the wax museum. It awakes a vision of the one act that could lift the blight that so besots our planet: a global chorus of gyrating dervishes, from say 300 productions of this play in as many languages; sacrificial effigies of Abe Lincoln in his Uncle Sam carnival stripes, played by all the world’s necrotic Al Pacinos, to be deposited burning down the river of time, and drilling into America’s Christian core that a miraculous resurrection is indeed very painful.