A Really Long Post on “Tone” and ‘The Deer House’

Theater makers of my generation use the work of north stars like Jan Lauwers and Needcompany (here is a good conversation between him and his doppelganger Elizabeth LeCompte of the Wooster Group in BOMB magazine) as navigational markers as we sail through the treacherous seas of the avant-garde. Thus, most of the young artists I know have seen The Deer House at BAM, and probably read through the BAM The Deer House Program Notes (full of grandiose proclamations by Lauwers and by Erwin Jans in the dramaturgical essay) in depth too, hoping to absorb every photon of directional assistance that might be provided. Despite the fact that I initially agreed almost entirely with Mr. Isherwood’s review of this piece on a superficial level, I was most fascinated as a director/playwright by what, at first experience, seems to be the tone this thing, or rather the bizarre lack of tone, the spare helplessness in it, the faintest whiff of which is felt by the audience and never “performed” as such. Is this piece just sloppy, precious, and rhetorical? Or are the elements, such as the loose blocking (scattered clumps of performers, seeming carelessness regarding focus, constant migration towards the “weak” and unlit spots on the stage) completely unified and intentional? I mean, in this “post-dramatic” epoch, one can justify anything (“lack of focus” can surely be justified infinitely). Is this tone the “lightness” of which Lauwers’ European followers speak? Of which Jans speaks in the dramaturgical essay? What is this lightness and how is it created? How is “impassioned consciousness of human finiteness” performed? Jans writes about this latter idea as a political mode, which does sound terribly exciting at first read. He describes it as a reaction to a Modern period which has “overfed us with theories of action,” and asks “But what would it mean if, in the countless cultural moves towards postmodernism, there turned out to be a need to develop an impassioned consciousness of human finiteness, a consciousness of a second passivity, which can only be formed on the reverse side of the “modern era” project?”

What if, indeed. Jans equates the need for this second passivity with the need to mourn, to reconcile the self to death, to be politically silent and accept war, loss, violence, i.e. to cease negotiation and pleading for life, and accept the death of responsibility and true engagement/affectivity/agency. The general productivity of Lauwers’ interest in this kind of acceptance is not really the point, and whether or not there is a need for this ‘second passivity’ can’t be argued for or against, whether or not it is rooted in Greek tragedy or not; clearly there is a ‘need’ for it in a hypothetical sphere, at least the exploration of it, in the very fact that this piece has been created. Yet I think that Lauwers has managed to find the most difficult subject for contemporary performance, (if only because performance is inherently a theory of action…) and has definitely adopted (at least in action!) the worldview that I personally find most disturbing. Certainly, the BAM subscribers are not ancient Greeks, the weight of “fate” has largely left experiential ontology, and over time we have come to perceive unconsciousness and surrendered responsibility as a cause of, not a healing reaction to, violence. In post-colonial scholarship, religious conceptions of fate are often targeted as catalysts for atrocities such as Native American genocides (I would love to think that this is a justification for the deer symbology?).
Is this piece called “light” because all responsibility has been (on the part of the characters, the theater makers, even the audience) removed? How is this tone “light” created? And to what end (or is it to no end, is it purely a nihilistic, destructive impulse?) is it created? Is this lightness the lightness of death?

In literature, tone is largely considered the attitude of the author towards the reader. In theater, it is not only the piece’s creators’ attitude(s) towards the audience, but also the projected attitude(s) of the creators towards the characters, the attitude(s) of the characters towards the audience, and the attitude(s) the creators intend the audience to have towards the characters, and the relationships between all of these. Closely related to tone are mood (emotions evoked in the moment by the complete work in action, tones set the mood) and mode (genre and expectations of the audience for that genre, plus form of the piece and expectations of the audience for that form). If we ‘answer’ each one of these tonal relationships in The Deer House with “impassioned consciousness of human finiteness” we end up with a dramaturgical map (forgive me for going through all of this) that states that the authors of this work are apathetically aware of the death/inevitable non-audience-state of the audience, they accept the existence of the audience without question and make no effort to affect the audience or prevent their (intellectual? emotional? spiritual? deaths). The audience is intended to accept the piece and have no attitude towards it, only impassionately accept that it will end, OR (and I’m assuming this is what Lauwers, like many visual artists, would argue) there is no “intended” reaction at all. The characters accept their roles and that they will end, and have no attitudes (as actors) towards the characters, and the characters accept that they are finite and that the others around them are finite. They have no expectations or emotions towards the way the “narrative(s)” unfolds either, only accept that it will end, they have outbursts of emotion which occur momentarily like the weather and are accepted by the others unconditionally. There is no judgment at all, only non-emotional acceptance for the way things are and that they can’t be changed.

How does this tone manifested in The Deer House compare to Richard Maxwell‘s piece House ? I’ve heard a couple of comparisons between these pieces now. In The Deer House the actors loll around in their underwear, rub on one another, jump in imperfect unison across the stage, and drift in and out of audibility. In House the actors speak low and without much change in inflection, yet the play itself is full of tone despite its modal atonality. House judges the reconciliation of the characters, it makes their lack of attitude, responsibility, and engagement grotesque and violent. I must say, The Deer House‘s flat acceptance of the acceptance of the characters is terrifying, but only in essay form, in the piece itself, the consensus seems to be that the play is plain old boring.

What I would like to believe is that there is a “meta-level” to this piece, that futility and selfishness are the subjects of this piece in addition to the inescapability of death and human inability to become less violent, make any sort of statement, affect any sort of change, or even act at all, or at least questions regarding whether or not everything is futile, or if lack of consciousness is useful. (“Art always gets caught between the pages of history: it is futile and has no influence on any events at all, which is where the mysterious necessity for it lies” says Lauwers in the program notes, is he serious? Then why is he an artist?) Or is this so-called “lightness” just the style and attitude (tone) with which this piece being performed? Is the virtuosity in this the absolute dedication to a “what if” (what if the modern era demanded said “second passivity”)?

Writes Lauwers, ‘Art is about man and human nature. And all good art is a self-portrait of the observer. One sees what one has learned.’ Perhaps in this case, I can’t see anything in this because I have never learned firsthand about war. But what if Lauwers is expecting his audience to create a self-portrait that reflects his attitude towards them? Because the only thing I’m really willing to be fatalist about is an individual’s inability to escape his or her own context (even a “star” can’t escape his or her own context). Are we “fated” then to become that which The Deer House reflects for the finite duration of its performance? And if so, can we learn anything from that?

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