Robin Bernstein on Affect in The Rude Mechs

“Toward the Integration of Theatre History and Affect Studies: Shame and the Rude Mechs’s The Method Gun.” Theatre Journal 64:2 (May 2012): 213-230.

 


 

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The Rude Mechs’s The Method Gun

I like this essay! In my opinion, it is consummately crafted and clearly frames its argument around a single concept: shame as an affect, as applied to a reading of The Rude Mechs’s The Method Gun. Bernstein’s reading is excellent, although this choice of subject strikes me as a bit improbable as a model for affect in theatre– but more on that later. First, the good stuff, in condensed form:

 

  • As an affect, shame replaces death

In a sense, death is overrated in theatre. It is, at least, too often assumed to be theatre’s ontological limit, the thing at risk in the foundational performance works of the sixties and seventies. Think Chris Burden. (Who is referenced in the name of the performance’s fictional guru, Stella Burden.) Or Marina. Or for that matter, Bernstein argues, Peggy Phelan’s Unmarked. (There are many other examples too.) As Bernstein points out, there is a lot of potential shame and embarrassment on stage, but “I have never seen anyone, onstage or in audience, die.” As I see it, the continuing perception of theatre and live performance with death is a sign that it depends on symbolic forms representation. Affect, on the other hand, does not conform to symbolic language– a fact that Kathleen Stewart points out repeatedly in the introduction to Ordinary Affects. Crucially, this shift also has consequences for the ontological status of performance, which is typically assumed to be “live.”

Lots to be said here.

  • The Rude Mechs’s Racial Shame

Bernstein deals with a numbers of ways in which The Method Gun consciously stages its anxiety about failing to live up to the example of one’s artistic predecessors, as well as the exacting standards of theatrical realism based on method acting. However, she points out that the performance also displays an unacknowledged source of shame: racial anxiety. Her two major pieces of evidence are compelling.

Firstly, The Method Gun conducts a meta-performance of A Streetcar Named Desire, which includes non-white roles occupied here by the white members of The Rude Mechs, who “play the roles as racially unmarked.” This unacknowledged racial substitution is a way of suppressing difference and the privileges accorded to whiteness. Here’s Bernstein:

“In The Method Gun, Burden’s actors’ self-involvement and self-examination stop abruptly before questions of whiteness; the Rude Mechs are willing to display themselves dancing awkwardly, crying, flubbing lines, or even tethering their genitalia to balloons, but they never acknowledge their cross-racial casting… They never acknowledge themselves as white.”

Convincing stuff.

Does race appear anywhere in the show? Why yes, says Bernstein, albeit unintentionally: in a clown-like figure who appears in the opening of the show– a tiger. Dressed like a mascot, it may not seem that this tiger is linked to racial ideology, but as Bernstein notes, it speaks with a Spanish accent for increased comic effect, even though “tigers are native to no Spanish-speaking part of the world.”

Method Gun

The tiger in The Method Gun.

Bernstein: “Its jaws sealed shut, the tiger performs the role of unmasticated shame– a cold lump of contemporary white shame that sits, unmoving and painful, in the belly of the show.”

What a great insight! Bernstein does an outstanding job in her racial analysis. Given her academic expertise, this reading should perhaps be no surprise. But one might also expect that the author of Cast Out: Queer Lives in Theatre would address the role of gender and sexuality in The Method Gun, especially since her conceptual framework is drawn from the queen of queer studies, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

To my mind, The Method Gun also strongly invokes anxieties about gender and sexuality, especially about white masculinity. Even without closely reviewing the performance, it is possible to see evidence that supports this conclusion. First of all, method acting is a notoriously hypermasculine pursuit associated with the self-destructive urge of star actors, such as Robert de Niro, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Christian Bale. (As seen in early Scorcese films, De Niro particularly epitomizes the hypermasculine display of masculine self-destruction.) Who can live up to the impossible intensity of these male stars? Hence, the ironic gesture towards the “gun”— an obvious phallic symbol— in the performance’s title, which was used by the company’s fictional acting guru, Stella Adler. As it turns out, the gun was always filled with blanks, a sign of metaphorical and literal impotence. Impotence is consistent with Adler’s presence of a female model for method acting. Perhaps the only thing worse than being unable to live up to one’s artistic forefathers is to be at the beck and call of a woman, who of course, turns out to be a fraud, a mere fiction. Little wonder that “she” never appears on stage, even in a photograph.

I suspect that there is other evidence to support this claim about the centrality of male anxiety to The Method Gun. One might, for instance, follow Bernstein’s racial analysis of Streetcar in order to examine how its gender politics affect the staging employed by The Rude Mechs. More pertinently, however, is the question about the absence of queerness. I am not sure if there is a “smoking gun” in this respect, as Bernstein found in her example of the Spanish-accented tiger. Perhaps The Rude Mechs’s anxiety about living up to Stella Adler invokes questions about artistic lineages that could be troubled by turning towards other models of kinship not based on the concept of inheritance and reproduction.

More broadly, what troubles me is the possibility that the performance of masculine anxiety at work in The Method Gun may also be present in work by other young ensemble theatre companies in the U.S.. As an example, the prominent group Elevator Repair Service comes to mind. Are they an all-white company? (Quick image searches suggest that they are, but that’s by no means proof of that fact.) Like The Method Gun, they are also dealing with issues of artistic predecessors in American culture, such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald– Gatz famously stages a full reading of The Great Gatsby, a man, it might be noted, who is the first and last of his kind, a fraud, much like The Rude Mechs’s Stella Adler. Oh, and he has some pretty big gender issues to boot.

Gatz Public Theater/Martinson Hall

Elevator Repair Service performing Gatz.

I have also had the pleasure to see ERS at work with my students. Several years ago, they gave an admirable workshop for us, which really energized students into thinking about different strategies for creative work– strategies that notably broke with models based on an internal process of self-expression. Instead of self-expression from within, they encouraged students to design movement sequences drawn from outside sources, taking this video of a performance by cheerleaders from Alcorn State as their model:

 

In the context of Bernstein’s analysis of the “race-blind casting” in The Method Gun, the artistic appropriation of this dance by ERS follows a similar pattern. Furthermore, it should prompt us to ask about the resulting dance in Gatz: what does it mean for these particular bodies and movements to be cited on stage by white performers? Does it reinforce specific racial anxieties and stereotypes, perhaps such as the powerful black female body, which could potentially overwhelm and overtake white civilized culture? In this sense, is the cheerleader’s dance implicitly likened to a primitive religious ritual? To what degree, if any, does the specter of miscegenation linger here?

In noting these questions, I have drifted from my original subject: the prospect of affect in theatre, especially as it relates to queerness. Following Bernstein’s model, thinking about shame— rather than death— may provide a way to rework anxieties here about death, be it the death of one’s artistic lineage and national identity or the social death imposed on subjects excluded from representation.

 

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