Aesthetic of the Week; or, In Which I Go All Cultural Critic on Your Ass

Photo: Sandro Michahelles for The New York Times

(Photo: Sandro Michahelles for The New York Times)

If we can have quotes of the day (a habit I’ve somewhat fallen out of, but something I enjoy all the same), why not aesthetics of the week? I present you with the most engrossing article I’ve read this week, from the New York Times, about a theater program at an Italian prison:

As a sound-system blasted a cha-cha-cha, the men began to dance. Wearing outlandish costumes with oversize hats and wigs, and boots with 15-centimeter heels from a Milanese store that caters to drag queens, they strutted and pranced.

But this was no ordinary cast of actors. The performers were convicted criminals serving anywhere from five years to life in a maximum-security prison for crimes as varied as armed robbery and murder.

“Theater is surreal, it’s all fiction,” one inmate, Dorjan Cenka, originally from Albania, later mused. Dressed completely in white with heart-shaped red lips, Mr. Cenka was trying on his costume for the latest show by the Compagnia della Fortezza, the theater company named after the Medici-era fortress that houses the Volterra jail where the convicts are imprisoned. It would be his first time on stage and he confessed to being a little nervous. “I’m shy, I don’t like to speak in public,” he said. With a sway of his hips, he swished his Marie Antoinette-era skirt, the powdered wig on his head tottering. “I’m doing this to get over my resistance.”

The current show — “Alice in Wonderland, a Theatrical Essay on the End of a Civilization” — is loosely based on Lewis Carroll’s masterwork, but the text weaves in soliloquies from other authors, in this case Shakespeare (predominantly Hamlet) but also Genet, Pinter, Chekhov and Heiner Müller.

The article goes on to describe the production in question, which reminds me more than anything of a certain show that was all the rage in the mid-60s, rather cumbersomely entitled The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. Marat/Sade is a play-within-a-play, wherein the pathetic spectacle of the asylum inmates who lumber through a stylized narrative about the French Revolution is of course a metaphor for the oppressed masses everywhere; wherein the paragraphs of nihilistic hedonistic rhetoric that the Marquis de Sade stops the inmates’ performance to intone are rendered absurd by virtue of the fact that he, too, is behind bars, and it is only the indulgence of the asylum’s director that permits him to have written a play in which the raving and neglected actors shout, “We want our rights, and we don’t care how/We want our revolution now!”

Punzo’s production is a really cool thing, I think; at the risk of sounding patronizing, I think it’s wonderful, and a pleasant change from the American prison system, that inmates should be exposed to experimental theater and that Punzo’s workshop setup has gotten the prisoners involved in the dramatic process and inspired many to become actors when they’re released. But the beautiful and yet seemingly haphazard drag, the postmodern attitude weirdly like something of a different decade, and indeed the appearance of Punzo himself in costume (looking for all the world like Patrick Magee’s de Sade in the excellent Marat/Sade film adaptation), are all reminders of the pathos overriding the whole affair. Perhaps that was Punzo’s intention—it’s pretty natural for a production inspired by Hamlet, Genet, and the others—but it’s weird to think that the locked-in-the-asylum metaphor of Marat/Sade is, in the Italian prison’s case, entirely literal—it’s just that the deliberate madness of the former has been replaced with the nature of the latter’s theatrical style. If themes of madness don’t exist in Alice in Wonderland and Hamlet, I certainly don’t know where they do—and although I’ve only read about five pages of Our Lady of the Flowers (and, when I was in high school, sat in on an upper-division seminar about it at Berkeley, but that’s a story for another day), the circumstances of the queering and dramatizing of a strange version of prison life seem positively Genet-esque as well. What, then, is the role of actual prisoners—men who have been convicted of real-world crimes, such that they have been removed from the real world—in all of this? What does Punzo’s program say about the role of prison, and what does it say about the inmates-turned-cast-members who are no doubt far less inclined to shoot their mouths off about mid-20th-century experimental theater than this 19-year-old American know-it-all?

I’ve actually been watching the Marat/Sade film in bits and pieces over the past week, so I was particularly struck by its resonance when I first read this article a few days ago. One of the most prevalent tropes in Marat/Sade is that de Sade’s dialogue or songs or stage directions will cross a line of permissibility, or one of the inmates-turned-cast-members will lapse in self-control, and the director of the asylum, who is de Sade’s primary audience, will leap up in anger and urge that de Sade be less controversial—which, since this is the Marquis de Sade as dramatic character we’re talking about, doesn’t usually work out too well. But it makes me wonder about this production in the literal, non-metaphorical world, and the article the NYT has written about it. Where is this struggle between artistic authority and institutional authority in a world where the institution applauds the artist? What does it say about the transgressive nature of art? And does it mean that the position of the inmates has changed—or are they still pawns in the hands of institution and artist, live bodies to be manipulated in advance of some sort of goal?

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