Spectacle, Specifically Anti-Spectacle Feb 20, 2015

by David Bucci

About ten years ago, I saw one of Richard Maxwell’s plays at PS122 in New York. On the sidewalk after the show, I remember my inscrutable playwriting professor proclaiming that Maxwell was the “East Village David Mamet.” As a fan of Maxwell’s work, I was defensive and dismissed the observation as downtown, back-handed snark. However after seeing The Evening, I’m finally seeing the connection. The Evening plays like Brecht on Quaaludes directing a Mamet short.

Mamet drives his plays with language and character, but Maxwell drives his work with spectacle, specifically anti-spectacle. The flat, declamatory style, contained in a rough diorama, seems to direct all the dialogue to the audience more than the other characters onstage.

One of my favorite Maxwell gimmicks was his use of awkward pauses to create a herky jerky rhythm in his intentionally banal text. In The Evening this gimmick is replaced with other forms of alienation such as keeping house lights at half throughout the show, incorporating long prose-like monologues that ignore the conventions of drama and theatricality, and incorporating an incongruent three-piece alternative pop band.

Ultimately, I see Maxwell as two separate artists: An excellent experimental director and a hack playwright and songwriter. Maxwell, the director, has found an outsider playwright/composer--“outsider,” as in Outsider Art--whose primitive work becomes raw material for an experimental performance.  It just so happens that the outsider is Maxwell himself. The simple, undifferentiated character voices create very generic characters who are more props for the director to arrange than Realistic characters with strong objectives and psychologies.

These characters’ wounded language “shows” the audience who the characters are in terms of the empty, seemingly brutal world of the play. The use of the live music in the show only wounds the language further, making it almost impossible to hear. As the dialogue and limp songwriting compete for the audience’s attention, I realized how often I’ve seen this scene in “real life.”

I can’t count how many times I’m watched a couple mooks hassle a bar employee as a wussy indie band plinked away at their instruments while being ignored by everyone.  As someone who has spent 20 years looking for ways to integrate rock music and theatre, I can honestly say that I’ve never seen it done like this. Maxwell doesn’t integrate the two. He just puts them on stage simultaneously and lets the audience watch the juxtaposition. It’s not fun to watch, but it is fun to talk about.

In the end, it seems that Maxwell’s limited dramaturgy is an intentional choice. I was not willing to give him the benefit of the doubt until the end to the play. The final image was so theatrical and arresting, that the preceding, amateurish-ness is clearly revealed as intentional alienation.