Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Review: Save for Crying


By Angus Cerini.

You may have missed your chance to see Angus Cerini's latest; I have a feeling it might have sold out the rest of its run. If not, do whatever it takes to score a ticket – it's not just his finest work to date but one of the finest pieces of theatre in a long time, and lingers in the memory long after it's over.

I won't write too much about the specifics of the show here because part of its power is derived from the experience of entering its unique world on your own trajectory, trying to determine just what it is you're encountering. I did want to throw up a few thoughts in the meantime, though, if only as a way of thinking through the eerie dynamic that sets the piece apart from most frameworks of interpretation we might bring to the production. In some ways it seems so reminiscent of territory explored by Beckett, Pinter or Keene, but it's also utterly distinct. I'm trying to pinpoint just how.

The outsider is probably the key figure of modernism – the alienated individual existing within but not as a part of society. He (it's usually a he) is Ellison's Invisible Man, Camus' l'etranger, Chaplin's little tramp, Salinger's Holden Caulfield, Dostoevsky's Underground Man, and pretty much everyone Beckett ever wrote. I doubt you could get through high school English without discovering a whole bunch of outsiders to add to the list. The modernist outsider is usually a tragic but noble figure, sometimes comic but in that deep, melancholy way. And being an outsider, his existence at least implies a majority, a norm from which he is excluded or made absent. It really, thoroughly sucks to be him.

What's so powerful about Save for Crying is that it doesn't seem to be an Outsider story. The two central figures of Luv and Alfie most definitely fit the bill – we're left constantly wondering exactly what their situation is, and throughout the show I felt I spotted references to homelessness, incarceration, mental illness, physical disability, institutionalisation, addiction, illiteracy, abuse and racial vilification. These are rarely pinned down – victimisation seems to be the ocean these people swim in.

But they're also not outsiders, since there's nothing in particular that they're outside of. If there's one aspect of the production that almost everyone I've spoken to has remarked upon, it's how close to these characters we become, and how their strangeness (in language and action) come to seem entirely normal within this world. It's a remarkable achievement.

The only way I can think of to understand it is to discard the model of the outsider versus society in favour of the older, theological distinction between the elect and the preterite. Preterition was a pretty obscure branch of eschatology in which scholars suggested that the End of Days wasn't something we're heading towards, but something that has already occurred. All of the biblical prophecies have already taken place, judgement has been rendered, and our eternal fates secured. God has decided the few He will save – the Elect, or in some translations, Elite – and the rest of us poor sods will forever be preterite, the passed over.

If there's some currency to this esoteric bit of doctrine, it's that the preterite aren't the tiny fraction of people excluded from the warm embrace of contemporary civilisation but are the mass itself, everyone who knows that they will never be given the key to the inner sanctum, because they were never supposed to. The state of preterition is entered when one realises that our place in today's world system has already been decided, and that the structure of that system prevents any true escape or self-ascendancy.

Save for Crying goes one further, too – Luv and Alfie's tormentor, Ratspunk, is himself one of the preterite, just as anyone who is handed the robes of the Elite today (celebrities or politicians or the moneyed classes) must realise that to truly reach the top of the tree would require them to become a concept, an abstraction, a disembodied angel. Better to live in the muck than scrape off your skin trying to escape it.

La Mama Theatre until March 6.


CNP said...

JB, I'm sure we'll discuss the show itself at length anon, but I'd argue that a great deal of modern literature with a female protagonist also positions her as an outsider to the mainstream male discourse. The reason for outsiderness is different but the otherness is just the same.

Born Dancin' said...

Good point, and I kind of thought of a bunch of counter-examples as soon as I typed that but didn't want to wander off too much. I was thinking about a certain stream of writing that characterises the crowd and modern life as emasculating, and pits the man apart as a kind of last bastion of masculinity. But I think that's a whole other problem in itself.