Six years ago, when award-winning choreographer Bill T. Jones introduced a new work called Still/Here that incorporated video footage of terminally ill people, Arlene Croce, dance reviewer for The New Yorker refused to review it—or even see it. In a piece titled “Discussing the Undiscussable,” Croce characterized Jones’ dance as a “messianic traveling medicine show, designed to do some good for sufferers of fatal illnesses, both those in the cast and those thousands more who may be in the audience” [but] “undiscussable” as art. “By working dying people into his act,” she wrote, “Jones is putting himself beyond the reach of criticism.”
The aestheticization of pain certainly wasn’t new to the dance world when Still/Here came on the scene—Jones’ work already was indebted to the often brutal choreography of Pina Bausch, (whom Croce found “physically and emotionally cruel” but apparently discussable). The politicization of the arts was, though, a hot topic. It formed the backdrop for the debut performance of Still/Here and Croce’s reaction, and the subsequent responses from a wide range of New Yorker readers, including Henry Louis Gates Jr., bell hooks, and Camille Paglia.
In the visual arts, the obscenity debate sparked by Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography was still fresh. In the music world, “global” recordings had appeared such as the l992 album Deep Forest—which incorporated samplings of UNESCO field recordings of pygmy music with ambient dance music. Part of the profits from Deep Forest were dedicated to aid in the survival of rainforest peoples. A laudable cause, but the recording was reviewed in Artforum as the musical equivalent of Rainforest Crunch.
Much of the discussion about the effects of political correctness on the arts (and the perceived politicization of the NEA) concerned itself with the state of the arts and the state of criticism in general as much as the merits of particular works themselves. But Croce’s aversion to Still/Here had a personal feel. As reported by Martha Duffy in Time, Croce objected to “victim art,” or art that forces the audience to feel pity for those who cannot choose their situation. Croce said she considered Still/Here to be beyond the reach of criticism because “the cast members—the sick people whom Jones has signed up—have no choice other than to be sick.” Frank Rich, of The New York Times, responded by questioning the parameters Croce was using to define sick. “AIDS is responsible for yanking death out of the American closet,” he wrote. “This is the story of our time. Amazingly, Ms. Croce missed it.”
Enter John Donne (No man is an Illand, intire of it selfe/ every man is a peece of the Continent/ a part of the maine...) and Wit, the Pulitzer prize-winning play by Margaret Edson (who wrote this one play and now teaches kindergarten, content to never write another).
Wit is the story of professor Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. She has advanced ovarian cancer, and the play begins with her greeting the audience in a frightening, funny, scholarly-assaultive fashion, familiar to any first-year English major. She gives a short dissertation on the conventions of hospitals—which, in turn, are familiar to anyone who has felt victimized by these institutions:
Vivian (In false familiarity, waving and nodding to the audience):
Hi. How are you feeling today? Great. That’s just great.
(In her own professorial tone.) This is not my standard greeting, I assure you.
I tend toward something a little more formal, a little less inquisitive, such as, say, “Hello.”
But it is the standard greeting here.
There is some debate as to the correct response to this salutation. Should one reply, “I feel good,” using “feel” as a copulative to link the subject “I,” to its subjective complement, “good”; or “I feel well,” modifying with an adverb the subject’s state of being?
I don’t know. I am a professor of 17th-century poetry, specializing in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne.
So I just say “Fine.”
Clearly, Vivian Bearing is a two-edged character when it comes to the victim question.
Missoula actress Shelly Reed, who plays Bearing, shaved her head for the role and will donate the hair to an organization that makes wigs for children who have undergone chemotherapy. As far as I know, Reed, herself, does not have cancer. But she may choose to collapse the “invisible divide between the real person and the stage character ... so that one ... has the sense of watching barely mediated real life events.” (This is how Stanford dance professor Janice Ross describes the work of the above-mentioned Bausch, whose choreography Croce found harsh, but critically viable.) In that case, the art-life transformation will become blurred.
When we see a play about death like Wit the victim dilemma diminishes almost to the point of disappearing if we happen to remember that we all are dying. Does such a stance rob us of our own death, though? Should “No man is an island” give way to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light?” I don’t know. But I’m not sure the way to deal critically with death is to duck it. A detail Croce ducked in her critical dismissal of Still/Here was that Bill Jones had been HIV positive for nearly ten years when he choreographed it. Presumably, that fact would have gone into any artwork he made or any dance he danced. He, himself, embodied his theme, with or without the videotapes Croce found so offensive.
The Montana Repertory Theatre presents Wit, April 20-22 at UM’s Masquer Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $7.50. Call the PAR/TV box office at 243-4581.