Sixteen Words for Water ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Sixteen Words for Water

Sixteen Words for Water by Billy Marshall Stoneking, directed by Lawrence Strangio, designed by Peter Corrigan, with Tim Robertson, Caroline Lee and Natasha Jacobs. La Mama, Carlton Courthouse until March 26.

"Pull down thy vanity", wrote Ezra Pound in a bleak moment. "Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail / A swollen magpie in a fitful sun." Those lines give an arresting image of Pound himself: at once beaten and desolate, and swollen with vain intellectual hubris.

At the time he wrote them, after the liberation of Italy by the Allied forces, Pound was imprisoned by the American military authorities in a cage in Pisa. He had been making broadcasts for Mussolini's Fascist Italy that bitterly excoriated the US government. He faced the death penalty for treason in wartime, but was judged too unsound of mind to face trial, and was instead incarcerated in an American institution for the criminally insane for 13 years, until the campaigning of his literary friends resulted in his release.

Sixteen Words for Water is set at this time, when Pound was a celebrity lunatic visited by the literary elite and curious students, and a governmental embarrassment. Although this play was written more than 15 years ago, it seems to have a particular cogency now; either the times have caught up with it, or we have retreated back to Pound's era. Pound was a dissenter, and a most difficult one: a supporter of Fascism and a vocal anti-Semite, who railed against the sins of usury with the fervour of an Old Testament prophet.

But he was also one of the giants of 20th century literature: fascinating and infuriating, revolutionary and brilliant. T.S. Eliot famously called Pound "the greater craftsman" in his dedication to him in The Wasteland, to acknowledge the master's editorial advice. He is still a radical influence in contemporary poetry. His prosodic ability makes me catch my breath: he can make a line sing as few others can. And his Cantos remains one of the brilliant failures of modern literature, a monumental work that inevitably crumbled under the weight of its own ambition, as flawed and magnetic as its maker.

This poet represents a direct challenge to the odd idea that great art and great virtue necessarily go together. To admire an artist is not necessarily to share his or her vision or ideology; and an unpleasant ideology does not guarantee that an artist's work is no good. No one interested in modern literature can afford to ignore Pound. And his attraction to Fascism and anti-Semitism was not uncommon among artists in the early 20th century; Eliot and Djuna Barnes certainly shared his anti-Semitism, and Marinetti and the Futurists, among others, were famously Fascist.

Still, Pound's campaigns against the US government disturbed his friends. Puzzling over his political convictions, his great friend Williams Carlos Williams commented that, despite it all, Pound still had "the true naivety of a poet". This strikes me as an insightful comment: poets are apt - curiously perhaps, since poetry is an art that to a great extent depends on ambiguity - to be very literal about language, to demand that it means what it says. In a pragmatic world which to a great extent depends on hypocrisy and half meant statements, such naivety can be a perilous thing. It's an insight that informs Sixteen Words for Water, which is written by another American poet, Billy Marshall Stoneking.

Stoneking's approach is simple: the play consists of dialogues between Pound and two women, one a psychiatrist who is appointed to write a government report, the other an infatuated student. What the dialogues eventually reveal is the problem of Pound (not least the problem he posed for himself), as a stubborn, intelligent human being of surpassing loneliness. All his rhetoric is there, unvarnished and repugnant, but also his hatred of the capitalist war machine. He considered usury - the lending of money at interest - to be the great evil of the modern world; and who, in the age of Halliburton and international money markets, can really argue with that?

It makes for a wordy play, but Pound's irascible wit, mule-headedness, abrasive honesty and, in the end, his sheer pathetic humanity, more than compensates for those moments where the script tips over into the sheerly explanatory. This is a very finely directed production, staged with a subtle and witty theatricality by Laurence Strangio. There are many clever touches - I especially liked how Pound served tea, simply writing the word on a piece of paper. It at once has a Spike Milligan absurdity and suggests something about a poet's attitude to language.

Peter Corrigan's set is deceptively simple: a pen surrounded by orange plastic, hung with half a dozen washing lines on which Pound pegs his poems. The phsyical restraint of the washing lines - the actors are always having to stoop and lift them up to cross the stage - suggests imprisonment extremely effectively, and Pound's orange jumpsuit has more contemporary associations. The performances too are detailed and convincing. Natasha Jacobs and Caroline Lee are much more than mere foils to the central role of Pound but even so, Tim Robertson's bravura performance (is he channelling Ez?) steals the night.

The play leaves you with the dilemma that was Pound himself. Many of his beliefs (but by no means all of them) were indefensible. How can you disentangle the political beliefs from the poetry and the man? And is such a disentanglement - which has been attempted by some of Pound's admirers - in fact desirable? On the other hand, should he have been imprisoned simply for what he said? Of course, if he had not been a famous poet, Pound would have been summarily shot for treason; but all the same, the question remains - an uncomfortable question that has no easy answer - whether any state that imprisons its difficult dissidents can really claim to defend freedom of speech.

La Mama Theatre


jeremy eccles said...

A brilliantly researched review. But I'm amazed that Billy M-s's cross referencing Wandjina in The Kimberley didn't rate a mention. I thought that a wonderful conceit at the time of the original Sydney production - linking an abstruse, intellectual insight to our country most persuasively.
By the way, some credit should go to the amazing dramaturg, Paul Thompson who worked with Billy - I wonder whether he gets a mention in the program today? Sadly, Paul is lost to Australian theatre, last heard of in New York.

Any plans to tour the production?

Jeremy Eccles

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Jeremy - Uncle Ez is one of my favourite poets, so fun to write about. I thought about mentioning the Wandjina thing...but you know, it just didn't get in there. Just because it's Australian didn't seem enough of a reason, like saying that the only reason Pound is interesting here is because he mentioned an Australian people in his Pisan Cantos. (Isn't that a kind of cringey thing?) But hey, you mentioned it, so it's ok. I don't think the dramaturge is mentioned in the program, but I could be wrong. And I don't think it's touring, but again I could be wrong.

Scalljah said...

Dear Ms Croggon, I think I may have hit 'n run here before. I am a middle aged mentally fragile semi homeless man living the dream of being a simple penniless poet.

Not long ago I wrote a Pound inspired open form poem called ISOLITIMAGE, which was published by Blazevox and can be accessed on a link via my dashboard.

Go to the desmond swords blog and it's on there. Unfortunately I am out of the loop with the in depth theories, and am now concentrating on creating linguistically innovative and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magic and to further this end have stolen your line "celebrity lunatic" which is perfect for an idea I have which relates to my Jan Manzwotz blog persona. Unfortunately, legal constraints prohibit me from discussing this identity, unless I slip into my Scalljah character vernacular, the lingo of which is all about goin' deep deep down to the way way on down magic roundabout sound, like what Ezristotle whatshisface was tryin' for when he was banged up in the loop bin rantin' on about exterminatin' usury rates on light novelty domestic goods when takin' out a loan wiv the the bank of scotland, coz that's what happened.

I know this because I am the current custodian of Mr Pound's memory and hold legal title to all his thought structures, some of which are very very interesting,', but which, once again, certain legal disbarments dissallow me from sharin' wiv anyone but meself, when I'm locked in the padded room on F ward, from where I am writin' this message to you, without the Dr's knowledge, coz I'm not allowed to use the internet wivout supervision coz Terry the self harmer has bin tryin' to access sum dodgy sites.

Anway, I'd better go coz I can hear the tablet trolley nurse cumin wiv me methadone.


Anonymous said...

Hi Alison,

Your comments in: This week on Theatre Notes, ('Sixteen Words for Water' and 'The Big Con') rattled some loose thoughts. So here they are as they pop up:

There is something inherently irrational and deceitful about language. Being the natural casualty of consequence it continues to ensure the survival of society‚s muddied reality ˜- Pound's "Fitful sun". Perhaps more than any other artistic rendering poetry as an anomalous witness is also a form of (enigmatic) vanity. Pound, (like Rilke) possessed multiple personae. Arguably, this further inflamed a dissident intellect; insofar he was agonisingly conscious his poetry often represented disgruntled views within a wider library of fluid interpretation. The difficulty I suppose was how to sign off against the predilections of other people, and against the
arbitrariness of many facts and issues, while still holding his ground. An impossible task, I would say. Consequently, in characterising, say, a disagreeable
aspect of society, explicit meaning would seemingly represent an imposition, rather than an integration of all that was available to him. Socio-political poetry constituted in compounds influenced by hardened values and discriminatory views, whose roots are firmly embedded in personal experiences, as well as, in Pound's case, idealist nationalism and patriotism, leads to the non-startling conclusion: In a cultural
context socio-political poetry can never represent a collective encapsulation, therefore, is enormously flawed because it is unavoidably contained.

As always, text-based 'Then' and 'Now' interpretative comparisons are errors waiting to happen, which, inevitably they do. Certainly, histories and facts can be compared but the transposing of a past era as a wholly complete and unsullied identity into the
present time is beyond even the imagination. But something falls into our lap, regardless. Albeit obligingly resonant in selective surfaces, perimeters and areas as passed on by any number of people. In our need for answers and belonging reason and sense knows no bounds. We are both ignorant and oblivious to distant violations within and perpetuated by language. If history repeats itself it does so as a mischievous echo residing in invocations and metaphors. All we have are hand-me-down words. Words discretionally governed by cogitative methods of interpretation and understanding which, although perhaps conforming to social patterns, and reflecting like-minded beliefs and ideals existing between friends are, nevertheless, constructs of an inherently flawed culpable consciousness, arguably, no more or less superior than those it naturally differs from (possibly to one's anger and frustration). Can it be any other way? Maybe I'm drawing a long bow but I wonder if human life is partly dependant upon a linguistic energy-force of life-giving absurdities and uncertainty? Ibsen's, 'life-lie.'

When I look back and forth I do so (so it seems) not as someone outside of history but as someone who's in it. It is as if time is continually carried over (not passing) therefore, temporal divisions do not exist. They do of course; but only within the memory of a perpetual now. Are feelings (which are interpretations) valueless because they work off intimations, inferences and moods, as opposed to knowledge derived from so-called facts? When reading a serious work, is the former state more enlightening and informative than being conjoined to, say, a poet's highly personalised interpretation of civilisation? Which is the purer teacher?

Writing a socio-political poem is fraught with what words do not know or choose not to contain. If art is embedded in culture it is absurd to think a culture's multifarious nature can be understood in both page-limiting and mind-limiting words. As Pound
himself asserted, "Knowledge is not culture." How much relevance and creditability, therefore, should be read into a play such as, 'Sixteen Words for Water' as a medium perhaps holding a message applicable to our own times, if, after the curtain comes down nothing conveyed matters - nothing in our lives changes? That is, what, for example, is the purpose of reflecting shameful knowledge if first we cannot give up who we are? Of course, ironically this may be the play's message.

I wanted to link in all of the above with your comments about satire but my automatic drifting mechanism is beginning to cut in. Keep on: To his credit Pound scorned his own arrogance, prejudices and preferences - guides yielding poems that, in their omittances and one-sided formulations conceptually suggested literary totalitarianism, as some critics have claimed. Pound denounced modern civilization, as much as he was painfully preoccupied with its emerging heterogeneity and elusiveness. Everything
inter-penetrates, is another text, another personality - another mask. The dilemma was (and still is): "How do I admit I am wrong without losing rightness." In short, his intellectual position was untenable because his artistic conscience was incapable of peaceful closure. Caught in a similar cul-de-sac with a tremendous intensity and sense of eternality - reminds me of Vallejo's utterance, "The Coarse Colossal Block" ('Trilce'). In grappling with, which way, and what way, Pound's inner-turmoil turned to, "Pull down thy vanity", which was as much a final admittance as it was an option - a lesser path, perhaps?

Paraphrasing either Foucault or Barthes (memory loss), "The author does not write words, words write the author." On a literary front, then, is freedom attainable? A provocative thought the chardonnay-sipping elites could ponder on (assuming they have not already done so). For example, in our moral judgements do we replicate conscience or the other way round? I agree with you that satire can be conservative in a smug sort-of-way. Like 'Sixteen Words for Water' I will not see the 'The Big Con.' I
imagine however, being light entertainment it gratified the audience's expectations. Is satire thriving in serious drama? Where is the political subversiveness in Australian theatre? Who cares? Are dramatists always playing to the converted? As I see it, that we do not ask vital questions anymore is not the real issue. The real issue is: We no longer know the questions! My gut view is: Generally, the greater our insecurities and the more horrid, debased, fragmented and ambiguous the world becomes, the more our minds and souls will retreat into a monotone of custom-made niches and quotidian comfort zones. To my dismay I am looking at myself! In such a society/world, regeneration can never be as Kafka wrote: "That we do not waste our time on books which do not come on us like an ice-axe shattering what is frozen inside our skulls and spirits."

Hope you get the connective gist of all this.



Alison Croggon said...

Hi Colin

Thanks so much for these comments, which open out the question of Pound, and Pound's struggles with language, in such interesting ways, and much more questioningly that I did. I'm not up to addressing everything you say - I've been very ill this week, and my brain is still not quite working - but here are a few random responses. Pound's multiple personae were why I didn't trust his work when I was younger; as I grew older, they became rather a reason for trust, in that the work did not rest on some spurious authenticity of self, but moves restlessly through its realities, constantly attempting to chivvy some meaning into those "husks of words" he hated so much (or perhaps I misquote too).

As for what can be meant and what can be communicated; as Pound also said, "feeling is what remains", which I have always taken as a notation of where he might place value. But this of course can by no means rest on some easy sentiment that eschews thought or even "knowledge", in all their various forms.

The question of whether any kind of writing can be "free" is a fascinating one. I guess in relation to the play itself, rather than Pound: plays are a literary form that differ from poetry in certain crucial ways. One is the pragmatic sternness that theatre itself imposes on a play: it's an incredibly strict form. Plays can be seen as much less "free" than other kinds of literature, and demanding of other kinds of reflection, if you like, than a poem would be, being so ruthlesly temporal. I am quite sure that Brecht's valuing of "crude thinking" in his conversations with Walter Benjamin are crucially to do with his work in theatre; this crudity is perhaps theatre's virtue. But it may also make theatre a challenging medium in which to investigate a figure like Pound.

The idea of "preaching to the converted", a scoff often made by conservative pundits, might be applied to almost anything. People ultimately listen to those things they choose to hear. Art can make them listen to something and hear something else; theatre can be very good at this!

Anyway, I've rolled to a halt now. I ought to be writing some reviews for this week.

Thanks again, and best wishes


jeremy eccles said...

What a 'smart' response dear Alison. I made the mistake of thinking you were writing about Billy's rather good play. But it appears that you and the other commentator are really only interested in Pound.
Of course Pound is an interesting Modernist poet and may be even more interesting as a traitor. We don't have many people these days so caring about their country they're prepared to betray it! But the play's borrowing of his passing reference to Wandjina to provide the fictional Pound with a way of justifying his silence regarding his wartime activities seemed at least worthy of discussion in the context of the play.
But you can't win the all

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jeremy

The danger of writing a play about someone like Pound is that, er, discussion might then arise about Pound. That was certainly what I found myself thinking about afterwards. But fair dos.

I spoke briefly to Laurence Strangio a week or so after seeing the play, and he tells me the play is considerably edited in this production. I saw it many many years ago in a workshop production at the Playwright's Conference, and I must say it struck me very differently in this version; but since I didn't have the text, in whatever version, I didn't trust my memory enough to comment, since I wasn't at all sure what the changes were. That probably applies to these comments too: but I really wouldn't be surprised if the emphasis had been shifted, perhaps considerably.

Which is not to say that the Wanjina reference is not important; I thought a bit more about that legend of the gods' mouths being removed after your note, and the idea of shutting up because of incontinent creating is an interesting one...especially in relation to Pound. But it would be most interesting in relation to his poetry, I would think, rather than his propaganda. I doubt Pound thought of that as "making", in any sacredly poetic sense. I also have a lot of trouble thinking of Pound as a nationalist, for all his political intent; maybe it seems to me more likely that he said nothing because he did not believe that there was any point in saying anything, since the kinds of things he wanted to say were most likely to be ruthlessly simplified into narratives of nationalism, &c. I'm not sure either that he ever had a driving urge to justify himself to other people or to a public. The overriding metaphor in the production I saw certainly seemed to me to be language itself, as a material and dynamic and often unpredictably misleading power.



Billy Marshall Stoneking said...

Actually, the play presented in Melbourne did not take very many liberties with the orignal script. There was some cutting and some adding (of passages written by Pound) but these were mercifully few and the play I saw was pretty much the play I wrote and re-wrote and re-wrote...

I can't help but applaud Jeremy, who I will thank for his annoyance and articulation of that annoyance, concerning the lack of discussion re: the ideas in the play, particularly the pivotal idea of the Wandjina, which most Australian reviewers in all of their manifestations have assiduously avoided ever since the first production was launched in Sydney... I suspect the subject is is a blind spot in most Australians' knowledge of Australia - the all-too-common ignorance of this land's myths and stories closes that subject. Anyway, how can one expect a reviewer to actually engage in research prior to the writing of his/her review! Quite frankly, I'm just happy to see that the play has generated some discussion. And pleased that it still speaks to me even louder and more relevantly after all these years! Great production! *clapping all round*

Jen Jewel Brown said...

Delighted to see so much chatsa here over a La Mama outing and also the return season of this important play and the return to La Mam of one of Carlton's long-term major players. Enjoyed this strong, thought-provoking piece of theatre. Would have like BMS to have given us more Ezra poems in the text, but perhaps copyright issues? Tim's performance as guilefully charming and disturbing as the man may well have been. Other cast good but in the direction/staging I would have liked to have seen 1)at least some minor set changes in the second act and 2) the relationships between the women and this long-incarcerated man pushed harder for the inherent dissonant rage/attraction/power imbalance issues. All seemed kept to the playful and polite level which seemed improbable to me. The play kept working in my mind long after the experience.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Billy - nice to see you here. And I've just caught up with your comment. I'll defend myself here: I wrote about the play I saw, and the ideas that attracted me within it. And while I admit that my comments to Jeremy were flippant, I think also that it's a bit rich claiming that my not speaking of the Aboriginal connection - which struck me as one aspect of a multi-textured production, of which other aspects, such as the materiality of language that Laurence highlighted in his direction, interested me more - comes from a sheerly ignorant dismissal of Aboriginal culture. Rather, I think as much a dislike of merely nationalistic tie-ins, it perhaps stemmed from a not quite conscious apprehension of the all-too-common appropriation of Aboriginal culture that often happens in colonialised societies.