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Aesthetics, Politics, and Narrative: The Work and Legacy of Playwright Moises Kaufman

Aesthetics, Politics, and Narrative: The Work and Legacy of Playwright Moises Kaufman

Author: Anastasia Klimchynskaya

November 15, 2016

The last words Oscar Wilde spoke at his trial were, “And I, my Lord? May I say nothing?” The judge remained mute, and Wilde – on trial for his queerness in its multiple definitions – had no more chance to speak until he wrote the lengthy, haunting De Profundis from prison. These are the last words Wilde speaks in Moisés Kaufman’s Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde [a star-studded staged reading of the play was held on Oct 5th in NYC], and they summarize both the keystone of Kaufman’s work and the pressing question of queer lives: who gets to tell their stories? Whose narrative becomes the narrative of queer history and culture? 

This question is part of a larger one, simultaneously philosophical, metaphysical, and aesthetic: what is the relationship between fiction and reality? It also boasts an impressive pedigree dating back to antiquity. Plato banned poets from his perfect Republic lest their escapism distract citizens from civic duty; fictionality – that is, the idea that fiction is a separate category between truth and lying – only arose in the eighteenth century; at the end of the nineteenth, Oscar Wilde weighed in to say, perhaps ironically, that “life imitates art,” and then modernism, post-modernism, and a number of avant-garde movements came along to upend that.

What this crash course in literary history shows is that the question of literature’s relationship to reality is perennial. It’s also deeply political: the relationship between reality and representation is a question of who gets to define reality, who has the power of language and who doesn’t get to speak.

The aesthetic, then, is inevitably political. “Aesthetics are politics,” Kaufman told me quite simply when I interviewed him.

Thus, as a queer playwright, Kaufman has simultaneously tackled questions of form and politics, including issues such as censorship, hate crimes, and queer identity. Throughout his work, he has deconstructed narrative, asking how stories are told and what forms are used; in dealing with this seemingly aesthetic issue, he’s simultaneously asked the deeply political questions of: how does a story change based on who tells it? And what values, what “ideological pillars,” as Kaufman refers to them, are woven into a narrative by the society that tells it?

But deconstructing theatrical form and political assumptions cannot be done using old, entrenched forms. “It’s very hard to talk about new ideas using old forms,” Kaufman said, echoing a writer whose name he didn’t recall. To develop those new forms, Kaufman founded the Tectonic Theatre Project, which, true to its name, shakes the foundations that modern theatre is built on: realism and naturalism.

Growing up in Venezuela, Kaufman saw numerous plays by abstract and avant-garde artists such as Peter Brook, Pina Bausch, and Jerzy Grotowsky, who rejected the naturalism and realism that is so often the default in Western theatre. The first time he saw a “realistic” play on the stage, with a sofa and a kitchen sink, he thought, shocked, “this is so avant-garde!” This phrase, perhaps better than any other, summarizes Kaufman’s oeuvre: it reveals the set of assumptions inherent in each artistic form about its particular truth value and accuracy in portraying reality.

Kaufman has devoted his artistic life to questioning these assumptions, innovating in a genre usually referred to as documentary drama–a name he eschews. Documentary, after all, implies the telling of fact, while Kaufman deals, rather, with how those facts came to be, well, fact. His first and most famous two works, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Laramie Project, are based on court trial transcripts, historical documents, and personal interviews. These plays don’t present a set of facts or even a coherent, linear narrative. Rather, they present a variety of accounts, leaving the viewer to decide what, if anything, is “true” or factual. They’re not documentary: in his own words, they “question the legitimacy of the documentary form,” of that contract of fact and truth between teller and audience.

It’s thus fitting that Oscar Wilde is the subject of Kaufman’s first play. Famous for his puzzling, paradoxical statements, Wilde famously stated in the preface to his only novel that “all art is quite useless.” A statement superficially about form, it is, at heart, deeply political: a statement about the role of art in society, about the work it does and does not do. Oscar Wilde, as Kaufman suggests, was a formalist, dealing with artistic form and the way it relates to content. Searching for beauty in art, Wilde was always searching for new forms that could render beauty and elevate the human spirit. Similarly, Kaufman is always searching for new forms that could serve as containers for new discourse.

Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde is such an innovation–summarized, in Kaufman’s own words, as “a group of actors quoting from books [that] often have contradictory narratives” about Oscar Wilde’s three trials and downfall – as he sues the Marquess of Queensberry for libel and is eventually convicted of “gross indecency,” the Victorian period’s term for homosexual acts.

A largely self-made man, Oscar Wilde remains one of the most intriguing and mysterious figures of modernity. He forged a persona made up of multitudes, as vibrant as any of his fictions, for himself through the sheer power of his personality, will, and intellect. He was, suggests Michael Emerson, who played Wilde in the original run of the play, “the first self-made performance celebrity” – one that contained a little bit of each of his characters.


Michael Emerson in ‘Gross Indecency’

But a persona is never completely tenable at every moment, and Gross Indecency, according to Kaufman, is “a deconstruction of that performance.” Throughout the play, Wilde’s persona and performance break down as they come up against medical and legal (and decidedly unartistic) language that he has no mastery of, against a conflicting narrative and a different set of assumptions. By the end, says Kaufman, “the theatricality [of his performance] breaks down” as he’s unable to dominate the stage of a court of law – an arguably quintessentially queer story of a gay man being unable to write his own narrative.

In fact, if one were to aestheticize reality (always a dangerous approach), one might say that Wilde’s genius tragically came up against the values of a hostile society that were stronger and more entrenched. But that’s telling the story neatly, giving it a narrative arc akin to a Greek tragedy (a fact Wilde would likely embrace). Yet the relationship between reality and the narrative(s) told about it is more complex, as Kaufman has striven to show throughout his work. The distinctiveness of Gross Indecency is not just that it tells the story of a great artist, or a great man, tragically destroyed by his society (though there is, of course, that) – it’s that it questions the telling of any kind of neat narrative, that one included. Penning Wilde’s life as such a tragedy is satisfying, but what is the cost of imposing that neat structure onto a fraught, complex life of which we have multiple contradictory accounts?

The appeal of Kaufman’s work thus isn’t that it creates a particular narrative of Wilde’s life; it’s that it doesn’t. Kaufman does Wilde the honor of not writing that story for him, but instead of drawing attention to the very act of telling that story, and the linguistic, narrative, and political complexities surrounding the issue. Gross Indecency doesn’t provide a coherent account; rather, it deconstructs the narrative assumptions that demand that kind of coherency. Influenced by the techniques of Brecht and Piscator, Kaufman’s aesthetic philosophy is that theatre is not reality but a representation of it – or, in the words of Michael Emerson, “a performance rather than an imitation.” Just as the “real” story is often overshadowed by accounts of it, “reality” is not necessarily representable by fiction – only a version of it. (Interestingly, Emerson admitted that he didn’t research Wilde before performing the role but worked only with the words in the play, the version of Wilde he had in hand).

In fact, Wilde’s trial was arguably the first time a gay identity was articulated in the modern sense – when the language for it didn’t even exist. Though Wilde’s last words at his trial were the unanswered question of “May I say nothing?” others said multitudes; Gross Indecency is based on accounts of Wilde’s trial and writings published shortly after his death, which defined Wilde’s homosexuality by using contemporary medical jargon that contrasted deeply with the way Wilde himself portrayed his homosexuality (based on Greek ideals of Platonic love). An outsider (as Kaufman and Emerson both emphasized) not merely sexually, but also aesthetically, personally, and politically, Wilde tried to define his identity through language that conflicted with entrenched narratives. Drawing attention to these differing accounts, Kaufman highlights precisely the issue in seeking a neat narrative coherency in others’ contradictory accounts of a gay man’s life, at a time when the language for his identity did not even exist.

After Gross Indecency, Kaufman moved on to The Laramie Project.  In a poignant turn of events, it was Oscar Wilde who made–and paid for–The Laramie Project; Gross Indecency was a success, allowing Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project to travel and interview the inhabitants of Laramie, Wyoming.  But what connects also connects the two plays is that both deal with significant moments in queer history. In 1998, gay college student Matthew Sheppard was beaten and killed in Laramie in a hate crime that resonated nationally. The Laramie Project, Kaufman told me, was an attempt to do in the present what he had done with Gross Indecency in the past: to present the various contradictory narratives around the event and ask, what kind of narrative is being told? By who? And, in particular, why this story? Why, Kaufman asked me, did this crime resonate nationally, while the thousand or so other gay hate crimes in the country that year didn’t?

Perhaps, Kaufman suggested, because his death fit into a predefined set of narratives that we were willing to embrace: assumptions about who was a worthy victim, cultural expectations about the Wild West of America, the power of the crucifixion imagery of his death. In the same way that Wilde’s trials revealed the ideological pillars of Victorian society, The Laramie Projected revealed the ideological pillars of American society. The play – similarly made up of various accounts and interviews – tells the story not of the event, but of the theatre group collecting and piecing them together. It recounts not the crime but the narratives around it, and the way reality was shaped to fit them.

Yet, despite the fact that Matthew Sheppard’s death resonated nationally, the hate crimes law bearing his name was only signed into law in 2009, two decades later– though The Laramie Project remains one of the most performed plays in America. It’s been twenty-five years since the founding of the Tectonic Theatre project, and almost two decades since Gross Indecency. So the last question I asked Moisés Kaufman is, what has changed, what has stayed the same–and what can we learn from it?

“We have to own the fact that many of our efforts have paid off,” he said after a pause. “The war we have waged for freedom, for recognition, dignity, has resulted in great progress. We have to own that, we have to allow ourselves to celebrate that…. but see that there’s a lot of work to do.”

Speaking from an office covered in autographed posters for plays he’s written and directed, he speaks with passion as they frame him and assert the power of his words.

“The challenge,” he ends by saying, “is to allow ourselves to experience the joy, the success, the triumph, because a lot of people fought very hard to get here, and a lot of people died so that we can have what we have. But at the same time, to continue to fight.”


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