Before Leonardo’s icy kiss, before Kate’s strategically placed pendant, before Celine’s nausea-inducing song, I wrote a play with an extremely long title that debuted in New Orleans in 1993. Back then, we didn’t call it 3D. We called it live theater. Live theater with a recorded soundtrack and songs sung by Lorelei wearing hideous, fake wigs.
Nineteen years later, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the R.M.S. Titanic’s maiden voyage and demise, Hemispheric Dysfunctionalism and the Cortical Titanic sets sail on the open stage of Washington, DC. At the helm are Kerri Rambow directing the action and Jason McCool directing the music. This production features a ten-person cast, original and period-inspired music played by a flutist, two violinists, a cellist, and two wigless Lorelei. It’s going to be big. It’s going to be titanic.
After seeing the American premiere of Despoiled Shore/Medeamaterial/Landscape with Argonauts by Heiner Muller at the New Orleans Contemporary Arts Center in 1991, I was determined to write a play with a longer title. If you count the spaces, Heiner and I tie. Despoiled Shore involves collage texts derived from the Jason and Medea story with the Earth cast in the role of a wronged mother who kills her children in retaliation for environmental destruction. The end result is a collaboration of language, music, song, gesture work, dance and visual/video art. This production was partially funded by National Endowment for the Arts Inter-Arts and Theater Programs. My production was bankrolled by the occasional yard sale that my experimental theater collective held to clean out our cluttered apartments.
A close friend and theater collective member was a singer in the Dumpster Chorus in Heiner Muller’s play. Before coming to New Orleans, she had experienced a near-fatal bicycle accident. She recounted receiving last rites, learning to communicate using a manual typewriter, months and months of physical therapy, re-learning how to walk, talk, dress herself, and the various daily living activities we all take for granted. Always fascinated with how language operates, perception and cognition, and epistemology, I decided to write a long-titled play about the majesty and fragility of the human mind.
And, I have always been a fan of the song Where is My Mind? by the Pixies.
Where is My Mind
Obviously the play had to be a tragedy (or a musical or an opera) and the central figure had to be mythic, full of promise, arrogant, and flawed. Emboldened by Walt Whitman’s declaration in Song of Myself (“Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / I am large, I contain multitudes”), I collected romanticized accounts and sociological analyses of the great ship’s final days. I questioned how humans would act during a moment of crisis, how polite society would function as the unsinkable ship began to list … when our brains, societal paradigms, our faith in everything slams against the proverbial iceberg.
This moment of crisis serves as the tipping point, a singularity, the point where laws, expectations, norms begin to distort and disappear. How does the crown of creation perform during this radical transformation? Do we blindly believe the authority figures and trust that there is no cause for alarm? Do we rely on chivalric codes and parrot “women and children first”? In an act of self-preservation, do we lock the gates to prevent the poor, the huddled masses from emerging from below? Or do we bribe a crew member to row away from the cries in the dark as we piously hum Nearer My God To Thee?
Those who are familiar with my work know that I am not interested in writing a plot-driven play. I have never been concerned with the neuroses of the dysfunctional family, a play centered around a sofa or a claw hammer. We all know how the story of the Titanic ends anyway. I am more concerned with the chance conversations among the characters during their four days aboard the “last word in luxury.” How metaphors and social mores are explored, how diverse perspectives are articulated and challenged, and what a ship of fools does to occupy itself from initial departure to final departure are of greater interest to me.
I am also not much interested in character, however, some people find them necessary to tell a story. So, I surveyed the more colorful characters from the historical and fictionalized accounts of the Titanic. Naturally, an overly confident Captain would be front and center, complemented by representatives from first class (a millionaire railroad magnate, his science-smitten and socially awkward son, a pompous society lady, an effete polo playing dandy, a gaseous military historian) and from second class (a nebbish book collector and armchair semiotician, a spirited, progressive-thinking governess, and a moody, histrionic poetess). From my days with Doorika/Puree, a New Orleans-based and later Chicago experimental theater company, I developed a penchant for collage writing, the technique of appropriating text and slamming together disparate ideas. Texts from Ray Kurzweil, Michel Foucault, Noam Chomsky, Oliver Sacks, William Burroughs, Mark Twain, Ann Magnuson, and Phyllis Schlafly were ripe for re-contextualizating as conversation pieces as the great ship sailed ever faster, ever confidently toward real and known danger.
You must be asking yourself: “Why now?”