A conversational response to TOILET FIRE: Rectums in the Rectory

Photo by Sara Hylton

Photo by Sara Hylton

I recently had the strange and delightful joy of seeing Eliza Bent’s Toilet Fire: Rectums in the Rectory (which just finished its run at Abrons Arts Center). Toilet Fire is a sort of laxative for the constipated soul, an almost manically silly inversion of a traditional Catholic Mass into something more like a Craplic Ass, an ornate religious ritual centered on that great equalizer, pooping.

Donning a series of deliciously stupid costumes and accents, the virtuosic Bent takes us through the entirety of a mass, complete with singalong hymns chock full of poopy puns and led by the angel-voiced (and not in a poopy way) Alainna Farris, readings from sacred (poopy) texts, homilies, sermons heart-to-heart conflushions (not about past sins, but about past encounters with the dreaded Auntie D), communion, and, yes, the passing of the collection basket.

We stand up, we sit down. We sing songs. We think about poop. And at the end of the day, it’s pretty poopin’ lovely.

My craptacular companion this evening was my good buddy Jarrett Moran, a quiet but excitable intellectual nymph who can always be counted on for some high-octane critical brilliance. For some reason I felt like he would be the right person to take to this show, maybe because it seemed like fun to take one of the smartest folks I know to a play about poop. It was.

What follows is our post-show verbal diarrhea, in which we unpack the experience and flush around the ever-floating question – what was that shit about, anyway?

(Our conversation returns again and again to the ending of the show, which deserves a quick summary here: Eliza Bent drops the artifice of performance and delivers a heartfelt (and semi-improvised) monologue about her personal digestion issues, her relationship with religion, and the origins of the show. Specifically, she describes going to a Catholic Mass in Kansas, entering skeptical but leaving (no pun intended) deeply moved. We then sing a rather gorgeous final hymn, the first without a single poop pun, and end the play in a place of refreshing earnestness.)

Part I: Surprise! Your Ass is at a Mass.

Jarrett Moran: Ok here’s my hypothesis: That was an excuse to get us to go to a mass.

I think that in the last song, the conceit was dropped, and we were presented with the experience that the playwright had described having at a mass, without the poop. We were dropped into a mass and we realized that we had been lured into going to a mass.

Jerry Lieblich: So it’s something about how do we earnestly and with an open, fresh heart, approach the idea of a religious service, without all the baggage that everybody in the world carries about what a religious service is. How can we safely enter that, and see what’s actually very beautiful about it? We end with that super gorgeous hymn about turning night into day…

JM: So part of my experience of it, which was probably different from yours, was that I knew all the tunes for the hymns, because I had heard them all growing up.

JL: I was wondering why everybody in the audience knew how to sing along.

JM: All of the reference points were right for a suburban Catholic mass. If you had experienced that, then it was playing off those strange emotions.

JL: What was it like having that kind of sense memory experience of it?

JM: For the first half I was feeling that those sense memories were being played with for the sake of cheap jokes and puns. But I think the final monologue was about how if you do have that very complicated experience at a mass, and you want to try to share that with people, then maybe this is a way to do that – by short circuiting everything that goes along with it.

It’s presented as a play about poop. And the mass is a stage set for jokes for awhile. You would never expect to end with an actual hymn, but you end up getting there. You’re not led to expect it, so it takes you by surprise to get to that sincere moment.

JL: Even not as a Christian, but maybe as a big fan of a lot of aspects of Christianity, I had to wonder at one point “is this super sacrilegious?” And obviously it is sacrilegious, right? But is it sacrilegious in a bad way? But it actually feels very celebratory of aspects of Christianity, or the Catholic mass, especially as we go on. Once we got to the communion moment, and we got to eat that babka and drink that wine, it was a way of saying “this is so lovely. What a lovely thing for people to do. What a beautiful, communal ritual.”

Christianity especially gets freighted with how it’s used politically by the Religious Right, that I think it’s so easy to forget the kernel of a religious service. Which even if you take away the idea of approaching the mysteries or touching the divine, and just say what is it for people to be in a room and do something together, and sing songs, and stand up! It was so fun to be asked to stand up! And no matter how silly or meaningless the thing being said is, the fact of doing it is really wonderful. And in that way the play feels like such a celebration both of religious service but also obviously of theater.

JM: I was maybe expecting a play about the body, using religion to talk about that. And what I experienced was more of a laxative about repressed Christianity in suburban America, or the progeny of suburban America. During the communion, while we were sitting there watching everyone else go up there and get their babka and their wine, I had the exact same kind of pleasurable experience that I had as a child watching people walk up one by one and just looking at their faces and thinking about them.

JL: It’s a chance you get to actually look at everybody in the room.

JM: And in a strange communal ritual context that is outside of everyday life.

Photo by Knud Adams

Photo by Knud Adams

Part II: Poopsan Sontag Rears Her Poopy Head.

JL: I want to give a very different reading of it. I want to propose something else, even though I think your hypothesis is dead on.

One of the things I was thinking about, weirdly, was Illness as Metaphor by Susan Sontag, in relation to all the stuff in the play about digestion. So the central thesis of Illness as Metaphor is that we should not ascribe moral character to illness, and not ascribe moral character to the body, in a way. Moral character and meaning. And I think about my insensitive reaction to gluten intolerance, just feeling like “oh, get over yourself.” Even though it’s obviously a real thing, somehow culturally the fact that it sprung up so quickly – and I don’t think I’m alone in this – I’m just tired of hearing about it. And I often feel a lot of judgement towards picky eaters, because I’m not a picky eater.

And there’s something interesting about using a religious context, which is a context of meaning-making and making the sacred, to talk about the way we eat, which is both – you can think about the rituals of eating, of course, but also about the rituals of a sort of homespun kashrut of what is and isn’t ok to eat, whether it’s we should all avoid sugar, we should all avoid gluten, we should all only eat whatever. Whether that’s private or cultural, the kind of magical thinking that goes into that, but also the moralistic thinking – how your worth is connected to what your body can take in. And the fact that I feel that people who are really picky eaters, or who have gluten or lactose intolerance are somehow “weak” because they have a weak physical constitution – that’s mistaken, magical thinking. And that’s what the play talks about towards the end about guilt, that I should not be ashamed of the things my body can and can’t take in.

What I’m trying to articulate but can’t get around to is the idea of the magic in all of those things, which has to do with ascribing meaning or moral character to things, which is like ascribing the sacred.

JM: The play plays off Judaism and Christianity also as dietary communities.

JL: Right, one of the first things about Judaism is that it’s a dietary community – it’s one of the ways that it separates itself.

JM: There’s the tension between separate communities of eating, but also the ritual of everyone sharing in their particularity. And one way of talking about that is eating and pooping, which is acknowledged here in this ritual about eating and pooping.

JL: Right, even though pooping is something we definitely don’t do in public. It’s something we hide. Similar with spirituality. It feels weird when people talk about their spirituality in public. So there’s something that feels very apt about the metaphor. Pooping is something that takes place in a dark and private space, like prayer.

JM: Both sides of it. Both the divisive and judgmental and constipated side of it, and the aspiration towards a community of mutual acknowledgement where everyone’s particularity will be made whole in the community separately.

JL: In some ways it goes to this idea of confession or conflushion. Whatever you are holding in – let it out. And when we are more open and free, there is a great freedom and power in that.

JM: The conflushion session with all those characters was a moment when the virtuoso character of that role really came out, when all these very different characters had to come out one after another. We haven’t talked about the divided personality that provides all of the characters to the play. You’re introduced to all these characters, but they all come back at the end in the playwright as autobiography.

JL: I loved how at once virtuosic and utterly stupid the characterizations were. Like the really dumb facial hair and silly accents. There’s something really great about pointing to the artifice of it all.

JM: That artifice starts to make more sense when you realize that you’re really seeing one person play dress-up to act out these very difficult things and these confessions that are actually quite personal, which comes across in the end.

JL: What great power there is in making light of something that you have a lot of shame about. And how wonderful to see the dress-up and the silliness, which we know comes from a personal place, but to actually let that open up in the end was really great. I also love the idea of the show ending with telling you where the show came from, why she thought this was a good idea.

JM: It wouldn’t have worked without that for me. There’s the silly beards and accents, but also the entire artifice of silly puns, which goes so far over the top with putting poop references in every word, that there’s a manic playfulness that is actually about how this is difficult material. I would need the last part to get that, and that redeemed the rest of it.

JL: Otherwise it’s just “how many poop jokes can I shove in one text?”

So I’m going to venture a reading that I’m not sure I agree with, but I’m interested in this idea of divided personalities that you brought up. Is there a reading of this play that is about repression and the schism of the soul that repression makes? And that part of the cleansing ritual of theater or a religious service is the catharsis of wiping clean and unifying the self through ritual, to a point where we can face something openly.

JM: This is a compelling reading for me. And we explicitly get this moment when she is blaming her religious identity as being a source of constipation, or bowel trouble of some kind.

JL: Which for me goes back to Illness as Metaphor. Thinking that your physical problem is something wrong with your mind or moral character. Fix your life and your body will fix itself.

JM: And so no matter what we end up mythologizing these bodily functions and giving them meaning. They become moral tales.

JL: Just like how you can’t help making a moral tale out of day turning into night and night turning into day, so too can you not avoid turning the mysteries of the body into morality and myth. How wonderful to see that ancient Hebrew prayer about the inner plumbing of the body. How can you not help but turn these mysterious, constant things into myth or a morality tale.

JM: Or a judgement on yourself. Whatever thing that you can’t control that is also your body.

JL: Fat shaming is so interesting in that regard. In a way that alcoholism almost isn’t. I think as a culture we maybe are a little divided about the way we feel about alcoholics, in that we talk about it as a disease, and we don’t necessarily blame the drunk for being a drunk. But we pretty much blame fat people for being fat. It becomes a character judgment.

Photo by Knud Adams

Photo by Knud Adams

Part III: Poopterpretation

JL: There’s something that feels funny to me about analyzing this play in this way. Obviously she is very smart, and has probably thought about it in this way, but there’s something about the purely silly exterior of it that is fun or strange to plumb.

JM: I think about that last moment when we’re given that sincere hymn, that there were still people in the audience laughing, because that was the only way they knew how to respond to this play. They just kept laughing, even though this was just a church hymn.

JL: That made me sort of uncomfortable. I wanted to tell them to stop.

There’s a couple of things about this play – if you had told me ahead of time how it works, I would have said “no that won’t work.” Like that the end of the play is explaining the play, and then we go to a purely earnest place. It seems like so much of the theater I see now, or writing that feels interesting to me, comes from this question of how to be earnest. We’ve been ironic for so long, how do we say something really from the heart and actually do something really honestly?

JM: The way that’s set up is “I had an emotional experience at a mass, how do I tell people about that, but also have it make sense in the context of this very constipated relationship with religion.” And by the time we get there, you get it. It makes sense.

JL: Because we’ve been participating for so long.

I’m interested in the rigorous analysis of the willfully silly, and where that pushes too much against the grain of what the goal is of the art.

JM: In this case, I thought the willful silliness was so willful and on the surface that it was inviting you to figure out what was really going on, and it eventually brought you in. So I feel like I was invited to have this conversation. But I could imagine a version that kept me on the level of the silliness and didn’t invite me to go further in.

JL: It makes me think about nonsense, and what the role is of a work of art that resists your intellectualizing it and resists your interpreting it. How do you interpret that?

JM: It was, what was for me an uncomfortably long period of time, an absurdist poop mass. And I didn’t exactly find it funny, and that ended up being part of what the play was about. But there was an uncomfortably long period of time where I didn’t realize that was what the play was about.

JL: Right, where you’re just like “oh, is this a joke that I’m just not digging?” And it totally seems like it’s that for a long time. And I think a real strength of the play is shown by the fact that some people were laughing even during the last hymn. That some people’s experience was that this was really funny all the way through. How cool that you can either get on board with that or get on board with “this isn’t funny, how can I analyze this?” And actually both experiences hold water.

JM: Where were you in that?

JL: I was very amused at first. But the poop grew tired on me. I was laughing a bunch in the beginning, but then wasn’t. Not because I was having a bad time, but because it just was no longer funny to me, necessarily. And maybe because I don’t have that deep lizard-brain sensory experience of a Catholic mass, I think I felt a lot of distance from it a lot of time. And I knew it was referencing the Catholic mass, but it wasn’t like biting into the madeleine for me. And so I think that’s why I went to Sontag, honestly, because I was just trying to put the pieces together and that was a thread that felt like it could start making sense to me. I say that and dislike the part of myself that needs to make sense of things for myself all the time necessarily.

I wonder if there’s a reading of the play that’s about that – that’s about pooping and the body as this thing that doesn’t make sense, and religion as this thing that either makes sense of the nonsense or gives you a bridge towards touching the mystery of the nonsense.

JM: That’s actually a good point. This confession – I keep harping on the way it ends – but the confession at the end of going to a mass and having an emotional experience is not unlike the confessions of having diarrhea throughout the play. It’s this thing that happens that is weird and a little unexplainable.

JL: Your body is humiliating itself in some way.

JM: I couldn’t help but take the autobiographical monologue at the end pretty straight, and take that as an invitation to think about what it meant to make that play. So I guess I didn’t feel any compunction about feeling like what I was getting out of the play was my act of interpreting it in light of that. You seem more conflicted about interpreting it. Why did you feel more uncomfortable about interpreting?

JL: I think because on some level the goal of the play is to shoehorn as many poop puns as possible into a mass. And you can’t deny that that’s part of what she set out to do, and accomplished. And this is maybe something more about me than about the play, but I’m interested in how to move beyond, or maybe to the side of, pure intellectualization or interpretation and turning an experience into something it represents, as opposed to looking at the experience as itself. And so I think things that have been interesting to me lately are things that are uninterpretable in some way. Things that ask you to put together pieces that don’t fit.

JM: And the play is about those kinds of experiences. It’s an act of interpretation for me to say so, but it’s about these kind of indigestible experiences.

JL: Right, and that’s what the ritual is for. To churn over the thing that’s indigestible, whether that’s a sacred text or a particular experience of the divine.

JM: And now I’m really interpreting, but we have in some ways been taught that we live in a secular age, but religion is this indigestible thing that comes back again and again. In American politics we live in an age of great religious revival. Religion has been, in our lifetimes, this experience of indigestion.

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