Searching for Bohemia

Photo by Rebecca Greenfield

Photo by Rebecca Greenfield

Having just finished Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, I was already in the world of young punk poets, rebelling with their words against the powers that be, when I went to see The Civilians’ Rimbaud in New York at BAM. Despite being a student of poetry and French, I had never read anything by Rimbaud, so I was eager for this introduction by The Civilians, the company that taught me what documentary theater could be with In the Footprint, back in 2010.

And yet, although I certainly learned about Rimbaud’s cultural significance, and heard about his personal impact on bohemian New Yorkers from the testimony of several interviews, I can’t say I felt the razor’s edge of punk, the lost lawlessness, in the same way that Bolaño captures it in his novel. As a mythologized figure, Rimbaud’s identity is certainly open to interpretation. While this piece satisfyingly did not seek to pin him down, in doing so, it opened up some larger identity questions about the “investigative” form and the company itself.

The scenic design by Andromache Chalfant was spot on, evoking a warehouse/loft space with string lights, a claw-foot bath tub and a wooden door, used as a makeshift table. Complimented by Daniel Kluger’s sound design and Paloma Young’s costumes, the ambiguous world had a unified and vibrant palette. The cast seamlessly transitioned between characters and moods, time periods and modes of performance, capturing many different stories of Rimbaud’s influence.

Writer and director Steve Cosson, also the Artistic Director of The Civilians, writes in his program notes, “But perhaps more than any other poet, Rimbaud evokes the opposite of the character-centric. Rimbaud’s poems create and populate worlds. They have a profound legacy with later readers and cultural movements that he couldn’t have imagined. […] And although Rimbaud himself never came to America, he has been and still is very much present, particularly in ‘downtown’ New York City (wherever or whatever that might mean now). […] But the center of the event is the living, very present voice of these extraordinary poems.”

I take no umbrage with the piece not being character centric — it is a bold and compelling choice to put the poems and their influence front and center. However, I was frustrated by the resulting lack of specificity in the piece. While it was impressive to hear so many voices expressing their experiences with Rimbaud and see so many versions of “downtown” New York, I couldn’t get attached to any of them enough to invest. The piece felt like a collection of impressions or a Rimbaud cabaret, rather than a piece of dramatic theater, for this lack of unity. The vagueness of the form felt like an absence of choice, and for me, detracted from the focus on the recitations of the poems.

The question of “downtown” recurs throughout the piece, as we travel through different eras of Rimbaud worship in New York. It is common consensus that if America once had a “bohemia” from which young rabble rousers like Rimbaud could be born, or even truly appreciated as the rebel that he was, it is a bygone era, at least in New York. Watching this Off Broadway show at BAM, a major cultural institution in Brooklyn, called into question The Civilians’ relationship to “downtown,” themselves. Is that where or what they aspire to be? Or were they paying tribute to a bygone era in an elegiac format, produced by BAM with major support from The Poetry Foundation?

The show’s title is a nod to the series of photographs by David Wojnarowicz, in which he photographed himself wearing a mask of Rimbaud’s face in locations all over the city, documenting his and Rimbaud’s parallel declines. Yet, the image is already tired. Although Rimbaud “invents downtown,” as one of the characters quips, another adds that in New York his face has turned into such a mainstream image that it is akin to the “Obey” or “Andre the Giant” stickers, which have become all too familiar in the Lower East Side and beyond.

The character goes on to explain, “I just sort of OD’d on the process of culture. I just feel like I live in an overdetermined city where people really want to be in the culture, and I was like, ‘I want to get out!’” New Yorkers are so desperate to participate in the alternative scene that it quickly becomes commodified into mainstream consumerism. The significance of participating in culture, of being part of “downtown,” becomes almost suffocating. Where does that place Rimbaud, circa 2016?

Straddling academia and punk, something like a Saturday night at Sarah Lawrence, it is unclear what in New York we are supposed to find Rimbaud. The characters’ relationship to him is nostalgic, rather than contemporary. Even when a scene’s location is established, such as the Ashbery party where Frank O’Hara meets Larry Rivers, it’s another historical building block towards an unclear present depiction. As is the nature of Rimbaud’s poetry, we jump between worlds, only barely being able to distinguish characters through the mist of fantasy.

And yet perhaps that is exactly the aesthetic The Civilians were trying to achieve, stemming from John Ashbery’s description of reading Rimbaud’s poetry as “a disorganized magic lantern show.” While the multiplicity of voices and locations did not paint a cohesive picture, it did portray the innumerable flights of fancy that Rimbaud’s poems have inspired, across generations.

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