Getting out of the Fog

Photo by Joe Chea

“There is nothing in this world more honest and dependable than self-interest.”

This is a line in Jen Silvermans The Moors, and a through-line in this play where characters murder one another, use each other’s bodies, and even manage to love each other solipsistically. The play is playing now in the heart of Times Square, at the beginning of a regime fueled by self-advancement more visibly than usual. In other words, the journey of stepping outside to see this play felt like seeing this play itself. It is a bullseye, thrown from very near the bullseye.

The Moors tells the story of people working to preserve their legacies in a Brontë-esque landscape in order to reveal a little about back then and a lot about now. Silverman draws a parallel between two sisters who hate each other, and one’s manipulative decision to hire help in order to literally gestate her family’s heir and another’s desire to keep a diary and then to share her words with an audience.

Mike Donahue’s production takes place on a carpet of black astroturf, where characters toss discarded chicken bones and get lost in fog. This feels like an appropriate setting for a play that is so cynical about our relationships to the people closest to us, to books, and to the potential of language. In Silverman’s world, characters slip between contemporary American and 19th century dialect with an eyeroll, and writing is portrayed as a form of narcissism that is so blinding that it leads to literal violence (though Birgit Huppuch handles her characters’ delusion with such clownish relish that this storyline is a pleasure to watch). Watching The Moors I wondered: who is its bleak message about writing for? And, by the very virtue of writing this play, is Silverman suggesting an alternative view about what writing and theater can do?

As a playwright, I am aware of how all consuming and self important theater can make me feel, so The Moors’ message may be for me. I am thinking about how when I am working on a play,  I disappear from civic life. I am thinking about how, when I am working on a play, I will respond to a message from a friend a week late, and I’ll say I was gone in theater land but now I’m back! and she will say that’s so exciting about your show! Why do I do this and why is this acceptable to my friend?  I do this because it makes me feel important. It is maybe acceptable to my friend because our culture romanticizes the narrative of the artist who is consumed by her originality and passion. Because we talk about this work, and the theater in particular, as something that can be validated by a stranger like a critic, which then gets us something or somewhere. The Moors reminds me of the importance of romanticizing something else. Of criticism that isn’t concerned with judgement as much as a kind of conversation. Of getting here so we don’t need to be there.

If our tendency is to validate ego and ego-driven work, how do we combat that? And then, what do we replace it with? Under Trump there is real urgency to these questions, and their ramifications extend far beyond the confines of the arts. These days, I have been looking towards those enlightened practices which are more process-based for hope:

John Cage writes:

Remove the records from Texas
and someone will learn to sing
Everybody has a song
Which is no song at all;
It is a process of singing
And when you sing,
You are where you are
All I know about method is that when I am not working I sometimes think I know something, but when I am working, it is quite clear that I know nothing.¹

¹John Cage, “Lecture on Nothing,” 1959

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