Uncategorized | April 04, 2012
Meet the Past
William Faulkner has never been on my list of (dead or alive) dinner invites or authors who I wished I could have seen give a reading or even men with accents who I would want to spend an hour with. I came as close as I ever will in meeting my uninvited non-idol recently though when I sat through a one-man Faulkner impersonation as part of an assignment for a course titled Performance of Literature. The act was bizarre, but apparently part of a professional genre of performance called Chautauqua where actors take on the role of a historic figure in an effort to educate an audience while entertaining. The beginning of the performance felt like a play, with an actor arriving on stage and in character. As Faulkner-Not-Faulkner began reading excerpts from his novels and laughing at his own autobiographical jokes, I couldn’t help comparing again the subtleties of literature to the production of performance.
John Anderson, the actor portraying Faulkner, recounted stories of the author’s life in an accent with a pipe in hand. The performance became odd with a question and answer portion where Anderson remained in character. It seemed that as an audience we were supposed to pretend like we didn’t know how this whole thing would turn out. There was a moment of tension when an audience member asked Faulkner about how much of the author’s own attitude on race is present in his books, but the question seemed more like a challenge to Faulkner (but not really Faulkner, who is dead) to admit that he is/was a racist. Faulkner stumbled over his words and the silence following his response made most of the audience cringe. Finally a woman two rows ahead of me broke the silence with a question that she asked with complete sincerity and curiosity, “How many children do you have?”
Anderson removed his blazer after Faulkner had answered everyone’s questions and explained that the costume change signified his return to reality. A second round of questions and answers began. Anderson called Chautauqua a storytelling genre, a medium less about mimicking and more about knowing an author like Faulkner in a personal, performance way as well as having vast scholarly, literary and historical knowledge of the character. The art of storytelling line is one that I’ve used before to describe writing and to hear Not-Faulkner use it made me wince a little as somebody who always believed the art was in the subtle details rather than the accents.
The sort of suspension of belief required during the first Q and A was a stretch for me. I’ve seen plays and musicals and read fictional stories where I could get behind operatic phantoms and Emerald Cities, but the imposed agreement that the audience ignore our foresight of Faulkner, a real person, seemed unfair. As my Performance of Literature class continually points out, acting a story and writing a story are much different mediums, but from my theater chair I still tried to think of a literary equivalent. Authors ask audiences to pretend not to know all the time. The audience knows before Jennifer Egan’s characters in A Visit From the Goon Squad how the eighties punk scene ends. It’s not only fiction either, an audience senses tragic implications in Richard Rodriguez’s Late Victorians at the mention of AIDS and San Francisco. Chautauqua is an elbow nudge and a wink after somebody tells a joke whose punch-line is already apparent, while good use of time and history in literature shape a believable narrative. Overall, I can appreciate that the use of performance to narrate a figure’s life can be more entertaining than reading a biography and certainly takes up less of my Friday night.
The Kansas City public library series Meet the Past created time warp interviews with some of Kansas City’s local, dead historical figures. The library director wears a suit and tie to talk to Jesse James, Amelia Earhart, Langston Hughes and others. James showed up with two holsters and a surprising willingness to tell the story of the first daylight bank robbery, which incidentally took place in my hometown. The interviewer gives the more likable, less chiseled James a flippant definition of collateral damage after the innocent, unintended victim of the robbery comes up. James makes a joke about watching where you’re going and the audience laughs. I suppose the literary equivalent of Chautauqua is reading the same book a second time and knowing that Dorothy makes it home, the only difference in performance being the hand-over-mouth giggle of a Q and A session where an eager audience member asks her, “What size shoe do you wear?”
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