Excesses and Corrections :
a Review of Richard Foreman’s "Maria Del Bosco
(Sex and Racing Cars: A Sound Opera)"
by Joseph Nechvatal
"One is necessary, one is a piece of fate, one belongs to the whole, one is in the whole..." -Friedrich Nietzsche, "Twilight of the Idols"
At the Ontological Theatre at St. Mark's Church Richard Foreman has again startled, shocked and radicalized us with his new work; a sound opera called "Maria Del Bosco (Sex and Racing Cars: A Sound Opera)". This sagacious sex and racing car burlesque enchants with its extraordinary rough beauty and profound nonsense humor. Its insightful commentaries on 9_11 – and the subsequent sense of unity 9_11 has engendered - are both subtle and adhesive. Mr. Foreman’s performance here is both outrageous and impressive, especially when you consider that Foerman is now an official Master American Dramatist of the United States (the first avant-grade playwright to be so honored) and that this is his 50th production. Undoubtedly, both 9_11 tragic horror and post-9_11 unity is invoked subtly here, with my favorite invocation being an important text motif which repeatedly went; ""The real is what destroys you. Make contact with the real and it destroys you."
Taking that advise to heart, I will admit that this performance is far too complex for me to attempt a real description of it, other than repeating that it spins – like a rococo confection - around the seductive Maria Del Bosco, who is played brilliantly by Juliana Francis and two other ravishingly beautiful, sex-starved fashion models played by Funda Duyal and Okwui Okpokwasili. The sexy models/ballerinas fall in love with a racing car that turns out to be human consciousness in disguise.
In this daring "Sound Opera" Mr. Foreman uses only a limited number of aphoristic sentences for his text. Each sentence is tripled in layers of processed sound with outlandish music slowly added to the sonic mix. But still, why is Foreman couching his new work in terms of a "sound opera"? Why not just as an opera? Why place extra emphasis on the sound art part - when that is not even the strongest component of the work?
As a regularly balanced opera it succeeds magnificently - even though the musical/sound element did not blend equally with the genius of the text and astounding stagecraft while the work subverts the operatic tradition and turns it towards its Greek and then Roman Pagan roots. It succeeds too by recalling that Wagner perceived the Greek Dionysian ritual as a fruitfully rich model for the art of the future because, as he explained in "Art and Revolution", Dionysian ritual involves the community in a fusion of the arts by embodying one singular ideological dramatic purpose. Wagner perceived this Greek unity as the ideal, or to put it succinctly, unity is the ideal of opera – and this is born out in Mr. Foreman’s current work. If the goal and fulfilling telos of total-art is to embody this singularity of unified thought and (implied) unified identity (even though the binary opposition between the recognition of Dionysian and Apollonian consciousness would seem to a priori conflict with such an imagined unity if not resolved in synthesis) "Maria Del Bosco (Sex and Racing Cars: A Sound Opera)" succeeds brilliantly by those terms. In our case, post-tramatic American unity emerges as the ideal state of consciousness here.
Susan Sontag, in her essay "Film and Theater" published in the "Tuland Drama Review" identified this all-embracing tendency, which she characterizes as a "breaking down of the distinction between artistic genres", as one of the two major radical positions of early (mid-1960s) post-modern art (the other trend stridently maintaining those distinctions). This all-embracing gesamtkunstwerk ideal, which Sontag goes on to identify as a desire for a "vast behavioral magma", after serious attack within authoritative Post-Modernism, returns in Foreman’s new work. Just as this gesamtkunstwerk ideal of breaking down distinctions was detectable in some aspects of Fluxus and Actionism and clearly in the Happening movement and developments in the Expanded Arts which flourished throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
That this work flows from Foreman’s osmotic fusion with the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), the subject of his last play (2000) titled "Bad Boy Nietzsche", is the key to "Maria Del Bosco (Sex and Racing Cars: A Sound Opera)" interpretation for me. In creating "Bad Boy Nietzsche" Foreman has admitted to identifying totally with his subject; Nietzsche. This identification perhaps explains a great deal about Foreman’s approach now to the field of opera and the operatic ideal of the total-artwork (gesamtkunstwerk). One immediately begins to think of "Maria Del Bosco (Sex and Racing Cars: A Sound Opera)" as a work of art by the author of "The Birth of Tragedy and the Case of Wagner". This nod to Nietzsche is confirmed in the hyper-active stage set, where an array of perverse drawings by Pierre Klossowski, author of "Nietzsche, Polytheism and Parody", are discreetly exhibited.
Yes, here Foreman, Nietzsche, Richard Wagner (1813-1883), and (why not?) Virtual Reality come together in gesamtkunstwerk fashion so as to convey a sense of an inexorable unified art experience. Of course, this understanding of the operatic gesamtkunstwerk can be traced retrospectively to assumed philosophic positions of the Greeks (Nietzsche’s specialty). What Wagner prognosticated for us – here Foreman/Nietzsche deliver: the idea of an artwork made up of a synthesis of all the arts: a fused combination of music, poetry, dance, architecture, sculpture, and painting into a multimedia-spectacle. That this conception of total-art came to Wagner while in political exile in Paris (1839-1842) is pertinent. Wagner was sitting in the Café Littéraire where, as he wrote, he was "dreamily surveying the cheap wallpaper covered in scenes from classical mythology" when suddenly a picture he had seen as a boy flashed before his mind. The picture was a water-color by Bonaventura Genelli (1798-1868) entitled "Dionysos Among the Muses of Apollo". As Wagner wrote, "There and then I conceived the idea of my artwork of the future". With "Maria Del Bosco (Sex and Racing Cars: A Sound Opera)" Wagner’s idea has materialized as a double-edged poignant politicized response to 9_11 tragedy.
What Wagner had loved so much about the pictures of Bonaventura Genelli (for example his "Bacchus Among the Muses" - which he saw at the home of Genelli's patron Count Schack in Munich) was the fact that they suggested to him a new conception of Greek classical culture that went beyond the classical ideal of noble simplicity. Here all of the individual art forms contribute to the whole spectacle under the direction of a single creative mind. With "Maria Del Bosco (Sex and Racing Cars: A Sound Opera)" Foreman/Nietzsche create just such a virtual reality based on the theories of Wagner in his "Opera and Drama".
Of course Wagner's "Opera and Drama" is a remarkable admixture of romantic ideals where the aesthetic rationalism of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) and the materialistic sensationalism of Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) blend in the concept of the gesamtkunstwerk. The uniting does not end there however. Later Wagner attempts to superimpose upon this hypothetical structure Arthur Schopenhauer's (1788-1860) metaphysics of music. And still later, Wagner abandons his original ideas on the limitations of the various arts (and his Feuerbachian materialistic sensationalism) to swing over entirely to Schopenhauer's metaphysical view of art and art synthesis. One too thinks of Friedrich Nietzsche’s brilliant "Genealogy of Morals" - where he writes of a fundamental shift in aesthetic belief concerning Wagner - the theoretician of the gesamtkunstwerk.
Since Wagner, however, the gesamtkunstwerk concept has been expanded and given different colors of meaning as the idea took on a broader, and less formally synthetic sense of unity. Indeed the post-Wagnerian concept of the total-artwork has taken on two meanings which need be differentiated, as I wish to stress one sense (the less Wagnerian sense) of this concept and not the exact, precise sense which Wagner intended. Rather, I am interested in using the more generalized sense of the concept in discussing Foreman’s recent work which the notion attained as it circulated and mutated throughout Europe and the Americas. To further complicate things, Wagner's theoretical conception of the gesamtkunstwerk is double, as one sees when reading "The Artwork of the Future" in tandem with "Art and Revolution" in which Wagner, under the influence of Mikhail Bakounine's (1814-1876) revolutionary writing, connected aesthetic-spiritual optimism to anarchist force as a way to combat the encroachment of efficiency and productivity endemic to the instrumental logic of the Industrial Revolution.
In "Maria Del Bosco (Sex and Racing Cars: A Sound Opera)" our culture is presented to us as a dramatic conflict between Dionysian and Apollonian energies – chock full of American excesses and their corrections. Pertinent to these concerns is Nietzsche’s acute criticism of the static culture of the bourgeoisie, particularly as it relates to the gesamtkunstwerkkonzept (concept of the total-artwork) in "Die Geburt der Tragödie" ("The Birth of Tragedy"): Nietzsche's account of classical Greek drama and its merits. Here Nietzsche procures the concepts of the Apollonian and the Dionysian principles out of Greek tragedy. The Apollonian principle: reasoned, restrained, self-controlled and organizing, is subsumed, according to Nietzsche, within the Dionysian principle, which is primordial, passionate, chaotic, frenzied, chthonic and creative. This dialectical aesthetic tension allows the imaginative power of Dionysius to operate, in that the products of this operation are kept intelligible by Apollonian constraint. Hence Foreman/Nietzsche examine in "Maria Del Bosco (Sex and Racing Cars: A Sound Opera)" the new American dialectic between Apollonian calmness in relation to an antecedent Dionysian non-restraining tragedy.
By invoking the power of the Greek tragic drama and directing it at our present New York City condition, Foreman/Nietzsche, of course, imply a rather pejorative judgement on previous dramatic forms of realism. But more generally speaking, this hysteric/tragic aspect of Foreman/Nietzscheian thought participates too in a recovery of the mythic Western precondition necessary for a unified/total cultural consciousness based on, in our case, sublime tragedy rooted in an excessive belief in the infinite. Such a sad excess reflects Nietzsche's important assertion which he made in "Beyond Good and Evil". Here he explains that "logical fictions" - which he saw as "comparisons of reality with a purely imagined world of the absolute" - are indispensable to humanity. Oh boy! Oh shit!
The Earl of Harewood in his "Kobbe's Complete Opera Book" points out that the antecedents of opera are to be found in the buffalo dance of the western American Indians, in the Ramayanda of India, and most notably, in the inclusion of singing as an expressive element in ancient Greek ritual; all of which express drama through sung music, gesture, and guise. Medieval Mystery Plays likewise contained some of these elements as did the semi-dramatic Madrigal Comedies, the Pastorals, the Masques, and the Interedios. Elements of all of the above mentioned can be seen in "Maria Del Bosco (Sex and Racing Cars: A Sound Opera)". It presents in some proportion or another a mixture of song with instrumental music, oration, and performance in various proportions – so it is an opera if it wants to be.
Regardless, it was in Florence where a group of intellectuals referred to as the Camerata brought opera to its initial flowering as lavish entertainment. What is germane to "Maria Del Bosco (Sex and Racing Cars: A Sound Opera)" is that the Camerata group was dedicated to the renaissance ideal of recapturing the spirit of Greek drama. In this respect Foreman’s – like Wagner's - attempt to recall unification consciousness through opera is doubly rich in that by doing so he hails us back to the origin of opera twice, as the early operas generally took tragic Greek or Roman myths as their basis (partly due to the fact that the public was a priori familiar with these tales and presumably with their many allegorical layers of meaning). But even more significantly, because these tales too hearkened back to the ideals of Greek holistic kinship with which their creators wished to be identified.
It is also consequential to note the failure of the strict Wagnerian concept of the gesamtkunstwerk in terms of Foreman; an ideal which never reached fulfillment even within Wagnerian aesthetics. If one conceives of the gesamtkunstwerk as a fusion between all of the arts, as Wagner did when he first published it, its weakness as an aesthetic ideal becomes immediately obvious. By fusing a successful work of art, say T. S. Eliot's (1888-1965) poem "The Wasteland", with music and drama and dance, is the result necessarily a stronger and better work of art? Is even contemporary music always improved by the MTVish video which accompanies it? The obvious answer is no, not necessarily so. Furthermore, is anything less like a Dionysian celebration in conflict with Apollonian aesthetics than a Wagnerian opera? In my estimation, a punk rock performance by the Ramones came far closer to this proposal than Wagner's own productivity until I saw "Maria Del Bosco (Sex and Racing Cars: A Sound Opera)".
Though it is also problematic, as the fragmentation (albeit unified in collage/montage) aesthetic intrinsic here shows us, "Maria Del Bosco (Sex and Racing Cars: A Sound Opera)" is relevant in discussing interpretations of the gesamtkunstwerk in terms of immersive virtual worlds. Here the stress lays less with the fusion of normally discrete art forms and more on the totalizing, harmonizing and engulfing immersive effect of the art experience. Indeed, "Maria Del Bosco (Sex and Racing Cars: A Sound Opera)" demonstrates this extended, comprehensive sense of the idea which the notion attained in, for example, Adrien Henri's significant book "Total Art" - a book which concerns Environmental and Kinetic Art, Performance Art, and some Happenings of the 1960s and early-1970s. In it Henri adapts the term gesamtkunstwerk in historically contextualizing a stream of art in the 1960s and early-1970s as work which "sets out to dominate, even overwhelm; flooding the spectator/hearer with sensory impressions of different kinds. It is not meant as information but as experience." With this sense of a seamless union that would sweep the viewer to another world we can immediately see here how "Maria Del Bosco (Sex and Racing Cars: A Sound Opera)" succeeds at its hyper-operatic polymedia objectives. One prays for a subject like King Ludwig II of Bavaria for Foreman’s next production. At any rate, I await it with mounting excitement.
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