Purely Artificial: The Suit

Ivanno Jeremiah and Nonhlanhla Kheswa in Peter Brook’s The Suit. Photo: Pascal Victor, ArtcomArt.

Ivanno Jeremiah and Nonhlanhla Kheswa in Peter Brook’s The Suit.
Photo: Pascal Victor, ArtcomArt.


My story begins in Aix-en-Provence.

I’m spending a week with Peter Brook. He’s looking over my shoulder as I struggle directing a scene from Genet. After four or five minutes of sitting quietly watching me work, he twitches then calls me over.

“It’s too artificial,” he tells me.

“But you’ve been telling us that all theater is artificial,” I reply. “Especially Genet.”

“Yes, but it should be purely artificial.”

Purely artificial. I go to bed dreaming about that phrase.

***

The bus ride home was a torture of numb dread and suffocating despair. Though the bus was now emptier Philemon suffered crushing claustrophobia. There were immense washerwomen whose immense bundles of soiled laundry seemed to baulk and menace him. From those bundles crept miasmata of sweaty intimacies that sent nauseous waves up and down from his viscera. Then the wild swaying of the bus as it negotiated Mayfair Circle hurtled him sickeningly from side to side. Some of the younger women shrieked delightedly to the driver, “Fuduga!… Stir the pot!” as he swung his steering-wheel this way and that. Normally, the crazy tilting of the bus gave him a prickling exhilaration. But now…

I am recalling the words. Can Themba’s story is challenging in its apparent simplicity. The prose menaces. The images alternate between extremes of mundane and metaphorical. But it is not phony. It is artificial.

As I watch the play on stage, I notice that it, too, is artificial. At least in the sense that actors narrate the story as well as embody it. It’s one dimension of the Verfremdungseffekt that Americans still fail to understand. It is artificial in the sense that there is no attempt to hide artifice. Yet at the same time it is pure. Purely artificial.

***

For Ernie Bushmiller, the supreme minimalist of comics, it was three rocks.

It was always three. Why? Because two rocks wouldn’t be “some rocks.” Two rocks would be a pair of rocks. And four rocks was unacceptable because four rocks would indicate “some rocks” but it would be one rock more than was necessary to convey the idea of “some rocks.”

For Peter Brook, it’s three poles. Three poles indicate left. Three poles indicate right. Both triads oppose each other in space to give the illusion of depth and vastness. And that is all. There is no more decoration. The rest is essence. I’m thinking again of what Scott McCloud said about Bushmiller. That he didn’t draw a tree, a house, a car. He drew the tree. The house. The car. It was “Plato’s playground” of ideal forms.

Right here, right now, this too is a playground. The twelve chairs on stage have the color of Playskool furniture. Bright yellow. Bright red. Bright green. Bright blue. The yellow. The red. The green. The blue. All possible colors derive from the ones on stage, both additive and subtractive. Even color is stripped to its essence. It too is artificial.

And there, stretched out regally, knowing it is the star, The Suit. Not a suit. The Suit. And in this suit is, somehow, the entire pretext of South Africa under apartheid. A “civilized” garment for blacks to be “respectable” enough to work for the superior whites: colonization by costume. But beneath this veneer of respectability, blacks keep themselves clean. Pure. That word again.

By the time the kettle on the stove sang (before it actually boiled), he poured water from it into a wash basin, refilled and replaced it on the stove. Then he washed himself carefully: across the eyes, under, in and out the armpits, down the torso and in between the legs. The ritual was thorough, though no white man of the smell of wogs knows anything about it. Then he dressed himself fastidiously.

I know the struggle. I have lived it myself. The violence is real, not only personally but also politically.

***

Nonhlanhla Kheswa in Peter Brook’s The Suit. Photo: Johan Persson.

Nonhlanhla Kheswa in Peter Brook’s The Suit. Photo: Johan Persson.

I woke up the next morning. Purely artificial–I had written it on the notepad on my nightstand. I came back the next day with a deeper understanding of what I wanted to do. Not just with the Genet piece, but also as an artist. I wanted to pare away everything that I took for granted as “natural.” When I gave up directing for the stage and concentrated on cinema, that phrase drove me.

Purely artificial. It opened up my understanding. I had been deeply influenced by the experimental film movements of the 1920s and the 1950s and ’60s, but the spartan, structuralist films of the 70s had always given me difficulty. Now they seem as straightforward to me as Mary Poppins.

Peter Brook’s polite and pithy way of telling me to accept the reality of artifice as the basis for the work also gave me a way to understand his work. At the time I was struggling with Genet, he was working on the first version of The Suit at Théatre du Bouffe du Nord (though I didn’t know it at the time). That version was direct, simple, and all about the actors.

The version at the Seattle Repertory is not that version. Can Themba’s original story is complex enough on its own. In becoming a play, Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon take a complex weave of metaphors about social violence and add another thread that makes it even more explicit. Set as it is in Sophiatown, the play spins the narrative of the city parallel to the narrative of The Suit. That Sophiatown was bulldozed by the government under the apartheid Group Areas Act, and became the all-white community cynically called “Triumph” will tell you exactly how pleasantly that narrative must end. Add to that a yarn of reminiscences from the author’s own diary–in particular, his experiences trying to enter into different churches under apartheid, and it becomes an extremely dense texture to weave and still control.

Then add to that the dimension of music. The first version I remember being extremely quiet. Mr. Brook and his collaborators this time around have added music to the mixture, from Schubert to Raymond Scott to Billie Holiday–all deftly arranged by Franck Krawczyk and played by Arthur Astier on guitar, Mark Christine, keyboard, Mark Kavuma, trumpet, and sung by the cast. The songs are not merely personally evocative, they are also thematically expressive. This does not make it more simple, but it does, perhaps, make it more artificial.

***

“We have a visitor, Tilly.” His mouth curved ever so slightly. “I’d like him to be treated with the greatest of consideration. He will eat every meal with us and share all we have. Since we have no spare room, he’d better sleep in here. But the point is, Tilly, that you will meticulously look after him. If he vanishes or anything else happens to him…” A shaft of evil shot from his eye… “Matilda, I’ll kill you.”

The Suit is not merely a symbol of adultery. It is a symbol of oppression. As a token of white oppression of blacks, it also becomes a token of the oppression of black men against their women–but in truth, against their entire motherland. As Fanon might say, the oppressed turn the violence of their oppressors against each other. They take on the evil of the oppressor. And their clothing, too. The clothing represents violence itself.

This is a lovely ironic handling of the Roman myth from which the protagonist Philemon takes his name. In the story from Ovid, Philemon and his wife Baucis entertain two peasant guests who turn out to be the gods Zeus and Hermes, come to destroy the town because of its selfish citizens. Only Philemon and his wife are spared from the flood.

Here of course Philemon and his wife entertain a guest, too. But the guest is selfishness, insofar as it represents the repressed and redirected anger of Philemon and his ruthless punishment of his wife–which is in turn a punishment for himself and the community around him. Where internal violence replaces the possibility of external violence, the metaphor extends. The adulterer is not merely one man screwing another man’s wife. The adulterer is also screwing another man’s country. The two are relatively interchangeable. Tilly’s degradation by violence is South Africa’s degradation. Tilly’s strength is also Africa’s strength. When she joins the Cultural Club–Pan-African, no doubt–she flowers. But joining the club is not sufficient. She needs to belong truly to it. When she invites people to her own house, however, the pretense unravels.

South Africa would not join the Cultural Club for another twenty-five years.

***

How he enjoyed taking in a tray of warm breakfast to his wife, cuddled in bed. To appear there in his supremest immaculacy, tray in hand when his wife comes out of ether to behold him. These things we blacks want to do for our own…not fawningly for the whites for whom we bloody well got to do it.

That passage always struck me, particularly how the objective narrator suddenly shifts to saying “we.” If one while reading it one ever doubted the artificiality of the text, there it stood, sticking its tongue out at the reader. Yet it contains the entire meaning of the piece.

Throughout the performance there is a curious merger of levity and psychic brutality, beauty and degradation. In that sense, I imagine the narrator echoes the halcyon days of Sophiatown itself, where jazz and drink commingled nightly, and black South Africans felt that despite (or perhaps because of) its relative squalor, it stood as an oasis where they could do what they wanted to do because they wanted to do it and not because they were told. For all its dirt, grime, and corruption, it was a community, determined only by those who were in it.

***

In the final analysis, what is most pure and most artificial in the theater is the craft of the actor.

I think this to myself as I finish the Genet piece as well as it will ever be finished in the space of seven days. I have all sorts of ideas in my head that are distinctly French. The rigorous emphasis on gesture. The peculiar phrase J’assiste à une pièce–which reminds me that French speakers are never passive spectators, and that many more English-language productions might be successful if we had an equivalent assistance among our audiences. For just a moment I am thinking in English. And then I remember that Peter Brook put these things in my head years ago. Only I never fully understood them until this trip.

Much of theater’s recent history has been filled with directors constantly adding novelties to achieve a personal mise-en-scéne (another lovely French thought for which there is no real English analogue). Ostensibly every element added complements the actors and makes the entire production stronger. Peter Brook has gone the diametrical opposite direction. By paring away everything unnecessary, he uncovers the mise-en-scéne; by subtracting the superfluous, he returns theater to its basis in the body of the actor, and thereby makes the production more powerful.

Some have called The Suit Peter Brook’s valediction to the theater. I doubt it. He has always viewed his work as a grand continuum, not a series of statements to be summarized in an ultimatum. The Suit looks backward. But it also looks at the present, with South African apartheid standing in for the struggles in Turkey, Sudan, China, Burma; despite the dogged American belief that a black president somehow is the end of a long journey, the world is hardly free of demagogues and genocidal racists. I am quite sure at this moment he’s already thinking of the future and his next project.


Filed under Theater

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net