Lost Poet: Four Plays by Jesse Glass(BlazeVOX 2010) showcases the playwright’s wide range of style and diversity of subject matter, while allowing readers to enjoy the dark humor and sense of bitterly ironic fate that infuses each work despite the 13 years that separate the earliest piece from the most recent. Glass’ plays offer a meaty abundance of themes, images and language that will bewilder, enlighten and exhilarate enthusiasts of experimental literature and avant-garde theatre. The writing is fearless and wide-open. It invites multiple levels of interpretation, while it stares straight back at you and smirks -”it’s rather simple really, fate will have its way with you.”
“Homeless in America” (1988) juxtaposes a group of homeless people struggling to survive a Milwaukee winter with the crew aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger during the disaster of 1986. While Gil Scott Heron treads similar territory with “Whitey on the Moon,” Glass strives to examine what unites these two seemingly disparate realities, rather than accentuate the differences. In a vividness of dialogue that suggests a first-hand gritty urban experience, we find the homeless where fate has left them, dying slowly in the frigid January streets. The dialogue is sparsely interspersed with a voice-over reporting the Challenger’s countdown (stopped once due to a computer function glitch) to a perfect lift-off. The homeless continue to squabble with each other unaware of any news updates. Suddenly we are thrust into the Challenger’s cabin with a hysterical Christa McAuliffe:
“I thought this was an honor. I tried so hard all my life to do the best thing for everybody. I took all the tests. All those hard hurting tests. I really tried my best. And now…now that I’m here…now that I’ve achieved…Now that reporters from all over the world know my name…now our–my–epitaph is Uh Oh? That’s no fair! No fucking fair! This America. This hype.”
Alas, Christa too is now rendered homeless (“I should be home right now enjoying my life.”) and doomed to a horrendous fate, the prestige of being considered a hero means nothing to her in the end.
Another voice-over addresses Christa, “We made you. We marketed you. We are mourning you now. You are the brightest and the best we have to offer. All of you. But you are worth more to us as a name, a concept, a sacrifice, a brand, than as a living, breathing, aging individual.” The voice continues on into a litany of beloved American names, concepts and brands: Coca Cola, Michael Jackson, Disneyland, Hollywood. The first name mentioned is McDonald’s. The second is Burger King, where our homeless, a few coins permitting, occasionally drop in for a cup of coffee. – Man: Let’s have a coffee now. I’ve got enough for a coffee at Burger King. We can split it.
“Dove Hunting” (1977) is an Artuadian, Beckettian, Cassavetian one-act play that takes place in the eternal present. A medium (as in spiritual communicator) whispers in an old woman’s ear and suddenly the woman’s bleeding from her mouth; a pool of blood forms on the floor. Man: What time is it? Medium: The end of the world. The old woman cuts the man’s throat, stabs her own arms and legs, and shoots the medium. The beings crawl around in the blood, they make half-hearted attempts to bandage themselves and each other like mummies. Enter the young lovers, staggering around in passionate embrace, the old woman cracks an egg over their heads, the girl exits and returns with a dove and an ax. To ever see this performed would be unforgettable – a surrealist blood bath, a dadaist torture porn. The young lovers just appearing, dropped from nowhere, and the surrounding gore doing nothing to quell their arousal. Fate drops us anywhere, the egg yolk runs down behind our ears and we ignore the horrors of the everyday in pursuit of our passions. Fate and Jesse Glass are laughing.
In a work of autobiographical fiction, Ryunosuke Akutagawa once wrote of his protagonist, “He did not observe passersby in the street in order to know life, rather, he tried to know life through books in order to observe the passersby in the street.” In “The Lost Poet” (1990), Glass proves that he can thrive under either of these conditions. He writes of the plantation era South with as much familiarity and understanding as he does the 1980′s Milwaukee streets. Edgar Allan Poe’s friend and rival Thomas Holley Chivers is presented as a egomaniacal windbag of a man who believes himself to be divinely inspired. Did Poe really plagiarize Chivers in writing “The Raven”? Did Chivers really perform medical experiments that resulted in the untimely deaths of four of his children? Reveling in our fascination with missing pieces and bizarre historical scuttlebutt, Glass pounces on Chivers and piggybacks him across the stage, slapping the long dead Georgian’s ass and making him say things like: “I’ll wager our conversation will lay bare the foundations of the universe!”
Here Glass himself is fate, gleefully and excessively gluing macaroni and glitter to a construction paper Chivers who can no longer speak for himself. The proud, image conscious man is demonized and made to dance like a buffoon before future generations of theatergoers. Where the man ends and the caricature begins is anyone’s guess. Fate and Jesse Glass are laughing.
Chivers is alone on the stage, leaping and clapping his hands. The stage fills with children. The children all leap and laugh and clap their hands. The children appear joyous. Chivers appears in desperation. Fate and Jesse Glass are laughing.
Chivers’ epitaph, including the words “HIS WORK WILL REMAIN A MONUMENT FOR AGES AFTER THIS TEMPORARY TRIBUTE OF LOVE IS IN DUST FORGOTTEN” glows in red letters on a screen behind the stage. At the front of the stage, in semi-darkness, Poe laughs uproariously and then departs. Poe is laughing. Fate is laughing. Jesse Glass is laughing.
“Worm–A Sexual Opera” (1978) begins with an aging, ailing, former war hero farmer and his wife in danger of losing their house and land to foreclosure. The couple, referred to as “Father” and “Mother”, are seated before a great gleaming desk. Bank Vice President: Cobalt treatments are not cheap, as you know. And I have a memo here from the Cancer Center that notifies us that you must have a substantial amount paid toward your hospital debt, Mother and Father, or the County Hospital will also arrange a little- ah, public demonstration of their monetary concern, as it were. Father: And I almost died for you guys!
Three voices in the darkness recite fragmented details of natural occurrences around the farm, interspersed with observations of the couple’s deteriorating livelihood. The voices describe in vivid detail a horse dying of natural causes. The voices move on to more erotic territory. All Voices: Mother has an animal, the animal is her, the animal’s up her somewhere, stretches bends and begs. The animal is a pencil sharpener, a despairing clam.
We’re in a red room with a golden throne. A worm sits on the throne surrounded by jars of his own bodily fluids. Two dwarves are paying him homage. Bohu & Tohu: King Worm! King Worm! Who giveth children and sorrow & taketh them away. Who stands on a man’s gut & proclaims him a man, & then falls- becomes the Accusing Angel-leads the sexes to crime, to war, to death. Hail precious Worm! The worm is some amalgamation of lust and disease. The worm is fate. The worm is a young stranger who shows up one day volunteering to paint the barn, then balls Mother senseless while Father’s sleeping in his chair.
We grow and decompose. We flourish and then our paint peels off. Fate will allow us our fleeting joys and rattling tin mementos of achievement. Father places an ad – “Young Man To Paint Barn, None Other Need Apply.”
In a review of this length, one can really only scrape the surface of the complexity of material presented by Jesse Glass in this collection. Each play stands on its own and deserves its own deeper analysis. Fate and humor may not be the only threads running through all four works. An immense sympathy seems to applaud the emotional capacity of the have-nots. Glass seems to have a bleeding heart.
And in “Dove Hunting,” and again in “Worm–A Sexual Opera,” a man dreams of being a shoe.