In recent years, the department’s Contemporary Literature Series at NYU has been inviting contemporary authors onto campus and into the undergraduate classroom. Past authors have included novelists Mark Danielewski, Jonathan Franzen, and Zoe Heller, in addition to Pulitzer prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith. The CLS provides NYU students with the unique opportunity of not only seeing some of the most creative minds on the contemporary literature scene firsthand, but also learning about the distinctive ways in which these writers uniquely and individually engage with the artistic process.
This past semester, several English classes have been graced with a diverse company of artists, playwrights, writers, and filmmakers. Jill Magid sat in on Professor Mary Poovey’s Narrative Strategies Seminar; Sibyl Kempson led an exercise in Professor Julia Jarcho’s Advanced Playwriting Workshop; and Stanley Schtinter answered questions from students in Professor Sukhdev Sandhu’s Contemporary British Literature class. While the program originally placed each author in conversation with an English faculty member, the CLS has also recently begun to highlight the creative achievements of our faculty, with a poetry reading last fall by Professor Maureen Mclane, and another in the spring by Prof. Thomas Urayoán Noel, inaugurating what will, with any luck, become a long-standing tradition here at NYU.
This year, on November 2, the faculty spotlight was on Prof. Julia Jarcho who, accompanied by actors Jenny Seastone and Ben Williams, read from several of her plays. Both a playwright and director with the company Minor Theatre, Jarcho’s produced works include American Tresaure (2009), Dreamless Land (2011), Nomads (2014), and Grimly Handsome (2013 & 2015), the winner of an Obie award for Best New American Play. Before the reading began, Jarcho was introduced by her friend and colleague Professor Wendy Lee, who started off her discussion by stating that Jarcho’s works “redeem literary criticism.” Although Professor Lee noted that Jarcho often receives positive reviews from theatre critics, many of them fail to testify to the complexity of her work. One need only glance at a selection of these reviews—“I can’t say I completely got Julia Jarcho’s one act ‘American Treasure,’ but I still liked it,” wrote one critic—to register the gap that Professor Lee addresses.
Offering a reading of her own, Professor Lee argued that the wicked and wacky subversiveness of Jarcho’s work comes from her deep concern with the notion of intimacy in all of its manifest forms. These include the intimacy of violence, the foreclosure of intimacy in unintelligibility, and the intimacy of the theater as a performative space. In an online interview with CLS fellow Gina Elbert the week before the reading, Jarcho encapsulated the paradoxical form of intimacy in her work by saying “if you asked me what theater does that no other art does, I might say it has something to do with letting a kind of violence emerge between language and reality.”
A dramatic reading turned out to suit this type of disruptive energy unexpectedly well. When we go see a play, we anticipate certain dramatic conventions. Even when these conventions are broken, we know they are being broken in the service of a performance. A reading, on the other hand, normally consists of a brief prologue or lecture in which the writer introduces and gives context for the following slice of the work. This lecture portion of a reading is not the performance of the material itself. In purporting to speak to us truthfully about how we are to receive the material, it observes the decorum of reality. But not in this case. Getting up in front of the podium, Prof. Jarcho promptly shouted “Romanticism!” It seems to be a lecture: “Let’s all get used to the word,” she continued, “Romanticism…” whereupon she slapped herself in the face, complaining about insects. “Romanticism, in the larval state, attaches to the skin. Chews on you a little and falls away. Normally. Once grown up, well: No longer a threat. No longer an…irritation.” Soon thereafter she made the blithe announcement: “You all look confused,” before lapsing into silence, as audience members’ heads turned and bodies began to shift uncomfortably in their seats.
But as the speeches developed, one realized that these performative gaps and hesitations formally double the philosophical issues Jarcho’s characters grapple with. Moreover, it became clear that the question of how one “correctly” stages a play is central to them. “If one wanted to make a piece of, let’s say, let’s say, anything,” Jarcho stuttered, “god demands that you do it as well as god would want you to do it. And since god himself is perfection itself, it follows, it follows—” Yet the divine syllogism for the “correct” way never arrives. The words hang suspended in stammering human mouths. “Because you see the assurance,” she continued in character, “that things are not that way, that there is no correct procedure, that in fact we—” before finally breaking off, allowing us to observe the ways in which performative incompleteness can act as a salve for its existential counterpart.
This is not to say, however, that Jarcho’s work is gloomy. Her bending of theatrical rules demonstrates the idiosyncrasy of her zany wit as much as it provokes serious intellectual reflection. For instance, American Treasure, which deals with the irresponsible mythologization of Native Americans, was conceived, she told the audience with a straight face, because the Nicholas Cage movie National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets upset her. The plot revolves around the search for a mysterious ancient being named the Hauntus, a macguffin which at once evokes the the traumatic history of Native American resettlement and sets up a punchline for the contemporary character “Poca,” a tough talking antiques dealer who has sold her sister’s scalp. After performing a scene from this piece, Seastone and Williams shifted into a scene from Jarcho’s Grimly Handsome, in which—at least for the first act—two Slavic serial killers pose as Christmas tree salesmen. At another point in the reading, a poster behind Jarcho, advertising the CLS event, fell off the wall. Jarcho picked it up off the ground and, without missing a beat, declared, “That’s what you call iconoclasm.”
Observing the scenes from Jarcho’s work as well as the “character” that she played in introducing them, with her nervous tics and self-conscious gestures strategically and theatrically on display, I was reminded of Susan Sontag’s essay “Notes on Camp.” “Camp,” Sontag wrote, “sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman.’” Similarly, the dramatic reading the audience was treated to was not really a dramatic reading at all, but a dramatic “reading.” By treating the “lecture” and the “reading” as genres to be played and tampered with, Jarcho’s work and sensibility profoundly exhibits the notion of camp Sontag described as “Being as playing a Role,” as “the farthest extension…of the metaphor of life as theater.”