Theatre

The Dusk in Angelica Liddell: The Transgressive Post-Hardcore Theater of 'Esta Breve Tragedia de la Carne'

Angélica Liddell (Photo: Marina Levitskaya, courtesy of Blake Zidell & Associates)

Spanish avant-garde theater-maker Liddell and veteran metalcore band Converge try to make sense of the brief tragedy of the flesh.

The brief silence between the blast of hardcore music that filled the blackened theater and the soft sound of feet padding across the stage was filled with relieved sighs and an exasperated "Jesus." Ears ringing, the audience watched a figure cloaked in heavy, cream-colored robes, face covered with a red ski mask, slowly glide onto the stage. The figure drew an arrow from a quiver and took aim at the ceiling, pulling a creaky bowspring taut. The sound of the arrow's release -- a terse puff through a contact mic -- was followed, a second later, by the sound of the wooden arrow clattering onto the rafters above. The figure repeated the action twice more, but each methodical nock of the arrow, each amplified release of the string, each dry and ineffectual clack from the fly space overhead, underscored the futility of the ritual. Quotations from Romeo and Juliet appeared throughout the production of Spanish theater-maker Angelica Liddell's Esta Breve Tragedia de la Carne (This Brief Tragedy of the Flesh) presented by Peak Performances at Montclair University's Alexander Kasser Theater, and the volley of arrows may as well have been the echo of Romeo's battle cry following the news of Juliet's death, "Then I defy you stars!" In an interview with Boom-Arts.com about her play Te Haré Invencible Con Mi Derrota (I Will Make You Invincible With My Failure), Liddell refers to a similar battle to that which seems to run through Esta Breve Tragedia: "the terrible conflict between body and spirit, showing the brutal paradox of a body that triumphs over one's will." Throughout Esta Breve Tragedia, Liddell presents images that seem to evoke this conflict: early in the play, she sits on a dildo mounted on a golden chair before fake blood begins running out of her mouth. She lovingly swaddles the synthetic penis in white cloth, as if mourning the loss of a pleasure her body refuses to allow her to enjoy, or of which "time" or "the universe" or "God" will eventually deprive her.

The conflict is even more pronounced with the entrance of a troupe of actors with missing limbs, marching across the stage in costumes reminiscent of black beekeeping outfits, or a performance of Romeo and Juliet's first kiss at the Capulet ball by two actors with Down syndrome. In another scene, two women in long red dresses dance around the stage wielding wooden compasses, pausing occasionally to take measurements while two metal orbs -- one glowing with artificial light, the other ringed with lit candles that slowly extinguish themselves -- hang at either corner of the stage. In each of these scenes, desire and will -- for pleasure, for purpose, for love, for order -- are thwarted by the limitations of the body, the indifference of the universe, the inexorable march of time. "The passing of time is pure violence," as Liddell put it in an April 2014 interview withSchaubühne, "I am in my element wherever a conflict, a struggle, a fight is on. The stage is a battlefield."

If the stage in Esta Breve Tragedia is a battlefield, though, it is a site of battles that Liddell seems to have all but conceded. An April 2018 New York Times review of the show, helpfully photocopied and left on a table in the lobby of the Kasser Theater, described Liddell as a "transgressive" theater-maker who regularly "pushed her body to its physical and, possibly, mental limits." Watching Esta Breve Tragedia, it seemed that Liddell had reached the limit of those limits, had found that no amount of on-stage bloodletting, endurance performances, or "pornography of the soul" could make the brief tragedy of the flesh any less brief, any less tragic. The louder our cries of rage at this hopeless situation and whatever cosmic forces dropped us into it -- the more exclamation points at the end of Romeo's line, the more amplification on the archer's bowstring, the more distortion, speed, and volume in the hardcore song -- the louder and crueler the indifferent silence that follows.

Angélica Liddell (Photo: Marina Levitskaya, courtesy of Blake Zidell & Associates)

The hardcore song juxtaposed with the archer's silent ritual at the beginning of the play made me think of another hardcore song, one I hadn't listened to in about five years. "One day we'll rise to mount the skies, and burn your gods' towers down", Brian D. from Catharsis sings toward the end of "Panoptikon" the third song off the band's 1999 album Passion (Crime Thinc) and the first song the band played at their 2013 reunion show in Baltimore, Maryland. "Burn the prisons. Fuck the police," Brian shouted onstage at the Ottobar before the band launched into the song. "This song is for anyone who has declared a personal war on the state. You are not alone in this war."

I didn't go to the show. In 2013, I was mired in a doomed relationship, a job I hated, and environmental and animal rights activism I had begun to see as increasingly pointless. "Why is it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism?" the banners at the climate marches asked, and I couldn't come up with a good answer: there didn't seem to be any way out of my own gloom, much less the horrors of global capitalism, short of the apocalyptic collapses I fantasized about while reading "anti-civ" tracts downloaded from the Anarchist Library.

The news of the Catharsis reunion filled me with equal parts excitement, nostalgia, and a vague sense of something like shame. In the midst of countless bandana thrash bands and third wave emo acts, Catharsis was one of the few hardcore bands that had "meant something" to me in the early 2000s when I was actively going to DIY punk shows. They were responsible for the proliferation of the Crimethinc leaflets, posters, and books that had begun to make their way onto the battered merch tables at the teen centers and VFW halls I frequented in those days: documents that introduced me to an accessible and seductive iteration of anarchism that channeled William Blake and Arthur Rimbaud as much as Bakunin and the Situationists. "Inverting Christian iconography to champion the struggle of the individual against a hostile cosmos," a blurb on the Crimethinc page about the band's reunion shows reads, "[Catharsis] took up the centuries-old banner No Gods, No Masters, extending this project of total defiance into their increasingly tumultuous lives."

When I looked at my life in 2013, I could only see how far short it had fallen of the demands and promises I had heard in their lyrics. "You don't want to live, or die, do you?" Brian asks bitterly before the chaotic conclusion of the mournful "Witch's Heart". On "Arsonist's Prayer" he asks, "Why not raze it all, and in destroying at least set sail on borrowed wing?" If I ever even knew exactly what those questions meant, I certainly didn't have any good answers to them as I listened to those old songs again on Youtube that winter. By then, I had convinced myself that if I didn't have the bravery to completely upend my life and devote it to "freedom, in the death throes of the machine", I could at least make a virtue out of my loyalty to the life I had chosen, could try to sustain myself on whatever drops of meaning and beauty I could leech from the stones blocking the exit to the cave I was stuck in.

At the end of Esta Breve Tragedia, the archer -- disrobed and and disarmed, mounts the golden chair, while Liddell stands in a glass box full of butterflies, beatifically raising them on her glittering golden fingers from a wooden box on the floor. Swelling classical music fills Liddell's glass case, but the music is not a barrage of noise fired at the audience, who can barely hear it through the glass. The music is for Liddell, not for us; it seems that the final scene of the play is one of surrender and retreat into "the incandescent shadow", as Liddell puts it in the program notes, "that leaves us alone and overwhelms when we listen inside us to the thunder of God." Opposite Liddell's box, a teeming colony of bees crawls through a glass honeycomb frame, their amplified buzz calling to mind the blackened tremolo of the guitar that began the show. The honeybee, which dies after embedding its stinger in its victim's flesh, becomes another visual metaphor for the futility of attempting to "defy the stars", to exert the extent of one's limited power against the hydra-headed forces of immiseration, destruction, and humiliation in a spasm of ineffectual rage and futile self-defense, only to plummet to the ground, stiff and spent.

Liddell's glass box, coupled with the archer's bright red ski mask, reminded me of another glass box: that which contained the three members of the Russian punk band/activist collective Pussy Riot in 2012. Cutting through an outburst of applause during Nadezhda Tolokonnikova's closing statement, the judge reminded the "spectators" in the courtroom that "we are not in the theatre". (Independent, 8 August 2012) The audience in the Kasser Theater needed no such reminder: there was never a doubt that what we were seeing was "Art", an aestheticized retreat into a private world, a self-imposed exile to a pre-lingual, pre-rational state "before life, before universe, before horror, before Creation", which Liddell describes in her program notes. At one point, the front panel of Liddell's glass box fell, shattering against the stage. For a moment, it almost appeared that the box had opened, that Liddell and her butterflies could re-emerge into the world. But her smudged handprints revealed another wall of glass standing in the place of the fallen one. "Are you satisfied in your cage, living out your very numbered days? Will you settle for nothing?" Brian asks on the Catharsis song "Choose Your Heaven". It seemed that Liddell had made her choice.

"We are faced with a dichotomy," Liddell said in a discussion of her play Todo el cielo sobre la tierra (El sindrome de Wendy) / All the Sky above the Earth (The Wendy Syndrome), "a choice between hope and humiliation. (Schaubühne, ibid) The stupidest choose hope, the realists try to survive this exchange of humiliations which is life, waiting perhaps for that day when you desire to cut your throat in a hotel somewhere." It took me a long time to realize that this dichotomy, this choice between total war and unconditional surrender was a false one, and that buying into its logic -- an inverted version of which I had found in those old Crimethinc zines -- had kept me stuck, unwilling to make the small and necessary changes that can make life feel worth living even when it isn't an endless series of "days of war, nights of love", even when you can't quite get out from under "the shadow of the great guillotine".

Camus reminds us toward the end of The Rebel, his indictment of the excesses of romantic, revolutionary, and nihilistic thought, that "man can master in himself everything that should be mastered. He should rectify in creation everything that can be rectified. And after he has done so, children will still die unjustly even in a perfect society." Watching the video of the Catharsis reunion show in the days after I saw Esta Breve Tragedia, I found myself cringing more and more at the lyrics, at the between-song speeches that I couldn't deny sounded like cheesy mashups of Alex Jones and Deepak Chopra ("Everything you have, everything you are, will be taken from you, by the state, or if not, by mortality. When every word that we speak is numbered, what will you say?"), and at my own excess-prone mind for latching onto them before adopting the upside-down logic of equally excessive cynicism, resentment, and solitude.

The moderation that Camus champions over these excesses doesn't make for good hardcore songs, or good avant garde theater. But The Dusk in Us (Deathwish, Nov 2017), the latest album by veteran metalcore band Converge, comes close. In an interview about the album, singer Jacob Bannon emphasizes that the "single tear" referred to in the album's first song "was quite a real thing: 'A single teardrop fell.' Not an emotional outpouring, but a single tear." In the song, Bannon reflects on his "naive [fear] of the greying days" of adulthood from the perspective he's gained with fatherhood, contrasting it with the "darkness" of youthful selfishness. On the title track, Bannon warns of "monsters among us" and a darkness that "won't give up", but also reminds us, "This is not the end of your world/ It's the beginning of the rest of your life where you do, or you die/ It's not a trial but a test, just a broken mirror to reflect."


In the midst of a collection of songs seething with the bile and ire typical of a record in this genre, The Dusk in Us offer these reminders of the importance of moderation, of restraint, of quiet reflection, like on the bass-driven Am Rep homage "Trigger", a song that calls to mind the words to Dickinson's poem "My Life had stood -- a Loaded Gun", which Liddell refers to in the program notes of Esta Breve Tragedia. The poem ends with an oblique note of longing for a release from a life of attack, of defense, of conflict, of purpose:

Though I than He - may longer live
He longer must - than I -
For I have but the power to kill,
Without - the power to die -

It's a longing that Converge's Jacob Bannon seems to be able to relate to. "The world's a trigger seemingly without end," he sings wearily. "You have to bury the gun to finally make sense of it."

I don't know exactly what those lines mean, any more than I know what Dickinson's poem means, or Liddell's play means. But I hear in them something I never heard in those old Catharsis songs, or any of the other formative hardcore albums of my teens and 20s, full of their pledges of allegiance, their excommunications of the disloyal: the permission to choose one's battles. "It's the fires that we quell that save us from our hells," Bannon screams on "Arkhipov Calm", a song that draws its title and inspiration from the story of the lone Soviet naval officer who voted against a nuclear attack during the Cuban Missile Crisis. "It's the wars that we don't fight that keep love alive."

"Promises, the lost cause, but the bones will heal in time", Bannon assures us earlier in the song. "My Arkhipov calm will serve me in time". Esta Breve Tragedia de la Carne is the first part of Liddell's Trilogía del infinito. I don't know how the trilogy ends, but as I spend more time with The Dusk in Us, I find myself thinking of Liddell's time in the glass case at the end of this first play as a kind of "Arkhipov calm", a pause, a breath, a regrouping, rather than a total surrender. Even the funeral in her beloved Emily Dickinson's brain holds the promise of continuation, leaving the reader waiting for the last word, or encouraging them to fill it in themselves.

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down -
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing - then -
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