Post image for Innovation and Catastrophe

[Photo:  Sugar (Danny Bowen) and Camille (Cristine McMurdo-Wallis) in John Biguenet’s Rising Water. This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas].

Innovation often precedes need.  An experiment in style or structure that wins an audience may succeed, for the moment, through its novelty.  But such innovation withers and is soon forgotten unless it takes root as a necessary convention in the depiction of ordinary experience—or at least of extraordinary experience.

Franz Kafka, for example, died unheralded in 1924, nearly two decades before many of his family were lost to the Holocaust.  But that almost unthinkable horror as well as other twentieth-century bloodshed and state oppression seemed to demand a new kind of narrative, the type of story we have come to call “Kafkan.”  Though the anxiety Kafka rendered in his highly original novels and short fictions is immediately recognizable as an inescapable constituent of human consciousness, the author’s stylistic innovations to capture his profound unease found a fertile bed in recent history.

His innovations grew into conventions that now extend beyond literature.  When I was poet in residence at The University of Texas at Dallas, a local newspaper editorial decried a bureaucratic tangle citizens faced at City Hall as a “Chekhov-like” nightmare.  The editorialist’s error—he or she surely meant a “Kafka-like” nightmare—illuminates how complex is this process of metamorphosis from innovation to convention.  Most educated readers would immediately grasp the implications of an allusion to Kafka in the critique of a bureaucracy.  But even if acquainted with the plays of Chekhov, one would probably look up from the paper and a cup of morning coffee to ponder what exactly a “Chekhov-like” nightmare at City Hall would involve.

Though Chekhov’s innovations have, I think, taken root as conventions of the modern stage, those methods of characterization and progressions of dialogue are far less obvious than the image of Kafka’s monstrously transformed Gregor Samsa, scuttling around his bedroom to the consternation of both family and employers.

As was perhaps true with the work of Kafka, sometimes it takes a catastrophe for innovation to find its need.

When Vivian Mercier, writing in the Irish Times in 1956, insisted that Samuel Beckett had “written a play in which nothing happens, twice,” she was speaking for her own time.  The assumed nihilism of absurdist drama made sense to a generation shaped by both Modernist aesthetics and the Depression, the Second World War, and the Holocaust.

Half a century later, when a production of Waiting for Godot by the Classical Theatre of Harlem was presented among the ruins of New Orleans, audiences turned out literally by the thousands for the two performances.  Few of those New Orleanians knew anything of the history of absurdism, nor did they imagine they had come to see a play about nothing.  Instead, they sensed that Beckett’s tale of two hapless individuals waiting for help that never arrives was a play written about the predicament in which they found themselves here in New Orleans two years after defective Federal levees had collapsed and destroyed the city.

The family of Wendell Pierce, one of the leads in the production, had lost everything in the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina—as had most of those in the audience.  Both actor and audience had paced the same ruined landscape as Vladimir and Estragon.  In the Lower Ninth Ward and then in a second performance in Gentilly just a few blocks from my own mother’s destroyed house, Waiting for Godot metamorphosed from a work of absurdism to a work of realism.

A year earlier, a draft of my first play to address the destruction of the city had been read at the 2006 National Showcase of New Plays, under the sponsorship of the National New Play Network.  In Rising Water, a couple awaken in the middle of the night to find their pitch-dark house filling with water.  Clambering into their attic, and then onto their rooftop, they struggle not only to survive but also to keep their love for each other alive.  At the beginning of the second act, Camille has slipped through the hole her husband, Sugar, has cut onto the roof as the water continues to flood their attic.  But Sugar is too large to fit any more than just his head through the jagged opening.

The audience of theater professionals at the showcase were quick to recognize my allusion to Beckett’s Happy Days.  In the talkback that followed the reading, they urged me to push the play even further in the direction of absurdism.  But I had used the device of a bodiless head addressing a spouse not to create an absurdist play but to take advantage of the vocabulary that Beckett had established to depict two human beings isolated on a desolate plain without hope of help or the means to save themselves.

That vocabulary was a language immediately understood by New Orleanians in the early spring of 2007, when Rising Water opened at Southern Rep on the edge of the French Quarter.  Located in a building that had been looted and burned in the chaotic days following the levee breaches, the theater still smelled of smoke the night the play opened just 18 months after the events it depicted.  As would happen half a year later when Waiting for Godot was performed in the city, audiences waited in line to see the play.  In fact, Rising Water became the bestselling show in the 20-year history of Southern Rep (despite the fact that the previous record was set when New Orleans had twice the population as the city did at the time of the play’s run).

Rising Water and Shotgun, the second play in the trilogy Rising Water began, have now had 25 productions and staged readings around the country.  Though the plays make use of absurdist tropes, no one has mentioned absurdism in writing about them.  Just the opposite, audiences have commented on how the trilogy, like many other plays about historical events, are rooted in naturalism.  But with the premiere of the final play in my trilogy, Mold, having closed just a few weeks ago, I can attest that Beckett was the playwright most useful to me in finding a way to depict terrible experiences for audiences who themselves had recently endured those events.

Writing three plays depicting the flooding of New Orleans and its aftermath has transformed my understanding of theater and how it differs from other forms of narrative.  One of these insights about which I feel most confident is that once innovation finds its need, audiences no longer recognize it as new.  Instead, they simply understand it as part of a language they have already been taught to speak.  Unfortunately, it sometimes takes a catastrophe to discover such fluency.

BiguenetPhotoJohn Biguenet is the author of seven books, including The Torturer’s Apprentice: Stories and Oyster, a novel, as well as such award-winning plays as The Vulgar Soul, Rising Water, Shotgun, Mold, and Night Train, which he developed on a Studio Attachment at the National Theatre in London.  His new play, Broomstick: Confessions of a Witch, will premiere in 2013 at New Jersey Rep.  He has twice been elected president of the American Literary Translators Association.  An O. Henry Award winner for his short fiction and a New York Times guest columnist, he was poet in residence at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and at the University of Texas at Dallas.  Currently, he is the Robert Hunter Distinguished University Professor at Loyola University in New Orleans.