at the Museum of Contemporary Art
By Kerry Reid
Henry Darger, a Chicago custodian who died in 1973 at the age of 81, led a life shrouded in secrecy and obsession, his psyche a battlefield of conflicting forces that drove him to write and illustrate Realms of the Unreal–at some 15,000 pages, the longest known work of fiction in the world. Hundreds of paintings and drawings featuring dozens of little girls illuminate the novel’s fantastic kingdoms of innocence and experience.
Where most aspiring novelists can hardly get through their first chapter without bending the ears of strangers at cocktail parties about their creative output, Darger kept his magnum opus under wraps. And this very obscurity seems to have fueled his rise in stock among art-world cognoscenti. He’s become the insider’s outsider, complete with scholarly articles on his work, retrospective exhibits–and now a multimedia piece by New York’s Ridge Theater, penned by experimental playwright-novelist Mac Wellman and directed by Bob McGrath.
Jennie Richee (the title refers not to a person but to a place in Darger’s novel) touched down for a world premiere last weekend at the Museum of Contemporary Art–a tryout before its April opening at the Kitchen in New York. And the production is marvelous to look at. Laurie Olinder’s projections, derived from Darger’s own images, combine with Bill Morrison’s grainy black-and-white films in a visual symphony of color and light and shadow that skillfully teases out the tension between the grimness of Darger’s life and the lurid land of his imagination. The 14 cast members are presented in striking tableaux behind layers of scrims that often give the illusion that the performers are standing on air. (Olinder and Fred Tietz collaborated on the set, and Howard S. Thies designed the rich and evocative lighting.)
The problem isn’t so much with how the play looks–it’s with how it sounds. Wellman is noted for his elliptical, poetic imagery, and he’s no stranger to barbed, albeit bizarre, wit. Both unlike Darger and a kindred spirit, he would seem a felicitous choice for adapting Darger’s repetitive, unwieldy work for the stage and interpolating excerpts from the artist’s autobiography.
But Wellman and McGrath–who obviously respect Darger’s tenacious commitment to his fantasy world–haven’t decided who their Henry is. Despite their apparent determination to avoid the cliches and tropes of straightforward documentary theater, the piece is surprisingly chaste and arid in its depiction of a decidedly problematic hero. Wellman’s decision not to include key biographical details adds to the incoherence, making it even harder for us to find a path through the thickets of Darger’s mind.
Darger’s lifelong theme was the victimization of children–specifically little girls. His mother died giving birth to his little sister when Darger was four, and the girl was given up for adoption before he ever saw her. Darger’s father, who was disabled, later put him in an orphanage; he went on from there to a boys’ home and an asylum for the “feebleminded.” Apparently it was the loss of his only sibling that set Darger off on his quest to redeem sinned-against innocents, yet this scenario is barely mentioned in Wellman’s script. Instead we get operatic (and hard to understand) segments about the travails of Darger’s seven angelic Vivian girls, who fight the evil child-enslaving adults of Glandelinia, interspersed with stark narration from Darger’s “The Story of My Life.”
The schism between Darger’s quotidian existence and the Vivians’ fantastic comic-book adventures provides many opportunities for dramatic exploration, but for the most part Wellman and McGrath choose not to use them or use them in misguided ways. Daniel Zippi’s gaunt stoicism as Darger the Narrator provides effective counterpoint to the purple prose of the Realms material, but his flat, raspy delivery recalls Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade. And clever bits of stage business suggesting the link Darger made between the profane and the sacred are overused. Darger was a devout Catholic who would atone for his violent “tantrums” by attending Mass as often as five times a day, and the Vivians deliver a stylized genuflection, “crossing” themselves by slashing their throats with their fingers, then defiantly spitting over their shoulders. It’s a nice choice, but by the fifth time they do it, the point has been made too often. One of the key problems with Wellman’s script and McGrath’s staging is that their repetitions don’t build or enlarge our understanding of Darger’s world. They only underscore that Darger repeated himself in his work. A lot.
Darger’s fixation on little girls (who sometimes appear naked in his paintings sporting tiny penises) has led to charges that he was a closet pedophile. He collected images of little girls throughout his life (a poor draftsman, he would trace them in his work), but the loss of one photo was crucial: a newspaper shot of five-year-old murder victim Elsie Paroubek, a loss that led to one of the most sustained rages in Darger’s life and work. He sought to re-create and reclaim the murdered child in Realms in the martyred character of Annie Aronburg, who also makes several ghostly appearances in Wellman’s script. But without a clear context, we don’t understand her importance to Darger. It makes sense for Wellman to avoid the tired creative arithmetic of “event A plus event B equals artistic response C,” but by denying the audience access to this anecdote, he renders Darger nothing but a strange, mopey guy who obsessively scripted the same good-versus-evil story over and over, accompanied by detailed accounts of the daily weather.
The perfidy of the Creator was revealed to Darger through natural events and cataclysms, woven throughout his narrative. So it’s puzzling that McGrath chooses the still and static over the mercurial and fluid in his staging. The Vivians, crisply chaste in their white pinafores with robin’s-egg blue sashes (Pilar Limosner’s costumes add telling details and texture), strike a variety of poses that reflect the naive look of Darger’s paintings. But what Darger intended as a chronicle of nightmarish horrors comes across in Jennie Richee as, well, cutesy–surely not an adjective usually applied to Wellman’s oeuvre. It’s almost as if Wellman and McGrath opted to stand outside the door of Darger’s mind in order to skirt the issues of disturbing and “inappropriate” imagery in his work, giving us only piquant flashes rather than the internal inferno behind his art. Or perhaps they eliminated the most troubling sections of Darger’s work out of a misplaced sense that the abuse of children is well-worn artistic territory–so five minutes ago.
Which is a shame. Darger didn’t write only about the horrible things that happen to children, but he wrote about them often enough for us to suspect that these were the source of his torment and his need to create. More important, he addressed his subject with a passion and directness utterly unheard-of at the time he was creating. Unfortunately Wellman and McGrath apply the cool detachment of experimental-theater insiders to Darger’s art, missing the point of this fervent outsider’s life.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/William Murray.