Bathe Me, Doctor Faustus

Lights the Lights


at Chicago Filmmakers

By Justin Hayford

Gertrude Stein’s writing seems to come from nowhere. Her perplexing prose, which began appearing in print a year or two after another unknown named Einstein proposed an equally perplexing new universe, defies all previous notions of how fiction should work. She obliterates narrative, character, setting, suspense, theme, moral lesson. She doesn’t reflect the reader back to him- or herself, psychologically or sociologically, nor does she bother to model emotion for her reader’s vicarious enjoyment. She doesn’t transport the reader anywhere or allow the reader to peer “through” the text to the “reality” behind it. Instead, beating the concrete poets to the punch by nearly half a century, she attempts to hold the reader rapt by the event of fiction–words following one another across a page–hoping to create a “continuous present.”

Harold Bloom proclaimed Stein “the greatest master of dissociative rhetoric in modern writing.” Yet her insistence on dissociation can make reading her work profoundly irritating. “Marguerite could cry and not to love to die,” Stein writes in Marguerite or a Simple Novel of High Life. “Marguerite could cry and often enough to pull through not likely to not need it to not to be without it as she had not been through without it not it without for you.” Fifty pages of this and, in the words of Stein scholar Judy Grahn, “you slam the book down resentfully, feeling exhausted and stupid, betrayed again by this intriguing-looking woman with the erratic though persistent reputation for greatness.”

If Doorika ever needed a ghost writer they’d probably channel the spirit of Gertrude Stein: like her, they’re fascinated by rhetorical dissociation. Their performances seem designed to exasperate, with their strings of non sequiturs and their curious gestures repeated again and again, all of them headed nowhere in particular. Often it seems impossible to “see through” Doorika’s stage action to the “meaning” behind it.

A Doorika performance of a Stein text might well engender a theatrical black hole from which nothing, not even nonsense, could escape. Stein’s 1938 “play” Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights is an exercise in indirection, full of elliptical, repetitive monologues, impenetrable syntax, and above all antiaction. Faust apparently sells his soul to the devil for light and youth. He says as much, anyway, over and over again. His love interest, a woman named Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel, is bitten by a viper (or perhaps she isn’t bitten by a viper), and Faust cures her (or perhaps he doesn’t). Nothing actually takes place in the play; the text is simply a succession of words one might use to describe events if they took place.

True to its own tantalizing, unhelpful genius, Doorika does nothing to narratize or dramatize Stein’s text. The performer who portrays Faust (Ford Wright) displays no hint of the doctor’s tormented soul–mostly he reclines, speaking in an affected, wobbly New England accent. The other actors do just as little to create “full” characters or to form psychologically “real” relationships, for Stein’s text wouldn’t support either choice. Jim Skish portrays no one at all, spending as much time coiling up extension cords or capturing his fellow performers on videotape as he does reciting snippets of text into a microphone, which usually makes him sound like a little girl.

Rather than clarify Stein’s text the company complicates it further with a multimedia approach, sometimes tossing bits of it onto a video screen above the stage, sometimes throwing other bits into voice-overs, sometimes singing Stein’s words as lyrics to original pop songs (an ingenious solution to the “problem” of Stein’s repetition, since repetition is completely unproblematic in pop music). Occasionally the cast throws Stein’s text away completely. All the while director Erika Yeomans floods the theater with Eric Koziol’s mesmerizing, richly ambiguous video imagery, Jon Langford’s perkily haunting pop score, and Celia Bucci’s beguilingly incongruous sound design, which makes for an hour and a half of jarring, confusing, thrilling, maddening, altogether intoxicating theater.

Bathe Me, Gertrude Stein’s Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights is a kind of hypnotic echo chamber in which the original source of sound, of story, of myth is hopelessly obfuscated. All the performers wear headset radio microphones, so that we never hear the unmodulated, unfiltered human voice but a second-generation reverberation of oscillating human vocal cords. Sometimes a performer’s voice is doubly modulated, as when Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel (played with coy nonchalance by Marianne Potje) speaks into her headset while simultaneously talking into a contact microphone on her fingertip that’s connected to two speakers held aloft by other cast members. Intriguingly, she doubly amplifies herself in moments that seem to call for candidness and intimacy; while her words attempt to strip away pretense, the extra processing adds another layer of artifice. Like Stein, Doorika has no interest in encouraging the audience to “identify” with the characters.

Doorika creates another level of echoing–and artifice–in the way the performers repeatedly speak for one another. In the opening moments of the piece, for example, Mephisto pops his head up at the rear of the stage and coos, “Doctor Faustus dear yes I am here.” But though the actor appearing as Mephisto onstage (Bobby Conn) seems to be speaking, we’re actually hearing another cast member (Amy Galper) speak the words in precise synchronization with Conn’s lips. Galper, however, isn’t visible onstage; Mephisto may insist that he’s “here,” but his voice emanates from someplace else.

Doorika continues this technique throughout the evening. At one point a performer lip-synchs to the voice of a second performer, who also simultaneously provides the voice for someone offstage appearing “live” on the video screen above the stage. All the echoing slyly subverts the theatrical ideal of a “unified voice” for a performance work or literary text. In an adaptation such as this, most theater artists would strive to model that voice on Stein’s–to capture her tone, cadence, point of view. But Stein seems to have little interest in such formal conceits; she referred to her work as “content without form.” She concerns herself primarily with the unpredictable collision between word and reader, just as Doorika busies itself lobbing voices toward an unsuspecting audience.

Like Thomas Mann, Stein recasts Faust in a modernist landscape. And Doorika updates Stein’s vision to a postmodern era, in which simulations of simulations represent reality. But rather than decry that lack of “authenticity,” Doorika exploits multivalence and indeterminacy, technologically overhauling live performers in order to create a captivating quasi-mythic event. At one point Wright sits in a chair with his back to the audience reciting a nominally interesting bit of text. But his face is blown up to enormous size on the video screen above him. Replaced by an intangible, numinous image of himself, he becomes in a sense mythic. The camera creates mythopoeia from almost nothing–and in a manner that’s particularly persuasive in our mediated age. Why else would convention strategists place political candidates in front of 20-foot video images of themselves?

Considered on the grandest scale, Bathe Me echoes Stein’s text, which echoes Goethe’s Faust, which itself echoes a centuries-old legend clouded in mystery. For what is the myth of Faust after all but an echo of truth given a new voice and new reverberation by each successive generation? Striving to find the “original” Faust is foolhardy, for it is only in each age’s retooling that Faust becomes real.

And anyway, the historically real Doctor Faustus–like most of our contemporary political candidates–was reportedly a rather unremarkable hack. But with spin doctors like Marlowe, Goethe, and Gounod, it’s no wonder he’s become the center of one of our culture’s most enduring myths–the myth of selling one’s soul for knowledge, illumination, light. And for all their apparent opacity and circuity, Stein and Doorika also focus squarely on this myth. But with characteristic incorrigibility, they give it a sophisticated inversion.

Where Faust will risk hell if he can know everything there is to know, Doorika and Stein are intent on exploring the point at which conventional understanding stops, beyond which only enigma instructs. In leading us over a threshold of intelligibility, Doorika and Stein pursue a decidedly un-Faustian course, perhaps having learned the lesson that Faust himself learned too late. Goethe tells us Faust “Searched for light of day, but foundered in heavy dawn / And, craving truth, went wretchedly astray.” Stein’s Faust bargains his soul for electric light, which now “is not interesting in his sight.” The reason for his lack of interest has profound implications, neatly articulated by a small dog–archetypally the figure of common sense–who seems omnipresent in the text: “The electric lights they make it be that there is no night and if there is no night then there is no moon.” Without a moon there can be no poetry, romance, love, intrigue. No art. No soul.

In Stein’s vision electric light is the ultimate modern curse, emblematic of our culture’s insistence on understanding and controlling the world, leaving mankind, in the person of Faust, soulless and disengaged. To know everything, after all, is to know nothing; as Goethe’s Mephistopheles explains, “You need night as well as day.” Like Stein, Doorika keeps us in semidarkness, and in Bathe Me we finally find out why: to help save our souls.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo.