The Trouble With Peggy:

Pieces of Guggenheim

at the Blue Rider Theatre

By Justin Hayford

Sometimes ambition does itself in. Peggy Guggenheim, perhaps America’s most influential champion of modern art, had enough ambition to do herself in several times over. Whether she did or not is open to debate. In amassing one of the most significant art collections of the 20th century, did she achieve greatness or merely surround herself with it, leaving her own potential undeveloped? In launching the careers of Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock, was she setting renegade aesthetic standards or simply buying up what others knew to be great? In pursuing cavalier affairs with many of the century’s most important artists, was she staking her claim as a “modern woman” or running from emotional commitment? One thing is clear: by the time she died in 1979 at age 80, she’d spent years rattling around in her Venetian museum-palazzo, hated by the locals and abandoned by her children, with only her Lhasa apso terriers, her memories of abusive or indifferent lovers, and slews of gawking tourists and celebrities to keep her company.

The trouble with Peggy is obvious, at least on one level: the most meaningful relationships she formed were with paintings, yet her love of objects left her profoundly dissatisfied. In her ambitious one-woman show, The Trouble With Peggy: Pieces of Guggenheim, Donna Blue Lachman drives this point home. Her Peggy Guggenheim leaps from seduction to seduction, art gallery to art gallery, European capital to European capital in a desperate attempt to become “necessary.” But she encounters little but disappointment, her superfluity brought into higher relief each time a new husband yawns or another art gallery closes. The only time she feels necessary is when she’s buying passage out of Nazi-occupied France for friends and associates. But in the most heartbreaking moment of Lachman’s 90-minute piece, she realizes that her money is necessary, not her. Anyone with a large enough trust fund could have done what she did.

It would seem that this poor little rich girl’s tale of ambition without purpose would translate easily to the stage. But one enormous obstacle stands in the way: the trouble with Peggy is that she’s a monumental bore.

The proof is in her autobiography, Out of This Century: Confessions of an Art Addict, first published in 1946 and revised twice. This tome is so full of trivialities it’s a marvel Guggenheim managed to keep her own interest and finish it. By her own admission, her life was a string of impulsive trysts, adolescent emotional outbursts, drunken spats, buying sprees, new hairdos, and extended vacations. Here is a woman so bored during her first cruise down the Nile that she bought a pregnant goat in hopes of watching it give birth. Here is a woman who gives the reader a clearer picture of her dogs than of her children. And here is a woman who imagines that people will be interested in the most mundane aspects of her life, like this description of a day spent with a lover: “After lunch we went to buy a rug for our entrance hall….He had to finish a quarterly article he did for an art paper. We had dinner together and went to see For Whom the Bell Tolls. Afterward we went home and read some poetry.”

Perhaps a factor in the book’s triviality is Guggenheim’s utter lack of discrimination. Everything is equally important in her eyes, from the personalities of her pet ponies to the rules of Andre Breton’s parlor games to Hitler’s invasion of Poland. She seems to float through life in a self-absorbed bubble, unable to understand the gravity of anything that doesn’t affect her personally; she mentions the attack on Pearl Harbor because around that time she was thinking about getting married again. She can even write without a trace of irony of her exodus from German-occupied Paris that “it was strange getting out of France, and at the frontier I was searched from head to foot, naked. It was wonderful to be free of the Gestapo and to enjoy life again.”

Most curious of all, in 385 pages she never once mentions why she thinks modern art matters, or even why it excites her. The consuming passion of her life seems to have been almost accidental; she admits early in the book that when she came into her inheritance she thought she might open an art gallery or start a publishing house. This enormous hole at the center of her memoir turns her into a casual onlooker of her own life.

In bringing Guggenheim to the stage, Lachman draws heavily on Out of This Century, and perhaps her most intelligent choice is to dramatize rather than try to compensate for the spiritual emptiness that pervades the book. Her Peggy never seems to understand what matters in life; her moral compass spins randomly throughout the evening. At times that randomness makes the show monotonous; hopping from cafe table to cafe table breathlessly chronicling the heiress’s love affairs with Marcel Duchamp, Samuel Beckett, and Yves Tanguy in Paris in the 20s, Lachman is merely repeating herself, substituting enthusiasm for craft. But at other times she exploits Guggenheim’s shallowness to chilling effect. Describing how Andre Breton explained the meaning of “gang rape” to her 14-year-old daughter at a drunken party, Lachman laughs uncontrollably as though recalling a cute childhood prank. And in a heart-stopping moment of understatement, she talks about trainloads of refugees from Nazism rolling into Paris “in the direst misery and with bodies that had been machine-gunned en route.” She stares across the stage at an imaginary train for a moment, then simply says, “I can’t imagine why I didn’t go to the aid of all these unfortunate people. But I just didn’t.”

Despite Lachman’s best efforts, she can’t escape the one-thing-after-another drudgery of Guggenheim’s memoir. Structuring the show as a chronological life story told in flashbacks leaves Lachman chained to a rather flat narrative; the press release’s promise of a “swirling, cubist vision” is sadly unfulfilled. At times Lachman breaks up the story by showing video interviews with Andre Breton, Max Ernst, Lee Krasner, and Jackson Pollock–all played by Lachman, and all attempting to explain the trouble with Peggy. Lachman’s acting in the videos is much more nuanced and bold than most of her performance onstage, and the interviews never fail to entertain. But they provide only momentary respites from the uneventful narrative, like rest areas on an interstate freeway.

Sadly the production’s rather grandiose design feels like an attempt to inject excitement into the evening. Jeff Bauer and John Boesche have transformed the semidumpy Blue Rider Theatre into a clean, multifunctional modernist playground: images are projected on blank canvases suspended in midair around a huge multilayered stage. But in keeping with Guggenheim’s life, this ambitious design nearly does itself in. Boesche often lights Bauer’s grand stage in such a harsh, white wash that it loses all its allure. His lights even wash out his own projections at times, making some of the greatest masterpieces of modern art look like pastel wallpaper. Through it all, the live performer seems too often an afterthought.

Like the woman herself, The Trouble With Peggy hasn’t found its reason for being. Lachman hasn’t yet created the urgency that will drive the show; her Guggenheim doesn’t need to tell her life story. It may be a good start to chronicle Guggenheim’s quest to feel necessary, but that story line disappears halfway through. Tellingly, in the evening’s opening scene Guggenheim wanders back and forth in her Venice home for a good ten minutes talking about nothing in particular. Part of the problem is Terry McCabe’s lackadaisical staging of the scene, but even if he’d provided the most thrilling stage pictures, there would still be little worth listening to. This opening sets exactly the wrong tone for an actor hoping to discover the path through a life defined by ennui.

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