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|Series:||Triangulations: Lesbian/Gay/Queer Theater/Drama/Performance|
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About the Author
Sara Warner is Associate Professor of Performing and Media Arts at Cornell University.
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Acts of Gaiety
LGBT Performance and the Politics of Pleasure
By Sara Warner
The University of Michigan PressCopyright © 2012 the University of Michigan
All rights reserved.
Valerie Solanas's Theater of the Ludicrous
Humor is not a body of logical statements which can be refuted or proved, but is rather a quality which appeals to a sense of [the] ludicrous.
— Valerie Solanas, The Diamondback (1957)
On May 10, 1965, a twenty-nine-year-old aspiring dramatist named Valerie Jean Solanas registered an unpublished one-act play with the US Copyright Office. Solanas called her satirical comedy Up Your Ass, but the official title listed on her application is From the Cradle to the Boat, or Up from the Slime. "[J]ust in case the play should ever become a Broadway smash hit," the doggedly optimistic Solanas reasoned, "at least there would be something acceptable to put on the theater marquee." Indicative, in many ways, of the theatrical experimentation and countercultural expressions taking root during the mid-1960s, Solanas's script is unique in its depiction of lesbian sexuality and nothing short of pioneering in its articulation of a feminist consciousness. Remarkable for its explicit portrayal of female desire, sexual subcultures, and urban street life, Up Your Ass chronicles the exploits of Bongi Perez, a self-described "vivacious, dynamic, single ... queer," who cruises "real low-down funky broads, nasty bitchy hotshots." The protagonist, like the play's author, is a wiseass butch dyke of Hispanic descent (Solanas's paternal grandparents immigrated to the United States from Spain) who hustles for a living, panhandling and prostituting. This drama features a multiracial cast of dueling drag queens, beatnik hipsters, hapless johns, a feces-obsessed femme fatale, and a housewife-cum-homicidal lesbian terrorist. Homosexuality is a given rather than a problem to be addressed, and degeneracy is redefined as a "scummy" virtue, which enables social deviants and sexual minorities to escape a diseased patriarchal society. Solanas's licentious humor and risqué characters were so beyond the pale that her play scandalized avant-gardists, political radicals, and pornographers alike. Despite trying every avenue imaginable, she could find no one willing to publish or stage the script during her lifetime.
Written prior to the sexual revolution and the Stonewall rebellion, Up Your Ass offers a riotous and uproarious parody of heteronormativity, racial stereotypes, and gender roles. It is acknowledged here as one of the earliest, most provocative, and profoundly seditious lesbian feminist plays in the history of American drama. This work has been denied the critical attention it deserves for several reasons: the script was believed, until very recently, to have been lost; the play has been overshadowed by the author's later and better-known work, SCUM Manifesto (1967); and any consideration of Solanas's innovation or artistry has been eclipsed by her attempted assassination of Andy Warhol. In 2010 I discovered Solanas's copyright application (the first of three she would file in as many years to protect this and subsequent works) along with the original manuscript of From the Cradle to the Boat, which has languished in the Library of Congress for over four decades. My research has led to a series of startling revelations that not only recast the social drama of the 1960s but also urge us to recalibrate the models and methods we have used to construct the artistic and political legacies of this volatile period in America's past. In this, the first comprehensive critical analysis of Solanas's dramaturgy, I track the creation, "loss," and recovery of this extraordinary play, as well as its influence on a genre the author invented called a "SCUMMY thing," a guerrilla theater event that is best understood as a kind of gutter dyke "happening" or "situation." Archival evidence confirms that Solanas considered SCUM Manifesto to be a script for a "SCUMMY thing" and that she was in negotiations with Warhol to produce and film one at the time of the shooting. Through close readings of these performative texts and a careful charting of their social and cultural contexts, I delineate the tenets of an aesthetic of gaiety I term Solanas's Theater of the Ludicrous.
"Up from the Slime"
Much of what is written about Valerie Solanas is based on hearsay and half-truths. Like most outlaws, her identity is cloaked in myth and legend. For someone who played such a prominent part in the social drama of the 1960s, and who frequented one of the most obsessively documented sites in the twentieth century, Warhol's Factory, Solanas remains surprisingly, if not conveniently, anonymous. The paucity of data and ambiguity of evidence only contribute to her lore. With so little information about her, we are free to make of this woman what we will: predator, prey, casualty, survivor, whore, man-hating menace, filthy dyke, paranoid schizophrenic, militant radical, misunderstood genius, diabolical anarchist, homicidal maniac. Some cast Solanas as the hero of an epic tragedy; others depict her life as a melodrama, painting her as the victim of oppressive social forces. My narrative tends toward farce. It explores the absurd situations in which Solanas found herself and marvels at the ingenuity, creativity, and fortitude she had to muster to play the hand she was dealt.
Solanas was nothing if not a card. Born April 9, 1936, she grew up on the Boardwalk in south Jersey, where she developed her talents as a grifter, a gabber, and a good old-fashioned working girl. Her maternal grandfather, with whom Solanas spent a great deal of time as a child, inspired her thespian proclivities with stories of working in burlesque, where he and a partner had a song, dance, and comedy routine. What Solanas lacked in formal training in the theater (she had none), she made up for in raw talent, unbridled determination, and the fact that she had been performing her entire life. She cultivated her talents and developed her aesthetic sensibilities as survival skills that enabled her to make it through the 1950s and 1960s as a woman, a queer, and an aspiring artist. Long before she mastered the art of peddling conversation, hustling johns, or wheedling her way into Warhol's films, Solanas learned about the magic power of "as if." She was introduced to this technique by her father, Louis Joseph Florent Solanas, a charismatic alcoholic with a violent temper and pedophilic tendencies. Acting in the high-stakes drama of childhood sexual abuse, Solanas improvised characters with the urgency and efficiency of someone whose life depended on the part she was playing. She learned at an early age that one must, in the words of Jon McKenzie, "Perform or Else," do or die.
Valerie was by all accounts a wild child, and her problems escalated after her mother, Dorothy Marie Biondo, a blonde bombshell with the visage of Lana Turner, divorced Louis, relocated the family to Maryland, and married Frank "Red" Moran. Solanas was expelled from Catholic school for hitting a nun, and by the age of twelve she was running away on a regular basis, hitchhiking all the way to her aunt's house in Baltimore. She was thought to be a lesbian by members of her extended family, though no one talked openly about Valerie's sexuality, not even when she got pregnant in high school. Solanas's younger sister Judith recalls, "I was told that Valerie had a baby, he was adopted by a 'decent' family and there was to be no more discussion about it. ... I doubt if anyone cared about Valerie's feelings." After the baby was born in 1953, Solanas and her son lived with the Blackwells, a high-ranking military family whose teenage son served in the Korean War with the sailor alleged to be the baby's father. In spite of these events, she completed high school on time, with the class of 1954. The caption underneath Solanas's senior portrait in the Oxon Hill yearbook reads, "Val. Brainpower and a lot of spirit." The Blackwells paid for Solanas to attend the University of Maryland, and after she went away to school, she never saw her son again.
What others saw as mistakes, moral failures, and character flaws, Solanas saw as resources. She cultivated a raw and rapacious sense of humor from the material conditions in which she lived and labored. Throughout her life, Solanas subsisted on very little, but her resourcefulness is evident in her determination to get an education and later to publish and produce her artwork. In college, she majored in psychology. She worked in an animal lab testing the conditions under which rats would learn to avoid electric shock. These clinical trials would inform Solanas's theories of biological determinism and fuel her belief that males are genetically inferior, the result of a chromosomal deficiency. When she was not in the lab, Solanas hosted a call-in radio program where she posed as a therapist offering advice. She wrote letters to the editor of the campus paper, The Diamondback, where her public tirades against men, marriage, and middle-class values earned her the nickname "Maryland's own little suffragette." In 1958 Solanas graduated with honors (with a 4.4 grade point average) and was inducted into Psi Chi, the psychology honor society. That fall she enrolled in a PhD program at the University of Minnesota, but finding the course of study unbearably sexist, she left within the year. "The purpose of 'higher' education is not to educate," she concluded, "but to exclude as many as possible from the various professions." Years before the women's liberation movement, Solanas identified the link between economic injustice and systemic misogyny.
Valerie thumbed rides from Minneapolis to San Francisco's Bay Area, where she encountered a bourgeoning counterculture, one characterized by free speech and free love, artistic experimentation, and political radicalism. It was in the Bay Area that she perfected a gay way to earn a living that satisfied her philosophical objection to capitalist exploitation and her desire to spend as much time as possible writing. In an article titled "A Young Girl's Primer on How to Attain the Leisure Class," published in Cavalier magazine in 1966 (as "For 2¢: Pain, the Survival Game Gets Pretty Ugly") Solanas explains her ingenious economic strategy.
Being fresh out of college I found myself in a typically feminine dilemma of carving out for myself in a male world a way of life appropriate to a young girl of taste, cultivation, and sensitivity. There must be nothing crass — like work. However, a girl must survive. So, after a cool appraisal of the social scene, I finally hit upon an excellent-paying occupation, challenging to the ingenuity, dealing on one's own terms with people and affording independence, flexible hours, great stability, and most important, a large amount of leisure time, an occupation highly appropriate to female sensibilities. I contemplate my good fortune as I begin work for the day:
"Pardon me, Sir, do you have fifteen cents?"
"Sure, Sweetie, here." It's my wild body — it gets them almost every time.
"Pardon me, Sir, do you have fifteen cents?"
"You got a dime?" You gotta keep bugging them.
"Dollar bill?" Think big.
"Here, here's a quarter."
Adds up fast. Four-fifty an hour. Two hours and I can knock off and write.
Panhandling, supplemented by the art of shoplifting, provided this budding anarchist with rent and food. Blessed with the gift of oracular spontaneity and a penchant for scatological rhetoric, Solanas specialized in selling conversation, an hour's worth for six dollars.
"Pardon me sir, do you have fifteen cents....?"
"What do I get for fifteen cents?"
"How 'bout a dirty word?"
"That's not a bad buy. Okay, here. Now give me my word."
Occasionally these dirty words would lead to dirty deeds: a quickie in the alley, a tumble in the sheets, or a three way with her friend Mary Lou, which was a big score: up to twenty-five dollars and three days off to write.
"A Young Girl's Primer" evokes and embodies the labor of hustling, pimping, and performing in vividly material ways. Part male titillation and part pedagogical performance, this essay, rendered in the form of a dramatic monologue, educates female readers (and there were many who enjoyed erotica, even then) about the problems and pleasures of being a woman and a lesbian in a straight man's world. While not exactly the stuff of agitprop, this performative essay tempts women with the promise of a better, more fulfilling life as an out lesbian, greater opportunities for career advancement, and significantly more leisure time. If it romanticizes life on the streets and the benefits of working in the informal economy by downplaying the dangers associated with panhandling and prostitution, especially for working girls without a pimp, it also minimizes moral objections to sex work, a woman's right to self-determination, and queer forms of intimacy. Indeed, this "excellent-paying occupation" provided Solanas with ample time and resources — not to mention colorful content — with which to complete her first play script, Up Your Ass.
"I'm so female I'm subversive"
Solanas produced a small but revolutionary body of autobiographical work that was born out of and intimately linked to the history of her flesh. Her scripts inaugurate a critical lexicon and a performative lens through which she staged both private and public permutations of class, gender, sex, and sexuality. Solanas's plays are meditation on the ways in which socioeconomic conditions shape women's lives and how the realities of our material existence shape us as subjects. She engaged the labor of theater to embody and valorize women's work. Up Your Ass, like "A Young Girl's Primer," salutes the ingenuity and inventiveness of rogues, rebels, and renegades who subvert the dominant culture at every juncture, repurposing its effects to their own ends, so that others might live, love, and laugh with a greater sense of freedom than they might otherwise be allowed.
This play begins with what may be the best, and possibly the most hilarious, dedication to women's labor and creativity in American literary history. It reads:
I dedicate this play to ME a continuous source of strength and guidance, and without whose unflinching loyalty, devotion and faith, this play could never have been written.
Myself — for proofreading, editorial comment, helpful hints, criticism and suggestions and an exquisite job of typing.
I — for independent research into men, married women and other degenerates
The dedication's parodic structure, heroicomical posturing, sardonic wit, and overt feminist sensibility are key elements of Solanas's dramaturgy, and they form the cornerstones of what I am calling her Theater of the Ludicrous. Indicative of this genre is self-conscious formal experimentation; explicit eroticism that pushes the accepted boundaries of middle-class sexual norms; a pronounced anticapitalist critique; a profound engagement with European philosophy, especially existentialism, nihilism, and absurdism; the employment of a wry, irreverent, and satirical tone; and, finally, a penchant for wordplay, scatological speech, and linguistic innovation.
Up Your Ass eschews a linear plotline, and the action unfolds in a series of episodic, interrelated comic vignettes that become increasingly disturbing as the play progresses. Every scene takes place in a realistic locale, but they all involve actions and events that are so preposterous, shocking, and/or violent that they transform what are seemingly neutral or safe spaces — the steps of an apartment building, an expensive restaurant, a classroom, and a playground — into defamiliarized zones that serve as vehicles for social critique. The outrageous antics depicted in the play call for a broad acting style that defies naturalistic conventions. The humor in Up Your Ass alternates among corny, caustic, and campy. This play exudes the kind of scummy brilliance that radiates from glamazons of the gutter — hookers, grifters, and transvestites — who engage in battles of wit with members of the ruling class, breeders, and proponents of "great art."
Excerpted from Acts of Gaiety by Sara Warner. Copyright © 2012 the University of Michigan. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
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Table of ContentsContents Preface Acknowledgments Introduction 1. “Scummy” Acts: Valerie Solanas’s Theater of the Ludicrous 2. Guerrilla Acts: Marriage Protests, 1969 and 2009 3. Expatriate Acts: Jill Johnston’s Joker Citizenship 4. Terrorist Acts: The Maladapted Hothead Paisan, a Lesbian Comedy of Terrors 5. Unnatural Acts: The Tragic Consequences of Homoliberalism in the Five Lesbian Brothers’ Oedipus at Palm Springs Afterword Notes Bibliography Index