Charles Bernstein: Writing “On Theatricality” and Doing Poetic Stand-Up


I was recently looking through Charles Bernstein’s essay collection Content’s Dream: Essays 1975-1984. Side by side in the collection, I found two pieces that really caught my interest: one is an essay entitled “On Theatricality” and the other is a poetry piece entitled “G-/”. The difference between the two pieces really struck me because they reminded me that, at a certain time, writers on theatricality associated it with language and play. However, for some strange reason, they didn’t associate it with comedy. I think of Derrida’s work, for instance, on Artaud. His essays on Artaud are more concerned with emptying language of content via performing texts.  For Derrida, it seems, it’s all about metaphoricity and textuality.   Nothing in them gives an indication of comedy.

The “difference” that I’m referring to, above, is that Bernstein’s poetry piece “G-/”, which is next to “On Theatricality,” is comical.  It differs.   To be sure, when I read it, against the essay on language and theatricality, I felt it would be wrong to read it in terms of Bernstein’s theoretical reflections. Rather, it called for a comic sensibility.

Let me explain.

In the essay “On Theatricality,” Bernstein writes of the actor Joseph Chaiken’s performance of Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing and How It Is (200).   According to Bernstein, Chaiken has provided him with “one of the most satisfying performances of Beckett I have ever heard”(200). Bernstein explains why in a language that is clearly garnered from the a theoretical reading of theatricality and textuality:

Chaiken’s reading situates the address of the text not to a listener but to itself, as reverie, the self – or more properly the writing – talking to itself, proceeding, stopping, questioning, circling back: a textual practice organized by internal compositional necessities and not by the sound of a speaking voice.   By performing the text as a musician might play a score, rather than enacting a persona, Chaiken was able to realize the textual dimension of Becket’s work (200).

To accomplish this in poetry, Bernstein suggests that poets make a “sharp break” form “shamanistic incantation of neoritualistic sound poetry” and from “the presentation of personality as a projected coherent force”(200). All of this prevents language from being merely, as Heidegger would say of art, a form of equipment or a tool of expression. Rather, it lets language resonate as language.

While I know this reading very well, I find that it is missing the comical spirit of language that we find, oftentimes, in Bernstein’s poetry (especially his later work). The poem following this, to be sure, draws directly on the comedic.

Here are a few lines that will give a sense of how Bernstein does a kind of stand-up performance of poetry. It has the quality of what I call schlemiel-poetics. (And one should note that Chaiken did work with Yiddish theater and the schlemiel.). Notice how, in the midst of his meditation on possible failure (or his sense of failure, which is a key trait of the Jewish fool) he laughs:

I had this liberating thought the other night      imagine that nothing that I write or thought was good       it was all crummy   and the fact of crumminess would somehow free me up from this burden That I feel to express       to say something   meaningful     because I couldnt   and I an I started to laugh       it seemed a joyous kind of concept   and then this thinking lead me I mean sometimes I feel depressed I feel a little bit that way in the morning

These lines from the poem remind me of Woody Allen or Marc Maron’s self-deprecation. To be sure, stand-up poetics, playing the schlemiel on the stage or in a poem, is a way of doing more than theory says it does. The running joke and the act of self-deprecation in language do more to loosen up language and make it playful than any abstraction. Playing with failure is a way of playing with pathos.

I’ll end with this clip of RD Laing and Joseph Chaiken doing some very comical mirroring exercises. What you find in them is a play on bodily gesture by way of the face, something that actors portraying schlemiel have done since Yiddish theater got its start in Eastern Europe. Bernstein, it seems, is influenced by this kind of theater which is all about “facing” the audience as a stand-up comedian would. This isn’t simply language play…its comedy.   Comedians, after all, make faces.  They make the body comically signify.