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Creating Out of Death: An Introduction to the Work of Reza Abdoh.

by Daniel Mufson
Originally written as part of my doctoral dissertation for the Yale School of Drama. First published online by AlternativeTheater.com.

Not much went right for Reza Abdoh. Born in Teheran in 1963, his early life was marked by frequent and dramatic dislocations-first to London, then the English countryside, then to Los Angeles. Family life was not rosy—Abdoh’s father was abusive of his wife and children. Reza left home alone at about age 13, moving to London, where he attended various schools, finally being sent to a boarding school in Wellington after his father discovered that Reza had not been entirely focused on his studies. When his father moved to L.A., Reza and his siblings came to join him in 1979. The mother, by this time divorced from the father, remained in Iran, where she lives to this day. Things rapidly grew difficult for the family when the Shah was deposed at the end of the year. Most of the father’s assets were lost in the Iranian Revolution. Exiled and financially ruined, the father, by all accounts a paragon of machismo, found out at about this time that his eldest son, Reza, was gay. Two weeks later, the father died of a heart attack. Reza’s brothers lived for a time on the streets; Reza himself barely eked out his own living for several years. By the age of 25, Reza discovered he was HIV+. On May 11, 1995, he died of AIDS. He was 32 years old.

Abdoh died just as his work was garnering more recognition and acclaim than ever before. Philippa Wehle, Richard Stayton, and Charles Marowitz wrote some of the earliest, relatively high-profile articles on Reza for American Theatre and TheaterWeek. Elinor Fuchs and James Leverett were among the first East coast critics to draw attention to his work in the Village Voice, and Marvin Carlson wrote two enthusiastic articles on Abdoh for the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism. In 1995, just before Reza’s death, the earlier attention was rounded out by Performing Arts Journal and TDR, both of which published issues with multiple articles on Abdoh’s work.

Unfortunately, few of the published essays have provided any extensive, vivid description of his work as a whole. The same comparisons and adjectives crop up repeatedly — Abdoh “dreams Artaud’s plague into existence” in a “theatre of rage”; his work evokes “the sacred terror of a Boschian landscape,” in performances characterized by a “frenzied bacchanalian rhythm” (Dasgupta, 1994). Michael Feingold’s Village Voice review of Tight Right White was titled “Artaud You So.” Marowitz also invoked comparisons between Abdoh and Artaud, Goya, and Baudelaire. And yet, little detailed attention has been given to the question of “how”: How did Abdoh invoke Artaud? How did he use his notoriously frenzied pacing? And how accurate were these descriptions in the first place? Only with John Bell’s lengthy article in TDR did someone begin to explore in detail the influence of Ta’ziyeh and the fourteenth century poet, Khwája Shams ud-Dín Muhammed Háfiz-I Shírází (henceforth referred to as Háfiz), on Abdoh’s work and to place Abdoh in the context of the historical avant-garde and postmodernism.

Marvin Carlson, reviewing Tight Right White, describes a “constant mixture of text, music, movement, video, film and visual spectacle” as “moving so rapidly as to defy analysis, even comprehension”—yet notes that the multiple activities “do not result in an ultimate feeling of frustration or confusion.” Indeed, the more one saw of Abdoh’s work, the clearer it became. While the playwright/director always emphasized his desire to be constantly trying new things-which he did—there is a cohesive point of view, a distinctive voice that sounds similar notes in all the works I have seen, be they on video, on film, or in live performance.

Discussion of Abdoh’s work has been hindered by the East Coast orientation of American theater criticism; two-thirds of Abdoh’s trilogy of plays—The Hip-Hop Waltz of Eurydice, Bogeyman, and The Law of Remains—were only seen at the Los Angeles Theatre Center and went completely unnoticed by the East Coast press, in spite of the attention they provoked in L.A. As a result, the discussions of Abdoh in PAJ and TDR focused on his most recent work, Quotations from a Ruined City, presented in New York in the spring of 1994. Discussion of his early work was also hampered by Abdoh himself: until Abdoh died, there was an odd reluctance to allow the videos of the shows to be distributed. When I first began my research, Abdoh’s producer, Diane White, informed me that I had to get permission to acquire videos of past work from Abdoh himself, who asked me to assure him I would not be passing the videos around to other viewers. Adam Soch, who did Abdoh’s video recording work, reiterated the need to use my discretion in showing the tapes to others and urged me to refrain from copying the tapes for anyone. This is in part because of the mixed quality of the tapes, in part because of Abdoh’s strong impulse to control the circumstances under which his work be presented and to make sure those circumstances be as close as possible to ideal. The Lift Festival in London expressed interest in producing a re-staging of Quotations from a Ruined City in 1995, but Abdoh refused to allow a production that he would not be healthy enough to oversee. It is true, as White says, that the videos are a poor echo of the work. It is all the more a pity, then, that there will almost certainly never be a re-mounting of any of the productions. Neither print, nor still photos that accompany articles, can create an adequate sense of an experience that relies heavily on extraordinary kinetic energy and use of montage.

In describing Abdoh’s work, journalists have been guilty of using a glib turn of phrase to describe both the artist and his work. Not an unusual practice in journalistic criticism, but it’s especially inadequate here. American Theatre styled him as a “hell raiser” and “enfant terrible director and writer.” Marowitz drew closer to the power of Abdoh’s vision when he cited Artaud’s comparison of theater to the plague, where Artaud envisioned a theater that “takes images that are dormant, a latent disorder, and suddenly extends them into the most extreme gestures…. In the true theater, a play disturbs the senses’ repose, frees the repressed unconscious, incites a kind of virtual revolt… and imposes upon the assembled collectivity an attitude which is both difficult and heroic.”

It would seem that Abdoh has always had a dark vision. At age 16, he published a book of poetry, The Sound of a Poet Breathing in an Imprisoned Air. “There stretched in the starry doom,” the poem begins, “sits a poet by a marred tomb.” He discovered he was infected with HIV at an age when most people are still blissfully wrapped in delusions of immortality; the result is an overpowering sense that the work has been nurtured by the bread of adversity and the water of affliction. When critic John Bell interviewed Abdoh, he saw a “master of the sweeping rhetorical gesture and the grand, impatient retort,” so much so “that during those few moments when one wonders whether he is being completely truthful or creating a grandiose effect, one chooses to accept the effect; it is, after all, the man creating himself with brilliant theatricality.” Perhaps. By the time I met Abdoh, I saw someone a few years older than myself, emaciated and dying, devoid of self-pity, with a perspective on life that I will never fathom-which suits me fine. And yet one can’t help but try to begin to understand the perspective—the mix of rage and pain with gallows humor and nostalgia, the intensity of his lived experiences combined with the breadth of his intellectual knowledge-that constitutes the personality of the artist and his work.

Explaining his own fascination with the Marquis de Sade, Jean Paulhan wrote,

Moralists declare that it suffices to have brought an end, even through negligence, to a single human life in order to feel oneself utterly changed. And moralists are imprudent in saying so, for all of us desire to feel such a change in ourselves. It’s a wish as old as the world; it’s more or less the story of the Tree of Good and Evil. And if discretion ordinarily restrains us from changing ourselves to this extent, we nevertheless have the keen desire to frequent those who have undergone their experience, to befriend them, to espouse their remorse (and the knowledge that comes thereof).

Abdoh brought an end to his own life. If there is knowledge to be gained from this, it is not a knowledge that illuminates; confronting it is like looking at a sun that shines darkness. It’s the inverse of a “brilliant theatricality.” It’s death. That Abdoh didn’t create work like Larry Kramer’s, where a main character who clearly represents the author uselessly rants that someone (who?) ought to do something (what?) is part of what gave his anger power. That these shows were born of a man of color, gay and dying, is clear, but not so clear. It’s true, as Abdoh said, that the “journey to the underworld that takes place in [Hip-Hop Waltz of Eurydice] is specifically gay.” But it’s not exclusively gay. His work seldom, almost never, reduces itself to a simple cry of “I want to live,” or “Society isn’t working hard enough to find a cure.” Psychic demons that are common to everyone are summoned by these performances; Abdoh’s identity as a gay, HIV-positive man from Teheran is a point of entry into the work, a vital part that should not be confused with the sum.

In Tight Right White, where mortality does not suffuse the content of the piece, there is an unraveling of identity. The obscenity of Abdoh’s work, even when it is not explicitly dealing with death, creates a sense of life losing whatever holds it together. Reviewing The Law of Remains in New York Newsday, Julius Novick asked, “It’s nauseating, all right, but is it art?” For Abdoh, shock is not a “tactic”; it’s prerequisite to communicating in a forum where the listeners have learned to assume a passive and comfortable position. “Obscenity,” Bataille wrote, “is our name for the uneasiness which upsets the physical state associated with self-possession, with the possession of a recognized and stable individuality.” Bataille was speaking of obscenity as it relates to eroticism; Abdoh’s work is erotically obscene, but it also creates uneasiness in pieces like Tight Right White by disrupting the recognized and stable individualities manufactured out of the impulse to stereotype. Abdoh can shock with image or text, by showing or telling; it’s hard to watch an Abdoh performance without asking: What is obscenity? Why should this scene be more disturbing than the last? And what kind of redemption does this vision offer, if any?

Abdoh’s reputation rests largely on descriptions of his directorial style. The scripts for Hip-Hop Waltz of Eurydice, The Law of Remains, Tight Right White, and Quotations from a Ruined City have all been published, and Diane White has said that she would like to find a publisher for Bogeyman. But it’s even harder to judge an Abdoh script than it is one by Richard Foreman. Where Foreman has had decades for people to come see and describe his work, Abdoh’s career was short and divided between two coasts. Where Foreman has a trove of theoretical writings to describe the principles behind his directorial and playwriting methods, Abdoh was relatively silent; he never wrote any articles of his own, and there are not many published interviews. None of Abdoh’s work was ever directed by anyone other than Abdoh, and it’s doubtful that Abdoh would have granted permission to anyone who wanted to do so.

Of course, it’s hard to think of anyone who would want to direct an Abdoh play right now. Few artists share Abdoh’s impulse to use a postmodern vocabulary to express a sociopolitically committed point of view. As John Bell has pointed out, while Abdoh’s style has elements in common with Foreman and the Wooster Group, the content of his work is avowedly more political than theirs. Nor does Abdoh’s work fit neatly amongst the theater artists whose work has grown more socially engaged in the context of the AIDS epidemic. Abdoh’s oeuvre is not only interested in AIDS, nor is it primarily concerned with homosexuality. It shies away from neither but only integrates them into the performance as part of the themes of sex, identity, and death—the triad upon which all of Abdoh’s later works stand. Only in the most superficial sense do Abdoh’s plays fit Arlene Croce’s category of victim art: He was a gay artist with AIDS who grappled dealt with death, but there’s nothing in the work that calls for pity or points a finger of blame at any group. There is no call for action, and Abdoh said he’s “certainly not after presenting any clear cut answers.” Sentimentality, which Abdoh complained of as saturating the culture, is anathema to his work. His portrayal of the “victims” always mixes any call for compassion with a discomforting edge of revulsion, bitter humor, or contempt—and sometimes, all three. Indeed, when John Bell told Abdoh he sensed a political philosophy in Quotations and asked the playwright to articulate it, Abdoh’s reply was one sentence: “I believe that one has to not be a victim.”

Abdoh resisted making generalizations about his work. An interviewer pointed out that Quotations from a Ruined City, his most recent show, was quieter than the ones that immediately preceded it-was this a direction that Abdoh was heading in, a side effect of his own AIDS-induced lack of mobility? “No, there’s no direction,” he responded, and pointed out that Hip-Hop Waltz of Eurydice was “calmer” than Quotations. “I don’t want to do the same thing over and over.”

There are, however, tools or traits that reappear throughout Abdoh’s recent work. The presentational style of performance, influenced by Ta’ziyeh or perhaps Brecht; the unusually loud amplification of the actor’s voices via microphones that are deliberately visible; the use of dance numbers as an interruption of the action, but one that comments-or provides a contrast that invites comment-on the preceding and following scenes. Dance is used in a variety of ways: Abdoh loved to use folk dance traditions, and brought in people who could choreograph and possibly perform a Brazilian dance, a Jewish wedding dance, a Viennese waltz. At the same time, the shows feature dance sections that are apropos of hip-hop videos one would see on MTV. Sometimes the dance is self-contained, with the dancers performing, it seems, for themselves-as in the Jewish wedding dance in Tight Right White. At other times, the dancers “take in” the audience in the tradition of a Broadway dance number, as they do in Quotations.

Video is present in all of the works discussed here, sometimes used as a comment or complement of the stage action, but just as often it is simply another element in the frenetic barrage of images for which Abdoh’s work is notorious. Abdoh also had a knack for finding a phrase that, upon first hearing and almost independent of context, can haunt or disturb. These phrases are usually repeated at different points throughout the performance. In Rusty Sat on a Hill One Dawn and Watched the Moon Go Down, various characters say again and again, “Funerals are where daffodils grow” or “Dead is where the sparrows go in winter.” In Hip-Hop Waltz, Eurydice has a refrain, “The place that you rip open again and again that heals is God.” In Bogeyman, the mother figure, dressed as the bride of Frankenstein, has a short segment where she repeats, “Prescribe something so I can sleep.” In Tight Right White, “Wake up, dead man,” is said in English and German at various points, without an immediate point of reference. The apparent arbitrariness of the moment at which these phrases sometime come only adds to their impact. They halt the action for a moment, and in their refrains they provide as a reference point primarily the fact that they have been uttered already. Nevertheless, the more the phrases are repeated, the more they seem to grow in significance.

Gallows humor, which Abdoh called “the most important part of my aesthetic,” is recurrent. The gallows humor can take the form of an absurd juxtaposition of images, of a comic conception of a character’s costume, of the insertion of a camp segment into a scene that has hitherto been violent or otherwise repugnant, or of “sick jokes,” short question and answer routines that are as silly as they are perverse and (in a good way) tasteless. Sick jokes appear in everything Abdoh wrote for the stage, from Rusty to Tight Right White, and to a lesser extent in Quotations. “You know what they call a faggot on a wheelchair,” Moishe Pipik, the Jewish caricature from Tight Right White asks Blaster, an actor in blackface. “ROLL AIDS,” Pipik tells him, and the mise en scène rushes into a “techno dance.” “Why did Jeffrey Dahmer come out the way he did?” someone screams into a mike in The Law of Remains. “When he was young his mother gave him the cold shoulder.” In the midst of earnest rage, random lines from commercial pop culture—”My people call it Maize,” or “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up,” both in Bogeyman—fly in from nowhere and suddenly, if for an instant, deflate the tension or interrupt the momentum of whatever had been happening. The Hip-Hop Waltz of Eurydice, placed in a stark white room in a world where sex is outlawed, is riddled with bitter humor. Like Cocteau, Abdoh displaces the mythic characters of Orpheus and Eurydice into a domestic, quotidian context—but Abdoh takes it a step further, by putting them into a satirical world based on American cultural representations of domesticity. Orpheus and Eurydice speak in dialogue that borrows from various sit-coms, sounding at times like the archetypal TV couple from The Honeymooners. “Suppose a burglar breaks into the house and finds me?” Eurydice asks Orpheus, chastising him for going off on a trip. Orpheus, played by Juliana Francis, turns to Eurydice while mugging to the audience and, in as hammy a way possible, says, “It would serve him right.”

There’s an impulse by some critics to locate moments of redemption, but those moments, I would argue, are fleeting and never all that redemptive to begin with. Quotations ends with a scene of two male lovers coming center for an embrace, but the cliché gesture of solace is utterly undermined by their gaunt and ghostly appearance and by the accompanying image-the last image seen in the show-of four sides of beef hanging upstage-“dead meat,” as Bell observed. Nor are the dances that punctuate Abdoh’s work safe respites from the chaos that surrounds them. In the actual dancing, there may not-there usually is not-a trace of irony, but the stark and hellish context in which they occur invites the spectators to view the dances with skepticism, or at least curiosity.

The most difficult aspect of writing about the plays is communicating their cumulative effect. It’s difficult to cite small segments of text that will yield an appreciation for what is going on. That, after all, is part of what makes Abdoh’s work remarkable: yes, the performances are “like victims burnt at the stake, signaling through the flames,” but the signals chosen are a code that is not always immediately comprehensible. Boundaries are constantly being erased-boundaries between images, narratives, characters. Circumstances shape identity, and circumstances are ever in flux. A perspective emerges, but not a fixed position. What is outside is in—as one character says at the start of Quotations, “I carry the ruined city under my skin.” In order to create as full a context for understanding the works as possible, one must first know a little bit more about the man who made them where he came from, what he experienced, what he became.

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