In the near future, history students will not read from dry textbooks about Rome, Egypt, and the Civil War. They will sit in educational theaters to watch projections that employ sound, imagery, and drama to fully imagine the past. In a refreshingly non-didactic, yet pedagogical performance, Theater Oobleck’s The Hysterical Alphabet, is an example of what a 21st-century hybrid of art and scholarship might be.
I like that Theater Oobleck calls itself an artist collective. But in addition to being artists, Terri Kapsalis (voice and dramaturgy), John Corbett (sound), and Danny Thompson (imagery) are accomplished academics with a teaching agenda. Their product fits into an emerging philosophy about the role of post-market art.
The subject of The Hysterical Alphabet is wild and vast, but the set is simple: a darkened stage with a long table, three petite desk lamps, and a screen. The program last week began with an introduction by Joey Orr, a PhD student at Emory University’s Institute of Liberal Arts program, who explained that the pamphlet the group distributed is a bibliography, and that this performance is an example of “visual scholarship.” (See Audiovisual Thinking for further examples.)
The three performers enter the stage, sit down, and illuminate their small work areas. A bell rings and a vintage record mounts the player. Thus begins a cadence: Three layers of audio-visual sources co-mingle in a quiet, though emotive mood. The trope is established by the title, and the form never veers from an alphabet of names that anthropomorphize the history of Hysteria, “a curious malady of the womb.”
The history of this psycho-physical malady affecting women begins in Egypt and reaches a particularly outrageous climax in the 19th century as the women’s rights movement emerges in the West. The story, though abstracted artistically, is culled from a long list of scholarly texts, published over a range of more than two millennia. The listing of academic sources is an interesting read, with bombastically titled works and charged words: Ventriloquized Bodies, Possession, Witches and Midwives, Meowing Nuns, Women of the Asylum: Voices from Behind the Walls, and The Technology of Orgasm. Anyone interested in the subject will be armed with a righteous reference book list. But in addition to bookish information, also listed are delicious and obscure vintage vinyl recordings, films, and videos.
Terri Kapsalis is not just the dramaturge, a specialist inside a theater company who is responsible for research and development of a play. She is also the voice of the work: mellow and contemplative, but charged with passion. She does not tell a literal story, but shares a poem about a rather strange and tragic part of women’s history.
For centuries mainstream society limited women’s power to the confines of marriage and motherhood. Certainly, those with an acute vigor, ambition, or sexuality went mad for lack of expression. Women of the past had little outlet for the resulting anger, stress, and anxiety that social constraints afforded them. For some, intense feelings of being severely restricted and misunderstood were channeled into a culturally accepted form of insanity, a ridiculous and prevalent phenomenon generically coined “hysteria.” Many pondered its potential medical and psychological causes, but no one thought to look at the phenomena as a product of culturally reinforced sexual discrimination.
While experiencing this “theater” piece from a contemporary point of view, one easily sympathizes with the rage of these women. In one story, a woman trying to leave her husband becomes “hysterical.” Like a misbehaving child, she is brought to a male doctor who sends her home, prescribing that she “do more laundry.” Here’s another chilling phrase: “Happy pregnant wives are rebellious girls reformed.” In other cases, remedies are more pleasant, like horseback rides in the country air, exotic vacations, electric belts, and genital massages performed by doctors. Through the texts of this drama, floating wombs and agitated uteruses have an animalistic identity of their own. In an almost humorous twist, these organs of femininity are monsters out of control, afflicting the poor women who harbor them.
Last winter, artist Louis Camnitzer read a searing essay about art and education at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, which called for artworks to be used as an educational device. Camnitzer sees art as an alternative form of critical thinking. Although we live in a world of audio-visual communication, we don’t practice how to dissect and interpret the vernacular art of advertising and entertainment. Camnitzer laments that artworks made for the fine art system are treated in a similarly uncritical way. They are just “enormous rocks to be traded,” which fetishizes their objectification, focusing on monetary value and status of ownership instead of the messages embedded in the work. Obviously disheartened by this commodification of art, Camnitzer feels that such a commercially driven perspective distracts from the arts’ more extensive and educationally subversive capacities.
The Hysterical Alphabet is perhaps a glimpse into this paradigm shift.