There is a big difference between writing for the printed page and the speaking voice, as any playwright, poet or orator will tell you.
In one the eye scans the totality of the image, the arrangement of words, phrases, sentences, the composition of a thought as it is framed by the edges of the page. Contained in space, it can be read and re-read many times over. In the other, the ear hears the words shaped and molded by the tone of voice, its nuances and rhythms, pauses, inflections, volume and speed. It moves through time in a forward momentum. It cannot be retracted, only retraced in memory.
The challenges of transcription of language performed to a text on a page is made even more complex when the performer/author who is speaking is also moving, adding a meta-level of gestural language into the mix. Can the layers of meaning in an intense, language-based verbal and kinetic performance be successfully captured and conveyed on the pages of a book? The words retain their power without the voice if the writing and ideas expressed are strong enough to stand alone — i.e. the performance text as literature. At the same time it is also a script that may be re-enacted, interpreted and performed in the future rather than consumed and lost in time. Much like a musical score or the lyrics of a song, the text is a set of instructions, a performance “score,” and the layout on the page is crucial to its reading.
Fortunately for all of us, writer, performer, choreographer, filmmaker Jeff McMahon’s new book Six Monologues 1990-2007 meets the challenge as a book to be read, while at the same time it is a space for performance as language and visa versa. As a performance text Six Monologues is closer to the libretto for an opera, than a collection of plays. The poetics of McMahon’s writing deliver a powerful emotional punch that carries the urgency of his personal vision and voice. Perhaps in part because these texts were developed vocally in performance before they were written down, they have a muscular quality. The content is more prescient than ever as it addresses the pain and suffering of both the individual and collective psyche of our country being torn apart culturally and politically, physically and spiritually.
Because Six Monologues 1990-2007 is a collection of works spanning nearly two decades it reveals how his voice has changed across time, weathered by experience. The first three pieces Discontents (1990), Scatter (1991), and City of God (1993) range from aggressive and confrontational, to indignant and anguished reflections. The last piece Failure to Thrive (wee small hours) (2007) is a far more sobering and sorrowful, internal voice filled with the kind of realizations that come with age.
I must admit that having known McMahon and his work since the 1980s the sound of his voice resonates in my memory as I read. Especially in the sixteen parts or verses of Discontents that are almost like a series of raps and rants in their rapid-fire delivery filled with accusatory undertones and pitches, frenzied rhythms and punctuations. The voice is thin and reedy, but the anger is visceral. The words on the page are a punch in the gut. They knock the air out of you. They spar and jab, and push you up against the wall. They spin you around and mock you, spit the truth in your face and laugh. And cry. And embrace you in your shared despair. The performing voice is right there on the page because it is written as verse, not prose. You can feel it in your throat and on your tongue. You can hear it in your head. Discontents may have been written in 1990 but it could have been written today, for it is a shout in the darkness of a shattered American dream.
Both sung and spoken, Scatter (1991) is a group of eight monologues in which McMahon takes on different roles and voices, creating a disquieting friction filled with bruising contradictions. It is clearly McMahon’s despairing response to the first Iraq war, and a deeply moving anti-war statement. Part I is an “art song” inspired by Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 novel Johnny Got His Gun, and it includes passages from When Johnny Comes Marching Home, and Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye, intercut with spoken verse and narrative variations on the theme. McMahon plays freely with alliteration, internal rhyme and repetition to create vivid images of the cost of war on a young man’s body and soul. He counterpoints it with narrative recitations in Johnny’s first person voice.
The next six parts are short pieces alternating prose, verse, and song. A page-long list of conditions and reasons are a chilling indictment of the system that decides who lives or dies. It is followed by an aggressive rhythmic rap that challenges all those who follow the orders, go with the program, don’t question the rules, the status quo, the dominant values. In Part IV McMahon switches to his own conversational voice in response to a question about the people and things he looked up to and believed in as a child. The reply is inflected with a certain innocence and hopefulness, only to be countered by an assertive “speech” in the voice of authority and power. A notation indicates an ironic interjection of a verse and chorus from the Beatles 1965 Help. Then come two short verses in which ideological demagoguery becomes personal in its triumphant self-aggrandizement. Part VI is another notation for a song. But we are jolted back to the present with a commanding recitation of orders — Bomb…Bomb…Bomb…. The instructions and responses have Orwellian intonations. McMahon ends with a quietly heart-wrenching first person verse set in the aftermath. Scatter concludes with directions for a silent movement piece.
At the heart of this book is the forty page “libretto” for the brilliant eleven scene epic City of God (1993), a soul-searching, deeply personal inquiry into the unraveling of the postmodern American psyche, from the point of view of a man born and raised in the post-war city of dreams – Los Angeles. Although it speaks in the first person, it is the voice of collective anxiety, of the unspoken sense of displacement that lies just under the skin of the social body, unacknowledged and unnamed dread. It is an existential journey filled with longing and loss, desire and disappointment. In its search for meaning, it traverses the landscape of love and sex, ambition and failure, alienation, self-doubt, aging and death.
Unlike the first two pieces, City of God is predominantly prose, intercut with free verse, and pauses for fragments and medleys of songs. And the text is double spaced, leaving empty space for what is between the lines, and time to let it sink in — the pieces of music that trigger memory, literary references, disappearing landmarks, fault lines. Like McMahon’s choreography, the writing is unembellished, yet emotionally potent. It took my breath away, then slapped me in the face and doused me with cold water, and left me alone in a dark room to contemplate mortality, too stunned to cry. Although written in 1993, City of God is very much a vision of the present, in which we are all “displaced,” unmoored and alone in the city that is a mirage, full of ghosts and shadows.
The last half of the book has three scripts from works written a decade later in the aftermath of 9/11, from 2002-2007 during the George W. Bush era of the second Iraq War and Afghanistan. Each one addresses McMahon’s political and social concerns, but the tone is different from the previous decade. The writing in Heel and Honorable Discharge is more expository, less emotive, perhaps influenced by his move to academia. The outrage, vulnerabilities and ambivalences have been tempered.
McMahon began writing Heel (2002) in October 2001 a month after moving to Phoenix, Arizona from New York. It was intended to be a bookend to the 1992 anti-war Scatter. But on the page Heel reads like a multi-media theater piece (which it is). Both spoken and visual texts are an equal partner to the physical action and the visual media as opposed to the central focus. There are moving and chilling passages in which McMahon shifts in character from commander to soldier to terrorist to witness and back. But it is hard to gage the change in voice. A good part of the problem of reading it is in the way it is designed on the page. The conventional formatting alternating the spoken text with stage instructions and descriptions of the technical media (computers and projections), plus the double-spacing, dilutes the impact of the text. Nor does it put into perspective the importance of the props – the boot and the suitcase as metaphors, and the ways in which the choreography and visual projections are keys to the emotional meta-levels of the text. The weakness in Heel as text is not in the narrative content but in its visual transcription, thus needing several reads.
Honorable Discharge (2004) deals with the issue of police brutality, the rationales for the use of excessive force, and the irrationality of the protocols. In this case the killing of a fifteen-year-old boy of color, played against the second Iraq War. The text reads like a one-act play, not a monologue. The narrative is familiar, the writing more journalistic than impressionistic, with less of the rich play of language of the verse-based pieces. Perhaps, because it was not performed by McMahon, but written for an actor, I found it difficult to find his voice in it. It is no doubt a more compelling work on the stage than the page, where the sudden shifts from a police to a military encounter would be more distinct. Still it remains disturbing and insidious in its portrayal of the justifications for violence embedded in bureaucratic language with its glaring absurdities.
In the final piece Failure to Thrive (wee small hours) (2007), a monologue with songs, in fifteen verses, McMahon comes full circle in an achingly sad and subtly revelatory work. In the waning of the light McMahon attempts to come to terms with regret, guilt, sorrow and loss in a running dialectic rife with contradictions. As he confronts mortality, compassion spars with judgment in the quest for forgiveness, justice, solace, redemption. He peers into the darkness in the heart and soul of this time and place with all its moral ambiguities, and leaves us with an unexpectedly pungent and piercingly bittersweet aftertaste.
Six Monologues 1990-2007 is a compelling read, and like good poetry something to go back to again and again in order to grasp all its levels of meaning. In fact, some scenes, or verses stand on their own. McMahon has a way of speaking the words, the thoughts and feelings you haven’t said but have been there all along waiting to be articulated and heard. The book is also an important document that transposes Jeff McMahon’s performance work from stage to page giving it a second life, and a way to experience it in a new light.
COVER PHOTO: J. MIGUEL MUNGUIA
Jeff McMahon, Six Monologues 1990-2007. NoPassport Press, P.O. Box 1786, South Gate, CA 90280 www.jeffmcmahonprojects.net