One of the most interesting -- and in some ways, weirdest -- songs in Bukowsical is "Get Down, Get Dark, Get Dirty." In this postmodern vaudeville number, four famous writers, Tennessee Williams, William S. Burroughs, William Faulkner, and Sylvia Plath give Bukowski advice and encouragement. And their central lesson to him is to Be Yourself.
Burroughs: With gluttonous voracity!
Faulkner: Sing of violence and pugnacity!
Plath: I wrote my stuff sardonic.
Burroughs: I wrote mine catatonic.
Williams: I liked my sex symbolic.
All: And we all were alcoholic.
That last line is funny but it also implies a question that pervades Bukowsical. Why are all these great writers, and Bukowski in particular, so fucked up? Is it the same thing that makes them great writers and also makes them fucked up? Would they be great writers if they weren't fucked up? I often tease my actors that "You have to suffer for your art." But maybe it's true. Maybe you have to. One lyric early in the show goes, "Life is rotten and art is pain." Wow.
"Get Down, Get Dark, Get Dirty" ends with some playful rhymes that reveal genuine truth.
All: With candor and sagacity,
With fervor and tenacity,
We’ll drink to our capacity,
Williams: But please, sir… No mendacity!
All: Get down, get dark, and just get dirty...
Yes, they are all alcoholics, but they are serious about their work and they cannot stomach less than the truth. Williams' line is a comic reference to Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but it also speaks to these writers' artistic integrity. No mendacity. No lies. Fictions, sure, but not lies.
This is a song about artistic -- and spiritual? -- freedom, fearlessness, honesty. These four famous writers (as Stockdale and Green have incarnated them, at least) make the argument for telling the truth even when it's ugly, even when it's controversial, even when it's dangerous, even when it's about sex. As long as it's the truth. The last line of this song is, "Jerk it while you work it, baby, dirty it up!"
This show is about the relationship between an artist's life and his work -- in this case, a really fucked-up artist and his really fucked-up work -- a show about what it's like to be an artist. And right at the center of the evening is this song, which gets to the heart of the show. As rowdy and raunchy as it is -- and it really is -- this is a song about the moment when an artist learns to free himself, to reject the conventions and expectations of others, and to find his true voice, his authenticity.
This scene is more sophisticated than it might appear, with its old-fashioned vaudevillian style, and it's potty-mouth'd lyric. It does some important storytelling. In Assassins, all the American assassins from throughout history all converge on the Texas Book Depository in 1963 to convince Oswald to shoot Kennedy. It's a brilliant, chilling scene. But it doesn't suggest that Oswald was delusional; it's a dramatic representation of the influence on Oswald of those assassins who had gone before him. Suddenly, instead of a crazy loner, Oswald becomes part of a force of history, and that gives him the courage to shoot Kennedy. Likewise, in Bukowsical, in order to dramatize the influence of the other great American writers on Bukowski, Stockdale and Green present those writers in the flesh, to have a conversation (well, a vaudeville number) with Bukowski. It's a fun way to get at a somewhat abstract point, and it's utterly organic to the rest of the show.
And it's really funny. Wait till you see Robin's choreography for it...
It's a pretty potent group of ghosts who show up here. Williams S. Burroughs, one of the founders of the Beat movement, was one of the most politically and culturally influential, and most innovative artists of the 20th century, writing about drugs, homosexuality, and other controversial topics. Like other writers discussed here, Burroughs wrote a lot of autobiographical fiction. His most controversial work was his novel Naked Lunch in 1959, which included a talking anus. According to Wikipedia:
Jack Kerouac called Burroughs the "greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift," a reputation he owes to his "lifelong subversion" of the moral, political and economic systems of modern American society, articulated in often darkly humorous sardonicism. J. G. Ballard considered Burroughs to be "the most important writer to emerge since the Second World War," while Norman Mailer declared him "the only American writer who may be conceivably possessed by genius."
Burroughs shot his wife Joan in 1951, playing drunken games, and he later wrote:
I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.
Kinda sounds like something Bukowski might have written.
We think of Tennessee Williams plays as "classics" today, but many of them were extremely controversial when he wrote them -- the prominent sexual content of many of his works, the only barely veiled homosexuality at the center of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly, Last Summer, the domestic abuse and sexual content of A Streetcar Named Desire, and of course, his works of dark autobiographical fiction, most notably, The Glass Menagerie.
His plays were R-rated enough that most of them had to be substantially rewritten for film. Like Bukowski, Williams suffered from depression throughout his life.
William Faulkner is considered one of the greatest of American writers. Like most of these other writers, Faulkner wrote in many forms, novels, poetry, plays, short stories, screenplays. To quote Wikipedia again:
Faulkner was known for his experimental style with meticulous attention to diction and cadence. In contrast to the minimalist understatement of his contemporary Ernest Hemingway, Faulkner made frequent use of "stream of consciousness" in his writing, and wrote often highly emotional, subtle, cerebral, complex, and sometimes Gothic or grotesque stories of a wide variety of characters including former slaves or descendants of slaves, poor white, agrarian, or working-class Southerners, and Southern aristocrats.
Like Bukowski and Burroughs, Faulkner was fascinated by the American underclass.
Sylvia Plath is such an interesting choice to put in this group. Like Bukowski, she was very controversial, writing about the straitjacket of mid-century Western civilization for women -- from the inside -- in what was called "confessional poetry." Honor Moore of Boston Review wrote: "When Sylvia Plath’s Ariel was published in the United States in 1966, American women noticed. Not only women who ordinarily read poems, but housewives and mothers whose ambitions had awakened. Here was a woman, superbly trained in her craft, whose final poems uncompromisingly charted female rage, ambivalence, and grief, in a voice with which many women identified." Like Bukowski, she also wrote a semi-autobiographical novel. And as Bukowski did, Plath and her husband traveled across the country. She later said that was when she learned "to be true to my own weirdnesses."
In the book Morbid Curiosity: The Disturbing Demises of the Famous and Infamous, Alan Petrucelli titles one section Easy Off(ed) and writes, "Mother knows best. When noted bipolar poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) decided to take the final path, she made sure her two children would be safe. Before turning on the gas jets in her London kitchen, she left them bread and milk, cracked open a window in their bedroom, and placed wet towels at the foot of their door to prevent the toxic fumes from reaching them. Then Path, depressed over her husband’s infidelities, stuck her head deep into the bowels of the oven. The Plath passings didn't end there: On March 16, 2009, Path’s forty-seven-year-old son Nicholas Hughes hanged himself in his Alaska home – forty six years after his mother’s suicide and almost forty years to the day after his father’s mistress, poet Assia Wevill , killed herself and her four-year old daughter Shura in a copycat suicide. Assia gave her daughter some sleeping pills, popped some herself, sealed off the kitchen windows and door, and turned on the gas.”
Plath seems right at home among these others.
And even more writers get shout-outs over the course of the show -- Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Norman Mailer, Malcolm Lowry, Herman Melville, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Lord Byron, Tom Wolfe, Rod McKuen, Erich Segal, Gore Vidal, and others. Not only are the literary references fun for those who catch them, they also subtly place Bukowski among the great writers of the 20th century.
And not just great writers, but great rebels. Shelley was an artistic, political, and social radical, so much so that publishers were afraid to publish his work for fear of being arrested themselves for blasphemy or sedition. Lord Byron was a bipolar hedonist, not unlike Bukowski in some ways. Keats was a sensualist, like Bukowski. Melville was a modernist. Hemingway was a hard-living, hard-drinking, ground-breaking minimalist. Steinbeck was the chronicler of the American underclass. According to Wikipedia, "Mailer is considered an innovator of creative nonfiction, a genre sometimes called New Journalism, which superimposes the style and devices of literary fiction onto fact-based journalism." Bukowski would take that experiment and make it even more personal with his autobiographical fiction. Malcolm Lowry also wrote autobiographical fiction, was an alcoholic, and may have killed himself with a barbiturate overdose. You can see how all these writers may have influenced Bukowski's work, and how much they all have in common. He'd be right at home among them.
Someone should write a play and put all these writers in the same room for two hours. With a fully stocked bar, of course.
It's likely that many of the people who see our show will not have read any of Bukowski's work, but that won't keep them from enjoying the wacky anarchy of this show. And I bet a lot of them will check out his books after seeing the show. And maybe they'll also check out some Steinbeck and Faulkner and Plath... Oh my!
I love art about art. The adventure continues...
Long Live the Musical!