Notes on (The New York Times Writing About) Camp

Bambif*cker Little Lord
Doe, a deer. Polly Lee and Alex Birnie in BAMBIF*CKER. Photo by Whitney G-Bowley.

Many things in the world have not been named. Many things, if they have been named, have never been described. One of these is the sensibility — unmistakably modern, a variant of sophistication but hardly identical with it — that goes by the name “New York Times Critical Discourse.” It’s hard to talk about something that exercises its power through a performance of “objectivity.” But I’m going to try.

Theatre Askew's Horseplay
Maybe it was all the pink that confused Alexis Soloski. Mark St. Cyr, Everett Quinton and Molly Pope in Horseplay. Photo by James Eden.

This post is in response to Alexis Soloski’s review of my company’s production of Trav S.D.’s play Horseplay: or, The Fickle Mistress, A Protean Picaresque at La MaMa in New York City. Horseplay was inspired by the life of the 19th-century actress, equestrienne, poet and multiple divorcee Adah Isaacs Menken, who became famous for playing the male role of Mazeppa clad only in a body stocking.

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I think of Menken as a displaced person –temporally displaced, that is — playing by rules of female emancipation that would not become widely acceptable for another hundred years. The Victorians simply didn’t know what to make of a sexually and financially liberated woman, other than a spectacle. That she was a willing accomplice in the exploitation of her persona makes her both tragic — overwork killed her at the age of 33 — and comical. She was the original resilient Material Girl long before Madonna’s grandmother was even born.

To capture her complexity, Trav and Theatre Askew turned to the aesthetic of Ridiculous Theatre — a form we believe uniquely suitable to capturing the contradictions of lived experience, both its pain and its absurdity. It’s also a form inherently resistant to mawkish sentimentality, the Achilles heel of American theatrical practice. And as such, it’s not to everyone’s taste. Now, one can defend Soloski’s review, or any other critic’s for that matter, as merely that — the expression of personal taste. At the same time, we should keep in mind what Susan Sontag declared in her career-launching 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” from which I “appropriated” my lede: “Taste has no system and no proofs. But there is something like a logic of taste…”

What, then, is the logic of the Gray Lady’s taste?

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I would suggest that it is closely related to Fredric Jameson’s cultural logic of late capitalism:

…aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally: the frantic economic urgency of producing fresh waves of ever more novel-seeming goods (from clothing to aeroplanes), at ever greater rates of turnover, now assigns an increasingly essential structural function and position to aesthetic innovation and experimentation.

Note the use of “novel-seeming” in Jameson’s postulation: As with fashion, creativity is rewarded insofar as it gussies up existing forms with new fabrics or prints. In this model of cultural economy, the critic’s function is reduced to that of Consumer Reports. He or she also assumes the imperative of the business press to spot trends. The critic’s job becomes not just to connect consumers with products they will likely enjoy but to alert potential investors to “good bets,” whether said investors are profit-driven producers or institutional funders. To convey the real message of any review, then, a system of coded terms had to be developed to function as signposts pointing to the bottom line.

Susan Sontag
Camp follower Sontag, 1964 (AP Photo).

In New York theatre, “downtown” and “edgy” are code words. Another is “camp.” As a descriptive category, “camp” cuts both ways. It’s a putdown — unless you’re seeking a particular kind of experience. As Fabio Cleto points out in Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject, Sontag’s essay set off something of a camp craze among urban elites: “[it] became a high rate selling cultural product” (emphasis in original). It was the frivolous, fun, comical sensibility of homosexuals that liberated straight, affluent people from the serious business of ruling the world. Of course, this liberation needed to be carefully constrained as a momentary diversion, a secular Carnevale, and not a revolutionary reevaluation of cultural values.

Sontag establishes this boundary right at the beginning of her notes — Note #2 to be exact — when she writes, “It goes without saying that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized—or at least apolitical.” It’s so obvious she doesn’t need to state (yet she does!) that the camp aesthetic by its very nature is unable to engage meaningfully with the world. Like the sexual pleasure of the homos who invented it, it is a sterile form, unable to produce anything of real social value.

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Soloski seems to have taken Sontag’s essay (and her definition of camp) as her benchmark:

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Sporadically an earnest meditation on identity, the play is mostly episodic camp, but it isn’t quite committed to that genre, either. Under Elyse Singer’s sympathetic direction, the performances sometimes go over the top but frequently linger well below, even as the script encourages a lot of mimed fellatio and corny gibes.

Let’s deconstruct, shall we?

“Sympathetic” is a puzzling designation unless the reader recalls that Sontag wrote that her own theorizing on camp required “deep sympathy modified by revulsion.” With a single condescending stroke, Soloski draws a sharp distinction between the “episodic camp” she discerned onstage and the director’s expert female and presumable “straight” eye outside of it — which, by extension, is both her own and Sontag’s.

By establishing the limiting framework from which she would evaluate the production, Soloski then judges it as coming up short by not committing to full-on outrageousness. This is what distinguishes Grade-A camp from the inferior product, according to Sontag:

23. In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.

24. When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it’s often because it’s too mediocre in its ambition.

I’m guessing our failed seriousness was in what she saw as an attempt to meditate on identity (which sounds about as much fun as a Zen Buddhist retreat). The problem is, that wasn’t what we were doing, let alone attempting. We were playfully embodying what I would call a “politics of performativity,” because identity isn’t a stable construct — which is the whole point of the play. As for the acting, all I’ll say is read the other reviews for a very different take on the ensemble’s work. If by “a lot of mimed fellatio” Soloski means three moments of said sexual act out of a two-and-a-half hour performance (an observation made without context), perhaps she was just confusing us with Lady Bunny. That queen typically manages to cram the same of amount of imaginary penises into her mouth within the first five minutes of her shows. I know, I know, we all look alike.

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My reading of Soloski indicates to me that, for her, we failed to properly entertain, which seems to be the only acceptable function for queer people in the American theatre unless we’re trying to make the audience feel sorry for us, as in James Lecesne’s recent one-man show, The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, at Dixon Place. We made shabby camp; what person reading her paper would want to pay for that?

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Bambif*cker Little Lord
Doe, a deer. Polly Lee and Alex Birnie in BAMBIF*CKER/KAFFEHAUS. Photo by Whitney G-Bowley.

Interestingly, a few weeks after Soloski’s Horseplay review, another Times critic covering another alternative queer theatre company used the “c” word in her review. Claudia La Rocco, writing of Little Lord’s brilliant BAMBIF*CKER/KAFFEHAUS at The Brick, observed that “there are darker currents sweeping under, and occasionally subsuming, the campy surfaces in which Little Lord traffics.” Well, for the love of Julie Andrews, one would hope so in a piece about Freud, Nazi anti-Semitism, Zionism and the intricate Ländler that eros and thanatos dance as they wreak havoc in the human psyche. (The subject of the piece, the Austrian Jew Felix Salten, was the author of Bambi and a pornographer who was forced to flee to Switzerland to escape the Anschluss.)

I would argue that rather than being its shadow, “camp” is itself the dark undercurrent that gives Little Lord’s work its unique power. Charles Ludlam, the great theorist of Ridiculous Theatre, often took critics to task for their imprecise use of the term to describe his work. For Ludlam, camp was motivated by rage — the rage of the disempowered and thus a political rage. Sontag doesn’t acknowledge in her essay the potential for camp to unleash this dangerous energy. Maybe it’s past time we moved on from her definition or at least thought more carefully about what it omitted. Or maybe those of us in the queer vanguard are just doing something different than what the mainstream can only dismiss as camp.

Ludlam also maintained that “camp is a rigorous revaluing of everything.” When Soloski states our production “both honors and derides Menken,” she is actually keying into our refusal to demand that the audience either pity or admire her. Indeed, we asked audiences to think about how celebrity functions in our culture and how we all must keep up a performance just to survive, which is very different from turning Menken into a salable object of camp. Camp viewed this way is a process, not a product, but to write about that would require a different kind of discourse than our commodity-driven press, and apparently Soloski, is capable of.