Fiona Templeton is a figure so prominent in our understanding of today’s poets theater practice that we completely failed to notice that she had already written a number of accomplished plays before our 1985 cut-off date (“well yes,” she said dryly, “I’ve been at this game since 1975”) and she must have been just about the last person we asked once this omission sunk in.
Templeton’s play Against Agreement (1982) has a loose, open structure like the intersticed netting of a hammock, belied by the increasingly difficult constraints poured across its surface, like glues of varying origins and flavors, by the elegant prompts of her “Characters and Structural Characteristics (and Ploys).” She describes it as “game structure,” wherein characters are “ways of behaving in relation to others.” Hence the lead roles are synonymous with the collaborators, who probably deserve equal billing in performance: Fiona Templeton and Peter Stickland realizing the piece at The Red Bar in New York’s East Village, 1982. But Against Agreement is a collaboration in performance if not in script, and the mere act of anthologizing it as a text reinforces its thematic and gestural self-reflexivity. The “Time Diagram” referred to on page 453 is both extraneous (literarily) and essential (to a production).
The absence of “Peter’s text” marks “contradictory simultaneities,” the accommodation of unforeseen and subsequent tandems. (While, the song lyrics cited on the diagram reflect the piece’s basically claustrophobic aura as well as a tin pan alley motif the setting, itself perhaps somewhat adaptable, already suggests: “I’ve got you under my skin,” “Me and my shadow / strolling down the avenue,” and “Should I reveal / exactly how I feel?” as examples.) Peter and Fiona progress from “agreement,” past a pure state of uninvolved disputation, to “something else” that transcends but looks a whole lot like absolute disagreement. This narrative maintains the limpidity of its surface bubbling along against a large cast of bar patrons, while aiming for a gradual decline in naturalism.
Staged in a bar, Templeton’s piece replicates the classic “off-Broadway” conventions of the saloon play (think The Iceman Cometh, or Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life) but changes them up with her “Scenic Metronomic Drunk,” her “Rhythmic Metronomic Barmaid,” her chorus of bartenders each with his or her own scraps of personality, the traits of character bestowed by the writer to be really worked up by the actors. Can you imagine, originally “Steve” was played by actor Steve Buscemi, since those days a well known film performer, but in the production photos of Against Agreement impossibly young, his mournful features like a child painted up like a clown’s.
For the original production, Templeton wrote these notes, helpful to those of us trying to think about the difference between reading and, well, life:
In the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, the complex perspective of the trompe l’oeil behind the tiny stage is best seen from one seat in the theatre—the Duke’s, to whom actors would turn to deliver speeches that ostensibly addressed another actor. In the cinema, everyone sees the same because it is bigger. In conventional proscenium, the art consists in making everyone look at the same aspect and not see what does not conform to the illusion, or, if there is no illusion, the point.
The linear nature of playscripts suggests that nothing happens simultaneously. This is a feature of writing: even where a narrative is broken, or there is none, one can only read one thing at a time. Although a great deal more went on in a Shakespearean production than he wrote as text, the texts are taken as the model for academic playwriting, which suffers from its literary analogy. This need not be a feature of theatre, where the inclusion of space allows contradictory simultaneities (as in life).
Agreement is not multiple. In contradiction, a choice is necessary and mutuality impossible. In paradox, a mutual impossibility must be apparent though not prohibitive. In a mathematical tautology, the negative is just as true.
If you think I’m your enemy, and I do not, who is the enemy? If I think you are my friend, and you do not, who is the friend?
Against #l. the best. the biggest, the first, the only, the winner, the right, the end.
[Kevin Killian & David Brazil, culled from The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater: 1945-1985, forthcoming early 2010. Drawing and photograph by Fiona Templeton, used by permission, all rights reserved, (c) Fiona Templeton and Patrick Durgin for Kenning Editions. Pre-orders by subscription only: using a credit card, or via direct mailorder.]