[Anthologies without articulated editorial criteria don’t deserve the name; as a genre, the anthology is a definitively self-aware one. A unique feature of The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater: 1945-1985 is the self-awareness of editors Kevin Killian and David Brazil, who offer extensive notes on texts that, for one reason or another, are omitted from the volume. One such text is Pedro Pietri’s The Masses Are Asses.]
Like that of Jessica Hagedorn, Cherrie Moraga, and Luis Valdez, Pedro Pietri’s work represents a crucial signature of one of the most important roles experimental drama/performance in general, and poets theater in particular, played in the nation’s postwar literary life: the adjudication of identity from within multicultural communities, such as Pietri’s Nuyorica. His theater work demands recuperative measures to see it within his acknowledged practice as a poet, and, because of its importance in his overall development, The Masses Are Asses most especially so. The play’s last edition went out of print in 2004. Since then, public and university library holdings indicate how difficult it is to locate not only a copy of the book (most were checked out and came due over a year ago, presumed stolen), but to understand the legacy of the work. Bootleg copies are rumored to float through the Fox News lynchpin Rupert Murdoch’s social networking (My Space) page constructed on the poet’s behalf by Pietri’s estate, though the estate did not seriously entertain the notion of its inclusion here.
Pietri immigrated to New York from Ponce, Puerto Rico in 1945, just two years of age. Radicalized by service in Vietnam, he became a major literary artist and activist known as much for his poetry as his dramatic works. As well as teaching at SUNY-Buffalo and the Cultural Council Foundation in New York, Pietri was a founder of the Nuyorican Poets Café. He read one of his best known poems, “Puerto Rican Obituary” (also the title of his first major volume of poetry, published in 1973), during the 1969 takeover of East Harlem Methodist Church by the Puerto Rican nationalist group the Young Lords. “Obituary” bears more than a little thematic resemblance to the following year’s The Masses Are Asses:
These empty dreams
from the make-believe bedrooms
their parents left them
are the after-effects
of television programs
about the ideal
white american family
with black maids
and latino janitors
who are well trained
to make everyone
and their bill collectors
laugh at them
and the people they represent
What makes Pietri’s poets theater special, though, is how it becomes a site where interrogations of the necessary hubris of tragi-comic representation of “the people,” no doubt the very attempt to represent as such, bears more nuanced takes on the material and means of poems like “Obituary.” As Urayoán Noel has it, his work embraces the “punk” aesthetic of “storm[ing] the sidelines of thought,” shared by Dada, Beat, and Language school poetics, which produces a “Pietrian tonguetwist,” “a brilliant defacement of our readerly temperament.” It can be added that all seem to turn up first and in some ways most vividly in The Masses Are Asses, where form and function enter into isomorphic relation. A forerunner of contemporary “slam” poetics, Pietri’s contrarian boogaloo is now central to Hispanic diasporic poetries. But it stands in high contrast to Latin American high modernist and much post-modern poets theater, thinking of Xavier Villaurrutia’s Autos profanos and, to quote Octavio Paz, their maddening sense of “decorum,” even as both put to shame what USAmerican counter-culture optimists delicately referred to as square society.
The Masses Are Asses is a one-act whiteface agitprop farce—an avant garde tragedy of errors, the only error being its own theatricality. A “Lady” and a “Gentleman” of audacious sophistication extol their superiority and smear “the poor” over champagne in a Parisian bistro that doubles as a South Bronx toilet (or is it the other way around?). A supposed lust for prestige stokes the terrorist group A.B.C.D.E.F.G.H.I. (“Armed / Brave / Comrades / Determined / Efficient / Fighters / Gonna / Humiliate / Imperialism!”), whose bullets and bombs punctuate the night. Needing an effective distraction from the ambient siege (which sounds an awful lot like a characteristic evening in the burrough), the couple “pretend” to be common, drink straight from the bottle, and grind to the rhythm of the telephone as it rings and rings (presumably by would-be patrons of the establishment they insist to inhabit). But when the lady fails to snap out of the masque, the gentleman duly protests. Lapsing into reality, his fantasies suffer mounting complaints: “We don’t even know what Staten Island looks like, never mind a foreign country.” A fracas ensues, on the costs of “being and not being here,” of play-acting class mobility, of deciphering the tyranny of community scriptures. The discovery scene is to be taken literally, breaking the fourth wall Pietri never bothered with in the first place, and is echoed by the contemporary routines of anaphoric protest (“You look eternally fine. / You look eternally finer.”) and by the redundancies of prosodic correspondence (“Assholes…didn’t rhyme, and it sounded too lower classish, so I changed it to asses when referring to the masses to give the ass class.”), all consumed and reconsumed via the gentleman’s portable cassette machine.
The poet’s caricatures of American entrepreneurial gusto are deftly disorienting. The audience, unable to entertain the terms of the “mass” spectacle, sees itself doubled in the voices of the two players thrown from offstage as crime and calamity threaten to suspend the characters’ disbelief. “[N]ow when an individual selects to pretend to be rich instead of to be poor indicates a superior level of comprehension of what is essential to obtain intellectual and material fulfillment,” our neo-Platonist neophyte explains. “You are the pleasure of your pleasures and the misery of your miseries!” The sheer didacticism of our hero’s imagination clobbers the spectator, and, chez Popeye, those revolving stars they see limn the profoundest horizons of their gullibility. Machismo is coerced into cowardice as our hero exhausts the truly heroic perserverence of the ultrarealist, his “lady.” But by the time he’s realized that not only did he invent the eponymous adage that fuels his zeal, he has invented an “ass class” that entraps his family, his people, his “being and not being.” The couple finally snuggle into their bathtub wrapped in an infested old fur, repeat their opening litany of sweet nothings like a flipbook of souvenir postcards from an unspent holiday, and “snobbishly clear their throats in zero seconds.”
[Kevin Killian & David Brazil, culled from The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater: 1945-1985, forthcoming early 2010. (c) Kevin Killian, David Brazil and Patrick Durgin for Kenning Editions. Pre-orders by subscription only: using a credit card, or via direct mailorder. See also Jordan Davis’ review of the now out-of-print edition of Pietri’s play at Constant Critic and footage of the day East Third became Rev. Pedro Pietri Way.]