Finding Bess: 17c and the Restoration Theater of Annie-B Parson

Big Dance Theater, 17c. (2017) Paul Lazar, Kourtney Rutherford, Cynthia Hopkins, Aaron Mattocks, and Elizabeth DeMent. Photo by Johanna Austin.

Few people owned a clock when Samuel Pepys was born above his father’s tailoring shop in 1633. But they had the day and night, then as ever, and the seasons and phases of the moon. Church bells tolled for not only the rhythms of the workday but fire alarms, calls to worship, and important rites in and out of life. Diary-keepers, writing out of this sense of time as endless recurrence, attended not to days but to occasions, whether they were public happenings of significance or private moments when eternity seemed to break through what John Donne called “this imaginary halfe-nothing, Tyme.”

The diary that Pepys began in 1660 is remarkable for more than its candor or window onto history. It was also, according to scholar Stuart Sherman, the first known English-language diary to record each day in succession. Pepys’s pen did not wait on occasion; for him, the occasion was the day. “Up, and to the office,” he’ll begin, and before arriving at “And so to bed” he may have shopped for curtains with his wife, crisscrossed London in his work as a fast-rising naval administrator, or enjoyed an onanistic interlude. As Robert Louis Stevenson observed, “Wherever he went, his steps were winged with the most eager expectation; whatever he did, it was done with the most lively pleasure. [...] He is only copying something, and behold, he ‘takes great pleasure to rule the lines, and have the capital words wrote with red ink’; he has only had his coal-cellar emptied and cleaned, and behold, ‘it do please him exceedingly.’” In Sam Pepys, the fifth-born who became the eldest child, who suffered debilitating pain from bladder stones for years before being delivered from it by an operation that could easily have killed him, one recognizes the habitual readiness for delight of someone who can no longer be dismayed by anything but actual misfortune. 

The charm of his diary is fully felt at the beginning of Big Dance Theater’s 17c, which runs at BAM from November 14 - 18. The audience is still chatting when performer Cynthia Hopkins walks out in a periwig and shiny shirt, book in hand: “Up, I bless God being now in pretty good condition, but cannot come to make natural stools yet; and going to enjoy my wife this morning, I had a very great pain in the end of my yard when my yard was stiff...” Hopkins wonders why he calls it his “yard”—doesn’t England use the metric system? The audience says no, and she continues.

Meeting shortly after a preview of 17c at the Philadelphia FringeArts festival, the relentlessly generative Annie-B Parson, who conceived, choreographed, and co-directed the work, recalls her early interest in Pepys: “I love that he’s hypergraphic in a sense; he can’t stop writing. He’s not an artist, and he doesn’t have a mystical or metaphorical component, or even an analytical component. He just has the part where he needs to record it.” Then, too, Pepys was a compulsive theatergoer who from time to time attempted to cut back on plays as one might cut back on drinking, and one of the diary’s most fraught sequences is driven by an outbreak of dancing fever in the Pepys household. Parson was excited by how seriously Pepys and his world took theater and dance. “You don’t feel that from the general population in this country,” she says. “There’s a community of artists that’s very serious about this stuff, but beyond that it’s a very small group of people that consider the sort of reflection and refraction that theater and dance artists are doing to be serious business. And Pepys clearly is describing a time when it really mattered.” When he called A Midsummer Night’s Dream “the most insipid, ridiculous play that I ever saw in my life,” Parson thought, “OK, Sam, I’m with you.”

But her rapport with Pepys was disrupted as she moved deeper into the material. Parson’s interest in the diary’s online annotators—a small but passionate community that reads, footnotes, and trades personal asides on “Sam’s” daily entries—led her to commission a video blog about Pepys from a classical astronomy blogger. After delving into the diary, the blogger warned Parson, “I cannot stand this man.” Pepys often presents himself as a hapless, would-be romantic adventurer, but as the blogger found (and Claire Tomalin elucidated in her 2002 biography), he had a pattern of preying on women who were beneath him, from the young servant girls in his household to the wives of men whose careers depended on his good graces. “He’s basically a rapist,” Parson says flatly. “He’s not just flirty and offensive. He takes what he wants from people who are disempowered.”

As her rage grew toward Pepys, so did the intensity of Parson’s desire to figure out Elisabeth (“Bess”), his young French wife. The Bess of the diary is beguiling and difficult, brimming with talents that are heartbreakingly manifest on the rare occasions they find any sort of outlet. Parson became certain that Bess had also written a diary—one lost on the day when she insisted on reading aloud to her husband a letter about her feelings of isolation, and he responded by hitting her and burning her personal papers. No words in her own hand survived, and the portrait of Bess that emerges from her husband’s ten years of diary-keeping feels vivid but irredeemably partial; how much of anyone’s truth could survive in such a way?

Parson wanted Bess to have equal stature with Sam in 17c. “We had created quite a bit of dance material for her,” she remembers. “But if she was erased and all she does is physically move, while he’s endlessly talking, is there equality there? How do I give her what she deserves and complete the picture?” One of the deepest pleasures of 17c is being in the room with Parson and the other members of the company as they bring everything they have—minds, voices, bodies, tech—to bear on this question.

Too little has been said of the feminism running through Big Dance Theater’s body of work, from its stagings of Anne Carson’s translation of Alcestis (Supernatural Wife) and Mac Wellman’s Antigone to a reinterpretation of Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 (Comme Toujours Here I Stand) to its earliest work which used the text of Andrea Dworkin for Cassandra. This is not the first time Parson has considered women and erasure. “Some friends sent me radical feminist texts for Bess, but that was not Bess to me. She is young in this diary, and she is very sequestered and might be a little unstable because of that. And she’s deep,” Parson tells me. “I want her voice to be the opposite of Pepys’s voice—to have color, and range. Pepys is horizontal, always moving to the next day. I wanted her voice to go vertical and circular.”

Parson resists calling herself a writer. “I find voices that inspire me,” she explains, “and then I write into them.” One such touchstone was Marmalade Me, a collection of Jill Johnston’s 1960s dance criticism. “It’s sublime,” she says, “and there’s no line between what she saw as a critic and who she was as a human being.” Parson, who numbers many of Johnston’s subjects—John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Yvonne Rainer, to name a few—in her postmodernist family tree, was able to use the personal element in Johnston’s writing as a jumping-off point for her monologue for Bess:

The last time anybody thought to ask me what I’m doing I said I’m an archeologist, have you done any digging lately, oh yeah, yes, absolutely yes all the time. Closed up in my room, it’s a big excavation site. What a mess.

Show me something new; I’ll begin all over again. How long will a new day always come again? How long does the day after go on coming? For how long can I be here for a new day?

I saw a restless woman in a plastic dress standing on a plastic couch with steam rising all around her.

But I digress, I regress, I received a new dress….

Parson was also determined to include a play within a play in 17c. A fortuitous encounter with a biography of Margaret Cavendish, a contemporary of Pepys’s, led her to a “closet play” by Cavendish titled The Convent of Pleasure in which a single woman of independent means establishes a society for marginalized women where men are not allowed. “And then it gets infiltrated by this princess,” Parson says, “and the princess turns out to be a man. She marries him and everyone is rejoicing—but there’s a footnote that says Cavendish’s husband rewrote the ending! It says ‘Written by my Lord Duke.’ This tiny footnote explains the careening away from the deeply-felt feminism in the play.” The language we hear in the play within a play has been mostly contemporized by Parson and rewoven with threads from Judith Butler and Roland Barthes. Besides underscoring Pepys’ interest in theater (though the performer speaking for him keeps saying, “Skip! Skip! Skip!”), the inclusion of Cavendish’s play itself offers a model for un-erasure; Parson’s delight in giving Cavendish a platform is palpable, and becomes our own.

Big Dance Theater, 17c. (2017) Aaron Mattocks and Elizabeth DeMent. Photo by Johanna Austin.

For the choreography, Parson began with an underlying structural element: moving from upstage to downstage and back. “It’s super simple,” she says, “but to me it’s like having springs on your mattress instead of just putting your mattress on the floor.” A duet performed by Aaron Mattocks and Elizabeth DeMent is not a chip to be cashed in for a certain emotion but its own independent fact; a foot is moved in such a way, arms in another, and somehow the movement assumes its place in what we know about Sam and Bess. “We don’t need to make it about Pepys,” Parson says. “It becomes about Pepys because you’re in the room with Pepys, and he’s not leaving and neither is Bess.”

“What is your name?” someone asks DeMent. “Elizabeth,” she says. “What role are you playing?” “Elizabeth.” The performers don and doff wigs and glasses, but for Parson they must essentially be themselves onstage. “I want them to bring everything to their performance,” she explains. “I don’t want to exclude age from the stage. We talk about as aging giving one experience and that’s all good, but there are certain things about aging that are really hard to reckon with. If you can actually use the performances to be in the moment of time passing—I am interested in having that in the room. I am less interested in youth. That’s very much from Ionesco, who writes beautifully about the self onstage. And Liz LeCompte says she wants performers ‘to go from the self to the more self.’ Cunningham said ‘you give yourself away at every moment.’ He didn’t want people to pretend.”

In 17c, many things are happening at any given moment. They don’t guide us to a particular destination, but create a four-dimensional constellation in our minds that alters with each private return. The relevant antecedent here is Euripidean irony and multifariousness, not Sophoclean unity. Pepys’s endearing side is allowed room even as his outrages are given no quarter (most devastatingly in a monologue delivered by co-director and performer Paul Lazar from a La-Z-Boy recliner). The fullness of Pepys’s diary is given weight along with all of its absences and lacunae. And the Annotators (DeMent and Kourtney Rutherford), who bicker over Sam’s doings as if he is just a click away from resurrection, model just one possible relationship of the living to the dead. Parson tries to place useful (and ironic) signposts here and there: “Now they are dancing about their relationship,” a supertitle reads. “This is a play within a play.” Ultimately, however, she directs by Gertrude Stein’s words: “If you enjoyed it, you understood it.”




Big Dance Theater’s 17c, conceived and choreographed by Annie-B Parson and directed by Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar, will run November 14 – 18 at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater (651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn). Tickets, starting at $30, can be found at www.bam.org.

Contributor

Amber Reed

AMBER REED is a graduate of the Brooklyn College Playwriting MFA program. Her essays on Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Sibyl Kempson, and other theater makers have appeared in the Rail and in books published by 53rd State Press and Coffee House Press.

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