In this blog post, Chris Goode explains his fascination with words and why he chooses to explore language in What Is The Word and his other work.
What Is The Word runs at CPT Tues 17 and Wed 18 September 2019 at 9pm.
The way my dad tells it, when I was around eight, one day over the dinner table I just announced: “Words are my friends.”
By that age I was already writing poems and stories, and taking an interest in etymology and Scrabble, and basically I was the sort of precocious punchable suck-up kid who would say that sort of thing.
To be fair, the written word might well be – and ought to be – an exhilarating playground to an eight-year-old. In children’s books, layouts and typefaces are allowed their exultant mischiefs. Anarchic onomatopoeias boing off the page. Words and pictures dance fandangos together. Just wait till you’re thirteen and your childhood lies dying behind you and someone’s making you read Steinbeck for the first time.
I was fortunate in a way that my mid teens onwards were full of encounters with language that was anything but plain text. In the school library I came across the work of J.H. Prynne, whose freighted high-modernist poetry, offering initially only occasional salty glimpses of the apparently intelligible, produced an intense headrush and gave me the giggles. In my bedroom I pored over explicit gay sex scenes in the otherwise nicely-behaved novels of Edmund White and Alan Hollinghurst, as if I were close-reading the instructions on a roadside bomb. And at university I turned my scholarly attention to American postmodernism, to absurdist drama, and (my eventual specialism) to Victorian ‘nonsense’ verse, which I always found anything but comic: above all, the bleak harrowing strangeness of Edward Lear.
It was a bit from Prynne, and a bit from Lear, that I started to get wise. Words, I started to intuit, are not your friends. For every ardent love sonnet there are ten thousand lies, in all shades between white and black; a hundred thousand distortions, corruptions, humiliations, insults – and language conspires in every one. In the beginning, language was the first deepfake technology. “Every word was once an animal,” Ben Marcus says Emerson said (which he didn’t, in fact): and in the making of our lives, every animal is harmed.
And this is why Edward Lear, I think, at one level feared language with such vertiginous dread. Words will not keep their promises. Rhymes are micro terror cells. Puns are unhealable wounds. The limerick is a kind of prison yard for walking around in a neurotic loop. One early reader described Lear’s nonsense as if it were a kind of assault, decrying “the forcible introduction of ridiculous images calculated to distract the mind”. Holy shit!
After all this, I nonetheless make some part of my living from working as a writer; words are my line managers, I announce these days over dinner. But I have never been able to make do with the literary bent of orthodox writing for the English theatre, which (paradoxically, you might think) prefers to treat language as congenially transparent and obedient. Language that draws attention to itself is considered vulgar; it must patiently serve the ‘story’, the ‘characters’, and if it does that well enough, it may be allowed a little lyrical shimmer as a treat now and then, or an occasional paroxysm of local colour.
Meanwhile, a whole tradition of writing – for performance, if not necessarily for theatre – exists in the shadows, for which transparency and good behaviour are exactly the last and least of it. This is writing, and composition, that wants to stare language out, to catch it in flagrante, to always know where its hands are. The strategies of these modernist and postmodern writers and artists are very various but they all resist the mode of public speaking on which theatrical performance is normally premised: a productive manner of speaking, one that we can all agree makes a certain kind of sense: language as good Fordist collaborator. This naturalist mode is to the whole unfettered territory of language as the ringtone is to the Ring Cycle.
So: for Samuel Beckett, language is a degrading, exhausted, paranoid system, disorienting and totally disconsoling in its endless tirade. For Christopher Knowles – discovered in the mid 1970s by weirdo director Robert Wilson as an institutionalised neuroatypical teen with just a typewriter, an AM radio, and a portable cassette recorder for company – language is pure building material, and a certain satisfactory comfort, even a euphoria, can be found in its patterns and its repetitions, the precise consistent shapes of its ink.
For visual artist Bruce Nauman, language is an irrational tyrant, a ruthless captor, peddling Stockholm syndrome by threatening to publicly announce the desires it also consistently thwarts. For Bob Cobbing, verbal language is borderless, constantly bleeding towards animal noise and fuzzy cacophonic music, expanding the human out towards the jamboree permissiveness of the feral.
Over the past decade, in anthology performances like Mixed Ape, Language Thinks Language, Weird Sisters, and now What Is The Word, I’ve sought to bring writing such as this in from the margins, and to establish it (albeit fleetingly) at the centre of our public and political self-assertion: just as my theatre works have centred young children (Monkey Bars) or queer anarchists (Jubilee) or live rabbits (…Sisters) for the same reasons.
By means of a kind of lucid dreaming, language will incorrigibly extend itself beyond every barrier we erect around ourselves to keep strangers out and our own strangeness in. The writers and artists of What Is The Word, from Gertrude Stein and Kurt Schwitters right through to Michael Basinski and Christopher Knowles, are not only our best guides to those fecund alien territories, but also, consequently, to everything we don’t know about ourselves yet. The ever-urgent message they have for us is about all the things we haven’t said yet, haven’t known we could possibly want to say.