Jean Toomers Odd, Keening A Drama of the Southwest – The New Yorker

Posted: March 23, 2020 at 2:50 pm

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On late afternoons, after his work was done, the modernist poet, novelist, religious omnivore, and occasional playwright Jean Toomer observed a ritual that he called deserving time. Much of the latter half of his life was spent in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, north of Philadelphia, on his property, Mill House. On the grounds, alongside his family, Toomer housed a revolving retinue of devotees who came to learn his home-brewed adaptation of the spiritualist George Gurdjieffs mystical practices; the students also performed manual labor, a classicand, for Toomer, quite convenientaspect of Gurdjieffs Work. At four oclock, when the teacher had finished his writing and his charges had finished with their chores, theyd gather in the main house, where adults made drinks and children had cookies and ginger ale.

The placid hour wasnt only for idle fun. Toomera brutally intense, relentlessly abstract, comically vain man who took every quotidian moment as an opportunity to philosophizewould ask probing, pointed questions, turning conversation into a kind of Socratic extension of his teaching. (In 1937, he tried to sell a book of dialogues with one young student. Talks with Peter was rejected by several publishers.) Later in his life, deserving time devolved into a grandiose cover for Toomers encroaching alcoholism. Ive been working very hard, he wrote in a teasing letter to his wife, Marjorie Content. Dont you think Im deserving? Dont you think I might stop at that tavern and put my head in just to see if they have any beer?

During these virus-haunted days of padding around the house, anxiously taking in news and visiting my friends via video chat, I keep thinking about Toomers afternoon ceremony. A Sabbath atmosphere not unlike the one at Mill House has sprung up between my wife and me: we sit around reading and cooking and listening to music, contemplating work more than doing it, calling our moms, pushing each other fruitlessly to extrapolate on figures (testings and infections, hospitalizations and deaths) that neither of us fully understands. Cocktail hour starts a bit earlier than usual, and ends a bit later.

One of the little tortures of the moment is the sudden disappearance of live theatre, and the thought of all the plays that had been scheduled to open, some of which, barring an economic or logistical miracle, will go all but unseen by large audiences. Ive tried to console myself by turning to plays that have seldomsometimes neverbeen seen, but which I love nonetheless. Some are intentional closet plays, meant for reading rather than seeing; others are simply interesting attempts, still waiting for their turn onstage.

One such strange but promising specimen is Toomers odd, keening 1935 play A Drama of the Southwest, written, Im sure, between many deserving times but never completed. Id love to see it staged someday, perhaps clipped into a one-act and presented on a bill with Toomers other little-known plays. He was an earnest dramatist; the knotty contradictions of his life and his ideas seemed to rhyme with the dialectical possibilities of playwriting. Still, his attempts at having his plays produced were failuresas were many literary endeavors after his classic 1923 work, Cane, a quilt of poems, prose, and drama set in black Georgia.

Two versions of the manuscript of A Drama of the Southwest were skillfully collaged in a 2016 critical edition by the scholar Carolyn Dekker. In her introductory essay, Dekker presents the Toomer who, having firmly abandoned his identification with the Harlem Renaissance, black Americans, and the South, continued to rove the country, yearning to find a locale fit to birth what he imagined as a new race in America. The play, which is semi-autobiographical, chronicles his attempt to manage this trick among the cacti and adobe houses at the Taos art colony, in New Mexico.

Tom Elliot, the plays leading man, is not unlike Toomer: cruel, curious, nave, self-involved, cluelessly sexist, an essentialist obsessed with racial and regional admixture, a vague but expansive theorizer even when the moment calls for concision. He and his wife, Grace, have arrived in Taos, where theyve rented a house. Theyve been to New Mexico before, magnetized by its small but vibrant artistic scene; theyve come to visit with friends and to frack spiritual energies from a land that, to them, feels fresh. Tom and Grace are mirror images of Toomer and Content, who were acquainted with the scene in Taos thanks, in part, to their friendship with the wealthy arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan (a fellow Gurdjieff disciple who fell rapturously in thrall to Toomers high talking) and with Georgia OKeeffe.

The play is a test of that groups guiding, if often unspoken, principle: that, owing to a places intrinsic, elemental featuresblue sky, red mud, brown folksit might work as a symbol of the American future and as an enabler for art. This was familiar territory for Toomer. Cane ends with a play called Kabnis, which portrays a Northern teacher who has come southward, to Georgia, his tourism the outer sign of an inner quest. Where Kabnis is poetic and mysterious, in places hard to follow at all except by rhythm and deftly enjambed nighttime images, A Drama of the Southwest is unsubtle in its study of oppositions.

Before Tom and Grace show up in Taos, after a lush stage description that works better as a guide to Toomers psyche than as an inducement to set design (try staging this: Then silence again... and life becomes existence again . .. and existence, focused for a time in a group of singing men, expands to the mountain and the close stars), we meet a pair of Taos locals named BuckterT. Fact and Ubeam Riseling. They sit on a roof and talk about all those art colonists descending on their corner of the country. Riselingwhom Toomer describes, cryptically, as being above artis rhapsodic about the visitors; Fact, a butcher who is below art, is more cynical. Through their patter, Toomers own unmistakable voice is sometimes awkwardly audible:

UBEAM: The spirit of the Indian still lives in and dominates this land. Disappearing elsewhere, it is vital here, vital like these hills.... To this little cluster of earth-built houses the entire world comes.

BUCKFACT: Comes and goes as fast as it can.... And why? Whats to be seen here? One bank, one newspaper, grocery and drug stores like you can see anywhere, an armory, a baseball field, a fish hatchery, bad roads, the plaza, and a dump heap. Why should anyone come all this way to get dust in his eyes? As for me, it means a job.

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Jean Toomers Odd, Keening A Drama of the Southwest - The New Yorker

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March 23rd, 2020 at 2:50 pm

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