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Last Seen Entering the Biltmore
Plays, Short Fiction, Poems 1975–2010
by Justin Maxwell
It’s easy to like Gary Indiana. Any successful novelist who steps up and says “plot is the sleaziest form of ingenuity” has thought through the writer’s craft far enough to be worth reading. And this collection’s thirty-five-year coverage is a strong starting point for anyone unfamiliar with the author’s work. Plus, this collection features just the right kind of sleaze. Indiana is obsessed with the impure side of the human condition: vanity, narcissism, and neglect. These conditions are seen throughout this hefty book; in its many plays, assorted poems, brief fictions, and two interviews, we see Gary Indiana simultaneously angry at and obsessed with cultural station.
Indiana offers a brief primer to his work called “The Theater of the Obvious: An Informal History.” This is a straightforward account of the late ’70s and early ’80s when Indiana was a prolific theater maker. It offers no real definition of a movement or aesthetic, replacing that with a who’s who of scenesters. Given the thickness of the anthology and the publisher’s reputation for critically smart prose, this missing component feels like a shortcoming—the history is more of the era than of a theoretical methodology. But the era is an important one, when the downtown scene’s experimentalism was radiant in contrast to the evils of Reagan’s economic and cultural policy.
We are left with Indiana’s interesting plays to guess at an aesthetic in retrospect, and the collection is best in its drama. The clearest manifestation of what Indiana is up to is in his play Alligator Girls Go to College, wherein a trio of half-women/half-alligators lose their jobs as side-show freaks and attend a community college. One unfortunate reptile makes the ominous mistake of getting involved with the theater, and ends up with the full, starlet wish-fulfillment: discovered by Hollywood elite, plastic surgery in Europe (making her into the classic blond beauty), and huge fame on the big screen. She also ends up with a secretive life in a mansion where she is deeply unhappy. She starts out as a circus freak and becomes another kind of freak: the movie star. Themes of personal corruption and the sleaze of the film industry drive the show. It has a smart sense of the theatrical with the alligator girls; while they might flounce into abstraction in the hands of a lesser writer, Indiana treats them with a simple dignity.
Thematically similar, Phantoms of Louisiana is much the opposite of Alligator Girls. This work is a smart parody of Southern Gothic and the paradoxical culture that engendered it. The soft-spoken language, familial realpolitik, and absurdism are delightfully sleazy. By contrast, in The Roman Polanski Story the sleaze seems obvious, but the work keeps the reader guessing about their assumptions of the obvious, as is often the case in Indiana’s theater. There is much about sex in this play, and delightfully it both is and isn’t what one might expect.
These three plays are quite different, on the surface, from A Coupla White Faggots Sitting Around Talking, the only teleplay in the collection. While one could argue it is the work truest to the name Theater of the Obvious, it is the least compelling read, being too true to its title. However, if the previously discussed texts take the theatricality inherent in sleaze and put it up on the stage, the intimacy of this video work shows real people at the bottom, people on the other side of the cultural coin that we’ve seen flipped in the previous plays.
The short monologue “Roy Cohen” takes Indian’s pitch-perfect sense of sleaze to a wonderfully disturbing climax. Here we get the public persona of the hyper-conservative and homophobic title character; the tension comes because we know the real Cohen is deeply closeted. In the staging, we watch an actor play a gay man who is playing a conservative who is passionately delivering a homophobic monologue in the guise of a speech. The layers of cognitive dissonance are deeply compelling. This is a theater obsessed with the oily film that floats to the top of the culture; it is powerful to read and to watch.
The poems and prose of Last Seen Entering the Biltmore address the same themes as the plays, but often in a more direct and visceral way. In them, Indiana’s frustrations with the vacuous failings of American culture are there on the surface. His frustrations are reminiscent of the Beat movement; in some ways, Indiana is a Beat born after the fatalism of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, or at least the culture that epitomized it. This supposition comes through best in the collection’s epilogue, a powerful interview titled “The Five Percent Paradox” wherein Indiana says: “The bureaucracies that operate the consciousness industry now only allow 5 percent of originality into its menu items, . . . if you want access to mainstream markets, the bureaucracies tell you what to write, how to write it, and what ideas are acceptable and which ideas aren’t allowed.”
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011