Joyelle McSweeney on "The Contagious Knives"
Synopsis: Louis Braille, a sailor-suited transgendered teen, has forced his way into the Underworld on
a mission of vengeance on behalf of exploited youth. A Devil and Swan vie to seduce him, while he sets
a honey trap. In this scenelet, Louis Braille discovers the true target of his mission of liberation: kid
prisoner Bradley Manning (yes, that Bradley Manning).
Devil (to Swan, amiably)
Have you heard the buzz?(They hiccup off, arm in arm)
Each screen is hot with it, each watch and pocket.
How the kid enlistee cowers in the dumps
He looks like this one, narcissistine,
Stripped naked, as he's a threat to himself
on a very high level!
His name is Bradley Manning.
He's a puppet and a larva, a pupa, and a ghost
A ghost orchid, moth, I mean a goat.
If we were tragedians
we'd play his slit throat,
We'd play the ghost pipe, the bag & faggot,
the bundle of bees. On my bundle of knees.
But alas we're only tatties, falsies
we live in glass bottles
we report and you decide, deicide.
Louis Braille (he literally wipes the smile off his face; is in love with his double
he's just heard the first of)
Bradley Manikin, my hypnotist double,
my hiccupping download, my credit card debt;
my event; my embedded chip; my embedded
reporter with his lens split wide, and now his legs,
and now his lip; erotically, heroically, scatologically,
similar; that is, like; that is, like this, a likeness;
the boy next store, except; would that we were
Siamesed twins, and could return to Old Siam
for a verdant romp and ride on the rickshaw: I'll stitch
myself to your chest. You play the rich Chinese lover;
I'll play the ingénue in her cabaret shoes in French;
I'll play the hand-me-down vamp. Cover my knuckles
with rings like eyes. Fat diamonds. Kohl, coal. And I'll give
you a thousand kisses and smack on the cheek
and in the eye: a power vamp. Amp to the chest.
Defibrillate, resuscitate, advance: zombie music,
Lub dub. These things are for sail, these things are a hit
at the port, down on all fours on the deck, these things
on the ship's log are manifest; which can be shipwrecked,
black boxed, indexed, finders keepers, law of the see:
when this you see remember: no Indian giving, no taking it back,
except when you take it from me,
Indian, Chinaman, Brad-lee.
No man is an eyeland, everyman must come to port
or ride the continental railway or nail ties; you're bleeding from the eye;
you're naked at roll call; you've been demoted; you're underground,
underfed and listless, you watch your retinas detach, catch
the popfly, sleep inside the poptab or the synapse, dream
of a ballpark throwup popcorn on the jumbotron; kisscam:
appear, appear, grey gnat; kid-lithograph; self-engraving;
wax-caste; sans toothpaste, sans cotton, totally unrecognizable
as an American; I receive your transmission, I develop you in my bath;
red light, red light; I wear the sailor suit I wore in life,
yes, like a Tsarovich, yes, and my pearl button eyes,
and my ligaments and stretchers like a cat-o-nine,
yes, one for every bullet I caught in CGI, this suit
cuts into me, cuts a fine figure, and yes,
now I wander the magasins and empty a magazine, yes,
into the bust of, and yes, into the right eye, I punch
your ticket, I trash the Louvre, and now I arrive as from the Ballets Russe,
from the last century's caboose, and, yes, like a kid Nijinsky,
I arrive, I come alive, I contract and percuss, suppurate and pus;
like a pageboy, I turn the page; like a cancer I take the stage;
like a monk I see the flashbulb bloom like a nacreous lily
and like the moon in the ocean liner's wake I foam and rage
and like napalm and cocaine and mercy and mercury I
down can rain.
Bradley Manning, I'll find you. I'm coming down the drain.
[Folds up; burns like a monk; snuffs out; resumes young boy stature.
Devil and Swan resume siege.]
* * *
The Contagious Knives: A Debriefing (a Dressing Down!)
Inception: I found myself writing "The Contagious Knives" in a fury of contagion; a corrosive tide of rage and frustration at the state of the world, its steady state of exploitation, coercion, misery, metals, charisma. Everything comes out in the river, as Steve Jobs, now dead, said at TED: first time as industrial waste, second time as carcinogen. This is why the language of this play (as in life!) is itself toxic, tidal, runs headlong in riptides, loops in eddies, and piles up in scurfy little pools, reversing and resaying itself in the space of a single line or run of lines, rising in little violent crests. I hope it is rocking, and you can hear it ticking like bad news. TheMerchant of Venice with its accesses of violence and vengeance and its revolting figure of Cruelty-Masked-as-Justice (ie Portia) runs behind this text, as does Sophocles and the glitchy sceneastics of Ryan Trecartin.
Thematics: An important fact about the ocean right now is that it is full of plastic that goes solid in the guts of seabirds; if you split those guts, you can tell the non-future from them, like just as our ancient betters split the guts of ruminants to tell the future from their entrails (augury, haruspex); they also sat young gals on tripods above faultlines rife with poison to learn the future from their dying groans and mumblecore; just like on the Internet!; and also our youth armies, youth conscripts from fracking towns, churching towns; our rape army, raping itself; the exploitation and destruction of youth; noone can survive what we're doing right now; everything is jamming and splitting; but trying to find an escape path using a mirror site; for more porn; porno wants to be free!; also eyeing ourselves in the belled anti-shoplifting mirrors hoisted up on the walls of drug stores like ciboria or the shields of heroes; above the lipsticks (petroleum products); cough syrup; Ritalin; links are formed from likeness and the links are poisonous, thrilling, unbearable.
It's all happening on the Internet, in Indiana, and on the ships at sea, Bradlee. . .
More practically speaking: This play features a trans-gendered teen, Louis Braille, yes, that Louis Braille, who goes down to the Underworld to avenge the exploitation of the young and generally defenseless with his own brand of megaviolence. His foes in the Underworld are a half-hearted Devil and an aging Swan. He first attempts to rescue Narcissus from his pool; Narcissus I read as a kind of hustler and proto-scapegoat, a youth persecuted by elders for their own attraction to him. Eventually Louis ends up exploiting Narcissus himself as a means to his end. You may note that our hero Louis isn't particularly savory, which is probably why he can traffic with fiends and hold his own. Halfway through, the farce breaks down for a play-within-a-play, a wedding scene between Bradley Manning and Lynndie England, leash-girl from Abu Ghraib, who are also presented as twinned figures for their shared diminunitiveness, economic marginality, and for the vituperative scapegoating visited upon them, aka "Justice".
But all these figures and sites I've named so far are also celebrities; they also exist on the Internet; and celebrity was certainly at stake at Troy; so this text is simultaneously topical and classical; you could say anachronistic in the most voluble, volatile way, likely to explode (and it does). Once Lynndie's in the picture, the bloodthirstiness rises, yet Lynndie speaks in Elizabethan stanzas and delivers anapologia per vita sua before herself escaping Purgatoree. She is the only one to escape. Now the stage is set for a showdown between Louis, the Devil, and the Swan—but wait a minute, what about Bradley Manning? Did the farce forget about him? Can Louis touch his face in jail? Can Art?