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Nothing is True: Lipstick Traces and The 20th Century

“This kind of history, which reduces space to a stage, that pays attention to events unfolding in time alone, might be called imperial history…the primary object is not to understand or to interpret: it is to legitimate.  This is why this history is associated with imperialism.”

Lipstick Traces (Chaos). L to R: Henry Stram, Michael Mergen, Jason Liebrecht, Lana Lesley, Robert Pierson, James Urbaniak.

PAUL CARTER, The Road to Botany Bay

“The thing I really like about punk is that anything anybody writes about it is wrong.”

TED CASTLE in Punk, Anscombe and Blair ’78


Assessing his own profound and lasting response to the band in relation to its brief existence and commercial insignificance, Greil Marcus (in his 1989 Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century) asks, “Is it a mistake to confuse the Sex Pistols’ moment with a major event in history—and what is history anyway? Is history simply a mater of events that leave behind those things that can be weighed or measured—new institutions, new maps, new rulers, new winners and losers—or is it also the result of moments that seem to leave nothing behind, nothing but the spectral connection between people long separated by place and time, but somehow speaking the same language?”

When writers pose such questions, it’s a good bet that they already think they know the answers, and Marcus clearly stands on the latter side of the either-or dichotomy he constructs. Still, his hand rarely weighs heavy as he loops through “spectral connections” that extend far beyond rock & roll into avant-garde art movements, radical political groups, and millenarian religious sects in this country and in earlier times, in Europe and in the United States.

The book’s overall tone is speculative, generous, and open, with Marcus offering interpretations that are meant to excite the reader to further imagining and thought rather than mere agreement or disagreement. Despite the abstruseness of his subjects, Marcus also manages to find a language that is neither condescending, nor defensive. The movements that Marcus writes about rival each other both in their obscurity and in the extremity of the demands they made on the societies that spawned them. “Oblivion is our ruling passion,” declared one radical Parisian group Marcus examines, while the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” he says,  “suggested demands no art of government could ever satisfy.”

In Marcus’s view, such limitless desires “blur the lines between idealism and nihilism,” mock the alienating control mechanisms of official culture, and seek to restore emotional autonomy to individual citizens. In addition to punk bands like the Pistols, the Germs, and the Slits, Marcus examines the crazed utopianism of the Dadaists, the grandly titled Lettrist International and Situationist International, and the student revolutionaries who nearly toppled the French government in the insurrections of 1968.

The Situationists—especially their founder Guy Debord—are in many ways at the center of Marcus’s story. Descended from the Dadaists and the Lettrists (whose founder, apparently an Elvis look-alike, sought to create a poetry that would, Marcus explains, “rescue the letter from the word”), the Situationists were initially “dimly perceived as a Pan-European association of megalomaniacal aesthetes and fanatical cranks, despised on the left and ignored by everyone else.”

But from their start in 1957, the Situationists’ revolutionary critiques, represented in Debord’s 1967 work The Society of the Spectacle, contributed greatly to the intellectual climate that produced those Days of May in Paris in 1968. French president Charles de Gaulle himself denounced the group’s baleful influence, demonstrating for Marcus the degree to which “the disgust of a few, even the refusal of one, could bring a government to the verge of dissolution.” The shadowy Situationist legacy was “passed along” to the Pistols, Marcus shows, through the band’s manager, Malcolm McLaren, who helped publish a collection of Situationist writings in England in 1974. Indeed, “Serendipity is where you find it.”

True enough, but a stage adaptation of Lipstick Traces? Are they nuts? Certainly the 1989 book makes for vivid history and a righteous social critique, but a play? For the Austin, TX based theater collective, the Rude Mechanicals (or Rude Mechs), it was apparently just the kind of big, messy, scary literary project they thrive on. In its first three seasons, the company produced a fractured deconstruction/meditation on The Taming of the Shrew, a colossal staging of P.B. Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound,” a trio of absurdist comedies by company playwright Kirk Lynn (the Faminly Trilogy), and a stage version of Donald Barthelme’s Snow White. After all that, why not tackle a centuries-spanning examination of negationist thought and its relationship to the Great Rock & Roll Swindle?

Director Shawn Sides, playwright Lynn, (Dr. Narrator) Lana Lesley, and the rest of the Rude Mechs are proud of their translational feat, and rightly so. The play not only works, it truly rocks. Characters in this alternative history lesson/rallying cry to “something else” include such anti-heroes as Dada’s Richard Huelsenbeck, Guy Debord of the Situationists, and the Pistols’s Johnny Rotten. Audiences stumble from the theater, reeling from an experience akin to the holy late-night revelation described by Lesley as (the effect they were going for) “Ah! I’m in a bar watching the best band ever!”

As the Rude Mechs’ vision of Lipstick Traces unfolds, these social misfits, somewhere between hucksters and madmen, offer up the peculiar visions, doctrines and subversive acts that set them at odds with the rest of the world, and yet may have shifted the world more than we know. Sometimes they speak directly to the audience, challenging the mainstream in smart, stinging soliloquies; sometimes they present the work that made them infamous: 16th century heretic John of Leyden (Ean Sheehy) starts the play with a man rant against work; Dada psychiatrist Richard Huelsenbeck (T. Ryder Smith) Literally beats the drum “for Dada” while partners Tristan Tzara (Ean Sheehy) and Hugo Ball (James Urbaniak) spout nonsense phrases and dance in a remarkable recreation of Cabaret Voltaire performance art: mid-20th century French Situationist Guy Debord (Urbaniak) coolly smokes a cigarette during a showing of his conceptual film featuring a totally black screen (“that’s because there’s no dialogue”); and, Johnny Rotten (Jason Liebrecht) auditions at McLaren’s shop for the Sex Pistols with a searing, raw, and aggressively spastic (excellent) take on Alice Cooper’s “18.” In the midst of all of this, Dr. Narrator, frenetically attempts to provide some form of context and meaning to these bursts of revolution, while David Greenspan’s slippery McLaren makes a consistent case for himself as self-styled cultural con artist. Performers repeatedly break character to thank one another using their real names. And the daunting scope of their undertaking is winkingly acknowledged by complex scrawled cultural geneaology charts and a climactic four-and-a-half minute summary of the entire 20th century. The intersection of different time periods registers neatly in a (recreation of the infamous) Sex Pistols’ television interview, in which Johnny Rotten’s fellow band members are in the costumes of his historical “ancestors,” John of Leyden, Debord and Huelsenbeck.

The scenes are short, intense, irreverent, and highly charged—clearly the Mechs sought to infuse their show with the energy of punk. And therein lies what the stage can give Lipstick Traces that a print edition cannot: sound, light, rage, smoke and a chaos one can feel. When questioned why the play (and Marcus’ book) is important, Lynn says “Because hearing bands like the Sex Pistols actually changes something somehow.” In Johnny Rotten’s voice, Lynn says, “is the affirmation that nobodies can say whatever they want.” So when Rotten opens his mouth, “suddenly Cabaret Voltaire is born again, which,” Lynn says, “is a beautiful sentiment and strangely possible.”

About 70% of the play came straight from the book, according to Lynn, and while he is billed as the main adapter and writer, nine other writers contributed to the script, four of them coming from the original six-person cast. Everyone was assigned sections of the book to research and each of them contributed individual sections, some based on the text itself, some spinning off the text to create short personal reflections on Traces or its themes. Director Shawn Sides supervised the development of scenes and Lynn wrangled the separate pieces into a single cohesive script. “We divided up into research camps: Situationist research, Dada research, punk research, John of Leyden research,” Sides said. “And after we did all the research, we began deciding what scenes would this play be incomplete without. It couldn’t be a four-hour snoozefest; it had to be fast, like a punk song.” (In its current version, the play runs just under 75 minutes.) And, like punk, the production was a distinctly do-it-yourself affair, a cabaret-like riot of rapid-fire monologues, chalkboard scrawls and puzzling slogans projected on the back wall of the theater.

Without much money to spend, Sides originally worried that it would be difficult to get the rights to the book. But Marcus gave them his blessing, and insisted on a hands-off approach (his one request: that he not be a character in the play), only responding to questions when asked. In fact, the highest praise for the Rude Mechs’s Lipstick Traces, by far, has come from Greil Marcus himself. Last fall, Marcus flew down to Austin to see the show. Afterwards, he went up to Sides as they were standing by the door to the bathroom and said (Sides apparently blushes even recounting his words): “You staged the book I wanted to write.” Marcus later wrote the company a letter saying, “I’ve always believed that when you write a book, it goes out into the world, you lose control of it, and, if you’re lucky, other people make of it what they will, and it comes back to you in unexpected form—but I never expected, could never have hoped for,  anything as inspired, as funny, as moving, as complete as your version.”

There were moments in the play, Marcus said in that letter, which made clear things he had never been able to figure out, for example, why the Cabaret Voltaire (the Zurich literary-performance movement, circa 1915) left such a mark on those who lived through it. No recordings or films of what transpired at the Cabaret Voltaire exist, so the Rude Mechs created their own version of Dada: a flux of drumming, crab-walking, ooga-booga nonsense chants and a few bits copped from Monty Python’s classic “Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch. Marcus wrote, “I never could put my finger on why the people who were there and took part in it never got over it, no matter how old they got or how successful or distinguished they became… They never escaped it. They felt like they were chasing their own tails for the rest of their lives. Not only that, they were trying to understand themselves what happened… And I knew this had happened,” Marcus continued, “but I still didn’t really understand what had happened, what had produced it.” Until he saw his book turned into a play. “There is a brief moment,” he says, “when a Dada dance and poem are enacted. And I got it. I suddenly understood it… In the Cabaret Voltaire sequence, when the guy playing Richard Huelsenbeck, with his monocle and his three-piece suit, begins to dance on splayed feet and the other people are whirling around him, I was seeing something I had never seen before and never imagined, and it was just astonishing.”

True to the legacy of the book, the Rude Mech’s Traces process is a far cry from the one used in mounting most plays. “A lot of times,” says Sides, “the play is already written, finished, closed, and all you need is some warm bodies to say the lines.” In that process, the actors still possess some freedom to contribute, but Sides hopes that the Mechs’ collective technique make the actor’s voice more prominent. “A lot of people who come in who are not part of the collective want that final one voice that makes all the decisions,” says Sides, and while in this case Sides and Lynn did ultimately have the final say, apparently much was left open right until the last minute. With all that input, Sides is amazed that the script wound up as tight as it did, though she does say it wasn’t too difficult agreeing on a final draft because she and Lynn have similar aesthetics, and “where they diverge and when we argue with each other …that’s when it gets good.”

Sides speaks of the book’s “careful exaltation” of “moments where anything could happen,” those times when the daily grind, “how you think everything has to be—you have to do this, you have to go to the DMV, and then you have to get your license plates, and then you have to get up and go to work, and then you have to take this route ‘cause it’s the best route, and you have to avoid the traffic…” ceases. In Marcus’s book, says Sides, “the have-to’s fall away, and you get this vision of ‘what-if-not,’ and that’s the negationist impulse. It’s different than the nihilistic impulse. It’s not just ‘Nothing is true and so we should all go kill ourselves.’ As Marcus writes, ‘Nothing is true, and so everything is possible.’”

And so, a quarter of a century after Monty Python made Dada safe for television, and certainly many long and painful years after John of Leyden’s anti-work ravings, it is difficult to imagine these random elements adding up to anything but a goof. Yet the result is quite the opposite—charged, sharp, and, at times (as it should be) genuinely disconcerting. “What the Rude Mechs had done was so strange, so odd,” Marcus said enthusiastically. “So inhuman, not in the sense of cruelty, but…spastic.”

The production is a success, and it will likely inspire more people to buy the book. “The reader can read they book any way they want to,” Marcus said. “When I was growing up, nobody ever went to a movie when it started. You just went into a movie whenever you got there and sat through it until you got to the point where you came in.’ That’s how people went to the movies. There’s nothing wrong with reading a book that way either.” Perhaps Marcus encourages that sort of active reading because Lipstick Traces isn’t simply a book, or a play, it’s a thing. In describing the passage of an underground code from Zurich to Paris to London (to Austin and New York and soon other venues around the country), it has now become part of its own story.


Beth Rosemberg


The Brooklyn Rail


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