In the 42 years since Mabou Mines’s founding in 1970, Lee Breuer has directed some of the most seminal pieces of the American avant-garde, including adaptations of Beckett’s Play, Come and Go, and The Lost Ones, The Gospel at Colonus, Mabou Mines Lear, Peter and Wendy, Mabou Mines DollHouse, and groundbreaking, international productions such as Comedie-Francaise’s Un Tramway Nommé Désir. But prior to his rise as a director, Lee Breuer was a playwright.
Lee and I met in New Delhi, India when he and his partner, Maude Mitchell, taught an acting workshop at Sanskriti Pratisthan, an artist colony where I was a 2010 Unesco-Aschberg resident. The workshop consisted of theater games that explored Western and non-Western performance techniques, which Lee gradually blended together, while directing the students’ interpretations of their own writing. Carefully connecting emotions to the physical and spoken expression of words, Lee spoke about his dialectical approach to motivational and movement-based acting methods, which he’s masterfully synthesized into a unique style as Co-Artistic Director of Mabou Mines.
My first collaboration with Lee was as Assistant Director and masked performer in a workshop production of La Divina Caricatura during the summer of 2011. Divina is a Bunraku pop-opera, written and directed by Lee, thattells the love story of Rose and John, a dog and her master, through two re-incarnations set in Lee’s metaphoric Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. I played Sheepish, a sheep in the Institute for the Science of Soul, a rehab center in Cheesequake, New Jersey that looks like an Indian ashram and symbolizes Purgatorio.
La Divina Caricatura is based on autobiography, puppetry bio-mechanics, and a piercing examination of cultural evolution, as evidenced through novels, music, art, film, and dance. The script, which equally alludes to Dante’s Divine Comedy and to 17th century playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon, is a multimedia, multi-day epic that unveils Lee’s unique voice as a writer searching for spiritual revelation through the written word.
Lee’s most notorious works—and the first published—arethe Animations, a trilogy of poetic, self-referencing narratives about the epic struggles of living an unenlightened artist’s life. The first two animations, The B. Beaver Animation and The Red Horse Animation, were first produced in museums such as the Guggenheim, Whitney, and MoMA with support of Ellen Stewart and La MaMa. It wasn’t until The Shaggy Dog Animation, completed eight years after the start of the trilogy, that Lee’s writing found a home at the Public Theater.
“The Shaggy Dog Animation was supposed to be the third animation, but then it took off on its own and became a trilogy of itself,” Lee explains. This new trilogy, La Divina Caricatura, combines the texts of several of Lee’s subsequent plays written from the late ’70s through 2012.
“If one were to consider The Shaggy Dog Animation, Prelude to a Death in Venice, and The Epidog as a separate story, that would be Rose’s trilogy. But the larger trilogy, La Divina Caricatura, is an exploration not of Rose, but the love affair between Rose and John.” The focus is the course of their love, which Lee describes as the “amor delgada—re-manifest in two intricate, balanced, new pairings” as Rose and John reincarnate and find each other again as Porco and the Warrior Ant.
For many critics, An Epidog (1996) marked the culmination of Lee’s Animations, but in 2001, he began to stage Ecco Porco in a series of brief workshops and productions that ended with Pataphysics Pennyeach: Summa Drammatica & Porco Morto.
“At the time I was doing Ecco Porco, that’s when I started thinking: ‘It’s a trilogy, sooner or later I ought to put it all together,’” says Lee. “But the idea of how it all fits together is maybe five, at most 10, years old.”
In its current version, Rose (a dog) chases after John across the country in a 1970s Inferno for struggling artists. Addicted to love, Rose is hospitalized at the Institute for the Science of Soul—Purgatorio—where she meets John’s reincarnation as Porco, a pig. The third part of Divina takes place in Paradisio, when Rose dies and reincarnates as the eponymous Warrior Ant.
“Based on the story of Arjuna in the Mahabharata, the Ant becomes a revolutionary when she goes to her father, Trotsky the termite,” Lee continues. “She becomes a complete leftist and says she’ll lead the fifth world in a revolution. The ‘Great War’ is fought on the White House lawn.”
The staging of La Divina Caricatura closely reflects the traditional performance of Bunraku puppetry, in which a tayu narrates a story accompanied by a shamisen and orchestra. However, Divina is directed as an animated, epic movie, based on the narrative structure of Monzaemon’s Bunraku plays, which in turn closely mirror the structure of feature films.
“I always felt that I would like to head towards more classical puppetry—Bunraku puppetry,” Lee reflects. “The closest I came to that was in Porco Morto, where Porco was staged in his coffin with a ground light. So, if the trilogy was to make sense, then it had to have a classic Bunraku kind of unity, but I didn’t commit to it because of how expensive and time consuming it is to do great Bunraku.”
In 1988, Lee did venture into a Bunraku collaboration, partnering with puppeteer Yoshida Tamamatsu for The Warrior Ant at Brooklyn Academy of Music. “One of the problems,” he says, was that “The Warrior Ant was a puppet run by this incredible Bunraku puppeteer who did some great stuff, but the warrior was in mid-air. There was no context, he was just this little puppet in the middle of singers [with] no dramatic definition, so I said, let’s commit—finally!—to one formal idea.”
The novelty of this idea is Lee’s transformation of traditional Bunraku into a Western form, in which a narrator performing Rose sends up Divina’s endless cultural references through distilled, lyric narratives that build up to songs. These songs change styles and rhythm to play everything from Indian ragas to Argentinian tangos, and underscore Divina’s searching story, which is performed by an ensemble of Bunraku puppeteers, doo-wop singers, and actors on stage.
“I feel more identified with this than with Western dramatic structure,” says Lee. “I feel that Chikamatsu Monzaemon wrote these perfect filmic metaphors that gave me the idea of making a mixed-media film with puppets. That’s where the idea came from.”
What astonishes me in La Divina Caricatura is the profound meaning sought through unlikely characters—Rose, the dog, Porco, the pig, and the Warrior Ant. It wasn’t until I discovered the connections between these characters
and Lee’s personal history that I realized how close they are to him.
“Rose was my dog,” Lee recalls. “When we were working on a Navajo reservation, my daughter Clove was given a puppy. She got very attached to the puppy, but some kid ran over him and it was a big tragedy. We buried Klechayazi—‘little dog’ in Navajo—and immediately got a two-week old husky. We kept her for 16 years and that was Rose.”
He also describes a trip to Mexico, where they sold “these great, big, termite-type insects with engraved jewels on them. We bought an insect and a supply of wood, which is what they ate, and the insect lived with us for three, four months, which was really three times longer than it was supposed to live.” That insect, he continues, would become The Warrior Ant. “It was a large, ant-like termite, really slow and really beautiful, with a blue jewel glued on its back.”
The character of Rose and her reincarnation as the Warrior Ant developed much faster than John’s reincarnation as Porco. “Porco was harder to get to because he’s much more me,” reveals Lee. “Well, a part of me that is hard to get to. With Porco Morto, I was able to get to where the big heart was, which was sentimental, wonderful, and romantic—the way a pig should be.”
Throughout Divina, Rose’s desire to be a romantic artist, striving for the highest levels of love, passion, and beauty conflict with the narrator’s identification as a self-destructive, addicted, mad artist.
To understand this contradiction, one needs to understand Lee’s sense of humor. When speaking of French avant-gardist/puppeteer Alfred Jarry, Lee describes “an outrageous pun-maker—every other word was a pun. He had this idea that language could expand in different directions so it would all reverberate like a big gong.
“He also had a balancing act which was the beginning of the put-on: basically, you didn’t quite know whether you were being spoken to seriously or not,” Lee says. “It could happen with an eyebrow twitch, or the dilation of nostrils, and the audience didn’t know if it was being insulted or being listened to.”
This attitude served to challenge the values of the French bourgeoisie, but unlike Monzaemon—who challenged the bourgeois values of his society through tragedies—Jarry achieved this through controversial puppetry and biting satire.
“Jarry preserved [this attitude] until he died,” Lee insists. “His last request was a joke. He was lying in bed, dying, had been drunk for 15 days, hadn’t eaten anything—and his last request was a toothpick and he died shortly afterwards.”
The role of Jarry—not as an avant-gardist, but as a comedian—relates to Lee’s fascination with the “genetically martyred” individual. He describes the comedian as a martyr—“a certain ‘bird’ in the flock. When this marked individual sees danger, he screams and calls it out, so the predator will go for that bird and the flock will get away. In other words, the bird’s the designated victim so that the genetic species can live … This was my little secret definition of the artist—a designated martyr. And Porco was going to represent this for me.”
In opposition to his proposition of the artist as martyr, Lee delves equally into the madness of the artist, comparing Porco’s creation of the Ant in The Warrior Ant to Cervantes’s relationship to Don Quixote.
“There’s a scene that I’m working on in which Porco admits that he’s created an insane insect—that you can’t be a holy warrior, a Warrior Ant,” he says. “It’s the fantasy of fantasies—particularly a pig’s fantasy.”
At the core of La Divina Caricatura lies the search for balance between the pursuit of an artistic and spiritual path. “The searching artist goes on a religious search and you’ve got to tie it to something; it really is a pilgrimage,” maintains Lee. “Dante’s pilgrimage is real; Dante’s pilgrimage is the same as the artist’s, and the danger all through the pilgrimage is a Buddhist thing: to not being able to recognize Maya, recognize illusion for what it is—in your own head.
“This is why my image of a great successful and happy life was Dante himself,” says Lee. “Dante was in exile, living out of Florence, and a month after he died, they found the last three verses of Paradiso on his desk. And there he went—completing one of the greatest works ever written, completing it while simultaneously completing his life. I think this is a very happy way to go.”
When I ask him how this is funny, Lee sums up the comic irony: “Warriors are defending the faith, and behind that idea is the idea of defending the truth. This is a little bit of what’s going on, yet we have an Ant embodying this great task.”
La Divina Caricatura, currently in development, is scheduled to premiere in New York City, November 2013.