A Mouthful of Birds
by Caryl Churchill and David Lan
Directed by Les Waters
Choreography by Ian Spink
Mandell Weiss Theatre
University of California, San Diego
Reviewed by Marianne McDonald
Department of Theatre
University of California at San Diego
This play is based on Euripides' Bacchae and concentrates on themes of possession, violence and transformation. Caryl Churchill reacts against the stereotype of the nonviolent female and claims that 'there is a danger of polarizing men and women into what becomes again the traditional view that men are naturally more violent and so have no reason to change.' She seems more interested in the way society tries to oppress and deform women than in their nature, issues more of gender than of sex. The parts of the women in this play seem particularly developed, and one can easily say this is typical of Churchill's oeuvre; here we find variations of Top Girls. There is even more interest here than in Euripides' play in how Dionysus affects women.
David Lan, on the other hand, as a South African anthropologist with research conducted in Zimbabwe, was particularly interested in the phenomenon of possession. His earlier plays deal with imperialism, and the conflict between invading occupiers and indigenous occupied. Here, too, is the question of imperialism: Who is possessed by whom, and what does one take from the possessor?
Churchill and Lan created A Mouthful of Birds for the Joint Stock Theatre Group in 1986. This was a group dedicated to maintaining originality and joint efforts of creation, besides offering an alternative to stereotypical riskless London fare. Les Waters, who was one of the original directors, also directed this production in La Jolla. It incorporates dance to convey nonverbal messages. The original choreography was by Ian Spink.
The story is of seven people whose lives unfold in three sections: an introduction, an 'undefended' day, and the aftermath. Each of the characters in some ways performs 'mainstream' roles, but each shows an undercurrent of violence that is revealed during the 'undefended' day. In the introduction people fit prescribed roles; by the end they become outsiders to fit themselves more than society. The idea of an undefended day is a time when the body can be possessed by a spirit, or indeed, it can be possessed by an addiction, a love, or intense desire.
Lena is a mother who kills her own child to free herself from an oppressive husband. His banality is one of his most oppressive tools. His violence is revealed in freeway competition, and in dominating his wife. She thinks she will escape from a spirit that says negative things about her and her husband, if only she will kill her child. She kills the child, but is not free from the spirit. It is her permanent demon. We see her taking care of old people in the end, realizing her capacity to nurture or kill. Here we have Churchill and Lan showing us a woman in search of self, both a victim and perpetrator of violence. She is a mother and touches on fears of women as nurturers and destroyers, something we might call the Medea syndrome. This syndrome was well illustrated by Bob Wilson in his Deafman Glance, based on Euripides' Medea: a mother brings her child a glass of milk, and then kills him with a knife.
Marcia is a receptionist, originally from Trinidad, who becomes a medium in her undefended day. She is possessed by Sybil (aptly named after her classical predecessor), a 'spirit from the white upper-middle classes,' but also acts as the conduit for a spirit called Baron Sunday. Marcia loses her power at the end and Sybil takes over. At the end she is on a boat and hopes she'll 'never wake to see the sky without a star.' This could be a paradigm of imperialism and the outsider. The white occupier takes over and the native is suppressed; she imitates the oppressor as she did in the introduction, taking on the 'imperial' accent. Finally she is released to a place on the ocean where she belongs and does not belong. She floats and adapts. She is the outsider who finds a place, but never a static one.
Derek is unemployed, so he works out; his concern with the body is clear. He is possessed by Pentheus, and threatens violence against Dionysus. He is also possessed by Herculine Barbin, a French hermaphrodite from the nineteenth century. He experiences a sex change. He is also dismembered as Pentheus by Doreen who has become Agave. His transformation leads to daily satisfaction, the comfort of being 'in love with a lion-tamer from Kabul.' Contrary to the original Pentheus, who was dismembered and died, he has been dismembered to gain a body and live.
Yvonne is an acupuncturist who is possessed by her addiction to alcohol. She becomes a butcher and couples her need for violence with a talent for identifying body parts. In the introductory episode we saw her violence when a patient of hers fell asleep, rather than paying attention to her ministrations. Perhaps the animal victim satisfies her drive for control, and the needle is well exchanged for a knife. She also escapes the gender stereotype saying, 'Many people are surprised to see a woman behind this counter.'
Paul, a business man, falls in love with a pig he is not able to save from his own slaughterhouse. But when he rescues the 'corpse,' he peels off its wrapper, and it rises to dance with him. This is magic realism with charming kinkiness. At the end Paul is shown as alcoholic and waiting for a potential love. His fable has ended with loss; he has only dreams and continual possession by his addiction. Possession in this play can be good and bad.
Dan, a minister, is another of the ambivalent characters. When he is arrested the police cannot tell whether he is male or female. He dances people to death, choreographing for them their private joy. He is a serial killer using pleasure as his murder weapon. (Could this be some veiled commentary on organized religion?) For a while, Dan is aptly Dionysus. At the end we see him with his garden. He talks about it being green now, whereas barren before. Earlier a prison guard seems to be quoting a confession: 'My plan was that they should all be good deaths...To die of pleasure, like a young boy slipping through the mirror of a mountain stream [i.e., Narcissus?]. These are the deaths the earth needs to grow strong.' By the end, Dan's garden is growing very well.
Doreen is a secretary who is known for escaping the mundane: she spent a night sleeping on the grass by a canal. In her undefended day she slashes a neighbor's face. She is possessed by the spirit of Agave, and willingly dismembers Pentheus. At one point she develops telekinesis, able to make objects fly and bounce a person off walls. She is still seething with restlessness at the end. She is the one for whom the play was named, 'It seems that my mouth is full of birds which I crunch between my teeth. Their feathers, their blood and broken bones are choking me. I carry on my work as a secretary.' She has accepted herself, but she is restless for expression. This is the secretary from hell.
The play begins and ends with a dance performed by Dionysus. It is a dance that seduces the audience into a sensual experience. There are other dances, for instance the Fruit Ballet, in which imaginary fruit is wrenched apart and consumed. We saw Dan dance people to death. Dionysus 1 and Dionysus 2 clothe Pentheus, preparing him for a sacrifice, and dance a preview of his ecstatic death. Pentheus, as a priest, has his robes put on him, but in this case he will be the sacrificial victim rather than the sacrificing priest. The pig also dances with Paul. There is another dance called 'Extreme Happiness.' The day of possession ends in ecstasy.
Good actors and actresses are essential for this play, and the La Jolla production had them. David Barrera was haunting as Dan, also as a spirit, and as Dionysus. His dance had insinuating charm. Adrianne Krstansky as Doreen and Agave brought a seething unpredictable violence to her performance. Meg MacCary as Yvonne had a steely undertone to her voice that sliced the audience like the needles of the acupuncturist or the knife she used as a butcher. Sevanne Kassarjian as Lena was a convincing mother and murderess, combining the benign with the dangerous in her performance.
Where does this production depart from Euripides' Bacchae? Obviously these are different stories. In A Mouthful of Birds there is also fulfillment in most of the transformations, whereas the end of the Bacchae is tragic. In the modern play the main tragedy is the businessman's, an apt Marxist aside. It is no accident that a pig is his love (pigs were sacred to Aphrodite in ancient Greece, and perhaps Churchill/Lan used the pig with this resonance in mind). There is also the element of the absurd in Mouthful. One is reminded of Ionesco, perhaps Genet, and at times we observe Beckett's bleak humor. Pinter also comes to mind in the various ritual transformations.
Churchill's women are allowed to be violent, and use their violence for fulfilling professional lives. Men can be women, and women men. Dionysus is a facilitator for self-discovery. The psychological lines are clear, whereas Euripides was telling us that story, and a story very much about the abuse of power. The ancient poet concentrated more on plot than character, although the plot certainly revealed character. Pentheus, refusing to recognize the god in the city, and himself, is violently punished. In A Mouthful of Birds the characters go through violence as if it were a tunnel for self-discovery. We see options facilitated. Doors are opened rather than closed; Euripides' Dionysus slammed the doors on Pentheus, Agave and her father Cadmus (a character who does not appear in Mouthful of Birds). The Bacchae has been simplified and used as a parable in the midst of terrifying Aesopean fables. The supernatural elements are more a feature of Mouthful, and there are more elements of the absurd (a pig coming to life and dancing).
There is an obvious reference to Nietzsche's concept of Apollo and Dionysus in The Birth of Tragedy, as an essential component for understanding hidden reality. Nietzsche followed his title with 'Out of the Spirit of Music,' realizing how music was Apollo's particular vehicle. Apollo links with Dionysus, and in Mouthful of Birds uses music with dance to convey Dionysus' violent and seductive power, the god who is most fierce (deinotatos) and also most mild (epiotatos Bacchae 861).
Both the world of Mouthful of Birds and the world of the Bacchae seem stable at the beginning. They are undone by the visitation of Dionysus in his various forms. In the Bacchae specific victims were chosen. In the Churchill/Lan play, no one is immune. This is particularly clear in the case of Marcia. Did she put on his knowledge and his power before the indifferent beak could let her drop? In both plays we have the theme of gender fluidity: Dionysus is mocked by Pentheus for his feminine qualities, but Pentheus is transformed by Dionysus at the end of the play into the female role he mocked. In Mouthful of Birds a physical operation secures the transformation. Feminine qualities in a man are not mocked in the obvious way they were in the Bacchae, and the transformation is fulfilling rather than a tragedy.
Churchill, rather than extending Euripides' analysis of the difference between men and women, collapses both into one general category: men and women alike have potential for violence; society normally represses it; when it breaks out they learn about themselves; then they have to apply their own peculiar controls, or channel it into satisfying functions. Churchill brilliantly achieves the recognition for her characters which Aristotle demands of great tragedy: they suffer a change of fortune (peripeteia) through their lapse into violence but thereby they learn who they are (anagnorisis).
The Bacchae follows Aristotelian rules of closure; it has an end. A Mouthful of Birds does not end, although it has precise form; it provides a new beginning. Dionysus began and ended with a dance which goes on for eternity; the structure is circular. The older play shows us death and reminds us of our mortality; the new one implies endless possibilities in life. It is primarily a parable about women and violence, women and their escapes, women and self-discovery. Agave the tragic victim becomes Agave the sorceress.
One might say that the two plays show the two aspects of Dionysus, one in his primarily negative form (Bacchae) and the other in his positive (Mouthful of Birds). In the former he is more destructive than creative; in the latter he is the source of creation for mankind. In both we see the god at work. In the latter we see him dance and we join him in spirit. In a successful performance, like this one, Dan's dance is performed for us. We die unto Dionysus so that we may live.
Marianne McDonald has just been given the Order of the Phoenix by the Greek government.