Ruse of the Medusa
Written by T. Nikki Cesare Schotzko
JHI Program for the Arts
Opening Up The Space: Festival of Music and Theatre
Paradoxical by Nature
Friday November 7th, 2014 at 7:30pm
Walter Hall, 80 Queens Park Cres
Featuring the works of:
And Erik Satie’s only play The Ruse of Medusa
Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies Dramaturgical Team and Performers:
Matt Jones as the BARON
Brittany Stewart as the VOICE OF THE PIECE
Sarah Robbins and Sarah Marchand as POLYCARPE
Jessica Thorpe as JONAS the MONKEY
Steven Conway as ASTOLFO
Simone Brodie as FRIZZY
Cecilia Lee on PIANO
And Stephanie Zidel, Tina Sterling, Sebastian Samur, Christine Mazumdar and T. Nikki Cesare Schotzko as the dramaturgical team.
Reflections on Le piège de Méduse (The Ruse of Medusa), Erik Satie, 1913
D’aspect très sérieux, si je ris, c'est sans le faire exprès. Je m’en excuse toujours et avec affabilité.
—Erik Satie, “La Journée du Musicien”
I consider laughter better than tears.
—John Cage, I’ve Got a Secret
French composer and pianist Erik Satie’s sole theatre piece, a one-act comédie lyrique, Le piège de Méduse, written in 1913, had its first significant premiere in 1948 at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Featuring the eponymous Baron Medusa, played then by Buckminster Fuller, the play involves an arranged marriage between the Baron’s daughter Frisette (played by Elaine de Kooning) and a young suitor Astolpho (William Shrauger), the Baron’s wryly insubordinate servant Polycarpe (Isaac Rosenfeld, a Jewish American writer), and a mechanical monkey—danced at Black Mountain College by Merce Cunningham as John Cage performed Satie’s piano score, all on a set by Willem de Kooning. Helen Livingston and Arthur Penn (The Miracle Worker, dir. 1962; Bonny and Clyde, dir. 1967) directed. It is not difficult to imagine the delightful pandemonium that must have ensued.
Our collaboratively imagined staged reading took inspiration from the minimal archival material remaining from the Black Mountain performance as well as notes documenting Satie’s own thoughts on the piece. “This is a pure fantasy….unreal. A joke,” he wrote. “There is no point in trying to interpret it in any other way.” He further identified the Baron as “a kind of portrait… my self-portrait, even… in full length.” As pianist Olof Höjer suggests in the program notes to the 1999 Prophone Records collection of Satie’s complete piano music, it may be that the Baron is less the protagonist of Ruse than is his mechanical monkey, who “seems to be an extension of Medusa’s psyche […] As soon as Medusa is lost in thought or manifests a desire to withdraw himself from the events, the monkey begins to dance.”
Taking mild liberty with Satie’s (idiosyncratic) direction, we brought nerdlesque performer Loretta Jean in as the monkey, while also doubling Polycarpe’s character with—appropriately so—two excessively charming and yet not just a little bit wicked Sarahs: the brilliant and talented Sarah Robbins and Sarah Marchand. We further added a ‘voice of the play,’ in the dry, slightly disapproving reading of stage and narrative notes by the dynamic Brittany Stewart—dressed in my own purple graduation gown, inadvertently purloined from NYU circa 2008. Simone Brodie and Steven Conway brought much silliness but also a sincere affection for each other to Frisette and Astolpho’s strange partnering; and Cecilia Lee provided great patience and wit through her piano accompaniment. Our, truly, absurd(ist)ly large dramaturgical team, including Christine Mazumdar, Sebastian Samur, and Tina Sterling, inevitably made life very difficult for our stalwart stage manager Stephanie Zidel, and yet, Stephanie persisted. There was no one else, in my mind, who could possibly have played theBaron than the estimable Matt Jones. As the mechanical monkey is to the Baron, so too is the Baron to Matt. Or Matt to the monkey?
Though The Ruse of Medusa is Satie’s only work of theatre—and it is significant both in being an early example of surrealist drama and a harbinger of dada, and in articulating the first instance of the prepared piano, as Satie inserted pieces of paper amongst the strings “in order to obtain a mechanical effect” (as Höjer notes)—it is certainly not his only theatrical work. Perhaps most well known beyond contemporary music and avant-garde sound circles for Parade, Satie’s “one-act circus ballet for Diaghilev,” as Nick Shave has described it, which also involved a collaboration with Picasso (costumes), Massine (choreography), and Cocteau (promotion), Satie also coined the concept of musique d’amenblement, or furniture music—music meant not to be listened to but rather to become part of the experience of social domesticity, not unlike Brian Eno’s Music for Airports (1978) or Theodor Adorno’s pontificatings on background music. “Music belongs; it may have been shooed of the street, but not to the distant reaches of formalized art,” Adorno writes in “Music in the Background” (1934). “Rather, it keeps the customers company—the tired ones with their stimulating drink, the busy ones at their negotiations, even the newspaper readers; even the flirts, if there are still any.” Yet there is also a certain perversity to those compositions demanding a different sort of theatricality (even, perhaps, a performativity) in their performance: Vexations for instance, comprising the same half-page melody instructed to be repeated 840 times. Though Satie composed this piece in 1893, it wasn’t premiered until (again) John Cage organized its 18 hour and 40 minute premiere, in 1963. It was this latter characteristic of Satie’s compositional disposition that we drew on the most in our conceptualization of his fictional counterparts: a little bit naughty, very tongue-in-cheek, short and yet (at times) seemingly interminable, but always (always) resulting in more laughter than tears.