13 ways to kill a mockingbird

I got somethin’ to say.

This project began as an innocent attempt to send the “script” of a live performance to a journal for review for potential publication.  But in time, it became something else.

If performance—the doing of it, the practice—is to be taken seriously as a method of study and, pragmatically, if it is to carry the currency it should professionally, then we need to be careful about how we frame its artifacts.  One such artifact is the script. This installation contains production artifacts, but it purposefully exceeds them, and the script especially functions differently here than it did for the past live performance that spawned the present installation.

Commonly, scripts may be thought of as blueprints for making a performance:  they are prior to, not artifacts of, the performance (although that is also problematic:  I recall watching a guy from Samuel French taking notes during a performance so that he could add the stage directions for the published version of a play that would subsequently be produced by others who purchased the rights to do so).  Publishing a script as a record of a performance carries its own hazards.  It is not the performance—we know that—but a sketch of it that may be difficult to “fill in” unless (or even if) the reader has seen the production. Every script published to stand on its own as a production artifact thus has an implied subtextual postcard that reads:  “Wish you’d been here.”  But as much as I wish it, you were not, and I can’t very well recreate the experience here, for the usual reasons but also in this case because 13 ways to kill a mockingbird was an environmental piece and this is a very different environment (although less so if you took me up on the porch and lemonade deal).
My conversation with To Kill a Mockingbird (TKM) has been complicated from the onset by nostalgia.  I do not like to be especially autoperformative—although it all always really amounts to that, you just don’t always reveal how—but I will disclose that part of my sentimental attachment to TKM has to do with Atticus Finch’s resemblance to my father, especially the way Gregory Peck carries himself in the film, and of course all the projecting the film and novel themselves encourage you to do if you are the female child of a slightly old-fashioned, good-hearted, articulate and somewhat eccentric father and you are drawn to his world.  Besides giving the kinds of temperate and tolerant advice Atticus gives to Scout, my father wrote scripts for such forgotten documentary classics as the series “Science in the Seventies”; he co-wrote a book on educational telecommunication and wrote his thesis comparing British and American television broadcasting for a masters degree in Communication.  I did NOT intend to follow in his footsteps or anything like that—I was in theatre, working with imaginative literature, but one day I woke up in a Communication Studies department in Baton Rouge with a mini DV camera in my hand, nut having fallen surprisingly not far from tree. “Stand up, Jean Louise, your father’s passing.”

There’s also the problem of the memory of reading the book and falling head over heels in love with Scout, wanting to be her, to speak like her, to dress in overalls like hers, to climb trees and beat up neighborhood boys like her. 

I am hardly alone.  The Library of Congress collaborated with the Book-of-the-Month Club[2] on one of those millennial fever surveys that asked Americans, on the eve of the 21st century, what book had made the most difference in their lives.  The results:  #1, the Bible: #2, TKM. The survey did not ask “What is your favorite book?” or “What is the most important book?” but “What book made the most difference in your life?”  You see, it’s a question that has the collapse of distance built into it.  I can’t prove this, but in my mind, this effect, the power to affect, has something to do with the relative dearth of critical material published on TKM—except if you read law journals, where there is so much of it that it could crush you.  In the law journals, they tend to talk about Atticus Finch as if he were a real person.
But since artifacts won’t give you the performance, here’s my thinking:  performative writing turns our journals, potentially, into performance spaces.  Electronic journals afford another set of potentials.  The performances published in these media may refer to other performances, but more importantly, they are the primary performances before the spectators/readers.  As such, they do not ask the reader to pretend or remember s/he was there at a performance of which the text is an artifact or record; rather, they cast the reader as spectator in the now.  They are self-spectacular.  Ideally, they work within the chronotope of the medium at hand.

The kinds of agency and the kinds of things that are possible on the stage (or rather, on a particular stage) are different from the kinds of agency and the kinds of things that can happen on the page, be it print or electronic.  The medium can be the message.  Of course if we seek to publish a script as scholarship in its own right we are summoning the performance we have done, and in, for instance, Text and Performance Quarterly’s “Performance in Review” (PiR) section, first-hand observers are invited to respond to it in short, accompanying essays—essays that are also peer-reviewed.  Again, we know the script isn’t the performance from whence it came, and as a respondent who took part in one PiR staged paging, I proceeded unhesitatingly from the premise that I was being asked to respond primarily to the performance that I saw, and not the script.  But I was sent the script, and a video, and I used both of these to supplement my experience and to jog my memory.

But I need to account somehow for the fact that most of the folks who will encounter the script here will not use it in the same way—they did not see the performance.  How, then, will those readers use the script?  Will it sketch for them the performance?  Will it project a performance that they may play out in the mind—or even on their own stages?  That last possibility seems far-fetched, considering this piece was absolutely specific to the time and place in which it occurred, but there are models for such things happening:  for some time now, people have been re-performing texts of even the most auto-biographical of performances: Tim Miller’s published scripts, for instance.

At any rate, thinking about all of these issues at least gave me some critical context for my obsessions with Atticus and Scout, but that didn’t make the problem go away.  But here comes the “eureka!” moment:  it is far more interesting, honest, and—I suspect—theoretically challenging and engaging not to erase or bracket out this problem, but to confront it head on, or to stage it.  And luckily, Wallace Stevens had been in my title all along, and ultimately, he, Terry Galloway, Scout, Atticus, my dad, Martin Arnold, Bill Viola, the Monroeville Alabama Heritage Museum, LSU’s Laboratory for the Creative Arts and Technology, and a whole bunch of wonderful students and colleagues finally helped me to see what I wanted to do with this Big American Story.

I was sitting in one of those lobby bar things in Miami Beach at the National Communication Association conference one November trying to explain the project I was contemplating to performance artist Terry Galloway, who had coincidentally just reread TKM, and although she helped me to sort it out, she had it worse than I did over that book.  And then a friend of hers joined us, and we discovered we both have Golden Retrievers whom we named Scout, after Harper Lee’s heroine.  Months later, when we were taping interviews with readers who were recalling their impressions of TKM, one young man, a graduate student in LSU’s English Department, brought his dog to the interview.  Her name was Scout, he explained, after Harper Lee’s heroine[3].

The Hamlet Effect:  There are certain characters who, by virtue of metatheatrical, metatextual device or the cultural work of constructing icons, may take on lives of their own (Suchy 15-16). They are not exactly cut loose from their texts, but they exceed them; they proliferate or have currency in culture so much in excess of their texts that they carry, efficiently, a lot of cultural history, baggage, significance. This idea first hit me full force when I read in a biography of Bakhtin how he and his friends used to stage trials of famous literary characters; Bakhtin was evidently very skilled at defending Dostoevsky’s antiheroes like Raskolnikov (Clark and Holquist 50).  (Yes, Atticus is going to be put on trial, and yes, that’s precisely where I got the idea.)  But back to the Hamlet Effect:  The cinema consciously creates such characters, mostly for profit, often for propaganda.  Atticus Finch, like Hamlet, is such a hero.  To me, one very interesting thing about these kinds of icons is that the significance that congeals around them gives them a weird ability to do what I call “author back,” as Hamlet does to whomever is playing him, in moments like the “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy where the audience says it along with the performer.  “Hamlet” is all prior Hamlets and the cultural contexts that adhere to him.

And I think famous texts, texts that people say have made a difference in their lives, might work in somewhat the same way.  They may author our own stories back to us.  13 ways to kill a mockingbird, then, stages a collage of documentary images of those stories with opportunities for both remembered and new spectatorial situations within the field of this text.

I’ll tell you what:  if you want to use any part of this script you are most welcome to it, so long as you write me an email and tell me how it went.  And then I get to ask you, will your email take the place of the performance?  Of course not.  But then why should the script faithfully “record” the performance, or pretend that its disembodied appearance on the page doesn’t somehow alter it? 

We have all sorts of critical tools and training that tell us how to analyze and scrutinize any given text’s reception, themes, cultural context(s), etc.  But as I have suggested above, they can’t completely suffice to explain the kinds of emotional responses the text evokes.  Witness the response to “Atticus Finch, RIP.”  That essay provoked a flood of mail, most of it incensed at the attack on an iconic figure whom many characterize as the essence of ethical behavior. There is not much good, and shockingly little, literary criticism of the text, but it is all over the law journals.  Why are the literature scholars relatively silent about it?  And why are the lawyers so vocal?  What does the figure of Atticus Finch signify to us today?  Is he a good man?  Do we, or how do we, form such cultural verdicts?  What are the duties of a “public citizen” or a pater familias?  Does Atticus as white, patriarchal authority figure representing a black man help race relations, or is he guilty of patronage?

In Wallace Stevens’ poem, “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” the bird in the title “does not have a constant signification but it has a constant function:  to act as a focus that brings out qualities in what is put in relation with it” (Sukenick 72, qtd. in LaGuardia 44).  As the Stevension “imagination focuses reality's flux, the blackbird focuses the process of the imagination's activity” (LaGuardia 44).  In our production, I decided that we would use the text of TKM (text meant here as the whole event of the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, and the 1963 feature film adapted from it) as our “blackbird,” so to speak.  In each of our 13 installations, many of which involved video, projected or on monitors, the text of TKM would not have a constant signification.  We were not trying to tell THE story, nor to point to a reading or even readings of it, but to collage many stories and images brought forth through our associations with the text.  Instead of “adapting the story” to performance, we would instead strike up and create/perform relations with the text, putting other things/bodies/events in relation with it.

I’m also very interested in Mayella Ewell, who seems to me (and Scout has a dawning awareness of this) a victim of child and class abuse and cultural constructions that amount to another kind of child abuse.  Her desire for Tom, misguided before the discovery of it by her abusive father, and subsequently perverted by the entire community, Mayella herself included, is the taboo the community must erase or correct or re-narrate as rape through the public ritual of the trial.  I believe that to examine race relations in the text and its contexts and leave Mayella out of it or to dismiss her as the same kind of bigot as the rest is to overlook the complexity of what this story can tell us about ourselves.  Scout learns how to behave as a southern woman in this text—she comes of age, in the tradition of the American novel.  And as in so many American coming-of-age stories, the coming-of-age process is woven around and through racial and gender constructions.  What do we teach children to become?  How do we break out, or do we break out, of the cultural roles prescribed for us?  “I got somethin’ to say,” she stammers during her testimony, but she doesn’t say what she has got to say.

Another series of research questions had to do specifically with the film adaptation of the novel.  Does the Hollywood cinema, with its classical forms and tools of representation used in narrative features like the adaptation of TKM (cutting to continuity, for example), prescribe roles as well?  What accounts for the enduring popularity of the film, shown annually on Thanksgiving on Turner Classic Movies?  Why does this story’s cultural work take the form of ritual?

Historically, cutting to continuity has its roots in D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.  A vivid example of how continuity cutting constructs race comes in a signature Griffith chase scene, where crosscutting enables Griffith to use the same actors as white Klansmen chasing themselves in blackface. There are more subtle forms of cultural construction operating in classical continuity; they are especially insidious because the style is meant to become “invisible” to serve its narrative. http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title.jsp?stid=20116http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0004972/http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0004972/http://www.universalstudios.com/shapeimage_9_link_0shapeimage_9_link_1shapeimage_9_link_2
Claudia Durst Johnston writes about the gothic in TKM (the novel); her thoughts on the importance of boundaries and barriers as a gothic motif (56-63) further inspired the desire to experiment with re-cutting to create surreal (anti) continuity.  We might think of the “cut” between one shot and another as a sort of line or barrier made invisible in classical style.  What happens to the film and the roles it prescribes through the performativity of classical style if we rupture that style?  If we recut or violate it, we may defamiliarize the “invisibility” of the classical style and reveal it as a construction that carries meaning and does cultural work.  And we can rewrite the story(s) to find new meaning(s) and collage them with the old. http://www.tcm.com/index.jsp
 “Script,” according to the little popup dictionary on Microsoft Word™ means “characters written by hand, especially in cursive form.”  Another definition suggests the opposite side of the binary of by-hand/mechanically-reproduced: “printed type designed to imitate handwriting.” The “by hand” does something performance does:  it enfleshes, it puts the body back at the scene of writing (or at least it makes the hand of handwriting a synecdoche for that body) and makes us attend to the living being who writes/performs, and thus it fosters intimacy.  The printed type designed to resemble handwriting fools no one, but it is a statement of style, of tone, as in the folksy font used by a couple of political action committees that direct mailed me this election season:  it says, “I want you to feel as if there were a body here, writing to you personally, intimately, or perhaps to remind you that there was one, but I have far too many people to write to and with whom to be intimate so you will please accept this facsimile of intimacy as a representation of our possible intimacy.” Or perhaps I am being overly generous here; perhaps the motive is to hook one with false, empty intimacy.

My suggestion in using this analogy is that we avoid the disingenuous scripting, the letting the script published after the performance attempt to stand for the performance without restaging it for the page and without at least some consideration of the audience before us in the now.  A script published should be more like the performance, but interestingly enough, the best way to make it thus is probably not to describe the performance as it happened, but to adapt it into another performance that makes the audience present—not absent, not the recipient of the “wish you’d been here” postcard.
The flatness of the page is as frustrating as the flatness of the screen.  Maybe you should look at some of the video now.

Every film that photographs live performers is, in a way, a documentary.  On a certain day in 1962 on a certain Universal back lot, Gregory Peck held Mary Badham on a porch swing.

Here are some artifacts.

I still wish you’d been here.

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image © Universal Pictures

image © Universal Pictures

image © Universal Pictures

image © Universal Pictures

image © Universal Pictures

images © Universal Pictures