Last night and tonight, the Guggenheim is staging two special, performance-like readings of Pablo Picasso’s obscure play, “Desire Caught by the Tail,” as part of the museum’s Works & Process series. It’s a play written by the famed modern painter in four days in January 1941, while living in Nazi-occupied Paris, and it was first staged on March 19, 1944, by his friends and colleagues; that original production was directed by renowned philosopher Albert Camus.
It’s clearly a Surrealist project without any overt political content — and barely a plot — plus impossible stage directions (one character “pisses and pisses scalding hot for a good ten minutes,” for example). As Works & Process producer Mary Sharp Cronson told Hyperalleric, the play “was probably done deliberately to put off the chance that the Germans would think that it was anything subversive.”
Last night, I was joined by Hyperallergic senior editor Jillian Steinhauer for a star-studded reading of the play at the Guggenheim. We both decided a short dialogue was the best way to discuss the many aspects of this curious historical artifact.
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Hrag Vartanian: I’m going to say this up front. I’m not sure the play was any good. I found my mind wandering everywhere during the performance. It was just too hard to follow. How about you?
Jillian Steinhauer: Yes, my mind wandered, too; there wasn’t a strong enough plot or any characters to latch onto. During the long, abstract, but also poetic monologues, I found myself thinking that I might enjoy it more if I was reading it on paper rather than hearing it aloud. The speeches didn’t really evoke any strong visual images for me — although that could be a result of the production itself: I felt like they had obviously rehearsed somewhat, but maybe not a ton. What did you think about the production?
HV: I think this is the type of thing you walk out of and check off your cultural to-do list. You can proudly say “I saw Picasso’s obscure World War II Surrealist play,” but I don’t think there’s much value beyond that. Though I did find the projections of his work on the screen behind the readers too unrelated. I kept thinking of Joan Miró myself, with his strange landscapes of abstract, animal, and human forms. It didn’t feel very Picasso, who seemed out of his comfort zone with this project. I liked seeing the readers, particularly since some were quite well-known, like artists Joel Shapiro and Guillermo Kuitca and Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong, but I can’t say anyone, except the readers who played Big Foot and The Tart, really shined for me.
JS: I agree with that (while adding that one of the two Bow Wows acted a pretty great dog), and I thought it was revealing that they chose John Guare, a playwright, to read the part of Big Foot, who I’d argue is really the only substantial character in the play. As for the art, I kept sort of wanting to see work by Max Ernst, for some reason. I guess because the Guggenheim stressed the historical situation and the darkness of that time. The reading last night did a good job of highlighting the subversive lightness of the play, but I’m not sure the fear, hunger, and cold that Mary Cronson spoke to me about in August really came through.
HV: Yeah, I didn’t get that either. Even though hunger seems like a central motif in the play, none of that was communicated. Though I have to admit I’m glad they didn’t act out some of the directions, including the part when they informed us that The Tart was supposed to piss out scalding hot urine for ten minutes. I mean Ann Liv Young, eat your heart out. I wasn’t expecting to find an art historical precedent for her “work” last night.
JS: I know! Maybe Picasso was more of a predecessor to performance art than he was a playwright. Maybe “Desire Caught by the Tail” would make a great basis for a weird performance art piece. Or we talked last night about someone turning it into a movie — then you could see all the weird, surreal stuff happening, which I suspect would give it a lot more life. Like a Luis Buñuel film, where nothing makes sense but it’s so much fun to watch anyway. Is this a question of medium, then? Is there a limit to what you can do in a theater (unless you have a ton of money) that makes this play bound to fall short?
HV: I think it could work as a hallucinatory meditation but there wasn’t much of anything to sink your teeth into and the whole premise seemed thin. I could envision an Alice in Wonderland treatment that would fixate on details, warp our perceptions, etc. I also found the patriarchy of the play pretty repulsive. Not sure how you’d deal with that, except to switch or shift the gender roles or norms. I guess it might be possible. Either way, I’m glad Picasso quickly went back to making visual art after this experiment.
JS: I’m so glad you mentioned the patriarchy. That was … ugh, so Picasso. And speaking of, it looks like the title of his second play is “The Four Little Girls”! How fitting. I guess we’re both agreed that the novelty of this play is its main draw. Otherwise, for anyone interested in Picasso-related theater, I’d recommend Steve Martin’s amazing and hilarious Picasso at the Lapin Agile instead.
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The final reading of Pablo Picasso’s “Desire Caught By the Tail” is tonight, Monday, October at 7:30pm at the Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan).