Reviewed: The Drama Student, Autumn Royal, Giramondo
On 3 June 1968, Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol at The Factory. At this stage in his career, Warhol was using silkscreens, mass-producing images the way corporations could produce mass consumer goods. To achieve this, he enlisted a workforce of porn stars, drag queens, musicians, free-thinkers. These 24/7 characters, who in their depthless style and mystique give the Warholian art world its glamour, become a set of gestures: eyes held to the camera, wrists stretched languidly at an angle. Solanas, thinking that Warhol and his publisher were conspiring to steal the rights to her writing, told a friend: ‘… everything I write will be his. He’s done this to me … He’s screwed me!’ Maybe she had a sense of where it all ends: Hollywood not just as a producer of U.S. hegemony, but a devouring, global scrutiny of social performance, endlessly refracting itself through self-reproducing media, all bloodthirsty to meme her gesture to death in a micro-second, axiomatised and endlessly re-staged in the exploding plastic inevitable.
Body (of work)
Autumn Royal’s The Drama Student is deeply informed by—and implicated in—the language of gesture. ‘One must become perverse when adapting / to this genre,’ the speaker in ‘Raising a subject’ says, after quoting Solanas (‘I’m a writer, not an actress’). This becomes an act of translation: from the register of actor to writer, it’s carried over throughout the book, mirroring a broader concern. What is the gesture that an actor performs? How does it derive its meaning? What does this do to the actor’s body, and how does it appear in language? In the opening poem, ‘Causing a scene’, the speaker narrates an off-stage casting director: ‘Say it again, say it like I want to discuss / leaving, blissfully immune wearing charred / slippers of silk and spectacle.’ A juxtaposition is set up between metaphoric language, its extension of meaning, and the deixis of it—a gesture, before we can attach any significance. It’s a radical senselessness, known only through the context of the actor’s movements, which Royal—as actor, writer, speaker and dramaturge—re-stages in language. All dramatic production, Royal implies, is re-staging. The effect of that gesture’s translation—one that the actor does—is what Royal records, making note of the devices it’s recorded onto: language, bodies, audience members. On us; reading and translating, mirroring her process as we interpret the page.
Body 2: Second Nature
In ‘(Regarding) the pain of others’, Royal describes the point where the language of gesture and the language of daily life begin to collapse into each other, and the stage they occupy. The separate positions this implies, and the roles Royal play, react: the language gets prosaic, circumspect as a result, trying to contain a radiation breach. You get the sense it’s been building up. ‘I’ll admit that until recently / I’ve always felt more comfortable writing about / the lives of others—from a distance, but most especially / while my subjects are inhabiting their own homes.’ If metaphor has been used to elaborate individual gestures—their micro-dramas and how they bleed into each other, how they shape the actor-writer’s inner world of language—here it is banished, trying to convey a sense of how this world creeps into the public sphere. As the speaker focuses on the ‘subjects in their own home’, a sinister undercurrent creeps into a supposedly purely descriptive sentence. In trying to make their language transparent, the actor mispresents it, becoming voyeuristic and invasive. Here, the actor-turned-public figure performs the same gendered scrutiny, of which the rest of the poems—in their circling around, like a tamer and circus lion—are recordings. The way the actor interprets the public and private registers they are forced to work with, the double standards and marks they take into their form, has to make something of the knowledge that it’s a kind of violence they are subjected to and subject to themselves to survive. It’s a violence that is historically and sexually situated, referencing Susan Sontag—her ambivalence toward the images we make of war and suffering, their placement in the reproductive-machinery of capital, the fetish that consumer subjects make of pain, specifically the pain of those exploited. Royal’s language doesn’t explore this dimension explicitly—the poems elaborate on the speaker-as-actor, not how they are situated—but nonetheless draws a language to make sense of it, how it is instantiated in given forms-of-life, and the process for elaborating it.
Warhol continued making art, obviously, after recovering from his gun-shot. In many ways he was a marked man. ‘He was so sensitized you couldn’t put your hand on him without him jumping. I couldn’t even love him anymore, because it hurt him to touch him,’ a confidante of Warhol reported. He was terrified Solanas would return for him. When Solanas died—in 1988, a year after Warhol—a building superintendent confirmed she was working on a manuscript. What happened to it remains to be debated. Her mother burnt all her belongings. In the way of all good acting, The Drama Student could be that book’s doppelganger.