Essays by Robin Deacon, Howard Matthew and Laurence Harvey
Whilst it’s easy to look at and talk about the manner and mode of performing slapstick, to actually come up with a concise definition is much harder. We could go about this in a number of ways. The obvious way is via the dictionary. Webster’s Dictionary define it as ‘Comedy that depends for its effects on fast, boisterous and zany physical activity and horseplay (as the throwing of pies, chases, whacking of posteriors with slapsticks) often accompanied by obvious rowdy verbal humour.’ Whilst this is all well and good, it is definition by inventory and doesn’t actually offer insight into the nature of slapstick. How do we understand or describe rather than merely observe or list? In his seminal paper on slapstick written for Life magazine in 1949, the great American film critic James Agee notes that the single most useful type of humour to know is that which replays melodrama as camp 1. The impulse to parody melodrama is a constant in slapstick, and Agee notes that studios like Keystone only ever had two branches of slapstick: parody laced with slapstick and plain slapstick. Agee’s description is about a manner of performance and to a certain extent this was a necessity of early silent film where actions were exemplified to communicate a plot or storyline. Frank Capra on the other hand focuses on the props as a means of definition when he refers to the intransigence of inanimate objects which usually propel the hero through the plot, by the end of which he often triumphs by means of the very objects and forces that bewildered and exasperated him at the onset. This is a position that is reinforced by Orson Welles when he refers to slapstick as ‘… a fatalistic struggle with the mechanical forces of the world.’ 2
(Artists’ Studio, Saturday 17 June 2006)
— 1 × Workbench
— 1 × Saw
— 1 × Wooden plank, at least 12ft in length
— The performer’s equivalent weight in bricks (10 stone = 20 bricks)
Place the wooden plank in the workbench with at least six feet of the plank protruding at one end. The performer should set themselves at the extreme end of the plank while assistants or audience members begin to stack the bricks at the opposite end of the plank. The performer must be careful to maintain the balance of bricks to body. Once the equivalent weight of the performer in bricks has been placed, a balance will be established. The performer will then stand up slowly and saw through the plank on their right hand side. Continue this action until the plank is completely sawn through. Make sure the saw blade is clear from the body as it starts to fall.
When did you first become aware of Stuart Sherman’s work?
It was 1979. Mainly in small performance venues in downtown Manhattan. That was the only outlet he had for his work. Prior to that he did perform on the Staten Island Ferry. That’s how he started out.
What would you say is the significance of Stuart Sherman’s work in the short history of conceptual art and performance?
For me, he was the best example of performance art, because he had nothing to do with theatre, and it was truly abstract, and it was definitely to do with meaning and language, and therefore he was looking at things really hard. He’d found a totally new way of expressing this which nobody else was anywhere near really, and because of its careful consideration, and real intensity, it just stood out.
Why do you think it is that his work is not more widely known and disseminated?
If you’re in the avant garde, you’re not going to have a big audience. Most people didn’t have that level of sheer intelligence and sophistication. And I would think you would have to be somebody who was looking for meaning as seriously as he was to have really appreciated it. Despite the delight with which you were being entertained, you were outside of meaning. I don’t think that suits most people, you’d have to be hungry for something special to love it.
You said that the understanding and reception of his work was different in the European and American contexts. Why do you think this is?
In America everything was much more upfront about passion and less about a deeply intellectual activity. In Europe, there was still a demand for that, and I’m sure there were plenty of deeply intellectual Americans, but it wasn’t going to find him a public. His main saviour I suppose in Europe was Ritsaert ten Cate, director of the Mickery Theatre in Amsterdam – he really took Stuart to heart. In Paris there was kind of a good following, and they really enjoyed this thing which again is kind of on the edge of understanding, but aesthetically, it suited them. Whereas in America, they wanted to get it straight.
I talked about notions of slapstick and deadpan relative to Sherman’s work which you seemed to take issue with. How would you characterise his work?
I think slapstick is completely the wrong word. Stuart was just fast, and I think the only thing you could say with slapstick is you get about the same amount of information. In terms of deadpan, basically, Stuart wanted to disappear. And he disappeared in the middle of the stage in front of the public, but only because it was very important that you focussed on the objects, because the objects were telling the story, Stuart wasn’t.
We talked a little bit about the fact that Sherman never transcribed his work. You read out an extract from a daily writing exercise that he wrote near his death. Why do you think he started this form of writing?
But he was always a writer – a great writer, without writing any words, and this is true of many performance artists. So here you have a genre of people who are writing and not actually expressing their love of writing in terms of putting words to paper. Somehow, it’s looking for a new form, and it’s a critique – somehow words don’t always necessarily do everything that you want them to do. Stuart wrote privately, and I think he would probably have got to writing in the end. I think he would have done more.
(Artists’ Studio, Wednesday 21 June 2006)
Choose a film relevant to an existing exhibition theme, or referring to the location (town, city or country), in which the performance is due to happen. The choice of film is at the discretion of the performers, but as a general rule of thumb, ‘bad’ is ‘good’ – think low budget B-movies or 70’s disaster flicks.
Once the film is chosen, performers should watch it on at least three occasions beforehand, as a group, and individually. Firstly, performers should decide who is to play which character. It is likely that the performer may play more than one role. However, it is inadvisable that more than three characters are played by one person.
Performers should take note of props, costumes and objects in the film, and possible cheaper equivalents that could be used in a live context.
By the end of this process, performers should be familiar enough with the film to recognise the voices of specific characters, and the timing and blocking of particular scenes without actually seeing the film.
— 1 × Video projector
— 1 × DVD player
— 1 × Sound mixer
Headphones for each performer with stereo cables long enough to be able to move around the whole space comfortably.
For the sound to synch up successfully with the image, it is a good idea to have the film image as a separate source, two seconds behind that of the soundtrack (a second DVD player would be required). The location of the film projection is at the discretion of the performers.
The performance is the same duration as the film. Performers are only asked to approximate the dialogue, actions and gestures of their character(s). So, if the character in the film stands up, so should the performer. If the character walks, so should the performer. The text can be delivered as it is heard, but interesting effects can be created if the performer merely recites the words with little in the way of expression.
In terms of action, performers should make things as task based as possible. So, for example, if the film was Moby Dick 3, there is the opportunity for performers to build a whale out of lard and masking tape.
(Artists’ Studio, Wednesday 28 June 2006)
1 James Agee, Comedy’s Greatest Era, Life magazine, 05 September 1949
2 Orson Welles, Orson Welles Presents The General, World View Entertainment 1971, featurette on the General © 22nd December 1926 remastered ©2004 MK2 S.A. ©Lobster Films
3 With hindsight, perhaps this wasn’t the best film to have chosen – it does have a ‘made for TV’ feel to it, and it is generallyacknowledged that Gregory Peck is woefully miscast as Captain Ahab. Orson Welles’ brief cameo appearance (hammy as it is) gives an indication of who this role should have gone to.
An Analysis of Performance Art Anthony Howell, Harwood (1999) ISBN 9057550865
Green Shadows, White Whale Ray Bradbury, Crown (1985) ISBN 0517112523
Loony Tuniverse Stephen Gould, New Scientist, Issue 1905 (1993)
Moby Dick Herman Melville, Oxford World’s Classics (1998) ISBN 0192833855
Fast and Furryous Directed by Chuck Jones (1948)
Moby Dick Directed by John Huston (1956)
Sherlock Jr. Directed by Buster Keaton (1924)
Wings of Hope Directed by Werner Herzog (1999)
Robin Deacon (b. Eastbourne, UK 1973) is an artist, writer and filmmaker. His lecture-based performances explore the use of journalistic and documentary style approaches to arts practice. His work is often characterised by a humorous and satirical approach to his subject matter. Robin is an Associate Artist at Artsadmin, as well as Course Director of Drama and Performance Studies at London South Bank University.
Howard Matthew (b. Rochdale, UK 1974) is a London-based artist whoworks with performance, film and video. He has a highly flexibleapproach to his practice and has collaborated with poets and architectsamongst other professions. His work also extends to teaching andoutreach programmes, where he has taught in a broad range of contextsfrom primary education to learning disabled adults.
Laurence Harvey(b. Jonischkis, Lithuania 1928 — d. 1973) was aLithuanian born actor, best known for his roles in The Manchurian Candidate, Room at the Top an dExpresso Bongo with Cliff Richard. Laurence Harvey has been working in the field of performance art since 1987.
Stuart Sherman(b. Providence, USA 1945 — d. 2001) Stand behind table, Perspex sheet held in front of face. Say:“Stuart Sherman”. PLAY TAPE: ROARING LIONS. Clawing gesture with hand. Party blower in mouth(through hole in Perspex). Pick up pencil and ‘mark’ a line on each eye, nose and sides of chin. Pencil down. Blow blower once and putdown. Claw gesture across face. Pick up pencil, ‘mark’ line of gouge. Pith helmet on. Pick up gun, ‘shoot’ face. Gun down, helmet off, change tape. PLAY TAPE: BLEATING SHEEP. Perspex down. Put on monocle. Stretch face. Monocle drops. Replace monocle. Pick up pencil,‘mark’ eye. Pencil down. Blower in mouth. Pick up gun, put third tape in machine. ‘Shoot’ table and blow blower four times. PLAY TAPE: BLOWER,BLOWN FOUR TIMES. Gun down, monocle off. STOP TAPE. END.(Portrait of Stuart Sherman from the Eighth Spectacle (1980) transcribed byLaurence Harvey)
Peter Stickland studied at the Architectural Association in the1970s, and went on to join seminal performance group The Theatre ofMistakes. He also wrote about, and worked extensively with Stuart Sherman including his adapted performances of Faust and Hamlet.
Robin Deacon would like to thank:Anthony Howell, Ben Roberts, Michelle Williams and Camden Art Centre staff.