Jan/Feb 2021  •   Reviews & Interviews

Corso But Even More So

Review by Gregory Stephenson

Collected Plays.
Gregory Corso, edited by Richard Schober.
Tough Poets Press. 2021. 130 pp.
ISBN 978-0578777016.

Fresh and brash, biting and buoyant, lyrical and whimsical, furnished with manic charm and quirky grace, Gregory Corso's plays can perhaps best be characterized as Corsoesque, that is to say altogether sui generis. Their nearest relations, I think, are the wild, iconoclastic plays of Alfred Jarry and Eugene Ionesco, but where Jarry and Ionesco are merrily nihilistic, Corso's irreverence is tempered with tenderness, and his anarchic humor ultimately an affirmation of truth and beauty. Despite certain stylistic affinities with the Theatre of the Absurd—bizarre situations, volatile characters, tragicomic incongruities, non sequiturs, radical juxtapositions, and a general disregard for theatrical conventions—Corso's plays have more in common with Attic Comedy and with the allegorical verse dramas of Percy Bysshe Shelley. These sources were, in any case, his earliest literary influences and inspirations. From them, he derived his exuberant satiric approach to the faults and foibles of contemporary society and his sense of deeper underlying metaphysical forces at work in the world. But, ever and always, first and last, Gregory Corso was entirely his own man, faithful to his muse and to his streetwise, off-center vision of history and human existence.

Gathering together for the first time Corso's far-scattered plays and adding to this heady mix two previously unpublished pieces, Collected Plays makes a lively, vital addition to the Corso canon. In a useful introduction to the collection, editor Rick Schober negotiates the sometimes perplexing evidence he has patiently mined from masses of Corso's manuscripts, notes and letters in order to establish contexts and a chronology for the composition of the plays. The first selection in the volume is a pearl, a prize, an almost-lost-and-forever-forgotten, end-rhymed verse drama written by Corso in the early 1950s, a play complete and entire but untitled and previously unpublished. Set in a posh country house in England, Untitled Play is a madcap comedy of manners. The civilized stability initially prevailing among hosts and guests in the house proceeds by degrees to collapse into delirium and disorder. Each of the characters in the play—beneath a courteous, cultivated exterior—is shown to be callous, selfish and cowardly, petty, pompous and hypocritical. Expressions of moral indignation and compassion among the participants are but casual whims, quickly supplanted by trivial distractions, backbiting and the satisfactions of self-righteousness.

By play's end, three poisoned corpses lie prone upon the drawing room floor. Though its effective fatal use is—in at least two instances—deliberate, the origins and original purpose of the poison in the play remain a mystery. Perhaps we are to understand that the poison is both literal and figurative, a representation of minds poisoned with selfishness and vindictiveness. Similarly, the persistent invasion of the stately house by insects seems to suggest a kind of inward infestation afflicting the spirit, while at the same time it may be a harbinger of disaster, suggesting a judgement soon to be visited upon the house and those associated with it. In spite of poison and a plague of insects, to say nothing of the demise of three characters (and the unresolved mortal danger to another unseen, offstage character, a helpless child) the play remains light-hearted, blithely, briskly propelled by puns, jokes, preposterously extravagant conduct, comic incongruities and a succession of wildly improbable, unpredictable occurrences. Beneath the humour, though, serious questions are subtly implied: elemental issues of appearance and reality and of order and disorder. The contrast in the play between the pattern of rhyme in the dialogue and the manic behavior of the figures in the play is a deft touch.

The antithesis of the spiteful and malicious figures in Untitled Play is the eccentric, naïve, idealistic, unnamed young man who is the protagonist of Standing on a Street Corner. Set on the sidewalk of a busy urban intersection, the play is structured as a series of encounters between a young man with "little stars and angels" in his hair and various passersby. Open-hearted, enthusiastic and eager to be of help to others, the young man tries to assist pedestrians or to engage them in conversation, only to be rebuked or ignored by them or pronounced by them as being mad or suspect. The climactic encounter of the short play occurs when a sinister "tall man" takes it upon himself to disabuse the young man of his innocent views of the world. The play's ending is deliberately indeterminate. We are left uncertain as to whether idealism or cynicism will prevail in the world. An ominous sub-theme of atomic destruction extends and enlarges the central issue of Standing on a Street Corner and links the piece to Untitled Play with its suggestion of an imminent insect apocalypse.

 Like Untitled Play, Sarpedon is a comic verse play cast in end-rhymed lines of dialogue. An additional similarity between the two plays is that of a shared theme of order versus disorder. Taking its point of departure in an incident in The Iliad, the setting of Sarpedon is the underworld, the realm of Hades, Lord of the Dead, upon whose much harassed, beset and beleaguered figure the plot action is centered. The central tension of the play derives from a dispute between Hades and Zeus over the shade of the slain Sarpedon. Again, as in Untitled Play, all of the characters (gods, mind you) are shown to be ignoble: self-pitying, self-seeking, resentful, covetous, deceitful and vindictive. Even the shades of the dead are prone to complaining, imperiously demanding of the Lord of the Underworld improvements in their eternal accommodations. At the outset of the play, all is in order, the divinely-appointed and time-honored system of the afterlife is functioning smoothly, running as it should, as per custom, but soon a disagreement arises from which ensues a sequence of missteps, relentlessly escalating in gravity. Hades' situation becomes increasingly untenable until at the last—such is the disarray now afflicting standard operating procedures in the underworld—the dead are in open revolt and hell literally freezes over. Disorder is again victorious.

A theme of order versus disorder likewise informs In This Hung-Up Age. The piece may be seen as a kind of modern Morality Play, in that the characters personify abstract qualities—altruism, gullibility, honesty, scepticism, impaired idealism, intemperance, practical authority, naivety, and beauty. The situation depicted in the play is also clearly symbolic: the breakdown of a passenger bus in a remote, desolate location, the ensuing breakdown of civility among the passengers, and the ultimate destruction of all (save beauty) in a buffalo stampede. (An interesting technical feature here is Corso's use of the figure of the Apache "a philosophical jazz enthusiast," as a parallel to the chorus in Greek drama, in that the Apache comments to the audience upon the characters and actions in the play.) In common with Untitled Play, In This Hung-Up Age is a critique of misguided social values and the dulled, diminished psychological state of contemporary humankind. The play contrasts the static, self-doomed era of pervasive materialism, debased taste, uncritical beliefs and rigid egotism in which we live with former ages when dreams were heeded, poets were celebrated, imaginative and creative impulses given rein, and beauty venerated. Like the bus, our mechanical civilization, Corso foresees, must ultimately break down and we will overthrown by the forces we have so long abused and ignored. Only beauty—the cultivation of which might have saved us—will endure the retribution soon to overtake our gimcrack culture.

Another previously unpublished poetic-dramatic artefact excavated by the editor from among Corso's archived manuscripts is a play in rhymed verse titled JFK. A note by Corso prefacing the play explains that the piece was "written in Greece 1960 after hearing the acceptance speech of John F. Kennedy following the nomination." Corso would seem to have drawn inspiration for his play from certain phrases in Kennedy's speech, particularly those in which the candidate pledges—if elected—to depart from the "safe mediocrity of the past" and to embark, instead, upon "uncharted areas of science and space." In JFK, the poet imagines the young president, having taken office, heroically attempting to change the direction of human destiny. In the spirit of Shelley's Prometheus, President Kennedy will set out, Corso envisions, to repudiate all the conventional, commonplace, perpetually vexatious and ultimately trivial issues of political ideology and international relations, and will, instead, redirect the resources and aspirations of the nation and the world toward the worthy goal of human liberation. This will be accomplished by an exodus of humankind from the bondage of time into the promised land of space, a journey from necessity to infinite possibility. In his pursuit of this noble metaphysical enterprise the president will be opposed not only by an obdurate old guard of purblind politicians but by the might and guile of Time itself. And by these conniving foes, Corso forecasts, the Promethean president will be defeated. He will, in the end, become engulfed by all the tiresome, paltry, metaphysically negligible issues that everlastingly distract humanity from its high destiny. The president's fate is reminiscent of that of the well-intentioned, idealistic young man in Standing on a Street Corner whose upright and kindly principles are undermined by the wiles of the sinister tall man.

The last of the plays collected in the volume, That Little Black Door on the Left, differs from its predecessors in that it contains no spoken lines. The action is performed entirely in pantomime—to the accompaniment of Berlioz' Requiem. The piece depicts the last meal and attempted execution of a corpulent (400 lbs.) condemned man. Once again, Corso attends closely to the descent from order to chaos, as the self-savoring ceremonious warden, the hypocritical prison chaplain and hard-bitten guards, and the avid executioner not only fail in seating their courteous, compliant but impossibly oversized prisoner into the electric chair, but inadvertently come to electrocute themselves. As if by an act of divine justice, the chaplain's Bible falls, striking a lever activating the electric chair, after which a sequence of errors leads to the demise of all the prison personnel. Still calm and dignified, the condemned man exits the death chamber, reading the Bible which he has retrieved from the floor. Significantly, in this play, disorder favours the disdained misfit, whereas in the text of the play the prison personnel are described in terms of animal similes. The executioner in his snarling frustration is likened to "a berserk seal," while the thwarted guards and livid warden are compared to "wild-eyed insane ducks." This silent darkly comic play evinces Corso's aim of continuing to explore in his work the potentialities of poetic drama, even proposing a wordless poetry, in which an unheard implicit poetry unfolds solely in visual representation.

Corso's plays are a series of surprise attacks on convention, necessity, self-importance, authority and boredom. Impish, impudent Gregory Corso, an impassioned poet-jester who (as someone said jesters occasionally do) sometimes "touched the hem of the metaphysical." Our literature and our reading lives would be much the poorer without him. Collected Plays will be a blessing and a nectar for admirers of Corso's work, but would also make pleasurable reading for anyone inclined to enjoy playful—but pointed—poetic plays conceived by a rampageous imagination.


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