Early on in Paradiso, Richard Maxwell’s new play which premiered at Greene Naftali in January, a robot wheels itself to center stage and gives an introductory soliloquy. It is a plain rig: a rectangular metal rack made mobile by a remote-control toy car at its base. Grafted to its top is a small, pivoting security camera for an eye, and near its base are two low shelves carrying a simple speaker and other bits of hardware, unconcealed. It has a steely, synthetic voice, but its script is vivid, candorous. With an air of mourning, the robot guides us through vignettes of pastoral description—a night sky, stars, geological formations, bodies of water, “and over here: sun sun and sun, blue blue and blue, desperate blue […] Dry sand and sand and sand. If you ever wanted exile, this was the place.” It establishes that we’re in the end times. At one point, it pauses its image-making to address the scene at hand:
Welcome to the play, by the way. The nice thing about the play is it makes a place wherever we gather: make a semi-circle on the floor, make some rows, whatever; wherever we can see each other. This is where you go when there’s no place to go, or place to put ideas that would otherwise just float in space.
In this case, the “wherever” is an empty art gallery, and the “whatever” arrangement is indeed a semi-circle, although of bleacher seats, built from wood salvaged from previous Maxwell productions. The gallery’s fluorescents all remain on, at their standard searing pitch. In past productions in conventional theaters (such as his 2017 staging of Good Samaritans at Abrons Arts Center, New York), Maxwell has kept the house lights on throughout the play, forgoing the ceremony of silencing, focusing, and semi-private looking that typifies modern theatrical spectatorship. There, the house lights remind us that theater is dialogic: that the specialness of the artform is that “we can see each other,” that we all make this moment together. For Maxwell this implies an ethics.
At Abrons, the house lights felt jarring, a jab at convention, but in a place like Greene Naftali, illuminated spectatorship is the norm—in a gallery, one’s looking is always seen. Unfortunately, the sociability of an art opening all too rarely carries the campfire conviviality that the robot’s “semi-circle on the floor” suggests, staging instead an arena of “Lookers, Buyers, and Dealers”1 all navigating tense social and economic pecking orders. The robot’s invocation of commonality in an architecture so shaped by commodity seems to sidestep the market cynicism that discussions around the visual arts so often can’t seem to shake (and why should they?). In the gallery, a play might promise reprieve, but here the attempt feels continuously strained. Like much of Maxwell’s work, Paradiso rotates on this paradoxical yearning: of people trying to do good despite themselves, of our best intentions going toe to toe with original sin, and often losing. At the end of the play, the well-meaning robot is abandoned by the humans whom it had served, and with whom it had survived, at the end of their world.
Here, at what would traditionally be the final curtain, the robot starts to spit out a long receipt, which is itself play dialogue. It is both old and new: a computer-generated script synthesized, live, from an archive of Maxwell’s complete plays to date. It gives an imperfect, not-quite-human averaging of the language and affect that makes up Maxwell’s corpus. It’s telling. One sample, from January 12’s receipt, reads:
ANDREW: Well, I don’t know who you want. Im sorry. Im sorry. I dont know if you want to see. I want to tell you what I want. I don’t know who this is when you do in the story. I want to start the store in the day.
Maxwell’s actual speech, too, is plain and plaintive, in search of sincerity. It puts stock in the possibility of expression, but is restrained by a humbled sense of doubt (“I want to tell you” / “I dont know”). It’s the vernacular of the American midwest. Like a minimalist object or a Shaker hymn, it forgoes embellishment so as not to obscure the heart of the thing, which for drama, is feeling. Maxwell’s actors chase this effect with unvarnished, brittle delivery. As the play ended, and the Greene Naftali audience stood up to resume its familiar movements, people took turns reading over the robot’s growing, aching little document, until gallery workers carried it to the back. (Will they frame it?)
One of the robot’s pastoral images is “a river wanting to be an ocean.” Paradiso sees language and lives like such a river, yearning to find greater place in the scope of human and geological history. It anchors on four soliloquies, told by different performers: the robot’s topographical overture, an account of the death of Maxwell’s mother (by Elaine Davis, an actor by trade), a chronicle of society’s advancement (by Jessica Gallucci, an art worker), and a faithless man’s prayer to God (by Charles Reina, a retired Staten Island Ferry captain). Interspersed are slices of life, mostly of people trying to care for each other before an implicit backdrop of slow-death apocalypse. The overall effect is less a narrative arc than a haze of images. The boldest is the opening scene, when the cast drives a gleaming white-and-black work truck through the gallery’s loading doors, blasting the cosmic requiem of Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” with the windows up. The river wants to be an ocean, the truck wants to be a space shuttle, Pink Floyd wants to be Verdi, the gallery wants to be a theater. And what are we?
The category of “we” comes up repeatedly in Gallucci’s history, tracing a collective protagonist across time:
Should we have done it? What difference does it make, whatever the reasons, we beat back nature, not as heroes but as a whole: seduced, intoxicated by the wide open land with all that was inside and underneath. We wanted escape all along. And as it went, we got to see what replaced it. As it went, we saw for a fleeting moment something so vivid and full of surprise and possibility, we handed keys to a garden we could imagine, but couldn’t go back to. And each day you explored a little more, started over a little more, not sure of the rules, the rock, soil, flora, fauna, green and blue. It was love, then, to take the endless green and blue.
She speaks in broad strokes that hedge on universality, but ultimately her aspirational “we” whittles down to America’s European settlers and their heirs. Manifest Destiny and its subsequent apologias prove to be the speech’s theme—with its slippery “we,” it demonstrates how the rhetoric of a “family of man” serves as a Trojan horse for colonialist thinking.2 Gallucci channels such thought, acknowledges its violence, and dwells, with alternating sympathy and shame, on its self-justifications and myths. It hinges on progeny, and so futurity: “They killed and cheated others to get across and make a claim. They died for what they wanted, because we wanted it too.”
Familial sentimentality pervades Paradiso, but this moment raises its stakes by wondering what role love plays in society’s contests for resources—how care for one’s kin can let oppression through the backdoor, permitting violences big and small. “It was love, then, to take the endless green and blue,” and it is love now, she goes on to explain, that drives a community education activist to betray her supposed values by keeping her own kids out of public schools, “to find something ‘better,’ more nurturing, more ‘well-rounded.’” “The concerns for humanity faded, of course: Who or what could supplant a parent’s love for a child?”
This speech is intercut with simple scenes of care: an older man looking after a younger woman, making tea, soup, tucking her in. As it concludes, the duo shift into father and daughter, and Gallucci becomes the daughter’s chair. Daughter is ill, and Father dotes on her. He receives a medical bill, loses his kindness, and screams against “these Indian lawyers and Jew doctors and government cocksuckers and chemicals in the sky, everywhere”: blinded by rage, which he would say erupts from love. The tender platitudes that pop up throughout the play—“love has no merit or blame,” “knows no rules”—find their dark, telescoping conclusion in tribalism, wholly compatible with, even endemic to, the reactionary wave currently roiling the planet. Apocalyptic sci-fi has long known that Earth’s bounty is finite, but for some who are just catching on to this fact, “scarcity” gives new justification to retrenchment, to ecofascism.3 For its adherents, the doctrine of blood and soil stems from love, too.
The play’s final speech belongs to the same man, who pleads to God to spare his daughter. It’s graceful and sympathetic (recalling liberal media’s countless profiles on the mythical “noble” Trump voter), though he gets no answer. Another god then abandons its child, when the play’s last humans cross a river and leave the robot behind to “care for all this stuff.” There’s no evident shred of guilt, only pragmatism. The family of man shrinks. The gallery’s loading door reopens, the truck backs out into Manhattan traffic, and cold January air rushes in.
- Martha Rosler, “Lookers, Buyers, and Dealers: Thoughts on Audience,” in Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation, ed. Brian Wallis (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984), 311-39.
- Allan Sekula, “The Traffic in Photographs,” Art Journal 41, no. 1 (Spring 1981), 15-21.
- Nina Power, “Rainy Fascism Island,” e-flux Journal, no. 56 (June 2014).