Reviewed by Gregory Betts
Clockfire. Coach House, 2010.
Ray Ellenwood begins a review of a recent book of contemporary Canadian Surrealist writing with a tone of lament for the death of real revolutionary vision in the arts. He was feeling nostalgic for the total society-changing ambition, the to-the-barricades magniloquence of the Parisian Surrealists in the 1920s and 30s or the Montreal Automatistes in the 1940s; instead, in the contemporary example he was reviewing, he found the political radicalism of Surrealism transmuted into games of eccentric imagery and playful fantasy devoid of avant-garde drive and transnational bombast. Jonathan Ball’s Clockfire begins with this same tone of longing, channeled in this case towards a call for a new kind of theatrical art with mythical-revolutionary potential. As he begins in an italicized editorial on the experience of going to the theatre today, “You know before you sit, before you turn your attention to the stage, that nothing you see shall impress you, nothing in this darkened room will change your life […]Your gods abandoned you and you need new gods” (12).
That Ball shares a sense of boredom in the motivating, non-revolutionary spirit of contemporary writing with Ellenwood, perhaps the foremost scholar of Surrealism in Canada, is not coincidental. Ball’s book-length collection of “impossible plays” uses violence, surprise, and irrational eruptions in a manner analogous to the Surrealist “tenet of total revolt,” as the founder of Surrealism, Andre Breton, once proclaimed. Indeed, Ball explicitly acknowledges and announces the parallel by beginning the book with an epigraph from iconic Surrealist dramaturge Antonin Artaud: “… the pool of energies which constitute Myths, which man no longer embodies, is embodied by the theatre.” Ball’s book attempts to literalize Artaud’s claim by imagining scenarios that resonate with both myth and the energy of an unfettered imagination (although, it is worth mentioning, without Artaud’s penchant for the scatological).
These scenarios map out a cornucopia of potential theatrical events that fundamentally reimagine the constituent parts of the medium. These reimaginings range from the surgical transformation of audience members into animals of their fancy (17) to, conversely, the total slaughter “Like Lambs” of the audience (56). Other scenarios invert iconic theatrical conventions: actors introduce a gun onstage, but succumb to worshipping the fetishized object until they die and it remains untouched, unfired (46); an actress watches her entire life, from birth, performed in front of her verbatim (54); the actors lead the audience to break the stage, dig through the floor deep into “the punctured earth […] to dig up something lost and covered” (36).
Ball presents the fantastic, impossible, and disturbing acts that populate Clockfire in a calm, precise tone that focalizes all of the energy in each scenario onto its conceptual surprise. This remarkably effective technique shifts the focus of the book from the stylistic and formalist experiments that shaped Ball’s previous writing to a precise and radical reimagining of the boundaries of art. Consider “The Magic Show,” which reads in its entirety: “The curtain rises. A magician appears onstage. The audience disappears, and is never seen again. Though arrested, imprisoned and tortured, our magician reveals no secrets” (59). This textually expurgated audience opens up a mythic realm of possibilities. By denying the hold of realism and tradition, Ball’s text presents a forthright invitation to imagine the delightful strangeness of the scenario. By extension, this invitation reinvigorates a potential marvelousness in the theatre. In contrast, the real theatre he laments in the introduction cannot compete with the imaginative freedom of this poetic theatre.
In “As Children Might,” the actors are so transformed by their participation in the play that “Family members do not recognize them. They are disowned by close friends. Their lives as they knew them are over, and other lives begun” (18). This is the “gauntlet, thrown” (5) by Ball against the mundane limits of contemporary writing. The book does not propose a new theatre so much as raise the possibility and the urgency of reinventing the theatre, or writing in general, until it cannot be recognized by the genres and closed traditions of the settled imagination.
At press time: Gregory Betts is the author of five books of poetry, including The Others Raisd in Me and The Obvious Flap (with Gary Barwin), and editor of four books of experimental Canadian writing. He is the Director of the Centre for Canadian Studies and an Associate Professor at Brock University. His history of early Canadian avant-gardism is forthcoming.