Lurking behind every convoluted story about mankind in the throes of madness lies an even more convoluted story about mankind in the throes of madness. It is a notion best described as layered—a heaped by-product of the ruling idiocracy that awaits to surprise us every morning.
This is one of those stories.
It gets a little tricky in both its genesis and development, and it might not work out at all. But at this point, though lost and confused after just two paragraphs, I’m confident I can tell a credible tale about my latest obsession—a motor home—and the off-off-Broadway production of Paradise Now!, a semi-improvisational play involving audience participation that was notorious for a scene in which actors recited a list of social taboos that included nudity. While speaking of nudity the cast disrobed, which led to multiple arrests for indecent exposure. This was in the 1960s when nudity below 14th Street was generally frowned upon but was perfectly fine in Times Square.
Julian Beck and his wife, Judith Malina, were the geniuses behind the Living Theatre, an ad hoc troupe of actors that moved from one East Village space to the next to avoid New York City fines for illegal occupancy, i.e., criminal trespassing. Basically, they were intellectual squatters with makeup and stage lights. There were also tax evasion charges, problems in Europe, and imprisonment and deportation from Brazil on obscenity charges. The troupe, characterized by none other than Keith Richards as “insane, hard-core,” also insisted that theater be spelled like the Brits prefer to spell it.
I studied, albeit briefly, with Beck. He said stuff like “that madman who inspires us all, Artaud, does have some advice.”
At that point in my life, I had yet to hear of Artaud and so I wasn’t much inspired by him or his advice. Then Beck insisted that the students in my “Theater Ain’t for Sissies” class remove our clothing. Actually, the class was titled something else that I don’t remember unless I’m in the company of my therapist. As they say, there is no real cure for trauma, only expensive treatment.
Beck continued: “I think he [Artaud] is the philosopher, for those of us who work in theatre, whom we can reach toward most quickly, of whom we can say, yes, here is [the] one man since Rousseau who does uphold the idea of the non-civilized man.”
He added: “Our work had always striven to stress the sacredness of life.”
Besides the use of the word “striven,” this was some weird stuff to hear from a guy dressed head-to-toe in black that conjured images of Broadway choreographers. Did I mention that the six-foot Beck weighed about 98 pounds with a mostly bald head that Edvard Munch might have painted?
Artaud was a French intellectual who spent his afternoons at the belle epoque brasserie L’ Ami Louis in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where garlicky escargot was prepared à la Bourguignonne. As he sipped his Absinthe and sucked the snails from their shells, the idea of the Theatre of the Cruel came to fruition.
Then he wrote, “words say little to the mind, compared to space thundering with images and crammed with sounds.”
And that, as you can plainly see, is why I want a motor home.
I don’t care about its condition. I also don’t care if it might never move from my driveway. In fact, I want only the shell of a motor home because I want to spend what’s left of the winter outfitting it to go nowhere this summer.
There are two theatrical codes at work in what a psychologist might describe as a fantastical dream. The first follows Artaud’s model in that such a laborious effort is a cruel exercise to no avail, especially when administered by one’s self. The second, owing to such figures as Bertolt Brecht and Jean Cocteau, is a model based on the absurd. Why, one might ask, create something for which there is not a need?
Exactly! I a way, I am waiting for Winnebago.
Without even considering any sense of theatricality, my wife thinks my current behavior is merely the product of a not-so-latent idiocy that will have found its final expression in my will. That, of course, is an absurd notion because I have not written a will and, anyway, soon after my demise my belongings will best be described as trash, which is cruel. If I expire on a Monday, there’s ample time to meet the Wednesday collection. More cruelty.
This is not the first time she has met an idea of mine with skepticism and scorn. I’ve never let that stop me.
I recently found a motor home online that was abandoned by the Rainbow Family of Living Light that I’d like to buy. It reportedly smells like the Grateful Dead’s first tour bus—a sublime mixture of weed, sweat and mustard gas. It’s about 45 feet long, which would be the equivalent of three master suites were it not for the fact that it is only 8 feet wide.
It apparently runs—which I consider a major drawback, except for the fact that it does need to get to my driveway from a wrecking yard in Oregon. Driving a motor home is not in my retirement plans.
I know a handful of reasonable people who worked hard, saved their money, and invested in what amounts to a bus without stanchions or hanging straps. As punishment, they have to emulate a transit worker and drive the thing, stopping a couple times a day to prepare meals. After a short day’s drive that costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $700 in gas, they can pull into a Walmart parking lot, spend a couple of hours unfolding everything that is found folded in a motor home—which is just about everything—and settle in for a night’s sleep on a bed that only two hours earlier had been a table.
I want this motor home because I can tinker with it, customize it to my very specific standards. All the while, I’ll be planning for a trip that won’t take place. I’ll focus on creating a mobile workspace—replete with an abbreviated library of research materials and fiction. I have grand ideas for a grand kitchen in which I might bake snails and broil oysters. I’ll use my modest building skills to construct cabinetry that is road-worthy for no reason. I’ll install a small television and put a satellite dish on the roof. It will also have a fine music system. And WiFi.
The toilet facilities will a require a sewer hook-up so that I don’t have to drive the motor home to an RV dumping place, the thought of which sounds particularly abhorrent.
Rainbow Family people have been occasional visitors to this little Montana town I call home. They seem harmless, though they do appear to be in need of a good scrubbing. I imagine they are mostly homeless. They sit around on the downtown sidewalks singing songs I don’t know and praying for world peace. They don’t really bother anybody, and they seem to be somewhat law-abiding citizens of no particular place.
Though largely anarchistic in their structure, one of the co-founders of the Family, which started sometime in 1970, is Garrett Beck. His parents once lead a theatre troupe with similar utopian desires.
I believe I’ll name my motor home-to-nowhere “Paradise.”
It’s what we all seek.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska
Escargots à la Bourguignonne
1 small garlic clove
1/2 tsp. table salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1-1/2 tsp. finely minced shallot
1 Tbs. finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1 Tbs. dry white wine
12 to 16 snails (from a 7- to 8-oz can)
About 2 cups kosher salt (for stabilizing shells)
12 to 16 sterilized escargot shells
Place oven rack in middle position and heat oven to 450°.
Mince and mash garlic to a paste with 1/8 teaspoon table salt.
Beat together butter, shallot, garlic paste, parsley, remaining table salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Beat in wine until combined well.
Divide half of garlic butter among snail shells. Stuff 1 snail into each shell and top snails with remaining butter. Spread kosher salt in a shallow baking dish and nestle shells, butter sides up, in salt.
Bake snails until butter is melted and sizzling, 4 to 6 minutes. Serve immediately.