Vol 27 no.1

“Just Saying Our Goodbyes”: Elegies’ Queer Interventions into the History of 9/11

In Elegies: A Song Cycle, the 2003 William Finn musical first produced at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, five performers sing both in honor of and as the lost.[1] More specifically, they perform losses from the life of the gay Jewish composer-lyricist William Finn, embodying and/or narrating the lives of a diverse array of characters linked only by their connections to him. From a nameless English teacher, to Finn’s mother Barbara, to the architect who designed the Twin Towers, to producer/director Joseph Papp, to Finn himself, this musical engages with a range of histories. Some of those histories are obviously public (the events of 9/11, which are presented at the end of the evening); others are seemingly personal (the death of Finn’s mother); all are approached from a queer perspective.

Finn (b. 1952 ) is perhaps best known as the composer and lyricist for the 1992 Broadway musical Falsettos, which tells the story of Marvin, a gay Jewish man, and his queer family: his ex-wife Trina, their son, Jason, Marvin’s lover, Whizzer, and Trina’s husband (and Marvin’s former psychiatrist) Mendel. While the first act focuses on these characters as they awkwardly attempt to negotiate their relationships, the second centers largely on Whizzer’s battle with, and eventual death from, AIDS.[2] Finn’s other well-known shows include A New Brain (1998), about a gay musician suffering from a brain tumor, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (2005), which humorously dramatizes the competition, camaraderie, and struggle for (and against) perfection amongst idiosyncratic children at a local spelling bee. An interest in queer characters is a hallmark of Finn’s work, and Elegies is no exception.

I use the term “queer” as a way of describing opposition to normativity broadly writ: a way of tweaking our vision so that we recognize that the normal, the “natural,” is in fact a construction. In this definition sexuality is one kind of normalcy queer challenges, but other structures of power that create and enforce the illusion that there is such a thing as “normal” in the first place, other “regimes of the normal,” can be challenged as well.[3] Elegies is arguably a bit queer in all sorts of ways. Most important to my project here, however, are the ways Elegies queers ideas about history and how it can and should be performed.

Elegies challenges normativity in how it presents and structures its histories, as well as heteronormativity in the content of those histories.  Initially performed in the highly respected and culturally valued public space of Lincoln Center (and later in other respected theatres in later productions, as well as on the commercially available cast album), Elegies challenge  audience expectations about what histories deserve presentation in the public sphere, as well as how those histories should be crafted.[4] Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Elegies’ challenge to normative ideas about history comes from how it takes what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick termed a “reparative” approach, one that performs not simply what “really” was, but also what might have been. By incorporating a range of losses into a profoundly public performance, Elegies queers ideas about what kind of losses are worthy of public memorialization: in other words, what losses can be acknowledged as such in history.

I am particularly interested in how Elegies’ reparative approach to the history of 9/11 both reiterates the (hetero)normative narrative of national trauma and subtly insists, through various performance strategies, on a more nuanced representation that incorporates queer lives and losses. Including queer people in histories of 9/11 is profoundly important given that many “moral conservatives” in its immediate aftermath “blame[d] the event on homosexuals and the women’s movement.”[5] Elegies’ complex, inclusive performance of 9/11, and its positioning of the event as one among a range of (queer) personal griefs, offers a chance for audiences to productively reconsider the story we assume we know, creating the possibility for a more nuanced understanding of history—and by extension, the present and the future—to emerge.

Before proceeding to a discussion of Elegies itself, I want to briefly elaborate on my use of Sedgwick’s conceptualization of reparative reading. In her essay “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” Sedgwick argues for the importance of moving beyond what she sees as critical theory’s, particularly queer theory’s, dependence on paranoia. Paranoid readings emphasize the revelation of all possible relevant injustices and oppressions, in order to both rouse opposition and protect against unpleasant surprises. This approach limits possibility, as the need to avoid negative surprises in some ways renders negativity inevitable.[6] Sedgwick is critical of the “faith in exposure” this approach relies on, which “acts as though its work would be accomplished if only it could finally, this time, somehow get its story truly known.”[7] This assumption, of course, requires one to ignore the very real possibilities that the story was already known, or that the audience for that story, once aware of the situation, might remain uncaring or unable to help. Reparative reading takes a different approach to exposure and to surprise. According to Sedgwick,

To read from a reparative position is to surrender the knowing, anxious paranoid determination that no horror, however apparently unthinkable, shall ever come to the reader as new: to a reparatively positioned reader, it can seem realistic and necessary to experience surprise. Because there can be terrible surprises, however, there can also be good ones. Hope . . . is among the energies by which the reparatively positioned reader tries to organize the fragments and part-objects she encounters or creates. Because she has room to realize that the future may be different from the present, it is also possible for her to entertain such painful, profoundly relieving, ethically crucial possibilities as that the past, in turn, could have happened differently from the way it actually did.[8]

Reparative readings, then, allow for possibility. They are not denials of injustices, past, present, or future; they are, however, readings that don’t see the exposure of those failures as determinative of all possible encounters. The unexpected response is possible, and things can, in fact, happen differently. In her description here, Sedgwick is focusing on the role of surprise and hope in future-oriented work. In my consideration of Elegies, I apply her principle in reverse: that is, by presenting a vision of the past that exposes what was while demonstrating what could have been, this musical allows for the possibility of more just, ethical futures.

The affective power of musical theatre assists in this reparative project. Writing about reenactments—large-scale performances of the past in the present moment—Tavia Nyong’o points out that “if reenactment risks reifying the past as it was, the transmission of affect permits us to reimagine as well as to repeat, inserting new subjectivities and new desires into familiar landscapes.”[9] Smaller-scale performances of history like those in musical theatre offer a similarly affective engagement with the past, allowing for the possibility of showing both what was and what might have been (and, by extension, might still be). Elegies takes advantage of this fundamentally reparative possibility by performing histories of trauma and marginalization in ways that acknowledge the injustices of the past while also performing other possibilities, thereby opening up hope for the present and future. I will begin my discussion of Elegies’ reparative work by considering how it fractures the linear temporality associated with traditional history, engaging with time in fluid, nuanced ways that embrace possibilities alongside “realities.” I will then address the ways in which this musical encourages audiences to engage with a range of losses, some obviously public and others seemingly private, and to treat them all as worthy of attention and respect. Finally, I will focus on the final section of the musical, which considers the events of 9/11, and the ways in which performance strategies enable a nuanced, complex approach to this history of a national trauma.

 Elegies takes a decidedly different approach to most traditional, normative history, which relies on a chronologically organized narrative with a clear rupture between the past and the present. First, the overall structure of the performance is entirely episodic and non-linear, bouncing around Finn’s life without regard to chronological order. The show is essentially organized as a revue, a series of songs linked by theme and subject matter rather than narrative. There is no spoken dialogue, and while some characters recur, many appear or are mentioned only in one number. Second—and more crucially for my arguments here—there is no clear border between past and present in Elegies. This queer approach to temporality comes in part from the very nature of performing history: performances of the past create an experience of co-temporality as the past exists in the unmistakably present time of performance.[10] Elegies takes this a step further, however, by taking a melancholic approach to the losses it represents.

According to Freudian understandings of grief, mourning requires the bereaved to reckon with their loss in order to let go of the lost object, while melancholia insists on holding on to the lost. While Freud initially conceptualized melancholia as pathological, alternative understandings of melancholia see it as a potentially ethical response to loss. Rather than a disordered failure to let go, “we might” as David Eng suggests, “see in the call of the melancholic . . . an ethical demand to provide another kind of language for loss, another story, another history.”[11] Queer scholars have been influential in this reclamation of melancholia, particularly in relation to the AIDS crisis.[12] Finn is a gay man, and Elegies operates within a visibly queer world: lesbians, gay men, and queer communities are all among the losses grieved onstage. The queer potential of melancholia extends beyond the identities of the grieved and grieving, however, shaping a relationship with history that is queer in its form as well as (potentially) its characters. As Eng and David Kazanjian point out in their introduction to Loss: The Politics of Mourning (2003), melancholia can be read as offering “a continuous engagement with loss and its remains. This engagement generates sites for memory and history, for the rewriting of the past as well as the reimagining of the future.”[13] Melancholia, they suggest, prevents a clear separation of past, present, and future; the rupture that defines history is present, but permeable. By offering the space for “rewriting” and “reimagining” both past and future, a melancholic approach to loss allows for a reparative approach to history, one which recognizes events from the past without seeing them as inevitable or as determinate of negative futures.

Elegies takes up just such a melancholic project, calling the losses of Finn’s past into being in the present moment of performance. And while some losses are simply narrated, others are brought into momentary being through performance as the singers embody them as characters. In the case of Elegies, performance allows loss to be made tangible and concrete through the bodies of the five performers. In the world of musical theatre, however, it isn’t only the performers who embody the lost. Musical theatre scholars have noted the predisposition of the form towards particularly physicalized reception practices, what Stacy Wolf terms a “performative spectatorship” that includes “tapping toes . . . humming tunes . . . learning physical bits and choreography . . . the visceral experience of watching and listening to a musical play. In this way, spectatorship of musicals is literally active.” As Wolf points out, “what we take from the musical is embodied.” [14] Audiences take musicals into them; in the case of Elegies, the song that enters the spectator carries the trace of the dead or absent.

As the five performers of Elegies sing both about and for the losses Finn has sustained, then, the letting go associated with mourning becomes literally impossible as the lost are held in the living bodies of performers and audience members alike. Finn’s lyrics suggest that this melancholic project was intentional. One of the first songs in the show, “Mark’s All-Male Thanksgiving,” offers a clear example. As he tells the story of the Thanksgiving dinners thrown by Finn’s friend Mark Thalen  before Thalen’s death from AIDS, Michael Rupert, singing as the character of Finn, directly articulates the song’s purpose: “I wrote this song to not forget Mark’s All-Male Thanksgiving.”[15] Rather than allowing the distance between himself and the event to grow, as it should in “healthy” mourning, Finn chooses to stay connected to the past, to “not forget” or let go. The song “Anytime” makes a similar point, this time from the perspective of Finn’s friend Monica. The song, written by Finn for Monica’s funeral at her request, is “told from her point of view” and sung by Carolee Carmello. Imagined as “a mother singing to her daughters,” “Anytime” refuses the idea that the dead can be left behind by the living. Sung with conviction by Carmello as she stands alone in a spotlight center stage, the song repeatedly declares in its refrain that despite her death, Monica will not miss a moment of her children’s lives: “I am there each morning / I am there each fall. / I am present without warning. And I’m watching it all. . . . I am there.”[16] When she leaves the stage at the end of the number, she pauses to sing a final “I am there” over her shoulder, reaffirming that even in her absence, she will remain.[17] Once again, the character refuses to acquiesce to loss, choosing continued connection instead. In an interview about the writing of Elegies, Finn states that his greatest fear in creating the piece was that “I wouldn’t write a song that would bring my mother back to life.”[18] His language is telling; he doesn’t fear writing a song that represents her poorly, he fears he won’t be able to resurrect her. The dead are not allowed to stay dead in the world of Elegies, and that is by design: the goal of the piece is to continually “bring [them] back to life” not just for Finn, but also for everyone who encounters the show. Melancholia is not merely a byproduct of performance here; it is the goal.

Elegies’ melancholic, queer approach to temporality allows for the appearance of small reparative moments throughout the performance. Time is extremely fluid within this show, denying audiences any comfortable, chronological understanding of events. Even within individual numbers the present and the past (and occasionally the future) continually collide. In the song “Monica and Mark,” for example, the three men (presumably playing the roles of William Finn in the past and the present, as well as his partner Arthur within both moments) narrate the following exchange: “He [the doctor] explained that Mark had AIDS / He explained that AIDS was then fatal / Something we did not know at the time.”[19] The men sing from the present moment of performance, looking back on a moment in Finn’s personal history of AIDS, while Christian Borle and Keith Byron Kirk sit together in chairs as Finn and his partner might have done in the past moment they describe. Complicating matters still further is the inclusion of the word “then” in the second phrase. The doctor would not, in the past moment, likely have said that “AIDS was then fatal”; he would have said “AIDS was fatal,” as he had no knowledge of a future when AIDS might be understood instead as a chronic condition. By writing the line in this way, however, Finn enacts a reparative moment, embedding hope in a brief reenactment of the past, and by extension, reminding us of hope in the present as well.

The song “Venice,” in which Finn recalls the illness and death of “the former lover of [his] lover, a sophisticated Pole named Bolek,” offers another illustration of the reparative possibilities offered by a queer approach to time. Temporality seems unstable from the very beginning of the song, which features Rupert, as Finn, reminiscing about how he and Bolek would fight during dinner: “He’d say, ‘You’re being a dick.’ / I’d say, ‘Bolek,’ he’d say, ‘Billy.’ / I’d say, ‘Bolek,’ he’d say, ‘What?’” The interaction seems continuous, repeated—until the next line brings time into sharp focus, as Rupert-as-Finn sings, “That then was the night I knew that Bolek was sick.” Performance matters in this shift, as the melody and Rupert’s vocal quality mark the change in grammar. From the playful, up-tempo back and forth of the earlier lines, the sound becomes more mournful and legato. Rupert’s voice becomes softer, smoother, and somehow more emotionally charged. Later in the song, Rupert-as-Finn tells us about the trip he, Arthur, and Bolek took to Venice, answering the call of Bolek’s (and the song’s) refrain, “My friends, I’m taking you to Venice.” After several lines describing the trip, Finn acknowledges that the story never happened, that what he has just reenacted in song was an alternate history: “In truth, we never went to Venice / We said we would, but Bolek died too quickly.” Once again, fluid temporality enables a reparative moment. The past is not over and gone; Finn can manipulate and re-imagine his history, suggesting what might have happened rather than simply exposing the sorrow of what “really” was. Rupert’s performance choices heighten this effect, as he performs the section describing the trip in an earnest, matter-of-fact manner that allows the “false” history to be real for a moment.

If, as I have been arguing, Elegies poses a queer challenge to the “when” of history, to its temporality, it also takes a distinctly queer approach to its “who” and “what,” insisting on the importance of all kinds of people, places, lives, and memories often deemed too trivial or too marginal(ized). There are unspoken rules as to what can be grieved in an open public, which losses are worthy of consideration. As Judith Butler has argued, society sees certain marginalized lives as invalid; publicly eulogizing those lives becomes, therefore, impossible. Butler asserts that “we have to consider how the norm governing who will be a grievable human is circumscribed and produced in . . . acts of permissible and celebrated public grieving.”[20] Performance, like the obituaries Butler writes about, has a productive function in creating public understandings of what can count as a grievable loss. Elegies takes up just this project, as it publicly memorializes a wide range of losses from the life of its queer, Jewish composer. Moreover, its challenges to normative history take place not in a paranoid style that might focus on how often queer personal losses are excluded from the historical record, but rather in a reparative spirit that assumes the value of publicly sharing such losses. In doing so, Elegies expands what losses “count” as deserving of public grief and attention—in other words, what losses deserve inclusion in public histories.

Elegies performs grief for a wide variety of losses, some more obviously public than others. On the seemingly personal level, the songs of Elegies honor and sometimes embody Finn’s family: his mother features in multiple songs, and “Passover” invokes a number of other family members, as well as the holiday celebration and its accoutrements. Other “personal” songs feature an unnamed English teacher, Finn’s friend (and mother of his goddaughter) Monica, and Finn’s childhood neighborhood, memorialized in his mother’s voice. Other losses seem to exist within a blend of private and public: a corner store and the Korean family who ran it; Peggy Hewitt, a little known character actress, and her partner Dr. Misty del Giorno; and performer and composer Jack Eric Williams all fit in this category. While they might be known outside of Finn’s immediate circle, the wider public of Elegies is likely unfamiliar with them. Joseph Papp, the founder of New York’s Public Theater, is more well-known than the rest of these individuals, but even he is not precisely a household name, and the song that honors him blends public recollections—“Joe saw a theatre in Central Park, and Moses builds what Joe proposes”—with more personal ones: “I never understood what Joe was sayin’ to me—he’d quote Shakespeare, and I’d simply nod.”

Also fitting into this liminal space are the numerous losses to AIDS grieved throughout the piece. While Finn uses the word AIDS in only one song, the disease’s presence resonates throughout the show, most notably in three numbers I have already mentioned. “Mark’s All-Male Thanksgiving” features a gay male community and one of its rituals, decimated by AIDS. “Monica and Mark” returns Mark to the forefront, narrating his death and the advent of AIDS simultaneously. Finally, Bolek, the featured character in “Venice,” is presumably a casualty of AIDS as well.[21] The AIDS-related deaths of gay men have often been among those deemed ungrievable by the larger culture. As Douglas Crimp points out, “for anyone living daily with the AIDS crisis, ruthless interference with our bereavement is as ordinary an occurrence as reading the New York Times. The violence we encounter is relentless, the violence of silence and omission almost as impossible to endure as the violence of unleashed hatred and outright murder.”[22]

By addressing these losses in the public forum of a musical, Elegies challenges this violent silence. And in doing so, Finn claims the right to publicly grieve less tangible losses. For example, “Mark’s All-Male Thanksgiving” grieves for a gay male community marked as outside normativity, a community which included “diplomats, poets, opera guys, guys dressed in leather britches,” and a ritual shared among them.[23] It isn’t just individual people he misses; it’s a community and its practices ravaged by AIDS. This song, like so many others in the show, insists on the importance of not only those people and things most central to our lives, but those that are more peripheral as well. While Mark was clearly a close friend, the song is not simply a lament for him. It is a remembrance of the various men who attended and the details of their culture. For example, Finn gives space to memories of the food they shared:

[M]en cooked the turkey, and men made the cranberry sauce
Without nuts—because men don’t like nuts!
But the stuffing was manly, and the finger bowls ditto —
And ditto, the pureed sweet yams —
Very manly, when Mark made his All-Male Thanksgiving.[24]

Certainly, there is humor in this description; specific word choices like “manly” finger bowls and sweet yams play lightly on gay stereotypes for comic effect. There is also humor in the quotidian nature of the material. Hearing a man sing, in a lovely high baritone, about side dishes is funny for its very incongruity. It’s also touching, however, as the addition of music gives heft to the quotidian memory: this is important enough to sing about, and to sing about publicly.[25]

This emphasis on the importance of the quotidian, the mundane, the everyday—things, places, and people—is in some ways a radical act. Crimp, discussing his first viewing of the AIDS quilt, comments that he was moved by the realization that he “had lost not just the center of my world [close friends or intellectual idols] but its periphery, too. I remember at the time saying to friends that it was the symbols of the ordinariness of human lives that make the quilt such a profoundly moving experience.”[26] Elegies honors the idea that the “ordinary” needs to be attended to, to be mourned. It celebrates people central to Finn’s life (for example, his mother), but also those, like the unnamed English teacher, who appear somewhat peripheral, arguing that attention to them is relevant not just for Finn but for audiences as well.

Elegies also moves beyond the immediately personal to address national traumas, both in its treatment of AIDS and, most notably, in the closing sequence of the show, which (re)presents losses incurred on September 11, 2001. This segment immediately follows the song “When the Earth Stopped Turning,” which focuses on the death of Finn’s mother. “When the Earth Stopped Turning” is a personal song, but as the title (a recurring lyric) suggests, one that addresses an emotional event of great magnitude.[27] Using this to lead in to the least obviously personal, most public sequence of the evening encourages audiences to recognize that personal losses can be as important, as meaningful, and as deserving of a place in history as public ones. The structure also reminds us that 9/11 represents a day when the world changed for individuals, not just for the nation as a whole.

This emphasis on individual meanings is a valuable intervention into the historical narratives around 9/11, which have tended to be somewhat totalizing. Writing not long after the events, Harry J. Elam Jr. noted in Theatre Journal’s “A Forum on Theatre and Tragedy: A Response to September 11, 2001” that “descriptions of the events of September 11, 2001 commonly conjoin other words such as ‘American’ or ‘National’ with that of ‘tragedy ,’” nomenclature that suggests both an identity and a politics.” The “conspicuous outpourings of nationalism” that accompanied this linkage are, he suggests, certainly not uncomplicated or necessarily positive.[28] Ann Cvetkovich, writing in 2003, uses the lens of trauma rather than tragedy, but offers a similar warning. She writes that “In the United States, September 11 has already joined the pantheon of great national traumas, and I fear that its many and heterogeneous meanings . . . will be displaced by a more singular and celebratory story.” She goes on to note her concern with the ways in which “certain forms of suffering are deemed worthy of national public attention, while others are left to individuals or minority groups to tend to on their own.”[29] One of Elegies’ major contributions is to offer, through performance, a heterogeneous awareness within the “more singular and celebratory story” that has become the normative narrative.

In considering how Elegies queers the history of 9/11, it is important to understand that normative narrative, and how the musical both engages with and challenges it. Trauma scholar Dori Laub expresses the most common understanding of 9/11, referring to it as “an experience of collective massive psychic trauma.”[30] While “trauma” is a term that defies easy definition, a “traumatic experience” can be understood as one that cannot be completely engaged in the moment of encounter, an experience too negative to fully comprehend in relation to oneself.[31] Drawing on Cathy Caruth, as well as other scholars of trauma, Irene Kacandes argues that “In fundamental ways trauma is connected to incomprehensibility,” be it an inability to fully experience an event or to clearly name or describe it.[32] In essence, trauma occurs when an event is too upsetting, too horrible, for someone to fully comprehend as it occurs. A victim of trauma cannot truly understand what has happened as something that has happened to them, and subsequently cannot (consciously) tell their story. Most approaches to trauma tend to position it as the cause of clinically recognizable symptoms requiring some sort of treatment or “cure.” Ann Cvetkovich, in contrast, takes a less pathologizing approach to what trauma can mean, one more attuned to the experiences of everyday life. She takes as her working definition of trauma “a social and cultural discourse that emerges in response to the demands of grappling with the psychic consequences of historical events.”[33] Elegies’ final section draws on understandings of trauma in order to ask audiences to “grapple” with a variety of perspectives on the events of 9/11.

The two songs in the 9/11 section of Elegies represent trauma lyrically, musically, and through specific moments of physical performance. The first song, “Goodbye / Boom Boom,” features two stories: a husband calling home, presumably from the towers, to say goodbye to his wife and child, and the architect grieving for his buildings. Two singers, Keith Byron Kirk and Carollee Carmello, perform the bulk of the number, with Kirk playing the husband while Carmello sings for both his wife and the architect. Lyrically, the song’s narrative is a bit confusing; for example, the wife “turns the TV on, and scrolling down is a list of tiny names. The place he works is in flames,” suggesting that somehow the victims were being named even as the tragedy was still in progress. The husband, leaving a message for his wife, sings that their child was “the first of an expected four. I’m thinking we won’t have many more,” although since he knows he’s dying, “any” would seem a more appropriate word choice.[34] The slightly off-kilter moments in the lyrics may be disorienting for audience members, who are trying to make linear sense of this story as they have of the others in the show. I would argue, however that the evocation of this very disorientation is a skillful choice on Finn’s part, as it produces for the audience an echo of traumatic affect. Similarly, Carmello sings the wife’s part in third person: “she turns the TV on”; “still her feet held firmer”; “when he hung up she went to bed,” but also performs her physically. When Carmello sings that “she turns the TV on,” for example, she lifts her hand as if turning on the television with a remote control, embodying the story even as she narrates it in third person.[35] The character cannot narrate the story as her own, a hallmark of trauma.

Carmello’s affect throughout much of the song also offers a clear performance of trauma. While Kirk, singing in first person as the husband, performs looking at her, she does not face him at all. In fact, she spends much of the song frozen, staring into space or at the imagined telephone with almost no expression as her husband leaves his farewell message. The choice to play the sequence through stillness and a conspicuous lack of (obvious) emotion resonates with descriptions of traumatic affect, particularly in relationship to 9/11.[36] Certainly, the lyrics support this reading of her performance. As the machine plays the husband’s message, she cannot answer the phone and say her own goodbye because “her feet were made of lead.” She is helpless, paralyzed by the suddenness and immensity of loss—of trauma. Finally, at the close of the song, Kirk and Carmello join together to beg for a chance to try again, to “restart the day” and “say it never happened.” As their voices wrap around one another in a passionate plea, they ask in a harmonized wail, “why won’t the picture fit the frame?” In this moment, the foundation of trauma is laid bare for the audience: the events don’t, can’t, fit our frame of understanding.

This section of Elegies also represents trauma through musical and vocal choices. In “Goodbye / Boom Boom,” the wife begins to show more emotion after her husband hangs up. The tempo of the piano accompaniment accelerates moving into this section, from a gentle, almost rolling sound to a more pounding, percussive rhythm. Carmello’s vocal quality becomes increasingly harsh as she sings fragments of thoughts, each punctuated with a “boom” and a strong chord from the piano: “Boom—her son at school. Boom, boom boom—life shattered,” before coming to the final musical breakdown. Rather than yells of anger or a legato ballad of sorrow, she breaks down into a series of four repeated “booms,” each accompanied by a crashing, almost dissonant chord. While she has sung the word “boom” throughout the song, it has primarily been smooth and relatively legato, with a tight, pure “oo” sound. In this section, the vowel becomes muddier, her opening consonant becomes more percussive, and her vocal quality becomes darker and almost guttural. It sounds, in many ways, like a child’s temper tantrum. This is not to say that it seems petulant, but rather that it captures that quality of childhood rage and despair that comes from an inability to understand the world around you, or to articulate your frustration—a description that also applies quite usefully to trauma.

“Looking Up,” the second song in the section, opens with a lament for the towers and the hole they have left in the sky: “Looking up, seeing nothing but sky / In a blink of an eye / Where something once rose high, and higher—/ Now, nothing does.” This emphasis on the changed skyline is also part of the normative narrative around 9/11. Judith Greenberg, for example, emphasizes the importance of the towers themselves to the experience of 9/11 as a trauma: “The towers now overwhelm in their absence. . . . A profound dislocation is created when part of our landscape is missing.”[37] Betty Buckley performs this number as a solo; as she sings, long vocal rests throughout the song suggest the difficulty in finding words for the experience. As the song continues Buckley often sings on an “ahh” in between verses, and in the final section words fail entirely as she moves to syllables, “da da di,” etc. As she begins singing the nonsense syllables, Buckley gestures as though lost. Then, gradually, her delivery increases in confidence and clarity. There still aren’t words for what she needs to express, her performance suggests, but now she at least knows what she means, and feels comfortable expressing it through melody and dynamics. Although characters occasionally sing on nonsense syllables throughout the show, that technique is especially prevalent in this number. This failure of language emphasizes that it is simply not possible to tell this story literally.

Even as Elegies follows normative discourses around 9/11 through its performance of trauma, however, it calls into question the (hetero)normative perspective implied by the idea of “national” trauma. Certainly, heteronormativity has been a structuring element in the normative narrative of 9/11; finding a place for queer subjects has been a challenge.[38] Judith Butler points out that “queer lives that vanished on September 11 were not publicly welcomed into the idea of national identity built into the obituary pages.”[39] Erasing queer bodies from national histories of any kind is obviously problematic, but removing them from traumatic histories, which typically call forth a kind of public grieving, has particularly disturbing implications. Removing queer people from the ranks of the grievable arguably represents a larger erasure. As Sara Ahmed, drawing on Butler’s work, suggests, “queer lives have to be recognized as lives in order to be grieved. In a way . . . queer losses cannot be admitted as forms of loss in the first place, as queer lives are not recognized as ‘lives to be lost.’”[40] Writing queer losses into history, then, implies a wider intervention; acknowledgment of loss in the past implies lives worth recognizing in the present. Scott Bravmann argues persuasively that,

History helps circumvent the censorship, denial, and amnesia that have continued to inform so much of lesbian and gay existence. Public celebrations such as the commemorations of the Stonewall riots, the annual Harvey Milk memorial march in San Francisco, and various AIDS-related memory projects such as the Names Project Quilt provide gay men and lesbians with powerful collective forms of historical recollection that animate the present in a variety of complex ways.[41]

Notably, the examples Bravmann cites are memorializations of arguably traumatic events: riots following systemic and often violent oppression; assassination; AIDS. The imperative for queer people to write ourselves back into history in meaningful ways, as lives worthy of recognition and grief, seems particularly strong in relationship to moments of violence, of loss—of trauma.

While I am arguing that challenging the notion of queer losses as publicly ungrievable is a key part of Elegies’ overall project, in “Goodbye / Boom Boom,” Finn does not explicitly address the invisibility of queer victims of 9/11. The couple singing their goodbyes and their grief is heterosexual. Yet through performance—rather than narrative or text—this number implicitly honors queer lives and losses as well. Its ability to do so comes, in large part, from the lack of actor-character congruence in Elegies. The five performers all play multiple roles over the course of the evening, although Finn does not often make it easy to decipher the identity of a given character. In fact, only two songs feature a character explicitly naming him or herself. While careful attention and contextual clues suggest the narrator’s identity in most other songs, some openness remains. In a few songs, most notably “Infinite Joy,” it is impossible to identify the character with any certainty.

Additionally, while the actors play multiple characters, characters are also played by multiple actors: for example, at least four, and possibly all five, of the performers play Finn at some point in the evening. This points to a further complication, Finn’s (and director Graciela Daniele’s) lack of adherence to traditional identity categories in parceling out roles. Of the five actor-singers, two are female and three are male. Four are white, while one of the men, Kirk, is African American. Kirk is actually the first of the performers to sing as Finn during the show, in the number “Mister Choi and Madame G.” The performers are also of varied ages, appearing to range from mid-to-late twenties to late fifties. Their sexual identities and religions are unmarked. The identity of “William Finn,” a white, Jewish, gay man in his fifties, then, is performed by several people over a range of varied identity positions, some congruent with the “real” individual, some visibly incongruent.

This lack of actor-character congruence is the key to Elegies’ queering of 9/11; the actors in this song have played a variety of other characters over the course of the evening. Even within “Goodbye / Boom Boom,” Carmello sings as/for two characters: the wife and the architect. Doubling her in this way—and having her play the second character across gender (pronouns mark the architect as male)—reminds the audience of the multi-layered relationship between characters and actors in this production. Marvin Carlson writes eloquently about the ways audiences are haunted in their reception by elements from past performances, and notes that actors’ bodies are not exempt from this effect. In fact, an “actor’s new roles become, in a very real sense, ghosted by previous ones.”[42] If this is true in productions separated by long spans of time, it seems evident that this effect also operates within a single production when an actor is obviously playing multiple roles. Since “Goodbye / Boom, Boom” comes at the end of the production, Kirk and Carmello carry all the roles they have performed just under the surface of the ostensibly heteronormative couple they portray. So Carmello’s wife is haunted by Finn, as well as Monica; Kirk’s husband carries Arthur Salvatore and Finn just under his skin. Both Carmello and Kirk have performed as queer people and have sung in honor of queer people over the course of the evening, and that queerness haunts their performances here.

At the end of “Goodbye / Boom, Boom,” Borle and Rupert leave their chairs to join Carmello and Kirk for a final chorus of “booms.” Bringing in the additional singers—not just as voices, but as visible bodies—further emphasizes that the scope of 9/11 was not limited to the nuclear family unit. Of course, Borle and Rupert also carry their various roles with them, bringing further heterogeneity to the moment. In the end, the array of bodies, and the residue they carry from the evening’s performance, reminds us that despite the familiar, heteronormative narrative, the events of 9/11 did not only affect those who fit into that mold.

Arguably, the very notion of presenting a nuclear family unit (parents with a child), gay or straight, as the focus of grief can be problematic from a queer perspective. Eng, for example, suggests that this approach causes “certain deprivileged losses [to be] summarily erased, as alternative narratives of community and belonging, too, are diminished. . . . The rhetoric of the loss of ‘fathers and mothers,’ ‘sons and daughters,’ and ‘brothers and sisters’ attempts to trace a smooth alignment between the nation-state and the nuclear family.”[43] Eng’s point, that grieving a national tragedy through the figures of nuclear family members erases those who live outside those structures from the larger body of the nation, is an important one. But of course, even those who choose not to replicate those structures are still implicated in them, as queer people are also sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, and even fathers and mothers. As Ahmed notes, “Queer lives do not suspend the attachments that are crucial to the reproduction of heteronormativity, and this does not diminish ‘queerness,’ but intensifies the work it can do.” Highlighting “the gap between the script and the body, including the bodily form of ‘the family,’” she suggests, may invoke a certain cognitive dissonance that helps point out the fallibility of the “script(s)” followed by normative society.[44] In Elegies, beginning with a heterosexual couple and their nuclear family unit allows space to acknowledge the normative narrative, while leaving room for a queer re-imagining—a useful reparative project.

Elegies advocates for the inclusion of gay and lesbian bodies and lives in histories of national traumas, and encourages audiences to question the idea that historical events and narratives were inevitable by performing how things might have been, as well as how they were. Tellingly, while the text and score of this musical contain the seeds for its queer interventions, it is in performance that those interventions find their full expression: without the actors’ bodies and voices, and their engagement with the audience, Elegies would be unable to fully accomplish its progressive work. Future productions may also find ways to make other, extra-textual losses that occurred after the musical’s moment of creation part of the experience as well. For example, when I attended the Los Angeles premiere of Elegies in 2004, the show was performed as the closing event for the Canon Theater. Demolished following the production, the Canon was one of the few remaining mid-sized theatres in its part of Los Angeles. While the audience knew the event was a goodbye to the theatre, this was also staged in the performance. The final chorus of “goodbyes” were sung as the back wall and stage door were revealed, emphasizing the soon-to-be emptiness of the space. In this moment, production choices expanded Elegies’ repertoire of grievable losses to include a cultural space, and to add the history of the Canon Theater to the histories memorialized onstage.

Through performance, Elegies enacts a reparative history as it gently reminds audiences that there are also other narratives available for telling the (hi)story of 9/11, and that queer losses incurred that day must also be reckoned with. By placing that performance alongside a wide range of losses over the course of the musical, Finn also makes another important reparative move. By juxtaposing 9/11 with other losses, from the personally world-changing loss of his mother, to the more peripheral loss of an English teacher whose name we never know, to a community ritual decimated by AIDS, to other spaces or losses, like the Canon, perhaps yet to occur, Elegies queers our understanding of 9/11 as a unique event requiring particular reactions. Without minimizing the tragedy or the trauma, he encourages us to place it into a broader context: one grief among many, and one we might respond to in any number of ways. This approach, I think, resonates with Jill Dolan’s moving consideration of the role of empathy in performance and in performances’ response to tragedy. Calling for “the space of performance [to] be harnessed to imagine love instead of hatred,” she expresses profound hope that performance can “continue to grace our lives with meaning, generosity, understanding, and memory, however provisional and fleeting” even—or perhaps especially—in the face of a tragedy like 9/11.[45] Elegies’ reparative response to the events of 9/11 and to the project of public memorialization more broadly seems to me to do precisely this work, encouraging us to share in Finn’s love for these people, places, and things, and to make more complex, nuanced, and potentially hopeful sense of traumas and tragedies endured, and perhaps those still to come.


Michelle Dvoskin is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre & Dance at Western Kentucky University. She has been published in The Oxford Handbook of American Drama and The Oxford Handbook of the American Musical, as well as Broadway: An Encyclopedia of Theater and American Culture. Her current research interests focus on musical theatre as queer historical practice, as well as the queer feminist potential of the diva in musicals.


 

[1] First performed on Sunday and Monday nights at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center (on the set of the production then taking place on the Newhouse stage), Elegies featured five performers: Christian Borle, Betty Buckley, Carolee Carmello, Keith Byron Kirk, and Michael Rupert. It was directed by Graciela Daniele. Performance descriptions are taken from my viewing of the archival recording of this production, housed at the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Elegies: A Song Cycle. Dir. Graciela Daniele. Perf. Michael Rupert, Keith Byron Kirk, Carolee Carmello, Betty Buckley, and Christian Borle. (Lincoln Center Theater. Mitzi E. Newhouse, New York. Rec. 18 April 2003). Theatre on Film and Tape Archive, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York. NCOV 2724.

[2] Falsettos is a compilation with revisions of Finn’s earlier off-Broadway trilogy of one-act musicals: In Trousers (1979), March of the Falsettos (1981), and Falsettoland (1990), with the bulk of the material coming from the latter two shows.

[3] Michael Warner, introduction to Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory, ed. Michael Warner (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), xxvi.

[4] I use the term public here not solely in the sense of a theatrical public, which Michael Warner describes as “a concrete audience, a crowd witnessing itself in visible space” that “has a sense of totality. . . . A performer on stage knows where her public is, how big it is, where its boundaries are, and what the time of its common existence is.” While a specific performance of Elegies certainly creates such a finite public, as a musical the show as a whole has a far broader reach, since people who may never see a live performance can obtain the original cast album. It can be taken up by anyone who, for any reason, finds themselves hailed to pick it up and listen to it, and there is no way to know the parameters of the public formed through it. For this reason, I consider Elegies as constituting what Warner describes as a textual public, one which is “in principle open ended” and that “exist[s] by virtue of [its] address.” Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone Books, 2002), 50, 155.

[5] Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, introduction to 9/11 in American Culture, ed. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln (Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, 2003), xvi.

[6] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Introduction is About You,” in Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction, ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), 10.

[7] Ibid., 17.

[8] Ibid., 24-25.

[9] Tavia Nyong’o, “Period Rush: Affective Transfers in Recent Queer Art and Performance,” Theatre History Studies 28 (2008): 45.

[10] For more on the relationship between performance, history, and temporality, see Charlotte Canning, “Feminist Performance as Feminist Historiography,” Theatre Survey 45, no. 2 (2004); and Freddie Rokem, Performing History: Theatrical Representations of the Past in Contemporary Theatre (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000).

[11] David Eng, “The Value of Silence,” Theatre Journal 54, no. 1 (2002): 94.

[12] See, for example, Ann Cvetkovitch, An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 47; and Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York, Routledge, 2004), 159-161.

[13] David L. Eng and David Kazanjian, introduction to Loss: The Politics of Mourning, ed. David L. Eng and David Kazanjian (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 4.

[14] Stacy Wolf, A Problem Like Maria: Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), 33. See also D. A. Miller, Place for Us: Essay on the Broadway Musical (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).

[15] William Finn, Selections from Elegies: A Song Cycle (n.p.: Alfred Publishing, 2006), 22-23.

[16] Ibid., 59-60.

[17] Reviewer Suzanne Bixby, writing about a Boston production, makes a similar argument, declaring that “‘Anytime (I Am There)’ says everything there is to say about how we stay connected to people who are gone from our lives – and how they stay connected to us.” Suzanne Bixby, “Rev. of Elegies: A Song Cycle, by William Finn. Speakeasy Stage Company, Boston Center for the Arts,” Talkin’ Broadway, 10 May 2007, http://www.talkinbroadway.com/regional/boston/boston78.html,  (accessed 6 February 2015).

[18] Finn qtd. in Richard Ouzounian, “Alive with the Sound of Music: Triple Tony Award Winning Composer Captivates in the Way He Sees Dead People,” The Toronto Star, 8 February 2007, http://www.thestar.com/article/178862, (accessed 6 February 2015).

[19] Quotations from Elegies that aren’t available in the published vocal selections are my transcriptions from the cast album. William Finn, Elegies: A Song Cycle (New York: Varese Sarabonde, 2003), Original Cast Album.

[20] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004), 37.

[21] According to his 1995 New York Times obituary, Bolek Greczynski died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a type of cancer often found in AIDS patients. Although the word AIDS is never used in describing his death, AIDS has already been brought up in earlier songs and so is present in the audience’s mind. It seems likely that most audience members will read the lingering death of a gay man, who continually “grew thinner” as his illness progressed, as AIDS related.

[22] Douglas Crimp, Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), 137.

[23] Finn, Selections from Elegies, 20.

[24] Ibid., 16-17.

[25] I want to thank Ann Cvetkovich for reminding me of this fact.

[26] Crimp, Melancholia, 196.

[27] The title also echoes Alan Jackson’s country song written just after 9/11, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).” The similarity in titles suggests a connection between the personal loss Finn is honoring and the more “public” events that he will attend to next.

[28] Harry J. Elam, Jr., in “A Forum on Theatre and Tragedy: A Response to September 11, 2001” Theatre Journal 54 no. 1 (2002): 102.

[29] Ann Cvetkovich, “Trauma Ongoing,” in Trauma at Home after 9/11, ed. Judith Greenberg (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), 61.

[30] Dori Laub, “September 11, 2001—an Event without a Voice,” in Trauma at Home after 9/11, ed. Judith Greenberg (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), 204.

[31] Cathy Caruth, ed. Trauma: Explorations in Memory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 7.

[32] Irene Kacandes, “9/11/01 = 1/27/01: The Changed Posttraumatic Self,” in Trauma at Home after 9/11, ed. Judith Greenberg (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), 171.

[33] Cvetkovich, An Archive, 18.

[34] Finn, Selections from Elegies, 95.

[35] Although this performance strategy—narrating a character’s action in the third person—resonates with Brechtian acting techniques, in the case of Carmello’s performance the distancing effect is twofold. The primary image for the audience is a character distanced from her life due to a traumatic event. The more typically Brechtian notion of distance between actor and character is also potentially present, but less focal.

[36] Laub, for example, claims that “following the events of September 11, we witnessed an instantaneous sense of paralysis, a helpless confusion.” Laub, “September 11,” 205.

[37] Judith Greenberg, “Wounded New York,” in Trauma at Home after 9/11, ed. Judith Greenberg (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), 25.

[38] Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 157.

[39] Butler, Precarious, 35.

[40]Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 156.

[41] Scott Bravmann, Queer Fictions of the Past: History, Culture, and Difference (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 4.

[42] Marvin Carlson, The Haunted Stage: The Theater as Memory Machine (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001), 67. It is worth noting that the performer who becomes most associated with Finn in the present moment over the course of the show is Michael Rupert, who originated the lead role of “Marvin” in Finn’s Falsettos—a show which deals with the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Rupert’s presence in this production capitalizes on this ghosting effect, as the echo of Marvin in his performance will, for many audience members, make the presence of AIDS even more obvious than it is textually.

[43] Eng, “The Value of Silence,” 90.

[44] Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 152.

[45] Jill Dolan, in “A Forum on Theatre and Tragedy,” 106-07.


 

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Just Saying Our Goodbyes: Elegies’ Queer Interventions into the History of 9/11″ by Michelle Dvoskin

ISNN 2376-4236

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 27, Number 1 (Winter 2015)
©2015 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

Editorial Board:

Co-Editors: Naomi J. Stubbs and James F. Wilson
Advisory Editor: David Savran
Founding Editors: Vera Mowry Roberts and Walter Meserve

Editorial Staff:

Managing Editor: Phoebe Rumsey
Editorial Assistant: Fabian Escalona

Advisory Board:

Bill Demastes
Amy E. Hughes
Jorge Huerta
Esther Kim Lee
Kim Marra
Beth Osborne
Robert Vorlicky
Maurya Wickstrom
Stacy Wolf
Esther Kim Lee

Table of Contents:

  • “Refusing the Reproductive Imperative: Sex, Death, and the Queer Future in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s boom” by Jordan Schildcrout
  • Just Saying Our Goodbyes: Elegies’ Queer Interventions into the History of 9/11″ by Michelle Dvoskin
  •  James Purdy as Playwright: A Retrospective Reading of Day After the Fair and The Paradise Circus” by Michael Y. Bennett
  • “Sur la Pointe on the Prairie: Giuseppina Morlacchi and the Urban Problem in the Frontier Melodrama” by Andrea Harris

www.jadtjournal.org
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Martin E. Segal Theatre Center:

Frank Hentschker, Executive Director
Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications
Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

©2015 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
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