Type of Culminating Activity
Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing
Martin Corless-Smith, Ph.D.
The Grotesque Menagerie is an exploration of domestic and gender roles of the American West. The burlesque and the grotesque are used as the dissection tools throughout this manuscript to examine these roles, and in so doing pervert both the ideal and the abject. As the author, these poetic explorations and dissections leave me stuck in an odd androgyny: I am suspect of my own feminist preclusions and oddly obliged to interact with the established patriarchal tropes of the western poetic cannon. I do not reject the canon as a symbol of patriarchal power; I do not request the role of woman to be forefront; I am, at once, transfixed and emasculated.
This androgyny is mirrored by the main character, a carnival barker or master of ceremonies, Whispering Ted. Ted is a female hysteric: at once attempting to embrace and subvert gender roles while being haunted by the perversion of the domestic ideal. Hysteric in Freudian terms, or as Mary Russo explains in her text The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess, Modernity, Ted is “ungrounded and out of bounds, enacting her pantomime of anguish and rebellion” (Russo, 9). However, as the Burlesque degrades from the intention of woman as gender equal to woman as sexual object, as the intellectual attempts of this manuscript begin to unravel under the perceived and demanded audience gaze, so too does Ted unravel, both physically and emotionally. Ted embodies the voice of the author struggling to maintain both feminine and masculine roles, enacting the tearing discrepancies between forces.
The Grotesque Menagerie is grotesque in three critical understandings of the term. The term grotesque was an exceedingly fortunate misnomer of sculptures and paintings uncovered in apertures during the excavation of Nero’s Domus Aurea. Grotto-esque, cave-like, earthy, dark, visceral: all traditional, if not Freudian, images and symbols for womanhood. Though I would not claim the Menagerie overtly feminist, the exploration of female sexuality inherent in the exploration of the domestic is unavoidable; the archetypes of cavernous female will surface because I cannot completely subvert the history of my language or poetics.
However, post-Romantic grotesque is tied to the Freudian understanding of the unheimlich: the uncanny. From the German heimlich meaning the familiar, the home, we would consider the unheimlich as the opposite: the terrifying and horrifying elements of gothic or horror narratives. However, unheimlich implies heimlich and therefore the disorienting coupling of unfamiliar within the familiar. The Menagerie embraces these further implications of the uncanny, the unknown darkness implicit in home and domesticity.
Simultaneously, and somehow not venturing far from the uncanny understanding, the third grotesque is tied to that which is outrageous: comedy, hilarity, and Camp. Both the uncanny (gothic) and humorous (carnival) grotesques are based in the abjection of identity and body brought to a point of spectacle, which both undermines and reinforces the existing social structure. As the poet Lara Glenum explains in her text Notes on Women & the Grotesque, the grotesque is:
“[A] hybrid body, its capacity at once monstrous and dizzyingly vertiginous, repulsive and seductive, male and female represents our appetite to endure and conceive and transform everything, despite the often hideous contours of our existence.” (Glenum, “Notes on Women and the Grotesque”)
The Menagerie embodies this hydra-like grotesque in its deliberate transmogrification of the domestic scene and the traditional female role. My poems imply or enact transcendence achieved through mutilation and body horror; marital and motherly tenderness achieved through pain and violence; and sentimental idealistic love discovered through unfaithfulness and masturbation. These poems are a deliberate and necessarily cacophony of oppositions.
The Menagerie uses the structure and contrivance of a performed burlesque to embody the spectacle of the Carnival grotesque, but also to understand the multiple failures of overcoming the masculine/feminine divide the history of Burlesque embodies. What we understand as the Burlesque differs almost wholly from the Burlesque of the 1860s, or Thompsonian Burlesque. Lydia Thompson’s burlesques, though socially outrageous, were based in sex as the striptease of our contemporary Neo-burlesque, but instead worked to parody gender and social roles. Thompsonian performers usurped gender-roles not by flaunting their genitalia but by simultaneously taking on and mocking the roles of men, as Robert Allen expounds in his seminal work on the Burlesque:
“[F]emale burlesque performers were never trying to present a convincing, realistic portrayal of a man onstage. Instead, they were utilizing their masculine attire as a sort of fetish object, in fact emphasizing their feminine sexuality by contrasting it with the markers of masculinity.” (Allen, 29)
This parody questions the contrivance of genders, mocking the artificiality of both. Travesties were perpetuated by women/men who constantly broke the laws not only of social norm but of theatrical production. The characters not only acknowledge the audience, but interacted with the audience, commenting on their own unusual costume, gender swapping, and overall artifice. The characters were simultaneously observed and observers, ultimately working to implicate the observer with the production. Ted embodies this complex duality of the burlesque acknowledging gender roles, subverting them, testing them, and dragging the audience along. Therefore, the manuscript attempts the same.
The Menagerie follows the same trajectory as the Burlesque historically, eventually succumbing to the projected expectation of the audience. If a woman is defined by her genitalia, what else will suffice in her exhibition? After interacting with her fellow troupe members, Ted, and Ted’s subsequent lyrics, becomes seduced by the audience and the spectacle of herself. In this surrender to the moment of dual vision, Ted loses her vision, idealistically, physically, and metaphorically. The voice is lost, as well as the equality, and what was an attempt at social subversion only serves to reassert the norm. The manuscript ends with a failure of reinvention of self outside of the gaze. Within the realm of lyric understanding, the complex nature between audience and burlesque influences my writing of, and Ted’s interaction with, the lyric.
Tigert, Merin Leigh, "The Grotesque Menagerie" (2011). Boise State University Theses and Dissertations. 167.