Vigorous Pessimism and the Reproductive Future: Julia Jarcho, Interviewed by Miriam Felton-Dansky

Kim Gainer and Jess Barbagallo in The Terrifying by Julia Jarcho. Abrons Arts Center, New York City, 2017. Photo by Marina McClure.

Julia Jarcho is a playwright and scholar who teaches at New York University and writes and directs with her company, Minor Theater, which presented its first official premiere last spring, but represents a set of artistic collaborations built over years of shared work. Jarcho’s dramas press at the edge of genre, subtly transform language and syntax, and probe the dark corners of female identity and sexuality. Grimly Handsome, which won a 2013 Obie Award for Best New American Play, was a noirish Christmastime tale set in a murky New York City landscape and featuring unexplained appearances by a strange species of red panda. The Terrifying, produced at Abrons Arts Center in 2017, flirted with the conventions of horror through the tale of a small village, set in a world both contemporary and folktale-fantastical, whose younger generation, particularly women, were being stalked by a mysterious and highly predatory monster. As the unseen beast growled and rumbled from corners of the auditorium (company member Ben Williams orchestrated the virtuosic sound design), young women contemplated their fear of, but also fascination with, the possibility of becoming its prey. Terror and desire, realism and allegory, converged and overlapped on the same affective terrain. Minor Theater: Three Plays (including Grimly Handsome, Every Angel Is Brutal, and Dreamless Land) was published by 53rd State Press in 2017.

In her scholarship, Jarcho examines relationships between text and performance, temporality, negative affect, and Utopianism. Her book Writing and the Modern Stage: Theater Beyond Drama, published by Cambridge University Press in 2017, argued that modern and contemporary playwrights have drawn on the temporality of theater to harness it as a site for negating the present and cultivating a utopian imagination. A recent article, “Cold Theory, Cruel Theater: Staging the Death Drive with Lee Edelman and Hedda Gabler,” published in Critical Inquiry, proposed theater as a medium for encountering the death drive, and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler as an avatar of, and counterpoint to, Edelman’s elaboration of queer resistance to the regime of reproductive futurism. 

This spring, Jarcho met with me—a friend and also a theater critic and contemporary performance scholar—to discuss Minor Theater, her new adaptation of Racine’s Phèdre (1677), the operation of “vigorous pessimism” in her artistic and scholarly work, and the concept and reality of reproductive futurism. In the case of this last topic, the conversation was quite literal: in keeping with Jarcho’s artistic fascination with the emotional and physical landscape of the female experience (and in deference to practicalities) both of us brought our babies to the conversation. Interjections and contributions by Jarcho’s daughter Jane, and my son Pete, are included here as a reflection of the relationship, moment to moment, between intellectual and artistic life and the postpartum experience.

—Miriam Felton-Dansky

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Miriam: So we’re here with my son Pete who’s almost eight months old and your daughter Jane who is . . .

Pete: Woo, woo, woo

Julia: . . . seventeen

Miriam: Seventeen months old. We’re just going to talk and get interrupted . . .

Jane: Mama?

Miriam: and talk and get interrupted. But let’s start with Minor Theater, your company, whose first official production was The Terrifying, right? Where are you are as a company now?

Julia: I started Minor Theater with three of my closest collaborators who are . . . Yes, that’s Pete’s spoon, do you want your spoon? Ásta Hostetter, who’s a costume designer, and Ben Williams, who’s a sound designer and an actor, and Jenny Seastone, who is an actor and a visual artist. We had worked together on a bunch of shows already when we started a company. The aim was to commit to an ongoing collaboration and also to make a claim that there was a consistent aesthetic project that we had embarked upon and continued to pursue. The impetus for that was the show we did called Grimly Handsome in 2013, which got some good attention. So right now we are, uh

Jenny Seastone, Ben Williams, and Pete Simpson in Grimly Handsome by Julia Jarcho. Incubator Arts Project, New York City, 2013. Photo by Alex Fabozzi.

Miriam: Jane you can play with that, that’s Pete’s ball and his crinkle paper. Do you want to play with his crinkle paper?

Jane: Ball?

Miriam: That’s a ball, that’s his ball.

Julia: We should have them interview each other.

Miriam: I know. Jane, do you have any questions for Pete? (knock, knock, knock)

Jane: Ball?

Julia: They look scandalized, for the record.

Jane: Ball?

Miriam: So this all coalesced around collaborations, but also a shared aesthetic project, can you talk about what that is?

Julia: We are all interested in making theater events that, while they are narrative, are also driven by commitment to certain rhythmic and aural shapes. For Ásta, for example, the costume designer, that also means visual shapes. Another central interest is darkness, in the sense of a kind of vigorous pessimism, I think. A refusal to lie about how the world seems to go. But at the same time there’s a curiosity and a sense of play about ways in which we can take things like fear and anger and frustration and make them into conduits to pleasure.

Pete Simpson in Minor Theater’s The Terrifying by Julia Jarcho. Abrons Arts Center, New York City, 2017. Photo by Marina McClure.

Miriam: Can you talk about the name “Minor Theater”?

Julia: Minor Theater is minor in the sense that it’s like a minor key, trying to find the particular satisfactions that come with a less than triumphant approach to lived experience. And minor in the sense that adolescence is a big touchstone for a lot of this work. You saw that in The Terrifying, and you will see it in the next work, which is essentially a teen drama version of Racine’s Phèdre. Especially lately, I feel like I’ve been (ball bounces) particularly interested in coming of age stories. A friend of mine, a few years ago, we kept finding ourselves talking about how it seemed like our bodies were going through puberty the second time. Your body just starts to like shift around in weird ways. And I guess then, of course, also being pregnant. . .

Miriam: Yep! It’s like . . .

Julia: So there’s something about that, and also I guess, the kind of general sense of disenfranchisement that you feel, that one feels as a teenager. Of course different people are disenfranchised in very different ways. But, what does it mean to be introduced to the world and culture, and the world of agency, first of all as a kind of spectator. I think that is how children feel, and then suddenly in adolescence people start to hold you responsible for the things around you to a greater extent. And I think that that crisis of suddenly having to have a different relationship to the things around you is what some of our work is about.

Miriam: Your company’s full title is “Minor Theater: plays for others.” What does “plays for others” mean?

Julia: It’s kind of a fantasy I guess, that in a moment where it feels like every conceivable position that a person could take or identify with has been identified already and commodified that it is still possible to find a new position which hasn’t been found before.

Miriam: Be gentle with faces. Yeah, gentle with faces.

Julia: So, “plays for others” means plays for people who identify as others; which maybe is all of us or none of us at this point, but and also is probably . . . dates me generationally because as we’ve probably talked about, I don’t think my students identify as “others” anymore. Anyway, people who identify as outsiders, but also something about the positionality of the “for” and thinking about who the work is “for.” The idea that maybe, the people who this is for aren’t here yet. And that, dovetails with stuff I think about in my scholarly work: what it would mean to make theater for people and places that aren’t present.

Miriam: So, a future orientation?

Julia: Yeah, or just a utopian orientation, anyway.

Miriam: Which is interesting because the recent article that you wrote for Critical Inquiry is about no future: about Hedda Gabler as an avatar of a negation of a reproductive future in the Lee Edelman sense.

Julia: Yeah, probably there needs to be some orientation towards the future (baby crying) in any kind of project, but the question is maybe theater could provide (crying intensifies) a sufficiently perverse relationship to the future that it wouldn’t fall into the category of reproductive futurism. Anyway I’m claiming that is what theater can do.

Miriam: Right.

Julia: Although, not my theater more than other theater, necessarily.

Miriam: And your argument about Hedda is especially important because Edelman talks about characters primarily from literature and film.

Julia: And talks exclusively about men, yeah. Hat? Are you saying ‘hat’?

Jane: Baby? Baby?

Miriam: Yeah! That’s a baby hat! Good point! (chuckles)

Julia: But, yeah.  Your hat might have yogurt on it.

Miriam: (laughing) That’s cool.

Julia: I love the way pleasure is organized in Hedda Gabler. 

Miriam: You described so well the way Hedda takes pleasure in talking about things then not doing them. That kind of pleasure in negativity. And maybe we can just return for a moment to a phrase that you said about minor theater as, you said, vigorous pessimism. Your last play, The Terrifying, explored fear among other things and your new version of Phèdre is called Pathetic and seems to be about many things, but also about the disgust with which women’s bodies are treated. “Disgusting” and “pathetic”—and “terrifying,” for that matter— all imply a spectator to be disgusted or to feel whatever it is, pity towards the object, towards the pathetic person.

Julia: The more art you do in your life, I guess, maybe, the more you become aware of what your own desires around the spectator are. Do you want a bib?

Jane: No.

Julia: Yes, you want a bib. So anyway, I’m thinking about why I’m doing this, what it is that I want. You start to also become aware of the obsessive repetitions in your own work. This belongs to another baby. It’s so hard, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry my friend. Yeah, that’s his ball, he said you can play with that. But not that. Not that.

Miriam: Yeah, that’s a great ball, don’t you think? (baby crying)

Julia: This is hard isn’t it? Because it’s like the stakes of finishing a sentence, you know, it has to be a good sentence in order to deserve hanging on to it through all these uh. Vicissitudes. Which I guess could be a good thing . . . ?

Miriam: What made you want to write a Phaedre story?

Julia: I think a sense of myself as getting older. Reading the play and being so struck by the completeness with which it tackles this sense of self-loathing that comes with being a grown-up female person. And . . . a sense of surprise that the most canonical play in modern drama would be about that thing. And that it’s the darkest possible play about love. I mean talk about vigorous pessimism: it’s uncompromising and that’s exciting.

Miriam: Ah, Jane.


Julia: Oh my god, what is happening? What if the upshot of this experiment is just that . . . it’s impossible to be a human being and have a baby.

Miriam: That might be a good conclusion.

Julia: Recently we were invited to apply for a week-long out-of-town residency with an important theater to work on Pathetic. And when I wrote to make sure that if we got it I could bring my baby, they responded immediately and said, well no, because if we let you bring your family, we’d have to let everyone bring their family. As if I just hadn’t grasped the logic.

Miriam: As if you were hoping you could be an exception, rather than imagining that, as a rule, artists could also be humans with needs.

Julia: Anyway in Phèdre Racine does this particularly cruel thing in that he gives Hippolytus an actual love which isn’t in the Greek text. So then it really does feel like he rejects her because she’s too old. The play presents love as a mono-logic thing. As a thing that you spin out crazily by yourself. This idea of love as this engine of disaster, obviously, but also of language. Love as an engine of pain, which is an engine of language, felt really good. This vision of love as the thing that forces you to come up with language that is both completely true and completely devastating to you and everyone around you is an inspiring model for writing. To me it feels like Phèdre is one of the most convincing versions I’ve seen of how . . .  of the claim that in fact having feelings is productive.

Miriam: The play is formally organized around this idea of feelings. Love is either a disease or a poison or it’s both, very physical. Your play has a Phaedra figure, but it complicates that by having multiple younger women, so there’s her daughter and then there’s her daughter’s friends. You don’t seem to offer any hope for the Phaedra figure or for the women really in general, but the purpose doesn’t seem to be a flat-footed indictment of the way our culture views women’s bodies, either.

Julia: I’m more interested in the way that women internalize the violence that gender is than I am in how they are the objects of it. They’re subjects and objects of it.

Kim Gainer in The Terrifying. Photo by Marina McClure.

Miriam: Yeah, that’s a bib covered in yogurt. So, I know you said it is not ready for reading, but you’re working on a play about postpartum depression.

Julia: Yes. I mean, this is a question: is it or is it not useful to pathologize the nightmare of having a very young baby? On the other hand, it’s like you don’t want to universalize it because obviously that isn’t everyone’s experience by a long shot.

Miriam: That everyone has a different version of it if they have it.

Julia: Yeah, I guess it feels to me, speaking of No Future and this idea of the death drive and queerness, like actually the baby, the real baby as opposed to the cultural Figure of that baby, is in fact the thing that is constantly fucking with representation in the most powerful way I’ve ever encountered. (Big baby sigh into mic.) Even if you continue to think (yelling) that sex is the thing that fundamentally diffracts meaning and representation and consistency and coherency (goo goo goos in the background) the manifestation of sexuality that consists in having a baby is an extreme version of exactly that thing. So, like one version of that fact is what’s happening right now in this room and another version of that fact is, for me I found that the early months of motherhood

Jane: Ball! Ball!

Julia: . . . were really hard to verbalize.

Miriam: Yeah.

Julia: And partly that was just because I had no mental energy with which to perform (clacking) verbalization. But I also feel like

Jane: Baby. Baby.

Julia: . . . it really resists discourse in a way that felt different from any other experience that I’ve had before because I guess for me I feel like I’m a person who thinks of herself anyway as so, like, really leaning into the symbolic in a big way. Having this experience that felt really hard to talk about, felt like a problem, and so of course that made me feel like I should try to write a play about it. Even though I haven’t done that before. My plays aren’t about big emotional milestones. So, this feels like a breaking of that rule, but on the other hand it also feels like a thing which I am trying to do, which is to articulate something that might be impossible to articulate.

Miriam: And to say the most obvious thing like a continued exploration of the affects and emotional territory that we think of as negative.

Julia: Yeah.

Miriam: I also found, I mean for me, one of the things (ball bouncing) after I had a baby I was like, I will never use the word “postpartum” to describe the feeling of, like, I completed something and now, and now I feel empty.

Julia: Yeah. No. Now it enrages me when people do that. Which is funny because I never would have aligned myself with the like, cause of motherhood.

Miriam: Right.

Julia: The kind of of anti-reproductive stance has always felt like a much better mirror to me of how I thought of myself and my function and whatever, my powers and . . . and yet now, and oh! and just to say: politically I think having a baby is super problematic.

Miriam: Yeah. I never understood the general societal point of view that it’s a good thing, like you’re doing a good thing, if you’re having a baby.

Julia: Right, right. Yeah, you know, I mean you’re doing a selfish thing . . .

Miriam: You’re doing a selfish thing.

Julia: . . . like almost everything else you do. So I don’t think it’s worse, but so . . . anyway I guess now, but now I do feel like there’s a kind of, I have a new impulse basically to not to, not to need necessarily to kind of proclaim the value and dignity of motherhood, but to want some kind of recognition for how hard it is.

Miriam: Yeah. Yeah.

Julia: And at least to want the world of opportunities and art and everything you’ve ever cared about to like, meet you halfway? Because I just think we don’t have a language for it, really, or like a way of seeing it . . . we don’t have a . . .  what’s the word I want . . . .

Jane: Seesaw? Zebra?

Miriam: Yeah, it really does sounds like she’s saying Zizek.

Julia: It does.

Miriam: Your book of plays came out like a year ago, almost a year ago. What was that like? These are your first published plays, aside from American Treasure, which appears in the 13P anthology? I’m curious whether you think about readers . . . like your plays as reading experiences as well and if that has changed at all since you prepared it for publication?

Julia: I think I inevitably do because for such a long time my engagement with them is on the surface of the page. So, I’m trying to write something that’s like a preserver, a holder, a container for my ideas about the piece, but I’m also just trying to please myself at the level of the text. And I guess traditionally that is how playwriting usually functions.

Miriam: Yeah.

Julia: You write them, they’re supposed to seduce somebody on the page, but I think in a way I’m still sort of shocked that that could happen with one of mine. Because I think of them so much as bound to me and my collaborators and our immediate plans for them, so knowing that on the basis of just reading it, someone else could want to do it, and (children crying) want to do a really good job of doing it. It’s sort of reassuring.

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Julia Jarcho is a playwright, director, and scholar, and the artistic director of the company Minor Theater. Productions include The Terrifying (Minor Theater/Abrons Arts Center, 2017), Every Angel is Brutal (Clubbed Thumb, 2016), Dreamless Land (New York City Players, 2011),  American Treasure (13P, 2009), and Grimly Handsome (Incubator, 2013), which won an Obie Award for Best New American Play. Publications include Writing and the Modern Stage: Theater Beyond Drama (Cambridge University Press, 2017), Minor Theater: Three Plays (53rd State Press, 2017), and essays in Critical Inquiry and Modern Drama. She is an Assistant Professor of English at NYU.