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I got yer duende

Hey, let's put on a show about Spain!


I'll leave it to my colleagues at the paper to review the performances in Spain, which opened last week at Actor's Express. I went to see a preview of Jim Knable's play because I have a lot in common with its protagonist. She's a woman in love with Spain, and Knable's text draws on hallucinatory images of that culture to tell the story of her marriage's breakdown.

The play will remind you somewhat of Christopher Durang's absurdist work. Durang's plays mercilessly savage the most cherished notions of American culture, especially pop psychology and spirituality.

As it happens, I first encountered Durang's work over 10 years ago at Actor's Express, when the company's brilliant founding artistic director, Chris Coleman, mounted a production of Laughing Wild. I had begun my own journey toward working in psychology at the time, and the play made me almost suffocate with laughter through its satirical but lovable depiction of a sad fact: Much of psychology is hocus-pocus that attempts, cruelly, to impose a very arbitrary notion of the normal.

Spain questions the normal, too. But it parades every stereotypical image of that nation's culture and milks each without ever significantly penetrating its meaning. James Hillman said every image contains a god. Carl Jung said the gods have become diseases. Marshall McLuhan said they had become cliches. In Spain, these images, these gods of the imagination, are never fully released from these boxes to do their work. Whereas Durang realizes that the imagination is more real than reality, Knable does not. He is the author who interrupts his own dream to say, earnestly, "But this is only a dream!"

This matters to me because it was in Andalusia, southern Spain, that I began to feel freer than I'd ever felt in my life. The first time I saw a performance of flamenco, which is hideously represented in Spain, I felt every cell in my body awaken. What shot through me was what the Spanish call duende, elaborated most famously in Federico Garcia Lorca's essay, "Play and Theory of the Duende."

Knable's play makes much of duende. It is an off-stage presence that we are told is the main character. "I don't know what duende is," someone told me in the drink line during intermission, "but I have the feeling when it shows up, this play will start to make sense." When it does show up, it is -- with astonishing inaccuracy -- evoked by a priestly figure, and it's wearing a costume that resembles the Grim Reaper's.

I cite inaccuracy because Lorca makes much of the difference between the angel and duende. The angel, suggested by the priest, moves up. It spiritualizes. Duende moves down. It enters the body and, in Lorca's view, creates a wound, a reminder of death that never heals. Knable is right to cite duende's relationship to death. But his rendering of it in terms of the protagonist's knife attack on her husband is gross trivialization. It is equating a ritual of sacrifice with domestic violence.

In literal death, the duende's most conspicuous appearance is in the bullfight, a ritual that survives from the days of the Mithraic cult, which was early Christianity's most serious rival. Its principal ritual was the slaying of a bull, duplicating an act of the god Mithras, to signify victory over death and evil. (Arguably, Christianity duplicates the idea in the crucifixion, and one sees this in the obsessive fascination with the death of Jesus -- not his resurrection -- during Spain's holy week.) The point in the Mithraic cult was not life everlasting but a radical constellation of aliveness right now at the moment of the bull's death. That is what survives in the dance of matador and bull -- the struggle to stay conscious right now.

And it is the same with flamenco, which is often a dance with pain. In the face of a duende-filled flamenca, one sees how pain and pleasure meet one another -- just as one sees it in El Greco's paintings of the crucified Jesus or Goya's remarkable paintings of cannibalism, of men and women clutching the corpses of their dead lovers.

Knable misses this dimension of duende. Duende is not some cool psychospiritual notion that one evokes to explain away domestic violence. Its evocation is only appropriate in a ritual container. But the play -- and this is my principal criticism -- demonstrates with un-self-conscious irony what is so wrong with so much American culture. The play's primary figure is a hallucinated conquistador, a figure who represents the damage done by colonialism in its appropriation and corruption of other cultures. And that is exactly what this play does: Lacking self-reflection, it appropriates the images of Spain and turns them into empty American cliches without even a minimal effort to liberate their meaning.

Duende -- a principle that even the Spanish won't talk about much now because it has become so trivialized -- taught me that one must abandon the normal to dance, furiously or lovingly, with pain instead of trying to eliminate it. Duende keeps knowledge of one's death close. And it thus makes life sweeter, love more intoxicating. Duende is psychology without bullshit.

Cliff Bostock's website is

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