Performa 11 started Nov. 1, 2011 by staging a play, a reworking of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days by collaborators Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset at NYU’s Skirball Center. Joseph Fiennes and Charles Edwards play, respectively, Dragset (“ID”) and Elmgreen (“ME”), and are experienced actors in TV, film, and stage. Toby Frow, who has worked at the Donmar Warehouse, the National Theatre, and in the West End, directs the play.
Performa describes the play as a “Beckett-esque self-portrait.” Indeed, ID and ME wake up at the start of the play and don’t know where they are or why they are apparently trapped in a down-market hotel or youth hostel. They complain about the substandard conditions of their confinement and look for an escape route. They ask, portentously, “Who are we and how do we move on from here?”
The program notes say that the work “draws references from Samuel Beckett’s seminal plays Happy Days (1961) and Waiting for Godot (1953).” The relationship to Happy Days is slim to none, though some winks at Godot are recognizable—we leave the characters waiting for someone who might not show up. If any Beckett play, it’s most like End Game, or really Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. The resemblance is tenuous in any case, unless these plays are reduced to a situation in which people are trapped or lost. The Beckett reference feels like borrowed glory, mere nostalgia for canonized midcentury modern theater that grappled with desolation and apocalypse at the dawn of the atomic age.
Elmgreen and Dragset credit Tim Etchells as “script advisor and additional material.” Etchells is an experimental British playwright of some fame whose work is Beckettian, not Beckett-esque. His work is mocking and meandering but can really get under the skin, and prick at latent feelings of abjection, loneliness, the inability to communicate, futility. Happy Days in the Art World is a self-referential view of international art stars. These characters have been traveling for such a long, unspecified time period that their surroundings have become a blur of luxury hotel rooms. Art, in this scenario, is a con game, in which they scheme to maintain their art world profile and elevated standard of living. ME dreams at the start of the play that someone gives the duo a barrel of money in exchange everything in their studio. At the end of the play, when the duo receives a message that a high-profile curator is coming, they panic because they don’t have any work. They accidentally adjust the bunk bed so that it gains a surreal aspect and they’ve got their new piece.
The play is funny, but not funny enough, and the Beckett “reference” has nowhere to go since the play is a festival of narcissism and self-mockery. We get some laughs with pop culture names (Mike Tyson, Lil Wayne, OJ Simpson, Starsky and Hutch) and sarcastic references to theorists (Foucault, Derrida and Rancière). Though its jokes include one directed at the coded language of the art world, the play indulges in its own art-celebrity namedropping (Klaus Biesenbach anyone?). The point of the joke is to criticize the in-group, but the play’s only pathos is predicated on how well-connected and successful the real-life Elmgreen and Dragset are.
It is often said that theater is about relationships, and this is where Happy Days in the Art World shortchanges its actors and its audience the most. The text only hints at what one might imagine is real personal drama between the collaborators, who have worked together for 15 years but given up being lovers. It lapses readily back into stereotyped figures and jokes, in lieu of deeper emotions or revealing too much about themselves.
Online, you can watch the trailer for Elmgreen and Dragset’s Drama Queens, a play also co-written with Etchells and presented at Skulptur Projekte Münster 07 and in Paris, London and Basel, which shows a clever use of robot/sculptures and boasts some snappy dialogue. Drama Queens, like the pair’s Happy Days, is also an art insider’s joke, but with more humor.
Elmgreen and Dragset are credited with the unimaginative set (bunk beds and a large exit sign) and costumes (standard issue dark suits, white shirts, skinny ties). There’s a nice bit where Fiennes is sitting on a vibrating phone, and the theater comes alive for a few minutes. He’s freed from the plodding script and lets himself go, pleasurably milking the physical action and the feedback from the audience.
The play gives the actors some stage business about sharing one pair of shoes and chewing buttons because there’s no food. They run around and climb on the beds. It feels ever more forced and emotionally disconnected, which makes the arrival by helicopter of Kim Criswell as a FedEx delivery person welcome relief for everybody. She’s a classic “third-act wonder” and her crazy monologue fits her character as tightly as her uniform. She immediately overshadows the other actors and everything that preceded her. Criswell belts the U2 song “One” with conviction-perhaps too much. The rest of the play pales in comparison.