36 Views Essay - Critical Essays

Criticism

Critical Essay on 36 Views

Naomi Iizuka’s play 36 Views takes its name from a series of woodblock prints by nineteenth-century Japanese artist Hokusai. The series is entitled 36 Views of Mount Fuji. Despite its title, the series consists of forty-six prints. Even before a character casts a single word, Iizuka, with her creative title, has foreshadowed that her play will be rich with questions concerning what is real and authentic.

The first half of act 1 is set at a party for a renowned, reclusive contemporary artist named Utagawa. The party is being held at Darius Wheeler’s loft space. Although the artist has yet to arrive, many people are mingling in Wheeler’s loft. Wheeler approaches Setsuko Hearn and their conversation quickly becomes philosophical. They are discussing beauty when Wheeler presents Hearn with a ninehundred- year-old jade figure. Wheeler holds the jade figure and states, ‘‘human touch, it alters the stone, there’s a kind of chemical reaction, it actually changes the color of the stone. With each touch it changes over time, almost imperceptible, impossible to replicate. Very old jade like this, it comes in these translucent colors I can’t describe, beautiful, unimaginably beautiful.’’ With subtlety, Wheeler has revealed that he views beauty as something in flux, something changing and, thus, impermanent. The jade is beautiful, and yet it is dynamic. Even though it is different with each touch, it is always beautiful. Wheeler is enamored and repulsed by this because he wants to be perceived as a philistine. Outwardly, he projects the image that he sees nothing but monetary value in the art that he deals. However, deep inside his soul, as shown in his love of his jade figure, Wheeler is truly drawn to the philosophical aesthetic in a thing.

Iizuka raises interesting questions as the characters in the play have conversations about the authenticity of art at Wheeler’s party. For example, Claire Tsong and Elizabeth Newman-Orr are having a conversation over several pieces in Wheeler’s loft space. As the two characters view an art object, Iizuka writes:

ELIZABETH NEWMAN-ORR: . . . . Real? CLAIRE TSONG: Iffy. ELIZABETH NEWMAN-ORR: It looks real. CLAIRE TSONG: Lots of things look real. . . . ELIZABETH NEWMAN-ORR: You sound like an expert. CLAIRE TSONG: It’s not about expertise. It’s all about the eye. ELIZABETH NEWMAN-ORR: The eye? That sounds so hoodoo. CLAIRE TSONG: It’s like it’s physical, you know. I’m talking about a physical sensation, an instinct. It is like there’s an invisible thread between you and this thing.

In this exchange, Iizuka builds into the fabric of the play a philosophical concept of human understanding: the relation between objects and perception as a construct of reality. Tsong’s ‘‘invisible thread’’ is an example of eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume’s theory of ideas and impressions. For Hume, impressions are ‘‘all our more lively perceptions, when we hear, or see, or feel, or love, or hate, or desire, or will.’’ Ideas, on the other hand, derive from impressions that occur in the mind. Hume states, ‘‘All ideas, especially abstract ones, are naturally faint and obscure: the mind has but a slender hold of them.’’ The ‘‘invisible thread’’ is the relation between an impression and an idea. Even though Newman-Orr thinks that Tsong’s ‘‘eye’’ sounds like hoodoo, it is actually quite reasonable. Tsong is able, through training and through paying special attention to her impressions, to organize her ideas to create a keen knowledge of authentic art objects.

What is more interesting, though, is what Tsong does with her understanding of authentic art. In the last half of the act 1, David Bell, compelled by some unseen force, lies to his boss, Wheeler, and fabricates a story about an ancient but recently discovered, eleventh-century pillow book. Amazingly, Wheeler believes Bell’s story. Suddenly, Bell is thrust into a conspiracy with Tsong. The two, with Tsong’s constant prodding, decide to construct the fake pillow book. For Bell, the fake artifact is a vessel for a story he has welling up inside his very being. As Bell tells Owen Matthiassen at the end of the play, ‘‘I don’t remember writing what I wrote. It’s like it was written by another person. . . . Maybe in a past life.’’ However for Tsong, the fake artifact is a way to actualize her feelings of contempt for the authentic.

Tsong is repeatedly frustrated by her work as a restorer. She struggles with her role in the restoration of artifacts because she sees them as ‘‘bric-abrac for the leisure class’’ and ‘‘just capital.’’...

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Navigating Alien Worlds: An Interview with the Playwright

[American Theatre]: What inspired 36 Views?

[Iizuka]: I became transfixed by the series of woodblock prints ‘‘36 Views of Mount Fuji’’ by [the 19th-century artist] Hokusai. It’s an intriguing work. Each print is a representation of the mountain from a different perspective, in different seasons. You see the mountain and the world around it, but in some of the prints the mountain is actually very difficult to make out. As I was writing the play, the question of authenticity—What is authentic? What is true or real?—became as mysterious and somehow omnipresent as the mountain in Hokusai’s study. That question, in some sense, became the mountain.

Why the wooden clappers?

The play has a lot of conventions from Kabuki theatre—like the wooden clappers. When I saw Kabuki for the first time, I thought it was one of the most exciting theatre-going experiences I’d ever had. It was so completely theatrical. When I began to do research, one of the things I found is that, unlike Noh, Kabuki—which is a newer and more secular tradition—has changed over time and has even seemed to welcome innovation. There was a kind of pliability and playfulness in Kabuki that seemed appropriate to the world of this play. I was really interested in figuring out how to take these structures that were non-Western and finding ways to synthesize them with Western forms.

The Kabuki allusions seem parallel to your use of literary sources in past plays, like Polaroid Stories, which drew on Ovid.

I think that with both Ovid and Kabuki theatre, I’m working with cultures that are, in different ways, foreign to me. Even though I am part Japanese, Kabuki is still remote to me, in the same way that, even though I grew up for the most part in a Western culture, Ovid is foreign to me. It’s ancient. It’s in a different language. It’s an alien life-form, in a way. I think the question becomes: How do you take these artifacts and find a connection to them. How do you create a new life for them?

How did the pillow book become part of the plot?

I came across Sei...

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Naomi Iizuka: Raising the Stakes: A Young Playwright Mixes the Lofty with the Lowly

There aren’t many young playwrights who name the Roman poet Catullus as one of their literary inspirations, along with Maria Irene Fornes and Adele Edling Shank. But for rising dramatist Naomi Iizuka, who avidly studied classical literature at Yale University, some ancient authors retain a bristling contemporary immediacy. And without any musty pretensions, she has enmeshed their archetypal visions into her own very singular, very up-to-date aesthetic.

Iizuka’s Polaroid Stories, a combustible portrait of homeless youth that premiered at the 1997 Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville, draws deeply on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. An earlier work, Carthage, presented by San Diego’s Theatre E...

(The entire section is 1265 words.)