Great ideas begin in the bathroom. For Kirk Lynn, the playwright in residence for the Austin, Texas, theater company the Rude Mechs (formerly the Rude Mechanicals), the W.C. was where he kept his copy of Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, cultural critic Greil Marcus's 1989 exploration of the links between subversive cultural movements like dada, punk rock, situationism, gnosticism, and lots more.
"It's the kind of book that's great to dip into, because you can just read parts of it at random," Lynn explains of the book's exalted station, speaking over the phone from his Austin home. In 1998 the Rude Mechs decided to turn Lipstick Traces into a play, forcing a slightly more disciplined, cover-to-cover study of the text. Lynn says, "We finished reading the book only after we decided we'd do it onstage."
The stage version of Lipstick Traces, which the Rude Mechs will perform Thursday, January 17 through Saturday, January 19 at the Walker Art Center, both distills and expands on Marcus's work. At one end Dr. Narrator (Lana Lesley), the play's learned emcee, rattles off "the 20th Century in four minutes and thirty seconds," over the yowl of an old Slits track--Marcus's expansive narrative style collapsed into a headlong charge the length of a pop song. At the other end, the play's re-creations of the Cabaret Voltaire (the Zurich nightclub that hosted dada's first incarnations) and Johnny Rotten's audition for the Sex Pistols (he mimes Alice Cooper's "Eighteen" as it plays on a jukebox) flesh out scenes that occur in the book as events in passing, objects of speculation.
Other moments, like the heart-stopping slow dance between Rotten and Catholic heretic John of Leyden--to the Orioles' "It's Too Soon to Know"--take Marcus's what if questioning to poetic extremes. In a similar spirit, the Rude Mechs put French situationist Guy Debord and dadaist Richard Huelsenbeck on the couch along with Lydon in a reenactment of a notorious talk-show appearance in which the Pistols scandalized England by saying "fuck" on national television.
"One of the things we struggled with is that there's so much in the book," says Lynn. "Like the [Paris] student riots in 1968: You can't have a riot with five people onstage without looking ridiculous. So we ended up referencing it instead. But part of the fun of reading Lipstick Traces is the wild leaps [Marcus] makes, and we wanted to have these historical actors actually talking to each other onstage. Like having Huelsenbeck and Debord on The Bill Grundy Show. Given the opportunity to get on TV, they wouldn't want to give a broad political statement that might get misinterpreted. They'd just want to say the word fuck. There's a mischievous streak that goes with that sort of intelligence."
That mischievousness is hardly lost on the book's author. "The most shocking thing was to see a 500-page book turned into a 70-minute comedy--and to find a spirit I'd always reached for, but never quite achieved, captured from beginning to end in a theatrical production," says Marcus via e-mail. "After I saw the play for the first time, in Austin, I told the director, Shawn Sides, that she'd staged the book I'd wanted to write."
Apparently the feeling is mutual. "After the first performance of the play, Greil and the cast were sitting around, and the conversation turned to stories about meeting really famous people," Lynn says. "Lana Lesley told this story of meeting Gloria Steinem as a young child, having a photograph of herself sitting on [Steinem's] lap. And Gavin Mundy, who played Guy Debord, told Greil, 'Well, meeting you is sort of like that.' And Greil, deadpan, looked him in the eye and said, 'Do you want to sit on my lap?'"