America Played Out: Fictive Dominance in Richard Maxwell’s Neutral Hero

  • Abstract:
    In Neutral Hero (The Kitchen, 2012), auteur writer/director Richard Maxwell of the NYC Players undertakes “the utterly impossible feat of portraying neutrality.” For an artist who has spent a career effacing the extraneous vocal and physical stylings of his performers, this endeavor is in one sense entirely of a piece with his peculiarly asymptotic larger project of banishing artifice from the stage. In another sense Neutral Hero reveals an interest in something else, an interest that may have been latent all along, in that indivisible remainder which no amount of diligent, arithmetical manipulation can eradicate. Much has been made of the unique performance equation implied by Maxwell’s trademark “deadpan” style. He adds by subtracting. Like a gallery of coloring-book plates, his work asks the spectator to complete the picture by shading in at will. By diffidently discouraging the spectator’s learned curiosity about what lies behind or beneath the words being spoken in the space, Maxwell has been praised for recalling us to presence. This is a reminder and an invitation we appreciate as contemporary theatergoers for numerous reasons, not least among them being the exhaustion setting in following a half century’s all-consuming skepticism about and scrutiny of language. Having assimilated the lessons of poststructuralism, namely that we humans are distinguished as the species that is “sick with language,” we presume language to pose the greatest challenge to identity, to the subject’s co-incidence with herself. In Maxwell’s most recent work, we neither recoil from language nor revert to its instrumental usage as an expression of unique identity. Rather, language works as the sheet thrown over the ghost of “identity,” localized presence, making its contours, if only fleetingly, visible once again. In this paper I will explore the new and optimistic proposition for “performing identity” introduced in Maxwell’s work leading up to and culminating in Neutral Hero.