Identity in Distress
Anne Carson’s latest work, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, is a play commissioned to open New York City’s newest theater, the Shed. Carson is known for weaving works of classical literature and elements of classical linguistics into her poetry, a motif she takes even further in the play. Norma Jeane Baker of Troy consists of a series of discussions about ancient Greece, written as a poem about Helen of Troy, who is actually a cloud-based facsimile of Marilyn Monroe, the larger-than-life persona of Norma Jeane Baker (born Norma Jeane Mortenson). The nesting of metatextual layers of the play, centered around one of the 20th century’s most famous celebrities, calls attention to the nature of identity itself, as well as the catalyzing role of women in mythmaking.
Poetry in Disguise
Readers will quickly notice that this play,as it is written, does not look like a play. There’s no obvious dialogue, no set descriptions and stage directions are sparse, generally only noted at the beginning and the end of a scene. Instead of acts, the play is divided by “lessons” in classical linguistics which Carson uses to frame and contextualize the narrative. The rest of the staging is embedded in the text of the play, as if Norma Jeane is aware she is supposed to be performing and, armed with this knowledge, chooses to also direct her own play. When she’s about to begin an aside, she says, “here’s an aside,” and when another character enters the stage, she says, “Surprise! / Enter Arthur.” She treats the fourth wall as a disguise, and addresses the face behind it (ours, as the reader) directly.
The Medium is the Message
While playmaking and poetry have always been closely linked, Carson chooses to erase the linkage and simply write the play as poetry. The ladderlike lines of dialogue that comprise the bulk of the play become heavily enjambed poetic stanzas. Most scenes are followed with a “lesson” about an ancient Greek word or phrase. This staging serves two purposes. First, a well placed break can make a line vulnerable to different meanings. As we first meet Norma Jeane she says:
The play is a tragedy. Watch closely now
how I save it from sorrow.
Six lines in, this tells us that our protagonist will rescue the tragic play from its own tragedy. But why split the line between “watch closely now” and “how I save it from sorrow”? Moving “how” to the beginning of its own line casts it in a new light, and the boast sounds more like a question: “how do I save it from sorrow?” (reminding the reader to “watch closely” as this happens is an added bonus). These moments abound in the pages of the play, and their presence lends itself to the larger way in which Carson uses poetic discourse to investigate its themes. Instead of being definitive, that is, providing an answer, Carson chooses to be discursive, using the presentation of the narrative itself to make a point.
The second effect of her poetic language is to force the reader to question the nature of the text itself. Is this line being said out loud? Who is talking right now? Who is presenting these discussions about ancient Greek? As the reader questions the identity of the play, we also question the identity of the protagonist.
Is Norma Jeane Baker Helen of Troy, or is this a new person altogether? Heck, is Norma Jeane Baker even Marilyn Monroe, or is Monroe somebody else entirely? When a play is a poem and a poem is a series of linguistics lessons, our normal right to expect clear representations of identity go out the window.
Looking Closely at Who isn’t There
Of course, several of these questions could be answered by seeing the play. It ran between April and May of this year, so your chances of seeing it on stage are slim. Anne Carson knew that most readers will never see it, and she still chose to leave much ambiguity for the reader. While this reviewer chose to examine the metatextual elements of the play, its narrative focuses on the role of women (often young girls) in the making of myths. They’re stolen and sacrificed so their absence can spur men to heroism.
While women often vanish in the text, the effect they have on the world around them grows, and like the clouds that grace the play’s front and back cover, they become both immense and unreachable. By forcing us to continuously question who is who and what is what, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy embodies this paradox and makes it the focus of our attention.