[David Kramer holding the playbill and attempting the yoga lotus position. Photo: Ed Wiltse. SEE THE GEVA SERIES AT END]
Last week, I was accompanied at Geva’s production of Yoga Play with neighbor Ed Wiltse, professor of literature and film at Nazareth College whose critical insights inform my reading of the play. Ed is also well versed in Frederic Jameson’s neo-Marxist The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981) that also informs my reading of Yoga Play.¹
At the risk of boring the reader, I first used a Jamesonian analysis in Parasite at The Little: What would Frederic Jameson see? about the award winning film.
In simplified terms, Jameson asserts the priority of ideological analysis or political interpretation (“The Political Unconscious”) of cultural narratives (“Socially Symbolic Acts”). Literature – and film – functions by creating imaginary solutions to real social problems.
The problems to be solved are the social contradictions between the owners of capital and those exploited by capital. The imaginary solutions work by raising a social anxiety – a potential disrupting element — then relieving, suppressing, dispelling or containing the disruption.
In Slow Food at Geva: More neo-Marxist fun , I attempted another neo-Marxist interpretation.
Fundamentally, as explained in “Parasite“, Jameson posits that many literary texts — especially ones in the dominant discourse — work by first revealing real ideological or social anxieties or tensions. Ultimately, the anxieties or tensions are suppressed or accommodated. In vulgar — but apt — Marxist terms, the couple (Irene and Peter) are socially symbolic figures of “the bourgeoisie,” while the waiter (Stephen) — who earns his livelihood serving the bourgeois — represents “the proletariat.” Perhaps tellingly, the playbill does not note Stephen’s first name, only referring to him as “The Waiter.”
Within the fictive universe of the play, Stephen — intruding upon the couple — becomes the site of potentially destabilizing, subverting or threatening anxiety as he disturbs their expectations of a vacation meal at an upscale Greek restaurant in Palm Springs. Roles are reversed and Stephen lords it over the couple who are at his mercy as they anticipate food that does not come.
Finally, order is restored. Peter decides to loan Stephen money for a restaurant, making Stephen an honorary bourgeoise, although several rungs beneath Peter, now his benefactor.
Yoga Play is a comedy but also addresses serious issues, such as child labor, @Metoo, homophobia, the glass ceiling for women executives, fat shaming, racism against Asians and Indian-Americans, the soullessness of capitalism, the greed of the managerial class, and how spirituality becomes a profitable commodity. As Geva’s Executive Leaders Mark Cuddy and Chris Manelli say, comedies like Yoga Play are rare, writing that “the 1930s and 1940s birthed fast-talking comedies, but contemporary stage comedies are narrow in their comedic arc, leaving any commentary to stand-up comedians.”
While I admire the ambition of writer Diprik Guha, I agreed with Ed that, while the acting was very deft — as is always the case at Geva — the play tackled too many themes, leading to an outcome that Ed saw as “incoherent” in its multiplicity.
Stock broker and former local actor Bob Katz, concurred with Ed that the play lacked focus, saying the script felt all over the place.
The play has finished its run so I can gave a full account.
In the opening scene, a New Agey John (played by Christopher Gurr) is holding a zoom meeting with his top executives. While written before the covid pandemic, the scene reminds us of the days of home quarantine.
John runs the profitable Jojomom Inc. that sells yoga merchandise. In John’s mind, he is also selling capitalism with a spiritual face; John’s mantra is authenticity. He demands his team call customers and staff “family.” Products are not marketed but “authenticated.” Employees (I mean family) are encouraged to practice yoga, doing so begrudgingly. Employees (I mean family) are given time each day to tell about their dreams the night before. Ed described John as “entertainingly awful.”
After the meeting, John drops off the grid for 4 weeks, perhaps meditating in nature. His absence coincides with an episode ripe for Jamesonian analysis. The firm (I mean famly) has opened a factory in Bangladesh and becomes enmeshed in a highly publicized child labor scandal. Its stock price plummets and its customers (I mean family) are outraged. The company (I mean family) that prides itself on authenticity is now called “fake.”
Jameson might see the crisis as the central anxiety raised by the play; the anxiety that capitalism might not be a force for good or enlightenment.
However, following the Jamesonian script, order is restored; capitalism is saved. One executive goes on tv pretending to be a yoga guru defending the company (I mean family). Suddenly, the executive “goes rogue” when he tells viewers that to be happy, they should not buy things. In a Jamesonian imaginary solution, the counterintuitive approach works: stock prices soar and the company is better than ever. As Ed says, the executives win.
Afterwards, the characters seem to find some “real” authenticity. One seeks love; another becomes more open about his gayness; another seeks friendship with her secretary. Ed is dubious that we are to see the characters having genuine epiphanies.
Most significantly, the three executives get raises. Jameson might say their seeming discovery of authenticity glosses over that the play drops the theme of the abuses of child labor. The children of Bangladesh, forced to work at age 12, are forgotten. They get lost in the comedy and social satire about faux authenticity. At closure, we see no systemic means by which capitalism can rectify its wrongs. It is business as usual in the political unconscious of Yoga Play.
¹Ed has a humorous Jamesonian story. When Ed was in grad school, he gave a talk at a Marxist conference. To Ed’s surprise, if not dismay, the great man of letters came to Ed’s session. Jameson lived up to his reputation for asking good questions and offering a generosity of time for younger scholars.
My experience is pure chagrin. When I was a graduate student at the University of Rhode Island, Jameson gave a lecture on contemporary film. He kindly signed my copy of The Political Unconscious. We discussed his theories. Actually, Jameson said that over time, his conceptual framework grows left effective. He joked that we need neo-neo Marxism. When I went to retrieve my copy for Parasite, it was lost. Unconscionable. I had to borrow a copy from the University of Rochester.
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