Pils Slip

By John Greyson

fig-trees-john-greyson.jpgFig Trees, 2009

The work to be done: how experimental opera can help in the resistance

For a couple of decades, I’ve worked in a bunch of modes: agit-prop video, a bit of doc, 35mm narrative, experimental digi-features, installations. Beyond a common base of queer content, and a healthy dose of humour, the works have often included some overt musical element, often in the form of song (this from a frustrated shower-warbler who never got past grade 3 piano, who breaks out in a rash at the mere mention of Barbra, Celine or Sondheim musicals, and whose sole vocal glory was as a 13-year-old in my grade-school’s Pirates of Penzance).

Nevertheless, I’ve always been fascinated by what happens to an audience when an actor bursts into song, how we listen in a different way when content becomes reconfigured by a melody, how sung words simultaneously distance us and draw us closer, making the emotions both more stylized and more heartfelt, appealing to a sensuality transcendent of naturalism.  

In 1992, at the height of ACT UP’s war against indifferent Western governments and profit-driven pharmaceutical companies (bla bla bla), I wrote and directed the feature film musical Zero Patience. At the time, there were only earnest four-hanky Early Frost-ish melodramas being made about the pandemic. I wanted to create something that paid tribute to the spirit of the PLWAs I knew: feisty, furious, stylish, wicked, fearful and fearless, fighting for their lives.

My methodology was somewhat obscure. I came up with a story concerning the attempts of Victorian explorer and sexologist Sir Richard Burton (mysteriously still alive and working for Toronto’s Natural History Museum) to clear the name of Patient Zero, the Air Canada flight attendant wrongfully accused of bringing AIDS to North America. Production numbers included: an African Green Monkey bursting out of her diorama to wail about contagion; a Busby Berkeley-inspired bloodstream of synchronized T-cells battling HIV and other STDs; and the buttholes of Burton and Zero Socratically debating the dangers and joys of anal sex. Composer Glenn Schellenberg and I riffed through the idioms of late-eighties queer indie pop to write our songs: Morrissey, B-52s, 10,000 Maniacs, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure. Our aim was to take the fluffy, discredited genre of the movie musical and fill it up with the urgent take-no-prisoners content/aesthetic of an ACT UP demo.

A decade later: I found myself in Cape Town, co-directing a trilingual/binational/botanical/ sodomitical/nobudgie/co-pro called Proteus with South African director Jack Lewis. His housemate Zackie Achmat was the founder of Treatment Action Campaign, a national activist group of PLWAs fighting for equal and affordable access to anti-retroviral drugs. Faced with the ethical dilemma of being able to afford ARVs when so many of his fellow comrades couldn’t, he quietly went on a treatment strike, refusing to take his pills until they were widely available to all South Africans. The media caught wind, and his strike became first a national, and then an international news sensation. Zackie faced a new dilemma: without his ARVs, he might get sick to the point where he couldn’t lead the movement; yet his action was not just a principled stand, but an undeniably powerful mobilizing tool for TAC, a symbol of individual sacrifice that inspired people across political and cultural divides.

We teased him: “You better watch it, Zacks, before you know it the media are gonna start treating you like a martyr – start calling you St. Zackie of the Protease Inhibitors! Worse, someone’ll write an opera!” And then I thought: what a good idea.  

Just as Zero has used the ultra-discredited genre of the musical to create an against-the-grain portrait of ACT UP, so (I thought) the ultra-elitist form of 20th century modernist opera might be counter-intuitively recruited to represent the struggles of TAC.

In fact, pal/composer Dave Wall and I had already batted around a bunch of ideas in the video-opera vein, wanting to respond to global agendas of the pandemic. We’d initially bonded over a shared fascination with Four Saints in Three Acts, the 1932 Gertrude Stein / Virgil Thomson opera that remains such a problematic cornerstone of the American avant-garde. Much of its lore became the stuff of Steinish legend: the nonsense libretto about St. Teresa of Avila and St. Ignatius of Loyola; the catch-phrases like ‘pigeons on the grass, alas’; the all-queer creative team, including choreographer Frederick Ashton; the all-black cast playing all-white saints, drawn from Harlem choirs; the cellophane sets. We wondered about all the questions our 21st century sensibilities demanded of this classic modernist work. Why was a queer Jewish artist writing about celibate Catholic saints? Why Black singers to represent Spanish saints? Why a nonsense libretto on the eve of Fascism sweeping Europe and the Spanish Civil War?

In this Post-Identity New Millennial Moment, we know full well how clunky these questions sound. Our point is not to be judgemental/reductive, but the opposite: to try for a moment to step inside all their impossibly complex subjectivities of 1932, imagining their many world(s) as they came together to get saintly.

So… with TAC as our muse, Dave and I brainstormed an opera that was a contrapuntal mirror image of the original Stein/Thomson source. Instead of nonsense, a libretto constructed from the actual words of TAC’s struggles (but composed using various ‘game’-principles of 20th century composition). Instead of a black cast arbitrarily portraying mythic European saints, a black (and white) cast portraying real living and dead black (and white) characters. Instead of cellophane sets, video cameras shooting on location. Instead of a languorous heaven, an urgent earth. Instead of saints, martyrs.

What led us here was a familiar problematic: the trope of the all-too-familiar martyr narrative which so often monopolizes Western responses to African struggles. We chose to write an opera about the lures and limits of martyrdom within an activist paradigm, and equally, to write about the tradition of the tragic plague-stricken hero/ine (think Mimi, Violetta, Ashenbach, Zackie) who sings his/her most heart-rending aria seconds before collapsing on the final curtain deathbed. Except: in the case of our Fig Trees, the narrative follows TAC through a succession of hard-won victories against the pharmaceuticals and government, culminating in the national roll-out of ARVs for PLWAs, the pre-condition for Zackie ending his strike. Which he does – and by taking his pills, and getting better, he disqualifies himself from tragic operatic immortality (thus causing Gertrude to have a hissy fit.)

Fig Trees was originally presented as a series of eight video installations in successive galleries at Oakville Art Galleries (just outside of Toronto) in late Fall 2003. Viewers walked from room to room, an ‘opera’ program in hand, experiencing scenes that were variously presented on monitors, staircases, floor projections, the plates of a sushi counter, the dashboard of a mini-van, and up a grand staircase. Each installation turned on a set of structural and compositional games (singing backwards, artificially slowing/speeding up/motets for 22 voices/playing scores upside down and backwards) which Dave and I designed specifically for the medium of video installation, scenes which could never be staged, or experienced, as live opera.

We’re in the process now of adapting the existing eight, and writing an additional eight, (along with interweaving documentary interviews and myriad visual/dramatic sequences), to create an expanded, hybrid Fig Trees: The Feature. The new scenes will address TAC struggles with the government over the rollout of ARVs, Zackie’s Nobel Prize nomination (as he likes to claim, “the first Publically Acknowledged Former-Male-Hustler Laureate Nominate”), the role of Canada in legalizing generic ARVs for hard-hit countries, and the ongoing battles against the AIDS denialists (hello, Mr. President) who prescribe lemon and garlic as cures for HIV.

The following scene from Fig Trees was presented in Oakville in a dark rectangular room. The two facing walls were filled with projections, one of Zackie, the other of Judge Edwin Cameron. A light box ran the length of the room, connecting the two screens. On it was printed a musical staff, with the words and notes of Pils Slip. A three-foot tall jar of pills sat in the Victorian fireplace.

In the film, the screen will be split equally between Zackie and Edwin and their mirror image versions of this aria.



In which Zackie Achmat and Judge Edwin Cameron illegally import the generic drug Biozole from Thailand, and suffer private doubts about their pills 

St. Teresa of Avila, the patron saint of headaches, lacemakers and common sense, consults a sundial in a fig orchard. Exactly half her face is shown on screen and mirrored, a perfect visual palindrome.

The last perfect palindromic minute
of the Roman calendar
will occur at two minutes past eight on the
evening of February 20,
in the year 2002.
In fact, tonight.
In numeric form,
this perfect palindrome
will be expressed as
20:02, 20/02/2002.
There is no further possibility
for a perfect palindromic minute
within the Roman calendar.
20:02, 20/02/2002
is the final one.

Edwin Cameron at the Johannesburg train station stares in the toilet mirror, holding his twice-daily dose of ARVs in his hand. He’s a Judge of the Constitutional Court and is there to meet Zackie. He has taken anti-retrovirals for three years, and while his t-cells have tripled and his viral load has decreased, he’s conscious of the side-effects: sunken cheeks, bloated liver, daily bouts of diarrhoeas.

A mile outside of Jo’burg, his train from Thailand slowing for arrival, Zackie Achmat stares in the toilet mirror. He considers taking his pills, ending his treatment strike. Strapped to his body in plastic wrap are 10,000 capsules of biozole, a safe, effective and low-cost generic form of the AIDS treatment drug Fluconazole. TAC had decided to illegally import biozole, and distribute it directly to South Africans who need it. Zackie volunteered for the mission, knowing that if he was caught it could mean charges and jail time.

At the very commencement of the last palidromic minute, 20:02, 20/02/2002, in their respective toilets, there is a loud train whistle, and Edwin and Zackie both accidentally drop their pills. Bending to pick them up, both black out, falling to their floors. Unconscious, they dream they are in a narrow brick passageway, facing each other, wearing striped pyjamas. A tiny train runs along the passageway, carrying cars of pills back and forth.

In their dream, for the duration of the perfect palindromic minute, they sing a perfect musical palindrome, with both the words and notes forming a perfect mirror image of each other. As they sing, they traverse the length of the passageway, passing each other in the middle.

Pils slip, pils on no lips,
lips name no devil.
Pils did I live, never odd or even.
No devil is as selfless as I lived on.
In girum imus nocte.
Are we not drawn onward, we few?
Drawn onward to new era?
Et consumimur igni.
No devil is as selfless as I lived on.
Never odd or even, evil I did slip.
Lived one man spil,
Spil on no slip, pils slip.

Another shrill train whistle. They come to, and find themselves standing in their respective toilets, the pills back in their hands. For a second, they imagine they can see each other in their mirror reflections. Edwin shrugs, takes his pills with a gulp of water. Zackie considers, then, with a wry smile, dumps them in the toilet bowl. Not yet. He’ll continue his treatment strike for a while longer.

He exits the train, shows his passport briefly at customs, passes through the Nothing-To-Declare line and enters the terminal. Edwin embraces him with relief. Zackie’s body makes a funny crinkly sound, and they both break apart, and then burst out laughing – it’s the plastic packaging of the biozole.

John Greyson is a Toronto-based film/video artist whose titles include Proteus, Lilies, Zero Patience and The Law of Enclosures.