Clockfire

Jonathan Ball

To date, this is only book of poetry that has ever fully enraptured me. Each poem book is structured as a stage play, yet the provided instructions quickly stymie any attempt at performance.

The titular play of the book comes from a wilful misinterpretation on the theories of dramatist Antonin Artaud about why people choose to attend theatrical productions: for “clock” to waste time, and “fire” for excitement. Artaud's “Theatre of Cruelty” was an offshoot of the surrealist art movement of the mid-01920's and was later an influence on the Theatre of the Absurd. It rejected the compositions of “masterpieces” as accomplices of power, instead relying on “cruel spectacles” to shock and horrify the audience's senses and reduce all human culture into something primordial. ... that may have been the intent, but by modern standards, Artaud's plays are terribly dated. Our sensibilities of what is or isn't appalling is subject to constant change over time, awash in the shifting tides of pejoration and amelioration. In that era, breaking the fourth wall was commonplace and lame, while controversial content became little more than a marketing tool. By today's standards, Ball proposed “Artaud would have to murder his audience to get the shock value he’d wanted.”

So he did exactly that.

Clockfire is a current-day reinterpretation of Artaud's once-forgotten dramatic theory, forced through a sieve of malicious compliance. Artaud's original manifesto for the Theatre of Cruelty called for “communion between actor and audience in a magic exorcism; gestures, sounds, unusual scenery, and lighting combine to form a language, superior to words, that can be used to subvert thought and logic and to shock the spectator into seeing the baseness of his world.” This communion between the two parties of the theatre is something Ball's plays makes explicit, as they do not tell stories between dramatic characters within their own worlds, but instead describe a series of bizarre undertakings between “the actors” and “the audience.” Theirs is an antagonistic and obsessive relationship, as they both want something from the theatre that it simply cannot give. Something that, by any reasonable sense, they should neither seek or desire; yet the show goes on all the same.

I first saw bits and pieces of it in an obscure literary magazine in my final year of high school, and the collection reached full publication about a year later. As an awestruck university undergrad enrolled in the dreadful study of mass media systems, this tiny book gave me a lot to ponder. The morbid construction of an ongoing battle between “the actors and audience” mirrored the same misgivings I had about my newfound professional field, as other types of theatre employed their own cruel spectacles, and usually for less-than-imaginary ends. Should I ever sustain multiple injuries of head trauma and decide that getting a doctorate in English Literature is suddenly a good idea, this book would be the subject of my thesis.


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