Past the blank horizon

Timothy Leary, the 1960s prophet of psychedelic self-transformation, saw parallels between seekers of enlightenment and seekers of oblivion. I forget where, perhaps in the introduction to The Psychedelic Experience, he observes that the sanyasi and the addict both seek the means to detach their consciousness from the continual demands of the material, to find peace, to still the unceasing chatter of their minds, and that ultimately, both seek death. Addiction (which is also to say, death) has stood beside and a little behind me, an indistinct figure in my peripheral vision, for much of my life. It is a small miracle that, despite the careless enthusiasm of my youth for any and all psychoactive substances, I never developed a neurochemical dependency on any of them – and it is a stroke of good luck that I wasn’t offered heroin on more than a handful of occasions. I was given methadone by an addict I was friendly with, and I enjoyed it, but the opportunity for its use to become habitual never arose, and my very occasional pursuit of analgesic contrails along folded strips of foil did not develop, as it sadly did for several of my friends, into an all-consuming passion.

Perhaps it was because I had read Leary, and understood that there were ways to systematically refuse the demands of the material that did not require my total abjection. I did not become dedicated to the practice of meditation, but I came to see myself as some kind of spiritual seeker, rather than a simple refugee from whatever it is that puts us refuseniks to flight. Such a self-image is an absolute privilege, available only to those with the social and educational capital to put their lives into some kind of meaningful context, irrespective of how alienated the moment to moment experience of living might be. The Uninvited Party’s play Pick Up is a brave and impassioned attempt to represent that experience, as it is lived by those without that privilege, those who lack the resources to seek anything other than oblivion.

I knew addicts in my youth. Old addicts that had ridden the mainline for decades. Young addicts that had not yet noticed they were lying in the gutter. Broken addicts, without hope or respect. Smart addicts, with jobs and families. Angry addicts, snarling and raging at the world. Charismatic addicts, winking at you as they sauntered towards nullity. Some were my friends, among the most intelligent people I’ve known, and when they knew their next fix was secure, among the most generous. They were as different and as particular as anybody else, but when the chips were down they all presented the same face to the world, that of an undying insatiable need, a hole so deep that it could never be filled. One of the great strengths of Pick Up is that it insists on restoring that particularity, on seeing past the blank, terrifying horizon of the addiction, to the addict.

The consequence of that recuperation is an almost unbearable pathos – a far from inevitable consequence, given that it depends entirely on the success of the performance. But The Uninvited Party, who write and perform as a single collaborative unit, find their way between the bald biography of their addicts, the subjective affect which they are so inventive in representing bodily, and the audio testimony of real addicts which is included in the show, to a ground on which their audience can encounter the dope-fiend as a fellow subject, a person conjecturally as real as themselves, albeit that the addicts they perform for us are fictional ones. To reify such imagined lives  in such a short space of time, with only the resources of their voices, their bodies, and some audio playback, is an ambitious project.

At times it felt precarious, especially at the outset, before it was clear what kind of narrative we were to experience, or how it was to be relayed – and throughout the performance there were transitions from the language of speech to less denotational codes of bodily representation, which risked depositing the audience on the riverbank while the four-strong company raced away through the rapids. For me, the potentially disparate parts of the edifice came together early on, in a scene set in a club: the cast hold a blanket between them, apparently standing for the sociality of their night out, then fling a white powder onto it, before flinging both blanket and powder to the ceiling, and then launch into a frenzy of overlapping dialogue, fuelled by the drugs we are to understand they’ve just taken. This dialogue was delivered with such conviction, and so perfectly reproduced the tenor of the enthusiastic ranting that dance drugs can induce that I was immediately transported to the dramatic setting – or to some version of the many loud, ill-lit spaces in which I have experienced such conversation myself.

As for the precarity that might be felt as the play moves between semantic and plastic performance, between dialogue and physical theatre, I took that as a strength. It may well be difficult for the audience to adjust rapidly from a conventional dramaturgy to one in which the shapes and movements of bodies stand for things that words cannot; but that difficulty is kind of the point. The domain of words and reasons, the continual chatter that both the meditator and the binge-drinker aspire to exclude, can only afford a partial representation of their experience, and while there are various ways to navigate this aporia (c.f.  William S. Burroughs’s Junky, Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting), I feel that The Uninvited Party chose their methods well, knowing their own strengths in performance. To develop these themes and this affective narrative through a predominantly verbal technique would have been time-consuming in the extreme, but if the audience is willing to work hard with the cast, Pick Up offers access to  meanings that are not obvious, and not readily accessible to anyone without direct experience. There is a great difficulty, and a great precarity, in the addict’s own transitions between the verbal and the gnostic, and many things they can only express bodily – even if that is by anaesthetising their senses.

The lives of people who are gripped by addiction need to be known, to leave traces on the world. The causes of addiction are as complex and particular as any individual, but the impression that they leave no impression probably doesn’t discourage people from seeking solace in pharmacology. Like W.G. Sebald recovering the biographical details of the various characters his narrator brushes up against, or Michel Foucault trying to resurrect the inner life of the nineteenth-century French murderer Pierre Rivière, The Uninvited Party hold up the invisible lives of addicts and insist that they are human beings, in all their imperfection, in all their perfection. They communicate those frailties and sublimities with bodies heaving and writhing, barely able to contain the plenitude of meaning with which their performance is freighted, fully committed and fully equal to the enormous responsibility of conveying those lives that most will refuse to see. That addicts are also people may seem an obvious insight, but my own experience of talking to people about drugs and addiction makes it quite clear that the vast majority see only the needle and the damage done.

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