Richard Maxwell is a playwright and director who expresses an aversion to acting but believes in the limitless power of the theater. A maverick even in the world of the experimental, his much-debated vernacular approach is a peculiar contrast of style and animus. He has developed an extreme form of neutrality for the stage: performers speak lines almost as if they were recitations, without discernible pacing or intent, and employ little to no blocking or movement. Sets are generally minimal, consisting of perhaps a few chairs (Showy Lady Slipper, 1999), a drum kit (Drummer Wanted, 2001), or a white wall (House, 1998).
Maxwell’s anti-aesthetic recalls the Beckettian quality of “nothing happens, twice” and prefers that its action be undistorted by manifest theatricality. Free of emotional overlay, the text asserts its primacy. The flat delivery leaves both the actors and the language so exposed that each utterance is like a weapon, no matter how innocuous (“You can find something beautiful. You can find it”). Maxwell often uses amateur actors, partly because of his affection for “bad acting,” but mainly for the artless performance vocabulary they can engender.
Although never overt, Maxwell’s Midwestern roots are echoed in the treatment of his primary subject matter, American life in all its banal glory. The painstaking nonverisimilitude of his plays routinely conjures a (sub)urban pastoralism full of humor, tenderness, and longing. These common threads remain true, even when the driving incidents don’t. The Walker Art Center–commissioned Joe (2002) uses five actors to portray the same character at different ages; Burger King (1997) shows a glimpse of the politics of working life with the generic Manager and Food Handler; while House deals with murder in the family. In Boxing 2000 (2000), Maxwell’s Walker debut performance in 2002, the ring stands as a quiet symbol of endurance for two brothers and their familial existence. Circular conversations, fractured silences, and general absurdity permeate his works, yet never does one suspect lurking parody or satire. Instead, the result is a sophisticated rendering of the human condition laid bare. It remains up to the viewer to mine this raw territory for meaning.
In the early stages of his career, Maxwell has already built a body of work that is individual in spirit, rigorous in execution, and beholden to no one. His violent antipathy to artifice operates like a low rumble of white noise within this milieu—a constant, if unconscious, reminder to the audience to remain in the immediate moment.
- See Margot Ebling, “Flat Land,” Village Voice, November 17–23, 1998. Maxwell notes, “I’m not interested in the autobiographical, the personal, or the emotionally invested. I’m interested, as an audience member, in being able to project whatever I want onto a piece of theater… . It’s about resisting a point of view.”
- From Boxing 2000.
- Ebling, “Flat Land,” 140.
Diana Kim, “Richard Maxwell,” from Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections (New York: D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 2005), 379.