It’s Not About Soccer, and Other Musings

Last month I completed a draft over a draught: a rough go of chapter one of my dissertation, with the final words lubricated by a couple of brews at one of my favorite haunts. Having a drink was a nice way to commemorate a milestone that seemed a long ways off last summer, when, according to my approved timeline, I should have already had some pages in my pocket. That timeline was always more for show, anyway; what really matters is that I have something.

While my dissertation takes a wide angle view of performance, the first chapter is very much focused on traditional plays. In it, I examine two “soccer dramas” that center high-performing women and girls: Caridad Svich’s Guapa and Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves. Svich’s heroine Guapa, a young Latina woman living in a Texas border town, longs for an opportunity to test her futbol skills at a street tournament in Dallas. Despite seeming relatively straightforward, actually making the trip to that tournament presents a significant challenge to Guapa’s family: not only is taking their one junky car to Dallas a risk, but the prospect of success isn’t that promising. As Guapa’s guardian Roly is keen to remind her, even successful women, like Marta of Brazil, aren’t paid what they are worth. It takes a debilitating accident that robs Guapa of her ability to play to change Roly’s mind. To combat the after-effects of Guapa’s accident, which are exacerbated by trauma suffered at the hands of her step-father, the family rallies around her and uses futbol to facilitate her rehabilitation and set up a potentially fateful trip to Dallas. Despite the happy ending, the results of that tournament are ultimately left unresolved.

While Guapa focuses on a woman closely aligned with the Beautiful Game, The Wolves centers an all-girls indoor team focused on the labor of practice. The action of DeLappe’s funny, richly drawn ensemble piece unfolds in a series of warm-up sessions, during which the nine Wolves chatting about everything from post-genocidal justice to weird crushes. Their huddle is a new and intimidating environment for #46, an erstwhile world-traveler trying to fit in with a group that has been together for years. As #46 waits for her moment to shine, the other girls struggle to manage broken relationships, debilitating expectations, and the after-effects of injuries suffered on the pitch. Ultimately, the remnants of the team are forced to come together in the direst of circumstances when one of their number is struck and killed by a car. Rather than see them commemorate their fallen comrade with a win, the play ends with the team meditating on a cathartic pre-game chant and the tenuous unity they have forged.

Despite some obvious differences in their dramaturgy, these two plays share a number of qualities themes, including a nuanced depiction of success and failure. The ball-playing characters in each are driven to succeed yet constantly reminded of the limitations placed on them by the structure of the sport. Those limitations are often presented in stark contrast to the privilege afford male players, though in Guapa’s case it also includes her economic and social disadvantages. They also keep close ties to risk and mortality, Guapa through the injury suffered by its main character, an injury solved somewhat fantastically (and questionably) by a synthesis of her futboling prowess and spirituality; and The Wolves through the injuries suffered by the players, the global conflicts discussed in their huddle, and frequent mentions of the ways men dominate and take advantage of them. What I appreciate about these plays is that they problematize the “transcendent” narratives that privilege individual achievement and proffer sport as a way to “play your way” over material barriers. The barriers in these plays are quite real, which ultimately forces each set of characters, or at the very least the audience, to consider what they are meant to playing for. Then again, part of the problem, as I argue with help from other scholars, is the idea that play should have to do something at all. At some level, both of these soccer dramas trade on the idea that just getting to play and be part of a team has intrinsic value, even if that value has to be defined and contested.

Interestingly, both playwrights introduce published editions of their texts with long, thoughtful prefaces that distance soccer from their play’s essence. They literally say that their work is not about soccer as such, but about something else. Soccer is merely a vessel, a “prism,” as Svich says, for exploring these characters’ lives and the themes that undergird their stories. On the one hand, this assertion makes sense: after all, not a lot of play makes it onstage, save for The Wolves’ warm-up sessions and Guapa’s freestyling. Even the games that would conclude these characters’ journeys and seemingly validate their sacrifices are left unresolved, offstage, and out of the scope of the play. On the other hand, the idea that these plays are not “about” soccer yet are saturated in soccer suggests they are trading on assumptions about the sport – indeed, on what the sport itself can be “about”: beauty, creativity, empowerment, teamwork, pain and suffering, even symbolic violence. By simultaneously framing their plays with soccer but distancing the sport from their supposed essence, Svich and DeLappe open up opportunities to consider what it means to play – or at least, what it supposedly means to play. It’s this “meaning” that gets mobilized and challenged in the work I consider throughout the rest of the project, whether that means mythologizing a one-off historical event, maximizing a celebrity’s legacy, or cultivating political power through sport. At some level, the idea that these and other performances are not about soccer but something else furthers the notion, one commonly adhered to by fans and commentators all over the world, that soccer is “about” something more than itself.

Practicing the Art of Speculation

A few weeks ago I had the special pleasure of returning to a play after a long time away and finding that it didn’t stink to high heaven. I’ve been picking at it ever since, mostly in scratch scenes, of which I already had plenty. At some point I will need to make some choices to create a proper draft, but for now, I’m enjoying listening to my characters talk to me again. I’m also giving myself time to sharpen my speculation. The play is set in a near future where app users have the opportunity switch lives with other users – not science fiction, per se, but speculative fiction, a look at what our relationships with technology and the economy might produce next. This kind of writing has always interested me – I even wrote a short, 1984-inspired comedy that anticipated the rise of non-stop personal streaming, violence included – and it’s something the great works do really well. In fact, two stories I read this year demonstrated mastery of speculative fiction: Machinehood by S.B. Divya and the two-part Parable series by Octavia Butler (Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents). Divya’s book is part of the time-honored corpus of fiction that examines the boundaries between humanity and machines, but it also offers some striking speculation as to how that relationship might shape labor. In fact, the way people earn money, whether through minding machines or earning tips from an ever-present public watching them through swarms of cameras, was even more intriguing to me than the larger theme of “machinehood.” If Divya offers a look at what work could be, Butler, writing in the mid-1990s, portrayed a world eerily similar to the one we would inherit twenty years later. A crumbling environment and economy, a resurgence of fascists operating under the guise of religion, a pandemic of violence with global ramifications: it’s all there in grisly detail, albeit leavened by the heroine’s dream of taking her community to a better place in the stars.

It’s tempting to celebrate Butler for her foresight and test the validity of Divya’s predictions over the years, but what’s more important is recognizing that speculative fiction bases its version of the future on observations of the present. The rise of Donald Trump and the collapse of American infrastructure surprised a lot of well-placed and well-meaning liberals, but it did not surprise people accustomed to living on the margins. Keen observers like Butler saw some of this coming. Divya, meanwhile, is a trained engineer, someone who understands human and machine relationships in a way many others do not. She knows what she is talking about. For my part, I may not be an expert in lifestyle applications, but I am paying attention to how our relationships are evolving – not through technology as such but through the services technology supports. The app in my play isn’t a literal portal to another life; it’s a tool that helps consenting adults check and see if the grass really is greener on the other side. The systems that make that tool function, the hidden contracts and business commitments, are a significant interest to me, too. Ultimately, I have a sneaky feeling we may be set to turn even more of our personal lives over to some kind of management, perhaps with little appreciation for who (or what) is pulling the strings behind the scenes. Only time – and, maybe, some good speculative playwriting – will tell.

Being (with) the Beatles

Last year I hit upon a great way to fill the time while waiting for new arrivals from the library: gradually reading one very big, very dense book a chapter at a time! The best books for this purpose are the ones worth taking slowly or dog-earing for a second look. Last year’s was A History of God by Karen Armstrong (which, full disclosure, I finished earlier this year). This year’s was The Beatles by Bob Spitz, an 850-page (not including notes) beast that I just wrapped. It’s been on my shelf for years and it was worth the wait. Granted the criticism it has received (like all Beatles books), Spitz’s opus is beautifully written, complete with an in-depth look at each band member’s childhood and their early years together, not to mention a recounting of their greatest hits, on and off the charts. It was a fantastic reason to not only learn about the band but revisit their complete catalogue, which I got as a (rather expensive) birthday present years ago, before they were even on iTunes. In a way, it was like getting to know old friends.

Getting to know the Beatles meant learning more about their shortcomings and the many layers of performance that made them myths. I knew beforehand that the members of the band, John in particular, were not entirely like the mop-topped boys who kicked off the British invasion. They were competitive, even cutthroat at times; they were, by and large, woefully self-absorbed and inattentive to their mates, sometimes to the point of abuse; and they held certain prejudices of their time. In short, they were young, immature but driven guys who rose to untold heights in one of the fiercest, most exploitative industries there is. It’s no surprise that they weren’t actually nice. Of course, they were carefully cultivated for an audience that was evidently hungry for what they brought to the table. The clean-cut, besuited image they became famous for in the early 60s was the creation of their manager, Brian Epstein; before that, they were leather-clad rockers and rebels. Somehow, their new look made them global sensations and the object of then-unimaginable teen obsession, appropriately dubbed “Beatlemania” for the sheer, violent intensity of affection it prompted. Beatlemania became a prison for the Fab Four (one made all the more egregious by the shamefully exploitative licensing deals made on their behalves), so much so that they quit the stage and retreated to the studio. From there, they experimented not just with music but with themselves, hitting new conceptual heights with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album enabled by a colorful persona that allowed them to step outside of themselves. From there came the “discovery” of Indian spirituality, John’s creative frustrations nurtured by the much-maligned and misunderstood Yoko Ono, a medley of side projects, and a growing disillusionment with the band on everyone’s part. Being the Beatles, whatever that meant, was eventually too much, especially after they contrived to throw away even more money with their ill-fated Apple Records escapades. Each man went on making new versions of himself in the public eye, never quite escaping the myth of the band that made him famous. They were, as Paul pointed out in a recent interview, all too human, of course, but what the rest of us see is so heavily saturated in myth and layers of performance that the truth is often difficult to determine. Not that many people want the truth; the music, and the story, tends to be enough.