Theater archives

The Life of Joseph Cornell, Via Bogart and Mee


As artist Joseph Cornell sits at a Bickford’s Cafeteria table, a waitress lists the specials. “I’ve got your honey-colored seashells,” she chirps. “I’ve got your crested cockatiel . . . your deep-sea blue sand, your dancing confetti, a toy metal horse.” “What will I do with these?” asks Cornell. The waitress pertly replies, “Make a life. Have you got a life?”

Joseph Cornell’s life—or lack thereof—has fascinated biographers, critics, and now director Anne Bogart and playwright Charles L. Mee. These last have created Hotel Cassiopeia (part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival), a lovely-looking if rather vacant homage to Cornell. The play takes its name from one of Cornell’s shadow boxes, a peeling assemblage of orbs, rods, paper, a broken pipe, and the titular constellation. Indeed, most of the pieces in Cornell’s “Hotel” series take their names from celestial bodies, as though he were attempting, in these diminutive works, to create rooms where huge swathes of sky could rest their heads.

Cornell likely never rested his head in a hotel room. As Mee’s script obliquely indicates, he spent most of his life in a small, wood-framed house on Utopia Parkway in Queens. Into his sixties, Cornell shared the house with his exacting mother and his brother Robert, who suffered from cerebral palsy. However, he made frequent trips to Manhattan, to browse secondhand stores and ogle shop girls. He also struck up friendships—some epistolary, some in the flesh—with writers, dancers, curators, and other visual artists. But typically he worked in his basement studio or sat in the kitchen, warming himself by the stove and feeding his inveterate sweet tooth on store-bought cakes and stale donuts.

Both Bogart and Mee are collage artists themselves, so basing a play around Cornell must have seemed a tasty prospect. Mee’s plays pillage from classic texts, from his own work as a historian, from books, magazine articles, and webpages. Bogart assembles her pieces from various forms and styles, “like a bird that goes and pulls different things and makes a nest,” she has said. Mee and Bogart collaborated on two works for En Garde Arts in the ’90s (Orestes and Another Person Is a Foreign Country), and in 2001 they debuted bobrauschenbergamerica, another play based around an artist enamored of found objects. In that latter piece, like a pomo Godot, Robert Rauschenberg never appeared. But in Hotel Cassiopeia, Cornell (Barney O’Hanlon) never leaves the stage. Often ensconced behind a whitewashed desk, sipping a cup of tea, he benignly observes the various archetypes around him: Ballerina, Mother, Herbalist, Astronomer, Pharmacist, Waitress.

While Cornell mostly contents himself with reciting lines from his diaries and letters, the other characters speak passages from Colette, sing Cole Porter songs, or declaim a dialogue culled from a popular bird-watching website. These interpolations make Mee’s dramaturgy distinct, yet also somewhat frustrating. Yes, Cornell liked to observe the birds in his backyard—he even invited them into his kitchen to peck at crumbs. But does this fact require the inclusion of the interview with “Mr. and Mrs. American Birdwatching”? Do these asides—the theatrical equivalent of hyperlinks—deepen our understanding of Cornell or expand the dramatic experience? These digressions keep the piece surface and shallow, avoiding the emotional lives of the characters. Too often they seem like an indulgent substitute for actual playwriting.

Of course, Cornell himself was a singularly (and enjoyably) self-indulgent artist, fashioning works based on his collections of Hollywood head shots, children’s toys, colored glass, etc. Though he showed in galleries and enjoyed the financial independence that art allowed, he mainly worked to please himself. If only Mee’s and Bogart’s materials were as simple and luminous as those Cornell used: “some stamps, marbles, a gold-colored bracelet, a painted wooden bird, a cut-out metal harlequin, candies, bubble pipes, a thimble, some bits of broken glass.” Out of these, Cornell could and did make a life. But out of him, Mee and Bogart haven’t quite made art.