A Satire of the Avant-Garde
In The Pamperers, Loy turns her attention from the sex war to the avant-garde. Written between 1915 and 1917 and published in The Dial in 1920 for an audience of avant-garde enthusiasts, The Pamperers is the play in which Loy most explicitly addresses the avant-garde artist’s relationship to his audience, depicting it as one of cooptation rather than control. The play satires the avant-garde by exposing its collusion with bourgeois commercial culture.
Read the play or scroll down to the summary
Siobhan Scarry offers this concise summary:
an avant-garde artist… who makes art from cigar ends is seduced and allows himself to be seduced into complete bourgeois co-optation. The play takes place in a salon, presided over by Diana, who is not averse to using her feminine wiles to enact this transformation of the loony into a bourgeois puppet. 1
The Pamperers erodes the lines between art makers (geniuses), collectors (patrons and hostesses), and consumers (audiences), all of whom are players in the same cultural enterprise.
As in her other plays, Loy “breaks down the barriers between dialogue, scenery, and stage direction” (Schmid 4), but in The Pamperers, she also blends characters and audience into the textual mix. At the play’s opening, the cast of characters merges with objects in the salon setting, “Picked people melted by a distinguished method among the upholstery.” The opening lines are a montage of “Tag Ends of Overheard Conversation,” beginning with the meta-theatrical observation, “The social fabric is a curtain.” Whereas an ongoing conversation establishes the setting in Sacred Prostitute, here, the bits of conversation actually constitute the set. All social discourse, Loy suggests, is performative, and the characters literally materialize out of the fabric settings and fabricated conversations that surround them.
Her vision of the avant-garde art world as a theatrical stage in which heroes and starlets are worshipped anticipates Florine Stettheimer’s cathedral series of paintings in the 1940’s, in which actors, set, and characters all merge in the same stylized architecture:
As Susan Gilmore points out, “talk, or gossip, introduces us Loy’s heroine”; indeed the stars emerge from the celebrity gossip about them, their roles not so much performed for admiring audiences, but produced by those audiences. We learn about the Loony, the genius who collects cigar butts, and Diana, the hostess who collects geniuses, long before they appear on the stage, as “Somebody” gossips about them with “Somebody Else.” In this way, the scene resembles an earlier Stettheimer painting, “Soiree,” which similarly embeds recognizable figures from the art world in a highly theatrical tableau:
In Stettheimer’s painting of the New York avant-garde, as in Loy’s plays, live doesn’t merely imitate art, it blends into it, as the woman reclining on the divan in the painting has the same languid posture as those outside it. Art doesn’t merely reflect the social world: it produces society in its own stylized image.
When the genius-finder Ossy tells to Diana about his latest avant-garde discovery, their conversation makes the work of culture industry explicit:
OSSY: Di… if you half guessed what I’ve caught in the stables, you’d throw futurism to…
DIANA: Don’t mean…that I’m out of fashion again
OSSY: Since 1 P.M… dispensing entirely with the middleman, we now have the genius served directly to the consumer
DIANA: Let us consume…
High culture is exposed as commercial culture, as art collectors feed consumers’ appetites for the latest fare.
When Loony is served up to Diana, her interactions with him humorously highlight the gendered logic that governs the avant-garde and limits women’s participation to pre-scripted roles. Diana first assumes the role of “backlit muse,” attempting to dazzle Loony with gemstones and seduce him with feminine wiles and felicitious wordplay (Gilmore 288):
I am the elusion that cooed to you adolescent isolation, crystallized in the experience of your manhood… I know the moment to press the grape to thy lip…put ice on your head; for I am the woman who understands.
Loy’s ingenious neologism “elusion” fuses the words “elision” (deletion), “elude” (escape), “illusion” (fantasy), and “effusion” (gush) in the quintessential expression of femininity. But Loony proves impervious to Diana’s feminine charms, refusing to take her with him to “the Grand,” because, he claims, she would have no place in the “Fraternity”: she would be “slighted,” “criticized,” and “considered soft.” Here, the avant-garde is exposes as a male space, closed off to women.
Although Loony denies Diana access to the realm of genius, he does escort her to the window to see “The Grand,” effectively inviting her to join the audience for his artistic performance. From this vista, he declaims a futuristic free verse poem that exalts his own creative prowess and scorns his audience’s narrowly confined bourgeois sensibilities:
(Diana indicating an ash tray, he reverently pockets half a manilla.)
The stage direction is significant here, because it points to Diana’s keen-eyed perception. She is, it appears, a more adroit collector of cigar butts than he. Yet, though we see Diana’s genius, Loony remains oblivious to it.
Prohibited from joining Loony on the Grand as a full-fledged artist, Diana continues to try to win him over, resorting to a role that is readily available to her: “precocious trump.” But when her striptease fails to arouse him from his drowsy slumber, she summons her male assistants, commanding them to take Loony to the bathroom and dress him in a new costume.
When he returns from “The Immersion,” he proves amenable to her will, and she instructs him on the proper decorum for a genius:
Stand up—Sir—and dress your soul for dinner. Throw out your chest… Those tirades about the Grand are the thing… dock them up a bit… muddle people up more… But when you’re not holding forth you must be like us… you (hypnotically) are like us…
Diana thus successfully transforms the avant-garde artist into a performer, luring him into the business of selling himself to a gullible bourgeois audience. The mysterious off-stage immersion shifts the power dynamic, stripping the male artist of agency (and clothing) and transforming him into a puppet controlled by a female profiteer.
It’s possible to read The Pamperers as a satire of male Futurist performance, in which a wily female genius beats them at their own game. Jane Lyon offers this interpretation, arguing that the play “suggests that some women are equipped to be better Futurists than men. …In Loy’s play, the woman is the artist, while (male) ‘geniuses’ are merely the found objects (the cigar-butts, as it were) with which artists like Diana work” (397). But Diana has no more mastery of the system than Loony: she must work within the female roles available to her. Rather than achieving access to “the Grand”—that seemingly limitless realm of artistic creation—she, too, remains trapped in a grand scheme to sell the latest art.
As in Two Plays and Sacred Prostitute, Loy adopts an eclectic method in The Pamperers, combining avant-garde and popular forms, addressing serious questions with comically absurd effects, and producing an original, disconcerting blend. Loy casts allegorical figures who represent both ancient and modern types: the archetypal lover Don Juan, the avant-garde artist Loony, and the art agent who, like the Procuress of the World’s Brothel in Sacred Prostitute, serves as the go-between the artist and the public.
She combines the age-old form of allegory with cutting-edge, avant-garde techniques. The cast of characters and setting resemble a Futurist words-in-freedom poem more than they evoke a physical context:
The list arranges adjectives and nouns irregularly, inviting us to read spatially and generate different permutations: is the Obvious Invisible, or are People Invisible, Obvious and Picked? Is Loony Houseless or are Obvious People Loony? The subsequent paragraph comprises of a montage of mismatched, oxymoronic objects and descriptors, ranging from “porcelain breath,” to “Gilded crimson,” “Tailored muscles,” and “Ooze.” The prose poem materializes as a setting from which the characters gradually emerge. “Tag Ends of Overheard Conversation” launch the action with a verbal montage that might best be achieved in a film or audio recording.
Perhaps the most avant-garde aspect of the comical plot that unfolds is the occasional, odd stage direction, such as “(Diana’s chameleon rattles her emeralds.)” or “Picked People evaporate.” The most futuristic stage direction occurs just after Loy introduces the most medieval allegorical character(s), Loony’s two pub companions, “God Gives” and “the Devil to Pay,” who prove to be “one and the same” (70). At this point, Loy directs:
(The room fills rapidly with the Loony’s curiosity, the ‘taken for granted’ advances to audience gravenly noticeable.)
A graven image is an object of worship, usually carved in wood or stone. Loy’s syntax is awkward, but the dependent clause seems to apply to Loony, describing his attitude toward the audience. Presumably, he takes for granted the audience’s attention, and his advances to them are “gravenly noticeable” because he carves himself out as an object of their worship. But while the syntax can be parsed, the ideas remain difficult to stage. Loy seems to be anticipating surrealist film techniques that move from external reality to internal states of mind. It is as if, in writing the play, she simultaneously looks backward to medieval and Biblical references and forward to the future of film and surrealism.
Such strange effects are offset by familiar elements of burlesque, like the repeated strip tease, first performed by Diana and later by Loony. In this way, The Pamperers both challenges the audience with intellectual provocations and indulges us with erotic spectacles. But even as she arouses and indulges sexual appetites, Loy defies the conventional gender script. Diana’s fate is very different from that the of the artist’s model in this much more conventional 1903 American silent film, The Fate of the Artist’s Model:
The film depicts the classic cautionary melodrama of a fallen woman who is seduced by an artist. The fully clothed embrace in the third act is a synecdoche for a sexual encounter. In the fourth act, the woman returns, her white dress replaced with black, signaling her loss of virginity. Her symbolic deflowering is fully realized in the form of infant she cradles in fifth and final act. Spurned by the artist, she and the infant are left to the mercy of the elements—and the charity of a working class woman who takes them in.
In the conventional plot of Fate of the Artist’s Model, the woman is a victim of circumstance, limited to the options of what Loy describes in her “Feminist Manifesto” as “Parasitism and prostitution — or negation.” Loy attempts to outwit these gender conventions in The Pamperers. Her heroine Diana tries out the roles of model, seductress, and prostitute, ultimately becoming a madam or procuress who, thought she can’t escape the sexualized economy of the art world, can at least profit from it.
Courting a Wider Audience
Loy began writing The Pamperers in 1915, while living in Italy, and once in New York, she used the play to court the press, referring to it in a 1917 The New York Sun interview: “she has seen so many movements rise and fall that she has decided to imitate one herself…The play is called ‘The Pamperers.’ It satirizes the Vitalists and the unvital sort and everybody,” the article reports, suggesting that no one escapes the satire. Yet Loy also expresses unbridled enthusiasm for her new city of residence, saying, “No one who has not lived in New York has lived in the Modern World.”
The Pamperers marks a period of transition in Loy’s life, when she puts her combative relationships with Futurists behind her, and turns to New York, in search of both personal and professional fulfillment. The idea of moving to New York had been tantalizing her for years. “I’m rather blue—I’ve seen P[apini] again & I’m frightfully in love—& he hates me with a voluptuous and exotic frigidity,” she wrote Mabel Dodge in 1914, “I do want to run away & come to New York” (qtd by Burke 181). In December, she lamented her disaffection to Van Vechten, asking, “Oh Carlo do you think there is a man in America one could love” (qtd by Burke 182). By the summer of 1916, she complained that she was “so tired of Florence that I hardly ever go outside my door” (qtd by Burke 192); her poems had been spurned by Amy Lowell, but when she gave them to “ultra respectable elderly ladies (not the stupid ones of course),” she noted, “they survive magnificently—will America be so very different?” (qtd by Burke 193). She sailed to New York in 1916, seeking both romantic fulfillment and a public who would embrace her work.
New York proved to be an amorous environment. She found herself in the proto-Dada set that centered in Walter Conrad Arensberg’s studio on West 67th Street, where Marcel Duchamp was a primary agent provocateur. “An instantaneous affection was fashionable,” Loy recalled, “One heard little less than exhortations to love” (qtd by Burke). But rather than joining the amorous intercourse, Loy observed the theatricals from a distance: “I watched the men cooing the assertively ‘modern’ women into the nests of their astringent lusts, to crush them ‘tomorrow’ in the contracting pupils of their observant eyes” (qtd by Burke 219). Loy viewed the free-loving New York set as a “marionette theatre” in which “interchangeable actors and audiences played into each other’s hands” (qtd by Burke 219).
The Pamperers puts the “marionette theatre” of the international avant-garde art world on stage. Indeed Loony’s latest artistic innovation—collecting cigar butts—seems to have as much in common with Duchamp’s Dada invention of “found objects,” as with Marinetti and Papini’s Futurist polemics and performances.
Published in The Dial, in the company of Arthur Rimbaud, James Joyce, Ford Maddox Ford, André Derain, and Babette Deutsch, Loy serves a representative, spokesperson, and interpreter of the international avant-garde. The Pamperers, chosen to inaugurate the “Modern Forms” section of the magazine, represents the quintessential avant-garde form.
In his “Foreword” to “Modern Forms,” distinguished art critic Henry McBride doesn’t mention The Pamperers, but he discusses the very problem the play raises and stages: how to evaluate new, experimental art—both how make sense of it, and how to assess its value. McBride is especially concerned with the question of how to distinguish authentic new art from frauds and hoaxes.
Situating Arensberg’s “exclusively modern” studio as the hub of the New York avant-garde, McBride offers “Marcel’s latest”—a hermetically sealed vial of air from Paris—as a case in point. McBride contrasts his enlightened understanding of Duchamp’s found object to the befuddled reactions of a “friend” with conventional, bourgeois tastes. Whereas the friend deems Duchamp’s so-called “art” incomprehensible and highly suspicious, McBride finds it “pleasant and droll”: “Perhaps I instantly saw the joke did not apply to me so much as my educated friend,” he explains, “That’s the advantage in not being a bourgeois yourself” (62). His remark suggests that the avant-garde mocks bourgeois audiences, satisfying the tastes and sensibilities of an intellectual elite—a superior class status that he implicitly shares with readers of The Dial.
Ironically, even as McBride emphasizes his and his readers’ distinction from the bourgeois, he addresses them as would-be art collectors, offering advice about how to become more sophisticated consumers of art: “My own recommendation… is—to know a ‘modern’ artist” (63). He thus trains readers to become consumers in the capitalist economy of avant-garde art that The Pamperers proceeds to satirize.
Although McBride’s attitude toward bourgeois audiences is more dismissive than Loy’s, his “Foreword” may not actually be at cross-purposes with her play. After all, both attempt to generate interest in avant-garde art. The Pamperers does not aim to warn us out of a phony art market, but to get us in on the joke and to make us recognize that we are all in on the sham—artists, wealthy collectors, and bourgeois audiences alike (“you must be like us… you (hypnotically) are like us…”).
Courting an Audience: Loy's Plays
- Scarry classifies the Pamperers as “poetic drama,” using Sarah Bay-Cheng and Barbara Cole’s definition, “plays that draw attention to themselves as literary creations that are never subsumed into the apparent reality of the play. Thus, the textual form of the poetic drama is always self-consciously evident, even in performance.” This is another way makes it clear that makes the audience more conscious of their role in the performance. “Loy enacts a constant staging and restaging of language,” Scarry explains, “she never lets the audience, or the readers for that matter, experience language as a transparent medium—it is always present,” and always performative. ↩