Josephine: The Mouse Singer

by Michael McClure
   Based on the short story by Franz Kafka, “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk,” michael mcclure’s play Josephine: The Mouse Singer ranks as one of the playwright’s most successful works. Michael Feingold writes in his preface for the published play: “For German readers, Kafka’s is the language that gives the lie to language, the syntax that denies the utility of syntax. And what else is McClure doing when he throws away grammar, and even words, and writes in growls and snarls and pipes instead? Giving the lie to language, in an American rather than a German way. Every writer knows that the point of what you express is the inexpressible; the words are only the vehicle that gets you to that point.” Like other McClure plays from the period, such as Gorf (1974), Spider Rabbit (1969), and Apple Glove (1969), Josephine: The Mouse Singer features fantastic costumes, surreal imagery, and a pronounced blurring of the lines that separate humans from other species. Heavily influenced by his reading of French dramatist Antonin Artaud’s book The Theatre and its Double, McClure’s plays often move beyond traditional staging and costumes in an effort to break through the audience’s intellectual filtering and social conditioning to engage them at the very roots of human experience, thus giving the experience of theater the surreal quality and insight of a dream. Despite the fact that all the play’s characters represent mice dressed in Edwardian and Victorian costumes, Josephine: The Mouse Singer is perhaps McClure’s most conventional play—if the term can be used to describe any of his work—in terms of plot and dialogue. The play’s central figure is a gifted singer in a community of tone-deaf mice, but this artist’s talents endanger her fellow creatures and lead several to suicide.
   The play, like Kafka’s story before it, raises the central questions of the artist’s proper role in the community, the role of free expression, and whether art, no matter how brilliant or beautifully crafted, should take precedence over society. But, as critic Michael Feingold points out in the play’s preface, whereas Kafka tended to view the nonhuman world as “a source of horrified fascination,” McClure’s lifelong affinity for the nonhuman world allows for a rewriting of the play in which “Kafka’s nightmare view of life turns out to contain an ecstatic joy.” Josephine: The Mouse Singer won the Village Voice Obie Award for the best play of the year, though its run in November 1978 was very short at the WPA Theatre. Numerous successful productions since its debut season have established it as one of the classics of U.S. avant-garde theater.
■ Artaud, Antonin. Theatre and Its Double. New York: Grove Press, 1958.
■ Marranca, Bonnie, and Gautam Dasgupta. “Michael McClure.” American Playwrights: A Critical Survey. New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1981: 143–157.
■ Phillips, Rod. Michael McClure. Western Writers Series 159. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 2003.
   Rod Phillips

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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