Performance artist and author Karen Finley has a knack for provoking controversy, whether she’s covering her naked body in chocolate or being persecuted for her art by former Senator Jesse Helms (N.C.-R). Now she’s written “George & Martha,” a sharp political satire depicting one bawdy night in the fictional affair between President George W. Bush and deposed homemaker Martha Stewart. Finley will perform a dramatized reading of her work in the Michigan Union’s Pendleton Room Thursday night.
” ‘George and Laura’ wouldn’t be so interesting,” Finley said with a laugh. “I was interested that at the same time that George (Bush) was going to be going to the White House again and at the Republican convention, that the female of the same level of celebrity interest was Martha Stewart, going to jail.” Finley was also intrigued by the disparity between Stewart’s harsh punishment for a relatively minor infraction while Bush was putting the Iraq war in motion with almost no opposition.
Drawing parallels between her characters, the feuding couple in Edward Albee’s play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and the United States’s founding President and First Lady, Finley creates a satirical portrait of contemporary American politics and values. Celebrity culture, the corrupt political machine behind the Iraq war and the cheapening of sexuality all come to a head in the fictional tryst between Bush and an about-to-be-jailed Stewart. The story is told from Stewart’s prim-yet-foul-mouthed, bitterly condescending vantage.
“Martha has an arc; she has a realization,” Finley said. “We’re kind of becoming Martha and seeing it (from her point of view).”
“George wouldn’t write,” she added. “George wouldn’t reflect.”
The encounter described in “George & Martha” didn’t really happen, but the relationship between its two characters illuminates truths about the relationships between the people and our president, America and Iraq.
“Whether it’s George and his identification with his mother . and his relationship to his father. He’s never really been loved . I feel his fascination with Saddam Hussein is Oedipal,” Finley said. “He’s disguising in his relationship with Saddam Hussein his own wish for patricide.”
“George & Martha” was originally created as a performance piece starring Finley and Neil Medlyn, but Finley saw the potential for a literary version as well. “The concept is naturalistic,” Finley explained. “I’ve appropriated the (style of) The New Yorker. The drawings in the book work as a psychotic break, the way the cartoons happen when you’re reading The New Yorker.”
Finley’s ornate doodles sometimes illustrate ideas or objects mentioned in the dialogue (such a rear view of George’s diapered backside), but the drawings also bring to visual life Stewart’s merciless, stream-of-consciousness narration – the line of scented baby wipes she muses about creating while using one to wipe her mouth after fellating the president.
Finley’s narrative and its illustrations are indeed graphic, but the sexual and emotional frankness of its characters creates one of the most satisfying aspects of this multilayered satire. George is an intentional screw-up who could never live up to the expectations of anyone. Martha is a self-proclaimed “ball-buster” and control freak who wants to mother the world with her fluffy Kmart towels and tart recipes; she’s drawn to Bush precisely because of his abysmal ineptitude. At the end of the first section, when Martha has shaved and ornamented George’s genitalia with glitter, feathers and red, white and blue toothpaste, and serving him with a baby bottle full of beer, she proclaims, “I make a goddamn decent living as the dominating mother you fear, loathe and despise.”
But this grotesquerie serves its purpose. Besides making readers think, “Politicians and multimillionaires – they’re just like us!” with its mentions of George and Martha’s Oedipally charged sex play, the book allegorizes the characters’s clandestine interior relationship: “What those characters represent are the feminine and the masculine . the comfort and the crisis (in America),” Finley said.
Though they’re uniquely her own, Finley’s theories about the psychoemotional machinations behind our current administration provide a way to explain America’s disturbing social and political state. Despite its bold premise, the real allure of “George & Martha” isn’t just a polemic, but “radical for the left, disturbing for the right,” Finley said. “The internal mechanisms that jumpstart public policy – that’s what we’re seeing at work here.”
Thursday at 7 p.m.
At the Pendleton Room
in the Michigan Union