Friday, November 14, 2008

A Note on the Play

Joseph Cornell never married, never traveled far beyond his home in New York, and never graduated from high school. He did, however, fill his life with poetry, biographies, films, operas, and ballets. He ate too many sweets, corresponded at length with friends, and volunteered at the Christian Science Reading Room. Though Joseph Cornell was not a formally trained artist, he was an avid collector and an ardent observer, and these traits heavily informed his art. His eclectic and detailed collage shadow boxes secured his place in art history.

Cornell was born in 1903 to a comfortable, happy home. His childhood was filled with magic shows, wax museums, and trips to Coney Island. In 1917, Cornell's father died, abruptly ending his childhood and thrusting him into the position as head of the family. A devoted brother and son, Cornell supported his mother and spent most of his life caring for his brother Robert, who had cerebral palsy. Although his familial responsibilities were numerous, Cornell managed to follow some of his own desires and create an inner life. After long days working at a Manhattan textile studio, Cornell would roam the streets, wandering into junk shops and flea markets to find little treasures he could take home and file away in his basement. His "dossiers" grew to include pictures, ticket stubs, magazine clippings, and other bits of ephemera on a variety of subjects. In 1931, Cornell discovered the Surrealist collage art of Max Ernst. He immediately went home, raided his collection of old books, and made his first work of art.

Cornell's art continued to evolve over the next few years, eventually culminating in the shadow boxes that are his legacy. Cornell's work is abstract and dreamlike, similar to the Surrealist work he was inspired by. The popularity and success of Surrealist art paved the way for Cornell, though he never really fit in with the sexual and irreverent aspects of the movement. Cornell wanted to create something "healthier". He drew upon his religious beliefs, his love of all things French, and his worship of beautiful dancers and actresses. He idealized childhood, creating works that exhibited his love of innocence, purity, and chastity. He created memorials to the past, giving him a tangible piece he could hold onto forever.

Hotel Cassiopeia is not meant to be a literal or historical recreation of Cornell's life or art, but instead a representation of the man and his work. The characters in the play depict some of the family members, artists, and friends that he knew intimately, as well as people he never met. The play enacts scenes that are similar to real situations Cornell experienced, as well as those we only imagine he did. The play's collage structure deliberately reflects the work of Joseph Cornell. Charles Mee created Hotel Cassiopeia from interviews, Cornell's diary, letters, writings about him, clips from his favorite movies and music that he enjoyed, and bits and pieces from the internet.

Why the title, Hotel Cassiopeia?

“Because,” says Mee, “Cassiopeia the constellation lasts through all eternity, while a hotel is where people check in for a couple of nights.” So, check in for the evening and capture a little piece of the eternity that Cornell tried so hard to preserve.

Lauren R. Beck

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