The American artist Joseph Cornell made boxes filled with pocket watches, coiled springs, maps of the stars, a forest of thimbles, parrots, seashells, broken glass, children’s alphabet blocks, brightly colored balls, soap bubbles, whales’ teeth, a colored lithograph of the moon in the night sky, starfish. This piece, written by Charles L. Mee, is a sustained peek into the irrational, miniature, and magical world of Joseph Cornell.
Note about process:
“A wall of stars: the constellations or the moon or a vast star map of the cosmos covers the back wall.” “Visually stimulating fantasia … a haunting theatrical dreamscape.” —The New York Times
These are the initial stage directions in Charles L. Mee’s Hotel Cassiopeia, a play that explores collage artist Joseph Cornell’s life, art, and way of seeing. Cornell was an artist of what he called metaphysical ephemera: he saw loveliness in the utterly commonplace and made ordinary things seem exquisitely beautiful. The play follows Cornell as he observes the city he so loved, overhears—and fabricates—parts of conversations, is inspired by movies and overwhelmed by the glorious bustle of Manhattan’s streets; he argues with his mother, talks his brother to sleep with stories of his wanderings.
The images in Mee’s play echo Cornell’s collage-art-boxes, which are crafted from star charts or cutouts of birds or cork balls or sand, suspended or hidden, everyday objects reaching toward the infinite. The play, Mee says, “calls up a world that Cornell would have made, if he had been a theatre artist rather than a collagist.” Although images of Cornell’s work appear onstage, Mee is also trying to recreate the experience of viewing Cornell’s art. Created in collaboration with Anne Bogart and the SITI Company, Hotel Cassiopeia is a wok of rigorous and unexpected juxtapositions, as Mee and the SITI Company search, as Cornell searched, for the perfect articulation of the moments that make a life worth living.
Cornell has been called an artist of longings, and he himself connected his ardent desire to preserve cast-off ephemera to his childhood, which was rich with imagination and freedom, and was cut suddenly short. Joseph Cornell was born in Nyack, New York, on Christmas Eve 1903, the oldest of four children in a comfortably middle-class household. As a child, he was thrilled by family outings to vaudeville shows and Coney Island, playing with fireflies and tadpoles in their big backyard, singing as his mother played the piano. When he was 14, his father died suddenly, ending his family’s financial security and, to a great extent, his childhood. His father’s employer sent him to private school in Andover, Mass., which he left without a diploma after his senior year, rejoining his family in Queens. His two sisters eventually married and moved to Long Island, but Joseph would live with his mother and brother, who had cerebral palsy, for the rest of their lives.
In New York, Cornell worked as a cloth salesman and later in a factory to support his family, but he lived for movies and the ballet. He wandered Manhattan, collecting the objects and magazines he made first into collages and later into the boxes that comprised most of his career. He spent his afternoons walking, collecting, and sitting at a cafeteria observing the world around him or meeting with his friends, who included artists Marcel Duchamp and Matta, writers Marianne Moore and Susan Sontag, ballet dancers, filmmakers and many others. He made sure to return home by 5:30 every day to take over care of his brother, Robert. He spent his early evenings entertaining Robert with films he bought and reedited, and worked through the night in the basement cutting, sanding, and creating. He had intense friendships, and obsessions with, a succession of women, but found romantic companionship only at the end of his life. He outlived Robert by seven years and his mother by five, dying alone at home on Utopia Parkway in Queens in 1972.
Mee has structured his play around what Cornell called “sparklings,” those breathtaking moments when the mundane details of life shift into transcendence, when the glimpse of a girl crossing the street combined with the arc of a constellation and the profile of Lauren Bacall, when the quotidian suddenly fuses with the eternal. Cornell’s art was an attempt to sustain this awareness, to save it from time. He yearned for a dream world of the present moment, a merging of the eternal and the daily. His work was initially dismissed as mere toys of adults, but as New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik observes, Cornell’s desires weren’t lost to a rapture of ethereality: “Cornell is an artist of longings, but his longings are for things known and seen and hard to keep. He didn’t long to go to France; he longed to build memorials to the feeling of wanting to go to France. He preferred the ticket to the trip, the postcard to the place, the fragment to the whole.” Indeed, it is his collaged perception of time and experience—fragmentary but tangible—that sustains Mee’s fascination with this artist.
—Adrien Hansel, Dramaturg
“Evokes the resonant power of Cornell’s idiosyncratic art.” —Bloomberg News
“At the top of their game: playwright Charles Mee and director Anne Bogart and her SITI Company with a gorgeously poetic pictorial reverie.” —Curtain Up
“Exhilarating visual experience … resonating emotional component.” —Courier-Journal