Talking back: bringing Beat counterculture into the modern era through dance

Laura Briggs performs their solo “Backtalk.” Photos by Lori Teague.

Author William S. Burroughs said, “In the U.S. you have to be a deviant or die of boredom.” Burroughs was certainly the former. He was a lifelong heroin addict, who wrote explicitly and affectionately of his drug use. He was openly queer at a time in American history when you could be arrested simply for entering a gay bar. His seminal novel The Naked Lunch was banned in cities across the U.S. and Europe for its excessive profanity and graphic depictions of homosexual sex and drug use. As an author and poet, he is revered as one of the fathers of the Beat generation, a counter-culture literary movement that defined post-World War II America.

“The Dream Machine: The Beat Generation & the Counterculture, 1940-1975” exhibit at the Woodruff Library highlights the Beat era’s lasting influence on contemporary literature, and illustrates the lives of  the eccentric, brilliant characters that defined this movement. When I first visited the exhibit this past November, I was immediately intrigued by William Burroughs and the censorship battle surrounding his work. Drawing from my research at the exhibit, I created and performed a dance that employs an excerpt from Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch to investigate themes of censorship in literature and in life.

The resulting work, “Backtalk,” is a socio-political commentary on the ways by which censorship systematically functions to oppress individuals, lifestyles, and ideas. The economical and disciplined movement vocabulary of the piece is accompanied by a spoken anecdote from Burroughs’ novel that tells the story of a man who taught his asshole how to talk. Eventually, the asshole begins to develop a mind of its own, and asks for equal rights. After the man’s various efforts to silence his asshole, including beating it and sticking candles up it, the story ends with the asshole ultimately killing the man in order to finally obtain its independence.

This dramatic storytelling element, designed to humor and unsettle the audience, fuses dance and theater to provoke discourse about the censorship in our society. To dig deeper into this concept, I drew from my first-hand experiences with the censorship of my queer identity. Much like the asshole in Burroughs’ story, queer individuals have been perceived as dirty, diseased, unsightly, and less-than-human. Many current societal systems, such as Christianity, marriage, and the nuclear family, are designed to perpetuate this status quo by stigmatizing or banning homosexual desire. As the queer community works to fight back against continual oppression, we have a choice: work to assimilate into the system that oppressed us, or destroy the system altogether. Is it the responsibility of queer people to integrate into mainstream culture without a fight?  Is it ever possible to exist as equals in a system that was built to keep us subdued? These questions emerge, unanswered, as the solo ends and the lights go out.

The process of creating “Backtalk” was integrally connected to the exhibit at the Woodruff Library. Against the backdrop of a generation that deliberately lived outside the mainstream, William Burroughs created work that forced readers to question the boundaries of societal acceptability. “Backtalk” echoes Burroughs’ mission of deviance by carefully examining the precarious relationship between the queer community and the society in which it exists. The solo lives in the space between assimilation and subversion, between deviance and dying of boredom.

Laura Briggs is a junior majoring in Chemistry and Dance & Movement Studies. They premiered this work in December 2017 and performed it again for adjudication at the American College Dance Association conference in March 2018, where it was one of twelve works selected for the gala concert.