The Juvenal Players by Pablo Helguera, a New York-based visual and performance artist, premiered in June 2009 at Grand Arts in Kansas City and was subsequently staged in April 2010 at The Kitchen in New York City. In this play, which was staged in conjunction with a gallery exhibition, a panel composed of two artists, two scholars, and one collector meet to discuss -- and argue over -- the life and works of a now deceased multimedia artist who called himself Juvenal Merst. As its title indicates, both the play and the absent character at its center owe debts of inspiration to the Roman satirist Juvenal. Not only did the young man born "Joshua Merst" legally change his name to Juvenal because he sought to "honor ... the Roman poet Juvenal [who was] famous for his satires and critiques of Roman society" (Helguera 2009: 12), but his sixteen surviving oeuvres (including films, photographic stills, a parodic exhibition of feminist art, and a set of exploding cardboard boxes filled with shaving cream that had been sent to various art collectors) also correspond to the sixteen poems in Juvenal's corpus. The panel, which was convened to fulfill a request that the artist had made before his death, is itself conceived of as Merst's final opus -- a counterpart to the Roman poet's tantalizingly incomplete sixteenth satire.
This paper explores the close correspondence of Helguera's interests in Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis with the critical readings of the Roman poet presented by classicists in the past twenty-five years. In contrast to the view of the sternly moralistic Juvenal that was popularized several decades ago by Gilbert Highet (Highet 1954), recent scholarship (e.g. Braund 1988 and 2004, Freudenburg 2001, Rosen 2007) has shown how the voices of outrage and criticism in Juvenal's poems, whether presented in the first or third person, are carefully crafted personae, or masks, that were designed to engage and entertain a highly sophisticated audience by calling attention to the folly, vice, and pretension of the critics who would castigate others for their faults. With remarkable nimbleness, The Juvenal Players picks up on the tensions and ambiguities in Juvenal's works that have attracted the attention of contemporary classicists, as it gradually exposes not only the role-playing of Juvenal Merst, who artfully packaged himself as an anti-establishment enfant terrible (Helguera 2009: 43), but also the posturing of the members of the panel, who each lay claim to authoritative interpretations of Merst's "critiques" (cf. Kilston 2009).
My principal focus is on the "Juvenalesque" techniques Helguera deploys to confront audiences with the possibility that every critique -- whether of society by an artist or of an artist's work by a scholar -- is in fact a carefully crafted product that will eventually expose the mask worn by the critic. Of particular interest is Helguera's thoroughgoing destabilization of the boundaries between "reality" and "performance," which results from his emphasis on the playacting inherent in art-making and art criticism (Helguera 2009: 51; cf. Rose 2010). This destabilization, I submit, realizes in dramatic form the ever-shifting critical perspectives afforded in Juvenal's satires, as in (for example) the penetration of Umbricius' façade of outrage in Satire 3 (cf. Braund 2004: 165). Moreover, Helguera's conflation of the critiques generated by artists and scholars challenges us, also in a "Juvenalesque" manner, to think about the artistry of our scholarly endeavors and about the construction of our own critical personae. Hence I argue that The Juvenal Players raises intriguing questions about the relevance of modern creative works to both the substance and the practices of classical scholarship.
Braund, Susanna Morton (1988) Beyond Anger: A Study of Juvenal's Third Book of Satires. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
——, ed. and trans. (2004) Juvenal and Persius (Loeb Classical Library). Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
Freudenburg, Kirk (2001) Satires of Rome: Threatening Poses from Lucilius to Juvenal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Helguera, Pablo (2009) The Juvenal Players. New York: Jorge Pinto Books.
Highet, Gilbert (1954) Juvenal the Satirist. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kilston, Lyra (2009) "This is Not a Panel Discussion: Pablo Helguera's Pedagogical Follies." Afterall Magazine 7 (July 11, 2009). [available online at http://pablohelguera.net/2009/07/lyra-kilston-this-is-not-a-panel-discussion-2009/].
Rose, Lindsay E. (2010) "Reality and Performance Collide at The Kitchen: An Interview with The Juvenal Players Director Pablo Helguera." Encore 4 (April 13, 2010). [available online at http://encoremag.com/new-york/articles/893/reality-and-performance-collide-at-the-kitchen].
Rosen, Ralph (2007) Making Mockery: The Poetics of Ancient Satire. Oxford: Oxford University Press.