Theatre of Soak: on drunkenness as performance

Bernard Cohen

Although the following represents hours of gonzo research, the names, dates and some concepts have been changed to protect the writer.

There’s a shop on Oxford Street, Paddington which sells party decorations. Its doorway is a popular hang-out for pink-faced men with paper bags.

On this particular day, the window display consists of pink elephants sliding back and forth in front of a sea of pink tinsel. The old man in the doorway is killing himself laughing. I assume he cannot believe it.

“They’re really there,” I tell him, trying to be helpful, imagining that swooping pink pachyderms might produce certain cognitive dissonances for the inebriated older person.

The man appears to look at me, but does not respond to my revelation. He continues to laugh, to rock to and fro, more or less in rhythm with the movement of the mechanised elephants, clutching a bottle of methylated spirits. Our relationship is of actor to audience: we can speak across this divide to each other but we cannot converse. I cannot figure out which is my role.




At a party, in the corner, a close friend is holding a half-bottle of red wine very close to his eyes. He is reading the label loudly. He tilts the bottle and some red wine spills onto the purple, green, red and blue striped rental carpet. “Enjoy wine to excess!” he yells. Another friend guffaws expansively. He is attempting to make a pun about rumours/roomers and how he is scotching those in his stomach. I am drunk enough to try anything (served to inmates in the closed bedroom). The music is 70s for some reason. A small number of shirtless men are dancing with their arms raised in ‘I-surrender-to-the-music’ poses, the floor having mysteriously cleared of the fully dressed.

I am explaining this gregariousness as ‘research.’ No one is too friendly or too snooty about this claim. It is as if the limits of the Theatre of Soak are constantly re-negotiating and no one wants to appear too surprised by new directions.




At another party, someone on the lounge suite is saying “thub, thub, thub.” A woman is explaining to me that her boyfriend is not a “testosteronic moron” despite his habit of flinging her and other people around the dance floor. I am suggesting alternative descriptions. Someone else is listening to our discussion, tilting her head from side to side instead of rotating it to face each speaker. She hasn’t yet said a word. I am conscious of playing to her, projecting my voice more than is conversationally necessitated. I am slurring and so is the woman with whom I am shpeaking. I try to shay things properly but I can’t.

“He’s just a prick,” I tell her. “Tell him to fuck off.” “He’sh OK,” she claimsh.

I hope that my voice sounds concerned, but I can hear it squeaking a little with righteousness. I am trying not to lean forward. Later, the boyfriend is gone and I feel vindicated. “Good on you,” I tell her. But I find him on the front steps wiping his eyes. I kind of remember saying to him, “Well, you stay away from her” and him saying, “You wouldn’t know.” Anyway, we don’t have a fight or anything so gauche. I walk back in and try to find a mixer. A computer science postgraduate is trying to make a spinach daiquiri. There are toothpicks installed all over the kitchen floor, stuck down with something clear and viscous.

I discover that people are anxious to share their own performances. It is a generous research area: I have had to make no promises of gift co-authorships.

“I was so drunk on Mescal I couldn’t throw up,” a friend tells me over dinner at the Old Saigon in Newtown. “The others left the room from time to time, but I stayed put.”

I think I probably respond to this description rather mean-spiritedly, kind of “aww, I dunno.” It’s seeming to me like more of an epiglottal non-performance. I get no sense of contraction and expansion, which means no characterisation. Inadequacy. Exclusion. Later, I realise I had misread the anecdote. My reading had lost the anecdote’s anecdoty. I had over-theorised my area of study, made its parameters too narrow. I had failed to picture the choreographic diagrams, the exits and entrances. The patterns of potential eye-contacts. Stillness as performance retains representational axes: conjuring a sense of liquidity in a dry setting (very Australian), the inner struggle. Anyway, I am not so discouraging that others at the table are dissuaded from describing their own endeavours.

“I was seeing a band and I was projectile vomiting. Someone took a photo,” says someone else. Now this was immediately Theatre in that it was valued in another medium.

“Do you have a copy?” I ask, “for the article,” but she didn’t. (Note the Theatre’s expressionist stream).

The restaurateur — a former foreign correspondent for Newsweek — is getting me to ask for our BYO in a growlier and more aggressive manner: “More beer.”




In another restaurant, I am waiting for a friend to return with wine. Because Sydney restaurant tables are too close together, a huge drunken man at the next table with his back to me is coming very close to upsetting the vase of plastic baby’s breath on my table. There are four people at this other table. They are telling short anecdotes which I cannot quite hear. After each anecdote, the person who has spoken laughs loudly and the others join in briefly and then drop off. Each of them has a distinctive laugh, which I imagine resembles a specific piece of light artillery. I quickly become irritated and am thinking of asking to change tables, despite the terrible snub this would be, when my friend returns. Suddenly I hardly notice the other table any more. Our chardonnay has a lifted passionfruit nose and a melon/citrus middle palate with a dry, clean finish.

Theatre of Soak: drunkenness as performance originally appeared in RealTime 4 page 3, December-January, 1994-95.

For more Bernard Cohen in RealTime, try Shifting Poetics: language and furniture removal, page 30, RT 6, April-May, 1995.

Bernard Cohen

Bernard Cohen is Director of The Writing Workshop, which he founded in 2006. Previously, he taught creative writing at all educational levels from kindergarten to university, and to all ages from five to (approximately) 75. He has held writer’s residencies at Sir John Soane’s Museum and Peckham Library in London, as well as in Nottingham, Worcester, Taipei and Wagga Wagga. You can read Cohen’s amusing and insightful account of his 1999 Nottingham trAce residency and a widely shared ambition at that time for online writing here. He is the author of five novels including the 1996 Australian Vogel Prize winner The Blindman’s Hat and of The Antibiography of Robert F Menzies for which he received an Arts Council of England Writer’s Award and won the 2015 Russell Prize for Humour Writing (State Library NSW).

Top image credit: DV8, Enter Achilles, 1996, from the film adaptation of the 1995 dance work that Zsuzsanna Soboslay recalls from the 1996 Adelaide Festival in her reflection, in this edition, on writing for RealTime.

22 August 2018