A mysterious correspondent reports on a visit to Père Lachaise, the Mute Players, and Act-Up

Posted by Alla Efimova on Monday April 22 2013

By Lisa Wurtele

Not all those who have spent time with Rachel Marker have connected with her through the portal of the physical exhibition at The Magnes. Rachel has also had a deep impact on those who have entered her world by crossing time and place.

The letters shared below were sent from several continents and written by hand by a mysterious correspondent, “John.”  In them, John expressed gratitude that Rachel Marker “took us to places we never would have visited otherwise, from Montparnasse, to an old art supply store that artists from the Impressionists to Yves Klein frequented,…to a large flea market on the outskirts of Paris.” They allow us a peek into the ongoing exchange of letters between Rachel Marker and John.

In his February 10th letter to Rachel Marker, John writes:

“One of the defining events of your life was the war. One of the defining events of mine was the great plague that reached its crescendo when I was a young man living in New York.”

Rachel Marker responds that the Mute Players–a group of “mute” actors she first met in Prague in the mid-1920s, who in 1940 wartime Paris began to perform her “Letters to the Dead” ceremonies to take place over the next one hundred years in cemeteries around the world–are in Paris again, planning a ceremony about French gay culture and “the great plague” of AIDS in the city’s Père Lachaise Cemetery. (There one can visit the graves of Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, and a number of prominent gay writers, filmmakers, performers, and activists who died of AIDS.) Rachel Marker dreams that the Mute Players invite John and his partner to participate “in whatever way you want.”

In his March 24th letter to Rachel Marker, John (writing from Paris) tells her that “Today here in Paris there was a large demonstration on the Champs Élysées against a bill to legalize same-sex marriage and adoption. The demonstration became violent, and the police used tear gas against the demonstrators. The news inspired me to reread some of your letters—the apprehension you felt after you got news of Kristallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass, in 1938; the sense of foreboding you felt as the Nazis approached Paris in 1940. As you were awaiting the Nazis’ approach, you stayed up all night to write Letters to the Dead. Do you still remember that night?

You once asked, ‘How does one write during a war or in its aftermath?’ Thinking about events in Poland and here in Paris, I think I would ask instead, How does one not?”

A few days later in Paris, John receives a letter, slipped under his door, from the Mute Players telling him that they had left him a wooden box on the grave of Charles Baudelaire in the Montparnasse cemetery to take unopened to the Père Lachaise cemetery, and place it on Proust’s grave.

Box on Baudelaire’s grave, Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris

In his March 31 letter to her, John describes the contents of this box to Rachel Marker. “At noon we opened the Mute Players’ box on the tomb of Marcel Proust in Père Lachaise”:

Box on Proust’s grave, Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris

John's letter to Rachel Marker

Dear Rachel,

At noon we opened the Mute Players’ box on the tomb of Marcel Proust at Père Lachaise. The box contained items that the Mute Players had held for safekeeping after you fled Paris in 1940. It included some items from performances you had done together in the twentieth century: some of the yellow, mauve, and blue sheets from 365 Days of Silent Acts, which you performed in Prague in 1924-25; the maps made of threads, scents, and shadows from the theater piece based on your City of Maps, which the Mute Players performed on the Old Town side of the Charles Bridge in 1926; an orange book in which the Mute Players had transcribed all of your performances; a labyrinth. The box also contained some photographs and a miniature almanac from 1923. The Mute Players didn’t know what those items meant to you.

Detail of Box on Proust’s grave (items atop box and in top drawer),
Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris

In addition, the Mute Players had placed in the box some items from a piece that we were about to perform for you.  Inside a green silk bag were instructions for the AIDS movement of Letters to the Dead written on green paper as well as a poem written in Vietnamese and a piece of paper with Chinese characters, which I will ask my partner to translate for you. There were also instructions for the prelude to a performance titled Letters to the Living, which they invited you to write. The Mute Players had also placed a mirror in the box, and they had tucked between the two drawers four sheets of green paper.  One letter was printed on each sheet. Collectively, the letters spelled out the word “AIDS.”

Detail of Box on Proust’s grave (items in second drawer),
Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris

The instructions to Letters to the Dead invited us to place one letter from the word “AIDS” on or next to the resting place in Père Lachaise of three individuals who had died of AIDS — Jean-Paul Aron (1925-1988), Guy Hocquenghem (1946-1988) and Mano Salo (1963-2010)– and next to an empty niche in the Columbarium representing the resting place of Cleews Vellay (1963-1994). I think this is what the Mute Players were telling me when they removed Hervé Guibert’s self-portrait from the gallery where we saw the empty space when we had returned on Friday.

Vellay was an AIDS activist, who worked with ACT UP-Paris. After his death, his friends held a political funeral in his memory, like the political funerals ACT UP used to organize in New York. They carried his body to Père Lachaise, where it was cremated in the Crematorium, and distributed political pamphlets. But his ashes were not actually placed in the Columbarium. Instead, they were scattered in front of the offices of a health insurance company to protest the denial of health insurance to HIV-positive people and in front of the offices of a pharmaceutical company to demand faster access to new medications. I’m enclosing for you a photograph from the funeral I found.

The instructions for the prelude to Letters to the Living simply state: 1. A garden 2. A mirror  3. A book  4. A photograph. Do you know what these instructions might mean?

Much love,

John

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