Joseph Cornell was one of the first American artists to arrange photographs and knickknacks into shadow boxes. But, for all the recognition he received over his lifetime, he rarely emerged from his own little box. Instead, Cornell cared for his brother, who had cerebral palsy, in the same shabby house in Queens where he’d grown up.
Cornell’s rich imaginary life takes center stage in New York-based playwright Charles Mee’s Hotel Cassiopeia, which the Parish Players will present this weekend in Thetford Hill. The play, based on the artist’s dream diaries and art, captures the moments when Cornell’s personal life and work intersected. It isn’t a biography per se — it’s only 70 minutes long — but a nonlinear look at the world through his eyes.
Cornell was incredibly shy and uncomfortable in social situations. His father died when he was a boy, so he returned home as a young adult to help his mother take care of his brother, Robert. The artist was in love with beautiful women, such as actress Lauren Bacall, and obsessed with the dancers of the National Ballet, but he reportedly died a virgin.
“In the play we hear him speak about [the dancers] as if he had a romantic interest,” says Rebecca Young-Ward, who is directing the Parish Players production. “But it wasn’t sexual. He was intrigued by their beauty. It was about their visual appeal.”
He was also drawn to more unconventional beauty, Young-Ward says. Cornell filled his boxes, after all, with mundane objects such as paper birds, colored sand and found images, arranging them just so until they collectively transformed into something wondrous.
It won’t take an intimate knowledge of the artist’s work, though, to enjoy the Thetford production, its director suggests. The set includes narrative slides to keep the audience on track as the play floats through Cornell’s life — from his creation of the boxes to the death of his brother.
“It really shows the compassion that he had, even though he was seen as such a socially awkward person,” says Young-Ward.