In an effort to consolidate my recent writings and activities, I have been moving existing material and adding new posts to my personal website at http://www.georgehunka.com. Please visit that site and sign up there to receive new posts as they’re written. My apologies for the inconvenience (and for my somewhat peripatetic online wanderings over the past year or so as I reconfigure my future activities).
Beginning next year, I’ll curating a new salon series called “Performance on the Edge” at Spectrum NYC, 121 Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side. “Performance on the Edge” will feature conversations with critics and artists as well as other events theatre- and drama-related. Spectrum NYC, one of New York’s hottest new music venues (see this New York Times story), hopes to cultivate interdisciplinary dialogue about ideas and issues in the performance community through this series.
The first event, scheduled for Tuesday, February 4, 2014, will be a one-on-one conversation with critic Jonathan Kalb, who joins me for a wide-ranging discussion about theatre, performance, criticism, and of course his own fine work over the past 25 years or so. His body of criticism, history, and memoir is extraordinarily graceful, provocative, and always entertaining, and your presence at our little confab will be more than welcome.
Jonathan has twice won the country’s most prestigious prize for a drama critic, The George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism. He won it in 1991 for his first book Beckett in Performance and his writings in The Village Voice, and again in 2012 for his book Great Lengths: Seven Works of Marathon Theater, which also won the George Freedley Award from the Theatre Library Association. He’s written theater criticism and feature articles for the New York Times and was the chief theater critic for New York Press from 1997-2001. His writing has appeared in many journals and book collections, including: Modern Drama, TDR, Performing Arts Journal, American Theatre, Theater, Theater Heute, Theater Three, Theatre Journal, TheatreForum, The Michigan Quarterly Review, Salmagundi, The Nation and The Threepenny Review. Jonathan is also the Literary Advisor for Theatre for a New Audience, where he works frequently as a dramaturg. He is the founding editor of HotReview.org, the Hunter On-Line Theater Review, an open-source Web journal that has published more than 200 articles, essays, interviews and other writings by a wide range of authors, from talented novices to the nation’s foremost living theater writers.
Among his other excellent volumes are the indispensable The Theatre of Heiner Müller and two collections of his theatre journalism, Free Admissions and Play by Play. We’re both looking forward to a provocative and fun evening and hope you’ll join us. More information soon.
Due to technical difficulties, the below review of Tragedy of a Friendship first appeared at my personal Web site on November 3.
Tragedy of a Friendship. Concept and director: Jan Fabre. Text: Stefan Hertmans. Music: Moritz Eggert and Richard Wagner. Set design: Jan Fabre. Costume design: Andrea Kranzlin. Lighting design: Jan Dekeyser and Helmut Van den Meersschaut. Dramaturgy: Miet Martens. Singers: Lies Vandewege (soprano) and Hans Peter Janssens (tenor). Performers: Silke Muys, Anne Maria Pajunen, Solene Weinachter, Gustav Koenigs, Nikolaus Barton, Annabelle Chambon, Cedric Charron, Ivana Jozic, Kurt Vandendriessche, and Fabienne Joanne Vegt. Orchestra: Flanders Opera Symphony Orchestra. Musical ensemble: Nico Declerck (harmonium), Jadranka Gasparovic (cello), and Lydia Kavina (theremin). Produced by Vlaamse Opera Antwerp and Troubleyn | Jan Fabre. Peak Performances at Montclair State University, November 1-3, 2013. Running time: 3 hours, 10 minutes (no intermission).
Richard Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche were the two great Modernist messiahs of 19th century Germany, and their historical period was unique. Wagner was re-examining the medieval myths of the Nibelungs, Tristan, and Parsifal, and Nietzsche was resurrecting the Apollonian/Dionysian perspectives of the ancient Greeks, as Germany was experiencing a rapid growth of urbanization, industrialization, and nationalism. And, as was perhaps to be expected, you can’t keep two messiahs in the same room without considerable sparks flying. Their deep friendship lasted for only seven years, from 1869 to approximately 1876, when the opening of Bayreuth confirmed Nietzsche’s conclusion that Wagner had sold himself and his art out to the rising bourgeoisie. Nietzsche turned to the affirmation of the will-to-live and Dionysian excess, while Wagner continued to confirm himself in the Schopenhauerian resignation and renunciation which led to the final music dramas, particularly Parsifal.
As Jan Fabre’s extraordinary meditation on Wagner, Tragedy of a Friendship, suggests, more than philosophical differences led to the final break. Philosopher Nietzsche considered himself a composer (though he was not a very good one); composer Wagner considered himself a philosopher (though, again, he turns out rather poorly in contrast to Nietzsche). Along with this certain professional jealousy, Nietzsche dealt with abstractions on the written page, while Wagner was much more a practical, if expansive, man of the theatre. On a more personal level, Nietzsche quickly became tired of acting as a mere acolyte for Wagner’s operas, while Wagner became more impatient with Nietzsche’s growing irritability (writing to Nietzsche’s doctor, Wagner blamed this on the philosopher’s excessive practice of masturbation — tongue rather firmly in cheek, I think, since Wagner really had no way of knowing).
The relationship was one of the great messes of early Modernism, and in celebrating Wagner’s 200th birthday this year, Fabre has created a grand post-Wagnerian pageant of his own out of this mess, the friendship a thread which strings together meditations about all 13 of Wagner’s operas, from Die Feen to Parsifal. These are, as can be expected from Fabre, sensualist meditations — as both a visual and a theatre artist, Fabre is most highly concerned with color and especially texture, the texture of steel, human skin, and costume. With his collaborators composer Moritz Eggert and librettist Stefan Hertmans, Fabre traces Wagner’s career through a perspective informed by industrialism, popular culture (through projections of silent-movie title cards introducing each opera and historical photographs of earlier Wagner performances), and especially organized violence.
Sensual gender play is never far from Wagner’s music dramas and indeed was a primary component in their private composition (it’s now generally believed that, in the privacy of his study, the composer donned pink silk lingerie to create the operas), and it is this contemporary conception of the artist as death-haunted sensualist, yearning for intellectual and philosophical respectability in the modern bourgeois sphere, that drives Tragedy of a Friendship. Early in the performance, there is a violent, explicit rape scene which out-Kanes Sarah Kane, deeply disturbing to watch but indicative of the violent uses to which industrial modernity subjects the female body (this is embedded in the section on Wagner’s Die Liebesverbot, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure); two and a half hours on, this is echoed by a sequence in which red roses bloom from women’s vaginas. Wagner’s Romanticism (and perhaps Fabre’s), anachronistic in an age of practical bourgeois industrialism and nationalism, marks an end of one kind of violent world and the beginning of another. But this is all experienced, not intellectualized, in Fabre’s images that deny any kind of firm rational interpretation.
The bell jars that frame the stage on either side are reminders of Victorian scientism: dating from the mid-19th-century, these were meant to provide vacuum-sealed vessels for taxidermy and experiments requiring an airless environment. In Fabre’s scenography they become instead constantly mutating arenas for the display of bodies, light, color, and vapor: organic activity even within a vacuum which should prevent it. (The bell jars were built by Heinz Fritz, and the video effects therein designed by Luca Brinchi, Roberta Zanardo, and Santasangre.) This too is a sensualist reconsideration of the organic world: a suggestion that organisms bear a kind of physical activity even when the necessary ingredients for that activity, such as oxygen, are removed. This acceptance of spirituality, even in the Christian sense as Parsifal posits, is beyond the abstract rationality of philosophy and the instrumental rationality of science and only contemplatable through art.
The score by Eggert is a similar meditation on Wagnerian themes (a few of Wagner’s leitmotifs are quoted — from Tannhauser, Die Walkure, and of course the Tristan chord), but like Fabre’s reconception of Wagnerian staging, these are shorn of Victorian ornamentation even as the music toys with these ornaments: neither tonal nor atonal (and Eggert has a few interesting things to say about this in a recent blog post), his score, shared between a chamber trio and the full Flanders Opera Symphony Orchestra, is also more of a tone poem about Wagner’s music, as Hertmans’ libretto is a poem about Wagner’s librettos and themes. Singers Lies Vandewege and Hans Peter Janssens are particularly powerful presences among the twelve-person performance ensemble, and in their only duet (during the Tristan und Isolde sequence, in which they are hung from a steel horizontal pole permitting them no escape except towards each other) they provide the most sublime musical moment of the evening.
Fortunately Fabre has the wisdom to disclaim any status as a messiah of postmodernism himself. Tragedy of a Friendship is considerably leavened with comedy rather than wit — there are obvious, blunt nods to Apocalypse Now and cheerfully juvenile caricatures of both Wagner and Nietzsche — and, at the end, a bash at modernist pretension itself. In the dream sequence which closes Tragedy, Wagner and Nietzsche climb to the peak of a high mountain, where they become enamored of the echoing sound of their own voices yelling each other’s names. But the ensemble, now dispersed in the auditorium itself (and no doubt exhausted), begins to pelt the two Teutonic icons with a barrage of junk, requiring the musician and the philosopher to beat a hasty retreat from their Valhalla. So let me not praise Fabre too highly — but get a word in edgewise for the bravery, courage, and talent of the remarkable ensemble (their names are listed at the start of this review), who appropriately chase the two egotists from the stage which, properly, belonged to them.
All That Fall by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Trevor Nunn. With Eileen Atkins (Maddy Rooney), Michael Gambon (Dan Rooney), Ruairi Conaghan (Christy), Frank Grimes (Mr. Tyler), Trevor Cooper (Mr. Slocum), Billy Carter (Tommy), James Hayes (Mr. Barrell), Catherine Cusack (Miss Fitt), Liam Thrift (Jerry) and Jess Regan (Voice-over). Designed by Cherry Truluck; lighting by Phil Hewitt; sound by Paul Groothuis. At 59E59 Theatres, 59 East 59th Street, through December 8. 75 minutes, no intermission.
The Lord upholdeth all that fall and raiseth up all those that be bowed down.
By the end of All That Fall, Samuel Beckett’s 1956 radio play now receiving a staged production at 59E59 Theatres, it’s clear that the Lord doeth no such things. Considering the phrase for only a second, Maddy Rooney and her husband Dan lean against each other and “join in wild laughter,” but the physical staging of the audio play also makes it clear that, if anybody is holding anybody up (for no on-stage character in the play falls down, though this nearly happens often enough, from beginning to end), it’s Maddy supporting Dan, Dan supporting Maddy — and indeed, Beckett’s middle-class Irish Protestant gentry all keep each other on their feet, even in the midst of unending suffering. This is the central recognition that Trevor Nunn’s staging leaves us with, a recognition that putting the play on its feet (so to speak) successfully and insightfully makes obvious, even though the rest of the staging is only partially successful, even fatally unbalanced.
All That Fall was Beckett’s first major dramatic work in English after the “Siege in the Room” writings of the late 1940s and early 1950s, and it seems that he was led to the play by a variety of paths, not least of which was the BBC’s interest in producing a play written especially for radio. Frank Beckett, the writer’s younger brother, died in 1954 following a long, painful battle with cancer, a battle to which Beckett was witness when he returned to Ireland to care for him. While visiting his native Foxrock, dubbed “Boghill” in the play, he may have conceived a new affection for the countryside, if not the country, and personalities of his birth and youth. Certainly Beckett’s memories provide one of the strands (along with Protestant Christianity) which make up the texture of All That Fall. Ultimately, the play’s message, if it can be said to have a message, lies in the necessity of compassion, especially the necessity for Boghill’s residents to lean upon each other to get through what may well be a meaningless day, not unlike Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, the play completed immediately prior to All That Fall. For all the near falls — Mr. Tyler from his bicycle, Maddy Rooney from Mr. Slocum’s car (or down the station stairs, supported only by the frail Miss Fitt), Dan from the arm of Jerry — nobody hits the ground. Those who do hit the ground — Dan and Maddy’s daughter Millie and the child who falls beneath the rails of the train — are innocents, and the Lord’s arms are conspicuously absent.
The play is entirely Maddy Rooney’s, the only character present from fade up to fade down, and it is she who provides the equilibrium for the form of All That Fall. As Eileen Atkins touchingly portrays her, Maddy is alternately proud and self-defeating, self-pitying and cruel, but nonetheless maintains the endurability, if not the strength, to make the long trip from her home to the train station to lead blind Dan back to safety. Those whom she meets on the way are comic cameos, each character with his or her own minor sufferings and victories. But it’s Maddy’s journey, no doubt about it — until Michael Gambon’s Dan makes his entrance about 45 minutes into the show.
And then, I’m afraid, something goes very amiss, for Mr. Gambon is a very fine actor who physically and emotionally fills the stage, and maybe here he over-fills it. His Dan is a huge, broadly gesticulating figure in worn gray trenchcoat, wild-haired and expansive, and he throws off the balance engendered by Ms. Atkins’ more restrained Maddy; though he accuses his wife of drinking, it’s Dan who seems to have taken a drop too much. His entrance was so arm-wavingly expansive the afternoon that I saw the play that he flubbed one of its most memorable lines: “Did you ever wish to kill a child? Nip some young doom in the bud?” emerged as “Nip some young bud in the doom,” which maintains the meter but quite eradicates the sense, script-in-hand or no. From that point on the play is Dan’s, and, per the form of the play, it shouldn’t be; and even Dan expresses considerable compassion for his wife, and still feels keenly her pain at the loss of their child, keeping her experience at the center of the play’s considerations. The close of the play is a depiction of Dan’s failure, despite all his compassion, to keep Maddy’s suffering, her realization of the mortality of herself and her child, at arm’s length; even compassionate love, it seems, is a less than effective salve for life’s searing pains; and it is yet another innocent child, Jerry, who brings the news (as it’s also little children who bring the bad news at the end of each act of Godot).
To speak to the play’s central narrative mystery, it’s ultimately unknowable whether or not Dan plays a role in the death of the child on the train; I don’t necessarily believe that the production overplays its hand and points to Dan’s guilt, as Jonathan Kalb concludes, but my own theory is that the Dan as written in the radio play, blind and physically dependent upon others to go about his daily business, doesn’t have the strength or resources to do anything so violent as to throw a struggling child from a train, though I believe that the Dan as portrayed by the hulking Mr. Gambon just might. Again, this shifts the play away from Maddy and onto Dan, however, and while some focus might shift in the reimagining of the play from airwaves to stage, I doubt this is what Trevor Nunn had in mind.
All that said, if this production of All That Fall is ultimately a failure, it is nonetheless a noble failure, not least because of its fine cast. The silence of God finds an objective correlative in Cherry Truluck’s scenic design — especially the grid of a dozen or so radio microphones hanging down about seven feet from the stage, twixt cast and Heaven, transmitting the sorrows of the characters to the non-existent ears of a missing God — and I confess I was left with a tear in my eye. Tickets will no doubt be scarce through the end of the limited run, but if one falls into your hands, take advantage of the opportunity.
More of my posts about theatre, drama, etc., can be found at my personal Web site, http://www.georgehunka.com. Don’t forget to visit it.