Image: Vincent Van Gogh, Weeping Woman, 1883
HOW TO DO IT. How to write about the things we see, hear, read, think about? The things that move us. How to get to the bottom of why we’re moved? Don’t I open up file after file, begin essay after essay — find myself distracted, or frustrated, or simply incapable of making the connections I know are there? I do. And doesn’t that make it hard to come back, to sustain the conviction — while I’m waiting for things to land and make sense — that it matters what I think and feel?
I wanted to write about Krapp’s Last Tape, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre: how I knew I was seeing something remarkable (John Hurt as Krapp); how I was tired, and made the mistake of drinking a glass of wine before the show, during which I was therefore compelled to pinch my thighs to stay awake; how I drifted in and out in spite of my efforts, and, naturally, punished myself for drifting; how, disgusted with myself, it got so I couldn’t tell what was real, dreamed, that is, in my seat in the theater, and what was staged and acted on the proscenium below. Whose mother were we talking about? Whose birthday? Whose memories and mortality, Krapp’s or mine?
Next, I planned to write about Other Desert Cities at the Mark Taper Forum. I wondered: did John Robin Baitz inadvertently stumble into the current argument about truth in nonfiction or did he invent it? In his excellent play, a writer, Brooke Wyeth, comes home for Christmas with a dangerous and damaging memoir under her arm. Her parents don’t want her to publish the work. And the book she eventually winds up writing (spoiler alert, but I’m not spoiling much) doesn’t come close to telling the facts. Which made me want to ask the playwright: does his character ultimately sell her “memoir” as fiction or nonfiction?
Then Gatz came to town and I found myself with another gate-crashing essay-in-progress, about a production in which an acting company — New York City’s Elevator Repair Service — reads The Great Gatsby from beginning to end; six and a half hours of theatre (interrupted by two intermissions and a dinner break), and this time I never closed my eyes, not once. If you were there, too, and if you supposed, as some card-carrying critics did, that this was a staged adaptation of the classic — you missed the point, I think. For though it’s absolutely faithful to the text, Gatz is a not performance of Gatsby, not really. It’s a play about reading: it tells the story of what happens when a reader falls under the spell of a beautiful book.
So. A month or so ago — having convinced myself that Beckett would have approved of my misery (my experience of his play much more in keeping with his oeuvre, than if I’d been riveted, right?) — I’d made a bunch of notes towards that piece about Krapp. Which hadn’t come round for me by the time I saw the Baitz play. After which I opened another file. And same thing all over again with Gatz. And, if I hadn’t been distracted and frustrated by one piece after the other — if, even a week ago, I’d gone back to any of those essays — who’s to say whether I’d have linked them or how? Who ever knows what she’s writing about before she’s written? In each case, seems to me, I was interested in theater as literature; and I’m certain I intended to consider the role of the audience — since, in all three productions, the actors break the fourth wall to acknowledge and implicate us all.
In the meantime, though, a boy — a sick, disturbed boy — walked into an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut and mowed down a bunch of little kids with a machine gun. And under the circumstances, all of us implicated in one way or another, how to carry on about art or theater or writing? How do anything but wonder out loud what sort of people those babies might have grown up to be? How for any one of us to pretend to make sense of anything, in the face of such unspeakable loss?
Under the circumstances, how is it I have the audacity to open my mouth? The compulsion to write? But I do. And in my struggle to find the right angle and tone (if there’s any such thing), it occurs to me that Beckett and Baitz and Fitzgerald are connected in ways I hadn’t considered: it’s not just that these productions were conceived, written, and staged by artists deeply invested in language, and form, and the human condition. It’s that all three plays are focused on characters preoccupied with the value of memory and getting it right: Krapp, determined to record his life on tape; Brooke Wyeth, resolved to publish a family memoir; Carraway, compelled to witness and mourn; and all three plays about coming to terms with loss, and the ties that bind; all three serving to remind us of the power of narrative — the written word, that is — to illuminate and transform.
Except. Except sometimes there’s no obvious narrative, is there? And that’s when we turn to the poets — or at least I do — for solace and relief. What we do know? It will get harder before it gets easier. But “Wait,” wrote Galway Kinnell:
Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become lovely again.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again,
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands. And the desolation
of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness
carved out of such tiny beings as we are
asks to be filled; the need
for the new love is faithfulness to the old.
Don’t go too early.
You’re tired. But everyone’s tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a while and listen.
Music of hair,
Music of pain,
music of looms weaving all our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear,
the flute of your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.
Sometimes there’s no chance of transformation, not the good kind, and nothing to do but carry on. And that being so, we owe it to those who grieve to mark the moment, to say it out loud — to try to restore, if we can, their faith in themselves, and in living, and in the passage of time.