March 30, 2011

Staging Poetry: Adaptation, Persona, Innocence, Experience

Caffeine Theatre's mission is "to mine the poetic tradition to explore social questions." Our current rotating repertory consists of two plays that approach contemporary poetry in different ways. Caridad Svich has written a poetic play that draws on a long history of poetry, using Euripides and William Blake as source material. Cornelius Eady's play began as a book of poetry; he adapted his own poems for the stage in collaboration with director Diane Paulus.

D'wayne Taylor (Mr. Zero) and Samantha Gleisten (Susan Smith); Photo by Jason Beck

Brutal Imagination is a script adapted from Cornelius Eady's poem cycle of the same title. In the published volume, the speaker of the poems is Mr. Zero, the imaginary black man blamed by Susan Smith for the disappearance of her children. In the play, Mr. Zero recites several of the poems as monologues ("How I Got Born"; "The Unsigned Confession of Mr. Zero"), and takes on the personae of several stereotypical black caricatures ("Uncle Tom in Heaven"; "Aunt Jemima's Do-Rag"; "Buckwheat's Lament"). The book of poems includes some contextual information: a brief note about the 1989 case of Charles Stuart, who also blamed a black man for his own crime, prefaces the poem "Charles Stuart in the Hospital." This kind of context is expanded in the play, as news reports come through on the radio or are recited by Susan; Susan and Mr. Zero recount witness testimony; and Mr. Zero confronts Susan with documentary evidence that suggests the motive for her crime.

Susan's voice also joins Mr. Zero's in several of the poems as they dance a dangerous tango together (figuratively and literally, at one point in our production). Perhaps the most interesting mingling of these two voices is the juxtaposition of the poems "What Is Known About the Abductor" and "What Isn't Known About the Abductor." Susan recites lines from "What Is Known," addressing them directly to Mr. Zero. Mr. Zero counters with shorter lines from "What Isn't Known." The combination of these two poems underscores that most of "What Is Known About the Abductor" is negative information, a list of things "the Abductor" has NOT done. "What Is Known" and "What Is Not Known" are, in effect, the same category. Though their physical tango ends, Susan and Mr. Zero remain linked together as they undergo a polygraph test, until finally Susan confesses and Mr. Zero is pried away from her.

Sean Thomas (Nurse) and Ian Daniel McLaren (Second Son) in rehearsal; photo by Dan Smith

In addition to its fascinating relationship to Euripides' Medea, Wreckage incorporates two poems by William Blake. Nurse quotes Blake's poetry when he meets each of the two sons in the play. The poem "Infant Joy" gives a name to Second Son:

"I have no name;

I am but two days old."

What shall I call thee?

"I happy am,

Joy is my name."

Sweet joy befall thee!

Pretty joy!

Sweet joy, but two days old.

Sweet joy I call thee...

"Infant Joy" is from Songs of Innocence. It has a corresponding poem in Songs of Experience: "Infant Sorrow." In some ways, "Infant Sorrow" is quite relevant to First Son's journey of striving and struggling with a Mother figure and a Father figure. "Bound and weary I thought best/ To sulk upon my mother's breast." Woman accuses First Son of "sulking" and "brooding," much like "Infant Sorrow" in Blake's poem.

When Nurse encounters First Son near the end of the play, he begins to recite "Little Boy Found," another poem from Songs of Innocence:

The little boy lost in the lonely fen,

Led by the wandering light,

Began to cry,

but God, ever nigh,

Appeared like his father, in white.

He kissed the child,

and by the hand led,

And to his mother brought,

Who in sorrow pale,

through the lonely dale,

Her little boy weeping sought.

Nurse's recitation is interrupted by First Son after the second line of this poem. Perhaps this interruption precludes a happy reunion with the mother; or perhaps the mother figure seeking her boy with tears in her eyes is a more threatening presence. Songs of Innocence also includes "The Little Boy Lost," a poem about a boy seeking his father. But there is another poem, "A Little Boy Lost" from Songs of Experience that seems more germane to Second Son's situation. "A Little Boy Lost" begins: "'Nought loves another as itself, / Nor venerates another so.." This opening mirrors Second Son's reflections on love when he first meets Nurse. ("I know true love doesn't exist.") As the poem continues, the boy is handled roughly by a priest for daring to question authority. This "little boy lost" is ultimately bound in chains and burned on an altar as his parents look on, powerless. Second Son's final monologue, in which he claims an identity as a sacrificial body, links him to Blake's "Little Boy Lost" from Songs of Experience. Indeed, the journey from Innocence to Experience is addressed in the closing scene of the play. First Son says to Second Son, "You're older," but Second Son insists that they are the same. Nonetheless, Second Son goes on to speak a poetic parable about murderous animals that might serve as a rewriting of scripture.

These are only some of the poetic engagements of Brutal Imagination and Wreckage, two rich texts that offer fascinating interplay with questions of adaptation and appropriation.

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