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Susan Wise Bauer

Letter from London

This issue we feature a guest column in the form of a letter from Susan Wise Bauer, who has been writing for Books & Culture from the early days. —JW

I have just had the most bizarre evening watching the National Theatre's staging of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. (I'm in London, working at the British Museum for a week. This history-of-the-whole-world project is a great gig; I can go do research pretty much anywhere and chalk it up to the necessities of work.) I bought a ticket a while back because I was thoroughly curious. How on earth would you stage such a thing?

Well, it was painful. I actually enjoy a good fantasy, but fantasy should at least be consistent. "The knife we have just discovered is the only one that will kill the Authority!" No particular reason. "You can become the Bearer of the Knife if you learn to master and use your pain!"—this straight out of thin air, three hours in, with absolutely no setup. "I will kill him if I see him … but I cannot go with you!" No particular reason. "The dust is seeping through the rips between worlds!" Er … why would that be, exactly?

All of the middle-school children around me (the performance is sold out to the end of its run) loved it, though. I figured out eventually that their imaginations were seized by the pure mechanics of taking a fantasy novel and putting it on stage. Going out, do you know what I heard over and over? "I can't believe they figured out how to do that!" That was what held the attention for three and a half hours. Nicholas Hynter figured out how to put demons and talking bears and rifts in the universe onstage, and yes, it was interesting to see. (Innovative use of puppets and very big masks.) I had a glass of wine at the interval, which made the beginning of Act II a bit more interesting, but by the middle of the second half I was in a state of eye-rolling and sigh-heaving exasperation: If I hear one more idiotic garbled badly researched rehashing of popularized gnosticism plus quantum mechanics, I will EXPLODE, that's what. And please don't get me started on the one character with an American accent—a Texan with a cowboy hat, a Burt Reynolds beard, a pet jackrabbit, and a penchant for blasting off his six-shooter at anything in sight.

But then I realized that no one was following the gnosticism. It was a Cool Spectacle. I had dinner afterwards at the Mezzanine Restaurant overlooking the Thames, which had one other occupied table in it (the first week of March is definitely the best time to visit London). The party at the next table turned out to include one of the lead actors, who had removed a huge amount of character makeup, not to mention claws and tail (if you haven't read Pullman, it's a long story) in record time. He was having a late dinner and champagne with a couple of friends who had just seen the production for the first time. One friend says: "So has Philip Pullman been around?" and I shamelessly eavesdrop.

Actor: "Yes, he's been in and out, he's rewritten a lot of the lines for us. There was a lot of protest about the way the play treats Christianity, you know, but he was absolutely right, he stuck to his guns and it's just brilliant, very brilliant, really a wonderful commentary on Christianity."

Friend: "Oh, I'm so ignorant about all of that, you know? Hey, how many levels are there in that theater? How did they get all those scenes up?"

Actor: "Well, they've put half a million quid into rebuilding the Olivier stage, you know. … "

Half an hour of "How did they do that?" followed. They never did get back to the gnosticism.

This, mind you, was only a few hours after I'd been to Evensong at St. Paul's Cathedral. Which was lovely, let me say, shiver-inducing and gorgeous, but also a spectacle. All of the responses had become choral pieces. This, I guess, is inevitable when you have a cityful of tourists. But in fact there were only eleven of us there; the choir outnumbered us, and I realized about halfway through that all the other people must have been tourists, because they were looking at me to figure out when to stand, sit and kneel. And considering that I was raised a Baptist, that's tragic.

It was much more than spectacle for me; the beauty had actual meaning. But only because the service followed the same pattern of confession, forgiveness, worship, prayer, and blessing that was already filled with significance for me, thanks to the last fifteen painful, non-gorgeous, non-shiver-inducing years of learning how to live in a believing community back in Charles City, Virginia. Essentially the performance of the service itself was spectacle, just as much as the Pullman play; but a spectacle whose audience had moved on.

Maybe the audience will come back, in time. It's odd to realize that what held that audience at the Pullman play was the difficulty of putting special effects onstage, in this era of amazing movie effects. But that's why they were enthralled. Movies have lost their thrill, frankly; all of the work that goes into producing the effects goes on behind the curtain, as it were, and the audience simply accepts them. Sure we can put a hundred thousand Orcs besieging Helm's Deep on screen, why not? (Er … was it difficult?)

But to do this onstage has, paradoxically, become that much more impressive, because the audience can see the seams. When the seams are invisible, everyone forgets that they're around. Not too long ago I found some old records (yes, records) that I'd loved in high school, dragged them out and played them on a very old portable record player for my kids. The sound quality was horrendous. But the boys were fascinated. My ten-year-old, who plays CDs and incredibly elaborate role-playing computer games without once stopping to ask how it all works, said, "That is the coolest thing I've ever seen!" and went to find an encyclopedia so that he could figure out how that needle makes a sound. Spectacle gains most of its power when the seams are visible.

Tomorrow night, mercifully, I get to go see Macbeth as staged by the RSC. And yes, I am doing some work between theater visits. Today I saw the actual tablets of Gilgamesh and the cuneiform Babylonian version of the flood story. I stood there with my mouth hanging open and took, oh, thirty pictures or so (all of which will probably look like clay tablets, when I get them home and developed).


Susan Wise Bauer is the author most recently of The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had (Norton). She's writing a history of the world, also to be published by Norton.

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