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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 ...

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