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The Power of Language

ART TIMES April, 2005

The curmudgeonly observer of contemporary theatre practice might well growl in his long gray beard about language in today’s plays. The curmudgeonly take on it all might come in the form of a wonderful rant about flat, dull, impotent writing that no longer even tries to move, surprise, delight or even tickle the ear. The curmudgeon might wonder why language that would not be heard in aisle twelve of the local supermarket must not be heard from the stage, and would, of course, point to the glories of the past as the shining example for the future.

But it doesn’t work anymore!” might be the cry of today’s playwrights in response. “I can’t write that stuff; it doesn’t work!

I happened upon a case in point recently, attending a production of Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses. Oddly enough for a play based upon and celebrating Greek and Roman mythology    often without making much distinction between the two —  it is written in the flat, dull prose of the supermarket, or, in one scene, the psychiatrist’s couch.

However, there is a truly striking moment that vividly demonstrates the power language does still possess on the stage.

In the second half of the play, rather toward the end as I recall, we have the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus dearly loves Eurydice; she dies; he goes to Hades and sings the gods of the underworld into releasing her. However, as they leave the realm of the dead, he must not turn around to see if she is following him; he must have faith until he gets back to the world of the living. Well, he can’t do it; he turns around too soon and loses her forever.

At the crucial moment, Zimmerman brings in the account of the story as told by the master German poet, Rainier Maria Rilke. Now the thing about Rilke is that even in English translation    Zimmerman seems to have used the Stephen Mitchell translation    the man writes black magic. Rilke didn’t see the world the way the rest of us do. He saw the secret heart of being in everything he looked at, and he created language that conveys it with utterly mystical clarity — mystical in that you know what he has led you to see, but you can no more express it yourself than the man in the moon.

The moment when the text shifts into Rilke’s voice was electrifying, even in the mediocre production I saw. Suddenly we had language, living, evocative, truly holy language coming from live and present lips into live and present ears. The fundamental truth I keep ranting about here    that the fundamental, irreplaceable, inimitable asset of the theatre is the living presence of the actor    was suddenly and brilliantly confirmed in the living sound of great language. And the moment when we shifted back out of Rilke’s voice was equally striking    Monday morning back in the office after a wonderful weekend, and the coffee is just a bit on the stale side.

Rilke is a modern poet. Mitchell is a modern translator. The text we heard is not all thee’s and thou’s and obscure flights of Renaissance fancy. It is simple, clear, contemporary, and utterly radiant. It demonstrates that language is not dead and that what we say from the stage does matter, particularly how we say it.

If the living presence of the actor is heart of what we do, then the words spoken by actors are crucial; the words that flow from living lips to living ears. Those words need to be the best they can be; we don’t need to impose a regime of dullness on ourselves in the name of some mistaken obeisance to superficial realism. It can be done yet today; some playwrights do it; it should be the goal of everyone who writes or translates for the stage. We could argue that we need it, but as Lear says, “O, reckon not the need!” Rather give it to us that we may rejoice in it!

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