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A R T S    &    C U L T U R E
Rediscovering a Great Ruin
Eve Tushnet • “Waste Land”
December 1998

Usually, when a reviewer writes that a production was “risky,” he means, “Well, I didn’t like it, but it seems very cultured, and everyone else laughed at the same times.” But Gerard Passannante’s production of “T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land” (as adapted by the director) managed to be risky without showing off or shoving his avant-garde ambitions in front of Eliot’s words. The show was passionate, witty, and well-acted.

One might be forgiven for doubting that Passannante’s show would be worthwhile. The arty touches began in the playbill, which juxtaposes poetry about the theater by Wallace Stevens and... Gerard Passannante. The actresses are divided into “Framers” and “Waste Women.” When they first appeared, these actresses would not reassure the viewer who feared a night of incomprehensible, cleverer-than-thou “riskiness.” The Framers wore all black, with white masks, and held a picture frame in each hand. The Waste Women, by contrast, were all in white. Given that the show took place in a gym and had no set beyond a few wires and ropes, this looked to be an off-off-off-off-Broadway kind of evening.

Then the Waste Women began to move, and the show began to enthrall. As a recording of Eliot reading the beginning of the poem played over music (providing the only male voice in the production), the three women struck stylized poses in harsh lighting. All three Waste Women—Shana Crystal, Cleo Godsey, and Lyric Benson—have startlingly expressive faces and body language. They looked more like high-contrast photographs, artistic distillations, than like human beings. The tableaus gave the women distinct personalities: needy, scheming and lascivious, disaffected. They suggested grand passions, Dido and Antigone, surrounded by petty lusts and disappointments. The women became archetypal figures; although a review of the show described its theme as “female imprisonment,” the actresses were portraying universal types while remaining gendered. They were portraying the female version of a universal imprisonment—perhaps the great imprisonment, by death, which forces both grand and petty to meet the same end.

However, when the actresses began to recite the poem, it became clear that this high distillation and stylization was not entirely in keeping with the tone of Eliot’s poem. Eliot is one of the most specific, concrete writers, filling his poems with pictures of things. His “unreal cities” are “Jerusalem Athens Alexandria/Vienna London,” not some nameless, historyless moonscape city. His wasteland is full of detritus. He gets his effects of universality by constantly, unexpectedly, and often obscurely thrusting particular items, people, and places into the poem. When the recitation of his words was drowned out by overlapping voices or gales of laughter, the production became totally removed from the specifics in which Eliot traded. 

The full-throated acting also verged on histrionics far more often than can be excused by saying, “Oh, it must be an ironic commentary.” A little bit of the slumber-party-fever-dream atmosphere goes a long way; as does the Shirley Temple voice of one of the actresses. Eliot’s poem, with its ellipses and fragmented memories and carefully-controlled rendition of despair, reads as if it were the mutterings of a man alone in a cafe, who only intermittently remembers how much has been and will be lost. Passannante’s production usually shouted over the quieter moments of the poem, and used large gestures when smaller ones would have been more effective.

Two elements of the stylization raise more specific questions. One is the addition of the Framers. Perhaps the picture frames were meant to confine our view of the actresses, making us see them as merely types, even stereotypes of passion and drama. They made us see the grand and stark movements as somewhat fake. This might explain the white masks as well. But the Waste Women’s terrific energy, and the sharpness of their portrayals of desperation and folly, forced us to see them as more than repetitions of an old, tired drama. Thus the Framers seemed tacked-on, unnecessary, distractions and detractions from the main business of the show—or if not the main business as its director intended, at least the most important business.

This is not true of the second element of stylization, the use of an all-female cast. Although The Waste Land is definitely written in a man’s tones, it is thronged with women. More importantly, by enacting a poem in a man’s tones through the voices of women, Passannante was able to show us what the feminine version of The Waste Land might look like. He was able to show how Eliot’s poem is thoroughly relevant to both sexes, without discounting the importance of gender in poetry and performance. It was a tough act to pull off, and the show acquitted itself beautifully.

When it worked, the production was astonishing. It opened new perspectives on the poem. At one point, when the poem as written is narrated by Queen Victoria, the actress reciting the lines transforms herself into a Long Island matron complete with accent and gestures. Far from a gratuitous avant-gardism, it brought out the pettiness of the lines (“He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you/To get yourself some teeth”) as well as the fact that true emotions and real betrayals can be expressed and felt even by petty people: “...he wants a good time,/And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I said./Oh is there, she said. Something o’ that, I said./Then I’ll know who to thank, she said, and give me a straight look.” Two actresses switched off lines here, one the loud Long Islander and one a slinky sophisticate—and when the Long Island matron realized that she might really be in danger of losing her husband to her rival, she displayed real fear without becoming hysterical. The scene was punctuated by a very calm voice, the third actress, who would not be denied but simply repeated, “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME.” 

Some of the show’s great moments came from similarly bold interpretations of the text, as when two parallel scenes were played out with almost the same words: In one, a woman desperately pled with her lover, “Stay with me. Why do you never speak. What are you thinking of?” while another teased, luxuriantly, “Speak to me. Speak. What thinking? What?”

More often, however, the show succeeded when Eliot’s words were given the sparest possible costuming—when it was just the actresses, reciting, in strong but controlled tones. Then the stylized poses made sense; they balanced the calm speech with operatic gestures. The segment, “I have heard the key/Turn in the door once and turn once only/We think of the key, each in his prison/Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison...” was stunning in its recognition that when we remember what it means to be free, we are forced to see how enslaved we are. 

The production made The Waste Land frightening in new ways. It showed the light breaking in different angles over a great poem shaped like a ruin. 

—Eve Tushnet, Editor-in-Chief


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