R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe

at the Mercury Theater

By Justin Hayford

In the late 1930s R. Buckminster Fuller introduced the Dymaxion bathroom, ingeniously designed to revolutionize society. The self-contained unit was made of four sheet-metal stampings bolted together and compressed a sink, shower, tub, and toilet into a few square feet. All its shiny corners were rounded, making swabbing easy and the buildup of mildew nearly impossible. The toilet, which used no water, sealed human waste into plastic bags, which could then be turned over to a collection service for compost. Taking a shower required only one cup of water, sprayed over the body as a fine mist from Fuller’s fog gun. The entire unit was light enough to be carried by two people. Given the extraordinary efficiency and eco-friendliness of his design, Fuller couldn’t understand why the Dymaxion bathroom never caught on. But the reason is obvious: most people wouldn’t enjoy shitting and showering every day in an oversize sardine can.

Fuller, who died in 1983, was one of the 20th century’s most original and idiosyncratic thinkers, devoting over 50 years of his life to what he called “comprehensive anticipatory design science.” It was his conviction that “emphemeralization”–doing the most with the least material–could eliminate want. Efficiently designed technology, driven by humanitarian impulses (there’s the rub), could provide everything to everyone, rendering selfishness “unnecessary.” Contemptuous of inertia-laden political processes, he insisted that “changing the environment, not the man” was the surest way to create an egalitarian world.

Fuller’s accomplishments are undeniable. His geodesic dome is the most resource-efficient, resilient structure ever designed, enclosing the most open space with the least amount of material. His projection of the earth, generated from a icosahedron-based geometry of his own invention, gives the most accurate flat representation of the planet’s land masses ever. Even his long-forgotten rowing needle, a kind of double-hulled kayak, is a marvel of ingenuity. But like most utopian visions, Fuller’s was at once inspiring and ludicrous, relying on a keen ignorance of human nature. People aren’t usually motivated by efficiency–which Fuller suggests should be our prime mover–but by pleasure; how else to explain the lure of highly inefficient activities like sex, gourmet dining, and plain old sitting around? And selfishness provides a certain amount of pleasure–knowing your geodesic dome is bigger and better than the jerk’s next door–so humans are loath to relinquish it no matter the gains in efficiency or egalitarianism.

In short, the joy of engaging with Fuller’s ideas is the joy of having a ferocious good-natured argument with someone. His goals are so laudable and his imagination so robust that one longs to yank the man from his impractical idealistic haze and force him to consider solutions that take into account psychological, economic, and political realities. However, an argument is one thing you won’t get from R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe, a two-and-a-half-hour quasi-hagiographic portrait of a lovable, loquacious kook who speaks more infallibly than the pope.

The monologue is written and directed by D.W. Jacobs, who cofounded the San Diego Repertory Theatre 25 years ago, and performed by Ron Campbell, who’s no stranger to one-man shows. The format is simple. Fuller takes the stage in his trademark black three-piece suit, talks a blue streak for a little over an hour, announces he has to pee, leaves for intermission, then returns to talk another blue streak. Interspersed with bits from his life story are omnidirectional detours on human perfectibility, the laws of universal geometry, the scientific definition of love, the difference between knowing and feeling, meeting Albert Einstein, and taking care of his sister’s dog. Projected on a large video screen at the rear of the stage are beautiful but redundant images. When Fuller speaks of being in a forest, we see a picture of a forest. When he talks about a lake, we see a picture of a lake. When he holds up a triangle and announces, “This is a triangle,” we see…well, you get the picture.

Campbell is a spirited, engaging performer with expertly honed physical skills and an endearing vulnerability. He may lay on the breathless, exuberant quirkiness a bit thick, hopping around the stage, adopting a character voice, or breaking into song so eagerly that the evening becomes rather exhausting. But no matter how far afield Fuller wanders in his musings, Campbell is never less than compellingly human, always working through the dozen thoughts and emotions behind whatever he’s saying.

The problem is Jacobs’s script, a bizarre, sometimes opaque barrage of ideas, anecdotes, theories, and reminiscences. It’s rare for his Fuller to stay on one topic for more than a few minutes, and while certain escapades may prove momentarily enlightening–watching Fuller play inside an oversize icosahedron is particularly charming–the cumulative effect is intellectually deadening. Some may argue that the script’s stream-of-consciousness structure mimics Fuller’s own lectures; he was famous for delivering daylong extemporaneous talks. But while the real Buckminster Fuller holding forth in such a manner may have been captivating, an ersatz Fuller meandering for over two hours is an exercise in theatrical noise.

Jacobs never takes Fuller to task, letting his subject soliloquize without restraint or direction, giving the passing anecdote nearly as much importance as the discovery of a universal principle. Now and then he tries to humanize his Fuller, who gets instantly choked up remembering his long-dead daughter or thinking about his currently sick wife in sentimentalized, manipulative moments. But the playwright never questions or probes his material, offering only unabashed reverence for his subject. As a result, Fuller has nothing to overcome and no dramatic reason to address an audience at such length. Watching the performance is a bit like flipping randomly through a few thousand pages of Fuller’s writing.

Jacobs finally finds some purpose in the final 20 minutes or so of the script, as Fuller tries to impress upon us the need to think globally in order to end starvation and make war obsolete. Compared to the rest of the show, the finale is quite compelling–in large part because it’s comprehensive and comprehensible–but it also glosses over one of the most problematic tenets of Fuller’s ideology. We must refashion the entire world by relying on individual creativity and initiative, he says, ultimately overturning deeply entrenched systems of production and distribution. Admonishing his audience in terms well suited to our Oprah-fied culture, he insists that the most important change you can make is to Think for Yourself, ignoring the necessity of collective action to solve global problems.

There was an unmistakable feeling of semicultish boosterism at the opening-night performance, and Fuller-ites will undoubtedly flock to this show. But with all its verbiage producing precious little effect, this production couldn’t be more at odds with Fuller’s own credo–it’s one of the most inefficient pieces of theater you’re likely to see.

The following plays are reviewed this week in Section Two: Bee-Luther-Hatchee, Cannibals, Clay Continent, Cupid: Drawn and Quartered, David Copperfield, Defending the Caveman, A Doll’s House, Fuddy Meers, Hippolytus, Nelson Algren: For Keeps and a Single Day, and Three Sisters. Also in Performance: Jim Carrane Is Living in a Dwarf’s House and The Gong Show (Freaks on Parade).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David M. Allen.