Steppenwolf Theatre

If you are really to develop to your full stature, you will have, I think, to suffer, and make others suffer, in ways which are totally strange to you at present, and against every conscious value that you have; ie you will have to be able to say what you never have had the right to say–God, I’m a shit. –W.H. Auden, in a 1942 letter to Benjamin Britten

One of the problems about artists is that, damn it, they’re artists. They respond to compelling personal visions, not to the demands of their friends or their audiences; they make the books or music or pictures they make because they have no choice. Blessed and cursed by independent natures, they create work that inspires independent thoughts in others; sometimes, when enough people respond, those independent thoughts can make political or cultural revolutions. Then the artist must confront what he has wrought–and as often as not he’ll opt to remain as independent of the new order as he was of the old.

Two new plays by British writers explore the theme of the artist in a politicized society. Paul Godfrey’s Once in a While the Odd Thing Happens is a biographical work, a portrait of the composer Benjamin Britten (1913-’76). A Slip of the Tongue, by Dusty Hughes, depicts a fictional Eastern European writer during the political upheavals of 1989. Godfrey’s Britten is a young semi-innocent coming to terms with his homosexuality and his ambivalent relation to the leftist-pacifist movement in 1930s England, while Hughes’s hero, Dominic Tantra, is a middle-aged heterosexual wrung dry by the systematic repression of a totalitarian regime on the brink of collapse. In both men social dissidence is muted by personal diffidence as they wrangle with the question of what use, if any, their art is in a world filled with war and cruelty.

Set in the years 1936 to 1945, Once in a While the Odd Thing Happens looks at Britten in his early 20s, at the point when he broke with the poet Auden, his friend and frequent collaborator. The two met while working on several film projects, including a short bit of disarmament propaganda called Peace of Britain, whose fame stemmed mainly from the British War Office’s attempt to censor it. Britten’s work for film and radio also brought him into contact with a singer named Peter Pears, slightly older and considerably more experienced than the maidenly Britten. Britten and Pears traveled to the U.S. in 1939, partly in response to Auden’s urgings that they discover the freedoms of the new world and partly in despair at the inevitability of war in Europe. Britten, like Auden, attempted to “become American,” and wrote Paul Bunyan, a folk opera from whose libretto the play takes its title: “Society is right in saying nine times out of ten / Respectability’s enough to carry one along / But once in a while the odd thing happens . . . ” The work’s failure exposed the different directions the two friends were taking: Auden was committed to living the life of the bohemian bawd (his Brooklyn Heights household was an avant-garde menagerie whose inhabitants ranged from Carson McCullers to Gypsy Rose Lee), while Britten and Pears came to embrace their Englishness more fervently than ever, especially as their platonic love grew sexual. Britten’s return to England with Pears in 1942 marked an artistic break with Auden that generated some bitterness, expressed in Auden’s farewell letter quoted above. Yet the more overtly political Auden eventually came to disdain his youthful dogmatism, while Britten embarked on a series of operas written for Pears (Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, Death in Venice) that probed, with increasing sexual candor, the role of the outsider in a rigid society.

Paul Godfrey’s 1990 script, poetic in its lyricism and its indirect, metaphorical mode of expression, is given a simple, lovely production in its American premiere under David Perkovich’s direction. This show is by far the best I’ve seen Perkovich direct at his small Interplay theater, thanks mainly to the delicately balanced playing of its three principal actors. Christopher Royal’s earnest, confused, high-strung Britten superbly communicates the special tensions of a composer–perpetually frustrated at his inability to express his deepest feelings in a language most people can understand and haunted by sounds no one else can hear–and of a closeted young homosexual, drawn to and frightened by his older, less inhibited friends. Shole Milos has Peter Pears down pat–the smirk of secretive bemusement, the casually regal bearing, and the plainspoken but deeply felt devotion to his quirky beloved. Paul Myers’s chain-smoking Auden is appropriately droll and dictatorial, though Myers doesn’t quite suggest the genius behind the poet’s bad-boy pose. Stephanie Ferrell as Britten’s sister Beth and Ann James as his American friend Beata Mayer provide solid support.

Designer Andrew J. Dahlman’s simple setting–an arched platform in front of a spacious cyclorama–makes a fine canvas for Tom Fleming’s lovely lights, which create abstract patterns to reflect the thicket of thoughts through which Britten is stumbling and the stormy seascapes he found so dangerously beautiful.

Where the play falls short is in its evasive handling of the more controversial elements of Britten’s life, such as his pacifistic opposition to even a war against Hitler and his sublimated erotic interest in young boys. Still, I suppose that male-male kisses onstage are controversial enough for most audiences, even when they’re as chaste as the ones that Royal and Milos exchange.

The action in A Slip of the Tongue goes considerably beyond a few chaste kisses. Tongue isn’t the only thing Dominic Tantra slips to the four women who seek him out in the drama’s first act. When the play starts in early 1989, Tantra, played here by John Malkovich in the play’s world premiere, has recently been released from prison and is living isolated in a forest where technologically sophisticated bugging devices give new meaning to the phrase “I talk to the trees.” Tantra’s paranoia leads him to suspect that even the fish in the nearby stream are wired for sound–but who’s to say he’s wrong? The rulers who recently tortured his body still want to dominate his mind, so they arrange for Tantra’s hermitlike existence to be enlivened by visits from attractive informers–whom Tantra seduces while frisking them for hidden microphones. Tantra’s promiscuous habits are peculiarly well suited to his life-style: in a world without freedom there’s nothing left to lose.

So when the communist government of Tantra’s country falls, he finds himself in a strange situation: suddenly he has responsibilities, and he doesn’t like them. The pretty student revolutionary with whom he sets up house has expectations of him that he can’t meet. He can’t be sexually exclusive to her–it’s not in his nature. Neither is being politically correct. She views him as a hero because his books, absurdist satires of the socialist state, served as inspiration to the democratic forces that rose to bring down communism–but he is as unwilling to conform to the demands of the new democratic government as he was to the restrictions of its predecessor.

Filled with pungent satirical comment on sexuality and politics in its first act–a series of increasingly bizarre scenes in which Tantra parries with and beds the sexy college girls who’ve been sent to entrap him–A Slip of the Tongue fails to bring its philosophical and erotic conflicts to the necessary climactic boil under Simon Stokes’s direction. The final scenes between Tantra, his companion Katya, and his other bedmates prove no more dramatically meaningful than Robert Crumb’s old Fritz the Cat cartoons. If Hughes is making an ironic comment to the effect that Tantra’s life had more meaning under the old system than the current one, it doesn’t carry much weight–even as well played as it is by Malkovich and an international quartet of actresses: Ingeborga Dapkunaite (Lithuanian) as the committed Katya, Clotilde Courau (French) as the victimized Ivana, Lizzy McInnerny (English) as the athletic Isabel, and Kara Zediker (American) as the spacey Teresa. The undisguised clash between the actresses’ accents–reinforced by Malkovich’s own flat, sardonic midwestern drawl–is a gesture that will annoy some viewers, though I find it an interesting touch of stylized differentiation among women who might otherwise seem dramatically interchangeable. (The fact that the actress playing Tantra’s closest companion is a genuine product of the Eastern European political system is telling.)

As usual, since Steppenwolf moved into its new theater, the production is technically extraordinary. Kevin Rigdon provides the atmospheric lighting, and Thomas Lynch the set–a towering forest that seems to magically telescope into a dumpy urban apartment. Richard Woodbury’s sound design ranges from tasty jazz to the cacophonic sounds of revolution, and Kaye Nottbusch’s costume designs include a Tolstoyan tunic for Tantra and a series of clinging outfits for the women, whose main purpose seems to be to provide Simon Stokes with a variety of ways to stage disrobing scenes.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Greg Kolack, Michael Brosilow.