Next Theatre Company

In Robertston Davies’s novel Fifth Business an old Catholic priest tells the narrator, “The older I grow the less Christ’s teaching says to me.” I feel the same way about E. E. Cummings. Once, Cummings’s playfully rebellious poems, full of love and spring and birds and goat-footed balloonmen, seemed incredibly wise to me. But now, whenever I read his work, I see an old poet trying just a little too hard to remember and re-create the world as only the privileged young know it, a world where no one has to work, where money (or even talk of money) is conspicuously absent, where Mr. Death is so far away you can just barely see him walking up the path toward you. This is doubly true of Cummings’s autobiographical novel, The Enormous Room, in which we are expected to believe the narrator, who says (with only a hint of irony) that being placed in a concentration camp was, in its own way, a liberating and exciting experience. Sure it was. And I once wrestled a tiger in my pajamas. (What he was doing in them I’ll never know!)

The Enormous Room is Cummings’s account of the three months he and a friend, called only B. in the novel, were interned at La Ferte Mace concentration camp during the last days of the First World War. Like many other idealistic men of their generation, Cummings and B. had volunteered for the ambulance corps, expecting the war to be a nonstop adventure. In fact they found wartime life in France to be less than exciting. Cummings and B., who didn’t get along very well with their commanding officer, spent much of their time washing cars, cleaning out latrines, and doing other low-status jobs around camp. That all changed when B. wrote some fairly scathing remarks ahout the French in his letters home, which the French censors interpreted as proof that B. was a German spy. Both B. and his alleged accomplice Cummings were promptly arrested and interrogated by the authorities.

Fortunately, the French didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute either Cummings or B. for treason (or they might have been hanged). Instead, the French did the next best thing and threw the two into La Ferte Mace, an administrative limbo. Dubbed “The Enormous Room” by Cummings, La Ferte Mace was really a concentration camp for people the French suspected of being disloyal to the cause but could not justly imprison (or execute). In a word, the camp was a dumping ground for eccentrics, nonconformists, and misfits, the perfect company for a mildly bohemian proto-poet and his friend B. (The authorities made it very clear that the prisonlike camp was not a prison, and that the occupants of the nonprison were not prisoners–they just couldn’t leave.)

John Carlile’s stage adaptation of Cummings’s novel (now playing at the Next Theatre) is lovingly faithful to the original, which is both good and bad. Good, because Carlile preserves much that is worthwhile in Cummings’s work–his playfulness with language, his eye for odd and interesting characters. Bad, because Cummings’s 300-plus-page novel was meant to be read slowly and savored, not crammed into two short hours. On the Next Theatre’s stage, Cummings’s whimsically episodic novel becomes a series of unrelated stories that don’t quite add up to a full play. Trying to remedy this, Carlile devotes half of the second act to an extended story about a likable but half-crazy black man named Jean Le Negre, which only half succeeds. The portrait, quite interesting and entertaining in itself, only serves to remind us of how quickly sketched the other stories are. If only we could have gotten to know the other inmates as well as we get to know Jean.

Still, Carlile deserves some praise for bringing Cummings’s language to the stage. (Something even Cummings was not able to do, as he proved in such lifeless proto-absurdist plays as HIM.) Who else but Cummings could describe something as having “tasted like an attic where kites and toys are forgotten in a gentle darkness”? Or say, reminiscing about his friend Jean Le Negre, “The flesh of your body is like the flesh of a very deep cigar. Which I am still and always quietly smoking”?

However, there are limits to what an actor can do; not all of Cummings’s wordplay comes off equally well on the stage. In fact, some of his language sounds downright ponderous and pretentious. And even lines that are mildly clever on the page, such as Cummings’s description of being hauled off to prison–“the indisputable and authentic thrill of going somewhere and nowhere under the miraculous auspices of some one and no one”–just don’t work on the stage. The same is even more true of Cummings’s hopelessly pagebound poetry. Made for the eye not the ear, his poetry was never meant to be sung. Something I didn’t realize until I tried to follow the lyrics of a song in the show made from one of Cummings’s poems. Three lines into a poem that began, “when faces called flowers float out of the ground / and breathing is wishing and wishing is having / and keeping is downward and doubting and never” my mind just gave up, and from then to the end of the song, the poetry just washed over me, a babbling stream of nouns and verbs and adjectives.

Carlile (as adapter and director) must shoulder some of the blame when the language doesn’t work, as must the two actors who play Cummings. (Carlile chose to split Cummings in two, separating the Cummings who narrates from the Cummings who experiences the story. Quite an interesting effect, really, full of interesting possibilities, not all of them fully explored.) Both Terry Green (the narrator Cummings) and Todd Weeks (the young Cummings) seem quite comfortable onstage, and both prove themselves capable enough actors. Yet neither of them quite gets the hang of speaking Cummings’s highly poetic prose–sometimes they get the words right, but seem to miss the meaning. (Not surprising, really, considering how difficult Cummings’s syntax can be.)

More surprising, however, is the way neither actor even tries to speak in Cummings’s dry, laconic, raised-and-educated-in-Cambridge (Massachusetts) way, nor does either of them look particularly like the poet (or any poet, for that matter). The handsome Todd Weeks plays Cummings as an upper-middle-class suburbanite (Cummings as Northwestern undergraduate). And Terry Green, looking quite dapper, plays the narrator Cummings as far more prosperous than you’d expect. (Going by the clothes alone you’d believe that spending time La Ferte Mace prepared Cummings quite well for success in the business world.) At no time would either of them ever be confused with the round-headed, almost bald, vaguely oriental-looking Cummings.

Clearly, it was a director’s choice to make the younger Cummings into just another good-natured but naive Yankee lad and the narrator Cummings into a Jazz Age businessman, but why? Why must one of our most iconoclastic poets be turned into just another stock character out of Hollywood’s handy warehouse of early-20th-century stereotypes?

It’s possible to make too much of these flaws in the show. Imperfect though it is, The Enormous Room is still spirited, exuberant, and, for the most part, entertaining–an impressive debut for a young director, still in his early 20s. Indeed, Carlile has proved himself a man with plenty of talent and promise; with a little seasoning, he may turn into a director to be reckoned with.