Friday 7 May 2010

'Kafka on wheels'

The Sunset Limited 
by Cormac McCarthy

This book is described as 'a novel in dramatic form'. I'm not sure what that's supposed to mean but if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it's a duck. By which I mean: it's a play. Now, I'm a firm believer that plays should be performed rather than just read, which is why I have only ever reviewed productions of plays rather than the texts themselves. Picador's presentation of this play as a novel invites me to do just that however and in fact the structure and content of the play mean that whilst it would certainly be nice to see it performed there's plenty to say about the text itself.

Originally performed by Steppenwolf Theatre Company back in 2006 the play is a duologue, and a dialogue in the classical sense between two men, Black and White, an African-American and a Caucasian. It seems that White has been rescued by Black from a suicide attempt in front of the train of the title and in Black's apartment the two men talk, Black attempting to extricate from White the reasons for his leap into oblivion whilst he also discusses his own life and faith in the Bible. We could accept the play at face value; Black an ex-convict with a violent past, who has made his room open to junkies in need of help, has another project in White, a man he doesn't want to let go until he's sure that he won't throw himself in front of the next train that happens along. But the character names and didactic structure invite us to see the apartment as a kind of limbo with Black fighting to save the soul of White from damnation. The two men wrestle with the big themes, Black using the Bible as his touchstone ('If it aint in here then I don't know it') and his faith in humanity, despite his own violent past, as the main force to try and help others. White, who had placed his own faith in Culture, if anything, has been left bereft - 'The things I believed in dont exist anymore. It's foolish to pretend that they do. Western Civilization finally went up in smoke in the chimneys at Dachau but I was too infatuated to see it. I see it now.'

For much of the play Black holds sway, dominating with his conviction and calmness in the face of White's rationalism. But there is a volte face near the end where White suddenly steps up to the mark and flattens all that has come before with his own conviction that 'You give up the world line by line....everything you do closes a door somewhere ahead of you. And finally there is only one door left'. This makes for pretty bleak reading of course but bleakness never stopped Beckett from being a theatrical genius. There are obvious comparisons with plays like Waiting For Godot, but you're always going to struggle when sitting alongside one of the greatest plays ever written (IMHO). Having said that the play lends itself to textual appreciation I can't help but wonder whether a live performance would be able to lift it beyond a mere recitation of arguments. There is no action to speak of - Black does get up from his chair at one point to make some food (never has soul food been so literal) but other than that it's just two men sat at a table. Again, there's no action in Godot beyond the entrance of Pozzo and Lucky, but the play's language is so rich in metaphor, symbolism and meaning - poetic and enigmatic - that it provides not just an evening's 'entertainment' but enough keep you going for a long time afterwards. The rather balder back and forth of argument in this play leaves you wishing for something a little more theatrical or dramatic, something with a little more character (perhaps this is what is meant by a novel merely in dramatic form).

There is McCarthian violence as you might expect although this is only reported rather than depicted. This play is all about what's on the page and to be fair there are some smart exchanges between the two men. The humanity of Black also has a curious effect on a play so bleak. He is gentle and warm, confident in his own faith and presumably in his ability to turn the situation around so that there is almost a smile, some humour, behind what he has to say to White. But the crushing weight of White's world view has a huge impact on the play. 'The one thing I won't give up is giving up', he says, and this because he has been left no alternative by his awakening to the real world around him.

I don't believe in God. Can you understand that? Look around you man. Can't you see? The clamor and din of those in torment has to be the sound most pleasing to his ear.

The most difficult thing he thinks for Black to hear is his view of what those with faith look to as their reward.

I yearn for the darkness. I pray for death. Real death. If I thought that in death I would meet the people I've known in life I don't know what I'd do. That would be the ultimate horror. The ultimate despair. If I had to meet my mother again and start all of that all over, only this time without the prospect of death to look forward to? Well. That would be the final nightmare. Kafka on wheels.

So I'm going to revert to my former opinion. Plays have to be seen, not just read. There is plenty to chew over in this book but it never really lifts off the page and at the end of the day, for all its dramatic form, it remains the articulation of argument rather than character and too far away from the humanity it seeks to explore.


Max Cairnduff 13 May 2010 at 12:10  

It sounds a tad worthy. Perhaps as you say it needs to be performed, certainly I've never found reading plays particularly rewarding.

I've no idea what a novel in dramatic form is. It sounds suspiciously like a lot of words which boiled down mean it's a play.

On Godot, I saw it for the first time only recently. The McKellen/Stewart production. I wasn't familiar with the play beyond the basics so it was a huge surprise when Pozzo turned up. He made for a slightly irritating element in the first half, transforming to something quite disturbing in the second.

"It seemed to me he saw us."

I was being dim that day, so it took me a while to work out why there were a large number of SF fans waiting outside talking about Star Trek and the X-Men. Most of them left at half time, disappointed no doubt by the lack of psychic duels or whatever. I hope though a few found a new interest, even if an unexpected one.

William Rycroft 14 May 2010 at 00:34  

I saw an extraordinary production of Godot at the Southwark Playhouse performed by The Godot Company, a collective theatrical company run with John Calder who was Beckett's publisher of course. The company of actors all knew multiple roles and so the cast was different each night and I found the evening completely intoxicating. Never have I been so pulled by the opposing forces of humanity and futility.

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