Vin Knight and Susie Sokol in ERS’s new show.
- The Advertiser March 12, 2010
- The Australian March 15, 2010
- Expresso-Actual January 24, 2009
- Publico January 20, 2009
- The New Yorker May 5, 2008
- The New York Times April 30, 2008
- Time Out New York April 30-May 6, 2008
- Time Out New York April 30, 2008
- The New York Sun April 30, 2008
- The International Herald Tribune April 29, 2008
- Backstage April 29, 2008
- Variety April 29, 2008
- The New York Times April 27, 2008
- Variety November 30, 2007
- The Brooklyn Rail April 2008
- The Village Voice March 4, 2008
- Variety November 30, 2007
Intruder In The Wings: A Staging Of William Faulkner’s ‘The Sound And The Fury’
by Hilton Als
The evening I saw “The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928),” the theatre company Elevator Repair Service’s rendition of the first section of William Faulkner’s 1929 masterpiece (at the New York Theatre Workshop), about a third of the audience left during intermission. I found this oddly gratifying, but not for the reasons that my less than enchanted fellow-theatregoers might imagine. Yes, the show, at two and a half hours, is too long. And, yes,it can, at times, be boring. But how marvellous it is to see that Faulkner’s radicalism as an artist- his themes and his experimental techniques, which trounce any persistent belief you may have that the world makes sense and that art should reflect that- can still put people off.
On being told that movies should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, Jean-Luc Godard responded, “But not necessarily in that order.” Many of Faulkner’s novels and short stories don’t even try to follow a chronology. They are attempts at the near-unattainable: reshaping the reader’s consciousness. Ambition like that can cause an artist to make plenty of mistakes- part of the curse of genius, it seems, is a propensity for educating oneself in public. And what the Elevator Repair Service production reveals (under the masterly direction of John Collins) is Faulkner’s ragged roots as an artist: his love of melodrama, his political weakness on the subject of blacks and segregation, and his conflicted relations with young women, on the page and off.
“The Sound and the Fury,” published when Faulkner was thirty-one, newly married, and broke, is a transcendent work about girlhood, race, and a mother’s emotional control of her family. Faulkner, as he wrote it, was fully aware that it was the kind of work most writers long to produce: free of editorial constraints, a pure mining of his imagination. In a 1983 memoir, Ben Wasson, an editor who was working with Faulkner on his previous book, “Flags in the Dust” (subsequently titled “Sartoris”), recalled that one day “Bill came to my room as usual…He didn’t greet me with his softly spoken ‘good morning’ but merely tossed a large obviously filled envelope on the bed. ‘Read this one, Bud,’ he said. ‘It’s a real son of a bitch.’…’This one’s the greatest I’ll ever write. Just read it,’ he said, and abruptly left.” The next morning, Wasson told Faulkner that the novel had left him “emotionally stirred for many hours.” He also said that “the sheer technical outrageousness and freshness of the Benjy section made it hard to follow.”
Readers are still daunted by the Benjy section- the opening chapter of the book, which is divided into four parts, each told from a different point of view. The first narrator, Benjamin Compson, is a nearly mute, mentally handicapped thirty-three-year-old whose childlike mind flits indiscriminately between the present and the past, thus establishing one of Faulkner’s recurring motifs. (“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” a character in his 1951 novel, “Requiem for a Nun,” notes.) While these chronological shifts are difficult to pull off in writing (initially, Faulkner had hoped that Benjy’s thoughts and reminiscences could be published in different-color inks, but in the end he had to settle for italics), the stage is a freer space, at least when it comes to demonstrating the fluidity of time.
Elevator Repair Service, a troupe of about a dozen actors who made a name for themselves, in 2006, with “Gatz,” a six-hour staging of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” partly solves the narrative problem by having most of the Compson household- Benjy’s two older brothers, Quentin and Jason; his beloved sister, Caddy; his hypochondriac mother; and the stalwart black maid, Dilsey, among others- onstage at once. Most of the roles are played by more than one actor (some by as many as four), an innovation that draws on Faulkner’s other great theme: the multiplicity of character in a single being.
Like the book, the show is both redemptive and tacky. The performers don’t read every line of the text, but they do read all the dialogue- along with the attributions. (” ‘Never you mind,’ Dilsey said. ‘You’ll know in the Lawd’s own time,’ ” the actor playing Dilsey says.) In this way, Collins allow us to hear both the rhythms in Faulkner’s dialogue and its inherent theatricality. Some of the actors carry the novel around with them and read from it in flat tones, without really making an effort to interact with the other characters. Others try on Southern accents or plaintive voices, but these don’t work, and they’re not supposed to: for the actors to act perfectly would undo Faulkner’s twisted folkiness, the sense that he’s re-making the English language with clunky nuts and bolts and splintery planks. The performances are purposefully not seamless. When Greig Sargeant- a shapely black man with a sweet, worried look- plays Dilsey, she is a feeling person whose days are consumed by her efforts to keep the Compsons in line. When Vin Knight- a thin white actor with a sour expression- takes on the role, Dilsey speaks with a parodic black syntax that reminds us of Faulkner’s comment that he’d “fight for Mississippi against the United States even if it meant going out into the streets and shooting Negroes.”
The curtain rises on the Compson home: some well-worn easy chairs, a radio, faded wallpaper, and a sofa. (The beautiful scenic and lighting designs are by David Zinn and Mark Barton, respectively.) Benjy (Susie Sokol), in an oversized wig, sits in a metal chair, center stage, his knees scrunched up to his chest. He appears to be wearing pajamas, while Quentin (Mike Iveson) wears a pullover with a big “H” (for Harvard) emblazoned on the front. Caddy (Kate Scelsa) wears muddy drawers and glasses. Mother (Annie McNamara) wears a white nightgown. The family resembles nothing so much as a bunch of ragpickers- their costumes (by Colleen Werthmann) reflect both their mangy minds and the funky improvisatory feel of the show as a whole. (The project began with the actors sitting around and reading the book, making up the action as they went along.)
April 7, 1928, is a big day in the Compson household: it’s Benjy’s birthday, an occasion that gives the other members of the family a chance to project their own unbridled narcissism. As Benjy moans, trying to express his pain, his relatives, who can’t quiet him and don’t know what he wants, talk over one another in an effort to shut him out. The Compsons speak but they don’t communicate. They don’t connect because they are all blind to the needs of others, utterly taken up by their own internal dramas. Even Caddy, who ran off with a man years earlier, insinuates herself into the scene; in Benjy’s mind her presence is as powerful and real today as it was that long-ago Christmas when he was a child and she took him out walking. Sometimes we wonder how Benjy can keep all the details of past and present in his head at once, and then we realize that the Compsons are literally fantastic to one another, and Benjy is the village storyteller, taking in the activities of his people without judgment.
While there is little linear narrative in the book or the show, what Elevator Repair Service makes clear is the story’s buildup of emotion. With his inability to editorialize experience, Benjy shows us that Caddy is the center of her brothers’ lives and that the various cruelties they inflict on one another while competing for her love are her undoing. Eventually, we watch her creep out the door, like a thief: she is stealing herself for herself. But Benjy can’t let her go. Toward the end of the piece, as Benjy sits center stage, Caddy (Tory Vazquez) reads his final thoughts slowly into a microphone: “Caddy held me and I could hear us all, and the darkness, and something I could smell. And then I could see the windows, where the trees were buzzing. Then the dark began to go in smooth, bright shapes, like it always does, even when Caddy says that I have been asleep.”
In “The Sound and the Fury,” Elevator Repair Service has a great work, if only because its rough-hewn, homemade air is suffused with an innocence that one rarely glimpses in a contemporary work of art. While Collins has clearly been influenced by the Wooster Group’s Elizabeth LeCompte (this influence is especially apparent early in the evening, when the piece is broken up by hokey dance numbers), he has managed for the most part to avoid emulating her deconstructionist sophistication. This show runs on something more substantial than chic, more difficult than irony- namely, the real blood and sweat that go into making stories feel realer than reality.
View the original article on The New Yorker’s website here .