WAS FAULKNER TAKING SHAKESPEARE’S QUOTE LITERALLY?
by Harvey Perr
published May 2, 2008
The Sound and the Fury (April
now playing off Broadway at the New York Theater Workshop
through May 18
“A tale told by an idiot / full of sound and fury / signifying nothing.”
There are times during their production of Part One of The Sound and the Fury (April
Seventh, 1928) when Elevator Repair Service seems bent on proving that its author, William Faulkner (whose every word is intact, spoken
and performed as written), was determined to literally follow the William Shakespeare quote from Macbeth, which gave his novel its title. This part of the novel is indeed told by an “idiot,” the mute
and mentally challenged “Benjy” Compson, and, in following his stream-of-consciousness, goes through seventeen days of his life in a
discombobulating order, from present to past to present, which reflect a whole series of happenings (including a castration), which, on the
stage, at least, seem to signify nothing. The sense one comes to make of a novel like Faulkner’s, in the process of reading it, does not
necessarily make the same sense when seeing it come to life on stage.
Which is not to say that there isn’t life on the stage of the New York Theatre Workshop. There is an event going on there. That is
for sure. One feels, once one enters into the spirit of it, that something strangely wonderful is being attempted. But one is also always
in a state of confusion as to just what it is that is transpiring. Still, as if mesmerized by the possibilities, one lumbers through,
snatching at the moments that are theatrically vivid, those moments when the intentions of the company and its wildly imaginative director,
John Collins, come through with astonishing clarity, until, finally, in the evening’s final moments, a calm settles over the stage, and
David Zinn’s evocative set becomes a painting, and the Faulknerian tone is so exquisitely rendered that a waft of genuine poetry seems to
breeze through the theater. But, even then, we are kept at arm’s length from genuine emotional and intellectual involvement. It is very
disorienting to know that something is going on, and to be excited by whatever it is you think is going on, and, at the same time, to have
so little idea about what it is that’s actually going on.
There is, in brief, much to admire, not least of all the task itself of bringing Faulkner’s difficult novel to the stage. There
are the bizarre and bizarrely emblematic little dances, choreographed by the members of the company and beautifully danced by Ben Williams
and Mike Iveson, that are delightful to watch and even more delightful when they are repeated. Despite the added confusion of having several
actors playing one character, there is the satisfaction that comes with getting to know some of these characters as the evening progresses.
If Dilsey Gibson, the Compson’s maid, is particularly striking, it might be that Faulkner never really got rid of the stereotype, which
makes her particularly recognizable in the midst of so much obfuscation, and it might be that all the actors playing the part (Kate Scelsa, Greig Sargeant, April Mathis and Vin Knight) are superb. And the unique contribution of Matt
Tierney’s sound collage raises that particular art form to new levels of eloquent and haunting complexity.
But it is fairly common knowledge that Gatz, the Elevator Repair Service production
of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which was received with great acclaim in
Europe, ran into copyright problems, which forced the company to consider creating a new piece for NYTW. The Fitzgerald novel, which is
both more straightforward as literature, and more universal in appeal, may have clocked in at seven hours, but one’s suspicion is that,
even at that length, it may have seemed a shorter span than the two and a half hours spent with Faulkner. So, while one respects Elevator
Repair Service for moving so fearlesssly into wholly uncharted waters and for making some interesting waves along the way, one hopes to be
able to see their Gatz sometimes soon. In the meantime, don’t expect The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928) to yield up all its pleasures in one viewing, even if you
were smart enough to read the novel before coming to sit through this sometimes brilliant, mostly arduous theatricalization.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com