So we open tonight. We are ready to do it. I look forward to it. And before we do that, a few things have to be done. I have already crossed off the first item on my List Of Things To Do: I have done battle once again with the most important, the most beautiful, and yet the most diabolical prop in this production. On the road to the first night there are obstacles to get over and mountains to climb. For this production, some of them have been quite formidable. So there is something…I don’t know…ironic, I suppose, about the fact that after all the hurdles we have already overcome, on the day we open I am locked in battle with…a piece of jewelry. It’s all right, though. I’m winning. I think.
Friends, have you ever wondered about what happens when a man who is secretly almost as much of an idealist as Yeats Himself decides to write an entire play about how idealism is bad? No? Well, here’s one thing that happens: you get @#$! impossible props.
A few years ago I put together a graduate course in which we read Villiers de l’Isle-d’Adam’s Axel. This is a classic of French symbolist drama, and we had a good time with it in the classroom. It was actually produced; but I’m not sure how, because it was animated throughout by the same spirit of lofty disdain for the material world that defines the character of its protagonist Axel. This is a play in which the two lovers, Axel and Sara, after meeting and falling into rapturous love with each other and discovering a gigantic vault filled with unimaginable treasure together, decide to die together in a lovers’ pact because after this moment, life will never be able to offer them anything better. “As for living,” says Axel, in a line Yeats was fond of quoting, “our servants can do that for us.” They want to be let out of this gross corporeal world entirely and head off into the transcendent ideal universe that permeates it invisibly, where everything is pure and uncorrupted and burns with the white-hot intensity of the core of a collapsing star.
This is not exactly how Gertrude’s idealism expresses itself; but it’s all part of the same ideology. Idealism isn’t just about trying to believe that things are better than they really are; it’s about believing that there is an immaterial world of purity and power from which anything that we find beautiful or moving or lovable about the material world ultimately comes. To be an idealist means to believe that the corporeal world is a fallen, inadequate, incomplete rendering of something much better which is beyond the perception of our senses. Idealism is what powers most British romantic poetry, and if you want to know about the effect idealism had on Irish drama, well, I have almost finished a book on that topic which I will be glad to tell you all about until you beg me on your bended knees to stop.
Wilde was tremendously attracted to idealism; but idealism was also a problem for him because it was, in its mainstream form (there are variants), very sex-negative. Idealism scorns the corporeal body in favor of the purity of a disembodied and ethereal eternal love. Wilde’s ambivalence about idealism is to me really the most interesting part of The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which Basil–who tries harder than the other men in the trio to actually live the gospel of idealism–has the power to grant Dorian immortality and eternal beauty, but is also so oppressive that Dorian kills him in a burst of rage. Idealism promotes the worship of beauty; but idealism also forbids the worshipper to touch the beloved.
Anyway, my point is that Wilde spent a lot of time absorbing French Symbolism (witness Salome), and as often happens, most of the Symbolist stuff comes out around the Woman With A Past, Mrs. Cheveley. It’s fascinating, really, because on the one hand Mrs. Cheveley is actually a pretty well-drawn character with a lot of room for subtlety and nuance; she is surviving and thriving in a world dominated by men, and while she is not above using her “considerable attractions” to get what she wants, that’s not the only card in her deck. And yet at the same time, Wilde has surrounded her with all kinds of Symbolist gimmicks to let us know that she is Pure Evil. She’s supposed to show up in Act III “Lamia-like, in green and silver” with a black cloak lined with “dead rose-leaf satin”–which actually may be a callback to Axel, in which the pure and beautiful Sara is obsessed with dead roses. Anyway, the point is, Mrs. Cheveley is supposed to be a snake. You know, like in the garden of Eden. And not content with giving her this snaky dress, Wilde has decided to give her a piece of very snaky jewelry. In Act I, she accidentally leaves behind a “diamond snake brooch with a rather large ruby” at the Chilterns’ house. This brooch then goes on to play an important role in the resolution, which is a real shame, because if it didn’t, then I could have just cut the fucking thing and my life would have been much easier, to say nothing of the lives of Brooklyn and Bill.
All right, well, snake jewelry, that exists…but wait, there’s more. A snake brooch would be too simple. This is a snake brooch which can also be worn as a bracelet. And as if that was not enough to wrap your head around–a brooch is a pin that you attach to your clothes; a bracelet is a chain or cuff you wear on your wrist, it’s really hard to see how the same piece could work both ways–the clasp of the bracelet has a secret locking mechanism which makes it impossible to get off unless you know the secret trick that opens it.
And this goddamn snaky brooch/bracelet that locks by MAGIC! is so important to the plot that if you removed it, there would be no resolution.
This bracelet has haunted my dreams from the beginning. And I’m not the only one who was scared of it. Nobody on the production team wanted anything to do with the fucking bracelet. The buck was passed and passed again and finally Corinna had the idea of asking Oroki Rice, who makes jewelry, to make it for us. And she did a lovely job. It is made of diamonds, and has a rather large ruby, and it can also be worn as a bracelet. And it’s beautiful. Hooray! I said when I first saw it. PROBLEM SOLVED! Oroki did a beautiful job executing a very difficult commission. It’s lovely, and it has all of the features that we asked for.
The problem is that what Wilde wants this thing to do is impossible.
It has to be easy to get on, because everything you ask actors to do with their hands while on stage has to be easy. I know this from personal experience. The last acting role I had was the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. There was a scene where I was supposed to be doing up her hair and robing her to get her ready for the wedding. I sucked at that. I did. I fucked it up every single time. And it was not complicated. I could have done it easily enough in private. But for some reason, being on stage just makes it really hard to manipulate small objects with your hands. A neurological mystery for the scientists to explore, perhaps. But the immediate practical problem is this: in the world of symbolism, there’s no reason you couldn’t have an object that’s really easy to get on and really hard to get off. Indeed one thinks of the One Ring, and other such iconic magical objects. But in the REAL world, in the physical world where we have to produce plays, objects are not magical, and an object which is easy to get on is also easy to get off. So there is actually no material object that does what Wilde wants this object to do.
Why do you torment me this way, Oscar? Have I not paid you enough attention? Are you jealous of Yeats? Who was also a big fan of the impossible object? Cause really, talk to me sometime about the cloak woven by the nine queens in the country-under-wave and those freaking feathers.
Anyway. So this is the glamorous life of a director on the day we open: sitting at the kitchen table trying to make this brooch/bracelet easier to get on and harder to get off because Act III has finally become everything I dreamed it would be and I will NOT have it brought to a grinding halt by this…this…object. I think I have managed it. I’m going to leave it alone now. Anyway, I have some programs to staple.