The Voice That Comes in Through the Window

Tom Stoppard, “Theater’s philosopher king” (Photo: The Telegraph)

You can’t start writing until you know what you’re doing, and you don’t know what you’re doing until you start writing. I still have to resist the false intuition that I need to know as much as possible in advance. The essential thing is to know as little as possible. Ideally, when things fall out well, you shouldn’t feel clever, you should feel lucky.

—Tom Stoppard

The claim by a famously cerebral playwright that knowing as little as possible is essential to his creative process may sound counterintuitive. It makes the case that being receptive is more important than building a force field of intentionality.

But then there is that thing that writers (as well as visual artists) will, if pushed, have to admit: I don’t do my own work. Whatever your writing style—cerebral, emotional, character-driven, plot-rich, political—it is a calling and a collaboration rather than a choice.

In defending his undying interest in writing about sex (“I started at 14 and haven’t stopped,”) Wallace Shawn describes a view of creativity that is aligned with this notion:

I personally sometimes express the point, when pressed, by saying that I see my writing as a sort of collaboration between my rational self (“me”) and the voice that comes from outside the window, the voice that comes in through the window, whose words I write down in a state of weirded-out puzzlement, thinking, “Jesus Christ, what is he saying?”

The collaboration is really quite an unequal partnership, I’d have to admit. The voice contributes everything, and I contribute nothing, frankly, except some modest organizing abilities and (if I may say so) a certain skill in finding, among the voice’s many utterances, those that are most interesting.

Shawn also exposes a predetermined approach of the work we do:

Obviously, society has asked writers, as a group, to take time out from normal labor to do this special listening and transcribing, and each writer has been assigned a certain part of the spectrum. No writer can know whether the section that’s been assigned to him contains the valuable code that will ultimately benefit the human species or whether his section consists merely of the more common noise or chatter. But obviously, the system can only work if everyone dutifully struggles to do his best with the material that’s been given to him, rather than trying to do what has already been assigned to somebody else.

That utopian notion of everyone doing her work and being happier for having done so has its appeal. The creative landscape I know best—the visual arts—is a multi-dimensional, elaborate labyrinth of endless forms of expression.  Even so, capitulating to trends or fads is an artist’s betrayal of the voice that “comes in through the window.” A recent essay by Taney Roniger, In Praise of Form: Towards a New Post-Humanist Art exposes, inter alia, the need for the visual arts to step away from the popular tendency to favor content over form.

And what is art if not an agent of integration, and what are artists if not those who know how to show us what that might look like? So let us reclaim form. Let us reclaim it as the transformative force it always was, and let us reclaim it in the name of something larger than ourselves – something beyond art, beyond culture, beyond even human history, something that, in returning us to our smallness, grants us full citizenship in the greatest largeness.

A much-needed message, Roniger’s essay has created a buzz in art circles and is worthy of a separate and more in-depth discussion.

Perhaps audienceship shares some qualities with this receptive model of art making. The heart loves what it loves after all, and some passions feel like a calling. Maybe we are also assigned particular sections to love and admire. I was still in high school when Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead opened on Broadway and won its author Tom Stoppard the Tony for Best Play in 1968. Steeped in Shakespeare, full of brainy dialogue and a plethora of metaphysical flourishes, Rosencrantz enchanted that teenager longing to understand the cool, the esoteric, the next big thing.

Ten years earlier Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot was first produced in London, a play that changed the direction of theater. Stoppard’s Rosencrantz made a strong theatrical nod to Beckett’s existential juggernaut. But it was Stoppard’s language and love of ideas that captured a younger me rather than the sine qua non bleak absurdism of Beckett.

So began a 50 year passion for Tom Stoppard’s works. Some of my most memorable theatrical moments have happened at his hand. Arcadia. Jumpers. Travesties. The Real Thing. Invention of Love. Rock ‘n Roll. The Coast of Utopia trilogy (which I watched performed in “marathon mode,” from 11am to 11pm, long before binging became a common cultural phenomenon.)

And there is so much to say about his plays. He has a reputation for esoteric erudition even though he is, at essence, an autodidact. He has written about the classics, the poet A. E. Housman, physics, mathematics, the politics of Eastern Europe, personal relationships, philosophy. Over time his plays have become a more balanced expression of the cerebral and the emotional. “The older I get, the less I care about self-concealment. Time is limited…you have to choose what matters,” he wrote. He has acknowledged that capturing the emotions of the audience as well as their minds makes the play work better. “It’s not an unintelligible idea to me that at a certain point my plays warmed up and became less defensive, less self-referential. It wasn’t a question I bothered myself with – am I being too cold, too warm, not warm enough, whatever. I just wrote the way that interested me.”

A new production of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead at the Huntington Theater gives this 50 year old play a chance to stand up and be relevant once again. It feels freshly prescient for life in 2019: existential meaningless, fatal outcomes, abuse of leadership and power, fallacious and incomplete information, self serving disregard for the truth, the ease with which “bit players” in life are overlooked and whose fate is of no concern to anyone. 

This crisply conceived production—directed by Peter DuBois with outstanding performances by Will LeBow (player,) Alex Hurt (Rosencrantz) and Jeremy Webb (Guildenstern)—feels timeless in holding up a mirror to the distortions we confront in our 24/7 news cycle, “bad news first” world. By approaching the Hamlet saga from the sidelines—Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are painfully interchangeable chess pieces that are moved, willy-nilly, by the King, Gertrude, Polonius and Hamlet—we see the inexorable trajectory whose course cannot be altered. In the words of one of the players, another ancillary voice, “we’re actors, we’re the opposite of people!” Guildenstern ruefully adds, “no one gets up after death – there is no applause … only silence and some secondhand clothes.”

What is the response to this bleak landscape? “Something is taking its course,” a phrase from Beckett’s Endgame, captures an elemental ineffectuality. “We cannot know what that something is, or whither it is leading us,” Stoppard has written. “It is therefore impermissible for art, a mere derivative of life, to claim anything as presumptuous as a moral purpose or a social function.”

All I have in response is this: Be on the look out for new sections of the story, ones that might be more transcendent, inclusive and post-Humanist in the best sense of Roniger’s term. And going for lucky rather than clever.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead is playing at the Huntington Theater in Boston through October 20.

4 Replies to “The Voice That Comes in Through the Window”

  1. Brilliant evocative introduction.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you so much!

  2. Well done, now I have to see if I can get a ticket.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      I hope you can see it Barbara.

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