Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
The subtitle for this collection, “Six Scripts for Contemporary Performance,” gives a hefty clue to Michael Springate’s intentions. What is collected here are less plays in the traditional sense than intellectual performances. As such, much is missed from just reading a printed version. Several have music and visual effects that naturally must be experienced personally to get their full effect. Nevertheless, they are well worth reading.
There are six pieces in all. Three—“Dog and Crow,” “Freeport, Texas,” and “Kareena”—are dramas. The other three—“Historical Bliss,” “The Consolation of Philosophy,” and “Küt: Shock and Awe”—are more challenging.
The pieces span the greater part of Springate’s career, from 1983 (“Historical Bliss”) to 2006 (“Küt”), and have vastly different structures and subjects. Thematically, though, they are connected by the two concepts in the title: revolt and compassion. In each piece, a character is dealing with the double-edged sword of reacting strongly to something that angers or upsets them, while at the same time needing to nurture compassion for the object of that anger or frustration. Inevitably, the two concepts often clash with each other, and Springate is trying to illuminate the difficulties of both dealing with life’s challenges and remaining a true human being.
The structure of each piece is different. In addition to standard theatre formats, Springate also borrows from other media. “Dog and Crow” is structured like a classical Japanese Noh drama, though its main characters are Ezra Pound and his wife Dorothy during and after the Second World War in Italy and the U.S. “Küt” is structured as a Korean pansori, a form of musical storytelling. It features nothing on stage except one actor playing all the parts accompanied by a musician using several instruments. And “Historical Bliss” has elements of a film in the way it is presented. “The Consolation of Philosophy” is a combination of several formats. It starts with sonnets, moves to dialogue, then verse intermingled with a Greek chorus, and ends with a dialogue with that same chorus.
The introduction by McGill professor Erin Hurley, despite its rather academic tone, is helpful, even necessary, for getting a handle on what Springate is trying to do in each piece. She emphasizes that Springate likes to play with language and the fluidity in the meanings of words. For example, much of the dialogue in “Dog and Crow” is a debate over the definition of such things as truth, anti-Semitism, and treason—and over the power of words. There are similar exchanges in all the others.
That said, the playing with words doesn’t always work smoothly. In the non-dramatic pieces, there is a lot of deliberate repetition, particularly in “The Consolation of Philosophy,” which makes sense there since it uses a chorus, as in Greek drama. But the repetition here doesn’t really take one deeper into any sort of understanding.
The debates featured in the dramas over the meaning of this or that sometimes seem forced. More important, they often make the characters come across more as a two-dimensional tool of the author’s intellectual arguments rather than as a fully sympathetic human being.
The most accessible pieces are the three dramas, most likely because their straightforward dramatic format is so familiar. Of the others, “Küt,” too, starts out well, with a very compelling monologue by a Vietnam veteran, but it then devolves into an erratic internal monologue and loses its emotional power. The most successful piece is probably the drama “Kareena,” because it succeeds in pulling off a difficult structure involving the main character pretending (and believing) she is her dead mother. In this work the dubious reliability of memory is quite well presented and the necessity of the search for truth reinforced.
The least successful is “The Consolation of Philosophy,” which is a patchwork of four “books” connected by the characters of Boethius and Lady Philosophy. Book Four, which is a supposed retelling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice by Lady Philosophy, comes off mostly as an extended rant. Interesting in parts, but still a rant.
No question, Springate is a challenging writer, but he is well worth tackling, even if he is occasionally preachy and hard to follow.
Revolt/Compassion is published by Guernica Editions.