If you do not want to hear details of Cormac McCarthy's play The Sunset Limited which opened last night at Steppenwolf in Chicago, do not read this review.
Did I mention? I met Cormac McCarthy!!!
The following is from Playbill...
A funny thing has happened this season: Cormac McCarthy's The Sunset Limited is the third work we have produced this year by an author most known for writing prose fiction. Frank Galati adapted novelist and short story writer, Huraki Murakami's after the quake. Don De Lillo's new play, Love-Lies-Bleeding, is playing in our Upstairs Theatre and now, in our Garage Theatre, we are premiering The Sunset Limited by acclaimed novelist, Cormac McCarthy.
It seems fitting that in a season devoted to new work, we are producing well-known writers working in new ways and, in the case of Murikami, presented in a new way. Producing the work of prose fiction writers writers allows us to extend the interrogation of new voices to an interrogation of the form in which these voices take speak. Why does some work want to take the form of prose? Why does some work want to take the form of drama? And how does prose-writing look and sound when adapted for the stage?
When we interviewed Don about how he chose to write Love-Lies-Bleeding as a play, he said that the opening line of the play, "I saw a dead man on the subway once" had been floating in his mind for years and that he knew it was being spoken on a stage.
We haven't asked the question of Mr. McCarthy. What we know is that Cormac McCarthy had previously written a play, The Stonemason, which was not produced. The Stonemason went through a workshop process at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. but ultimately, did not eventuate in a production. The Stonemason is a multi-generational drama, a play that touches upon interpersonal, historic and cultural themes. The Sunset Limited is a more intimate play. Two men sit in a single room and talk to one another. The elemental reduction of the play's canvas extends to the names of the characters themselves. The men are designated simply as "Black" and "White". Perhaps unsurprisingly, these anmes (labels, really) are racial markers. So: two men, one a black man, the other, a white man, sit in a room, talking.
The course of their conversation reveals another layer, another meaning of "black" and "white." The conversation between the two men has evolved out of a life and death situation. The polarity of life and death is amplified, through their conversation, by the polarity of their spiritual convictions: one man is an atheist, one man is a Christian. Amplified too, by their cultural positioning: one man is educated (is in fact, a university professor); the other, uneducated, a former prison inmate. One has successfully lived his life within the social system; the other, as an outlaw.
It is perhaps the interplay of polarities in these themes (and his skilled manipulation of these polarities) that invited Mr. McCarthy to express The Sunset Limited as a play. A play is, after all, (in the end of all), a DRAMA: a collision of opposing forces alive in a present moment, in a play on the stage. The unwritten language of the stage is a behaviour: we watch two men, "Black" and "White" in a life or death struggle. The elemental struggle is nuanced by our identification with, and empathy for, either or both of these men.
The issues of spiritual conviction, of the meaning of life are enormously complex ones. And yet there is some insistence, on the part of Mr. McCarthy in his invocation of the labels "black" and "white", that a moral code is in play that is absolute. That he chose the stage as a venue for this conversation suggests that he sees the drama of The Sunset Limited as one best unmediated by the narrative voice: he seeks the pure exchange of ideas and leaves you, the audience, to negotiate your position in that argument.
Our emotional movement towards or away from these men is the registration of our belief. The novelist abandons his guiding and shaping narrative voice to deliver that responsibility for point of view into our lap.
I regard willingness on the part of prose fiction writers to write for the stage (and to allow their work to be adapted for the stage), a daring one. Working in the theatre is a collaborative process. A director, the designers, the actors, and ultimately, the audience, move and shape the work of the story according to their various points of view. Acceding that control is generous (and likely, uncomfortable) for a writer whose principle skill is the negotiation of a point of view. We celebrate these writers in our season of new work-they provide us insight into both the telling and the tale. They encourage us to question both the story of how we live now, and the form of the story.
Artistic Director Steppenwolf, Martha Lavey
My notes about the play...
So good and so demanding. A strain to follow the philosophical hairturns, like a mental action film, no shit. A white guy is saved from suicide, he is an atheist and the black guy who saves him, is a man of faith. One man is professor/white the other is an excon/black. Sunset Limited is the train the white guy tried to jump in front of, and it becomes a catch phrase thoughout the one hour 45 minutes of the play..."going to sunset limited" equals death...suicide but death in general. These two talk it all out, what faith is, that Jesus is the core ore in the earth, all people are not race or skin but the ore is Jesus says the black man...almost tempting the aetheist white guy...race starts out hot and heavy in this. I think liberals will avoid the real issue of race after the play is over...Perhaps... but I also think the play suggests something else about "black and white". the philosophical issues are treated like black and white...don't both atheists and believers treat philosophy and ideals like black and white issues? Often never allowing for moderation...for grey? When philosophical and spiritual issues including existentialism are treated as polar opposites, as black and white, then compassion is always slipping away from people.
The actors were awesome...the white guy wants to leave, hates the discussion, black guy feels he is saving him and wants to talk him out of suicide...Austin Pendleton and Freeman Coffey played yin and yang and large and small black and white despair and hope so passionately and so naturally. It was an honour and delight to see them so close and to try to remember they were acting.
Atheist/professor tries to describe how faith is not an option for him. Some very funny dialogue about how clever the professor is and he should write a book, or he should write down his ideas for a sermon etc. The dialogue was very fast in places and very funny. The audience was out loud gaffawing many times throughtout the play. This worked well because sometimes we would be laughing so hard, and then really fighting with the ideas the men were arguing about and suffering with them.
Each character goes into serious detail about what it feels like to not believe in a god, or to believe. Often the thesis revolved around the idea that the main drive of life is suffering: why should one stay and knowingly keep the torture of suffering going? Lack of resolution with this suffering and sense of peace is why the white professor tries to kill himself. He says he has lost interest and passion in what used to give him pleasure, music, love, art. He says a haunting line early in the play "That's what Education does, it makes things personal." There are times when each man seems to tempt or convince the other of their perspective.
Um, does anybody win this chessgame?
No. Maybe it's not actually a contest but a excercise. Maybe being black or white is the mistaken path...the men can never seem to realize that life offers lots of grey? Eventually, the suicidal professor does have a deep passion...and it is for his sorrow and disillusionment and desire for relief from sufferring and seeing others suffer. He asks loud and emotionally and the black man of faith can not answer him. the white guy leaves...probably to try and kill himself yet again, in the morning. The white guy speaks eloquently and with finality...there is no comeback for our man of faith, we see him run out of philosophy or answers or comebacks...The black guy falls on his knees and asks god, "Why does he have all the words" He has tears in his eyes and he says he might go to the train station in the morning, he wonders if he can stop the professor again...yet he has no concrete words or answers...no tools to help transfer faith or happiness.
My favourite moment in the play: When Freeman Coffey's character makes them something to eat. Austin Pendleton is so hungry and so convinces me that he hasn't had food, never mind food that is delicious, for a very long time. The food they share is bread and "soul food"...of course. For a few minutes the two men enjoy eating together. The pleasure on White/Professor's face is obvious.The tragedy becomes clear in this moment: isn't life worth living in order to share our different philosophies and live with each other and share bread together? The professor does not come to this conclusion. But I did.
Overall, the two men shared an evening of talking about ideas, of sharing food and perhaps for any other two people it would have been the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Why not for these two?
I was left feeling that sometimes all we can know of life and each other is our company...but if we hold our ideas and politics and religion before our communion with each other...then we will not be able to feel empathy or compassion for each other.
When there is suffering how can we feel happy?
Unfortunately, at the end of the play, each man is left with emptiness. When we look at life as a need to reconcile faith versus disbelief then we block the opportunity to relieve suffering and find compassion. When we prioritze dogma and politics over community and human company then we will be disenfranchised.