Lately a quote keeps floating to the surface of my mind: “Must then a Christ perish in torment in every age to save those who have no imagination?” If you don’t recognize it, you probably haven’t read, or need to reread, the epilogue to Shaw’s Saint Joan, in which the line is spoken by Joan’s prosecutor, Cauchon, to the English chaplain, De Stogumber. At first a rabid anti-French patriot shrieking for Joan’s execution, Stogumber has been traumatized by the actual sight of her burning; by the Epilogue he has become a resolutely meek and gentle old soul. “I did a very cruel thing once,” he says, “because I did not know what cruelty is like. That is the great thing: you must see it. And then you are redeemed and saved.” His insistence that it was not enough for him merely to experience Christ’s sufferings through art is what prompts Cauchon’s bitter remark.
What we are up against today, of course, is even worse than Stogumber’s condition: We have whole population groups for whom even the sight of someone else’s suffering isn’t enough, who flock to picket the funerals of the murdered (what can there be in it for them to protest?), or crowd the courtrooms to cheer when the death sentence is pronounced. Something is obviously wrong with the way we manage our basic social narrative, and one can’t help thinking that the way narratives in art have been fragmented and splattered and diced for the last few decades has something to do with it. Simple stories seem paltry and bare, but unsimple stories–told elliptically, or gnomically, or ramblingly, or backward, or with their components reduced to unmeshable contradictions–leave you unfulfilled, wanting more substance and less fancy dancing around. Maybe things were like that in Stogumber’s time, too: 15th-century romances are full of digression and disquisition; folk ballads lose their thread in numbing stanzas of detail after detail. Perhaps he, too, got his shortsightedness toward life from the ornateness of his era’s art. Or maybe it’s just an ongoing human problem, and we ought to baptize it Stogumber’s Syndrome.
Inevitably, the pendulum of storytelling is swinging back toward simplicity. Matthew Maguire and Michael Gordon’s science-fiction opera, Chaos, actually has a plot, and a plot of the simplest kind at that; it might be a Renaissance interlude or a rescue opera by Gretry. And Mac Wellman’s Girl Gone–though he and his directors have not exactly given up the whirl of words in a quasi-narrative void that is the hallmark of Wellmania–actually tells chunks of a story, at the end even fitting them together, almost.
Both works are preoccupied with alternatives to visible reality. Chaos takes place in the interstices of outer space, where two pioneering scientists (one male, one female) manage to transject themselves, first as part of their government-funded research into chaos theory, later for advice from Marie and Pierre Curie, whose electronic avatars they encounter in the ether, and finally forever, to escape the villainous superior who has had them thrown in jail as unscientific frauds while secretly stealing their data to pass on to the Pentagon as an ultimate weapon.
Since my incomprehension of contemporary physics is total–I get no further than “imagine whirled peas”–I won’t attempt to analyze or defend the scientific basis of the work. I enjoyed it on the same level on which I enjoyed Flash Gordon and Captain Video as a child, and it would neither shock nor disappoint me to learn that its science was about as accurate as theirs. Artistically, it’s as simple and gratifying as an old-time candy store, though in Bob McGrath’s production, the visual candy–slides by Laurie Olinder, film by Bill Morrison, lights by Howard Thies–is as vividly up-to-date as such things get.
The story’s simple satisfactions–heroes get each other and triumphant discovery, villain gets exposed and destroyed–are the beloved ones of melodrama, reached here in simple, pointed terms. Maguire’s text manages to be puckish, and occasionally even poetic, while rarely straying from the narrative. Gordon’s score, mixing minimalist lounge-act cool with lacy bits of contrapuntal writing and unexpected jazz dissonances, makes the whole event a pleasure. (A minor flaw in the collaboration is the overuse of repeated tag lines, like the villain’s “I am one of the electron men.”) McGrath has wisely kept the physical staging to a minimum–though you never notice its sparseness, what with corridors and galaxies appearing and disappearing around the characters. One cunning effect allows the heroes to “vanish” from the projected backdrop as they make their way into chaos; another is a sort of animated pet atom, complete with circling electrons, that follows Marie Curie about. Under Greg Pliska’s direction, the music is cleanly handled, though only Tony Boutte, as the villain, and Alex Sweeton, as Marie Curie, are vocally adequate to the occasion. The other two men sing rawly, and Lisa Bielawa, in the marathon role of the heroic Anna, uses a piercing, vibratoless intonation that hardly suggests a loving, risk-taking adventurer.
More intriguing, more intractable, ultimately more frustrating, Girl Gone deals with an alternate world that is a mental rather than a physical state. The conspiratorial fantasy of three private-school girls named Lisa, Lissa, and Elyssa (referred to by other characters as “the evil sisters”), Vadu is an imaginary paradise to which any one of them can disappear and return at will, so long as the other two stay behind. Things get complicated, though, when their nemesis, the virtuous golden girl Hope, somehow vanishes to Vadu–or, in an equally improbable alternative scenario, is burned up by spontaneous combustion as a result of the trio’s incantations. By the end, more than one character has vanished to Vadu, and a fellow introducing himself as “the Vademecum of Vadu” is actively interfering in the girls’ lives. The moral seems to be the usual one of folk tales, that if you’re not careful you might get what you wish for.
Wellman of course jumps about this story rather than simply telling it; he refracts it from one or another point of view, breaks it up with song, dance, and ritual, and generally allows the narrative to be no more than glimpsed in the interstices of his verbal games. In class, the girls are discussing the myth of Pandora, whose box, after she had set its evils loose in the world, contained only Hope; this and other allusions give Girl Gone the tone of a contemporary joke on modes of allegory as well as what amounts to a Shirley Jackson story in polysyllabic fancy dress. The perky, aggressively ritualized staging, by Paul Lazar, with choreography by Annie-B Parson, stresses the play’s free-form surface. Disappointingly, this tends to make the acting seem either underweighted or overwrought; the constant dislocations leave no room for emotional focus, though a free-flying text like this requires actors to be, if anything, more strongly centered than a piece of conventional realism. Otherwise, they merely seem to be reciting lines in a void. Still, the movement catches something of Wellman’s twisty, comically elaborated style, and when Girl Gone is gone, you feel that something more than a spattering of words and gestures has passed through your mind, even if you’re not sure exactly what. At the very least, it shows you how much more interesting The X-Files would be if they hired Twyla Tharp to direct it.