Theater archives

Songs Without Words


“Music,” Virgil Thomson wrote, “has more to say to the body than to the mind.” So it’s inevitable that, when Martha Clarke puts Chekhov and Scriabin together, she lets the latter do all the talking. Not that Clarke dislikes Chekhov, six of whose short stories provide the scenario and tonal source for Vers la flamme; it’s just that literature itself, being made entirely of words, constitutes a sort of inspiring obstacle to her creativity. A dancer by training, she makes theater pieces that live in the body. Words can be a guideline, a cue, a provocation, a stimulus, or a challenge to her, but music will always have more to say. Not that Clarke is a choreographer in the simple sense: There are perhaps eight or nine minutes of pure dance in Vers la flamme, mostly of a rudimentary spinning around, which is the piece’s convention for showing people caught in the grip of violent passion; it’s “choreography” the way kids might choreograph in a backyard after seeing a ballet film on TV. But Martha Clarke is the most cunning child who ever loved dance, and a great deal beyond the shaping of movement has gone into Vers la flamme.

That, in fact, is the paradox. Though emphatically not a dance piece, Vers la flamme is also not precisely a piece of mime, storytelling, narrative theater, or music drama. It’s a series of moods and gestures expressed within the scope of a theatrical event, by a variety of visual and physical means— a music of the body, on Chekhovian themes, to accompany a selection of solo piano pieces by Scriabin. No wonder Clarke’s infatuated with the artists of a century ago. What she’s doing is what they were striving for, back there at the birth of modernism—
synesthesia, a condition in which the branches of art, rather than melding themselves into one bulky Victorian Gesamtkunstwerk, would flow
indistinguishably into one another. Texts would evoke colors, sounds scents, shadows chords. Scriabin dreamed of composing for an organ that would play colors instead of music. And Hugo von Hofmannsthal turned away from “pure” poetry to write the libretto for Richard Strauss’s Elektra, which ends with the heroine’s triumphant cry— not irrelevant to Martha Clarke— “To dance and be silent!”

Silence is, famously, one of the principal matters on which Anton Chekhov expended his vast output of words. Fascinated by the things people left unsaid, he made the blank spaces in their conversation his special study. His characters can stand mute equally in the face of the most passionate tenderness or the most outrageous brutality. But Chekhov’s silences are behavioral: They derive their power from the dynamic tension between the precise, seemingly noncommittal words he sets down and the vast emotional substance they largely decline to convey. Seen from one angle, the effect is romantic and heartrending; from another, it’s clinical and ironic. Chekhov at his best escapes those two extremes by sustaining a balancing act of breathtaking difficulty. Every word and every detail adds not one but several nuances to the situation, till each situation becomes too complex to read simply. There are no definitive interpretations of Chekhov, because the evidence on every count is so carefully weighed on both sides of the question. All we can ultimately say is that the people are created as specific presences, and that a certain series of things does happen.

But what happens in Chekhov, noted in words and marked in the silences between them, is very far from what happens in a Martha Clarke event, because Clarke’s silence is all on the verbal side. Her physicality speaks, and speaks volumes. Passion, the element most often left unmentioned (though not absent) in Chekhov, is Clarke’s stock in trade, always depicted sensuously, and— as in her earlier pieces— rarely without a leavening of pain. That the erotic passages between a man and a woman in Vers la flamme often slip imperceptibly into something like violence will be no surprise to people who’ve seen earlier Clarke pieces. Nor will it surprise them, probably, to be told that every coupling has a strong charge of the shadowy and illicit. If you aren’t familiar with the stories, and don’t brief yourself in advance with the synopses, for instance, the behavior of the doctor and his wife in the second story infallibly suggests that of an adulterous couple who hear an angry spouse pounding at the door. Even a simple act of kindness gets a high-voltage charge from Clarke’s method: The doctor who nurses a dying
colleague, in a later story, appears in her
version to be throttling him on a bed.

Does this mean that I think Clarke has “betrayed” Chekhov? Not at all, for there was nothing to betray. Vers la flamme is not an evening of Chekhov stories, but a piece “Conceived and Directed” by Martha Clarke; not a word of Chekhov, or anyone else, is spoken onstage, except for the name “Olga,” called out repeatedly by a husband searching for his runaway wife. Chekhov may have provided the inspiration, but the themes, the procedures, the tactics, and the overall vision are entirely Clarke’s. The one Russian artist of Chekhov’s era whose sensibility does make an active contribution to the event is Alexander Scriabin, whose alternately haunting and harrowing music— it sounds like Liszt slowly morphing into Debussy— appears to have shaped its phrases to the yearning and writhing bodies of Clarke’s glorious castful of acting dancers, fitting them far more snugly than their fin-de-siècle bodices and frock coats. As this suggests, Christopher O’Riley, who plays the Scriabin, has pulled off a brilliant balancing act of his own, making the music sound spontaneous and vivid while coordinating it perfectly with the action swirling past him onstage; the one thing he never sounds like is a standard theater accompanist.

The oddest part of the anomaly is that Clarke doesn’t really seem to need Chekhov.
Except for the first story, the familiar “Lady With the Lapdog,” her preoccupations hardly match his, and his stories don’t adapt well as scenarios. Yet the evening seems complete and sustained as a— distinctly un-Chekhovian— view of life. Encased in Michael Yeargan’s stunningly off-angled, pale blue set, lit with subtle grades of hot light and shadow by Stephen Strawbridge, the action builds, barely stopping between stories, till it seems to take on its own authority, as if the movements were telling Clarke what to do rather than vice versa. Even at its most outrageous— the hilariously gross depictions of sex in “The Darling,” or the use of a child’s coffin as a
Graham-like prop in “Enemies”— the staging seems all of a piece; these are merely the extreme points on the scale of a richly unified style. If it doesn’t fit neatly into any preexisting category, that simply means Martha Clarke has quietly extended the bounds of what’s possible in theater, and requires a new category all her own. That she seems to need cultural touchstones from the past as stepping stones to each piece— Chekhov and Scriabin here, Bosch and Brueghel or Schnitzler and Mahler there— is hardly an
objection. When we make something brand new, the past is all we have to stand on.