Recalling her Paris expat years, Djuna Barnes wrote, “I used to be rather gay and silly and bright and . . . wasted a lot of the time. I used to be invited by people who said, ‘Get Djuna for dinner, she’s amusing.’ So I stopped it.” Unfortunately, What of the Night, a theatrical collage of Djuna Barnes’s life and writing, approaches its subject from the wrong side of that cessation. This play eavesdrops on the berobed and bereted modernist writer as she coughs her way through senescence in her Greenwich Village apartment.
Created for the stage by performer Jane Alexander, director Birgitta Trommler, and Noreen Tomassi, What of the Night adopts many of the dreariest conventions of the bioplay, though it deploys them in cubist (a less generous term might be “confused”) fashion. When not receiving succor from an oxygen mask, Barnes (Alexander) rereads her book reviews, dispenses bon mots, listens to a dramatization of her best-known novel Nightwood, and morphs unannounced into her lovers or characters from her books. Some of these transformations involve her trading her robe for a pantsuit and bouncing up and down upon her mattress in a manic version of a box step as she declares, “Paris is the place to be in the ’20s!”
Just as the scrim which runs between Alexander and the audience shows series of letters that refuse to a coalesce into words, these disparate gestures fail to resolve into a nuanced portrait of either the woman or her work. Much energy and no little thought has been expended, but the rewards are few. If a review of Barnes’s early play The Dove compared it, unfavorably, to reading “Stein on a merry-go-round, by candlelight,” the creators of What of the Night have somehow managed to extinguish the candle.