In the 2002 New Yorker essay entitled “Looking at War,” Susan Sontag wrote, “War is seen as something men do, inveterately, undeterred by the accumulation of suffering it inflicts; to represent war in words or in pictures requires a keen unflinching detachment.” Sontag certainly brought detachment, perhaps in excess, to her 1990 play about a perilously callow soldier. Entitled A Parsifal, it is now enjoying its world premiere.
Browsing the Housing Works Used Book Café some years ago, the play’s director, John Jahnke, had chanced across Sontag’s script in the 1991 issue of the defunct literary journal Antaeus. Originally intended as an abstract introduction to an exhibition catalog of Robert Wilson’s set designs, Sontag’s six-page script attempts a radical compression of Wagner’s five-hour-plus Parsifal. (Wilson’s production of the opera had famously impressed Sontag.) First recounted by the 12th-century French poet Chrétien de Troyes, the Parsifal legend tells of a naive young man—incapable of empathy and blind to his ability to do good or ill—who must painfully gain self-knowledge before he can assume guardianship of the Holy Grail.
One doesn’t necessarily envy Jahnke the challenge of staging this six-page script. A play written by Sontag and dedicated to Wilson is automatically freighted with anxiety and influence. And Jahnke’s own work has long been shadowed by that of the late enfant terrible director Reza Abdoh, to whose Dar a Luz company Jahnke belonged. But Jahnke assumes the task with such coolness that he casts Black-Eyed Susan, an actress who starred in that most famous of Wagner rewrites, Charles Ludlam’s Der Ring Gott Farblonjet. She plays an ostrich, fancifully costumed by Hillary Moore, who offers some ambivalent advice to Gardiner Comfort’s blank-eyed Parsifal.
In Sontag’s version, Parsifal arrives onstage armed not with bow and arrow, but naked and sporting an Uzi, which he deploys with cheerful unconcern. As to his weapon and the damage it can inflict, he says nonchalantly, “Oh this. It’s nothing. In my country everyone has one.” He answers nearly every question with “I don’t know,” offering at one point, “I’m not good at talking. Perhaps I am retarded.” This retardation appears emotional as well as intellectual. When a writhing, weeping King of Pain (Grant Neale) rolls by on a gurney, Parisfal remains unmoved.
In the Wagner take on the legend, Parsifal prospered only when he learned compassion and silenced baser cravings. In Sontag’s script, Parsifal suffers pain but doesn’t necessarily acquire empathy. In fact, his wanderings through the world teach him how to turn his innocence to his personal, political advantage. The play ends with a press conference in which Parsifal proudly admits, “Yes, I did know that not speaking, withholding information, confers great power.” In a frequent motif, Wagner described Parsifal as “a guileless fool.” Today’s Parsifal may still be a fool, but you couldn’t call him guileless. Sontag has taken an allegory of Christian redemption and transformed it into a parable of unmerited power.
But while the political resonances are evocative and Jahnke’s staging is unfailingly elegant, the script itself proves so spare, so cool, so self-serious, and so fiercely intertextual, that it’s practically ineffable, if not positively nonsensical. Jahnke does provide a helpful program note, but without a solid grounding in Arthurian legend or the Wagner oeuvre, one becomes very quickly—albeit very prettily—lost. Indeed, despite the visual loveliness (especially the knight chorus composed of a dozen gym-vet tank-topped 19-year-olds) and the meditations on violence and responsibility, a splash of Ludlam’s antic comedy and clarity would not be taken amiss. Indeed a single line of his, spoken by the villain Alberich, would suffice for so many of Sontag’s abstruse pronouncements: ” ‘Nobody loves me, so I might as well rule the world.’ “