Two major events rounded off my time at the Lincoln Center Festival. Neither was without flaws, but they both offered something that most of the earlier events had lacked: a relatively unimpeded expression of work innate to the performers’ specific heritage and training, and not revisionist imitations of something borrowed from somewhere else. I don’t mean to deny the idea that art is a universal language: I’ve experienced great illumination from seeing Pakistani actors play A Doll’s House in Urdu, and have lived happily through Mamet’s Oleanna in Swedish and Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures in Japanese. But note that in all three cases, what’s been transmitted to the foreign culture is the matter the artists wished to convey, not their manner of conveying it. Substance is what makes art universal; style fixes it distinctively, and divisively, in its own culture. The misfortune of modernism, you might say, has been the desire to transmit style instead of substance, in an effort to renovate every culture’s content. This has had effective—tragically effective—results, producing not a universal realm of shared joy in art, but a global lowest common denominator: the same lousy modernism (or, more recently, the same lousy postmodern deconstruction) infesting every culture with its dullness. Just like the “International Style” in architecture, which now means dreary buildings that everyone loathes, an internationalized pedantry has in recent years squeezed much of the excitement out of theatergoing.
Spain’s Centro Dramático Nacional, which displayed the Festival’s most impressive achievement in drama, suffered slightly from a dose of internationalist fashion, but only slightly. It brought the festival a work that could reasonably represent Spain: a remarkable play by a great Spanish writer in a serious, well thought-out production by a Spanish director, Gerardo Vera. For this good deed, it was punished with a Times review shocking in its ill-informed incomprehension. Granted, the test was a tricky one for reviewers. Ramon del Valle-Inclán (1866—1936) will never be ranked among the world’s most lovable writers. His scope is broad, his language dense, and his uncompromising view of humanity well beyond the edge of outrageousness. It took even Spain a long time to learn his merits: Divinas Palabras, the play the CDN brought over (in an abridged version by Juan Mayorga), was written in 1913, but not published till 1920, nor produced till 1933.
The emotional breadth and compassion of Divinas Palabras prevent it from being the mere Grand-Guignol shocker for which the Times mistook it. Nobody would go to the lengths Valle-Inclán does for the sake of a cheap shock effect, and nobody interested in cheap effects would put them in such a varied and complex context. Valle-Inclán, like his contemporary Frank Wedekind, has no shame; he sails unsparingly into the odious. But he does so fully aware that the odious is only a small part of the larger human story.
Valle-Inclán’s vision promotes a deep discomfort with human nature, not the shock-chaser’s glib delight in its ugliness. True, the borderline can be slippery. Scenes like the one in which a dead beggar woman’s relatives bicker over the ownership of her one valuable possession—the hydrocephalic dwarf child she has dragged around to evoke pity—exploit a mordant humor that Wedekind might have admired. Won by a bumbling, desperately poor sexton (Fernando Sansegundo) and his sexually frustrated wife, Mari-Gaila (Elisabet Gelabert), this grotesque living inheritance proves the couple’s undoing. Traveling and exhibiting the child as a freak at village fairs, Mari-Gaila makes up for years of neglect with a parade of men, including a ruthless, amoral vagabond (Jesus Noguera) who travels under the Dickensian name of Septimus Meow. Her hapless husband, left alone, turns to drink and—in another of those envelope-pushing Valle-Inclán scenes—makes advances toward their feeble-minded daughter.
While Mari-Gaila, whose behavior has become notorious in the region, is off gallivanting, a tavern crowd torments the malformed child to death. Captured in flagrante, she is humiliated, stripped, and beaten by a mob; she’s saved from murder only when her equally shamed husband takes her in, speaking the titular “words divine”: “Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone.” As he leads her, naked, into the church, a vision of the dead child’s misshapen head appears in the heavens, dumbfounding the angry villagers—not a sight you would customarily find in a cheap Grand-Guignol shocker.
Vera’s production omitted this final vision, unwisely substituting a crude irony based on a horrific image from earlier in the work. His more sustained unwise act was to give the production an overall dark look, accompanied by crashing electronic thunderstorm effects; apparently the rain in Spain stays mainly on the contemporary stage. But these perfunctory bows to current international fashion didn’t stop him from articulating Valle-Inclán’s lush substance strongly or evoking rich, impassioned performances from his large cast, with Gelabert powerfully moving in the central role. Vera fielded the play’s many shifts in tone skillfully: The child’s death leads to a nearly Chekhovian scene of grief and recrimination; Vera gave it the austere gravity of a Velasquez. For all its flaws, this accomplished, intelligent production of this astonishing work deserved far more respect than the Times accorded it.
Performances even more extraordinary than Gelabert’s dominated Second Visit to the Empress, the modern dance choreographer Shen Wei’s attempt to renovate an early 18th-century work that apparently predates the regularizing of Beijing opera. The climax of a trilogy, the piece tells a Racinian story of political maneuvering with tragic personal consequences. Naming her ambitious father as regent rather than trust her late husband’s advisers, a newly widowed empress finds herself a virtual prisoner under his tyrannic rule. In ceremonial visits, the now-powerless advisers convince her to help them overthrow and execute her father and restore legitimate rule—a deeply troubling “happy” ending, in a culture to which filial piety is central.
Rich, simple, and gorgeously tuneful, the opera’s immensely demanding score makes glorious listening, and Shen Wei recruited superb singers and musicians for it. The only difficulty with the event came from his need to “modernize” it, which for him meant having his dance troupe, in monochrome unitards, performing what looked like standard bits of contemporary movement while the four Beijing opera performers sang away, wearing traditional costumes and employing traditional gestures. The two events simply lay there side by side, barely interacting and never fusing. Given its superior quality as material and as performance, the opera simply blew the modern dance into the background. This was sad because Shen Wei obviously has a deep passion for the ancient form, in which he trained for 10 years, as well as a deep drive to reconcile it with his contemporary consciousness. His unhappy result was at least a bold statement of the problem facing every artist today. We can’t live in an isolationist past, while the global present, crowding in on us electronically, trivializing our individuality, divides us from one another as much as it unites us in its nondescript, diffuse blankness.