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Waste Deep in Dramaturgy

T.S. Eliot’s famous poem inspires a year’s worth of shows.

Courtesy Stanford Drama Department

BODYSCAPE: Lara Sofia Romero, ’10, wanders where handy plants grow in The Waste Land: or pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

By Emily Hite

In T.S. Eliot’s most famous poem, The Waste Land, the speaker warns, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” Fragmented and filled with references to other literary works, the poem is so heady one wonders if Eliot intended that statement as a dare to his readers. This year, Stanford Drama has accepted that dare and put it onstage. All its 2008-09 main-stage productions are centered on The Waste Land—and it’s the first time the department has concentrated in this way on a single work.

English and drama professor Peggy Phelan envisioned the plan when she became drama chair in 2007. She hoped to broaden student interest in the many directions performance production and scholarship can take, including dramaturgy. Eliot’s 1922 modernist masterpiece evoking an atmosphere of ruin after World War I was chosen in part for its present-day resonance. Phelan says, “I was struck that there wasn’t that much activism on the Stanford campus” with respect to the Iraq War. “I wanted to think about the questions of drama involved always in the so-called theater of war.”

The dense, elusive text of the five-part poem has been scrutinized within the department for more than a year, much the way Phlebas, the drowned sailor in the poem, fell victim to “a current under sea” that “picked his bones in whispers.” In five collaborative productions, faculty and students have tried to develop new points of access into the poem.

In the fall, drama lecturer Aleta Hayes, ’81, followed a Dido and Aeneas-informed narrative for her production, The Waste Land in Black and White. Dining Room, Home, Tomb, Decaying Hole and Empty Room, directed by doctoral candidate Ileana Drinovan, drew from Seneca’s plays Thyestes and Agamemnon and took place at the Stanford Mausoleum during chilly November evenings. The Waste Land: or pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, imagined the popular contemporary reference of The Wizard of Oz as grounding. Curtain, the largest production, was directed by doctoral candidate Daniel Sack and choreographed by artist-in-residence Robert Moses, with lighting designed by Professor Michael Ramsaur. March saw the mostly danced version, Hurry Up It’s Time, directed by dance instructor Tony Kramer and co-choreographed with visiting artist Parijat Desai, ’92. The final production, wAsted, directed by Juan Batiz Benet, ’10, and others, is the only one headed by undergraduates. It takes place May 14-16.

I was fortunate to perform in Curtain, which involved many forms of media and performance. After dancing professionally with Sacramento Ballet for several years before attending Stanford, I studied art history and dance on campus, involved with theory and criticism on one hand and performance practice on the other. These occupations were almost always separate. Participation in Curtain, however, let me use both those hands—and revel in the somewhat overwhelming senses of sight, sound and touch. (Director Sack tried to incorporate smell into the audience experience by opening a can of sardines backstage, but the scent didn’t travel far enough to be effective.)

Of particular interest to Sack was the blind prophet Tiresias of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, a figure who takes many forms in The Waste Land. In Curtain, the role of the prophet was passed among performers, sometimes signified by wearing a white gown. During my gowned moments, I received the prophet’s power by touching a light bulb and later danced inside a giant fabric balloon. Tiresias and other prophets including Oz’s Professor Marvel and the Wizard himself were played by actor Doug Wilde, a professor emeritus of mechanical and chemical engineering who perhaps stole the show. (A close second was four dancers’ creepy rendition of the Lollipop Guild.)

Written during the aftermath of the Great War, The Waste Land alludes to “the incapacity of the prophet and how his clarion proclamation is replaced with a babbling of fragments,” Sack explained in his program notes. Actors spoke dribbling permutations of Eliot’s already fractured text. The dancers’ movement vocabulary, at first a series of deliberate gestures, degenerated as the landscape of the stage spiraled into chaos. Rows of sheer curtains, another of Sack’s central motifs, obscured action onstage. As one freshman, during an IHUM class discussion, commented, the show left traditional audience expectations frustratingly unfulfilled.

The productions inspired dialogue on both sides of the stage, as hoped. Phelan says, as a matter of performance scholarship, “I’m really interested in why live art continues. It doesn’t make any economic sense, it resists a certain kind of commodification, it resists certain mediazation of culture. And yet, it keeps going.” Being able to watch thoughtful, provocative responses grow out of a wasteland might be one reason why.

EMILY HITE, ’07, is Stanford's research intern.

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