by Karen Malpede
I sit in the back of the theater; that way I can watch the audience watching the play I have written and directed. I can monitor their restless movements, observe if anyone drops off to sleep, or fiddles with a phone, lighting up and distracting the immediate area. I can squirm with every squirm and wonder how or if I might make an adjustment to the staging, the acting or the text that would eliminate each moment of inattention directing any wondering mind back to the stage action.
Granted, we have only 40 seats, this time. We have reconfigured a theater space so that the small audience sits directly in front of a rectangular playing area, with a raised stage-house at the back, with three entrances as in classical theaters, painted to look like stone. The play spills down from here; it’s first scene is staged completely in this House area, the next scene near the bee hives outside the house, the third mid-stage, in various groves in a pine wood, and the fourth on a cliff at the edge of the sea. By this time, the actors are playing virtually in the faces of the audience, there are only a few feet separating the audience seats from the bench on the cliff. The play runs 1 hour and 50 minutes without intermission as it advances closer and closer to its watchers.
And I, watching from the last row, from behind them, have seen something heartening and remarkable. I have watched the audience become entranced, and seen them lean ever forward in their hard chairs entering more fully into the action. I have not seen a single squirm. There has been no texting, no whispering, even, to the person in the next chair. There has been, over the course of the play, an ever-growing hush of expectant tension in the audience. The poetry of the play casts a spell over the audience; they do not move because they are engaged in the activity of listening.
This attentiveness I find enormously gratifying. It’s as if a theory I’ve held is being proved by the audience which is my experimental subject. I watch them leaning forward in their seats as individuals but also in a group—they are free to think and feel as they will, but they are doing so in a setting of which they are a part. Their attention is so focused because they are with others. They are free to be entered and changed by poetry because they sit together. Their personal associations arising from the shared story remain their private, sacred, invented text, but their ability to rouse these feelings within themselves has to do with the fact that they are not alone. Each feels her own feelings in a group. It is the group that gives to each her privacy of reflection. Afterward, at dinner or over a drink, they may share their ideas about the play. People tell me they spend a long time talking. Usually they say, “There are so many ideas in the play”. But I think they do not share their deepest feelings, which are theirs, and perhaps, even, are forgotten as they leave the theater, to return later in a dream, or a rush coming from they know not where. Ideas are easier to share than the private associations poetic texts arouse.
“I believe ‘that poetry is rooted in love and love in desire and desire in the hope of continued existence,’” this is a line spoken by the central character, Robert Blaze, in the play, The Beekeeper’s Daughter. But it is one of the few lines; there are also some quotes from Rilke that I did not write. The line is taken from the book The White Goddess by the poet-novelist-classical scholar Robert Graves. Graves like most of the classicists of his time held to a theory that world myth arose from worship of the year-god and that the poetic utterance was, therefore, an assertion on the profoundest level of the universal will to life. Poetry and nature, in this view, are inextricably linked. We sing, that is, in order to encourage the return of life each year; the human voice is essential to the cycle of existence.
Yesterday, I read of the first known extinction of a mammalian species by human-induced climate change, a small rodent who used to live but no longer on the Australian Great Barrier Reef that is under assault. I thought immediately of Martin Niemöller’s words during the Hitler era: “In Germany, they came first for the Communists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist; And then they came for the trade unionists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist; And then they came for the Jews, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew; And then . . . they came for me . . .” First climate change claimed the Bramble Cay melomys, but I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a rodent…” We are here, now; and it is only a matter of time.
My play The Beekeeper’s Daughter was written in the 20th Century, in 1994, shortly after scientists, who were to be ignored, then vilified, announced to Congress that climate change due to human activity had measurably begun. I understood at the time of its writing and as a part of an ecofeminist movement that the natural world was under assault. Nuclear weapons or environmental disaster, or a combination of both, threatened life on earth and it was incumbent upon the dramatic poet to act in life’s defense.
We decided to revive The Beekeeper’s Daughter in 2016 partly as an experiment to see what, if any, its resonance might be today. Its immediate historical context in 1994 was the Bosnian war and the revelation that mass rape of Bosnian Muslim women by Bosnian Serb forces was being used a tool of genocide against the Bosnian Muslim population. Their intention was purely patriarchal: the impregnation of Muslim women with Christian Orthodox seed would eradicate the existence of a Muslim population. Indeed, there is an unforgettable photo from that time of newly released rape victims hanging themselves from branches in a mass suicide in a forest clearing. Today, the stories of the children born of those rapes continue to be told in fiction and nonfiction.
The play is about the improbable rescue of one such woman by a human rights worker who brings her to the idyllic island home her father, the famous poet, Robert Blaze. The play is about what happens when a family of eccentrics opens their hearts to someone who has suffered more than they can imagine—though the poet’s family, itself, has been plagued with trauma. Blaze’s wife, Dora Deming, killed herself and the poet’s sister, the clairvoyant eponymous beekeeper, killed her own child in a failed attempt to escape from a violent and abusive husband. Because they know suffering, the raped woman’s plight, while frightening, does not frighten them away. Rather it calls upon the resilience they have had to learn. And the story of the play becomes a cyclical healing drama in which each character cycles more deeply into her or his trauma and desire, for sexuality and pain are closely linked, and emerges as if cleansed. Everyone survives: the woman, her child, the poet’s family, and his bi-sexual lover. Everyone transgresses but grows and the bonds between them strengthen.
The play is a metaphor for survival in which the invocation of poetry and erotic desire play central roles. Survival would be impossible without each character’s sacrifice on the altar of desire and without the words they find to describe this sacrifice to one another.
For all that “it’s a very funny play,” as a Palestinian writer and editor remarked to me after a performance. It’s true; from my perch in the back of the theater I not only witness an ever-growing attentiveness but I hear the laughter from the sharpest wits among the audience. On nights when there are enough of the bright ones, the entire audience is given permission to pick up on the jokes and the laughter accelerates. A play is in essence a conversation between actors and audience. When the drama works its language delivers a communion between actors and audience, a sacred connection between living-breathing souls that is carried on the images exhaled by one group and inhaled by the other.
Thus does spoken poetry enhance the life force. Poetry in the theater gives off an ineffable whiff of desire for continued existence in an imperiled world.
George Bartenieff as Robert Blaze. (photo by Beatriz Schiller)