What of the Night
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
April 2, 2005
When the audience first enters the Lucille Lortel Theatre before the start of What of the Night, the new one-person show about the life and writing of Djuna Barnes, they are met by the sight of a scrim (which hangs in front of the stage for the entire performance) on which typewritten characters are projected, like letters on a page. Beyond the scrim, one can make out the dim outline of an apartment on stage. And, in the middle of the stage, obscured by shadows, stands a column or pillar of some sort. Or so one thinks. Once the show begins, and the lights come up on stage, it is revealed that the pillar is none other than What of the Night’s star and co-author, Jane Alexander. She has been standing still on stage for half an hour. When she lifts her head and begins to move about the stage—giving us our first glimpse of Barnes at home, listening to her tape recorder or pecking out some words on her typewriter—performing the first five minutes in almost complete silence, one can feel the pressure drop in the room. Alexander is such a talented actress that she can make such a start compelling without a word. Draped in an elegant old robe, armed with a walking stick and a sour look on her face, Alexander conjures a physically frail and emotionally jaded old woman. She has invested a lot into Barnes, so much so that we feel as if know her before she begins to talk.
Barnes, as we learn from the program notes, lived in Salinger-esque seclusion in her Greenwich Village studio for more than forty years. Director Birgitta Trommler cleverly symbolizes this seclusion with the scrim—serving as an intentional barrier between Barnes and the rest of the world—and by keeping Alexander on stage for the pre-show: life goes on around her without ever knowing she is there.
However, those are the clearest and most meaningful aspects of What of the Night. For once Alexander begins to speak, things are all downhill. The show strives to illuminate Barnes’s life and art, but falls victim to a relentless and frustrating opaqueness that obscures what was important about her and why her work should still be remembered. I assume that Alexander captained this vehicle partly because of an interest in Barnes. If so, then she should be applauded for her entrepreneurial spirit. Unfortunately, the end result is so embarrassing and confusing that the whole enterprise ends up reeking of pet project indulgence.
A little background on Barnes (who was unknown to me before now): one of five children, she became the sole breadwinner for her family when her father threw her mother and siblings out of the house, and quickly made a name for herself as a journalist, poet, and playwright. She moved to Paris in 1921, and became part of a social and literary circle that included James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Peggy Guggenheim. It was during her years in Paris that Barnes met the love of her life, Thelma Wood. Their stormy relationship formed the basis for her most famous work, the 1936 novel, Nightwood, which was championed by Dylan Thomas. Following the American and British publications of Nightwood, Barnes moved to New York in 1940, and lived in self-imposed exile until her death in 1982.
Alexander and her collaborators, co-authors Trommler and Noreen Tomassi, attempt to cover a lot of ground in What of the Night by including both young and old versions of Barnes; Thelma and her Nightwood alter-ego Robin; and Nightwood’s protagonist Dr. Matthew O’Connor (all played by Alexander). Changes of scene and character coincide, and happen often, but not always with clarity. I think the play’s structure is intended to mirror Barnes’s own thought process—a delicate commingling of memory, reality, and fiction, where real and make-believe people meet on an equal playing field. In theory, this idea is bold and interesting. But, when put into practice here, it does not work. While it is often easy enough to tell when a scene change is occurring, it is not always so easy to tell which character Alexander is playing. The authors establish the multi-character device early enough, but without any explanation—it is never completely clear that that is what’s going on. Furthermore, they fail to provide any exposition for each new character, or place them in any context. What their connection and importance to Barnes is is never made entirely clear. Personally, I wouldn’t have known any of this if the show’s press representatives hadn’t thoughtfully provided me with a copy of the script and an extensive bio for Barnes. Without access to those helpful resources, regular theatregoers will be at a severe disadvantage.
All of which makes What of the Night highly un-illuminating. Aside from the obvious knowledge that Barnes was a crotchety old broad, viewers will learn very little about her. Alexander and her collaborators seem to take it for granted that the audience is already well-versed in Barnes lore. This is a grave mistake, as it prevents anyone who sees What of the Night from entering Barnes's world fully and seeing it through her eyes, thereby understanding it. A high crime for a biographical play.
There is no doubt that Alexander is a powerful and vital actress. But her gifts are wasted here, in service of a script that does not deserve them. That she helped write it makes What of the Night all the more disappointing, and must give one pause to ponder her intentions. What she wishes to impart about Barnes—or what interests her about Barnes—remains a mystery throughout.