This Most Ancient Isthmus
An object in light – no more than this is needed to enact a dramatic gesture – to transform a site into a theatrical space. There may also be additional properties considered the custom of theatre: sound, music perhaps, video or film projections on a cyclorama or on a volume in space – of the human face or form, say, with a recorded voice or voices played in concert, or not, with the moving images. But for me, an object – lit simply or expressionistically – is sufficient for drama, provided there is a narrative. Even a narrative so reduced as to be very nearly absent; to be present, perhaps solely in the title of the piece. An object in light, the vestige of a story all but forgotten, lost, or withheld – these are assembled into what I call a ‘cabinet theatre.’
This Most Ancient Isthmus like my In the Cellar of a Dying Star, The Balcony of the Moon, or The Descent of Light is a myth or at least an attempt in our day at myth-making. And as is the case for many other myths – especially when regarded by those ‘outside’ their culture of origin – meaning must be uncertain.
The space is dimly lit. A ladder of ordinary width and design rises into the darkness at the top of the stage. ‘Rises’ is used for convenience, for it is unclear whether the ladder was originally intended to carry aloft or to allow descent of – I will not say beings, human or otherwise. The ladder is intended as a trope for passage between two existences, universes, between Being and Non-being or consciousness and unconsciousness. Pierced by the ladder’s topmost rungs is an obscurity, which, it may be supposed, was not always so when the ladder – ‘the isthmus’ – was used in some long-vanished past.
If darkness is impracticable, then some other means must be found to conceal the ladder’s uppermost reach: an image of murk or gray, moiling clouds perhaps, projected onto a false ceiling of fabric or other soft material. The ladder is black cast iron – corroded, eroded even, as though abandoned in remotest antiquity. At the foot of the ladder (its ‘end,’ whose beginning is unseen, above) is coarse sand – trackless as sand would be were it untrodden since ages past.
To one side of the ladder, a book lies closed on the sand. The book is massive, heavy – its cover fashioned of a metal that once had shone but is now dull and stained by time. Etched into the metal, a rune or some other equally ancient and unreadable symbol can be seen.
What can be seen of the ladder is faintly illuminated by a spectral light: white or palest blue, like shadows cast in early evening or like snow regarded in a certain light. Little of this light will escape the ladder’s rails and rungs, onto the stage or into the surrounding gloom. Unlit except by ambient light, the sand appears gray – its substance apparent by its coarse texture and the faint glitter of silica. The book is lit by a spotlight – gold, perhaps, or an intense white to be reflected by the metal binding.
The action is implicit in the mise en scène. But a much ampler narrative is intimated, however rarefied and, ultimately, unknowable.
Silence, as near to absolute as feasible. (If sound is desired, care should be taken not to invoke meaning where none is wished. The work must elude interpretation.)
Sensation of Touch:
If practicable and desirable, the book’s metal binding is ice-cold to the touch.
Norman Lock’s newest book is Love Among the Particles, stories published by Bellevue Literary Press, New York City. His newest play, The Monster in Winter, has just been translated into German by Per Lauke Verlag. His newest radio drama, Mounting Panic, was recently produced in Germany by WDR. Lock won The Paris Review’s Aga Kahn Prize (1979) and fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (2009), the New Jersey Council on the Art (1999, 2013), and the National Endowment for the Arts (2011). His work has been translated into Dutch, German, Turkish, Japanese, and Spanish. He lives in the U.S.