For reasons I can’t explain, science fiction has always sent me to sleep. Perhaps it’s because I find living in the present scary enough. The pleasures of Ray Bradbury’s futuristic work—let alone H.G. Wells’—have passed me by. Even Truffaut’s film of Mr. Bradbury’s 1953 classic, Fahrenheit 451, failed to convert me to the sci-fi cause. Yet the adventurous Godlight Theatre Company’s production at the 59E59 Theaters of the renowned novel—which Mr. Bradbury adapted in 1979 into a one-act play—absorbed me in unexpected, even staggering, ways.
“It was a pleasure to burn,” announces Montag, the fireman who burns books by government decree, at the shadowy start. Montag is a poet among pyromaniacs, in his way. Kerosene, he explains, is nothing but perfume to him. “It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blacken and changed. With the brass nozzle in my fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in my head, and my hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history …. ”
And seeing Mr. Bradbury’s fascist firemen in their protective, monstrous gear, whose gleeful job is to burn libraries and therefore all knowledge and ideas, was to be jolted into his nightmarish new world. The notion that firemen—our mythic heroes and saviors of 9/11—could be portrayed as fictional villains of a society in apocalyptic ruin was itself upsetting. Yet I came to see the uncanny prescience of Fahrenheit 451—named for the temperature at which paper ignites.
My fascination wasn’t in Mr. Bradbury’s science fiction, however. To the contrary, director Joe Tantalo has staged an unpretentiously minimalist production lacking any futuristic effects. Rather, it’s an imagined contemporary reality that disturbed me. The appeal of Fahrenheit 451 in its stage version, at least for me, is that it has become a clairvoyant parable of a world that has lost its reason.
Do we literally burn books? Mr. Bradbury would reply there are more books than ever that remain unread. There are historic precedents of book burning, from Alexandria to Nazi Germany to the present. There are more crappy books than ever. There are more censored books. (The novel Fahrenheit 451 was itself censored). But that isn’t strictly the point. In an astonishing speech, the play’s fire chief, Captain Beatty, foretells our information age:
“No time to read, no time to even live. Condense everything, cut everything. Everything boiled down to the gag, the snap ending. Classics cut to fifteen-minute radio explosions, cut again to fit two-minute book columns. Speed up the film, shorten the news, TV the walls. Dolby Sound the ceilings. More sports for everyone. Group spirit. Fun. Organize and super-organize super-super sports so you can talk all the time, but all the talk is scores, nice safe stuff, scores for basketball, scores for baseball, football, tennis, scores, scores, no substance …. More comic books, more sex. More non-books, more gossip. Plenty of facts but no meaning.”
Mr. Bradbury also foresaw reality TV, the end of privacy, the babble of 24-hour cable news, random killing in the streets, mass sedation by television and tranquilizers. He didn’t see global religious warfare coming, only fanaticism, obedience and conformity. He saw the future as early as 1953 with the publication of Fahrenheit 451, and I can only hope he doesn’t see it today.
For an undefined war is happening during the play and the novel, and Mr. Bradbury’s anti-hero, Montag, will find redemption with a few scorched survivors of a holocaust. Each of them has learned a book by heart—Aristotle, Dostoevsky, Tolkien and so on—to recite and pass on as secret knowledge to other survivors in the wasteland. “The Book People” are Mr. Bradbury’s scavengers of words, witnesses to history and protectors of wondrous things: “And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations …. ”
It’s a pity that Mr. Tantalo’s production is at times too spare, and that not all the members of his hard-working ensemble are experienced actors. But it is a good and memorable thing they have done. I recall the words of Matthew Arnold’s poem, “Dover Beach,” quoted in the play:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world,
To lie before us like a land of
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor
love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor
help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling
Swept with confused alarms of
struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by
[title of review]
If you fail to get on terms with the premise of any show, you’re sunk. The show isn’t necessarily sunk. But you are. Unfortunately, that was the case for me with the cult musical, entitled [title of show]. The gimmick is that they can’t think of a title to the show. Also, they can’t think of a show.
The two creators of the show about trying to create a show are the stars of the show. They are Jeff Bowen, who wrote the music and lyrics, and Hunter Bell, who wrote the book. Two real-life friends of Hunter and Jeff, Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell, play themselves in the show because, apparently, they couldn’t get anyone else.
Now returned to the Vineyard Theatre Off-Broadway by popular demand, at least of Hunter and Jeff, I’m afraid the little musical that could lost me in the first scene, when the industrious Hunter wants to enter an as-yet-unwritten show in a musical-theater festival, and he says to Jeff over the phone, “Hey, what if the first scene was just us talking about what to write?”
“Wait,” says the inspired Jeff. “So everything I say from now on could actually be in our show?”
There are many people who find the sincere heartaches and high hopes that went into creating [title of show] sweet and charming. I am not one of them. I see I wrote in my notes, “Finally winning. But when?” Well, that wasn’t very nice of me, was it? [title of show] made me miss The Drowsy Chaperone too much.
Follow John Heilpern via RSS.