Talking Instruments

Narratives at the Loeb

"Hell is the static lifelessness of unrelieved viciousness, Paradise the static lifelessness of unrelieved immaculation, Purgatory a flood of movement and vitality released by the conjunction of the elements." -Beckett on Joyce

PURGATORY IS THE overriding subject of Narratives, Earl Kim's new musical adaptation of various excerpts from Samuel Beckett's work. In seven skits Kim effectively captures the essence of Beckett's purgatory-a world founded on the premise of an irreducible absurdity-one in which the realms of the shadow and substance constantly collide,interweave and fall apart. In this world characters are racked by doubt and tormented by a nightmarish past which they cannot escape or hope to understand. Purgatory is not a way-station between heaven and hell in Kim's view, it is the Universe itself, driven by doubt and unfulfilled thought.

The balance which Kim establishes between actor and musical instrument reflects his assimilation and digestion of Beckett's rhetoric: Kim spent two years composing Narratives, finishing in 1975 just in time for the master's 75th birthday. Kim established a precedent for this performance in Exercises en Route, his first successful attempt to set the spoken word to music. In this new form which he calls "Music/Theatre," Kim draws upon the improvizational abilities of the Ariel Music Ensemble.


The instruments in Narratives assume personalities of their own, carrying on musical conversations among themselves. In the opening skit, for example, a violin, cello and piano exchange various harmonies, attempting to reach a common ground. In a later piece an altercation between between cello and alto-trombone ranges from melodrama to farce. Kim's parallels and parodies the actors' disjointed monologues. In one skit a piano accompanies actress Irene Worth, responding to the natural cadences of her voice as she relives a traumatic childhood experience. The culmination of this tension between the actor and instrument occurs in the last piece when the voices of violin, piano and high soprano clash in an expressionistic fury.

The star of Narratives, Irene Worth, delivers a thoroughly engaging performance; she has already demonstrated her prediliction for avant-grade work in her earlier award-winning performances, Tiny Alice and Sweet Bird of Youth. Confined to one position on the stage, Worth must rely on her gestures, facial expressions and suggestively resonant voice to shift deftly from little girl t accusing lover and back again.


Ronald Hayman, noted critic, once pointed out, "the very incompleteness of Beckett's works far increases the spectator's need to project his own despair in the spaces of the play." It would be a mistake to confuse an actor's shortcomings with the author's intent: to argue that the audience is simply misconstruing Kim's-and ultimately Beckett's-purpose. Worth struggles at points with the difficulties of her script, and her monologues sometimes appear awkward and belabored. Soprano Jane Bryden fails completely. Her words are inaudible.

All these flaws dwindle in significance when you looks to the grandeur of the production's central work, Eh Joe. Holding court over the Ariel Chamber Ensemble, Worth sits directly beneath a gigantic video screen on which we see projected the face of the play's central character, Joe. Joe is haunted by the voice of a girl who once left him and his anguish increase as he mentally reenacts past relationships with his mother and a discarded Ophelia-both of whom he destroyed through neglect. The camera repeatedly closes in on Joe's face as the girl's taunts become increasingly strident, "You know that penny farthing hell you call your mind...that's where you think this is coming from don't you...behind the eyes." We expect some kind of catharsis and yet Kim gives us none save two tears which slowly roll down Joe's face.

Narrative's final strength, however, lies not in its appeal to the ear, but to the eye. By spotlighting the actors from above, Kim adds to the ambiance of gloom which he has already suggested through the character's black clothing. Indeed, blackness becomes the primary visual metaphor here, for the opacity of the experience, the characters' fragmented views of the their lives and of Purgatory, a place where reason and emotion can never be translated into action.