Why Bruno Schulz?
My love affair with Bruno Schulz began in 1985 when my mentor Jacques Chwat gave me a copy of the amazing and strangely autobiographical novel, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. From that moment. Schulz' oeuvre, including Street of Crocodiles, his letters and his drawings, would appear in my work in obvious and, at times, more mystical ways. In Song of Absence, the first performance of Double Edge's Song Trilogy, Bruno Schulz himself, although long gone, made an appearance, and brought along with him his coterie of lively creations. Schulz' visionary courage and inspired presence has continued to guide my dreams in that decades-long journey from my youthful directing to a more mature art.
I moved in the Trilogy from Song of Absence, to Song of Songs, and a research exploration entitled Hidden Territories, which took place in Schulz' birthplace in Drohobycz (a town that moved back and forth between Poland, Germany, and the Ukraine, at the convenience of its occupiers). Double Edge created an exchange with young artists and explored the city's remaining Jewish life, which included speaking with some living relatives and students of this profound artist.
On this journey, we had the unique opportunity to see the streets and storefronts that Schulz describes with such intimate humor and surreal detail, and also to see his Synagogue, an enormous monolith that was successively destroyed, first by the Nazis, who turned it into a horse stable, then by the Soviets, who turned it into a furniture factory. Even Schulz could not have imagined this.
After twelve years of working on the Song Trilogy, I moved on to the Garden Cycle, and thought my story with Schulz had reached its end. Through two performances and several spectacles, his world remained relegated to the outer reaches of my work, returning only when I gave my copy of Sanatorium to my protégé and co-creator, Matthew Glassman. Matthew was quickly consumed by the Schulz inspiration (felt by numerous illustrious artists of the twentieth century, from Cynthia Ozick to Philip Roth, to the Complicite Theatre, to Tadeusz Kantor and his Cricot II). Once again the Schulzian world found enormous resonance with a Double Edge core of actors. Matthew's uncanny resemblance to Schulz himself, a prototypical doubtful young Jewish artist (renamed Joseph in Sanatorium) were equally matched by the theatre's lead actor, Argentine Carlos Uriona, and his magnetic grasp of the magic realism and eccentric force of nature embodied in Schulz' character, the Father.
The three of us traveled together to do research in Poland. We went to Wroclaw, where we spoke to refugees from Drohobycz who had studied under Schulz in high school. Afterwards, we went to Warsaw, where we had the good fortune to view hundreds of Schulz' erotic and fantastic etchings, tucked away in the back room of the National Museum of Literature.
Bruno Schulz lived in a time not dissimilar to our own. Growing up between the wars, a time in which assimilation, fear, and consumerism rose to huge proportions, Schulz saw that life could be more. He envisioned scathing, larger-then-life views of the city as "streets of crocodiles," in which people over-consume with no regard to context or reason. He discloses a depth of hypocrisy in which sexuality and religion are fraught with rigid fundamentalism, and framed by ethnic and nationalistic hatred. In his vision we see the undercurrent of horror and indifference that would soon erupt into the Holocaust, and, even more disturbingly, the possibility that the world today bears the same seeds of destruction.
How do you translate dreams, images, and metaphor into theatrical narrative?
Schulz was prescient. His etching of a marching group of gaunt, underwear-clad wax dummies foretold with shocking accuracy the story of the millions of souls marching their way into the gas chambers. This unforgettable drawing, created in the early 1930's, provided the explosive, and core image of our performance, just as Schulz' 1936 essay, "Republic of Dreams" provided its ethic. The story describes the chaotic world around him and also his desire to live life to its fullest, as an artist in his chosen place, no matter what. Schulz did not believe in a linear world, and did not write or draw one. As we attempt to create order from the chaos and uncontrolled events in our lives, we forget that only in the inner regions ("regions of heresy" as his dedicated biographer Jerzy Ficowski describes) do our imagination and our most joyous and awe-inspiring moments live on.
Like Schulz, I insist on examining life according to a different kind of narrative, on standing firm in my dreams despite the violent conformity and enforced rationality of our world. Circling and spiraling through the imaginative genius of Schulz' creations, I have discovered my own magical theatre - a dynamic layering of events not linked to obvious cause-and-effect. In this way, a deeper truth can be found. The images of Schulz's father flying, inspired by an ink drawing, or the young Joseph mistaking a merchandise catalog for a holy text (from "the Book"), call to mind the fevered imagination of a small child looking in awe at the magnificent grown-ups around him. As Joseph moves the story to his father's death (from the story "Sanatorium"), one simultaneously sees Schulz himself as a grown man in the late 1930s, forced to paint murals for his Nazi protector, as his world disintegrates around him. Through these juxtapositions and elaborations, a living reality is built that persists and renews itself, even in the face of the decisive, lethally final acts of history. The truly rare courage of Bruno Schulz lay in his insistence on imagination and freedom. With the strength of that courage I have endeavored to attack all preconception-to create an art of vibrancy, provocation, and full engagement.
"We dreamed the region was being threatened by an unknown danger, permeated by a mysterious menace. Against these perils we sought refuge in fortresses of the fantastic. Today, those remote dreams come back, and not without reason. The possibility suggests itself that no dream, however senseless or absurd, goes wasted in the universe."
- Bruno Schulz, "Republic of Dreams", 1936