Michelle Chen reviews Elevator Repair Service’s performance (and reading) of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.
In the late nineteenth century, Tolstoy proclaimed the inherent diversity of unhappiness—the unfathomable multiplicity of individual suffering. The Sun Also Rises presents a rather different interpretation.
Discontent in Sun is universal, quotidian, even banal. On occasion a character may be ephemerally “happy”, is often “sore”, or sometimes in a tearful state of despair simply termed “so unhappy”. To top it off, they are usually “tight”—drunk. Other mental states are rarely specified. Hemingway’s portrayal of a Lost Generation leaves little room for musings upon the individual experience of sadness: the nuances, say, of Mike Campbell’s feeling of abandonment versus Robert Cohn’s or even Jake’s. We hear that happy families are all alike, but Sun has shown that unhappiness too, can be indistinctive. Our characters pivot towards one of three emotions—joy, annoyance, or dejection—all the while attempting to maintain what seems to be expatriate homeostasis: a moderately unhealthy to near-lethal level of drunkenness. Narration in Sun is not preoccupied with the adjectival or even linguistic expression of complex individual psychologies. A strange fit for theater adaptation.
Rendering Sun on stage is a daunting endeavor for any theater troupe, the Elevator Repair Service included. Confining drama to Hemingway’s paucity of explicit emotional narrative for a little more than three hours (while simultaneously attempting to convey a state of perpetual inebriation) is sure to make for a messy play tainted by an overall performative dullness. After all, what we deem literary ambiguity or economy of style in one form often becomes bad acting in the other. And yet The Select illustrates complexity of character well. Lucy Taylor, for example, presents an uninterrupted dialogue of polarities: charming and rude; helpless and impressive; beautiful and perverse. Her Brett is a tragic blend of masculine sexuality and feminine romanticism brimming with an aristocratic ennui. Mike Iveson brings to Jake both the solemnity of his damned biblical namesake and the insouciance of a wine-drinker with a seemingly endless bank account. Rarely does Matt Tierney truly occupy his stage space, often remaining a bit of a backdrop and giving to Robert Cohn the impression of a painfully self-aware adolescent unsure of how to inhabit an adult body. Each character is parsed, and then reassembled before our eyes. “The Select” illustrates their passions, tempers, fears, and vulnerabilities with a vividness that only theatrical experience can bring.
And that is precisely the problem. Whether we credit Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory or not, Sun undoubtedly has a knack for the suggestion of deeper consciousness through the revelatory triviality of an icy tip. By this I mean that the obvious inadequacy (and sometimes, unoriginality) of certain sentences in Sun is often a means of suggesting either a significant omission or a profound understatement. Jake’s narration is a rhetoric of suppression and self-deception, a linguistic rejection of complex sentiment even during moments of despair. He cries, “then after a while it was better”. Yet the emotional deficiency with which he sheaths the topic of his impotence, for example, is so markedly unnatural as to become unbelievable. “I was bored enough,” Jake says, and we cannot help but to doubt his reliability: tragic genital wounds that thwart love are not exactly boring. Such absurd meiosis actually serves to insinuate an affected narrative restraint—an active resistance against the recognition of emotional trauma. While our view of characters’ interiority is severely limited by Jake’s repressive perspective, it is exactly this narrative façade of emotional simplicity that implicitly expresses—perhaps more successfully than any sentence could—psychologies that are simultaneously unspecified and complex.
Such nuance is lost in the transition from novel to play. Transplanting the first-person unreliable narrator from prose to theater is an impossible task, for drama does not consent to such mediation. When Jake states that Georgette touches him, the lack of details in his narration creates ambiguity: where exactly does she touch him? As readers we can make a fairly educated guess, yet our knowledge of what actually occurs is based solely upon what Jake decides to tell us and how. An attempt to filter the audiences’ experience of theatrical action through the discriminating lens of a first-person narrator would result in drama’s generic rejection of the foreign, novelistic contaminate (see episode 15 of Joyce’s Ulysses for proof of such unstagable chaos): the nature of theater requires the presentation of “objective” action. We see precisely where and how Georgette touches Jake; we feel the weight of a lag in conversation when the truth about San Sebastian is revealed: social tensions and individual emotions are all infuriatingly on display. What lovers of Sun get from “The Select,” then, is a set of characters and actions depicted with uncomfortably meticulous detail and lacking the protean nature of a true Hemingway creation. By no means is “The Select” a bad play, but it can only do so much: the nature of the experiment dooms adaptation to failure.
—Michelle Chen, Assistant Prose Editor