Bruno Schulz on Stage

Biography

By Ilan Stavans

Published March 09, 2007, issue of March 09, 2007.
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‘Double Edge,” the inventive and free-spirited experimental theater troupe based in Ashfield, Mass., turns 25 this year. To celebrate the improbable journey, Stacy Klein, its director, is adapting for the stage the work of Bruno Schulz, running through March 18 at La MaMa in Manhattan. Under the title “Republic of Dreams,” the performance is a lesson in artistic courage.

Schulz, born in 1892, and killed by a Nazi in 1942, in Drohobycz, Galicia, is one of the pillars of 20th-century diasporic Jewish literature. Along with Franz Kafka and Isaac Babel, his oeuvre meditated, in a secular language, on the inner and outer life of Jews in Central Europe. “The Street of Crocodiles” and “Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass” offered a unique aesthetics, creating a self-sufficient universe in the liminal zone where reality and dreams collide.

Aside from his two short books, Schulz left us precious little: a bunch of letters; a series of drawings and murals, one of which was the target of an international uproar when Yad Vashem in Israel usurped it from its recondite site in Poland, and some postcards and black-and-white family photographs. There also might be the manuscript of an incomplete novel, “The Messiah,” still lost in the Soviet archives. And there are some essays, like “Republic of Dreams.”

Unfortunately, American publishers have overlooked the possibility of bringing Schulz’s collected works in a single volume, leaving readers with a feeling of fractured possibilities. The reason might be financial: An author is considered a success if he sells, and Schulz doesn’t sell nearly as much as Kafka or as little as Babel. But discerning readers know better. A book that matters doesn’t always sell — but it is always read, one way or another. And Schulz unquestionably remains a favorite, at least among a cadre of influential intellectuals who have been hypnotized by him: his biographer, Jerzy Ficowski, first and foremost, followed by Philip Roth, Isaac Bashevis Singer, John Updike, Cynthia Ozick and David Grossman. (Personally, I read Schulz as if he had come from Latin America: His language is unsettling; he appears lost in his labyrinth, and his vision could well be that of a magical realist who never quite dies, like the gypsy Melquíades in “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”)

I have seen several adaptations of his oeuvre into theater, chief among them the one performed in London almost a decade ago by the Theatre de Complicite, in which actors appeared to walk on the ceiling. I remember being infatuated with it. But “Double Edge” has gone beyond even this. The troupe rotates around a central mission: to develop an original stage performance, based on the premise of long-term imaginative work of the actor and his community. In the past months, I’ve visited their farm in Ashfield and attended rehearsal in a barn they use, witnessing the concentration with which the members tackle Schulz’s Weltanschauung. I’ve talked to Klein and her actors about Schulz’s writings, and about words on paper and onstage.

A typical rehearsal of “Double Edge” starts with a long session of rhythmic improvisation, syncopated by appropriate music. And then the performance begins.

What is the difference between improvisation and the play itself? The ensemble suddenly becomes cohesive. An electric shock invades every corner of the theater. The actors employ puppets, masks and mannequins to deliver the narrative. Fragments of “The Street of Crocodiles” give way to meditations on time, while Schulz’s drawings become an inspiration to reflect on the grammar of the universe: umbrellas and suitcases, figurines made of clay, a meat grinder, a Torah, a closet that becomes a freight train, and an endless amount of clothing that allow people to mutate, to become objects, to show that, as Schulz believed, they also have a soul. The Drohobycz of 1942, a sepulchral Drohobycz, left in ruins by history, is now before our eyes. And Schulz isn’t dead. How could he be? He is more alive than ever, even though the entire show is shaped as a memento mori, Schulz’s experience immediately before death.

The spectacle is not to be missed. It is proof that art doesn’t have to be complacent, that literature and theater are siblings, and that truth is to be found in dreams. And dreams, as Schulz said, are the stuff we’re made of. We, Schultz wrote, have to “resolve to become self-sufficient, create a new life principle, establish a new age, reconstitute the world — on a small scale, to be sure, for ourselves alone, but after own tastes and pleasures.” “Double Edge” does exactly that: It creates a new life principle.

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring professor in Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College. His latest book is “The Disappearance: A Novella and Stories” (TriQuarterly, 2006), on which the film “My Mexican Shivah” is based.


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