• White Screen/Black Hole: On Daniel Fish’s Theatrical Pas-de-Deux with Don DeLillo

    Daniel Fish’s 2019 stage adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise is, and is not, a one-man show. Only one live actor — the inimitable Bruce McKenzie — ever appears on stage. But he spends the duration of the 70-minute performance reciting the meandering lists that populate DeLillo’s novel while sitting in a cavity cut into an over-sized screen onto which a film featuring two adults and 19 children, directed by interdisciplinary artist Jim Findlay, is projected. McKenzie does have cast-mates, but they are composed of photons and electrons rather than flesh and blood. The actors on screen are larger than life; by comparison, McKenzie is microscopic, as if the size of a child’s G.I. Joe toy. His physical action is limited by the small size and awkward shape of the hole. If he enchants, he enchants through his voice and small gestures, rather than through visual spectacle.

    One is never quite sure where to fix one’s attention: on the actor on stage, or on the faces on screen. McKenzie’s body is repeatedly obscured by Findlay’s projections. At times, he is shrouded in complete darkness, and we see only his feet swinging from the cavity’s precipice, the 21st-century theatrical analogue of Saul Bellow’s “dangling man.” DeLillo’s novel, too, is haunted by a black hole: the black hole of literal death, of mass destruction wrought by demagogic politicians, of large-scale environmental catastrophe. It seems all too appropriate that the show should run at NYU Skirball the same weekend that thousands took to the streets for New York’s Climate Strike and The New York Times released a report detailing President Donald Trump’s latest attempt to conspire with a foreign power to dig up dirt on a political opponent. (Three years after the 2016 election, it’s become a cliché to say that it feels like we’re all living in a DeLillo novel.)

    But the black hole at the center of Fish’s production is also an aesthetic one. By bringing physical life to DeLillo’s words, McKenzie marries two older art forms, theater and literary fiction. Findlay’s projections, meanwhile, marry two newer ones, film and television (though cinematic in technique, these videos often flit between unrelated scenes, recalling the practice of channel surfing). With its connotation of soothing, but ultimately distracting, commotion, the “white noise” invoked by the production’s title could be either its video projections or its live actor. Fish’s black hole is both chasm and provocation. It asks: is the darkened cavity something into which McKenzie, as a synecdoche for both theater and literary fiction, slowly disappears — or is it something from which he crawls out, in triumphant defiance of the new technologies that threaten to render him obsolete?

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    White Noise is not the first time Fish has probed the possibilities of bringing the fiction of maximalist writers to life on stage. In A (Radically Condensed and Expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (2012), a small group of actors listen to audio recordings of David Foster Wallace reading passages from his essays and short stories. These recordings are mixed live, and as Wallace’s voice streams into their headphones, the actors not only have to verbally reconstruct his meandering sentences and pressured cadence, but they also have to embody the athleticism of his prose physically. Jumping jacks are performed and tennis balls are thrown.

    Fish’s Fun Thing shares a conservative ethos with other recent stage adaptations of maximalist storytelling — in the truest sense of the word “conserve.” In the 2018–2019 season, NYU Skirball presented two complementary works, Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz (2010) and Forced Entertainment’s On the Thousandth Night (2000). Both of these productions strip theater of its modern technological accouterments in order to stage the act of falling in love with a book or story. As six-hour-plus works, they ask their audiences to endure the kind of sustained and attentive experience that has become increasingly out-of-place in our 240-character-limit world. Fun Thing also valorizes the unmediated encounter with a beloved writer, albeit in a roundabout way. Wallace had been dead for several years by the time Fun Thing premiered. But the production suggests that his presence is recoverable — that, by hearing his voice as they perform in real time, the actors can authentically recapture Wallace’s essence live, in performance. In Fun Thing, technology is but a mere stepping stone on the road back to authenticity.

    This is all pretty sentimental stuff. But Wallace himself was famously sentimental, a pioneer of the “New Sincerity” movement, which he imagined as a group of deliberately retrograde literary “anti-rebels” with the “childish gall… to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles.” Part and parcel with Wallace’s New Sincerity was a deep suspicion of new media (film, but mainly television) and the negative impact he believed technology was having on our daily lives.

    But back to DeLillo.

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    When choosing to translate a sprawling 300-page maximalist novel into theater, every director must decide how to distill the work into something a bit more manageable. (One notable exception to this is Hebbel Am Ufer’s 2012 adaptation of Wallace’s Infinite Jest, a twenty-four-hour, multi-national, site-specific production that transported theatergoers to eight venues throughout Berlin.) In the case of White Noise, Daniel Fish opts to reduce DeLillo’s novel to an inventory of lists described by its first-person narrator Jack Gladney, a five-times-married Professor of Hitler Studies at an idyllic Midwestern college. Gladney’s lists run the gamut from the quotidian (boxed foods found in a supermarket) to the salacious (metaphors for sexual penetration found in erotic novels) to the catastrophic (injuries in a war zone).

    These lists should be understood as a literary response to horror vacui: suspicious of the emptiness of our technologically over-saturated world, acutely aware of his own aging body, and obsessed by impending environmental catastrophe (the novel culminates in a chemical spill from a rail car, known as “The Airborne Toxic Event”), Gladney stockpiles narrative stuff in a futile attempt to safeguard himself from the crumbling world around him. Hence why he pioneers the field of Hitler Studies; in Gladney’s world, the great arbiter of mass destruction in the 20th century is not a figure to be confronted, but a figure to be studied, to be contained, to be reduced to that ineffable academic concept of “discourse.” In the program notes to the Skirball presentation, Fish mentions that he “kept being drawn” to the lists every time he read the novel aloud. But make no mistake. This is not a stage production about falling in love with a book.

    At the top of the production, McKenzie takes his place in his hole and begins to recite DeLillo’s lists in the same order they appear in the novel — his tone is largely unaffected. In Fish’s treatment, DeLillo’s lists are divorced from the larger narratives that contain them and stripped of the humor that, in the original novel, makes them palatable. They drone on, they unsettle, they pile up, but they ultimately take us nowhere, much like the tricycle that perpetually steers Gladney’s toddler Wilder to a dead-end in Chapter 40 (McKenzie recites this story, too). One feels as though White Noise itself has been bombed out and that these lists are its sole survivors, the literary debris left in the aftermath. The lists ebb and flow from McKenzie’s mouth like grey-water, their speaker turned into a reluctant witness who must now wade through the sewage.

    Simultaneously, the faces of 19 children roughly between the ages of 12 and 16 begin to flicker on screen. They state their names in close-up, the combination of their accents and appellations revealing that they are all German. (The production made its world premiere at Theater Freiburg in 2018 and Findlay cast local teenagers in the film.) Then their faces flicker again, and we start to notice bruises around their orbital bones and bleeding scabs above their lips. The cause of their injuries is never explained — as, indeed, nothing is ever explained, narratively, in Fish’s production. Soon, the hand of a makeup artist, her body largely off-screen, is seen applying fake blood to the children as their bodies lightly heave and shake on the floor. In DeLillo’s novel, Gladney would likely make a dry joke about the artifice of it all. But this is not DeLillo’s novel. The makeup artist’s brush suggests an element of willfulness to these children’s maiming. It reminds us that destruction, rarely accidental, usually has a human agent.

    With their faces and arms plastered in stage makeup, it is as if, to borrow a phrase from the late performance artist Jack Smith, the children are rehearsing for their destruction rather than experiencing it. The young actors embody society’s unabating investment in the future — as children are so often asked to do — and, trembling with dread on the floor, they anticipate mass atrocities to come. Meanwhile McKenzie, middle-aged and worn, looks back and surveys the rubble already fallen. (Walter Benjamin, bearing witness as he did to the early carnage of World War II, could offer a needed antidote to White Noise’s Hitler. And McKenzie does make reference to the novel’s angelology, its “science of angels.” But he is not Benjamin’s Angel of History — he offers no redemption and refuses to make whole that which has been smashed.)

    Halfway through the show, Hitler himself makes a brief — but no less discomfiting — cameo in Findlay’s projections. With McKenzie still orating from his darkened cavity, the white screen bifurcates: on the right, footage of Hitler speaking at a Nazi rally; on the left, a bloated Elvis Presley singing “Unchained Melody” in a video from his final recorded concert. Findlay’s screen becomes the audio-visual analogue of the novel’s Centenary Hall, the College-on-the-Hill campus building that houses both Gladney’s Hitler Studies department and the Popular Culture department, known officially as “American Environments.” In the latter, faculty devise a “formal method for studying the shiny pleasures they’d known in their Europe-shadowed childhoods,” their classes surveying territory from soda pop bottles and bubblegum wrappers to, yes, the songs of Elvis Presley. With Hitler at one pole and Presley at the other, these are the two forces that, for DeLillo, dominate contemporary life: destruction and nostalgia.

    Yet these two forces are most powerful — their potential for havoc most assured — when they operate in concert. Here, the concert is literal. In Fish’s production, Presley’s crooning and Hitler’s roaring compete for the audience’s aural attention. In brief moments, the two men are both off screen, and we see only the crowds that cheer them on — as Hitler’s acolytes and Presley’s groupies meld into one another, we are reminded that fascism and the culture industry are often rigged by the same apparatuses, and that nostalgia undergirds both. After all, most of those who attended Presley’s final 1977 concert were not there to see the 42-year-old singer; they were there to commune with the handsome young idol they had loved 20 years earlier. Similarly, far-right demagogues like Hitler have also sought to incite their denizens’ allegiance by stoking a longing for a glorious — and often illusory — past.

    But ultimately, this image of a late-career Presley is more interesting for what it shares in common with the maimed children rather than what it shares in common with Hitler. As Presley sings North and Zaret’s lyrics, his body quivers and quakes — not because he is overcome by the emotional yearning expressed in the song, but because he is out of shape with only months left to live. Sweat glistens along his orbital bone, and for a moment, we are tempted to think he might be crying. But his tears are only exhaustion. Like the children in Findlay’s video, Presley is rehearsing for his death, the five 32-ounce cups of Coke placed on his piano a tragic synecdoche for the addictions that led to his early demise. For DeLillo, as for Fish, Presley is a cautionary tale — a reminder that, in seeking to insulate ourselves from life’s discomforts by hoarding junk food and other-things-that-come-in-lists, we only hasten death.

    If a moment of catharsis is to be had in Fish’s White Noise, it might come ten minutes from the end. McKenzie, ventriloquizing Gladney, describes the blood covering the seat, steering wheel, dashboard, and door-handles of his car. (In the book, Gladney takes the advice of a friend who suggests that he might alleviate his all-consuming fear of death by shooting someone; tragicomically, the potential victim shoots him in the arm instead.) At the same time, one of the child actors is projected on screen, her entire face eclipsed by the black hole in which McKenzie still sits — by far, this is the production’s most disturbing image. As if to mollify us of this fright, Presley’s voice returns and the strings in “Unchained Melody” swell toward the song’s final refrain. Yet the reminder of the faceless girl is too potent. The song provides little comfort and can do nothing to repair the damage we have already witnessed for sixty minutes on stage. In Fish’s White Noise, art cannot heal the maimed. As with Presley gasping for air as he attempts to belt out a song, it is often maimed itself.

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    As a critic with my own intellectual fixations, I came to Fish’s White Noise too ready to see the black hole as a metaphor for the contest between art forms new and old, rather than as an embodiment of the global catastrophic risks that threaten to obliterate us all, regardless of what investments we have — or do not have — in thinking through the relationship between theater, literary fiction, and new technology. Gestated in the comparatively sunny Blair and Obama years, Forced Entertainment’s On the Thousandth Night, Elevator Repair Service’s three-novel trilogy, and Fish’s own Fun Thing could afford to ask such minor questions about aesthetic difference. But, to paraphrase Barry McGuire’s prognosticating tune: “There’ll be no theater to save with the world in a grave.” Of course, this is not to say there is no value in those earlier works — that there would be no value in creating them even now. A world in which humanity has somehow managed to persist, but has lost its art in the process, is not a world in which I would ever want to live. I saw Gatz nearly a decade ago, and it is still the most powerful — and the most affirmative — experience I have ever had in the theater.

    While a hard pill to swallow, White Noise is a necessary Brechtian foil to a work like Gatz. Fish’s production is far from the most disturbing stage work I’ve seen, but it is easily one of the bleakest — and it is powerful precisely because it refuses to cast a spell, refuses to conform to what we, as theater consumers, might demand of a DeLillo adaptation. Theater and literary fiction never end up vying for dominance in Darwinian battle with film and television here. Though McKenzie’s acting, Findlay’s film, and Bobby Previte’s live percussion occasionally come into conflict, for the most part, they operate in tandem — creating a droning, discordant gesamtkunstwerk that reminds us, as Artaud once did, that the sky can still fall on our heads. Theater can provide a shelter. But Fish’s White Noise reminds us that, inevitably, we must do more than just shelter in place.

     

    Photo Credit: Andrew Lieberman

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