It’s a Tale Told by an Idiot but Signifying Everything: A Theatrical Review

Playing until July 12, 2015 at The Public Theater in NYC. Running time: 2hrs and 15 minutes with no intermission. Picture used with permission.

It’s rare to see a play in which the traditional conventions of casting (race, gender, age) are cast aside (pun intended). The Elevator Repair Service (ERS),an experimental theater in NYC, did just that. Known for taking literature and /or document based writing and dramatizing them, the ERS performed an unorthodox rendition of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. It was directed by John Collins. The title The Sound and the Fury, takes its name from a line in Macbeth in which Macbeth says “…it is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/ Signifying nothing.  I saw two of ERS’s past productions, Gatz, a word for word performance of The Great Gatsby performed in its entirety, and Arguendo, a play based on a U.S. Supreme Court case on obscenity. I was thrilled late last year when The Public Theater announced that The Sound and the Fury would be part of its current season of performances.  Because I thoroughly enjoyed the previous performances that I saw with ERS, I waited expectantly to see another great performance. Additionally, because I had not read The Sound and the Fury, I knew that I needed to read it. Although I was familiar with Faulkner’s style of writing, I knew his complexity would be an impediment to thoroughly understanding the text. Unfortunately, I did not finish the book by the date of the play.  As a result, when I saw the performance, I had a difficult time identifying and following the many characters. I then decided to complete the text and see the performance again. I can totally say that I enjoyed the performance much more the second time because I was thoroughly familiar with all of the characters and with “the stream of consciousness” with which the story was written. The opening scene of the play orients the audience to one of the major events taking place during the story. There is a traveling band with a banjo playing and everyone is dancing and enjoying themselves. The scene repeats itself during the show to illustrate for the audience the background of this travelling show in the community in Mississippi.

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From Left to right: dilsey played by Greig Sargent and Benjy played by Susie Sokol. Picture used with permission.

Faulkner’s stream of consciousness throughout the novel makes understanding the plot difficult.  It is not told in chronological order, and Benjy (called an idiot for his developmental delay), the first narrator, remembers events out of sequence. In the first chapter, we find out that Benjy keeps focusing on the relationship that he had with his sister Caddy. He is reminded of her and begins to cry because he hears the word caddie spoken by some golfers nearby. This causes him to reflect on various events concerning her and how he felt around her. Benjy is now thirty-three years old, and it is his birthday. Although he is his age chronologically, the text says that developmentally he has been three for thirty years. Luster, Frony’s (Dilsey’s daughter) adult child, is put in charge of Benjy. He looks after him and becomes his primary caregiver. No one wants to be bothered with Benjy because he is always making noise and crying. He needs constant care and attention. He cannot talk, but he obviously feels emotions like sorrow and happiness.The only way that he can express himself is through sound which appears meaningless to others. Only Caddy treats Benjy with love and affection. Benjy is reminded of his sister often. Caddy, unfortunately, illegitimately becomes pregnant, (before chapter one ) runs away, and later marries a wealthy man who is not the father of her child (this information is given out of sequence).

Quentin, one of the Compson brothers, goes to Harvard (the family sold a  piece of their land in order to afford to send him to Harvard) where he is mistakenly accused of sexual impropriety which reminds him of Caddy’s actions.  Quentin, distraught over his sister’s pregnancy, tells his father that he committed incest by having sex with Caddy (how incredulous). He did not want her to suffer either blame or humiliation. Quentin (suffering from his own neuroses) fantasizes about death, and ends up committing suicide.

Caddy’s daughter is raised by her family and is named Quentin (in the text she is often called Miss Quentin), after Caddy’s brother. Caddy, now estranged from the family, desires to see her daughter and provides economic support to her. Miss Quentin absconds with the money that Jason has hidden for years.

Jason, Caddy’s brother who is perpetually angry, takes Caddy’s money for himself, while giving only a little of it to Miss Quentin. Jason convinces his mother not to take the money because it comes from a “whore”. The mom  does not know that he covertly cashes the checks regularly and stashes the money. Miss Quentin, because she is ill-treated by Jason, sneaks out of the window to be with her boyfriend. The family believes that this type of behavior is in her blood, therefore they do not expect anything more from her.

Dilsey, the maid, has raised the Compson children. Through all of these characters we get glimpses into the prejudices that we have toward one another. Even the members of Dilsey’s church evaluate the guest preacher on Easter sunday by the way he looks. In the end, Dilsey “endured” living with the Compsons.

The twelve member cast is exceptional.  Many of the characters play multiple parts. some of the most notable are: Susie Sokol, who plays Benjy, Ben Williams, who plays Luster as well as other characters, Daphne Gaines, who plays multiple parts- most notably Jason, Greig Sargeant, who plays Dilsey as well as others, and Caddy played by Rosie Goldensohn and Tory Vazquez. The characters put much vitality into their roles.  All of the emotion from each character is infused within the story. The characters have the accents and the mannerisms that accompany the temperaments of the characters. Through the rhythm of their language and their gestures, the characters transport the audience back to the the early 1900’s and to the roaring twenties, although the 20’s were anything but roaring for the Compson family.image

The set and the props are inclusive of a family home with all of the southern comforts. It is not elaborate, but it reflects the cozy home atmosphere, in spite of the dysfunctional family.  It includes fourteen lamps (possibly for a technical issue to allow the audience to focus on certain illuminated performances, while others are less in focus), a Persian or oriental rug (possibly to depict their former status, nineteenth century furniture, a large radio of the time period, and a large stove for heating purposes in front of which Benjy often sat for comfort.

This performance is worthwhile seeing, with one caveat.  It is essential to have a fresh reading of the text. Without knowing the story plot, one is likely to be both lost and confused because of the stream of consciousness and because of the inability to decipher the cast members because of the interchangeability of the characters and the unorthodox casting by the Elevator Repair Service. It runs through July 12th, 2015.

Deirdre M. DeLoatch
Deirdre M. DeLoatch

The Use of the “N’ Word: A Review of Faulkner’s The Sound And The Fury

I must admit that I was challenged when reading Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury in preparation for its theatrical production by the Elevator Repair Service ( I do not know the significance of their name).  The novel was first published in 1929. Having read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, (one of my favorite novels in high school) I was excited to hear that a play was going to be made of The Sound and the Fury, one of Faulkner’s greatest works. I wasted no time purchasing my ticket because I knew it would be a hot seller. I knew that I would have to read the text to better understand the play because Faulkner is a complex writer of southern literature who uses dialect and stream of consciousness to a great height to convey his themes. Thus, I approached The Sound and the Fury with great excitement and courage. I had about six months to read the book once I purchased my ticket (One would have thought that this would have been more than enough time).  Even though I had the novel for months, I waited until a few weeks before the show to start reading it. Unfortunately, as I started reading it, I knew that I would not finish the book in time.  The complexities of the characters and the stream of consciousness in which Faulkner wrote proved at first to be a hindrance to comprehension and to maintaining my interest.  imageWhen I saw the play, I also had great difficulty maintaining concentration because it followed the first chapter verbatim, with all its stream of consciousness and narration. I decided after the show that I would look back at the text and finish it no matter the difficulty, and that I would see the show again (Had I just disciplined myself the first time, I would have saved $55).  I am proud to say that not only did I complete the novel, but I am revisiting the first chapter again to see if it was as difficult as I first thought. Needless to say, since I now understand the character development, the first chapter now makes complete sense.

The title, The Sound and the Fury, is taken from Shakespeare’s Macbeth when Macbeth says, “…It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury Signifying nothing.” Indeed this is a tale told by “an idiot and others, but it signifies everything. Faulkner creates a story in four chapters, with each chapter having a different narrator. The first chapter is told by Benjy, the “idiot”; the second chapter is told by Quentin, an obsessed older brother; The third chapter is told by Jason, a bitter and angry brother, and the last chapter is told by Dilsey, the “Negro” maid and child-rearer for the Compson family. This story is about the economic and social loss that a family faces as a result of some devastating events.  It is a story about the prejudices that people have toward others who are different from themselves ethnically, nationally, racially, and intellectually. It about making judgments about people without knowing anything about them. It’s about people believing that your genetic makeup automatically predisposes you toward either good or evil. Pejorative terms for blacks, whites, developmentally delayed people, and women are all used in the novel to give the reader a sense of the sentiment of the time toward people of various backgrounds. The novel is extremely detailed, and I cannot do justice in this blog to the many motifs of the novel. The use of the “N” word in the text will be the focus of this post. In keeping with the novel, I will use the word Negro when referring to African-Americans from the text. I will use nigger when it is used in the text, and I will use African-American when speaking of blacks during the current time period.

Faulkner exposes racial prejudice thoroughly. Throughout the text, he shows how deeply it is embedded within the American culture, not just southern culture. Quentin states in the novel,

I used to think that a Southerner had to be always conscious of niggers.  I thought that Northerners would expect him to.  When I first came East I kept thinking You’ve got to remember to think of them as colored people not niggers, and if it hadn’t happened that I wasn’t thrown with many of them, I’d wasted a lot of time and trouble before I learned that the best way to take all people, black or white, is to take them for what they think they are, then leave them alone. That was when I realised [sic] that a nigger is not a person so much as a form of behavior; a sort of obverse reflection of the white people he lives among.

In spite of these thoughts that Quentin espouses, he continues to use the “N” word contemptuously. Consciously he knows that people should be evaluated individually, but he still sees people collectively rather than individually. Is it possible for Quentin to cease this behavior? Webster’s dictionary defines nigger as a disparaging word for black people. If nigger is a behavior, and not a specific group of people, why do many African-Americans continue to use the word? African-Americans of various socioeconomic classes use the word as a term of endearment (As far as I am concerned there is no distinction between niggah, nigger, or any variation of the word). Throughout the novel, the blacks continue to call each other niggers. They never seem to see themselves as anything other than what they have been called. This is a case of art imitating life.

If a group of people have been called a pejorative term for hundreds of years, is it realistic for them not to think of themselves as the very thing that they been have been called? When a person is called something, it becomes normal to call oneself that very thing. It takes much self-determination to call oneself something other than what he has been called for centuries.  It takes even more self-determination to think of oneself as something else. If we as African-Americans are not able to see ourselves as something other than a nigger, how will anyone else see us for the intelligent people we are? How can we change the collective attitude of the masses? Is it even possible? According to Jason, the angry brother, “When people act like niggers, no matter who they are the only thing to do is treat them like a nigger.” He is referring to Miss Quentin’s (she is white) behavior. His comment about her reminds me of a black man on the train who said to a white man, “You are a dumb white nigger.” That was the first time I ever heard a black person call someone white a nigger. Clearly this was not based on the color of his skin, but based on the behavior. The comment, however was still disparaging.

Additionally, even the Negroes disparage each other. Dilsey, the African-American maid is no exception. When talking to Lester, she says, “Dont [ sic] you lie to me, nigger boy.” Furthermore, more evidence of racial prejudice toward the blacks to each other is depicted. For example, on Easter Sunday, “the Negroes” are expecting a great Negro speaker for their service. They have high hopes that this speaker will be someone great. Dilsey, the narrator, gives us a glimpse into the thoughts of the Negro congregants about the appearance of the speaker. She says when they see him, however, he is “…undersized, in a shabby alpaca coat. He had a wizened black face like a small, aged monkey.  The congregation looked “…at him with consternation and unbelief when the minister rose and introduced him in rich, rolling tones whose very unction served to increase the visitor’s insignificance.” We also know from the narrator that “When the visitor rose to speak he sounded like a white man.  His voice was level and cold.  It sounded too big to have come from him and they listened at first through curiosity, as they would have to a monkey talking.” Faulkner, thematically is saying that the “Negroes” too, judged a person by appearance.  Because the man’s voice sounded to big, the congregants thought he sounded like a white man. The narration reminds me of the many times when I hear African-Americans say that when, we, African -Americans talk “proper” we sound white.  African- Americans have expectations of each other based on race. When black or white people fall short of our ideals, we disparage them.

Faulkner was very ingenious in how he wrote the novel.  He makes serious statements about humanity’s prejudices from various angles.  The questions that we are left to ponder include the following: Is it possible for African-Americans to stop using the ‘N” Word? Is it too deeply embedded within our culture? Is there anything that can be done to make the word obsolete? Is it possible to stop prejudging people based on artificial classifications that do not determine character? Is character in any way determined by one’s blood? Let me know your thoughts. Comments welcome. A review of the play will be posted after I see it again on June 18, 2015.

Deirdre M. DeLoatch
Deirdre M. DeLoatch