Tuesday, February 26, 2013

"Underneath the Lintel"' AFTERWORD by playwright Glen Berger

Playwright Glen Berger

A spot of grocery shopping, a few diapers changed, dinner, a chat on the phone, a shower, a shave, and an arduous mission retrieving a small round dog toy from under the couch—that has been my day today, and all in all, little to write home about, certainly nothing demanding deep consideration, nothing out of the ordinary, nothing strange. That is, if it weren’t for three incontrovertible Facts: 1) The universe contains well over 500,000,000,000 galaxies, with each galaxy containing over 1,000,000,000,000 stars, of which, our vast, blazing and life-bestowing sun…is one. 2) The Earth is 4,600,000,000 years old, in which time, from the Pre-Cambrian Era to the Present—a dizzying, terrifying number of inhabitants—amoebas and trilobites, dust mites and Neanderthals—have all struggled to live from one hour to the next. (Indeed, more living creatures are in my stomach (and yours) at this moment than the total number of human beings that have ever existed.) 3) I will die. I will be dead in sixty years, though it’s entirely conceivable that I’ll be dead before the week is out.

And suddenly all the props holding up my warm and secure little existence are kicked away and used for kindling. The imagination is taxed to exhaustion and left numb and agape when it even begins to fathom the implications of these Facts. They beggar the most breathless hyperbole. Three simple Facts, three confirmed and undeniable Facts—the immensity of the universe, the incomprehensibly vast history of the Earth, and our inescapable mortality—loom over all of us like three paisley mastodons. When I shine these three Facts upon any moment in my life, suddenly nothing, absolutely nothing, isn’t strange, bewildering, and out of all whooping. These Facts turn every memorable or trivial or utterly forgettable moment of my existence—shopping, eating trout with spouse, lying prostrate retrieving dog toy—into the Apotheosis of the Comic and Tragic, the Inconsequential and Crucial, the Banal and Profound. These Facts loom so large, in fact, that they are rather easily ignored. Three paisley mastodons get up with us in the morning and sleep with us at night, but, for the most part, they’re very quiet pachyderms, and consequently, amazingly, they blur into the unimportant background, even though one day, with trumpeting bellows, they will trample me into oblivion. Time and again I explain to myself that these Facts are interesting, profound even, but not pertinent to my daily life. NO. In truth, everything else is but shadow compared to these Facts. They are the trump cards to all the ordinary cards I hold in my hand and call “my life.”

I write plays to help me keep these Three Facts in the front of my head. In other words, I write to try to keep myself engaged with the Bewildering and Infinite. But why did I write Underneath the Lintel in particular?

James Ridge in Milwaukee Chamber
photo by Kevin Pauly

All my plays are first inspired by music, and Underneath the Lintel was inspired particularly by certain klezmer / yiddish music from the 1920's (and earlier). The "jaunty melancholy, " the "dancing-despite-it-all" quality it contained, the defiance even—a certain "finding-joy-despite-all-the-evidence-to-the-contrary” quality in the music—compelled me to try to express it as a play.

In 1976, in Laetoli, in Tanzania, some members of Mary Leakey’s archaeology team were throwing chunks of dried elephant dung at each other,(as archaeologists are wont to do in their free time). When one of the paleontologists dived to the ground to avoid being pelted by dung, he noticed fossilized footprints of an animal, left in hardened volcanic ash from 3.8 million years ago. After two years of excavation, all number of animal prints were discovered, including, unexpectedly, unmistakably, the footprints of hominids—our ancient australopithecine ancestors. The fact that these prints were preserved—prints by an anonymous ancestor going about a no doubt every-day activity—testifies to me of the great Conundrum of History: What is saved, and what is lost?

There used to be a sequence in Underneath the Lintel, which I considered and then excised before the New York production. After the Librarian points out the words on the moth’s wing, and calls them a “ghostly vestige,” he mentions how “vestige” comes from the Latin word “vestigium”, meaning “footprint.” The Librarian then alludes to the footprints left by our ancestors in Laetoli, and (unbeknownst to the Librarian), we see a slide of those Laetoli footprints, and then a subsequent 15-second slideshow depicting the subsequent 4-million year history of Humankind, full of our best and worst, and ending with a picture of a footprint left by the first man on the moon.

I loved the idea, and it looked really horrible when we actually tried to execute it, and then I hated the idea. So the sequence is out. But hopefully the idea can still be found in the play. “Still, we’ll proceed,” the Librarian says over and again, somehow we’ll proceed, we haven’t a choice, and perhaps such a sentiment has somehow driven the evolution of humanity itself, in tiny steps. Oh yes, we’ll often go sideways or backwards, but continue we will, and perhaps “there is joy, too, in that.”

James Ridge in Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's
UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL; photo by Kevin Pauly

What, after all, do we do with the fact that suffering has dogged humanity (and certainly not just humanity, but the 3 billion-odd species that have populated this planet) every step of the way? Calculated cruelty as well as utterly random events--10 million die in the senselessness of WWI and a woman is struck down by a frozen block of urine. The fact that we die is a great fat conundrum, and it will continue to be a conundrum for me until...well until I die. What does my little life mean when set against the huge backdrop of human history? And what's human history set against the ridiculously unimaginable backdrop of the history of the universe? (At the Rose Planetarium in New York, there’s a walk representing the history of the observable universe and at the end of the walk, there's a single hair, representing the 50,000 years of human existence). And what do we do with the fact that because we only live our lives once, a single event, or a single mistake, can send our lives into a wholly unanticipated and undesired direction?

So it was while I was listening to the klezmer music, and trying to think of a dramatic structure that would allow me to encompass a lot of history (in lieu of the Three Facts), that I remembered the story of the Wandering Jew. Now I was quite aware that the myth of the Wandering Jew was originally an anti-Semitic tale, but the myth had taken on more complex meanings in its 700-odd year history, and I felt, besides, that an artist can always appropriate myths for his own ends. (I would later discover that a film made in Yiddish by Jews in the early 30’s called "The Wandering Jew" was made to warn a generally ignorant world of the growing Nazi menace. In the film, the Wandering Jew is depicted as a noble figure, bearing witness to history. I’ve received letters calling Underneath the Lintel anti-Semitic. That said, I’ve also received letters calling the play too “pro-Zionist,” and also “anti-Christian,” for the portrayal of a cruel Christ, I suppose. So go figure.)

The first performance of Underneath the Lintel in New York was scheduled for September 18, 2001. The Soho Playhouse, being in Soho, was inaccessible for a week after the 11th,, but we invited the neighborhood to see the show on the 19th. Yet although the events of 9/11 were singular and tragic, they were not, unfortunately, so out of the ordinary, when one considers the whole of history. On September 11, people were murdered out of anger and ignorance, victims who didn’t want to die, and weren’t expecting to die just then. Considered in this light, such events occur on larger and smaller scales every day, and have been occurring every day for thousands of years.

James Ridge in Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's
UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL; photo by Kevin Pauly

In a sense, despite the Wandering Jew’s seemingly unique situation, his predicament is the predicament of all humanity--he made a mistake, a single mistake 'underneath the lintel', when he put fear and self-interest ahead of compassion. Every one does it all the time. And he was forced to live with that mistake the rest of his days. Did the punishment fit the crime? No. But that's often true of punishments and crimes. And even though he was condemned to live for a near-eternity, the fact that he is not allowed to be anything more than a myth (by not being allowed to communicate his existence to his fellow man) puts him in practically the same spot as the rest of humanity; namely, that his life means seemingly next-to-nothing in the great scope of history.

However, he is a human being, and he isn't going to give up so easily. Humanity inevitably finds the strength, despite our mistakes and tragedies, to rebuild, to persevere, to proceed, until death does us in. Graffiti throughout the ages (in a Lascaux cave or on a New York subway train) testify to the fundamental human need to affirm our own existence to each other and to the Heavens. For our Librarian, the scraps left behind by the alleged Wandering Jew prove that he will never stop seeking “a way around" God's edict. And if the Wandering Jew has been condemned by God to witness thousands of years of human suffering, then almost in defiance, he will seek out all that is good and worthy and beautiful, and if he is forced to "walk", he'll do God one better and Dance. Which of course, God no doubt wanted all along. This is the defiance, sadness, and hope I found expressed so fully in the Klezmer music I had been listening to.

The Librarian made a mistake underneath the lintel—sending the one girl he ever loved away. His ensuing, long-sublimated spiritual crisis feeds his determination to find meaning in the clues he uncovers.

But my point isn't that we should all believe in the Wandering Jew, or even in God, for that matter. Rather, anything at all—for the Librarian it was an impossibly overdue book—can be an invitation to the miraculous. And also this: That in the face of overwhelming existential bewilderment and terrible suffering, to respond with a little defiant dancing (in all its myriad forms) is a very human and very wondrous thing.

James Ridge in Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's
UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL; photo by Kevin Pauly

On one end of a spectrum is Coincidence, on the other end Profound Serendipity. The only difference between the two is how much meaning we choose to ascribe to a particular event. I’m still working out where on the spectrum I should put the following:

A few months back, I was paging through an Encyclopedia of Philosophy when I came across the word "Sublime," which is defined as "the presence of transcendent vastness or greatness…While in one aspect, it is apprehended and grasped as a whole, it is felt as transcending our normal standards of measurement…It involves a certain baffling of our faculty with feeling of limitation akin to awe and veneration; as well as a stimulation of our abilities and elevation of the self in sympathy with its object."

The word "Sublime" comes from "sub" (under) + limen (which, like “limit”, is a word derived originally from…"lintel").

Though we rarely recognize the place, underneath the lintel is where we stand every day, every moment, of our life.

Afterword by UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL playwright Glen Berger.


  1. We went to UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL on Wednesday night and I am still thinking about it.Yesterday, I had to be outside in the cold. I had to stand in a doorway, waiting. Thinking of the etymology of the word "lintel" (I had previously goodgle it!), I was suddenly struck by where I was standing, aware of what was "sublime" that might happen. What a life-changer! Thank you, Michael and Glen, for bringing this play to Milwaukee with all its wonder . . .and wondering!

  2. A friend once commented that everything is coincidence or nothing is coincidence. A great production.