Friday, March 9, 2012

Mash-up: Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald at the New York Public Library

At n+1, Minou Arjomand reports on the new trend in exotic stage settings: libraries. The writer opens with a description of Jay Gatsby's library presented as "stage setting" at a party inThe Great Gatsby, and then describes the recent presentation at the New York Public Library's "Find the Future" program, in which the printed book meets stage spectacle in an overlapping reading of text-on-text.

In The Great Gatsby, Arjomand notes, Nick Carraway makes a theater-like comparison to the fact that Gatsby's books, like a Belasco stage setting, have "real pages and everything":
During one midsummer night party, Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, goes searching for his host. He wanders into a library, where a stout, spectacled man is drunkenly staring at the books:

"‘What do you think?’ he demanded impetuously.
‘About what?’ He waved his hand toward the bookshelves.
‘About that. As a matter of fact you needn’t bother to ascertain. I ascertained. They’re real . . . have pages and everything. I thought they’d be a nice durable cardboard. Matter of fact, they’re absolutely real. Pages and — Here! Lemme show you. . . . It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too — didn’t cut the pages.'"
Arjomand comments: The books — not the gardens, the bottles of champagne, the lithe dancers, or the starlets under plum trees — are Gatsby’s great triumph. The library is impressive in its hyperrealism, on par with the stage sets of theater director David Belasco. (Belasco once transported an entire room of a flop house — wallpaper included — to a Broadway stage.) The library shows Gatsby’s virtuosity, not at reading, but at set design.

In the 21st century can the library also now be considered a theatrical set, as Arjomand suggests? It may depend on the community and what the residents of the community want. The small, second-floor vest pocket library near my house in Atlanta is now home to the homeless who gather daily at a nearby church food bank: at the library they're washing, sleeping, maybe reading the paper at the tables. Many of the younger visitors are using the internet (one regular is using the library to as a sound studio to finish recording his CD, while he also reads the Bible online.)

But for many patrons the library is still a primary source of print material. For all the furture-of-the-web forecasting, the printed page still holds a unique place in information services. Here's Arjomand, explaining that while patrons are increasingly using the library for internet services, the archival holdings are still an important component of library resources.
Amidst millenarian thinking about the death of the book, it’s important to bear in mind that the content of the New York Public Library is not obsolete, nor will it be anytime soon. There are people in all five boroughs who cannot afford to buy books or DVDs, much less laptops or e-readers. According to a national study sponsored by the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation in 2010, 30 million people in the United States used library computers to access the internet last year, and of those, 40 percent did so to find jobs. There are plenty of adults who use the NYPL’s English tutoring and literacy programs, plenty of children whose picture books are checked out from the library. Former NYPL president Paul LeClerc was always careful to emphasize that the public services the library provides are at the center of its mission. Central too are the archival holdings: materials that provide content, not merely ambiance, to scholars.

The current melding of page and stage performance is reflected in the NY Public Library's recent presentation of a production called Shuffle. A statistics professor, a media artist, and an experimental theater company have gathered to create a performance at the NYPL that is a mash-up of The Sun Also Rises, The Sound and the Fury, and The Great Gatsby, to be performed as part of the “Find the Future” festival.

The Great Gatsby had previously been presented in a theatrical setting (as Gatz) by the experimental group Elevator Repair Service. As Arjomand writes, ERS director Wayne Ashley came together with media artist Ben Rubin and statistician Mark Hansen because of their shared interests in the structures of text and language: Ashley in narratives (the six-hour long Gatzwas staged in 2004), and Hansen and Rubin in databases. “The idea is to stop focusing on the ‘newness’ of technology and focus rather on its ordinariness, obviousness, and seeming indispensability. Ashley comments about the efforts of the group, which he named FuturePerfect.

Here's Arjomand describing the result:

To create text for Shuffle, Rubin and Hansen began with digitized scripts of Gatz, The Sound and the Fury, andThe Select (a section of The Sun Also Rises). They broke each script into individual sentences, and designed a program to create an interleaved version of the three texts so that a sentence by Fitzgerald would be followed with one by Faulkner, then one by Hemingway.

The performance started with three actors standing behind the reference desk of the DeWitt Wallace Periodical Room, alternately reading sentences from the first pages of the novels. Across from them, Rubin projected a column of text from each novel that highlighted lines as they were spoken. The speed of delivery accelerated with each line, until suddenly the projected columns began to spin like a slot machine. 

As the projections spun, the three novels fell out of sync, so that the middle of Gatz could be matched with the beginning of The Select and the end of The Sound and the Fury. Sometimes the text was performed as a story with one actor designated as the narrator—usually this was Ben Williams, who had acted in all three previous productions (and done the sound design for two of them), and had most of the three novels committed to memory. In those instances, it was often possible to pick up the storyline of Gatsby because Fitzgerald is heavy on narration. Hemingway and Faulkner were harder to follow, and manifested themselves primarily as surreal asides.
... The resulting script would be something like: “I’m not going to mind you, I’m sick, I am not going to be one of these bitches that ruins children, I’m going to tell on her, I’m not going to be that way, I’m pretty cynical about everything, I’m looking around” or “My car, Your momma, My name, Your mouth full of pity, My money, Your grandmammy.” As the actors delivered these lines, they would move around the room, through the audience, up and down the stairs behind the desk. Dressed variously in suits and vintage dresses, they held the novels in one hand, and champagne flutes in the other, as though they were the ghosts of staff Christmas parties past.

Is print dead? Not quite. At the NYPL reading, the stage presentation has brought to life the idea of sampling to literature, and whether the audience finds a new wellspring of appreciation is still in question. After all, the texts are still available for close reading and the audience -- as might be anticipated -- would bring an understanding of how the texts are combined in a dramatic setting. For the entire Arjomand article, it's currently online at n+1.

(Image: The New York Public Library under construction, 1909. From the website

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