Curses! Foiled Again!

Jan 11, 2014 | Updated Mar 13, 2014

From The Mummy's Curse to The Curse of the Werewolf, from the tale of King Midas to the legend of Sleeping Beauty, literature is filled with curses. Whether one thinks of Sisyphus (doomed to an endless cycle of pushing a boulder uphill, losing his grip, watching it roll downhill and having to start all over again) or the ill-fated Cassandra, who was cursed in such a way that her predictions (and those of her descendants) would be ignored by the people they could help the most, a curse is one of the greatest literary devices.

Curses come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors. Some people are convinced that the Hope Diamond will bring its owner bad luck. Many actors will only refer to Shakespeare's Macbeth as "The Scottish Play." On his blog, Steampunk Opera, musician Paul Shapera recalls some of his favorite Yiddish curses:

  • May you win a lottery and spend it all on doctors.
  • May your bones be broken as often as the Ten Commandments.
  • May your daughter's beauty be admired by everyone in the circus.
  • May you run to the toilet every three minutes or every three months.
  • May you grow so rich that your widow's second husband never has to worry about making a living.
  • May your blood turn to alcohol so all the fleas on your body get drunk and dance the mazurka in your belly button!

Among the nastiest curses are those which relentlessly punish an individual for a single selfish mistake. Sometimes these characters are condemned to a nomadic existence, one in which they can never sleep peacefully, find true love, or expect to wander no more. No matter how much they wish they could rest their bodies, their souls, and go roaming no more, their fate has been sealed.

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In a recent interview about his play, Underneath the Lintel, playwright Glen Berger stressed that:

"Writing isn't writing, writing is thought. It's not so much how you put words together, it's the thoughts you've formulated and what you feel like you need to say. What you need to say is something that you have an overwhelming desire to share, because it's so cool. Originally, the play was going to be five characters. It took awhile for me to realize the play was one character who was a bit of a detective and a bit of a crazy person. Actually, I woke up from a dream one night about an old man taking us on a journey from yesterday to today in a stagecoach after a horse had just been put down."


Playwright Glen Berger

"When I woke up from that dream, I realized 'Oh, okay, it's a one-person play and he's going to take us across a large expanse of time.' Soon after that I realized, 'Oh, the man has never been on a stage before, but he likes it and he wants more of it.' I realized it wasn't a performance, it was a lecture. As soon as you realize those things, as a writer, it takes you off the hook, because any stumbling and bad mistakes aren't the playwright's fault, they're the character's fault. As I'm writing something, I try to find the scapegoat for all of my shortcomings as a writer and blame it on the character."

David Strathairn is the Librarian in Underneath the Lintel
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The protagonist of Underneath the Lintel is a quirky Dutch librarian whose insatiable curiosity gets the best of him in 1986 as he is checking in some books that were deposited in the library's overnight return slot. One of the books is a ragged copy of Baedeker's Travel Guide that is 113 years overdue!

Not only does the book contain a claim check for some clothes that were dry cleaned in London in 1913, when the Librarian attempts to send the delinquent user a bill for the library's overdue fine, he is confronted with an address containing a post office box in China.

The Librarian's determination to trace obscure pieces of evidence to their origin leads him on a wild goose chase around the world. Along the way, he realizes that he is following in the footsteps of the legendary Wandering Jew (who was cursed to walk the Earth until the Second Coming of Christ).

David Strathairn as the Librarian in Underneath the Lintel
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

While some might feel that Berger's script is a bit too long, I thought it was a delightfully eccentric exercise in storytelling. Each clue leads to another adventure which is related with growing enthusiasm by the Librarian. Call it "A Shaggy Jew Story," if you will. As the playwright explains:

"The three big words for me are curiosity, compassion, and perspective (perspective specifically applies to this play). Those are the three gifts that I want to give my children, the three things that I try to infuse my plays with, to convey to an audience. That was the impetus behind trying to encompass a huge amount of time, the 2000 years the play encompasses. Even that 2000 years doesn't begin to touch the surface of the amount of time I really want to cover!"

The Librarian (David Strathairn) finds a surprising clue in
Underneath the Lintel (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As directed by Carey Perloff, the American Conservatory Theater's production was framed by Nina Ball's delicious set -- a broken down vaudeville theatre where costumes, props, and the ghosts of past productions offer a perfect setting for a combination of curatorial detective work, dramaturgical revelations, historical insights, and a seductive evening of intensely personal storytelling. It also offered younger members of the audience a glimpse of the hard work and intellectual determination that the research process once involved (the Librarian's travails are a far cry from the ease with which today's online researchers can surf the web to satisfy their curiosity).

As the eccentric Librarian and cultural anthropologist, David Strathairn proved utterly charming in a role which should have immense appeal to character actors the world over. Because I grew up in a family of teachers and librarians (where we were always encouraged to think about what we had discovered, rather than what we had learned on any given day), Underneath the Lintel had a particularly sentimental appeal for me. Here's the trailer:

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From Rigoletto to Das Rheingold, curses abound in opera. One of my favorite curses was the inspiration for Richard Wagner's 1843 opera, Die Fliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman). The Dutchman was a sea captain who invoked Satan's name while trying to ride out a fierce storm. Ever since, he has been doomed to sail the seven seas without resting. Once every seven years he has a chance to come ashore where, if he can find a good woman who will marry him, his soul will be redeemed.

The San Francisco Opera recently presented The Flying Dutchman in a co-production with Belgium's Opéra Royal de Wallonie, where it premiered in Liège in the fall of 2011. Opened on November 4, 1820 with a performance of Grétry's Zémire and Azor, the Theatre Royal de Liège seats 1,041 as opposed to the War Memorial Opera House's seating capacity of 3,146. The War Memorial's stage is also substantially larger.

The San Francisco production requires 6 principals, 78 choristers, and 21 supernumeraries (for a total of 105 people who are onstage at various points in the evening). Shortly before the production was to premiere in San Francisco, General Director David Gockley issued the following statement:

"It is true that I removed Petrika Ionesco from his role as director and scenic designer once the production arrived onstage, as it had become clear that the revisions we had been working on since the Liège premiere were not successful. Of the basic scenic pieces designed by Mr. Ionesco, 60% remain. The staging of principals has been considerably simplified, and the use of supernumeraries for various purposes has been virtually eliminated. Many of the projections in the production originated conceptually with Mr. Ionesco, but they have been expanded upon and refined by production designer S. Katy Tucker working closely with me and the staff -- most specifically with assistant director Elkhanah Pulitzer. Our goal has been to tell the story of the opera clearly, theatrically, and musically."

Like the Librarian in Underneath the Lintel, I was curious to see if I could find more specific reasons (other than relative size) that might have caused such "artistic differences." Thanks to YouTube, within five minutes I had found several video clips from the Liège performances which revealed some of the changes made in scenery and props for San Francisco.

  • Gone were the tombstones that littered the stage.
  • Gone was Senta's sculpture of the Dutchman's head.
  • Gone was the anchor from the Dutchman's ship which carried him down to the stage floor.

But, because of publication deadlines, Ionesco's comments about the production remained in the program:

"The Flying Dutchman is really Senta's story of obsession, so our production takes place in her mind. The aesthetic is rooted in modern cinema -- which is bridging the gap between reality and fantasy more and more -- but the larger issues that have always been the core of this very human drama are ever present. One of my inspirations was Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind where Richard Dreyfuss's character becomes obsessed with subliminal images of a mountain-like shape and begins to sculpt it. In our production, Senta, who is desperately searching for an escape from her provincial microcosm, becomes fixated on the legend of the Dutchman as a release from her suffering.

Senta is suffocating in a very small world: an absent mother and a father who sees her as merchandise, subject to the jealousy of her fiancé, and a slave to women bound to a tedious dreary, existence. How many Sentas are there today who hang posters on their walls of their mythical idols -- celebrities, rock stars -- and fantasize about being whisked away to a fabulous life? She has become morbidly consumed with fantasies of death and wishes to sacrifice herself to the 'star' of her day in order to make him real, and thus partake in the larger human adventure of love and passion.

Senta's compulsive imagination makes it possible for the supernatural to permeate reality. As a director, my objective was not to depict neurosis or confirm the existence of the supernatural, but to make these phenomena seem possible. Her faith in the existence of the Dutchman strengthens the authenticity of her character. She adheres to the myth, and Wagner allows the audience to succumb to those same fantasies."

Lise Lindstrom as Senta in The Flying Dutchman
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

My first experience with Wagner's opera took place in January of 1968, when the Metropolitan Opera mounted a new production of The Flying Dutchman with a cast headed by Cornell MacNeil, Leonie Rysanek, Giorgio Tozzi, and Ticho Parly. Since then, many of the productions I've seen have been limited by scenery that consisted primarily of painted drops, solid furniture, and Act I's suggestion of a ship's deck.

All that has changed in this production, whose cunning use of cinematic techniques captures the violent sea surges with a dynamism that Wagner himself could not have envisioned. More to the point, computerized renditions of a stellar universe give credence to the more cosmic dimensions of Senta's infatuation with the Dutchman (as well as the other-worldliness of his accursed travels). Even with only 60% of what Ionesco originally envisioned, this production captures the intensity of Senta's obsession and the fury of the roiling sea in ways I've never seen achieved onstage.

With Patrick Summers conducting, the San Francisco Opera's cast was in exceptionally good voice, with special credit due to the men's chorus under the firm direction of Ian Robertson. Greer Grimsley's Dutchman cut a foreboding figure, neatly balanced by Kristinn Sigmundsson's portrayal of the more earthly Daland.

Despite the announcement that she was suffering from a cold, Lise Lindstrom delivered a hypnotic performance as Senta, with a full, focused voice that captured the young woman's near-fanatic desire to become the angel of redemption who could end the Dutchman's suffering. A.J. Glueckert gave an impressive performance as the Steersman although Ian Storey's Erik often seemed labored. I'm not quite sure why Erin Johnson's Mary needed a riding crop to discipline the female chorus, but that's a minor complaint.

A scene from The Flying Dutchman (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

From a visual and dramatic perspective, I loved this production. Petrika Ionesco's set design, Gary Marder's lighting and S. Katy Tucker's projection designs combined to create a thrilling multimedia approach to an opera which, despite a magnificent score, has often seemed stagnant during live performances. Here's the trailer:

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape