I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Had he seen it, or was it merely a smear on the windows momentarily claiming form?
Had he seen it, or was it merely a smear on the windows momentarily claiming form? Was it perhaps an hallucination induced by his frustration? Had he been its only witness?
Slowly, surprise and questioning receded; and his normal vision was restored. Shimmering greyness re-established its rule outside and inside. The blur of the dankness began to slow the whirling in his head. The rain, omnipresent since he stepped off the plane, was again making a mottle of the silvery filth on the window panes. The sky had fallen so low that it almost sat on the Wall. The Wall that seemed to be the only horizon that Berlin could know, blinded the once grand view from the hotel’s entranceway. The wanton patterns of calligraphy scrawled on the Wall by truant citizens and over the wall by the hysterical flight of blackbirds, were effortlessly absorbed by the brute muteness of the grey concrete.
Just so had the worn red velvet of the interior absorbed and diffused the countless assertions of its transient inhabitants. Long before the hotel had been stranded and disenfranchised by the Wall, the pompous mock-baroque newness of this room had first been strained and stained by the imperial revels of raucous young Nazi officers exultant in the magnificence of their leader’s design. Their defeat was all too democratically integrated in the musty perfume of neglect suffusing the room that was now host to the more victimless violence of art. Having long been abandoned to vandals, in the aftermath of the Reich’s demise, the hotel had more recently been provisionally rehabilitated to serve the stage and the screen. The cavernous ballroom was made to inhale the sweat and repetitious tedium of theatre rehearsals; and the bar where he stood was permitted a brief comeback as a blaring and shabby disco in the latest film by one of the most acclaimed of Germany’s vanguard directors. Like the film, the bar hadn’t survived the director’s desire to turn the everymore convoluted fragmentation of his alienation into a wholeness motivated by old fashioned love. The disco quickly gave way to random disarray: makeshift tables and battered folding metal chairs, styrofoam cups half filled with cigarette butts, a motley assortment or overcoats draped in whatever locations and configurations might give them some hope of drying out before their owners returned to them; wastebaskets brimming over with crumpled papers and coffee grounds; electric saws and drills—all crowned and barely lit by an hysterically askew crystal chandelier. Producer’s headquarters, news conference room, cafeteria and lounge for actors and actresses; coat room, and storage space for the technical crew. Dust was the only common denominator.
He was as confused as the room. He stared into the bleak blankness outside, vainly conjuring up a vision that would free him from the martyrdom to the plot he was commissioned to construct. What urge had thrown him into servitude to someone else’s illusion? Why had he given up the hard-won loneliness of his writing table to join in the confusion of this collaboration with two others? How could he risk the blur of triple vision, when his own was so hard to focus? To write for actors with no roles instead of writing roles with no actors. And then to maybe make it German. German—the language long dormant in his brain that had begun making serious inroads into his English. For, resist it as he might, the increase in his German vocabulary, achieved since his arrival, had taxed him with a commensurate decrease in his English vocabulary—as though his mind was only permitted to store a specific sum of words. Worse—as he slowly started to think in German, he found it harder and harder to write in English. Now he stopped to make himself conscious of the language he was confused in; but he was interrupted by the touch more than the sound, of a slight wheeze on the back of his neck. Without turning around, he knew immediately what body the breath belonged to. More palpable confirmation quickly followed, as he felt a hand slowly but firmly settle on his right shoulder. Exactly as he had dreamed it, seen it, and desired it every day since his entry into Berlin. The adrenalin that the hand injected into his system confounded the composure so necessary to the encounters he had previously witnessed. If he waited for his heartbeat to slow down, would the hand evaporate? He turned around. They were face to face. Then face in face, mouth to mouth. His tongue shed all the burdensome weight that German had added. The kiss was all there was. The blankness bloomed with surrender. Only slowly did the rancid vapors of brandy and cigarettes that he inhaled from the other mouth begin to sour the deliciousness of his daze and make the blankness bleak again. As consciousness began once more to rise to the surface, his tongue recoiled at the awareness of the hard, inorganic slipperiness of the roof of the mouth it had been probing—a repugnant plastic smoothness that obviously was a bridge holding false teeth in place. He withdrew his tongue and his surrender. He scanned the other’s face coolly and almost cruelly, in search of the absences signaled by the alien prosthesis. He saw too much of what he feared might be seen in himself. The golden tones of his desire had painted Carl’s face far differently than the one he saw before him. He saw a face whose premature wrinkles told the story of excess’ slow corrosion of elegance. He saw a mouth whose resoluteness was yielding to resignation. He saw slightly bloodshot eyes and nicotine stained teeth and a sweat stained shirt. Fantasies don’t sweat. His kiss had turned the prince into a frog. Now the spell was broken and the story began.
He had been too surprised to take much umbrage at the sleaze gurgling under the soft-spoken sincerity of the producer’s voice that invited him to Berlin. A voice that assured him that they were certain he could write for the stage; they knew he spoke German. The co-directors wanted him in Berlin immediately. It was superfluous to mention how famous the co-directors were. The play was already booked in some of the best houses and Europe and three theaters in America. As he was packing his bags, he found himself involuntarily reconsidering his disdain for the brokers of stardom and imagining himself being photographed and pinioned in the page of Vanity Fair. Perhaps fools’ gold was better than no gold at all. In the plane, his customary anxiety at being uprooted and suspended in the placelessness of the sky dissolved in a glowing effluvium of anticipation.
At the airport, he was picked up by what he would soon realize was a generic Berlin female—a body whose contours were difficult to discern under layers of scruffy black, with a sallow face covered with enough makeup to almost hide a few late blooming pimples and topped by a shapeless shock of acid, orange-red-brown henna’d hair that vainly protested the persistent greyness of Berlin’s air. A swarm of these types, varying only slightly in height and width, attended to the more mundane functions of the production’s progress. The driver handed him a bulging envelope and coolly explained that it contained the combined notions not only of the two directors but also of the two writers who had previously been engaged to chart and re-chart the plot. On top, there was a note to him from some assistant insisting he translate into German a section of Polybius’s Histories dealing with the destruction of Carthage by fire, as well as a 19th-century treatise on typhoid fever—both texts were enclosed. Under these texts he found a drawing of a fish with the inscription, “To Rudolf, I love you always, E.” There were also countless Xeroxes of texts that included a phonetic translation of Hopi Indian chants, Goethe’s ecstatically long description of a rock, an hilariously supercilious letter written by Maeterlinck, snippets from Robinson Crusoe, King Lear,Oedipus Rex, and Walden Pond, as well as reproductions of Caspar David Friedrich’s precisely painted, yearning landscape voids; and at least 50 details of gesticulating hands, mostly of the Angel of the Annunciation or Buddha.
Was he to be a writer or the accountant for two cannibals of culture? Why hadn’t he been informed that this plot had already swallowed and regurgitated two other writers? Why had he come to Berlin? Helplessly, he inquired who the Rudolf addressed in the fish drawing was. One of the two voided writers she responded. His rampant Marxism had provoked several members of the West Berlin Senate, which was one of the major sponsors of the production. Questions about the misdoings of the second rejectee were cut short by their arrival at the rehearsal space. He was not to be permitted to first go to his hotel, nor make a preliminary claim on some part of Berlin on his own. Doubly stung by jet lag and the contents of the manilla envelope, he let himself be hurried into his indoctrination. His bleary eyes barely had time to register the hulking slab of the Wall that threatened to choke off what little air was permitted the crumbling, shapeless monolith they were entering—a bloated form resembling some beached and barricaded whale.
Inside he was steered through a cacophonous chorus of stagehands and actors and actresses in varying phases of dress and, then, into the vast, throbbing dampness of the rehearsal space. Here, he found himself effusively embraced by the long, lanky arms of a tall man with fiery eyes and cheeks. An abundant wreath of flattery, firmly and gently woven, quickly soothed his spinning head. This was the E who had authored the fish drawing and inscription to the banished Rudolf. The embracer’s alternating currents of vulnerable charm and fervid, evangelical eloquence were as disarming as legend had promised. Next to him stood a younger male—thinner, shorter, and wanly handsome but for his darting, reptilian eyes and perpetual squirm which made itself visible even under voluminous Japanese trousers and a baggy, black cashmere sweater. His remarkable cleanliness gave him the air of some hip android or of Barbie Doll’s consort Ken dressed for an art stroll in New York’s Soho. Ken was to be his name, just as E would be Svengali.
Ken and Svengali were the two directors that he was to collude with. Svengali had achieved a major reputation, in what some still referred to as avant garde theatre, by his creation and direction of exquisite tableaux that beguiled and bejeweled the premises of Artaud’s theatre with a moonstruck derangement. If his epic slow motion had a message beyond its self-entranced beauty, it seemed to be that all culture was a grievous crime against nature and that the end would never be soon enough. Ken sprung fully formed from a television screen in Chicago. He was a talk show host whose studio set pulsed with a profusion of hula hoops, lava lamps, psychedelic posters, inflatable chairs and any and everything DayGlo or plastic that caught his retro eye. His willing victims joined in a sterilized burlesque of verbal insults and pie throwing. Senators, failed preachers, demoted captains of industry, high profile divorcees, psychics, legitimate and illegitimate children of Hollywood stars, and an occasional mass murderer all anxiously sought to sate their unquenchable image thirst at the mirage of Ken’s bubbling oasis. Beamed into living rooms around the world, his singular combination of androgynous coyness and red neck hostility made him almost everyone’s favorite toy boy. The improbable union of Ken and Svengali had been fitfully brokered into consummation by the spectacle-obsessed producer. He offered Svengali his first taste of a mass audience, Ken some hope of intellectual validation, and the world another milestone in the de-escalation of the cold war between high and low culture. Profit and pop apocalypse for all.
How could he, the writer who had so scrupulously honed his saturnine skepticism, give words to this charade? Arrogance. His arrogance, at least as much as his confidence, convinced him his will would be done. And how could he not be seduced by the prospect of so many empty vessels anxious to be filled and by the almost instant physical gratification of the stage, when all his writing, thus far, lay flattened on a page? Even on the first crazed day, he was struck by the wanton willingness of all the performers in this play. An energy all too easily construed as sexual doused him in a shower of erotic expectations. Almost all looked longingly at him, Svengali, and Ken for the fulfillment of the roles that would make their life a possibility. These were to be his captors.
He had arrived in the middle of a break and was now passed around amongst the cast like the gleaming artifact of Americulture that he had been advertised as being. The leads were almost instantly apparent—not necessarily by their age or beauty but more by their ability to hover and glide while, like fireflies, emitting a sporadic glow that flickered in the darkness of the inexperience they assumed surrounded them. The first to be noticed was a male of his own age. He was in the throes of reluctantly and involuntarily shedding the skin and stance of a younger life—lean and stringy, suavely blonde and blue eyed, with a rumpled elegance that mocked more than mimed the Aryan stereotype. He had the disconcerting mannerism of approaching people from behind and lithely laying a hand on the unsuspecting shoulder in front of him. And this is how he approached the new writer to proffer his name, Peter, and the thought that, till now, there were far too many trees in the play and not enough of him. Peter’s jaded nonchalance and casual comic bent had earned him fame on German stage and screen but not in the roles he really craved. Hamlet would always elude him. He liked Peter and smiled as he watched him moving away while taking a furtive sip from the silver flask that never left his side, on the stage or in the street.
The three major players present were all female. One of a comically exaggerated lushness whose jubilantly cherubic face bobbed atop two breasts that might well have served as the dairy for a foundling home. She interrupted a magic trick she was performing for several technicians to offer him a bit of the outsized Bavarian pretzel on her prestidigitator’s table. Then she passed him on to the lion-maned and voiced vamp at her side. How could a production in Berlin be complete without a transvestite? This one was primarily famous for and known only by the English acronym that described the dilemma and/or delight she was left in by the incompetence of her surgeon. Her voice, cloaked in a garish fake French accent, purred out the litany of her infamy: the doctor had only removed the c and o from her cock and added on the the c, l, and i of her clitoris; and so she was made and named Click. Thus far, no one had proven her name to be a fraud. The other woman was clearly female but had made her reputation playing old men in eighteenth and 19th-century comedies. On stage, her rasping voice as effortlessly roamed through senility as through all-knowingness. Offstage, she minced and condescended with Old World airs of high-mindedness. She seemed born to bear the cross of culture. Varying faces and phases of androgyny rippled through the some 20 members of the supporting cast—mostly freshly matriculated dancers and thespians interspersed with some aging veterans and even a few amateurs. Most conspicuous was an older, balding man of rigid military bearing who thrust out his considerable stomach like an heraldic shield. German born, Russian accented and incongruously called Herr Osborne. Missing and still not found in this motley crew was a young male lead, who, he learned, was to be a foil for Peter.
And so he came to Svengali (Ken was no longer in sight) seated at a long makeshift table covered with notes, books, and another frenzy of reproductions of art. Having asked him to sit down, Svengali immediately got up and sat in his lap. He would soon learn that this, like so many of the director’s movements, gestures, and words, was not so much directed at or meant for the addressee as it was a rehearsal for an action that might end up on the stage. Svengali talked about the play: what was important was the light, the light of destruction, the light of creation. There were to be ashes and darkness, a city in flames and a vast frozen plain, a forest, a factory, a dinosaur, a typhoid epidemic, a very old man (maybe some disenfranchised god) gurgling like a brook throughout the play; a mother, a whore, a tyrant (maybe a medieval sovereign, maybe a 19th-century robber baron), and his mirror image (maybe an idiot savant, maybe a downtrodden subject, maybe a long lost, bastard child). The tyrant/robber baron would seek salvation through his double but find it only after inadvertently causing the double’s death. Shades of Oedipus, Moses, The Prince and the Pauper, Piaget’s and Truffaut’s Wild Child, and countless others flickered by as he gave yet another turn to his visionary kaleidoscope. Most of this would be resolved in this workshop and then go into real rehearsal (there would be four months in between to finish sets, costumes, and, of course, text). The break was over; the cast stopped its chatter and each resumed the last given place on the provisional stage. He watched with some surprised as a young actor his cruising eye had earlier dismissed as too effeminate assumed a potent, tensile grace molded by Svengali into the pose of a fox stalking a bird.
The fox sniffed, crouched, leaped, and snared the bird. Very slowly. Over and over again. And then one more time, but more slowly still. He listened and watched as three yards became first three miles, then three infinities. No action was too small or too inconsequential not to be cosmic. The afternoon session’s repetitions went on for some four hours. He couldn’t remember whether his watch was set to New York or Berlin time. His resistance was dulled, his skepticism anesthetized. Once, maybe many times, he thought of getting up and leaving for the airport, only to find Svengali’s hand on his arm. Then he would fall back into the mesmerizing rhythm of the fox’s repetitions.
At the end of the day (what day he no longer knew), they took him to the room rented for him, handed him a bottle of vodka and more of Polybius to be translated. He had become as submissive as his typewriter. Ploddingly he pounded his imperfect German onto the page. When he finally got up from his task, he barely noticed the meanness of his room and the unwanted narrowness of his bed; but, then, actual sex was simply not to be an issue here. He woke up thinking of Peter.
Like some houseless and hapless hermit crab, he slowly grew into the shell of the theatre. Did he have any choice? The shades of difference between freedom of choice and the seemingly benign indoctrination into identification with his captors became too subtle to be significant. Every day but Sunday he simply got up and went to the hotel that was called the theatre, sat, watched, consulted with Svengali, and took notes. At the end of every day, Ken appeared from somewhere, simultaneously grinning and gritting his teeth; he would always be trailed by assistants and a girlfriend who smiled at everyone but spoke only to Ken—and then only in a barely audible whisper. Whatever had been done that day was run through for Ken; he took a few notes, nodded, frowned, and then withdrew with his entourage. The day was then officially over; but the cast milled around, reluctant to face the banalities of the street and anxious for the praise or the promise of more time on stage that Svengali would daily dispense to one or another of the chosen. Almost all were kept in a constant state of suspense as to who or what or how long they were to be.
Almost without exception, when he left the theatre, he boarded first a bus and then a subway to one or another stop on the Kurfürstendamm and then walked to the Paris Cafe for dinner—he could eat in comfort there and not worry about every dish being choked in cream and/or grease. There, he began taking notes on the notes he had taken in rehearsal. After his meal, he walked back to his cramped quarters through the rain that hadn’t ceased since his arrival. As constant as the rain was an army of streetwalkers marching miniskirted and black-booted under gargantuan umbrellas—military mushrooms (sometimes poisonous) swelling up from the cracks in the pavement to thrive in the relentless dampness of Berlin. Otherwise he noticed only the Mercedes showroom. There all was dream, gleam, and dry.
In his room, he returned once more to note-taking and writing bits and pieces of monologue for the old man that were to alternately relieve and stress the catatonia being induced in the cast. Like everything else, the language to be heard had not yet been finally decided upon; he had not one but two languages that could threaten to clog up his pen. In English, he lost the tone. In German, he couldn’t find the words. There was no word for “canyon” in German, but there were far more sonorous signifiers for states of damp, such as “feucht” and “schwuel.” (Besides its reference to wetness, schwuel was still employed by some to furtively refer to homosexuality. A humid state of sexuality?) And so he wrote himself to sleep. In the morning he woke up thinking of Peter.
Even en route to the theatre, all thoughts of another life were suppressed. Only two bus routes serviced the immediate vicinity of the theatre; and, given their remarkable punctuality, it was inevitable that he would find himself side by side with one or more members of the cast, after he rode the subway to the bus. Most often he found himself awkwardly shifting around the domain of Herr Osborne’s stomach as the aging actor chewed and spewed out the thick Russian r’s that rumbled up from the depths of his diaphragm—r’s that embraced the life story he was writing in between his acting roles. He claimed to have literally been born in the theatre (during the third act of King Lear). He had spent 38 years in Russia due to a false move at the end of World War II. In Russia, a new alphabet demanded the surrender of both his German and his English; he then was permitted to study with Stanislawski and became a semi-prominent actor and director. In 1967, he was dispatched to Vietnam to direct a play calledYankee Go Home. Since his mysterious return to Germany, he had, due to his alien accent, always been cast as a Slavic emigré or army officer (the faces of his various roles were photo-collaged on the postcards he dispensed daily on the bus). Not surprisingly, he loved working with Svengali, because, with him, he didn’t have to be a character actor. This bus opera came to an abrupt halt one day when Herr Osborne became vituperously anti-Semitic. The other passengers were less forthcoming; they usually included the sound technician, a Balinese dancer/actress, a diminutive, retired, female domestic; and a sublimely senile and lecherous old man with the frenetic grace of a silent movie comedian. These last two had been recruited from an old age home. The old man’s lyric lunacy made him the star of many a rehearsal break; he was far less applauded by the wardrobe assistants who had to deal firsthand with his incontinence.
The collaboration of captor and captive extended to all hours of the day and the night. If there was a break in his nocturnal note taking, it was to sit in Svengali’s hotel suite and ponder possibilities of plot and text. If he went to a dinner party, it was one given by a member of the cast. If he went to a play or a movie, it was because some member of the cast had a role in it. Even in the co-ed sauna of the gym, where his body could almost lose Svengali, he once found himself squeamishly averting the blank stare of the deflated breasts of the actress who played old men.
On one such outing, he and several actors went to see a movie that starred both Peter and the famous actor who often received the roles that Peter always dreamed of playing. Berlin became the set for a love triangle in tones of a Germanic Jules and Jim. Peter, now called Carl, meandered melancholically through the streets of Berlin in search of the woman he and his friend had been enchanted by in the acrobatic act of a traveling circus. His slow roam always ended at yet another section of the Wall; he traversed the long street taken by the bus to the theater; he brooded aimlessly in the cafeteria of the National Library where cast members went for lunch, on those rare days they were given enough time. Finally, he ended up in the decrepit bar of the hotel itself—now transformed into a punky disco. Here his pilgrimage was rewarded with the sight of the missing acrobat. He approached her from behind. Like a butterfly, his right hand slowly fluttered to rest on her shoulder. The next morning, he woke up thinking of Carl.
Slowly a skeleton of a plot was patched together, but one so intertwined with the ephemera and exotica of Svengali’s hermetic mind, that all was afloat on a sea of ambiguity. Fire and ice, sapphire and topaz interrupted and temporarily blinded sequential ration. Was all the wall building a reference to Berlin? Were the scars of typhoid a surrogate for the more contemporary plague of AIDS? Was the muttering old man one person or many—the father of the hero or the hero in old age or in some afterlife? Would all the torn and crumpled paper, mock-props and the wooden detritus pressed into service as town and forest really become bronze trees, malachite tables, a silver library, an armadillo head or a bird of paradise? What was the text to be? So far only snippets of appropriated writing and two of the short monologues for the old mutterer had any place. One day Ken’s girlfriend gave forth with her only audible sentence, while watching the rehearsal’s windup. Upon seeing the dinosaur that had just joined Svengali’s bestiary, she shouted wildly, “Kiss the beast.” “Kiss the beast,” shouted Svengali. “Kiss the beast,” chanted the cast over and over again. “Kiss the beast” was threaded through the play.
Just as he was approaching the edge of depression and confusion as to what his writing role might be and how it might possibly satisfy him and Svengali too, he was asked to take several days off and compose a monologue for the hero. He was asked to write the beginning; but he chose, instead, the end—when the hero’s double has died and he is seen roaming the wilderness in a stupor of delight, despair, and resignation to his own death. Thoughts of Carl fueled his writing, morning, noon, and night. He constructed a symphony of crazed regression—of childhood memories, of parental scorn, of nursery rhymes, of Shakespearean lines, of efforts to embrace the shadow of the dead double that was following the hero into the furnace of his mortality; of profound joy, of pain, of sonorous inconsequence. It was like nothing and like everything he had ever written before. He felt release for the first time since he boarded the plane for Berlin. He ignored the rain. He forgot that there had only been six hours of sunshine in all of November. He filled his room with flowers.
Carl took one look at his monologue and beamed with satisfaction at its length. Maybe now he would out-tower the trees. He left the rehearsal to study the lines on his own and returned an hour later to give his first recitation. Astoundingly, Carl read the piece almost exactly as it had been written and intended. His halting English only served to reinforce the zigzagged fractures of his character’s elegiac ending. Effortlessly he pulled out all the stops of his nuanced range of emotion. The sinuous slump of his back faced the audience as all applauded his performance. Some time later, the producer snatched the still beaming writer from rehearsal, took him to his office; and, there under the watchful stare of Ken, he oiled his way through his own monologue. The piece had been too long, the writing too ambitious for the nature of this project; they all had decided something more like contemporary song lyrics were in order here. Something like David Bowie … if only Malcolm McClaren had the time …
He felt the shell begin to crack. He felt a shock but no pain. He could say nothing; he fled the office. He stumbled into the bar. His gaze pierced the silvery grime of the huge windows in search of some resolution. He could not believe what he saw.
Klaus Kertess is a writer who lives and works in New York City.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee