For tomorrow may rain, so I’ll follow the Sun
Being a Review of a musical Stage Adaptation of the short story “The Masters” by Ursula K. Le Guin. Music and lyrics by Peter Foley; book by Kate Chisholm. Directed by Kate Chisholm. Performed by the Prospect Theater Company at the West End Theatre, New York, from January 30 to February 28, 2010.
[Note: A version of this review appeared in the April 2010 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction, #260. Many thanks for their kind support of my writing.]
Poster for the NYC performance of The Hidden Sky
Science and Religion are old, old acquaintances whose roots go deep into our past, as witnessed by ancient stylized figurines commonly dubbed “goddesses” and circles of megaliths arranged to record and foretell the cycles of the sky. Like any two old relatives, they have been known to fight for precedence, for the right to tell our tale in their own terms. Each offers to open us up to the universe, promising access to the sense of wonder. They are Question and Answer, forever attempting to trump each other, whether by moving the unmovable from under the feet of the hierophants or by revealing that the seeker after knowledge is now become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
Science fiction may be biased toward the Question side by its focus on seeking out new life and new civilizations, and, being fiction, it is also predisposed to look for conflict, so as to enliven its telling of our tale. Small wonder that sf so often finds strong meat in the wars of Religion on Science, particularly a Science chastened by its role in creating a post-apocalyptic landscape of a near future. Science is forbidden, with good reason. Its practitioners are hidden, hunted, denounced, and martyred. Leigh Brackett wrote about it in The Long Tomorrow (1955). So did Ursula Le Guin, in her second published story, “The Masters” (1963). In 2000, Peter Foley and Kate Chisholm turned “The Masters” into a musical. They also turned a tragedy into a triumph.
Science and Religion Perform a Pas de Deux
The Hidden Skypremiered at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia, where it picked up 6 Barrymore (Theater Alliance of Greater Philadelphia) nominations, including Outstanding Original Music and Outstanding New Play. Here in New York, it is performed at the West End Theatre in Manhattan, housed within the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, inside a converted chapel. Make of it what you will. The staging is minimal, with a sweeping wooden staircase as the backdrop, with cubbyholes and nooks underneath for the storing of papers, diagrams, or prisoners. A wooden ladder reaches up from the stage to the top of the staircase, serving as entry whenever verticality needs to be emphasized, switching the stage perspective Escher-like from height to depth as needed.
Photo Credit: Mark Garvin
“Wherever two or three are gathered in the name of Mathematics …”
Much of the action occurs underground, as the Seekers develop their forbidden lore through the use of the “black” (Arabic) numbers. Beyond a few stools and wooden tables, the set is empty of fixtures but full of players. A cast of 13 actors, including several who take on multiple roles, moves continually across the open space, singularly and as a chorus behind the action. The choreography of the show is quite tight, with a great deal of sinuous dancing with interwoven steps performed up-tempo in the manner of joyous folk dances. Like the music, which is also fast-paced and polyphonic, the dances of the people of the town of Edun are communal affairs.
In Which We Learn of the Keeping of Engines and the Breaking of Oaths
The story opens — after a brief prologue about the telling of this tale, from a book with no name, only a curious pattern of curves and lines on its cover — with the initiation of Ganil Kalson into the rank of Master of Engines, one of the keepers of the permitted technology (steam) that has been preserved since the Time of the Hellfire (atomic holocaust). Ganil is first seen extinguishing the Light of Reason to accept the greater learning of the Light of the Common Day (priest-kept lore, including occasional accurate predictions of the emergence of the Sun from behind the ever-present, post-atomic clouds). At the oath-taking, one of the other Masters, Mede Fairman, whispers “Don’t swear.” Ganil is immediately faced with the dilemma of the play — be true to self or be loyal to the community?
Photo Credit: Richard Termine
Better to extinguish one candle and curse the darkness?
One major difference in the play from the story is exactly the presence of community. Le Guin takes a more traditional tack, giving us the individual scholars Ganil, Mede, and Yin (an older mentor) working in solitude on the rediscovery of taboo knowledge, mathematics, physics, astronomy, coming together to compare notes, scattered atoms meeting. The frustrations with the limited knowledge of the Shop (drilling the apprentices on rote memory, according the tables, forbidden to calculate or to innovate) move him away, break his bonds, free him to delve into the proscribed. In the play, the sense of Ganil as part of the community, as a Master in an engine shop, as a Seeker among a band of likewise driven heretics, is stronger, as we watch her carefully maneuvering among the other dancers. She does not move so much out of her old orbit as into a new one, even as she responds to the tug and pull of other bodies.
Whereby a She and a He Exchange Places
Ah, pronouns. Another interesting difference is the gender neutrality of the play, with equal numbers of female and male roles and as many exchanged from the story as kept. Ganil’s fiance, Lani, is now the son of the Shopkeeper, and he is given his own initiation as a priest of the Common Day, by the High Priests who are female two out of three. Ganil and Lani try harder to understand each other in the play than do their story counterparts. Lani becomes much more of a character who fights to love Ganil, trying to keep her satisfied with their life, telling her a parable of a pseudo-Icarus named Pineheart who rejects the desire to fly for the promise of True Love. Ganil, however, continues to soar into higher mathematics, even as she regrets leaving Lani behind. One neat touch comes in her tenderly holding a bouquet of flowers from him, and, slowly, counting the petals and realizing how they form a pattern (known to us as the Fibonacci sequence). Her two simultaneous loves are dramatized, side by side, and her choice is made.
The double impulses to which she responds are dramatized through the use of a second Ganil, Ganil’s Double, who dances several numbers to help us see Ganil’s own imagination at work when the Double dances without her and how her two sides mirror and assist each other when they dance together amid the chorus. We understand that her choice comes not of incompatible impulses but as of a greater over a lesser. She has seen her truth and cannot, will not, unsee it. Nor allow it to split her into different parts. Patterns are everywhere; Ganil sings, “The Absolute, the truly Real, is coming out of my head and into my heart and out of my heart and into my head, coming into my heart. Nothing is random at all.” What is pattern? An undeniable design. The face of God, one Light behind all creation. (“Revelation: All Is Number”).
OK, perhaps Ganil is too Pythagorean for our secularized age. But remember that Isaac Newton spent much of his last 30 years of life arguing over the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. On his death, his body was found to be contaminated with mercury, as a result of his alchemical studies. And his greatest work, the Principia Mathematica, is, in full title, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. The distances were not perceived as great, then.
Whither the Head, Whither the Heart?
Ganil emphasizes this connection in her argument with Lani, when she refers to the “logic of the heart” and the “passions of the mind,” bringing together those roots of Science and Religion, showing how intertwined they are. When the Sun does make its appearance, she is together with the community to celebrate and enjoy its radiance, which shines from her joy as much as from her face. Victoria Huston-Elem, our Ganil, conveys Ganil’s transport convincingly, standing in front of the congregation, leading even though no one, were they to know, would follow.
Photo Credit: Mark Garvin
“I went mourning without the Sun; I stood up and I cried in the congregation” – Job 30:28
To the Stake, and Beyond.
And then, climax. Mede, celebrating alone, is caught with a sextant, measuring the Sun. He is condemned for “trying to measure the distance between the earth and God” (a line that Le Guin, who did not rate the story highly, did call “a good sentence” — many of the story’s sentences find their way into the play). We are thrust into the old, ugly confrontation, the trial and condemnation and execution. Ganil/Galileo is let off with a simple hand pulverizing. Mede is burned at the stake. Anger flares along with flame. Yin, uncharacteristically, promises a reckoning, with a greater fire than mere wood can provide. It is left to Ganil to refuse to pervert Science for vengeance, to convert love into hate. Instead, she takes exile. In the story, Ganil follows Yin to another town, under another disguise. Here, she rejects town for wilderness, becoming an ascetic for Science, a Desert Mother of mathematics, disappearing from our view.
Photo Credit: Richard Termine
Broken in hand, but not in spirit …
In Spirational Motion
Does she succeed? Yes. We know this outcome from the closing number, which repeats the brief introduction, showing us again the mysterious, untitled tome from which this tale is read, every year, “in the 17th month”. Now, we see the spiral on its cover, embedded in the pattern of squares, and recognize it as the Fibonacci spiral, and we understand.
The piece runs a bit past two hours. With 31 musical numbers and energetic dancing, the time passes swiftly. The book of the musical not only adopts much of the text and dialogue of the short story, but it also includes Le Guin’s mathematical typography and the mathematics that her story suggests, through the use of projection to show how Mede teaches Arabic numerals and positional notation to Ganil, and how she betters him and runs off into Fibonacci’s sequence, Pascal’s triangle, Galileo’s trajectory, Fourier’s series, and the golden mean. Even if the math is opaque, the audience can see the designs and the patterns and feel the joy.
Besides, any musical that has a chorus singing the Fibonacci sequence (“One, one, two/Three, five, eight” — from the song “Symbol and Sign”) will get me to smile.
[Note: For more Le Guin theatrical musings, please see my piece on the stage adaptation of The Lathe of Heaven by Ed Einhorn and Untitled Theater Company #61.]