Getting Off the Schneid
Cormac McCarthy once wrote a book that was adapted into a movie. A Termite Art-er once wrote a review of his latest novel. He also dabbles in theatre; that’s the segue into “The Sunset Limited,” McCarthy’s off-Broadway play (by way of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre) that R. Emmet and I caught this past Friday. Similarities to another Steppenwolf landmark, Sam Shepard’s “True West” begin and end with its premise: two men, diametrically opposed, confined to a single domestic space, furiously jawing over the ideological schism between them. Though it’s less about America and its dream factories than Shepard’s piece, “The Sunset Limited,” is no less obsessed with capital-C culture, and with two characters known only by their races, equally primal. It’s about faith, death, intellect, and the difficulty in trying to understand other human beings and their messy motivations—and the restricting or liberating role that language plays in such an attempt.
Lights up on a spare, grotty Harlem tenement, and McCarthy quickly dispenses with backstory. "White" has recently, as in minutes ago, tried to commit suicide by throwing himself in front of the Sunset Limited, a daily commuter train. By some poorly explained and understood alchemy, "Black" intervened and hurried White back to his home—to offer succour, initially, and subsequently to essay an understanding why anyone would want to kill themselves. Even beyond white and black skin colour, their dispositions could hardly be more different. Austin Pendleton (seen in Oz, A Beautiful Mind, and Dirty Work; no, not that Dirty Work) is a university professor, tremulous, skittish, and inverted, with the entire western canon ingrained into the recesses of his memory. Freeman Coffey is an ex-convict, assured, expansive and garrulous, whose knowledge of the world begins and ends, at least so he says, with the Bible. Black sees potential in life, the world; White sees futility in both. White wants to leave; Black implores him no to. Black wants to talk; White does not. But White stays. Over the course of the course of the next hour and a half, their conversation runs ragged and free, but the subject they keep returning to is faith: White’s an atheist; Black is profoundly religious. It sets up an insurmountable divide. Which is somewhat bridged with coffee. And stew. Black reheats some and White doesn’t want to eat it. Then he does, with gusto. It is delicious.
Though fleet, “The Sunset Limited” is a play so dense and crammed with stuff—ideas, beautiful and devastating turns of phrase, etc.—that I wish a copy of the script were laying open on my desk. Forgive me then (or correct me, Sweeney) if my recollections stray too far from the truth. Because the crux of the play is language, which both characters use to their advantage, I apologize doubly for my memory. With baggy eyes and a spine like a question mark, Pendleton has a weary gravitas about him, and his character uses a prodigious vocabulary to argue in sprints, making incisive, pithy forays, and then retreating. (“Life is despair,” says White. “One describes the other.”) Coffey is more of a long-distance campaigner, an amalgam of aphorisms, bible quotes, and jailhouse stories stuffed into an avuncular, pot-bellied body. And despite his self-avowed lack of intelligence (more than once does he make remark of White’s love for epigrams rife five-dollar words) he has his own straightforward, dogged line of reasoning that backs White into logical dead ends from which he has to hastily retreat. The cultural divide also allows for some stunning revelations. For White, rhetorical ability is an encumbrance, because it allows him to articulate, down to the letter, the particulars of his sorrows. Culture is a yoke because it lays bare the manifold calamities of the world. Knowledge is posited as a burden, in direct trajectory from original sin and the garden of Eden—and out of synch with academia’s traditional evolution from the Enlightenment. It’s a start, but those are not the reasons White craves oblivion: “If the pain of this world was cumulative rather than reiterative,” White says, “the world would catch on fire and burn through whatever kind of night it was still capable of engendering until it was nothing more than ash.” His voice sinks into breathy nothing. Black visibly deflates too, disbelieving that such an ethos is possible.
So yes, I was taken by “The Sunset Limited,” but also because it inverts a common trope of theatre of this (gabby) type: by the end of their discussion, neither man undergoes life-altering metamorphosis. After a final monologue, that left me breathless and agape, White walks out of the apartment, still bent on his quest for Chaos. Black is left shaken, but still desperately clinging to his faith. There’s nothing transformative, nothing truly won, gained or lost. Just, I suppose, like life.
I haven't posted to Termite Art, well, ever, really. So now I'm off the schneid. Something more fun (and brief--I do get effusive when moved) next time.