21 March 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/12

There Is No Other Way

The eye sees, the thought flies.
The eye tells, the thought denies.

       I will prepare for your returning.
       (Is there no other way?)

The word falls, the heart cries.
The heart knows the word's disguise.

       I shall expect you then at evening.
       (Is there no other way?)

The bird sings, the wind sighs,
The air stirs, the bird shies.
A storm approaches.

       (There must be other ways. . . )

The leaf shakes, the wings rise.
The song stops, the bird flies.
The storm approaches.

       I will have supper waiting.

The song stops, the bird flies.
The mind stirs, the heart replies,
"There is no other way."
"There is no other way."

       I will prepare for your return.
       I shall expect you then at evening.

The word stops, the heart dies.
The wind counts the lost goodbyes.

       There is no other way.
       There is no other way.

Stephen Sondheim, from Pacific Overtures

Tomorrow, 22 March, is Stephen Sondheim's 86th birthday, so today we have one of his lyrics: outwardly simply, but deeply moving and complex in its effects.

Pacific Overtures opened on Broadway in the Bicentennial year of 1976, but though its subject is an important and revealing moment of American history – Commodore Matthew Perry's 1853 visit to self-isolated Japan, which he forced open to Western visitors (and commerce) by the presence of his warships – it does so from the Japanese perspective. The drama incorporates traditional Japanese theatrical techniques as well, including the use of Reciters (the original Broadway production also used the traditional Kabuki technique of having the women's roles played by men, though I believe this is a choice, not a requirement of the staging).

In this scene, Kayama, a samurai but one of little importance, tells his wife Tamate that he has just been made the Prefect of Police for the city of Uraga. Her initial joy vanishes when he explains that foreign warships have been sighted off the coast of that city, and that it will be his job to float out there on his little boat and inform them that no foreigners are allowed to set foot on the sacred soil of Japan. Given the disparity between his little craft and the fleet of American war ships, this mission is bound to end in failure and personal disgrace, which is why the important and high-ranking members of the Shogun's court selected someone unimportant like him to do it. Tamate hopes that perhaps the Americans will not insist on coming, but Kayama gently corrects her. She prepares for his departure, fearing that it will be permanent as they will have to commit ritual suicide to erase the shame. In the staging (I'm going by the CD booklets here, as I've never seen the show live), she dances silently, while the two Observers on stage sing this song. The First Observer tells us what Tamate is thinking and feeling (the italicized words above) and the Second repeats what she says to her husband.

This may seem like double distancing, but it actually brings us closer in, providing us with multiple perspectives, inner and outer, on the scene (and of course in addition to the two sets of words we have what the delicate, mournful, plangent music tells us, and what the actors' movements tell us). Much is left unsaid between the two, though it is said to us by the observers, as well as by the music and movement. (There are things they don't need to spell out to each other – like all of us, Kayama and Tamate are creatures of their culture, so of course they both know what the impending disgrace would mean for them). Even with the First Observer giving us a view of Tamate's inner life, though, there is still indirection, the use of symbols (the departing bird, the approaching storm) to convey associated emotions (the term for this technique is the objective correlative). The effect is not so much of repressed emotion as of emotions so deeply felt and powerful that their direct expression is too painful (and actually unnecessary, a belaboring of the obvious). The heart knows the word's disguise – both Kayama and Tamate are deeply aware of the emotions underlying their ordinary, almost businesslike words.

Sondheim incorporates Japanese verse styles here, such as the indirect expression of emotions of love, longing, and loss through references to the natural world – the bird stopping its song and flying away, the approaching storm: these signal the departure of happiness and the oncoming disaster. The wind sighs – this line is an example of what is called the Pathetic Fallacy, which is attributing human emotions to inanimate objects or natural phenomenon (a stubborn rock, an angry wave). But the lines about the bird and the storm are something different, which is the use of the natural world to mirror an emotional situation (a technique not restricted to poetry; think of how brilliantly Dickens modulates the weather in Bleak House to reflect the emotional qualities of various scenes). In Tamate's spoken words we can trace the initial persistence of some hope in her recurring second line Is there no other way? even as she quietly reassures her husband that she will be waiting for him with supper ready. Emotionally (in the narration of the First Observer) she traces a more despairing path. She starts off acknowledging to herself that her hopeful remarks are improbable, a denial of what she can clearly see will happen – The eye sees, the thought flies. / The eye tells, the thought denies. She knows that what she is saying (what she must say) is to disguise the painful truth – The word falls, the heart cries. / The heart knows the word's disguise. The fall of the word can refer merely to its utterance, but also to a sense of the word falling down, failing to comprehend and express the full emotional truth behind it.

Once Tamate has acknowledged to herself the bitter truth, the balance alters between the outer and inner voices. Initially, the voices had exchanged couplets. But once Tamate begins to realize how hopeless the situation is – a realization so painful that even internally she must approach it indirectly, through the objective correlative of the bird falling silent and flying off while the storm approaches – then, although the structure is maintained of the two voices speaking in four-line units, the inner voice now has three lines and the outer, official and social, voice only one. By the end of the song, as the inner voice reaches a state of emotional finality and futility (the wind counts the lost goodbyes), and even the outer voice has moved from its initial questioning (Is there no other way?) to a realization that matches the inner voice's finality (There is no other way), the two voices start to sing simultaneously (or at least overlappingly) for the first time, bringing the scene to a powerful, pessimistic, and loving (pessimistic because loving) close. The separation and then union of the voices, and their distance from the performer playing Tamate, illustrates the kind of poetry in action that you can get on the dramatic stage, in which separate elements cumulatively create a striking and moving moment. There's nothing here that is too complex to catch in performance – the words themselves are ordinary enough – but the final effect is one of intense emotional complexity. Sondheim is one of those artists (Nabokov is another) whose work is so frequently (and accurately) described as brilliant or clever or ingenious that it's easy to overlook that their work is also heartbreaking and profoundly moving.

(If you're lucky enough to have an upcoming opportunity to see this show, you may want to skip this paragraph: Kayama, along with Manjiro, a fisherman who had been shipwrecked and rescued by Americans (and consequently had some familiarity with their language and customs), come up with an ingenious way of preventing an attack by the Americans while also honoring the law that no foreigner may step on Japanese's sacred soil: they cover the beach with tatami, the thick woven mats used by the Japanese as flooring, and build a special treaty house on the mats – therefore the foreign feet never actually touch Japanese soil. This comparative success relieves Kayama of the need to commit seppuku. But when, after these events, he goes back home to bring the good news to his wife, he finds that she, anticipating the certain failure they were both expecting, has already killed herself.)

The lyrics are from the original Broadway cast album. There is also a recording of the 2004 Broadway revival, labelled The New Broadway Cast Recording, which includes some dialogue omitted from the OBC album (though, in the manner of many recent musical revivals, it also reduces the orchestra). There is a recording of the 1987 English National Opera revival, which I have not heard, mostly because I just found out about it while looking up links for the other two recordings (otherwise I would have bought it years ago, as Pacific Overtures has always been one of my favorite Sondheim works). You can also find the lyrics in Finishing the Hat, the first volume of Sondheim's two-volume collection and commentary on his own work (he doesn't discuss this particular lyric in much detail, though). In all three sources I've checked the words are the same.

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