The Waste Land
Based on the poem by T. S. Eliot
Performed by Christopher Domig
Concept/Installation by Daniel Domig
Directed by Daniel Domig & Christopher Domig
64E4 Underground, 64 East 4th Street, New York, NY 10003
August 19th 2015 at 5:15, Aug 22nd at 2:45, Aug 24th at 9:30, Aug 26th at 3:00, Aug 29th at 7:00
It was in the Autumn of 1922 when a 34-year-old English poet published 434 lines of verse in the very first issue of The Criterion—his own quarterly literary magazine whose run ended in the winter of 1939, and which expressed on paper the rich cultural output of the interwar years from Europe’s “Lost Generation” of letters. Criterion’s creator, one Thomas Stearns Eliot, used his publication’s introductory 600 copies to unveil what remains one of the enduring poetic meditations on society in the wake of war: "The Waste Land." From its opening words, “April is the cruelest month,” the power of T. S. Eliot’s much-lauded poem has continued to translate across generations of new readers—taking on new dimensions when it jumps from their inner-voice, to their tongue, and out across a room full of transfixed faces.
The Waste Land has seen many many stage interpretations over the decades. One of the most iconic is that of Irish actress Fiona Shaw. It was her performance, captured now for posterity as a downloadable app, which helped inspire Austrian actor Christopher Domig’s one-man performance of Eliot’s 434 lines at the upcoming 2015 New York International Fringe Festival—a collaboration with his brother, Austria-based artist Daniel Domig, whose talents include sculpture and painting. Those skills are crucial to the concept for this staging of The Waste Land, as the Domig brothers approached it as one would an art installation. Their fusion of visual nuance and dramatic expression is subtly hinted at within the main promotional material for the project, as the prominently displayed tagline reads: “A Painter, An Actor, A Poem.”
“It didn’t make sense to dramatically retell in a literal way what the poem was already saying,” Christopher tells me in an interview. “The question was, ‘Who am I, and what am I doing with the text?’ That’s tricky, because T. S. Eliot doesn’t say, ‘This is who the narrator is of the poem.’ He just writes the poem. So who this person was who’s telling the poem came out in collaboration with my brother.” He then adds that collaboration also shaped the details of this Waste Land’s stage space, noting, “Danny and I had the experience where I worked on memorizing the poem; he worked on design elements, and we ended up with a table, two chairs, and this puppet head.”
The puppet head: Christopher’s silent spectral on-stage partner, and Daniel’s most audacious set element. Sometimes Christopher talks to it, and sometimes he plunges his face behind the unblinking white visage, providing it with a voice for speaking Eliot’s words. The head’s ambiguous countenance, its perch rotating between chair and table, carries on the lineage of abstract unfinished faces of characters appearing in several of Daniel’s paintings, including 2014’s oil on canvas work, “My Brother’s Name, Skin, and Voice,” showing an encounter between two figures with human-like features.
“Both my paintings and my installations often deal with a sort of erasure or removal of the borders between objects and the figure,” Daniel tells me by Skype from his home in Austria. “In traditional paintings, and also our everyday lives, there is a sense that we just distinguish quite starkly between the organic and inorganic things around us,” adding of the head, “I knew I wanted some sort of body part that would be able to be attached to these individual objects, and somehow turn them into organic structures.”
From "The Fire Sermon:"
The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.
Christopher uses the nearby living faces of the audience as inspiration for certain passages he recites, including the line, “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many,” observing to me, “It’s really talking about all these ghosts, or fallen soldiers, and I kind of feel like the audience is as much a part of this world as this figure is. “
The textures of that world include a thin layer of loose wood grains on the floor, whose presence Christopher immediately incorporated into the unspoken story behind the spare set he roams (almost) alone for 60 minutes – sometimes on his hands and knees, sometimes slithering full-bodied on his side with unsettling carnal intent, his bow-tied suit acquiring a theatrical grime it will not shed.
“The sawdust that we’ve been working with, I was thinking about, and realized it reminded me of these old bars in New York, like McSorley’s, where they put rice on the old wood of the floor to soak up the moisture. I said to Danny, ‘What if only for us, we know that there was a big party, and this is the remnant of some festivity in some bar? Everyone’s gone home except for this guy, the bartender, and this one figure who is hung over, or who had too much to drink. And in the afterhours of this festivity, he recites or tells this story in the form of Eliot’s poem.’”
It’s one of several scenarios Christopher has toyed with to find that illusive “where” in which his narrator can dwell. I first met Christopher in my own apartment, four years ago, preparing to act in a grueling one-shot 80-minute movie filmed with a steadicam across multiple floors of a South Williamsburg warehouse loft. His wiry physique and runner’s endurance displayed on that set also serve his current stage work. Last October, I reviewed a staging of his one-man show, Dirt at Manhattan’s 4th Street Theater. At that point, Christopher had already performed the piece for 11 years, refining the required accent and mannerisms – and for 70 minutes, he held his audience’s attention as Iraqi flower peddler, Sad, describing his humble life and fears during a brief rest from work, while moving about a small decrepit NYC apartment. The role won Christopher the Outstanding Actor Award at 2007’s New York Fringe. Eight years later, he returns with five performances of The Waste Land in the intimate venue of 64E4 Underground off The Bowery in Manhattan.
From "The Fire Sermon:"
At the violet hour, when the eyes and back,
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting...
The world of "The Waste Land" is now a distant 93 years gone, but its author’s age at publication is another story. Eliot’s then-34 years falls between the current ages of the Domig brothers – Christopher being 36, and Daniel 32. When asked if such age proximity with their work’s creator impacted their approach, Daniel recalled a past art project:
“One of my installations was entitled, ‘I Hated All Things’, which is a direct quote from St. Augustine, which he wrote in the Confessions when he was around my age at the time of building the installation. He lost a dear friend to him, and chronicles how losing his friend kind of merged into this loss of joy in life, and culminates in this sentence, ‘I hated all things.’”
Augustine was only halfway through his life when writing the autobiographical 13 books of Confessions, his reputation as a towering figure of early Christianity not yet widespread and secure. Daniel notes the early point of Eliot’s career at which "The Waste Land" was written had bearing on the Domigs thinking about the mood of the poem:
“One thing I told Christopher last year when I was in New York, was that T. S. Eliot was never ‘T. S. ELIOT’ to himself.” He then adds, “At the time of writing, I think there was no security surrounding the value, or worth, or even impact of the poem—or even why it should be greater than anything else he wrote.”
From "What The Thunder Said":
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?
The greatness of The Waste Land will be on artistically dramatic display starting August 19th for five shows at 64E4 Underground, with a modern audience reaping the value and worth of an impactful hour with T. S. Eliot’s long-resonating words.