December 23, 2008
Tempest #14 — Spirits and Congruences

The five manipulators will all be visible behind the puppets. But I don’t want to use the conventional bunraku hoods: black blobs would be as much a scenic intrusion as puppeteers’ white faces. So I’m thinking about masking each one, except the live Prospero, as an island spirit. The implication is that, in a sense, the characters are all on the grip — as is our story itself — of the primal island spirits. An implication only, I think.
Seeing them as full head masks, but with mouths free; actors would need to darken their lower jaws. Very dark complexion, eyesight through slits under small reflective eyes, textures of tree bark, bristles and fur. Possibly all the same design, possibly each suggesting a combination of human and specific animal, fowl or reptile. Will start a test model this week.
Pulling back a few minute to look at this whole project. At age 67 I don’t have another 50 years to fritter away, so I look a bit more closely at the stories I find myself about to tell. Why do this one?

Well, why does anyone select a particular play, or write one, for that matter? Many possible reasons, but few of them hold water for me any more: “It’s important to make this statement.” “This will make my career.” “It’s a great play.” “The world needs this.” “It’s deep.” “It’s fun.” Those don’t do it for me any more. Certainly they flit across the windshield, but they rarely take root.

Rather, I find myself attracted to stories that are like the unattended parcel in the airport. They’re unclaimed. They’re opaque. They’re charged with potential. The bomb squad would just stand back and blow the damn thing up, but the storyteller will start fumbling at its knots.

In other words, I’m attracted most by stories that cast me into the role of the explorer of lost cities. It’s like putting on an untried mask to see what it evokes. I just have a blind faith that something’s there that will strike a deep chord. In the audience, one hopes. But you hypothesize your audience from the frail evidence of your own senses. So I’m looking at The Tempest, a couple of days after a long, intense evening at a friend’s sweat lodge ceremony and another solstice celebration around a huge bonfire, asking what immediate impact this play has on my own soul & spirit.

I’ll return to this core question repeatedly. For now, I’ll speak only to the points where I tie my thread to the characters. For now, just Prospero — another time I’ll come back to each of the others, right down to the Boatswain, in terms of what resonances they have for me.

Multiple strands. Like Prospero, I’ve had one foot in the realm of the political (the process of career, of management, of promotion, making money, fulfilling commitments, all that) and one foot in the realm of magic: the making of stories, going deep into the labyrinth. His magic has gained him great power, mine hasn’t. He struggles with old wounds that still bleed, as do I; he resolves this struggle within himself, while I don’t have the advantage of a five-act structure, so I’m still struggling.

I’ve worked very hard to shape my life and creative work securely: I could publish a book of the brilliant, comprehensive three-year & five-year strategic plans I’ve devised, the weekly worklists, the New Year’s resolutions, all that. They’ve all had some consequence, and at the same time they’ve all vanished in the wind — mostly by the force of my own decision. Prospero’s struggle for control — of the unknown, for the spirits, of his daughter, of his enemies, and finally of himself — is painfully familiar to me.

Much more to explore here, but just to close with one memory. Prospero’s magic, most likely, is the variety of ceremonial magic exemplified by the Elizabethan occultist John Dee and continuing through the Golden Dawn and present-day traditions akin to that. I’ve known a number of these practitioners, some of whom make a distinction between “white” and “black” magic, some of whom don’t.

In one now-deceased friend, Adam, I saw first-hand the extraordinary power of– I won’t say “magic,” I’ll say the practice of magic. He was, in equal parts, a gifted musician, a con man, a genius, a multiple personality, a seeker, a druggie, and eventually a murder victim. A friend confided that she felt that as a magician he had willed his own death. Some claimed he was criminal in pursuit of his own will; others felt only his warmth and generosity. Some would believe that rituals and hallucinogens destroyed him; I would say that they kept him alive. And yet they didn’t. For Adam, keeping his inner self intact was like assembling a broken eggshell with one’s back against the hurricane.

This is in part what impels me to make Prospero’s magical practice very central in the action and to make its power and its danger very tangible. “Power corrupts” in the sense that it puts greater and greater stress on the fault lines of one’s self. Interpretation of The Tempest hangs on whether or not one believes Prospero’s deep wounds have been healed by his twelve years of exile — that he’s already, at the start, achieved a minor-league Buddhist satori — or that the San Andreas Fault is under ever greater stress. For me it’s the latter interpretation that explains his many incongruities and that coheres with my own experience.

This is the starting point, at any rate. We only ever arrive at starting points.
–Conrad Bishop
Next entry: Dec. 29th