Words could not save Paul Celan. The Romanian poet drowned himself in the Siene just months before his fiftieth birthday.
Celan’s poem “With a Variable Key” accompanies Gary Winter’s play At Said. Both works illustrate the correlation between life and art; they are both works about writing and how the act of creating can be a catharsis of sorts. Whereas Celan was unable to “move ahead,” Sybil, Winter’s protagonist, “unlocks the house” and draws the obligatory blood necessary for recovery.
Celan’s parents were victims of the Holocaust. The writer’s vain attempts to heal were unfortunate; he succumbed to the horror. Sybil is not one to surrender. As Winter notes, “Writing is a release for her.” The German language represented death to Celan. Struggling to cleanse himself through the language of his tormentors proved fatal for the poet. On the other hand, Sybil’s language represents hope. She chooses to live. She “opens the gate” to her new life. Whatever she learns about her past and herself will invariably alter her daughter Darra’s life as well.
At Said is a play about the human condition. The beleaguered Darra expresses life’s deep futility: “There is nothing out there.” Her sentiment echoes Beckett’s tramps’ mantra, “Nothing to be done.” Resembling Didi and Gogo, the hobo protagonists of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Sybil, Darra, and her drug addict boyfriend Will are isolated individuals in search of purpose in a seemingly purposeless world. At the core of both plays is an inherent hope. Didi and Gogo await Godot’s arrival while Sybil’s relentless search for her identity is a mission she refuses to abort. The waterfall remains a constant and beautiful symbol. Sybil relishes the waterfall amidst the bleak backdrop of her life, past and present: “I looked at the waterfall in town and it wasn’t so bad. But if I say that people will say I’m crazy. People are shot and you say it’s okay to look at the waterfall?”
Darra is undoubtedly Sybil’s foil. Darra’s lack of faith, inexperience and innate fear of life contrast her mother’s devotion to change and growth as well as her willingness to heal herself and teach her daughter about the world’s cruelty and beauty. At times, Darra is brilliantly insightful: “We want people to feel sorry for us all the time. Then we don’t do anything.” What makes her plight tragic is the stasis that can envelop a nineteen year old. Conversely, Sybil sets out to conquer such paralysis. She recalls her past: “We weren’t allowed to leave the town. Then. Before that. The truck. To get out. They said you go here. You go over there. We carried his body ourselves. The women did this because all the men were in hiding.” In order to move forward, Sybil goes back to her tumultuous roots. She challenges herself. She faces the painful past. She goes head-to-head with the monster.
The beauty of Winter’s play is the obvious empathy he has for his characters. The author’s objectivity never interferes with the audience’s perception. Mr. Winter is quite adept at creating Sybil’s ambiguous history. Writing her autobiography saves her life. Words are her saviors, her martyrs. Darra says to Will, “She can’t type it all out then be the same person she was before she typed it.” Darra’s life is also altered. After the “invasion” where are they to go? They go backward in order to move forward.
Sybil’s mission is to teach her daughter about life; however, the fledgling Will proposes a tremendous obstacle. “What’s outside,” Darra asks Will. Will replies, “Nothing.” Will searches for his story, but ultimately he is too fragile, too weak to recall it and learn from it. He says, “There is no Story of William.” Alex, Darra’s best friend, tells him that he’ll get the words “when he’s ready for them to come out.” And similar to those provincial boys at Mr. Winter’s Sheepshead High School in Brooklyn who believe they “have all the answers,” but are truly afraid to step beyond their sheltered doorway, Will refuses to believe the truth -“the world is small for him.” As a result, “the world will remain small and things will never happen” for him.
Darra utters one of the play’s most poignant metaphors: ”I’m not sure how a human hurts a human, but I think it is like when we go fishing off the pier and have to pull out the hook. We mangle the fish’s mouth and toss him in the pail. There is not much feeling in that.” Although darkness is a shroud for Darra, Will, and Paul Celan alike, Sybil, with her “mangled mouth” is prepared to experience her tropism: “The poppies still there. Growing all over the place. Next to everything. But they had water so that was good. And questions. And the gate. See that was the difference. The gate was open this time.”
At Said by Gary Winter opens at P.S. 122 on May 13th and runs through June 4th. Visit 13p.org or ps122.org for details.
Richard Fulco is a Brooklyn playwright and curator of the Night and Day Playwrights’ Series in Park Slope.