Navel gazing

There’s a bit of a danger in so-called critical analysis: you can spend a lot of time developing theories on “meaning” without ever going anywhere. Today, my American drama class spent 90 minutes discussing a single line of stage directions. Not even an entire sentence. Now the subject of this discussion was Gertrude Stein, who is known for being obscure, even willfully so. However, I tried to cut through that — but let’s start at the beginning.

The phrase in question is from Stein’s Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, which is the libretto for an opera that was never composed. It has been mounted several times as a play, however, notably by Robert Wilson. At the beginning of Act 3 Scene 1, we read the following: “…the lights are right but the room is dark.” “What,” queried our professor, “might that mean, and how do you stage it?”

Various theories about the moral character of the light were expressed, the emotions expressed by darkness, etc. At some point I objected that were developing all these theories with no context and that we should look at the other stage directions for comparison. That was deemed reasonable, so while the discussion continued, I tried to quickly scan the script (which isn’t particularly easy with Stein.)

I skipped back to the beginning of the play and soon decided that most of the other stage directions were not particularly abstract, not always specific, but generally concrete, making this obscure phrase a bit of an outlier. As I passed the page everyone else was discussing, I came upon another stage direction two pages later, “They all sleep in the dark with the electric light all bright.”

Light bulb. I raised my hand, “I think it’s a typo.” “What?” “Later in the scene, she describes the same setting but uses the word  ‘bright’ instead of ‘right’. That’s probably what she meant the first time.” There a was short pause, “It’s possible,” the instructor acknowledged, and then he and everyone else went back to their pet theories.

Now I admit I didn’t really expect everyone to say “Oh!” and congratulate me, and now I’m flogging my pet theory here. And heaven knows, with my engineering background, I may have a tendency to be overly concrete, but it’s pretty reasonable.  Consider: 1) based my experience on a literary committee and as a writer myself, I know it’s rare for a manuscript to be perfect, 2) the same scene is described with almost an identical phrase, but the second time the obscure ‘right’ becomes the obvious ‘bright’, 3) Occam’s razor – it’s the simplest explanation that fits all the facts. Unless there’s a record of someone trying to copyedit the page and we can prove Stein said “No, I meant ‘right'” we’ll never know, of course.

What’s interesting was that every one else in the class was so invested in exploring the “literary meaning” of that one phrase, they all essentially pretended that I hadn’t spoken, and we spent another half hour of discussion on that single stage direction rather than spending more time on the text itself. I can’t really blame them, it’s a pretty boring explanation…but I bet it’s true.

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