Doctor Atomic and Alternating Narratives

Posted: November 10, 2008 in aboriginality, adult literature, alternating narratives, opera, other things, race

Having gone to the Cineplex last Saturday to see John Adams’s opera Doctor Atomic “live” from the Met, I find myself thinking about it in terms of this alternating narratives project.  What struck me was that, while much of the music is evocative and interesting, there really isn’t much else very involving going on in what we saw on screen.  Part of the problem was simply not being at the Met–not just not being there, but not being there and therefore in the hands of a camera crew with strange ideas.  Perhaps on the theory that, being on screen, it should look as much like a movie as possible, everything was shot as close up as possible, so that the audience developed an intimate knowledge of the singer’s nostrils and sweat.  That quickly ruined the illusion of authenticity, at least in terms of believing in the characters as opposed to being aware of an on-stage experience–and so it was hard to feel empathy for the characters.  The fetishistic dwelling on faces also tended to undermine the kind of experience I most enjoy opera for providing–the interactions between the performers, between the performers and the set, between the singers and the orchestra, between the words and the music, etc., etc.  It’s an experience of semiotic intermingling and undermining, an ongoing set of complex and entertainingly crosscutting interactions.  But when you’re looking down someone’s throat at their uvula wiggling, you tend to miss the relationships between the words being sung and the other actions going on onstage, the shifts in the setting, etc., etc.  It was like staring obsessively at one piece of a complex jigsaw puzzle without being able to develop much sense of its part in a larger whole.

But all that might have mattered less in a different opera. Here, though, the composer John Adams and the liberettist Peter Sellars had already constructed an experience that seemed to be deliberately striving for a lack of audience involvement.  The libretto is made up of bits and pieces of other texts–some from interviews and diaries, etc., of the actual people involved in the atomic bomb project, some poems and prose passages by John Donne, Muriel Rukeyser, Baudelaire and others, and sections of the Bhagavad Gita and a traditional Tewa song.  As the singers move from one such fragment to another, one character’s thoughts or feelings to another’s expressed in terms of a different text originally written by a different person, there is little in the way of actual dialogue or interaction between the characters, then–the piece is set up as a series of alternating narratives, which is why I’m exploring my response to it here.

In a scene in the first act, Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty, expresses her feeling’s about her husband’s absorption in his work by singing words a poem by Rukeyser:

Am I in your light?
No, go on reading
(the hackneyed light of evening quarrelling with the bulbs;
the book’s bent rectangle solid on your knees)
only my fingers in your hair, only, my eyes
splitting the skull to tickle your brain with love
in a slow caress blurring the mind,
kissing your mouth awake
opening the body’s mouth stopping the words.

.  As the composer Mark Adamo suggests in his blog entry on Dr. Atomic, “in this bedroom scene . . . Kitty Oppenheimer sings language from Muriel Rukeyser’s poem “Three Sides of a Coin,” which describes the very scene we’re seeing: a wife trying to distract her husband as he reads.  Puzzlingly, though, the character narrates herself: she tells us what she’s doing even as she’s doing it.”  So there’s a distance created, a character explaining herself at one remove from herself; and then Oppenheimer responds in words by Baudelaire to describe his own state of mind:

If you could know all that I see!
all that I feel!
all that I hear in your hair!
My soul floats upon perfumes
as the souls of other men
float upon music.

It’s as if we know what each of these characters is thinking (albeit expressed through the filter of other people’s heightened language), but have little sense of what their actual dialogue or interaction consists of.  It’s two solitudes lightly and gingerly touching, two particles that remain in their separate spheres and barely interact if they interact at all.

That makes me wonder about the effect of alternating narratives in fiction.  I’m often aware of how they distance readers from characters.  You can’t, at the same time or in sequence, really identify equally with two different characters whose stories and thoughts cut across each other, and there’s a tendency to invite readers to stand back from both characters whose narrative alternate, to see what can be learned from one narrative about the truth of the other character’s perceptions, etc.  And as in Doctor Atomic, the sense of a conversation is apparent to the audience only: for it seems that Oppeneimer doesn’t know the Rukeyserian thoughts of Kitty, nor Kitty much of the Baudelairian thoughts of Oppenheimer.  A perception of how the fragments fit together–how a pattern emerges from all the isolated bits and people (and, I guess, atoms), is possible only for an audience observing outside the events of the story.

And yet–it seems to me that proficient storytellers are aware of that distancing quality when they make use of this sort of story construction, and work hard to combat it. They organize the alternations and their contents in a way that itself creates suspense,and invites emotional involvement, encourages understanding of the effects of each character’s actions on others even when the characters themselves are unaware ofr all that.  I sensed little of that in Doctor Atomic, which seems to want to keep all its characters isolated in their own concerns (and in terms of the set, inside their own little boxes) until the climactic explosion at the end.   (And if the bomb is the only image of mingling, then isolation and lack of involvement does somehow end up seeming superior, safer.)  Throughout, nobody actually does anything to anybody, or even says anything to anybody.  There is, in a literal sense, no plot–no series of interactions that develops into anything.  It’s a drama without drama.  So it’s effective, this opera, but its effectiveness has a kind of glacial, unmoving quality–a quality I actually sense in few of the novels with alternating narratives I’ve been exploring.

One sidenote, since I’ve been thinking so much lately about depictions of Native Americans in alternating narratives for young people, I have to record my dismay at the way Doctor Atomic engages the Tewa material it makes use of.   In a plot that works for an opposition between the organic ordering of the unviverse and the interfering meddling of scientists, the introduction of the Tewa  seems to demand an identfication of this Native American group with Mother Earth (and healing and wholeness and sanity)–and the maid who sings the Tewa song repeatedly throughout Act II has the kind of stance and subtance that inevitably imply that Mother-Earthiness.  As Adamo rightly says, “If this is characterization, what on earth is stereotype?”  Yet once more, the aborginal is what science and progress and civilization moves against or in ignorance of–and even if you want to suggest that science might be at fault, it’s still an insulting kind of unconscious identification of an actual people with what is being perceived as negatively or positively uncivilzed, less human, somehow–more “natural.”  All that gets exacerbated by a line of extras in Act II standing stolidly and solidly above the action, dressed up in horns and apparently aborginal costumes in the background of what is happening to real people below–the aboriginal made inhuman and symbolic and outside of but suposedly above things and, I have to add, very silly.  All this suggests a surprising insensitivity to issues of race and cultural appropriation in opera that goes back at least as far as Aida and Madame Butterfly and Turandot, and still seems, here, at least, surprisingly unchanged now–the exoticism of the othered still being made use of in the saqme old cheesily operatic way.  And much as it is used in so many novels for young people also.

  1. […] in order to unveil the surprising connections between them later on.  (After having thought about Dr. Atomic, I might call this isolating aspect of alternating narratives, leading to often explosively […]

  2. […] Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road John Adams and Peter Sellars’s opera Dr. Atomic […]

  3. […] —Alternative Narratives in Fiction, on “Doctor Atomic” – the author uses the phrase “Rukeyserian thoughts,” excellent read. This has me thinking about how often Rukeyser uses alternative narratives, or multiple narratives within one poem. It seems that she is fascinated with the many selves, the many aspects of one single being – even in the good/evil capacity of one being, as in “Rational Man,” or in reference to the atomic bomb. Robert Johnson, author of “Craft Knowledge: A Disciplinary Rationale” mentions the consequences of atomic power, offering this quote: “As Albert Einstein famously stated in 1946: ‘The release of atomic power has changed everything except our way of thinking . . . the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.’” Is Einstein waxing nostalgic about a simpler time? Less knowledge? This reminds me of Wendell Berry’s agrarian activism – it’s not as simple as less machines, more manual skill; rather, I think that all of these examples pool together to acknowledge the impact of science and the power of man-made things. It’s not a negative happening, but rather evidence of the affectual nature of making things as maybe having two paths (which Johnson also talks about) – telos: the end product, and then it’s life thereafter…but in that life of the thing, ethics start to crumble. And why? Now I’m just writing to think and to question. I’m not sure. […]

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