Behind the Broken Words is a collage of poetry and prose put together by veteran actors Anthony Zerbe and Roscoe Lee Browne. The set is simple; it looks like a cozy study, with a rug, a couple of chairs and a coffee table. The two men are casually dressed. But there is nothing casual about their artistry, their authority on stage or their passion for the words they speak. They begin with a satiric piece by e.e. cummings, "The Very Latest School of Art." It's about a self-important painter who avoids mundane reality by working only in the dark. The actors keep us, the audience, in darkness as they speak. This sets up the evening on several levels: It's charmingly self-deprecating (yes, we know, art can be pretentious); it suggests the need for the artist to engage with reality, which several later offerings emphasize; it implies that, in a sense, all art consists of groping in the dark; and it also grabs our attention and heightens our senses, alerting us to the fact that, for this evening at least, language is everything -- and language comprises darkness as much as light, silence along with sound. "Eternity crowds in," Robert Hillyer once wrote, "between the chinks of time/Like silence through a broken din/Or music in a rhyme."
Then come the Beat rhythms of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "Junkman's Obbligato," followed by Seamus Heaney's musings on necessary work ("Digging"), which segues seamlessly into Dylan Thomas's "In My Craft or Sullen Art," a reflection on his writing -- which is done, he says, for "the lovers, their arms/Round the griefs of the ages/Who pay no praise or wages/Nor heed my craft or art."
There are poems about sex and seduction, about rage, violence and war. There's wit, feeling and erudition in the selections, as well as a bracing combination of the familiar and unfamiliar. So there's a piece from Derek Walcott's "Dream on Monkey Mountain," in which a poor, aged black man observes his own reflection in a rain barrel and comments that when he's gone, the barrel will show only sky and clouds. I'd never heard it before. It made me think about how inconsequential each of us is but at the same time -- at least in the pure and strong simplicity of Browne's rendition -- how absolutely and irreducibly ourselves. After W.H. Auden's famed reflection on the place of suffering in the universe, "Musée des Beaux Arts," we're given Richard Wright's harrowing passage about a lynching.
You don't get a playlist of the poems you'll be hearing, so each one comes as a surprise. It's wonderful being introduced to unfamiliar work, but you also find new passages in poems you think you know well. Most of us remember T.S. Eliot's "patient etherised upon a table" and "the mermaids singing, each to each," not to mention the "ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas." But how sensual and insinuating the yellow fog becomes in Browne's mouth, as it "licked its tongue into the corners of the evening."
Browne and Zerbe take on characters, too. Each is a consummate actor, and their ease and expressiveness working together speak to the many years they've collaborated on this piece, which has by now taken on a rich, deep glow (Broken Words was first performed over thirty years ago). They're arrogant gods thinking up ways of seducing a human woman in the prologue to Jean Giraudoux's Amphytryon 38. Zerbe becomes a Colorado rancher encountering the horrors of combat in Vietnam in Joe Henry's "Lime Creek." And both are simple shepherds in Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Aria da Capo," in which a pair of friends playfully erect a wall, only to find that their game has turned deadly.
I did wonder a little at the choice of "Aria da Capo"; its deliberate simplicity feels a bit old-fashioned and didactic now. There are a couple of problems, too, with W.H. Auden's "September 1, 1939," not because it's irrelevant, but because so many Americans distorted its relevance after the attack on the World Trade Center. There's a world of difference between the two Septembers. I discussed the poem with a group of students soon after the attack, and they seemed to think it was about how pitiable yet brave we are as a nation. And certainly, none of the official commentators wanted any truck with this insight of Auden's: "I and the public know/What all schoolchildren learn/Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return."
If Behind the Broken Words feels new, despite having been around for three decades, it's a testament to the regenerative power of language and the generosity of Zerbe and Browne, who allow themselves to become vessels through which other voices speak -- paradoxically, this is what allows them to possess the poems so fully -- and, as the near-despairing Auden hoped to do, to "show an affirming flame."