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“I would prefer not to.” It’s a strange expression, polite and final.In 1853, American novelist Herman Melville created the character of Bartleby, a scrivener in a small lawyer’s office on Wall Street. Because he is not expressing refusal, merely a preference, he baffles the logic of everyone around him who are all suddenly maddened by it. After
Kaspar Konzert, about the flight and fall of a wild child, choreographer François Verret is exploring ‘the Bartleby that lurks in all of us’. He asks himself, “What can a frail and precarious human being do when confronted with the unspoken injunction to strive to be more and more competitive?” On stage, he probes the grace of this ‘original’ character and invents for him an art cut adrift, marrying gestures, words, immobility, sound, music and the art of circus. Finding our inner time, opening up space for disinterestedness…
D'après/Naar/Based on: Herman Melville, BartlebyMise en scène/Regie/Direction: François Verret
Avec/Met/With: Jean-Pierre Drouet, Atsama Lafosse, Mahmoud Louertani, Benjamin Monnier, Eszter Salamon, Abdel Senhadji, François Verret
Scénographie/Scenografie/Scenography: Claudine Brahem
Eclairages/Lichtontwerp/Lighting design: Christian Dubet
Assistant/Assistent/Assistant: Gwendal MalardCréation sonore/Klankontwerp/Sound design: Etienne Bultingaire
Assistant/Assistent/Assistant: Eric Le Gallo
Directeur technique/Technisch directeur/Technical director: Alain Nicolas
Assistant/Assistent/Assistant: Sébastien Lamouret
Production/Productie/Production: La Compagnie François Verret (Paris), Théâtre National de Bretagne/TNB (Rennes), Théâtre de la Ville (Paris), Espace des Arts (Chalon-sur-Saône), Polyphon
Avec le soutien de/Met de steun van/Supported by: ADAMI, DRAC Ile de France, Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication (F), Conseil Général de Seine Saint Denis (F), l'Association Française d'Action Artistique et le service de coopération et d'action culturelle de l'ambassade de France à Bruxelles
Présentation/Presentatie/Presentation: Rosas Performance Space, KunstenFESTIVALdesArtsBack to top
Winter 1853, New York. Herman Melville had sent Putnam’s Monthly Magazine his first short story Bartleby. At the age of 34 he was already the author of around ten novels, including Moby Dick. However, recurrent debts forced him to work on land in banks, lawyers’ offices and teaching and at sea taking jobs on whaling boats and frigates crossing the oceans for many months at a time and punctuated only by mutinies and desertions to the islands they passed en route. New York, first a financial centre then a trading one, was well on the way to becoming the biggest port in the young United States and the main entry point for immigrants. In a small lawyer’s office in Wall Street, with an unobstructed view of a tall brick wall blackened with age, a lawyer oversees the work of his two copyists: Turkey (Dindon in the French translation), aged around sixty, pot-bellied and thick-set, zealous in the mornings but reckless and fiery in the afternoons, and Nippers (Lagrinche in the French translation), 25, a whiskered, sallow, piratical-looking young man, irritable and nervous the whole morning and relatively calm in the afternoon. Bolstered by a recent upturn in business, the lawyer employs a third scrivener who turns up without references, “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn.” The character of Bartleby is born.
Much philosophising has been done on the Bartleby enigma, on this irreproachable copyist who dies in prison after successively refusing to do things – not collaborating with his colleagues, not going out for a breath of fresh air, not doing his job any more, no longer leaving the office which had become his home. He is not a demon or a rebel, but the gentle Bartleby obstinately resists his superior’s preferred logic using a polite and formal expression, which is laconic and final nonetheless – I would prefer not to. But ‘prefer not to do what’ and why? It is impossible to say. After his silent death, the rumour goes round that he had once been a junior employee in the Dead Letter Office in Washington, sorting through and then burning love letters, letters of hope, good news… “Does it not sound like dead men?” wrote Melville.
Gilles Deleuze, an expert on the work, sees in Bartleby someone who reveals the anomalies around him – “the emptiness and masquerading of the world, the shortcomings of its laws, the mediocrity of the creatures who occupy it”. He says he is of a ‘primary’ humanity, “struck with a strange beauty and a constituent weakness, a solitary being who can only survive by turning into stone, denying his will, sanctifying himself in this suspended state.” Referring to Melville, he says, “An ‘original’ is not influenced by his milieu, but projects onto those around him a pale, white light of which he is the constant source.” Choreographer François Verret needed nothing more to encourage him to take his turn exploring the ‘original’ character of Bartleby, after having recently completed the aerial exploration of Kaspar Hauser, a wild child murdered in suspicious circumstances in Nuremberg in 1832 having been forced to conform to the language and rules of a prescriptive society. By the light of the moon, Kaspar Konzert celebrated the dream of flight and then the fall, the erosion of liberty. It was a poem awash with grace and melancholy.
Verret has not adapted Melville’s short story for the stage – he has probed it, putting aside the literary pearls that are not easily ‘transposable’ and the development of his composition to concentrate more on his subdued, simple and discreet dramatic character. “There’s a Bartleby lurking in all of us. Sometimes he emerges, sometimes he remains hidden for a long time and sometimes he lies dormant for ever.” He is working on this intuition with his team. However, the character of the lawyer will not be neglected. “He belongs to the ‘secondary humanity’ which has become used to the laws of the world. He is the incarnation of its presuppositions. But in Bartleby, the lawyer also recognises the primary humanity that he has turned his back on. In his soul, the desire for murder and declarations of love alternate. We’ve tried to explore the inevitable complexity of what links Bartleby to the lawyer in the world of work where human relationships are subject to pressure, hierarchy and orders. It is one symptom of many of a society in which the unusual has an infinitely precarious place.”
“Melville was writing at a time when capitalism was just beginning, a time when its laws were to determine what would become of people. He was a visionary. To what common sense values is the idea of work linked? Executing duties pre-ordained by others? Constantly repeating experience? Can pure invention for its own sake ever take place? I find it interesting to temporarily slow down society’s impulse to rush towards a head-on collision with a brick wall when it devotes itself to ‘work’ with the absolute certainty of ‘you have to’ without querying the real content of this ‘work’. Tackling the revelation of Bartleby existing in all of us means suspending this blind impulse for a moment.” So how do you make Bartleby come to life on stage? What do we need to get rid of to create as closely as possible our own selves and our inner time? “In our certainties, at least in some of them,” Verret suggests, “we need to respect the principle of uncertainty… to see how it changes everyone’s view of the world and observe the new understanding and perception that it causes.”
It has been said that I would prefer not to is a sudden emergence of a strange language into everyday speech. This expression does not break any rule of syntax or grammar, however, but it does sound unusual within everyday English – asyntactic, agrammatical, affected and formal. “The stage is an ideal space for a ‘strange language’ to be heard,” continues Verret, “because our everyday language is losing its meaning all the time. People can sense this suffocation. They have an unconscious need for air, opening up spaces for reverie, reflection, disinterestedness, wandering and roaming freely. On stage we are trying to remove the creation of our language from the laws of hierarchy between people (choreographer/dancers/composer/stage designer), to remove it from the linear logic of a narrative, to this causality that directs our entire life. We need the requisite silence and calm to reveal what the artists have experienced. It’s great to see that they can contain so many mysterious and profound possibilities taking the form of a gesture, words, immobility, a sound, music, an expression linked to the art of the circus, so ready to question equilibrium and gravity. Through the theatrical writing in Bartleby, we are trying to reinvent an art cut adrift.
“Around the character of ‘Bartleby’ we have also explored the notion of support and questioned what confidence is – when one person supports another, just how far do the extraordinary movements and positions go that can be brought into play here? We considered an issue that haunts the business world – ‘the demand for increased performance’. What can a frail and precarious human being do when confronted with the unspoken injunction to strive for more and more? We don’t show any of this in the production. I hate trying to make overt statements about things. Instead we have tried to bring about another connection to time, space, air, presence, to presences between themselves, to silence, immobility, statements, sound, light. We have tried together to invent a writing that produce emotions, a writing that perhaps touches the soul, that mysterious place between the heart and the mind.”Back to top