What is the essence of The Lathe of Heaven? This is my third stage adaptation of a science fiction novel, and I have adapted and translated numerous other works (I connect the two, in my own work, for all of my translations have been adaptations of sorts as well). My first question is always what is the essence, and my second is, how do I convey that essence theatrically?
I tend to think that the essence lies in the ideas that behind the content—not surprising, as I run a Theater of Ideas. Obviously, Taoism is a major influence on Lathe, the title is based on a (somewhat mistranslated) Chuang Tzu quote, and in the novel Le Guin punctuated the chapters with other quotes from Taoist sources. Buy beyond mere quotation, the ideas of balance, of nature, of inaction versus action, of the value of uncertainty—these are all Taoist ideas.
So I knew I wanted to drop those ideas in, with a minimum of exposition and a maximum of emotional content. Music seemed the obvious medium. The poetic, elliptical nature of Lao Tzu’s writing seemed very much to lend itself to the style of art music that our composer, Henry Akona, often enjoys writing. So I used Le Guin’s translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching as a major inspiration for the lyrics. And stillness while in motion—what better way to convey that than a static set, put in motion by video images?
Music and video also answered a practical matter, the complex question of how to portray a dream onstage. I wanted a set that was a canvas, on which dreams could be painted by video, and music that evoked dream logic and implied a connection to something beyond itself.
I was particularly drawn by the idea of uncertainty, especially in a work like Lathe that references one of my favorite topics, neurology. I have been reading a lot about our irrational, neurological imperative towards certainty (I particularly recommend Robert Burton’s On Being Certain). As Haber says in the play, “The brain craves certainty,” and indeed we are drawn to those who seem to possess it. How long would a political candidates last if, when asked for a cure for the economy, they simply shrugged their shoulders and said: “I don’t know. I don’t fully understand money, and I certainly don’t know for sure what to do about a recession. I don’t think anyone does, and only fools pretend to.”
And yet, what true, justifiable certainty do we possess on any topic? Is the answer then to struggle for understanding, or simply to realize that some of the most important questions we have don’t have any knowable answers?
The belief in our own ability to understand and solve these unsolvable questions has led humanity down many paths, one of the more extreme being failed utopianism. It is those with the greatest convictions who often can do the most harm.
That, at least, was my initial connection into this work, and when I found that, all else flowed. The word “flowed “of course evokes water, one of the symbols used often in Lathe and in Taoism. And indeed, when I am connected to a work, it can sometimes feel like a I rafting through a river of words, not exacting guiding the raft but learning how the river moves and how best to look elegant while keeping my balance.
I hope I will manage to look elegant. Though I would be thankful if, at least, I can keep my balance.