An Evening of Immersive Theater with the Dead and Dying

My experience of The Dead, 1904, Paul Muldoon and Jean Hanff Korelitz’s immersive theater adaptation of James Joyce’s short story, was unremarkable until an audience member fainted. I had been invited to the show as a last-minute fill-in—tickets run an outrageous $300—and I accepted because it was a snowy evening in New York, reminiscent of that long-ago Dublin night. I was one of 55 attendees gathered in The American Irish Historical Society, a lovely townhouse on Fifth Avenue, as “guests” of the Misses Morkan’s annual dance.

The audience milled about during the first act, drinking bourbon and port while lightly interacting with the actors, who were moving through their pre-scripted motions like characters in a videogame. I first experienced concern when Lily, the housekeeper, said that she was “run off my feet,” a verbalization of the first line of the story. It seemed like we were going to suffer a long evening of expository dialogue. I worried that the play wouldn’t be able to render the crucial moment when the protagonist, Gabriel Conroy, experiences lust for his wife, Gretta, during their post-party walk. However (this might have been the bourbon and the port), I began enjoying myself. The musicians were talented, the dancing was lively, and the surreality was unobtrusive. There was that usual jolt of something beloved shifting solid. Conroy, who I’ve always pictured as young, was a middle-aged man with a mustache. How upsetting that the next time I read the story, I’ll see the depressive actor, Rufus Collins, instead of my forever vanished image of the lead.

Eventually, we proceeded into the dining room and ate a meal in the round. I noted a slight Medieval Times vibe. There were two kinds of meat (no ham!), a thick gravy, a popover, more wine. D’Arcy, the reluctant tenor, spoke with the fatuous Mr. Browne. A bearded Irish man to my right kept offering me figs that I didn’t want and inquiring after my national origins. It was sweltering. I started to get too into the play. I laughed at all of Mr. Browne’s off-color jokes, then thrilled at Conroy’s toast to his aunts and niece. As the dinner wound down, there was a lull, and my dining companion surreptitiously pulled out his phone. D’Arcy scolded him merrily: “What is that device?”

The speech we had just heard anticipates this sort of incident. “A new generation is growing up in our midst,” says Conroy. “…sometimes I fear that this new generation, educated or hypereducated as it is, will lack those qualities of humanity…which belonged to an older day.” In bemoaning those who are soon to leave us, Conroy concludes that “we shall still speak of them with pride and affection, still cherish in our hearts the memory of those dead and gone great ones whose fame the world will not willingly let die.”

Then, an elderly woman collapsed. The actors immediately entered semi-reality. “Does anyone have one of those devices with which we could call 911?” yelled Conroy in a bizarre compromise. “This gentleman does,” replied D’Arcy, pointing to my now mortified friend. Two of the supporting actors and several guests had crowded around the woman, but despite the gravity of the situation, there was an unwillingness among the audience to release the illusion that the actors were still propagating. My peers seemed almost childlike, as if they were holding onto a dream from which they didn’t want to wake. Experiential theater is fragile. The creation of the physical environment allows for shallow role play, yes, but in that capacity to make decisions, we remain thoroughly ourselves.

“Call the doctor,” someone yelled needlessly.

“Call the priest,” shouted the man who offered figs.

As we waited, I spoke with D’Arcy. The grumpy character faded away. He showed off the stitching of his vest, then dropped his convincing brogue and began cycling through several European accents from recent roles. At last, I’d found the ham. One of the aunts, staunchly in character, offered us more wine in something of a rebuke to my ebullient tenor. A tall paramedic with a ponytail looked around, a bit confused.

Another actor approached. I now understood that this was going to be an essay and had my notebook out. He told me that he didn’t much care for the play. I kept saying “on the record!” and he just continued to reveal things—apparently multiple people have fainted in the showings. The food, the drink, the average age, and the heat is a wicked combination. Eventually, the woman revived and the action resumed with D’Arcy singing “The Lass of Aughrim.”

It was time for Gabriel’s much-beloved snowy walk, when “moments of their secret life together burst like stars upon his memory.” Instead, the Conroys simply went upstairs to a bedroom. Across the street, a worker at the Met was sweeping the American Wing. The audience (including the miraculously recovered woman who had fainted!) watched the thwarting of Gabriel’s desire when Gretta experiences a ghostly memory, conjured by D’Arcy’s song.

The Dead is about this sort of fragile in-betweenness, how the dead are both the ghosts from our past that we can’t let go of and those who are soon to die. “Poor aunt Julia!” thinks Conroy, “She too would soon be a shade.” My experience that night was of the characters in the play briefly dropping their artifice, then experiencing a renewal, losing one sort of life to gain another, before returning to the legendary characters who the world would not willingly let die. When the actors had resumed acting, it was as if their actual “identity was fading out into a gray impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time rendered and lived in was dissolving and dwindling.” This temporary confusion was so Joycean that it represented “The Dead” better than The Dead, 1904 had.

The story ends with a marvelous line: “his soul swooned softly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” Muldoon chose to turn this sequence into a long monologue, and though there was still electricity in the room, the concept didn’t work. Our thoughts can be paused—when we experience one that really hits, it echoes. That allows literature to accomplish the illusion of epiphany. We so badly want to pause over the line: “He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love.” We need that extra beat to understand that Conroy never loved his wife. But instead, it passed in a relentless squall of words.

One hundred ten years ago, Joyce wrote: “A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight.” And at the end of my night with his characters, the producers made another odd decision. They were projecting fake, electric snow onto a window, behind which real snow was still falling thick.

My Not-So-Secret History

Like so many this fall, I read The Goldfinch at one of those sleepless-night clips: the light sighing back on, the pillow rotated 90 degrees, that despairing look at the clock. But it wasn’t just in admiration of, as Janice Clark puts it, the “unfakeable depth and luster of long gestation,” nor was I aping Stephen King and reading “with a mixture of terror and excitement.” No — I was up late because Donna Tartt, a Mississippi-reared 49 year old woman, has apparently been following me around with her notebook in hand for the last 14 years. Her lead character, Theo Decker, is pretty much me.

Now, in matters of age, locale, race, and sex, there is little wonder to that. Theo and I are both 27 year old white guys from New York, and there are a lot of us — too many, probably. The first real attention-grabbing coincidence came when 13 year-old Theo’s building on 57th street off Sutton turned out to be the same as my own. I greedily accumulated evidence: it has to be on the odd-numbered side since at one point Theo walks south down Sutton and turns onto 57th before crossing; it’s not the building on the corner, but the doormen walk away from oncoming traffic to hail cabs, something you would only do when particularly close to their careening turns. Put this together and it’s most likely the second canopy down: 447.

Now, this was all nice and Prousty, but there’s nothing essay-worthy here. It’s a pretty, doublewide block and the other Sutton place streets have narrative complications (bridge traffic; lack of light). Fine. I tweeted: “Protagonist of #thegoldfinch is my exact age and grew up on the same block as me. What a likable guy!” and got a favorite from a stranger who didn’t subsequently follow me.

But then things started to get weird. 27-year-old Theo is a 18th and 19th century British antique dealer; I’m a 18th and 19th century French antique dealer. He spends 90 percent of his time working front of house and 10 percent in the restoration shop downstairs — same as me. We both sort through veneers, use ammonia on bronzes, join chairs with wacky old clamps, and match wood-grains. In fact, when I took an unauthorized Goldfinch break from practicing shellac application on ancient wood strips, Theo was sorting through the exact same set.

And it’s strange: the aspects of my job that have always seemed mundane are rendered delightful in Tartt’s capable hands. It’s all there, from the way we mark our catalogues with pencil (have I been picturesque all this time?) to the way we identify symmetrically dinged-up gilding as problematic (does everyone know to look for uneven wear?). Although, I have to say that Tartt’s trick of not vacuuming objects to make collectors think they’re finding overlooked gems doesn’t really work. Clients just glaze right on by.

The indulgence with which the author treats my profession might be the product of research vs. actuality. (How I flinched in the King review when he wrote, “There’s a lot more about furniture restoration than I needed.” Story of my life, S.K.) When you’re studying something there is such joy in discovery. Every flourish feels necessary. Tartt’s realization that cabinet doors shift over time must have been a eureka moment instead of part of an unbroken chain of osmosis. As I was reading the book, I’d walk around the store and see my work as literary instead of mere lunchbreak impediments.

There are even nods at French furniture. Hobie the loveable old well-read British furniture restorer (as opposed to Mark, the loveable old well-read Russian furniture restorer in our shop) may claim early on that it’s not his “bailiwick,” but toward the end Theo points out “inlaid French cabinets and tables in the French court style with garlanded carvings and veneer work that would have made Hobie gasp in admiration.”

Now, we don’t do the alchemy in the book, that piecing together of broken-down old classics to create borderline unimpeachable Frankenstein monsters of furniture. But I know who did. The source material is beyond a doubt the Dickensian-named “Buggins scandal” — an anecdote I will no longer be able to tell during pauses at dinner parties. As a reader, my tension leaked away the second I saw Hobie (a name, that I would argue is related to Hobbs, the dealer behind l’affaire Buggins) melding two pieces. The whole crucial subplot got shorted out by inevitability — it was like reading The Art of Fielding after having endured the Chuck Knoblauch era. (I never believe Yankees fans who say they loved that book. It’s too soon to get any sort of pleasure out of the yips; it’s like being shocked by 3rd act Kryptonite.)

The minor accumulation of my own personal facts just didn’t stop — Popchik, the charming Maltese in the book? Meet ZoZo, the charming Maltese I had from (drumroll) ages 13-27. The pleasantly horrific Subway Inn, where Theo’s dad sneaks a drink? My own exact high school sneakaway. Not all the incidental details are perfect. I went to school on the Upper East Side, not the Upper West; Theo grew up in 7C, but I was parked in 8B.

Tartt somehow even hacked into my private empathetic experiences. Not to make too big a thing of it, but there was an uncanny feel in reading about a teenager taking a scary midday walk from the Upper East Side to a 57th and Sutton apartment on the day of a terrorist attack. I saw again the way the cops that remained uptown looked; I remembered that the demographics of people walking in each direction were so much more mixed then normal. This was subliminal stuff — I hadn’t thought about it in such specificity since the day of.

(Although, then, the book takes care to note that this attack is not a substitute for 9/11. In fact, it’s not quite clear when the book actually takes place — Theo shoplifts XBOX games at one point, and there is an iPod, and those were the hottest devices of 2002 (I know this because I remember being around Theo’s age and desperately wanting an XBOX and an iPod), but then, somewhat shockingly, Jet Li’s Unleashed (2005) is mentioned. This means the “contemporary” action of the book happens in 2019. Future Fiction! Future Fiction with our exact smart phone technology and without drone package delivery or the singularity! Was this a move to get it further away from 9/11? Or is it just when the movie will come out? (This will be a killer movie if they gussie up the Amsterdam stuff a bit.)

Is The Goldfinch good? I don’t know. A friend hated it and I was totally unable to mount a defense. It was like someone attacking my own biography. How could she have thought Theo was an unsympathetic, cynically drawn lead? Is this why people sometimes ignore my Facebook messages? I’ve started wondering how many other people have had this happen to them. Was there a brave civil rights lawyer who just shook his head when Atticus gets all that food? A woman in a tool-filled kimono who started crying the second Seymour pulled out the gun? Willowy chivalry fetishists cursing in 17th Century Spanish?

Or did these people also feel the other side of things — the strange validation of this massive coincidence? Never before have I have been confident enough to talk at parties about how shellac is made (pro-tip: you really want to DIY with the flakes, that store-bought stuff loses its pop). Maybe clients won’t find it disingenuous if I talk about how a piece perfectly fits their aesthetic. Perhaps, King be damned, I can throw a description of this really killer Italian 18th century console table into my novel. And my childhood street might not be as boring as I’ve always thought.

Oh, and speaking of that inevitable movie? I’ll be hitting the gym double time, because I’m pretty sure I’d be the perfect Theo Decker.