Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, May 2003.
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
– William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V, scene v
I could not keep these lines from Macbeth out of my mind while watching The Fly-Bottle. Don’t misunderstand, I am not implying that there are any “poor players” on the stage at Spring Lawn, or that this tale of dueling 20th century philosophers is “told by an idiot.” Playwright David Egan is obviously a highly intelligent man who is really devoted to the art and science of philosophy.
It is the overall philosophy embodied in these lines that connect for me. It is a very rare person whose life signifies anything. We each take our hour on the stage of life and once we make our exit few will recall the part we played, or even whether we played it well. This is an issue that philosophers throughout the ages have expended a great deal of sound and fury debating, to what end?
There is a lot of sound and fury in Egan’s play, which takes as its central moment a ten-minute meeting between Viennese philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) and Sir Karl Raimund Popper (1902-1994) at the Moral Science Club in Cambridge, England, in 1945. Also in attendance was the celebrated British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970). Popper was the guest lecturer, and Wittgenstein took issue with his talk. In the course of expressing his opinion, Wittgenstein may or may not have brandished a fireplace poker at Popper.
According to Egan, “Those ten minutes at the Moral Science Club have had no discernable impact on the course of western philosophy, and yet they have been made the subject of memoirs, articles, a best-selling book Wittgenstein’s Poker, and now a full-length play.” Sound and fury, signifying nothing.
In her program notes, Director Tina Packer identifies the question of the play as: “What drives a philosopher? Is it a higher truth, demanding to be revealed? Or is it a desire for fame, a reaction to childhood upbringing or social events, a desire to love and be loved – just as we lesser mortals have? Or are they artists of thought?”
Prior to seeing The Fly-Bottle I pondered Packer’s opening question myself. What drives a philosopher? Isn’t life complicated and depressing enough without spending your whole life THINKING about it? I was never drawn to study philosophy and would obviously make a very bad philosopher. But Wittgenstein, Popper, and Russell were great big passionate important philosophers – men for whom thinking about life was as central to existence as breathing. They were indeed artists of thought.
Egan cleverly constructs the play to look at the poker incident from the points of view of all three men, first Popper, then Russell, then Wittgenstein. This structure works because it gives us so much information about each man as a man, and not just as a philosopher.
Egan, Packer, and the three actors – Michael Hammond as Wittgenstein, Dave Demke as Popper, and Dennis Krausnick as Russell – do an excellent job of making these men’s passion and commitment to philosophy real and palpable. You come to understand them as flesh-and-blood human beings and not just walking brains, and you come to understand the strain placed on normal human existence by trying to live life as nothing but an intellect.
That is not to say that the play is perfect. This is its second incarnation and I sense that it is still a work in progress. It is dense with brilliant thought – there were several occasions when I wanted to leap up and shout, “Wait! Can you say that again?” or “Hold on! Could we take half an hour to discuss that thought?” But I didn’t even have time to mull an idea over in my head because I had to stay alert and listen hard for the next intellectual challenge. Even at only an hour and a half, the show made my brain hurt. All that sound and fury, signifying…nothing? Something? Anything? Help!
In this case the comedy in the script truly was a relief. “Oh good. It’s a joke. I get it. I can stop thinking for a second and laugh. Phew!” Also an important catharsis during the play were the moments when Packer allowed her actors to speak quietly. The more sound and fury one is subjected to, the less it signifies. The moments of calm perspective help bring the human elements of the script into sharper focus.
The title refers to an old custom of barkeeps in Vienna. They nailed empty beer bottles upside down under the tables as fly traps. Flies were lured into the bottles by the sweet residue, and then were unable to get back out. They could see the outside world through the clear glass wall of the bottle, and so didn’t understand that they couldn’t escape by flying through it. They were doomed to spend the rest of their lives banging their heads against the invisible barrier trying to get out, unable to comprehend what was holding them back. The analogy is to the human condition, wherein we all form our invisible barriers and then fail to understand why we cannot connect to each other and the world. within the fly-bottle Although the philosophers articulate this theory, they are equally unable to escape their own fly-bottle worlds.
Late in the play Krausnick as Russell speaks a line about the curse of the philosopher is having to always live in doubt. It is this endless agony of doubt that torments Popper, Wittgenstein and Russell, and the audience, as it brings sharply into focus our fates as mere walking shadows, poor players strutting and fretting our hours upon the stages within our fly-bottles, before being heard no more.
The Fly Bottle runs through August 24 at the Spring Lawn Theatre at Shakespeare & Company on Kemble Street in Lenox. The show runs an hour and forty minutes without an intermission. Adults only because of the weighty theme. Call the box office at 413-637-3353 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2003