- I Went to the House but Did not Enter
I went to the house but did not enter: this quizzically plain statement, describing an event that did—yet did not—take place, was from Maurice Blanchot’s “The Madness of the Day,” one of four mid-century literary works set to music by German composer and director Heiner Goebbels in his “scenic concert in three pictures.” These torturously indecisive texts, including Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Kafka’s “Excursion into the Mountains,” and Beckett’s “Worstward Ho,” confront narrative failure, and accordingly I went to the house but did not enter was nearly a nonevent. In lieu of dramatic action, each “picture” assumed the vocal score’s elliptically unsettling character as its performers, the male vocal quartet The Hilliard Ensemble, faded into sound and scenery.
In the first scene, “Prufrock,” the actors literally blended into the background. Dressed in grey trench coats, suits, and fedoras, they entered a room decorated entirely in grey tones. Despite this color scheme’s conceptual sterility, the set accurately represented an immaculately well-kept, oldfashioned living room, organized around a central table before a window with drawn sheer curtains. Although realistic, the exaggerated symmetry and over-determined details rendered the set’s familiar domestic atmosphere unheimlich. For instance, a portentous black flower stood in a white vase and a tailor’s dummy stressed its inhabitants’ mysterious absence. Equally elusive, its present occupants could have been undertakers, anonymous officials, or government agents. In solemn song, they methodically dismantled the remains of whatever drama may have transpired, folding teacups, tablecloths, [End Page 636] and curtains into boxes with plodding precision—only to fastidiously rearrange the stage, following the same order of movements in reverse.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
The reconstructed room contained subtle, significant changes. Most importantly, the porcelain had become black and held white flowers. This inversion suggested that the ritualistic action was confined to lifelessly circular repetitions. However, from within its mute materials, another layer of scarcely perceptible structural correspondences animated this closed narrative space. Rather than uniformly grey, its curtains, wallpapers, and tablecloths were artfully nuanced shades, the patterns and textures of which incessantly attracted and displaced the spectator’s eye. Although impersonal, nothing was unintentional or meaningless in “Prufrock.” Every sound—a handkerchief’s amplified rustle—and gesture—the rhythm of kicking a carpet into a roll—were choreographed to create a continuous background of insignificant events. This choreographed continuity compensated for the absence of dramatic structure and wove its performers’ inexplicable actions into an elusively harmonious pattern.
Such off-kilter collective harmony ordered the rhythms of daily life in the following scene, “The Madness of the Day.” Despite this anxious title, it began as a lovely morning in a day in the life of four apartment dwellers. Recorded birds pleasantly chirped, presumably from a large tree, the shadow of which flanked the facade of a two-story suburban house that dominated the front of the stage. A man in his bathrobe, blearily waking, appeared at a window before his kitchen sink, soon to reemerge with coffee and bird-watcher’s binoculars. Goebbels deftly distributed Blanchot’s first-person narration across the ensuing events to resemble spoken dialogue, producing a charmingly convincing semblance of quotidian continuity. From window to window, the characters held heated phone calls and intimate dinner conversation punctuated by ordinary interruptions—cars passing, an irascible neighbor banging the wall with a broom, the groan of an old, overloaded washing machine—and innocuous eccentricities, such as a retired hobbyist in the first-floor garage accidentally igniting a startling explosion.
In contrast to “Prufrock,” these quotidian occurrences’ playful diversity likened the house’s inhabitants [End Page 637] to an idiosyncratic though interconnected family. Hence carefree companionship subsequently characterized “Excursion into the Mountains.” In this interlude, four friends, gathered in...