Bartleby and Louisa
Ah, Bartleby. Did a man ever achieve so much by doing so little? The lonely loose cog, who, in Herman Melville's Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street, threatens to throw the entire American machine into disarray by his inertia, has become the literary apotheosis of impassive resistance. Bartleby's catch phrase, "I would prefer not to," is a rallying cry for the lazy everywhere. Even for those who prefer a steady regimen of Cheetos and Fox, Upstart Theatre's delightful double bill of staged short stories, Bartleby and Louisa, is worth getting off the couch for.
At the story's beginning, Bartleby is a low-level scribe in a Wall Street law firm run by Melville's prim, well-meaning, and "eminently safe" narrator. He is part of what Marx called "alienated labor"--an office drone who, like most of us in this enlightened Information Age, produces nothing of substantive value. As envisioned by Upstart director Craig Johnson and evoked by actor Brian Columbus, Bartleby is a sort of human Xerox machine, slack-shouldered and possessed of the kind of stare that comes from looking at the light while running off copies. He has come, we learn, from employment at the postal service's "dead letter" office and has become something of a dead letter himself. As the narrator (played by Johnson) tries to decipher his enigmatic employee, Bartleby sinks deeper into paralysis until he finally makes his fateful declaration: "In this instance, I would prefer not to do my duty."
As fine a story as it is, Bartleby would not seem to lend itself to the stage. Even in tragicomic mode, Melville's prose is infamously allusive and littered with wry detail. (Fun fact: in Melville's original manuscript, Bartleby's jailer, a "grub-man" named Mr. Cutlet, makes reference to pimping out his wife for the prisoners' usage; the offending passage was quickly expunged by a zealous editor.) Nevertheless, Johnson's fine adaptation makes Bartleby's tale visually accessible and avoids reducing it to a series of well-made speeches. The three other scriveners in the narrator's office, for instance, are represented by grotesque cardboard faces taped to the end of popsicle sticks and shaken at odd intervals to suggest action. What seems at first a rather silly conceit is ultimately the most ingenious directorial choice in the piece. Indeed, the puppet extras reflect the narrator's habit of reducing his employees to mere gross caricatures, identified by diminutive nicknames (Turkey, Nippers, and Gingernut), and defined by a single attribute (dipsomania, dyspepsia, and general dysfunction). Bartleby stupefies his fastidious boss precisely because his spectral physical presence cannot be contained within the same reductive understanding of the working class.
There's less stylized direction in Louisa, the short piece preceding Melville's tale, but the story as told does not suffer greatly from its absence. Based on Louisa May Alcott's autobiographical essay "How I Went Out to Service," and delivered with note-perfect irony by Laura Respess, Louisa recounts the author's ill-fated adventure as a domestic servant in the crumbling manse of a minor tyrant called the Reverend Josephus.
Louisa begins with lofty intentions indeed: "My aristocratic ancestors don't feed or clothe me, and my democratic ideas of honesty and honor won't let me be idle or dependent." As she soon learns, however, the inherent nobility of manual labor depends largely on whether one is working or being worked for. Her employer, represented in conversation by a pallid Roman bust propped upon the edge of a desk, reveals himself to be a mean, manipulative gasbag. His "nervous" sister Eliza turns out to be less animate than the furniture. Puah, the much maligned maid of the household, is, in fact, the only resident with a modicum of dignity. As played by Respess, Louisa is a sharp-tongued lass who learns about the nature of work: Talk of liberty and justice aside, American society is divided between those who shine shoes and those whose shoes shine.
Similar as the theme may be, Louisa is as far from Bartleby as Little Women is from Moby-Dick. Nonetheless, Upstart's production melds the two very different visions of labor into a single reading, with Louisa clomping off the stage as Melville's narrator wanders bemusedly on. It is, as billed in the program, a "serio-comico" experience, uncluttered with scenery or histrionics, but illuminating some unpleasant truths about what we now quaintly label "the grind." First among these, that the haywire Protestant ethic from which Bartleby gracefully withdrew 150 years ago has changed little since the Nineteenth Century and is based on the same ridiculous logic: If we work hard enough, we can get somewhere beside the grave.
What might happen if we, like Bartleby, were to raise a stubborn middle finger to soul-numbing drudgery? What would become of this wonderfully efficient machine if we all stopped grinding? Most of us prefer not to imagine.
Bartleby and Louisa runs through June 2 at the Loring Playhouse; (612) 827-3385.