The final show we took in on our most recent trip to Canada was Christopher Plummer’s one-man show, A Word or Two. I’m not entirely sure what to say about this – even how to describe what it is. It isn’t a play. It isn’t a memoir. It is probably best analogized to a cabaret, a performer doing his favorite “bits” for an audience familiar with his work and eager just to see him go through his changes.
Plummer, on a stage dominated by a spiral staircase composed of books, recites bits of poetry and prose that have meant an especially great deal to him over the years. The show is structured around the notion that these texts ornament his life, and progress as he does. We start with A.A. Milne and Lewis Carroll, progress through Auden and Wilde, Shakespeare and Shaw (a surprising amount of Shaw), hang around with literary lions Plummer himself knew, principally Dylan Thomas and Archibald MacLeish, and end with Plummer meditating, through a range of authors we’ve already encountered, on his own inevitable (and, at nearly 83, unavoidably sensible) demise. Plummer’s protean performances are, at their worst, engaging, and at their best they are powerful indeed – highlights for me were the Song of Songs (Plummer’s teenage encounter with the Bible’s dirty bits), Othello’s death speech, a speech by Shaw’s Satan to Don Juan from Man and Superman, and Auden’s Herod complaining about the birth of Jesus in For The Time Being.
That last, one of my favorite bits from the show, is probably a good entry point for the questions that nagged at me, through it and afterward. Plummer does Auden in dark glasses and a queen-y Southern accent, all of which goes marvelously with lines like these:
Why should he dislike me so? I’ve worked like a slave. Ask anyone you like. I’ve read all the official documents without skipping. I’ve taken elocution lessons. I’ve hardly ever taken bribes. How dare He allow me to decide? I’ve tried to be good. I brush my teeth every night. I haven’t had sex for a month. I object. I’m a liberal. I want everyone to be happy.
But he ends his recitation not be explaining what the poem meant to him, but by saying, “why am I doing this in a Southern accent?” – as if this choice were mere whimsy. It’s a charming move, and warms the audience to him (as if it needed to be warmer); we think, “how modest and casual he’s being with us – he’s just having fun!” But it also pulls us away from the very text Plummer claims to want us to to be deeply engaged with – and, more so, pulls us away from him, and his investment in that text.
And this is what nagged at me all through the production. Plummer talks of love, and of lust, but we never learn his feelings, in any specificity, towards any particular person, or even in any particular experience. The evening isn’t structured as autobiography – he wants the texts to speak for themselves – but they need to hang on something. A snippet of The Song of Songs is just a snippet. If it’s not hanging in the work itself, and it’s not hanging on a life, Plummer’s life, that we can discern the contours of, then it just hangs in the air, like the circular window that overlooks the book staircase in this production.
I assume the reluctance to create a full-fledged “Christopher Plummer” character for this production was driven by a desire to avoid making this a memoir show, to make it a show about the words, and not the speaker. But I, personally, couldn’t avoid noticing it was Christopher Plummer up there, apparently talking to me, and that this Christopher Plummer seemed to be avoiding telling me anything important and specific about himself. Childhood boredom in church, the carbonated hormones of adolescence, and the terror of age and death – these are universals, but we approach them through specific instances that resonate with us, and Plummer denied us those instances.
So perhaps it’s appropriate that the angel of this show, the text that hovers over it from beginning to end, is Lewis Carroll’s parody of Wordsworth, sung by the White Knight to Alice, the poem the name of which is called “Haddock’s Eyes,” but the name of which is “The Aged, Aged Man,” and which itself is called “Ways and Means,” but which really is, “A-Sitting On a Gate.”
At the start of the show, we get the opening of the poem:
I’ll tell thee everything I can;
There’s little to relate.
I saw an aged aged man,
A-sitting on a gate.
‘Who are you, aged man?’ I said.
‘And how is it you live?’
And his answer trickled through my head
Like water through a sieve.
And at the end, we return to –
that old man I used to know-
Whose look was mild, whose speech was slow,
Whose hair was whiter than the snow,
Whose face was very like a crow,
With eyes like cinders, all aglow,
Who seemed distracted with his woe,
Who rocked his body to and fro,
And muttered mumblingly and low,
As if his mouth were full of dough,
Who snorted like a buffalo-
That summer evening long ago
A-sitting on a gate.
In between, in the poem itself, the young man, who is desperate to learn from the aged man how he lives, is continually distracted from the lesson the old man teaches by absurd fancies of his own invention – how to dye one’s whiskers green, how to live on batter, and so forth – and therefore fails to the aged man’s equally absurd secrets to life. In the original Wordsworth poem that Carroll is parodying, the young poet, encountering a leech collector, is distracted not by his own schemes but by the man himself, the figure he presents of age and toil, and how this reminds him of his own fears of age and death:
The old Man still stood talking by my side;
But now his voice to me was like a stream
Scarce heard; nor word from word could I divide;
And the whole body of the Man did seem
Like one whom I had met with in a dream;
Or like a man from some far region sent,
To give me human strength, by apt admonishment.
My former thoughts returned: the fear that kills;
And hope that is unwilling to be fed;
Cold, pain, and labour, and all fleshly ills;
And mighty Poets in their misery dead.
–Perplexed, and longing to be comforted,
My question eagerly did I renew,
“How is it that you live, and what is it you do?”
Plummer starts off his life feeling like the young man of Carroll, avoiding the aged man’s absurd lessons by pursuing his own absurdities, and in his age feels he has become the aged man, muttering as if his mouth were full of dough and snorting like a buffalo, but failing to communicate his secrets to the rising generation of theatre-goers, distracted as they are by Twitter and whatnot. But I, in the audience, felt a bit like Wordsworth’s young poet, wanting to hear from Plummer how he lived, and found myself distracted, as he demonstrated precisely how to me – going through his theatrical changes before my eyes – by his person, a person I could not get an adequate fix on. And so his words, which are all he wanted me to focus on, too often trickled through my own head, like water through a sieve.
But for all that, they are glorious words.