on the intense yearning of the indefinable – a response to SEHNSUCHT

Photo by Sam Horvath

If you’ve spent any large amount of time dicking around on Buzzfeed (which, come on, we all have, right?), you will have stumbled upon a few listicles that name a variety of non-English words which give English speakers pure ~feelings~ envy. E.g., “If only I had a single word to describe the feeling of having to go to the bathroom and being starving at the same time!” You get the idea.

One of these such words on an only-German-words list (https://www.buzzfeed.com/lukelewis/german-words?utm_term=.opMGmOdM1#.pvoLWZX72) is sehnsucht: “an intense yearning for something far-off and indefinable.” Or, as the creators of a new play by the same name define it: “inconsolable longing in the human heart for we know not what.” The piece was co-created by a team of four—Sarah Blush, Michael Norton, Brian Bock, and Georgia Lee King—the first of which is the director, the second of which is the main writer.

Description of what the play is is noticeably absent from the internet: the ticket purchasing page merely lists the above definition, the program gives no such hints (they don’t pass it out until the end of the show anyway), even the email I received from Blush to set up this response gave very little clues: “It’s sort of an absurdist play about nostalgia.” Shrouding the play in mystery is perhaps part of the point—if you’re trying to talk about the indefinable, you can’t very well give an adequate summary?

By a bit of coincidence, yours truly was already familiar with the word. I learned it years ago in a college seminar on Ibsen, who was nothing if not a hopeless idealist who poured his own longing into those of his many tragic figures. His characters constantly long for something not only unattainable but nonexistent, figments of their own imagination or remnants of memory they’ve distorted all out of proportion. Since that class, I’ve been a little in love with this idea, so suffice it to say I was very excited to see a ninety-minute exploration of some other artists’ take on the idea…

And they did not disappoint. The play is broken into three parts in three radically different times and settings: “Neolithic Times,” “Basel, Switzerland, 1688-ish,” and “A Timeshare Resort, Early 2000s.” Part One features three cavemen—Charlie, Banesh, and Billith (played by Rebecca S’manga Frank, Georgia Lee King, and Brian Bock)—with beautifully grotesque crocheted breasts, vaginas, and a penis to represent their near-nakedness. (The second act similarly featured long blond braids made of yellow yarn, suggesting small gestures toward Brechtian alienation on the part of costume designer Christopher Metzger). The three characters play a long game of “Remember when we…?”, ranging all sorts of activities from killing other cavemen to making paper—“I cut that tree so thin!” Billeth brags. A sound effect that feels vaguely Orientalist triggers the three cavemen to move in and out of various tableaux you might see in a museum of natural history, breaking up the dialogue to sometime comedic effect. At the end of the segment, Banesh says, “What are we doing?” a number of times. Instead of reminiscing for that length of time, she explains, the three of them could have done half the things they were just pining over. As long as we have been humans, this segment seems to suggest, we have had longing for the before, the otherwise, the not-here-and-now.

Through a seamless transition we are moved from the jungle sounds of prehistoric man to a primary school in Switzerland. Six young children are variously unruly and odd, portrayed with tremendous skill, synergy, and hilarity by Keilly McQuail, Brian Bock, Willy Appelman, Keren Lugo, Jessica Frey, and Marcela Biven. In a way that feels remarkably authentic and just ridiculous enough to crank up the humor, they converse in that characteristic childlike way that is half-communicative, half-“I’m going to use the thing you just said as a launch pad for the unrelated thing I want to say.” One brags she can still taste that morning’s breakfast, they all play a game of “toss the radish”; these are just a couple examples of many such delights.

Once the schoolteacher (Rosa Gilmore) enters, we soon discover the scene’s conflict: she feels a strong need to discourage students from all memories and reminiscing. As she begins to teach that day’s lesson, she must incessantly redirect the children’s relentless desire to connect everything they learn to “My mom used to…” this, “At my home we…” that. When the children beg to open the window because it’s stuffy inside, the teacher adamantly insists, “There is nothing out the window.”

In the back row, young lovebirds Luca and Lara (played by Bock and Lugo) hold up the strongest resistance against the teacher’s prohibitions, until finally they vomit all over the floor in distress. This opens some flood gate, and another student, Jost (played by Appelman), announces, “I want to go home,” The room comes to a screeching halt: something irrevocable has been acknowledged. There is no stopping the downward spiral now: Zoe (McQuaill) begins hallucinating about blue flowers growing on the bench, Marieta (Frey) runs around the room in distress that her arms have stopped working until she collapses onto the floor in despair, Heidi (Biven) has just been continually dancing the entire time and does not stop, someone opens the window and a contagious affect wafts in as they give in to their desire to reminisce. Suddenly they are singing in unison about the cattle and the sky, in sweet and delicate harmony (Original music is by Deepali Gupta, which is as beautiful and subtly rendered as it was in Piehole’s Ski End, which this writer also reviewed). When they sing a second time later on, it is to variations on the theme, “I want a world with no definition,” “no connotation,” and so on.

Various bits of commentary seem to emerge toward the end of this act: the desire for the past is in part a desire to abscond adulthood and the ever-growing list of tasks one acquires while growing up into a person who takes care of herself. “Nostalgia” is appealing because its outlines are blurry, soft, malleable; it is easy to romanticize the past because you can pick and choose the parts of them you want to recall. While these ideas are not necessarily original, the way this portion of the piece meditates on them seems nothing short of profound, an excellent case of depth exploding out of comedy.

After a bit of digging post-show, I found the connection I had wondered about: the setting for this part comes out of the etymology of the word “nostalgia,” coined in the 1680s by Doctor Johannes Hofer (played in this piece by Kim Blanck). The historical doctor observed homesickness that manifested as severe physical ailments, so much so that he labeled it an epidemic. This continued well into the 1800s—you could be discharged during the Civil War if you received such a diagnosis (see http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2016/02/homesickness-was-once-considered-a-medical-diagnosis.html for more). In this light, Part Two becomes a well-rendered imagining of these historical facts. And the way their behavior looks ridiculous to our own eyes thus becomes a way to see how phenomenologically distant (and yet still familiar) one society’s mental landscape can be from another’s. This in turn lets us reflect upon the particular makeup of our own current mental landscape(s), exposing both the contingence and the absurdity that lie underneath the feelings, reactions, and behavior that feel normal and even universal to us.

And after that, it makes perfect sense that we are then led to confront one of our own ridiculous ways of addressing our inconsolable longing for the indefinable: buying a permanent vacation. Part Three brings us to a timeshare resort, as mentioned. We as the audience are transformed into a group of potential timeshare owners, who have agreed to hear the presentation in exchange for a full free night at the resort. Various speakers sell the concept to us, including agents, tour guides—even a presumable PhD “lecturer in leisure history” (featuring a brilliant portrayal of a washed-up academic by McQuail). By speaking directly to us, the piece smoothly opened the door for self-reflection: we are all susceptible to indulging in the sticky, decadent longing for unmitigated, simple pleasure. And such indulgence can lead to a variety of odd actions, like, for example, buying the promise of a place where you can always satisfy that longing (even if only for a week or two every other year).

As this writer just so happened to fly back from one such tropical resort this past Monday, I felt newly capable of appreciating the absurdity of the timeshare concept. The idea that you can own a “bit of paradise” clearly means to capitalize upon a longing we all feel for making fleeting, concocted bliss permanent and real: you get the guarantee that even your great grandkids could be able to enjoy this purchase you make today, minus any of the usual accompanying burdens of ownership. No fixing bad plumbing, or refinancing your mortgage, or preventing your home from slowly sinking into the muddy plot upon which it was built (as the tour guide, another character played with incredible specificity by Frey, casually mentions, cringe-worthily bringing in her grandfather’s sad life as a cautionary tale against not buying).

After a series of presentations (again excellently performed, by Jay Smith, Frey, Lugo, Appelman, and McQuail), the piece switched gears into more conventional scenes as the fourth wall is put up once more. From here the piece meanders, into a conversation between two saleswomen (Blanck and King) in the break room, into a speech by a project manager (Frank), and finally into an epilogue between the mother of one of the timeshare employees and a friend from her Bible study group.

Overall, this piece felt a bit uneven across the three acts, with Part Two being the most fleshed out and Three following close behind. I was reminded a bit of a Midnight in Paris in reverse, minus the protagonist connecting the acts. I didn’t necessarily need an Owen Wilson analog to guide me towards the epiphany that everyone is in danger of romanticizing the past or the supposedly greener grass on the (mysterious, somewhere-out-there) other side. But I think a little more connective tissue, or maybe simply more clarity in the first and third acts, would have more fully let me partake in what was at times a thoroughly satisfying exploration.

Personal Anecdotal Coda: In case you’re wondering, I had a wonderful time in my own immersion in the illusive beach resort bubble. For a variety of reasons both personal and political I have conflicted feelings about this, but I am also still very sad to be back in real (smelly, humid, New York City) life.

I also have thought many times about getting a tattoo of the word sehnsucht, it so appeals to me. However, I gave up on this idea when I realized the word had also been snatched up by Rammstein, a German industrial metal band, for their second album title.


Sehnsucht ran at JACK in Clinton Hill through Sunday, July 30.

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