29 January 2011: Jacobs, R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe

Matinee. Written and directed by D. W. Jacobs. Performed by Thomas Darrah. American Repertory Theater, Cambridge, MA

Buckminster Fuller is a fascinating subject for a play, so much so that one wonders why it has taken so long for a dramatization to emerge. This is a one-man show on the order perhaps of “Mark Twain Tonight.” That is, at least through the first act, it is not exactly a play: it does not seem to have that essential fictive element that all plays by definition appear to have. It is just Buckminster Fuller booked into the Loeb drama Center to give a lecture on his life and thought, under the general rubric of “The History and Mystery of the Universe.” A nice, generalized, come-on title. And so it seems to be in the long and distinguished tradition of nineteenth century lecturers who show up in your town, drawing a number of people into a well-publicized lecture, deliver a lecture, briefly go off for a trip to the bathroom, come back on, finish the lecture, and move on to the next destination. Indeed the first act ends ostensibly because Fuller needs to use the bathroom, as he ingenuously explains. Granted, there are some of what used to be called audio-visual aids — a chalkboard, an old-fashioned windup record player, and some ingeniously if simply constructed hand properties, quite similar to tinker toys, out of which one can make triangles, squares, and more complex three-dimensional objects. To be sure, Fuller tells us some things about his life, including the fact that he was dismissed from Harvard twice, that he had a daughter, dearly loved, who was handicapped and who died at an early age; that he had at some point early in his life stood at the shore of Lake Michigan and contemplated walking out into the water until he could not return. He explains that such a thing was finally not in character for him: he had work to do, and he was a member of a large humanity that needed help.

And so there are facts and hints given to us in the course of this lecture on the universe that make us understand what moved and motivated Fuller to become the functional and expressive and wonderfully influential genius into which he at length developed. These matters, and in fact his very individualized way of lecturing, by taking us into his confidence in a cheerful, open sort of way, begin to show us how the three-dimensional personality, full of quirks, gimmicks, and highly idiosyncratic ways of dealing with and looking at life, finally becomes a kind of truth in fiction, or perhaps simply a recapitulation in highly condensed form of a truly extraordinary man who led a truly extraordinary life. This finally is where the fiction, the fictive element of which I believe a play must first and last be composed, emerges. It takes us the sixty minutes that elapse before Fuller needs to go to the bathroom to prime us for the very different second act that occurs after the intermission.

Of course, it must be explained here without further delay that Buckminster Fuller is, as we all know, dead, and that he is being impersonated this afternoon by one of the master actors of the American Repertory Theater, Thomas Darrah. By the end of that first act, we are beyond caring whether it is the fictional Fuller or the live Darrah who needs to use the toilet. We have been delightfully and intriguingly drawn into the recapitulation explained above, and we are ready for more, deeper, and even more personal stuff, along with whatever further material relating to the mystery of the universe is going to come our way. When Fuller returns, it is as if the short-lived intermission has coincided with the emergence of a deeper, more personally thoughtful lecturer who is now ready to bare his soul. He has come out into the audience occasionally during the course of the previous act, a move that has felt not at all like an intrusion but more like an insertion of himself into a welcoming and enthusiastic group of people. In the second act he repeats this occasional foray, but now he is not only taking us into his confidence but engaging us, gathering us up into his own deep engagement with the need for peace, for an end to bloodshed and calamity, for a beginning of reasonable behavior on the part of all humankind. As Fuller turned to this new concern, having very little to do with the mysteries of the universe and much to do with earthly suffering and the myopia of the Earth’s inhabitants towards themselves, I began to feel that the play I had come to see had somehow been spontaneously replaced by a political lecture.

I have to be frank and say that I have a very low tolerance for political theater; it has always seemed to me to be preaching to the converted. Let me add that I am often one of the converted; but I consider that the theater is not the church nor the political platform and that it should not be checking up on me to see if my humanitarian or liberal sentiments are still in place. Some of my colleagues whose views I respect see it otherwise: they believe that injustice is so rampant in the world that anything that can be done to rectify or even lessen its ravages is important to do, and important to do it now, regardless of the medium, and regardless of whether it offends one’s aesthetic sensibilities. But it is not my regard for art that is at stake here; it is my regard for human concerns, moral and philosophical. (Not religious.) I leave my political sensibilties at the door when I go to the theatre to see a production of The Bacchae or of Hedda Gabler, despite the possibility that both of these plays can be turned into political harangues of one sort or another; I want to be concerned with the human dilemmas that the action of these works give rise to, and nothing else. And so, as the second act began to materialize, it began to raise certain hackles.

But then a curious thing happened. I somehow went beyond the “raised hackles” moment that I had begun to experience, and simply accepted the larger universe that turned out to be the wider context of Fuller’s remarks. We were in the course of being treated to an extraor­dinary show, a representation of large bodies of matter and water rushing into collision with one another and threatening catastrophe on a very large scale, even as Fuller persisted to link these mega-events with the huge problems threatening the environment and the even greater difficulties that face the challenge of feeding the human race. He mentioned Malthus and his perception that the human race was enlarging itself by geometric measures while the cultivation and growing of food was extending only arithmetically. Malthus turned out to be mistaken. Fuller explains that it is possible to feed all of humanity if only we will follow rational ways of doing so. This concern is, however, not a separate one from the question of the mystery of the universe. All these concerns are ultimately one concern.

And yet we were not left with precisely this point. What we were left with was, instead, this figure, a somewhat short man sitting in a large, very tall chair (reminiscent of the kind of artfully, gracefully angular furniture that Charles Rennie Mackintosh was designing about a century ago), musing and reminiscing and thinking in almost a desultory way about everything that he had been talking about for the last two hours and working on for all the years of his life. The lights closed down slowly, the universe above our heads became dim, and the lights went out. It was an extraordinary and moving way to give us R. Buckminster Fuller in toto, all of him, unalloyed, at peace with himself and simultaneously fully present to us all.

This was, finally, theater at its very best, presented to us by a consummate actor, fully in touch with his body and with his art, in a performance enhanced by all that the theater needed to do in the way of sound, lighting, video, and other special effects. It is no wonder that the theater was crowded to capacity. The news has gotten around that this is an extraordinary offering. With only a week to go before it closes, people are evidently taking full advantage of a marvelous opportunity to revisit one of the most important innovators of the last century, while at the same time watching one of the most accomplished actors of our generation become the means of that reconnection. The opportunity is not to be missed.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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