Countless theories proliferate in response to David Lynch’s films.
A sublime production of Harold Pinter’s Old Times is entering into its last week at the Harold Pinter Theatre. The play – consisting of only three characters, played by Rufus Sewell, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Lia Williams – is difficult to follow. Actually, that is an understatement.
It runs for an hour and a half – without interval – and demands the constant, unremitting attention of the audience. As the narrative veers between the past and present, the relationships between the characters become ever more convolute. The past pushes up through the seam of the present; linear time is abandoned and replaced with chronological muddle. The mysteries of the present are, it would seem, only explicable by the events of the past, and as the characters recall and retell their memories from their youth, the audience trusts that all will become clear, all revealed. That is the usual form a mystery takes. But not so here. The director’s (Ian Rickson) decision to cast the two female leads as both female characters, alternating which role they play according to the night, is surely emphatic of the dynamics of convergence and divergence that characterise the relationships in this play. Critics have heartily recommended that the keen audience member books tickets for two performances to experience this role reversal. It is unlikely, however, that a second viewing will clear up any of the residual ambiguities and unanswered questions hanging over from the first. This play is tenaciously enigmatic.
We have long been captivated by a good mystery. They challenge, they engage, they implore us to solve them. It is flattering to find ourselves in such a privileged position of investigation, to play such an integral role in the development and revelation of the story. As the twentieth century dawned, however, writers felt less obliged to reward the reader with a final solution. Stories remained baffling, description, maddeningly misty.
Joseph Conrad’s novels are unusually obscure for his time. Heart of Darkness – the title of his 1899 novella – has for both its subject and its style the quality of impenetrability. The lucidity and precision preferred by his Victorian contemporaries is fogged by Conrad’s sfumatic, shadowy description. Across the twentieth century, a lot of visual art and literature is notable for its lack of deference to the reader’s desire for clarity and comprehension. With each artistic movement – from Impressionism, through Cubism, to abstraction – form veered ever further away from depicting reality in any fixed or absolute sense. Recognisable, familiar objects were abandoned and replaced, by the likes of Kandinsky and Mondrian, with abstract planes and shapes that depicted nothing other than themselves. ‘Art for art’s sake,’ as some came to think of it. There were similar experiments in literature. Gertrude Stein – a great patron and friend to the Cubists – sought to create an abstract literature that the reader was intended to experience, rather than understand. For most, however, Stein’s non-sense is absurd; it is too far removed from the frame of the familiar to hold any tangible appeal.
A balance can be struck between the clear and the obscure. The likes of Samuel Beckett and David Lynch do this. They certainly baffle, but the precision with which they engineer the enigmatic quality of their work persuades the viewer that, with canny examination, the greater mysteries may be uncovered. Countless theories proliferate in response to Lynch’s films and Beckett’s plays; none, however, can truly claim to be the answer. In fact in Beckett’s case, it seems more likely that the non-sense that abounds in his plays is a comment on the senselessness of existence. Divining an answer, then, would undo the nihilistic sentiment of his drama.
Are we even supposed to try to solve these unsolved mysteries then? Commenting upon the response of critics to Impressionist paintings, Monet described them as ‘poor blind idiots’. They want to see everything clearly, even through the fog!’ Perhaps the pervasive fog, the tenacious mystery, is integral to the aesthetic and the story. Attempting to dispel it with lucid explanation might destroy something of its essence. Like the sphinx, might the work of art perish as soon as its riddles are answered? But this is not to say that one can’t venture an interpretation. Great art inspires great discussion, debate: a forum of subjective responses. When the adventures of Sherlock Holmes were first published, they were serialised. I can imagine that part of the thrill they inspired owed much to the hiatuses between instalments, and the speculation and theorising they must have bred. Perhaps the eternally enigmatic art of the twentieth century is just an extension of this: it is a celebration of the diversity of the individual’s right to respond.