Emily Gould; Bill Camp and Merritt Janson in Notes from Underground, photo by Joan Marcus.
Before I got to actually see Bill Camp and Robert Woodruff’s stage adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground (the translation is by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhinsky), I’d read the script and about eight million reviews of the production; I knew what I was getting into. Although I knew that Bill Camp, who also stars as the Underground Man, had gotten extraordinary notices and that Robert Woodruff’s staging was powerful, I was still prepared to spend an hour or so in the company of a ranting hermit, whom I thought I’d be able to dismiss as, essentially, a lunatic. I was prepared to witness an onstage rape scene so vivid that it had caused some audience members to walk out of the theatre—okay, no big deal. I came into the Baryshnikov Arts Center where Notes is being presented by Theatre for a New Audience with plenty of preconceived ideas about how I’d be affected by the play in general and about Merritt Janson’s universally lauded performance as Liza, a prostitute who grants the Underground Man his closest brush with genuine engagement with another human. I left unexpectedly shaken; ultimately, I felt that nothing could have prepared me for what I saw and how I felt, especially about Liza’s character.
Merritt has spoken eloquently about how she had to construct her character from very little. Especially compared to the voluble Underground Man, Liza speaks little, and when she does, her dialogue is stilted, terse, and elliptical. Merritt had to discern and construct for herself and the audience an idea of what Liza’s pauses mean in order to create a character that is more than a passive victim or a straightforward caricature of a gold-hearted hooker. Most importantly, Liza had to be something more than just another projection of the Underground Man’s conception of the world, as everyone else he mentions or describes ultimately seems to be. The moments where she interrupts and contradicts the fantasy version of her history the Man is constructing are some of the play’s most powerful: “Some would rather sell their daughter than give her away,” she tells him when he suggests that she ought to leave the brothel she works in and return to her parents, whose cozy home he has imagined as idyllic, but which Liza’s brisk dismissals paint as anything but. Liza’s presence grounds us in the real; without her, we might be able to dismiss all the stories the Underground Man tells as merely the ramblings of a lunatic.
The Underground Man is very concerned with behaving rationally, and for him, it is rational to be cruel. He tells us this, and not only this: he wants his audience to believe, as he does, that all of humanity is, at heart, concerned only with its own base needs. In order to be consistent with this belief, he deflects Liza’s love in the most violent way possible. Leaving the theater and walking several mostly-deserted blocks to the subway, I thought about the fundamental assumptions we make about ourselves and the rest of humanity in order to cope with day to day life. The unexamined assumption that the vast majority of people will behave ethically is what enables us to avoid being stricken with such crippling paranoia at every moment that we’re unable to engage with the world. The Underground Man is extreme, but his perceptions aren’t so farfetched that it’s impossible to relate to him; not remotely.
Part of what makes traumatic events—or performances that get at their emotional truth in a real, non-exploitative way—so affecting is that they lift the veil on the darkness in all of us. After the event, that veil remains lifted so that, for a few days or weeks or months after the fact, that darkness is the only thing the traumatized person can see. I hurried to the subway that night, looking at everyone I passed with suspicion.
Emily Gould has written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, and Jezebel.com, among other publications, and is a contributing editor at Technology Review. Before becoming an editor of Gawker.com, a job she quit and then described in a cover story for the New York Times Magazine in 2008, she was an associate editor at Hyperion Books. She lives in Brooklyn and writes at www.emilymagazine.com. She is the Interviewer and Talkback Moderator for our 2010-2011 Season.