Diary of a Madman
March 21, 2011 at 1:03 pm, by Timna Burston
I had the great pleasure of watching the interesting adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman”, performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The script follows the plot of the original story, in which Poprishchin, a petty, pompous and overly ambitious clerk, descends into madness.
We meet the protagonist as he is obsessing over his rank in society, his ambitions, his dress (cursing the French for their new styles, for they render his jacket irrelevant), and his crush on the boss’ daughter. It is not immediately apparent that he is in any way unconventional. Indeed he appears to be the face of the modern man, troubled with petty rivalries in the workplace, short-collared jackets and unrequited love.
It is only whenPoprishchin announces a most extraordinary thing that happened to him that we begin to see there is something wrong with him. First, there are the dogs: two dogs, to be precise, who are having a conversation—which, as the protagonist claims, citing several bogus scientific sources, is really not that strange. What is strange, according to Poprishchin, is that they then begin to write to each other. And there has never been any record of dogs writing to anyone. So the protagonist sets off on his downward spiral, tracking the dogs’ correspondences, retreating from society, enveloping himself in a cloak of delusions. The form of the story also helps to increase the feeling of mania, as each diary entry starts with a date, but quickly we discover August the 43rd, October the Februarieth, and indeed “there was no month that day.” At last, Poprishchin’s madness is complete, as he envisions himself as the heir to the crown of Spain, and the asylum to which he is brought becomes the stage upon which he projects his desires to rule others. At last, he believes himself to be where he ought to be—at the top of the pecking order, a king among men.
The play was up against a few obstacles: To start with, it is not easy to adapt a story that is written as a diary (and thus a long monologue) for the stage. Indeed, I think the production struggled with this question and could not seem to bring itself to decide whether it was a one-man show or a set of dialogues. The result is a strange mixture of very long monologues by Geoffrey Rush, interspersed with some comic relief of his interactions with his housemaid (whom he refers to simply as the “foreign idiot”), plus brief appearances by his love-interest and another asylum member.
The character of the maid was actually very interesting, as she is the only one taking care of this very sick man, but he regards her throughout the play with contempt and loathing. The interactions between them are made increasingly interesting by the language barrier: the Finnish maid speaks very little Russian and Poprishchin teaches her certain words, sometimes getting so frustrated that he teaches her that the word for “head” is “bottom.” In the play, Geoffrey Rush, theoretically speaking Russian, is in fact speaking his Aussie version of the Queen’s English, while his maid (played by Yael Stone) spits out a steady fire of what I believe was Russian (not Finnish) and trickles out some mispronounced words in English. Throughout the show, this character grows and learns more and more, as her master deteriorates further. Another interesting dialogue occurs between the actor and the music. The live music contributes a great deal to the play, not only enhancing the atmosphere (as a soundtrack often does), but providing a kind of nonverbal character for Poprishchin to interact with. The actor refers to it throughout the play, commenting on how well it manages to guess his actions and emotions. The musicians provide a kind of Parshanut (commentary) on the text of the play, enriching it, clarifying its meaning and giving their own opinions and thoughts on what is actually going on.
Toward the end of the play, the true source of Poprishchin’s madness is revealed when he loses all bearings and is committed to the asylum. Resplendent in his tattered bedspread (take that, French fashionistas!), he parades around his room convinced that he will soon be crowned the King of Spain. His maid tries to save him, protectively trying to tell him something about “white coats” in her shattered English, but he ignores her as a commoner and is led away. Not one to allow the facts to stop him from a good fantasy, Poprishchin believes this to be the Spanish envoy coming to take him to his new realm. Behind bars, he envisions a majestic coronation ceremony, led by these strange Spaniards, who seem to have a thing for white and long sleeves. When he is tortured, this is merely a test to prove his worth as a monarch. And so Poprishchin finds himself a king at last, but once there, he endures unimaginable suffering, leading to his demise in the asylum.
While watching Geoffrey Rush’s delightful performance, I thought about King Saul’s rise and fall. Unlike Poprishchin, Saul did not start out ambitious. Indeed, he seemed to be a rather unlikely fit. The prophet Samuel finds Saul as the boy is literally looking for his ass unsuccessfully. He meets a rather introverted child, who, when asked to be king, runs away to hide in a pot. Luckily, the Israelites managed to drag him out of the chinaware section for long enough to discover that he is really quite tall (no, really!) and see this as a legitimate reason to crown him. If you think that is absurd, you should note that a Communications professor of mine once conducted a study that showed that an overwhelming majority of presidents elected for the United States had the advantage of being a few inches taller than their opponent.
And so, the boy becomes king. He settles into the role of sovereign quite nicely, as a matter of fact, and proves himself against such well-known rivals as Amon and Moav, the Philistines and that sexy super villain Amalek. But his rise to grandeur rushes to Saul’s head. Finally managing to grow into the expectations of his people, he now realizes that this status could be threatened by a certain cute redhead from within his own court. David, Saul’s beloved harp player, is loved by both Saul’s own daughter and Saul’s son and heir, Jonathan. In this crazy love triangle that opens all kinds of avenues for interpretation, there is also the unfortunate side-plot of a messy road to the throne. After Saul worked so hard to finally meet the expectations of his people, he now faces the possibility that he might lose his crown. Toward the end of his life Saul descends into what can only be described as paranoia, persecuting David and hunting him throughout the Judean outback. He and Jonathan die, and, tragically, David gets the last word, lamenting them in his beautiful poetry and solidifying his status as both the sensitive ruler and the poet laureate of the Tanakh.
Saul and Poprishchin are interestingly almost reversed images of each other. While Poprishchin is pompous and arrogant, Saul is shy and introverted. While Poprishchin is obsessed with attaining power and status, Saul wishes he could just find his donkey. While Saul eventually proves himself to be a capable monarch, Poprishchin never once proves himself to be worthy of anything. But it is interesting to note how both of these characters drink the poison of ambition, how they both must imagine themselves to be king, and how they end their lives in a similar manner: deranged, tormented by shadows, fearing everyone around them—even the servants in their own court. The higher we rise, the more painful it is when we fall.