Guest Discussion of The Train Driver with Robert Post, Gordon Edelstein, and Daniel Larlham

We were extraordinarily lucky today to take part in a conversation with three amazing guests. Our distinguished set of panelists included Robert Post, dean of Yale Law School; Gordon Edelstein, artistic director at Long Wharf Theater (and director of The Train Driver); and Daniel Larlham, a lecturer in Yale’s Theater Studies program.

Gordon and Daniel began by discussing the general process by which a bill becomes a law a text becomes a play. The larger questions raised by their discussion dealt with the ways that meaning and communication go beyond what’s written in a text. With the assistance of Robert and others, we built upon these questions to consider ways that we can better use non- and extra-textual techniques to contribute to and enhance legal scholarship.

Gordon mentioned that the first thing he looks for, in reading a play, is context: what is the context in which this play is written; what is the writer after; what are the conscious and unconscious messages being delivered by the writer inside the play? Gordon discussed his collaboration with Athol Fugard on The Train Driver, and his interests in the guilt of white South Africa and confrontation with death.

Gordon noted that the play’s protagonist, a white middle-class South African, had, merely in the course of doing his job, killed somebody – and noted the ways in which this character was used as a metaphor. Gordon compared the play to Samuel Beckett’s work, and enumerated the ways in which Beckettian undertones “bled through every ounce of the play.” He said that it was his strong intention to coax out of the work, like a conductor doing a score, as much Beckett as possible without losing the sociology and politics of the play. Then Gordon compared this direction to Fugard’s own earlier direction of the play – which was decidedly un-Beckettian. Gordon  pointed out that the text of a play’s scene-setting could be interpreted realistically, or more metaphorically, and that he had decided to take more of a metaphorical approach with this play by making the opening scene, for instance, look  like the gates of hell, and by attempting to juxtapose colors of white (sand) and black (the theater floor) in the play.

Daniel launched into a discussion of the differences between the Stanislavskian tradition of method-acting and the Brechtian paradigm (evident in Daniel’s performance in Caucasian Chalk Circle). He described the three components to Stanislavski:

  1. acting – action by one person upon another – which differs from putting something across from an external perspective. The goal is to engage with scene partners, and to unfold a new kind of human truth, rather than a presentational truth.  (This fits with the blooming of naturalism and the Chekhovian productions common at Stanislavski’s time.)
  2. an objective, or a task, that is driving the character through the scene, and which may shift from scene to scene, but is an essential pursuit that animates the character through the play – and is enacted through engagement with scene partners. The actor creates an unbroken line of actions moving from one point to the next and to the next, with emotions beyond the character’s will.
  3. given circumstances, which is similar to context, but also includes the informing circumstances within the world of the play. Suitable to think about the character’s life history that led to certain moments in the play; to engage in an imaginative reverie that enables one to move through the landscape of the play; to call up to the mind’s eye circumstances that led up to the present moment.

Daniel then talked about how Brechtian style differs from these components. Brecht was responding to a conception of the play as an objective method by which the audience partakes of the meaning onstage and seeks to understand and empathize with the characters’ psychological journeys.  But rather than see the people on stage as vessels through which audience members could have unreflective emotional experiences, Brecht was trying to awaken critical faculties through distance, alienation, and defamilarization – these were efforts to put the audience in a more critical relation. Brecht’s plays were realistic, but for him naturalism by itself would obscure actual social and political workings. He frequently invoked a kind of gesture that would communicate a social relationship, and used techniques that would resonate with the social world beyond the specific setting of the play. Daniel mentioned that the physical social relationships in The Train Driver were true to his experiences in South Africa, and talked about the challenge of portraying relationships of power between characters, and some directors’ resistance to showing these power relations.

Robert Post complimented Gordon’s direction and discussed the relationship between law and life that he saw in The Train Driver. The play opens on a note of disjunction between the protagonist’s subjective characterization of what he had done and others’ efforts to provide an objective characterization. And throughout the play, the protagonist refuses to accept this official story – which is reflected in the use of the train in the play. The protagonist refuses to be a cog in the train’s wheel, and resists the system’s official understanding of the meaning of what has happened to him. The play, then, deals with this ruthless system, and with someone who steps out of this system and attempts to strike a human relationship with another character.

Robert noted that the law itself, in its textual capacity, can be that same kind of system – particularly when it’s treated as nothing more than the rules, as with Justice Kennedy’s notion that it was the text of the First Amendment which compelled him to write Citizens United in the way he did, and that there was nothing he could do otherwise in the face of this text.

The question thus raised by the play: when you step outside this system, where are you? This is the Beckettian crisis, where you step “outside” and find yourself without any social parameters, and it raises the question: Why can’t you reenter the system and reintegrate yourself and make things different? The great challenge of the Visual Law Project is to take people outside, and then get them back in. We need to make people see the brown eyes. We don’t want to leave our audience in the condition of being in a waste land and outside of any social scheme – and with the sense that there’s nothing left for them to go back into. In short: how do we reintegrate, once we’ve stepped outside the train?

Robert compared parts of The Train Driver to J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, which also featured a protagonist who could do nothing more than bury dead animals. Gordon noted the clear challenge in portraying action in this sort of situation, where someone is stuck in a waste land or a mobius strip of a life. Similarly, Gordon expressed the importance of not allowing a play to become boring, and the difficulties many directors face in drawing out the humor of Chekhov’s action.

Gordon compared the background of crime in the play to the gangs in City of God, and Bunuel’s Los Olvidados. No matter how purgative the protagonist’s 3-day experience in the graveyard could be, he will still ignore the horror of the war going on in the country, and not listen to the simple warnings of a simple man. Gordon also discussed the challenges of showing the play within the architecture of the theater.

A student asked what happens when the audience cannot connect the play back to sources and meanings they understand, and compared that state of affairs to when a person cannot trace the law back to meanings they can understand. Gordon responded that it was irrelevant whether an audience actually knows anything about Beckett. Robert cited O.W. Holmes for the principle that it was a great strength of the common law that judges could decide a case before they know why they’re deciding it, and noted that if law is experienced merely as oppressive or arbitrary, then it can’t do its work as law.

The student followed up: if a judge takes a law and puts in whatever he/she thinks should be in it, is that tyrannical? Robert responded that a law may consist of statutory and constitutional texts, precedent, history, practices, and other streams running through its meaning. He noted that these streams include identitarian streams: judges don’t use the 1st person singular, instead they strike a tone of “We think this.. This is our commitment…” And to justify the invocation of the 1st person plural, they have to be persuasive as to the wide applicability of their decision.

Another student asks about distinctions between what the law says, what it means, and how it’s followed. Robert responded that when a judge says “we,” the judge is putting on a performance and staking a claim that “this is our law..” in the midst of a situation that is likely to be highly conflictual, and in the context of many additional people who want to stake different claims about what “our” law is. Thus it becomes important to think carefully about how people are included or excluded from your point of view when making a film that shows the effects and justice of a certain law, and to think about how to maintain relationships  between the people surrounding a law. Daniel then discussed distinctions between how human agents function in the law versus in the theater: in the law, a particular conclusion affects a wide range of circumstances; in theater, actors present question of whether an audience would or would not act like they do. Brecht’s fondness for the use of parables in theater was meant to enable people to carry around the parables with them and measure their life against these parables, raising the question of whether a play would be sufficient rehearsal for action beyond the theater, and whether we will use characters in our films that audience can empathize with and serve as models for what we can or cannot do.

We brought up a final question about the character of Simon in The Train Driver, and whether he develops any kind of real relationship with the protagonist, or whether it’s more like the ending of Coetzee’s Age of Iron, where there is nothing in the characters’ final embrace. Gordon responds that he tried hard not to make the play sentimental, and instead to involve a realistic melting of empathy. He acknowledged that the play is, in the end, dark, but was intended to sound hopeful notes; only when the play was put in front of an audience did Gordon understand what he had truly created, and that it was bleak. Sometimes the message to the audience and to the people we are filming is simply: shit happens; this is the way it is.

On this note, we adjourned for drinks.


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