"Kaddish" by Allen Ginsberg is an unrelenting expression of grief in poetic narrative written mostly in a marathon 36 hour session fueled by uppers and coffee. In adapting this monolithic text, many humbling questions spring to mind.
How does one capture the original energy behind this seminal exertion of poetry?
How does one bring himself to such specific personal experience?
What is the theatrical equivalent to the non-linear recollection of thoughts, memories, and nightmares that search for peace and grace?
The poem is largely the story of Naomi Ginsberg, Allen's mother. Naomi's journey began with her immigration as a child from Russia to make a new life in New Jersey where she battled mental illness in adulthood--and ended with a stroke while committed to a mental institution on Long Island. Allen signed for her eventual lobotomy that most likely led to her untimely stroke. Previously, Allen had written notes for years in his journals including false starts of poems about his relationship with Naomi. But, it was the finality of her death that was the catalyst for "Kaddish".
The beauty of the poem is in the words. I love poetry. I love poetic theatre. I first read "Kaddish" a dozen years ago. As I did, the words began to leap off the page for me begging to be given physical form. Later, I learned through my years of research that I was not alone in this instinct to adapt "Kaddish". In the early 1960's, photographer/filmmaker Robert Frank asked Ginsberg to adapt his poem into a screenplay which he did. Although never produced, the Chelsea Theater Center in 1971 adapted the screenplay into a multi-media, multi-character play which was produced at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and directed by Robert Kalfin. Another production was translated into Hebrew and produced by the National Theatre of Israel in the 1970's. In 1988, the Eye & Ear Theatre Company in New York also adapted the poem incorporating many elements from the screenplay as well.
It is after all a dramatic story, but not an easy one to tell. It is a challenge for any artist to relish and one that must be met directly. "Kaddish" is raw and vulnerable and stands in stark contrast to that other seminal Ginsberg poem "Howl". When Naomi passed, Ginsberg was a rising star. "Howl" was published the year before Naomi's death and the ensuing censorship controversies put Ginsberg into the national spotlight as a new and important face of the Beat Generation. The authority in that captivating literary voice contrasted the voice heard in "Kaddish" which was fueled by Ginsberg's own personal demons--his conflicting thoughts about his sexuality at the time, the horrific childhood memories caring for his mother effectively reversing the mother and child relationship, his ambivalence towards his cultural and religious background, and a hint at a new direction for his own spiritual journey.
The title of course comes from the Jewish prayer for the dead. It is an exaltation of God that one speaks at a time of loss particularly that of a parent. It is also an ancient prayer and is written not in Hebrew but in the older Aramaic. When one says Kaddish, one is speaking the words of every person that has ever lost a loved one since the time that prayer was first uttered. It is full of history and conjures the spirits of ancestors inviting them into a communal and public experience. For me, these are basic ingredients of theatre. It is a place that is ancient in tradition, that is both public and private, that is cathartic in experience.
The Kaddish prayer was never said for Naomi. Not because the Ginsberg's were not practicing Jews, but because as a fluke a minyan of 10 men were not present to speak it which is required at a funeral. Allen was not a practicing Jew and was only beginning to investigate the Eastern philosophies. However at this time of familial loss, it is interesting that Allen looked towards his own culture and history. Indeed, it is a conflicted relationship which is why the poem is so terribly compelling and dramatic.
We are presenting the first two sections of Ginsberg's poem (the Proem and the Narrative). Both of which were written under "all day attention" as Allen called it. This was a device that he frequently employed stemming from his belief in "first thought, best thought". Ginsberg is certainly not without structure and he knew how to set up circumstances that would allow him to create lasting works of art. In other words, to get out of his own way.
My theatrical background comes from a strong training in the Viewpoints and the Suzuki Method of Actor Training. These techniques provide a structure for an artist to train basic issues for all performers. A great deal of improvisation is involved particularly in the Viewpoints, that strive to get actors out of their own way as well. This gives artists the ability to create work quickly without sacrificing specificity. For me, this connected to Ginsberg's own unofficial methodology of writing which is less random and anarchic as it might sound at first to the ear. Ginsberg's rapid fire production of language does not come without years of meditation. On the contrary, it includes years of history and preparation that finally allow the inspiration to flow freely. It has a lot to do with timing and circumstances. A delicate balance, to be sure.
Twelve years ago when I first read "Kaddish", I was not ready to make this piece. The idea needed to gestate and I needed to grow. I needed to experience my own loss as we all do in our life. I needed something of my own to bring to the table.
In truth, "Kaddish" was not written as a play. However, it is my belief that theatre is a journey and often a poetic one at that. Allen's father Louis who was also a poet in his own right once said to Allen "there are many mansions in the House of Poetry". I believe there are many mansions in the House of Theatre as well. I believe in Theatre as a space to take an audience on a journey. Sometimes the journey is entirely about a great plot, or of a theme, or of characters in conflict, or of an emotion. But whatever the focus, the experience is that of a journey nevertheless.
In our current adaptation entitled "Kaddish (or The Key in the Window)", we have had a truncated process. While not as brief as the 36 hours Ginsberg took to compose the original text, our process is extremely limited in the world of theatre. Working with a talented team that includes director Kim Weild, sound designer Darron L West, scenic designer Nick Vaughan, lighting designer Brian H Scott, projection designer C. Andrew Bauer, and costume designer Terese Wadden--we have been inspired by what Allen remarked as "years of preparation but only seconds to execute". In only 14 rehearsals, we have had to work fast on our feet. Trusting our hearts. Listening to the room. Allowing all the gestating ideas to unfold freely.
Unlike the previous theatrical adaptations, ours puts "Kaddish" back into the heart and mind of a solo character. It is after all one man's story from one man's point of view--a dark night of the soul and an exorcism of memory. I have decided also to stay true to the original text devoid of major edits allowing Ginsberg's words to stand on their own. They are vivid, dense, and powerful. My collaborators and I hope to create a physical environment that can stand up to it.
For me, it is a dream collaboration.