- 26 Apr 11
One of our columnist's favourite plays is DVD-bound. Here's why you should be as excited as he is .
Two men sit at a table in a tenement room in a black ghetto in New York City. One is a black ex-con who once killed a man, found Jesus after a savage jailhouse brawl and now commits himself to bringing the word of God to junkies and thieves. The other is a suicidal Professor of Philosophy, who will most likely try to throw himself under a train for the second time that day if he is allowed to leave the room. The black man sees it as his god-given duty to save the Professor from himself.
What follows is a sort of existential duel: the Prof. is a product of the age of anxiety, a misanthrope, a nihilist, a man whose belief in culture has failed him. The ex-con is a man of faith who uses everything in his armoury to keep the Prof. in his apartment: coffee, soul food, Biblical rhetoric. It's a battle of words, the spoils being the Professor's soul.
This is the premise of Cormac McCarthy's play The Sunset Limited, first produced by the Steppenwolf theatre company in Chicago in 2006, and published with the subtitle A Novel In Dramatic Form shortly thereafter. If the subject matter suggests Beckett by way of Sam Shepard, the book reads like an existential thriller. This reader finished it in an hour.
Here, the man of faith is running out of ways to keep the Professor in his apartment. (Punctuation – or lack thereof – McCarthy's):
“It just seems to me that a man that cant wait for a train to run over him has got to have somethin on his mind. Most folks would settle for maybe just a slap up the side of the head. You say you dont care about nothin but I dont believe that. I dont believe that death is ever about nothin. You asked me what I thought it was you was holdin on to and I got to say I dont know. Or maybe I just dont have the words to say it. And maybe you know but you aint sayin. But I believe that when you took your celebrated leap you was holdin onto it and takin it with you. Holdin on for grim death. I look for the words, Professor. I look for the words because I believe that the words is the way to your heart.”
Last month, HBO screened a 91-minute film adaptation of the play, directed by Tommy Lee Jones (no stranger to McCarthy's work), and starring Jones and Samuel L. Jackson. Going by the trailer, it looks perfectly cast and powerfully acted. We await the DVD.