It is hard to verbally express the inadequacy of language. Sometimes words just seem to burst at the seams, their intrinsic limitations ready to break due to the multiplicity of meaning they hold and the frustration of the cliches that we’ve forced them to bear. But writer Don DeLillo has never been one to shy away from meaning, and in this one-act play the insightful novelist playfully uses the act of writing to test the limits of his own lexical tools.
Owing far more to Ferdinand de Saussure than to Samuel Johnson, The Word for Snow drips with heavy linguistic theory. The interaction between item and label is tested as “every word becomes the thing”. Fittingly, while thrilling in its absurdism, the text is not the strongest element of this piece. Initially, the words expressed bring nothing new to debates surrounding language, but through their “structured improvisation” and inventive devising, theatre company Future Ruins forces us to picture a world where it’s not language that is deemed unfit for the items it represents, but rather where the environment is crumbling away from the net of words we use to cover it, and only the conceptual remains.
In this particular production, there is a latecomer in the auditorium. Bearing a backpack, this traveller has clearly come far, but he looks around with a bright and nervous enthusiasm. As he heads up the rows, the house lights go up and it becomes clear that this explorer – our Pilgrim – is on the hunt for meaning. Planted in the audience, he represents the collective’s unspoken search for truth and his attention hones in on two men who take their position of authority on the stage.
The first of these two figures is an exiled scholar (Jasper Britton), who dwells on a mountain-top in North West Asia. His companion is the Interpreter, a stone-faced character played with a fierce solemnity by Thomas Grube. At this early stage, Britton is largely silent, yet with lips sealed and the assistance of his interpreter, he is in a position to answer questions about communication.
In translating the Scholar’s silence into meaning, there is a certain rhythm to Grube’s sentences. These statements are delivered with authority. Many of the Interpreter’s utterances begin with a loaded “He”, which rings with an almost religious feeling. A theological search for answers becomes apparent and the three men start to generate their own tripartite where our vocabulary is cast as an imperfect god. Here, the exiled scholar represents meaning, the interpreter represents language’s attempts to articulate this meaning, and the pilgrim represents humanity’s doubt at this process, even in the presence of worthy attempts.
While Don DeLillo’s battle with language is played out with flawed words, Future Ruin’s incorporation of multimedia becomes increasingly charged. Teppei Nogaki’s film and projection function independently of the actions and words of the characters. His scenes of large-scale catastrophe and global warming represent the significance of elements that language only works to mask. Evocations of nature’s threatening power bring us back to a time before language, reminding us that our letters and words are ultimately inadequate attempts to harness a world that exists outside of our control.
The Word for Snow ran at the Southbank’s Centre Purcell Room as part of the London Literature Festival from 10-12 July.