Athol Fugard’s The Shadow of the Hummingbird, now in its world premiere at the Long Wharf Theatre, is a short play that enacts a meditation on a number of things that matter: the nature of reality, the nature of the imagination, the ties that bind us to others across generations and the ties that bind us to ourselves across decades, and the “calling” of death.
Fugard, on stage throughout the entire play, plays an aged writer known as Oupa, as his only interlocutor is his ten-year-old grandson, Boba (played by the twins, Aidan and Dermot McMillan). Before Fugard’s play proper, we’re presented an introductory scene, created by Paula Fourie using extracts from Fugard’s unpublished notebooks, in which Oupa, much as does the figure in Krapp’s Last Tape, “replays” his past in his own words, as he searches for a passage about his shadow. The context for the interactions between Oupa and Boba, then, is very much the world as known and encountered by Fugard himself, including his regular attention to birds.
The play could be called a self-portrait, and also a dramatization of the final things, or final lessons. In other words, we are late in Oupa’s life and, while the scenes we witness between the grandfather and his grandson are like any other day, any other visit, there is a finality to them that impresses upon us the point of their interaction.
That point comes from the matter that Oupa discusses with Boba: the question of which is more delightful, the vision of an actual hummingbird, seen outside in the garden, or the vision of the shadow of the hummingbird, hovering on the wall in Oupa’s study. Boba, naturally, prefers the former, but Oupa begs to differ, with recourse to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave from the Republic.
What Fugard and his director Gordon Edelstein stage, then, is not only the very affectionate banter and comic swordplay and rough-housing between a doting grandfather and his grandson, complete with shared cookies and looks askance at Boba’s father for whom Oupa seems to have scant affection, but also a lesson on reality and imagination in which imagination becomes the key figure.
In Plato’s allegory, persons who have lived their entire lives in shackles in a cave, staring at a wall, take the shadows thrown upon that wall—shadows of whatever passes between their backs and a great fire deep in the cave—for real things. They only see the shadows and never what causes the shadows. The question then becomes: what happens if one should escape the cave and get out into the real world of sunlit objects.
Oupa takes Boba along this line—inspired by his memory of Boba, as an infant, trying to pick up a shadow on the floor—to show that the actual hummingbird would be a glorious vision after only subsisting on its shadow. Boba finds the story “not very good,” which irritates the old man. So he has to try again to explain what his own allegorical message might be. With recourse to the words of William Blake, Oupa states his intention: to return to childish wonder, to be like Boba as a child, believing a shadow might be real, to see, as Blake stated the visionary’s gift, “eternity in a grain of sand.”
This is where Fugard would leave us, we might say, trying hard to rediscover “vision.” To see again as children—a prescription for entering “the kingdom of heaven,” in one formulation—but also to regain the sense of a world of mystery and enchantment, a world not “explained” by rationally arrived at properties and given long Latin terms of demarcation.
Oupa himself jokes that this might be a way of interpreting “senile dementia,” when, in Shakespeare’s phrase, “an old man is twice a child,” but by wishing for something else, a moment of belief in the shadow as real, Fugard’s Oupa becomes an apologist for theater and the arts in general, for he would return us to the time when we could believe in fictive things as if they were actual life, maybe more real than life itself, in our imaginations. It is a romantic notion, certainly, but the play, in giving us this disquisition as an elderly man sporting with his attentive grandson, lets us grasp as well how the important lessons of life occur in intimate exchanges, one-on-one.
The sense of the play’s intimacy is one of its strengths. In Eugene Lee’s handsome set, Oupa’s den or study is given a very definite presence, particularly as Oupa spends the introductory scene interacting with its many props—glasses, books, journals, eyeglasses—to create a sense of a man alone at home, performing his personal rituals. The effects of the hummingbird, in the vision that comes to Oupa late in the play, has both the sense of an actual event and of a longed-for fantasy. Such theatrical touches help to make the play live as an actual “day in the life” as well as “in the life of the mind.”
Add to that Fugard’s very natural and reassuring performance as Oupa—in the opening section, it’s as if he might invite us to a seat on the set or stroll into the audience to chat with us. It’s not so much a “breaking of the fourth wall,” as it is a suggestion that this writer feels himself to be always attended by an audience with whom he is on very cordial terms. The McMillan brothers, as Boba, have the grace of youth and clear, distinct voices able to register the kind of patient acceptance that children tend to extend to the very old. Boba, we suspect, is used to his grandfather saying quizzical things, sometimes amusing him, sometimes taking him to task—as here—for not grasping his meaning. What comes across best is the puzzle of existence as Oupa continues to ponder it, trying, late in the day, to impress his vision of it on the youngest mind he can find. Fugard rightly chooses the age of reason—10—to suggest that only the very youngest rational mind might accept without too much question an old man’s fancy.
The Shadow of the Hummingbird is lyrical, wise, and deceptively simple. Not a bad way to go.
The Shadow of the Hummingbird By Athol Fugard Introductory Scene by Paula Fourie with extracts from Athol Fugard’s unpublished notebooks Directed by Gordon Edelstein
Set Design: Eugene Lee; Costume Design: Susan Hilferty; Lighting Design: Michael Chybowski; Sound Design: John Gromada; Production Stage Manager: Jason Kaiser
Photographs by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy of Long Wharf Theatre
Long Wharf Theatre March 26-April 27, 2014