The line between sea and sky is erased in the blinding white light of the Gulf of Cadiz. Five hundred years ago Christopher Columbus gazed across these horizonless waters, plotting his voyage to the Canary Islands and then west, on to the fabled golden citadels of Asia – or so he believed. When he finally set sail on Aug. 3, 1492, with only his own doggedness and a set of dublous maps to guide him, he inadvertently propelled all of modem humanity onto a journey without end. It began as a Spanish quest for the riches of the Orient, evolved into a colonist bid for territory, gave birth to a Native American struggle for freedom, and continues today as a collective search for identity on the part of all three Americas, North, South and Central.Order now
The Columbus story is one of conquest, obsession and hubris. For better or worse, it is our story as a people, and so we are forever obliged to tell it, retell it, question it, read between its lines. Today a new generation of artists and writers are meeting that obligation with a profusion of books, movies, plays operas and artwork – a virtual industry of ideas inspired by one medieval sailor, his surly crew and three rickety ships.
Nowhere is the sprawl of the Columbus myth more evident than on North America’s stages. This past summer, while Philip Glass and David Henry Hwang were preparing a Columbus epic for an October opening at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, New York City’s Theatreworks USA was on the road, taking its micro-musical version of the saga to school children along the Atlantic seaboard. The Pilgrim Theatre was drawing small but enthusiastic audiences to a sweltering black box in Boston for the premiere of a performance piece called Columbus, Dreams of a New World, and the Bread and Puppet Theater was enlisting community participants for an outdoor Columbian pageant on a Burlington, Vermont lawn. In July, playwright Richard Nelson made his Barbican Theatre mainstage debut at London’s Royal Shakespeare Company with Columbus and the Discovery of Japan, while the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park was still basking in the glow of its January premiere of Canadian Richard Epp’s Japango.
Of all these plays, Theatreworks USA’S Columbus took the most straightforward historical approach. In the tried-and-true tradition of children’s theatre, its aim was to educate and entertain, and by the looks of its attentive, five-foot-and under audience at the Paramount Center for the Arts on a dreary April day in Peekskill, N.Y., it achieved both objectives.
Written and directed by Jonathan Bolt, with music by Douglas J. Cohen and lyrics by Thomas Toce, Columbus follows the mariner’s exploits from his youth to his fourth and final voyage to the Americas. Five actor-singers carry multiple roles, and a simple collection of planks and ropes is manipulated to suggest every setting from the desk of the Santa Maria to Queen Isabella’s chamber.
The familiar story is all here-Columbus’s relentless petitioning for funds and Isabella’s eventual capitulations; the long first voyage and the sailors’ near-mutiny – but with a few revisionist twists. First we’re told that Columbus was not the only man of his day to believe the world was round (indeed any educated Spaniard knew this to be true). We’re also informed that he found the Bahamas, which he thought to be Asia, largely by luck. Finally we’re witness to his disastrous handling of the colonies, which led to the deaths of many of his crew members and countless Native Americans, and the eventual collapse of his own career.
Still, we last see Columbus embarking triumphantly on his final voyage to the New World, even through we know from the history books that he spent his declining years landlocked and out-of-favor with the Spanish monarchs. There is a tension here between the story the play purports to tell – the true-to-life history of Christopher Columbus – and the “follow your dream” subtext common to much children’s theatre. Arguably, neither the explorer’s dreams (of wealth and prestige) nor his character were worthy of much admiration. Yet that fact constantly rubs up against the musical’s celebratory songs and its youcan-do-anything-if-you-just-believe dialogue, creating an unsettling sense of internal conflict. It’s as if the play wants a hero, and at those times when Columbus obviously won’t do, Isabella steps into the role (as when she orders the mariner to stop taking slaves). But the Queen was no saint herself. Truth be told, this is a story without heroes, and as such it’s tough to adapt for children.
One way to avoid such difficulties is to cast the Columbus tale not as an historical narrative, but as a portrait of a personality.
Focusing on character rather than event allows writers to sidestep sticky political issues and simultaneously satisfy the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for psychological drama. Richard Epp’s Japango takes this tack, presenting the explorer as a man awash in memories of his past triumphs. Presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, the play was billed as a voyage to discovery to find Christopher Columbus himself.”
Epp told the Cincinnati Post, “I was struck by the stubbornness of the man and his denial until the day he died that he had been anywhere but Asia. I found him arrogant, greedy, but at the same time a buoyant human being.”
Playwright Richard Nelson, likewise, describes his Columbus and the Discovery of Japan as a “portrait of an artist – of the explorer as artist.” His aim was to sift through the historical representations of his subject and present him “neither as a Hitler nor a hero.”
He explains, “The Columbus we grew up with was an invention of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He was the product of a hemisphere that needed to define itself in opposition to the Old World. In that sense he was an ideological creation.
“The Columbus of today” – the liar, pillager and murderer of revisionist histories “also an ideological creation. My play does not participate in the struggle between these competing ideologies. The tale I have to tell is about someone doing something against great odds. It’s about a man with an urge, a drive that even he himself doesn’t understand.”
Director John Caird oversaw the lavish staging of Columbus and the Discovery of Japan, re-creating 15th-century Spain “with lots of the usual RSC dry ice,” according to one witness. Nelson reports that the production polarized London’s critical community: “I’ve never faced such angry reviews, but on the other hand the critics who were supportive loved it. It’s a huge story” – its running time was an epic three-and-a-half hours – and you can’t expect everyone’s going to feel the same way about it.”
The widespread fascination with Columbus’s character is a curious phenomenon, because in the last analysis it matters very little who the man was or what he was like. He may be condemned as a murderer, or defended as a “product of his time” – both assessments are accurate, and both equally inconsequential. If Columbus’s mission had not succeeded, indeed if he had never been born, someone else would have presented himself to take his place. The blinding white light of the Atlantic would have still been pierced; the inevitable process of colonization and resistance would have still been put into play. History was on the brink; it was just a matter of time.
Boston’s Pilgrim Theatre and Vermont’s Bread and Puppet both leave questions of character behind in their politically charged versions of the story. Pilgrim’s Columbus, Dreams of a New World, conceived and directed by Kermit Dunkelberg, the troupe’s managing director, announces itself boldly as a tale “not about a sailor but about the collision of two world and the aftershocks we still feel.” It takes the shape of a choreopoem, a collage of solo and group recitations and songs that comment on the Babel that Columbus established in the “New World.” The piece looks somewhat dated-its 10 barefoot, loosely clothed performers recall the Judson Poets Theatre dancers of the early 60s – but its concerns are up-to-the-minute.
Even more outspoken is Bread and Puppet’s two-part touring production of Christopher Columbus: The New World Order, under the direction of Peter Schumann. Part one, performed in a theatre with puppets and an oom-pah-pah band, reenacts Columbus’s arrival in America and his establishment of peace – “Or at least that particular peace of subjugation and outright genocide that accompanies the occupation of new lands,” as an acid program note instructs. Part two travels outside to a field where, with the help of community participants, the Columbus myth is presented as a metaphor for one of northern New England’s hottest issues: the “conquest” of the northern Quebec wilderness by the Hydro-Quebec power company.
Bread and Puppet’s familiar fat-headed masks and glant winged puppets do much to soften the stridency of its message: Kids love the show as much as left-wing adults. But there’s no confusion as to where the troupe’s sentiments lie. At the close of part one, a hand-painted banner is unfurled on stage decrying the legacy of Columbus in America: “Aggression is fine if it is in your favor,” it reads. “International law and economic justice are foreign to you. You are a warfare state, an intervention state, a security state….” Columbus-bashing is nothing new. According to Richard White, McClelland professor of history at the University of Washington, the explorer’s 1892 anniversary party was disrupted by a band of revisionists just as vocal as any today. A writer for the Dial called the navigator’s last three voyages a “pitiful record of misfortunes, blunders, cruelties, moral delinquencies, quarrels and impotent complainings.” And the Magazine of American History declared Columbus’s name “polluted by the blood of innocent creatures,” his legacy, “a satumalia of slaughter.”
In this century, anti-columbus sentiment has reached a fever pitch. A Native-American coalition called 1992 Alliance has declared this “The Year of the Indigenous People,” offering an alternative celebration of the federally sanctioned Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee. The Jubilee itself has been carefully billed as a “commemoration” of the “encounter” between Europe and the Americas, rather than a “celebration” of Columbus’s “discovery.” Headlines in local and national publications run the gamut from “Columbus, Stay Home!” (Newsweek) to “Columbus: Scum of the Ocean” (the Seattle Weekly). Columbus the rugged individualist has been supplanted in the nation’s eye by Columbus the megalomaniac, the slaver, the torturer, the carrier of disease, the waster of lands.
“I think it’s simplistic to idolize Columbus as a hero,
but also simplistic to look at him as someone who brought only rape and ruin and genocide,” says David Henry Hwang, librettist of the new Philip Glass opera The Voyage, which will set sail on Columbus Day at the New York Metropolitan Opera. “The interplay between individuals and history is very complex. Individuals make decisions for personal reasons, but they end up having political implications that reach far beyond the initial impulse.”
This train of thought inspired Hwang and Glass to blend biography and history with fantasy to create an epic tale about “the notion of exploration in general.” Each of the opera’s three acts is set in a different period – pre history, 15th-century America and the future – and each deals with the theme of cultural collision. “For instance, in Act l,” Hwang says, “there’s a scene in which aliens land on earth. We follow the landing from the alien commander’s point of view up until the moment she disembarks from her ship. Then we switch to the native’s point of view; suddenly everything the commander says is gibberish. That switch is a quintessential moment in this opera. The question this piece asks is, What happens when different cultures come together?'”
Or, in the pertinent words of Rodney King, “Can we all get along?” This is perhaps the most critical question facing Columbus’s “New World” as it enters its sixth century.
An ocean of hype surrounds the quincentenary, to be sure, but the public’s intense interest in Columbus and his significance is more than just a passing fancy. It is indicative of a radical shift in our perception of the American enterprise. As we enter the turbulent seas of the 21st century, it becomes more and more obvious that the “notion of exploration in general” is as critical to our future as it was to our past. Specifically, we must take our historical urge to explore and turn it inward, toward ourselves, to find a way to cross the vast divides that separate America’s many peoples. The waters are wide, the horizon out of sight, but common ground is out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered. AT
COLUMBUS IN TUE MOVIES…
Sailing, sailing over the silver screen…. Its high drama on the high seas this fall as two blockbuster film versions of Columbus’s historic passage go head-to-head in the nation’s movie theatres. Warner Brothers’s Christopher Columbus: The Discovery was released in September, barely nosing out Paramount’s 1492, due this month.
In terms of box-office draw, Paramount’s leading man-french mega-star Gerard Depardieu-has it all over Warner Brothers’s, a relative unknown named George Corraface. But Warner generated a lot of advance publicity through sheer bungling. Christopher Columbus: The Discovery ran through three directors, two leading men and two screenwriters before its final take, and reportedly accumulated a pile of unpaid bills in the process. The film’s notoriety was secured by the pre-release paratheatrics of supporting actor Marlon Brando: He requested that his name be removed from the credits due to its depiction of Native Americans.
Co-producer Alexander Salkind remains upbeat about his troubled film’s prospects, however. As he told the New York Times, “They have a geographic picture, a serious picture about the life of the man, and we have an adventure No politics. A kind of Robin Hood. A picture for families, for children. Everything up, up at the end.”
… AND IN TUE STAGE
It was mid-1991, and the official Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission had ran aground. Its coffers were bare, its chairman had resigned and a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee had been formed to investigate charges of mismanagement. The fate of the long-awaited Big Bash was cast into doubt. Would the quincentenary sink before it ever even set sail?
Not a chance. A veritable armada of Columbus-related events had already been launched in communities, school and cultural institutions nationwide, and this fleet was not about to turn back just because the ship of state couldn’t get its act together.
Not to be upstaged, theatre artists had planned a small flotilla of events aU their own. What follows is a partial list of Columbus-related plays that have been or will be presented on America’s stages in 1992. This list includes plays only. operas, ballets, puppet shows, lectures, TV shows, movies, exhibits, regattas, horse shows, Bocce tournaments and commemorative wine stomps have regretfully been omitted:
* Stage One: The Louisviue Children’s Theatre has commissioned a new play by Laura Amy Schlitz entitled Foreigners: A Play of Christoforo Colombo. Artistic director Moses Goldberg, who will stage its Oct. 10 premiere, calls the drama hard-hitting and balanced.”
* Encounter 500, a new musical by Mario Fratti and composed by Giuseppe Murolo, is currently touting Italy en route to its November opening on Broadway. It is billed as a tribute to the rich customs and civilization of the Native American culture.” 3- Six dramatic variations on the theme of “The Discovery of the Americas” have been commissioned by a coalition of International festivals, including the Festival International de Teatro de Carcaras (Venezuela), the Festival Iberoamericano de Bogota (Colombia), the Gran Festival Ciudad de Mexico, the Festival Internacional de San Jose por la Paz (Costa Rica), the Festival Iberoamericano de Cadiz (Spain) and the Festival de Theatre des Ameriques (Qudbec). The scripts, written by playwrights from North and South America and Spain, were given their first readings in Montreal in May and June.
* Last month, the Perfomance Network of Ann Arbor, Mich. presented Dario Fo’s rarely seen Isabella, Three Ships and a Shyster, directed by Martin Walsh. This 1963 satirical play-within-a-play skewers both Columbus and the monarchs who sponsored his notorious voyage.
* Baltimore’s Impossible Industrial Action produced a multimedia anti-tribute to the explorer in January. Columbus, a ghost story blended images from grade-school Columbus Day pageants and the Gulf War, and portrayed the anti-hero himself as a ventdloquist’s dummy.
* Gala Hispanic Theatre of Washington, D.C. commemorated the expedition with a Spanish play about one of his greatest detractors: Bartolome de las Casas, a 16th-century friar who recorded the atrocities wrought by the Spanish colonists in his Brief History of the Destruction of the Indies (1540). Jaime Salom’s Las Cosas: Una Hoguera al Amanecer (Bonfire at Dawn) was presented (in Spanish) in February and March.
* Last Spring, hoping to snare young audiences, Lancaster, Pa.’s Fulton Opera House presented a play about Columbus’s son. Barry Kornhauser’s Another Columbus is a fictionalized account of the early life of Diego Columbus, who worked as a page in the Spanish royal court.
* Minneapolis’s Mixed Blood Theatre Company presents its counter-quincentenary offering Sink the Ships through Oct. 9.
* Also in Minneapolis, the Walker Art Center wfll be the site of Guillermo Gomez- Pena and Coco Fusco’s The New World Border on Columbus Day. The multilingual piece, presented in conjunction with the Art Center’s Viewpoint exhibition The Year of the White Bear, explores recent changes in world topography and how those changes affect people’s sense of identity in the United States.
* INTAR Hispanic American Arts Center of New York and Women’s Project and Productions premiere Maria Irene Fornes and Roberto Sierra’s Terra Incognita, an ambitious interdiscipunary reflection on Columbus’s Idiscovery” of America, performed in English at INTAR on May 12- June 13.