January 31, 2020
The journal of Russian author Isaac Babel plays a central role in “Describe the Night” as it appears and reappears over a span of 90 years. We asked actor Ross Beschler to journal his own experience of playing Isaac at the Wilma.
Lunch break during technical rehearsal. Nap on the cot in the hallway. Describe the sensation of drifting in and out of sleep while costumers murmur over a choice of spectacles for Nikolai, while sounds from onstage scene work drift in over the monitor. Hazy. Disjointed.
On stage, in a forest of dismembered trees painted black. Describe the lights, how they sting the eyes. Describe the silence of waiting for a cue to be written, the no-where and no-when of an actor waiting for the action to continue. For a moment, I could be anywhere, in any time. Coughs from the tech tables. Laughter: an actor has quietly told a story, about a time they couldn’t find a toilet in public: distension, panic. Then silence again. Our quiet world layers narratives into each other like a roomful of spiders weaving, weaving, into one another’s webs. Ants busily take stock of their new world – they arrived with the trees. Who’s acting more convincingly on this stage, me or them?
Isaac Babel’s diaries are his notes to himself: the notes of a writer voraciously devouring the world around him, responding to it, and setting it down in fragments that will allow him to access those memories, those moments, later, when he has time to actually write. He intends to tell great, heart-wrenching, hilarious stories that reveal the complexities and contradictions of human beings, and the world is giving him incredible material – men and women in the extremes of human experience, at war in Poland in the 1920s. Sometimes he doesn’t even get as far as describing the thing he wants to describe – “Me and the Ukrainian editors,” he writes on June 4, 1920. And that’s all he says about that. I think of him consulting his diary after his return from war, sitting down in his study to turn his sketches into stories, and wonder: does a passage like that fill him with despair? What WAS it about those editors that he wanted to remember? Did the very mention of it bring the whole scene flooding back to him in all its glorious detail, or was it lost forever?
Learning to see the world through Rajiv Joseph’s version of Isaac Babel is a lesson in falling in love with the details of life. “Sweat, watery tea, I’m sinking my teeth into life again, farewell to you, dead men.” Meditations on the infinite are accessible through the immediate. Both are true, both are present, and both get documented. He reports what he sees, in the world and in himself.
“Where are you from, young man?”
“How is life there?”
“People are alive.”
“Here it’s terrible.”
A short conversation.
I leave shattered.
Babel, in his journals, is hungry for the heartbreak of life. He looks to excavate it from tiny moments. Reading passages like the one above, it’s no wonder he wrote plays and screenplays in addition to novels and short stories – he has an excellent ear for dialogue, and like a great painter can evoke a full emotional landscape with just a few spare lines.
As an actor, this helps me understand him as a man who seeks to extract the best scene he can from the world around him. He likes the stakes high, and he likes the game interesting, just as an actor does—but for Babel this had real-world consequences. In real life, as in our play, his fascination with danger got him into some serious trouble: his friendship with Nikolai Yezhov is based in reality, and Yezhov was one of Stalin’s most efficient butchers, a fact well-known by many. An appalled colleague once asked him why he would keep such company: did he actually want to touch death? “No,” Babel reportedly replied, “I just like to have a sniff to see what it smells like.” His sense of wonder and curiosity extended to the macabre, the dangerous, the forbidden, the deadly.
This makes for a man of contradictions. Babel’s not exactly innocent, but he’s not malicious— he doesn’t wish anyone harm. He believes that to describe and report on the world around him, in all its thorny, murky details, is no threat to anyone. They’re just stories, made to move people to joy, to terror, to tears, and who could possibly be threatened by that?
This turned out to be an extremely naive view, of course; the Soviet system, under Stalin, was INCREDIBLY threatened by a populace with an emotional life outside its direct supervision and control. And the system was willing to kill to maintain that control.
And it did.