“Oh!” My voice burst forth from across the room. “It’s as if both of you are trying to say, Tell me you love me, but neither of you can actually say it.” The actors stared at me as I walked towards them from the table where the playwright and I perched in observation. I could see the gears turning behind their eyes. “And each of you is trying to show your love, but it’s in a language that the other person can’t understand. There lies the hope, and ultimately, the tragedy.” By this time the actors were furiously scribbling in their scripts, decoding each line of the scene with new subtext and a richer imagination. Those ideas were already in their performances, but now we could acknowledge the insight behind their instincts. They naturally found the love between two characters that had grown up together, and now find themselves with conflicting views of the world. They are magnetically drawn to each other, but their adherence to their own driving needs keeps them apart.
When I agreed to direct A Breach Outside the Furnace Walls, Again, Again, it only existed in our imaginations. With a slightly manic gleam in his eye, my colleague Rory Strahan-Mauk proposed the play, an artistic response to the Doctor Faustus legend, at one of our meetings for the San Jose Rep’s Emerging Artists Lab. His proposal and two slight pages of dialogue told the story of a man, Zach, who makes a wager with the devil, similar to Faustus’ deal, but unique in its terms. What made me leap out of my seat and say “Yes!” to the project before it even existed was the idea that Zach’s story is even more tragic than Faustus’—Zach uses Satan’s resources to make a machine to heal people, but the arm of the government that supports his research appropriates his work, turning it into destructive atomic technology. Just as the actors drew out the love underlying the text, I instinctively connected to the driving force underneath all of Zach’s scientific and technological discovery: the desire to take care of the people around him.
The tragedy of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus revolves around one man exchanging his soul for knowledge and power. Ultimately, Faustus loses all of these when he is dragged into hell. The knowledge and power he gains serves only himself, and he loses that self when Lucifer comes to call. I find the tragedy in Furnace to be more human, sensitive, and heartbreaking. Rather than serving his own desires, or scientific notoriety, Zach constantly focuses on how his work will benefit his childhood sweetheart’s father, or his own mother, both of whom have terminal illnesses. When I hear the actor playing Zach furiously at work, muttering to himself, “If I rejuvenate the best in him, attack disease by strengthening what’s still…”, or pleading with his mother, “I’ve got – I’ve seen this – a machine that heals […] I’ll soon be done, and ready for the world. And you can be the first,” every part of me is filled with hope, and anticipation. But I know that hope inevitably leads us to heartbreak: this man devotes so much of his time to his work, that he pushes away the individuals who can give him the same kind of love and care that he truly wants to give to them. It is a tragedy, after all.
The tragedy in Furnace hits home for me because it gets at a truth that we often ignore: sometimes, evil does win out over good. Sometimes, our good intentions aren’t enough to ensure a happy ending with people we love. We are capable of accomplishing great things, but they won’t always be the things we wanted to do, or create. Sometimes we prevent ourselves from getting what we actually want. Zach’s tragedy is two-fold, both personal, and epic. Despite his good intentions and compassion for the people in his life, his discoveries lead to massive human suffering at the hands of the atomic bomb, and because of his own behavior, he ends his story isolated from both friends and family. When I was talking to my father about this play, he pointed out, “Any discovery can be used for good, or for evil.” Intellectually, I know he is correct, but, like many of us would do, Zach lets the weight of that responsibility fall on his own shoulders. So I feel for his tragedy, as I would feel the sorrow of being torn between my own good intentions and the fact that sometimes they have very little effect on reality.
A Breach Outside the Furnace Walls, Again, Again
by Rory Strahan-Mauk
directed by Heather Noelle Robinson
May 24th and 25th, 2013, 10pm
San Jose Rep’s Emerging Artists Lab
101 Paseo de San Antonio in Downtown San Jose
Pay what you will