I am an actor and writer in Los Angeles. Below are the expanded author notes I wrote for the Actors' Gang's production of Heart of Darkness, which I adapted from the famed novel by Joseph Conrad. I have been a member of Tim Robbins theater company, the Actors' Gang, for almost 20 years and while on tour in Melbourne, Australia I had the privilege of seeing the opening night performance of a Japanese performance art/Butoh dance company called Dumb Type. The performance had in it a single light bulb swinging high above the stage, which hypnotized me and offered me one of the few moments in my life in which I was struck definitively with inspiration: make Joseph Conrad's novel, Heart of Darkness into a solo performance piece. It is also one of the few times which I followed through with an inspiration and I am pleased to say that the show is a success.
Heart of Darkness
"Seventeen pages of close writing."
This is how the character Charlie Marlow describes the writing of the character Kurtz, but he may as well be speaking of Joseph Conrad; the author who created both men in his most celebrated work: Heart of Darkness. Close writing. Conrad has a remarkable ability to concisely frame a sentence, (that in itself can be profound), but when you combine Conrad's mastery of grammar with his themes, ideas and landscapes, his little novel is thick with "close writing." Even more impressive is that it was written in English by a Polish man who learned English from a Frenchman.
I first read Heart of Darkness around 10 years ago. I was thrilled by the journey to the Congo and up the Congo River, a place unknown to Europeans. The awe Marlow felt to be in a place so foreign to him that he was forever changed. I loved Conrad's dry irony describing the absurdity of the company which employed Marlow and the group of bumbling Belgian idiots surrounding him. But, more than anything, I was fascinated by Conrad's words in explaining "the horror," the final words spoken by the character of Kurtz. Countless essays and term papers have been written exploring those two words. What haunts Marlow is that he realizes that at the end of his own life, "...I probably would have nothing to say." He admires Kurtz because he said something, even if that something is a condemnation on the world and his own soul. Conrad explains it by saying, "...he summed up, he judged; 'the horror.' This was some sort of belief, it had candor and conviction, a strange commingling of desire and hate... and perhaps in this is the whole difference, perhaps all the truth and all the wisdom are just compressed into that inappreciable moment of time when we step over the threshold of the invisible. His cry: 'the horror,' was an affirmation..." He affirmed that the world, his life and his deeds were a horror. But what is most remarkable about these two words is that Marlow does not convey them to the woman who loved Kurtz. He spares her the horror of the man she loved blindly. My interpretation of this small act of kindness and grace is that Marlow saw the darkness, pain and horror of Kurtz and the world, he recognized that it exists and always will exist, but he makes a choice to not let it flow out of and through himself. It ends with him, he will not convey it further.
It is impossible to talk about this book without talking about, "the horror," it is also impossible to talk about this book and not address its racism. The book is clearly a criticism of the Belgian conquest of the Congo, but it is also clear that Conrad held the opinion of most, if not all white Europeans: that they were inherently superior to the African people and people of color, in general. It is unfortunate that this resides in the book and is one of its legacies. But it serves as a historical document, a view into a time and place of broad, open racism. It wasn't until 1974 that this overt racism was finally called out, in a scholarly essay written by Chinua Achebe. His criticism of the novel and Conrad put a modern perspective on the man and the book. I believe that one of Achebe's major concerns was that it was being taught in schools and institutions without addressing the clear racism within it. Some have asked why I would want to work on this book because of its overt racism. The book reflects an ugly historic truth about the institutional racist perspective Europeans had toward Africa and its people, and this helps tell the story of colonial conquest and how this region is the way it is today.
I am hoping that this production will continue an ongoing dialog about the Congo, its past and its present. When Conrad himself went up the Congo River he witnessed the horrific Belgian conquest of that land. The exact numbers are unavailable but it is estimated that more than 10 million people lost their lives to King Leopold's reign.
Over the past 12 years, more than six million people have been killed in the Congo, all over the incredibly rich resources that only the Congo has beneath it. Our phones and computers all have pieces of the Congo deep inside them, helping them to function and to keep them cool to the touch. The horrors of the past are used today to grab those lands and rid them of its people. It is as exploited and unchecked today as it was in the 1890s. If Central Europe or North America had six million violent deaths within their borders over the past 10 years the world we know would react very differently. But, these things have occured in the Congo and the outside world does not seem willing or capable of doing anything: the horrors are so inhuman that they are unprintable, it is so far away that it does not touch us directly, there is nothing we feel we can do to stop it, we feel powerless... but saddest of all, there is a hidden belief that this is what Africans always do to each other when in reality they learned most of these horrific terror tactics from the Belgians.
The horror continues, but instead of being silent, as Marlow chose to do, we must speak about it. The horror won't end if nobody knows it exists.