|Robert Symonds, Andy Robinson.|
Britain’s Edward Bond, a controversial anti-Establishment political playwright, provided the Lincoln Center Repertory Company with one of its few modern plays in Narrow Road to the Deep North, a work previously staged elsewhere in the United States but not in New York. Written in the amazingly brief time of two and a half days, it is a political parable told in Brechtian epic style, set in a fabled Japan anywhere from the 17th through the 19th centuries, and based on a story by the famed haiku poet Basho (Robert Symonds), taking its title from Basho’s classic travel diary in prose and verse, Oku no Hosomichi (1702).
Bond’s story so offended the playwright in its picture of an artist whose personal search for truth cut him off from participation in the suffering of others that he was compelled to write this savagely satirical play.
|Richard Greene, Robert Phalen, Martha Henry.|
The complex plot is essentially about Basho’s journey to the north (the oku or “interior”) to seek enlightenment. On his way he fails to save the life of an abandoned baby, one that later grows up to become the tyrannical dictator of Japan, Shogo (Cleavon Little). Shogo is forced to confront a rival for his power, the specter of British colonialism and Christianity, represented by a British commodore (Sydney Walker) and his Salvation Army sister (Martha Henry). The forces of the latter pair predominate.
Crammed with deliberate anachronisms, allegorical symbols, epigrams, brief scenes, and theatricalist conventions, as well as calculated divergences from historical accuracy, Narrow Road was an obvious example of Brecht’s potent influence on Bond. There was considerable division concerning both the play and the production, which had a much warmer response in its London original. On the other hand, its striking moments of violence got it into hot water with the censors.
Brendan Gill assailed Bond’s “sophomoric/soporific” and too familiar postulates: “military dictatorship is evil, imperialism is evil, experience teaches nothing except that it teaches nothing.” But Harold Clurman did not believe the work was “to be lightly dismissed.” Douglas Watt found it simplistic, Martin Gottfried “simple-minded,” and Richard Watts a play “trapped in its own hollow pretentiousness” as well as “fairy idiotic.”
Clive Barnes termed the production “distressingly tedious” despite its “fresh ideas.” He railed at the misconceived direction and performances. Walter Kerr concurred, calling it “a thin, confused, extremely tardy venture into schoolboy symbolism,” burdened by an excruciatingly poor production, with a cast of “dependable amateurs.” Yet Watt thought it “tidily” staged, and Gill even believed the mounting to be “brilliant.”
Black actors played several of the Japanese roles, a feature that distressed New York’s Asian-American actors, who later picketed Lincoln Center to protest the kind of discriminatory casting practices that would eventually lead to the end of most yellowface performances. In the ensuing arbitration with Actors Equity, Lincoln Center Artistic Director Jules Irving’s company was found guilty as charged.