The Language Archive
Presented by Forum Theatre
By Julia Cho
Directed by Jessica Burgess
February 16 - March 10, 2012
Round House Theatre, Silver Spring, Maryland
In my previous blog post of last June on this play, I embedded videos of scenes from the play as well as of playwright Julia Cho. There is, of course, a vast difference between watching a YouTube video and experiencing a play live in a theater. Still, I will claim that the Round House production is second to none. The intensity of the acting beats what I see in these videos. Both the hilarity and pathos of this production are most compelling, hence I recommend it to all.
“Language is an act of faith.” – L. L. Zamenhof (as an apparition)
The Language Archive, opening with a marital conflict and broadening with other characters and relationships, gets more and more hilarious, but in the end it is incredibly moving. The bickering between the language archivist and his wife rings all too familiar. The nature of communication is shown to be a much broader phenomenon than the language in which it is imperfectly embodied and is shown to be itself imperfect in its paralinguistic dimension. Esperanto plays a major role in the play—both comical and serious—and Zamenhof himself is a character. The notion of the language archive—an institution dedicated to the recording and preservation of dying languages—is not a mere playwright's gimmick: there is poignancy in the vanishing worlds of the last speakers of these languages, and in the loss of personal relationships in worlds still living, but also something profound is conveyed about the chronic failure of the quest for mutual understanding. The play does have a resolution but neither a happy nor an unhappy ending. We constantly fall short in our attempt to communicate ourselves, and yet we persist. Language is an act of faith.
Towards the end of the play, when Zamenhof makes the statement I quoted, I started to choke up, as I did at play's end, which involved both the final "resolutions" of the characters as well as the various dead languages being spoken over the loudspeaker. While attempting to minimize the spoilers, I guess I have to explain my reaction to the Zamenhof character. The treatment of Zamenhof as a wise old man reminds me of the appearances of Einstein in popular culture, in movies or TV shows. But what's relevant in this particular scene is that the lab assistant asked Zamenhof if he would have acted differently had he known that all his children would be targeted and murdered by the Nazis because of Esperanto. Zamenhof replied, no. And then he says: "Language is an act of faith." For me this encapsulated the theme of the whole play. But the broad theme was love and communication. Both often fail, yet even with the imperfection of the process and the outcome, there is nonetheless a vehicle, even if an imperfect one, which provides a means at least to make something happen—a bold foray into the unknown and uncontrollable course of events.
When I relayed this scene yesterday to my companion over coffee, once again I was verklempt. My companion thought this utterance by the phantom Zamenhof a profound one. Why does it affect me so? It reminds me of the program note of another philosophical favorite, Duke Ellington:
Communication itself is what baffles the multitude. It is both so difficult and so simple. Of all men's fears, I think that men are most afraid of being what they are — in direct communication with the world at large. They fear reprisals, the most personal of which is that they "won't be understood."I have, by the way, translated this into Esperanto:
. . . Yet, every time God's children have thrown away fear in pursuit of honesty — trying to communicate themselves, understood or not — miracles have happened.
Duke Ellington Komunikas ‘Preter Kategorio’
Returning from public to private communication, I find it rather remarkable that the notion of compiling a recording of "I love you" in all the dying and extinct languages of the world works so well as a theatrical device. You might think it the corniest gimmick ever. Not so. No, sir. Nothing could be more effective than the voices of all those ghosts of lost worlds, expressing the fundamental human motivation behind everything we care about. The peculiar, divergent metaphorical expressions in all those languages that we unify under the rubric of this one meaning reflect both the imperfection of the linguistic vehicle and the concept it aims to express beyond its own linguistic means; that is, we feel the striving to communicate those lost and invisible worlds (of two people or of an entire culture) even while not comprehending the languages through which they are spoken. Hence our own perception is raised beyond our own unreflective habits. Hence theater itself pushes out beyond the limits of culture into a new perception of our reality.
And now to reconnect the private and the public, and in this note, Ellington with Zamenhof. Esperanto never was the all-encompassing vehicle for Zamenhof's aims, nor could the development of the Esperanto movement be contained within or adequately expressive of those aims. Yet, groping half-blind into the uncertain future, with all the imperfections of human relations and communication, Zamenhof cast his lot with his linguistic creation, a language unique in its genesis, character and physiognomy, but still only a language, like all others, yet a language made with love. One feels it in Zamenhof's own passion. Whatever other illusions one wishes to dispel with respect to the language and its creator, this vital force continues to inspire. Lives have been lived and lost with this language. And the fact of striving is as important as the outcome. Expression is happiness.