News & Articles
Letter from the Artistic Director on Fake
2009-2010, Volume 1
by Martha Lavey
We open our season of belief with Fake, a new play by ensemble member Eric Simonson. Fake follows two narratives: one set in 1914; the other in 1953. Both narratives take place in East Sussex and in London and are linked by the story of the Piltdown Man. The Piltdown Man was the artifact, discovered in East Sussex, purported to be the "missing link"—the evidence of an evolutionary link between Cro-Magnon and Modern Man.
In the earlier story, set at the time of the artifact's discovery, the characters are historical personages, gathered together by the novelist, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Like his most famous literary creation, Sherlock Holmes, Doyle gathers a cast of characters in a drawing room, confident that the pressure of their being together will uncover the truth of what he believes is a hoax. The 1914 story is an inscription of the whodunit structure of Doyle's famous novels.
These scenes from 1914 alternate with scenes from 1953, the year that the Piltdown Man was revealed to be a fake. The characters in the 1953 story are analogues to their 1914 counterparts and although they continue the narrative of the Piltdown Man discovery and unmasking, the focus of their story shifts to the interpersonal-the questions of authenticity, the tension between religious and scientific belief, the questions about what is known and it is impossible to know-take on a decidedly personal cast.
In the Piltdown Man, Eric has discovered a potent symbol by which to test our convictions about belief/authenticity/science/the spiritual. What do we do, as a species, as individuals, when reality feels discontinuous, when a leap of evolutionary development demands evidence or a leap of faith? Because both of the stories in the play-the one set in 1914 and the one set in 1953—are constructed as mysteries, I resist describing their plots and their outcomes. Rather, I alert you to the multiple dualities in the play that form the central core of the play's theme.
The central image of the play is the Piltdown Man artifact itself. The skull is a hybrid structure: the cranium suggests an evolutionary advance over its lower part, the mandible, which is closer in structure to the jaw of an ape. The image of the skull, suggestive of the evolution of human consciousness, becomes a potent symbol of man's dual nature-a residue of our animal past, a suggestion of our capacity for higher-level thought and ideation.
Eric mimics this conjoining of past and present in his structure of the play. He gives us two moments in history and allows the story to oscillate between them. The narrative of the play is not a simple chronology: we move back and forth in time with the present moment of your receiving it a double-vision: as an audience we are watching two stories in parallel, each informing the other. Like the skull of Piltdown Man, the story of Fake allows us to see the past and present conjoined in a single creation.
Another set of oppositions are provided by the characters within each narrative. Both storylines pose a mystery and the characters in each are charged with solving the mystery at hand. In the 1914 narrative, the British fiction writer, Doyle, is paired with Rebecca Eastman, an American journalist. They, in turn, are positioned against an historian, Arthur Woodward. Fiction, journalism and history—each a different take on narrative, each committed to a version of "the truth." Joining them are a scientist, Charles Dawson, and a philosopher/theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, another oppositional pairing of truth-seekers. As we come to discover, each of them has a personal stake in the prosecution of their point of view-each calls into service the methodology and the bias of their profession to substantiate the truth-claims that their personal and emotional history demands.
In the 1953 storyline, the characters are, again, representatives of varying and oppositional narrative starting points. Jonathan is an atheist and an academic who relies on the examination of historical artifacts to construct the evolutionary record. Jonathan’s faith is deductive logic. His young colleague, American Doug Arnt, works more directly in the field-he engages the objects and sites themselves, he subjects them to clinical examination and testing, he speculates. As he says to Kat, Jonathan's fiancée and herself an anthropologist, "I don't fit in with the smart set... I think you can get bogged down with the deductions, you know, lose the big picture? There's more to life than facts and figures, don't you think?" "Like what," Kat asks. "I don't know," he says. "Mystery."
With the Piltdown Man artifact serving as the central image in both storylines of the play, we watch this array of characters negotiate the mystery of origins through the construction of oppositional narratives. The question that the Piltdown Man artifact provokes about the origin of the species activates in each of them a kind of self-excavation. The convictions that have been formed by the characters’ personal histories become the informing narratives of their systems of inquiry about the world. We develop systems of thought, disciplinary narratives (science! religion! journalism!) that seek primacy as the most complete, the most reliable, the truest but those narratives are always informed by our personal stake in the outcome.
I think Fake is a wonderfully provocative starting point for our season of belief. We want to know, we want the truth and we construct systems of thought, tenets of belief, to address the mysteries that allude our ability to gain those certainties. The past-of our own lives, of our species' life—is a profound mystery that will always fascinate and always elude. Deep at the heart of that fascination and that elusiveness is a duality: we live in the animal kingdom we call our past, we live in a mind capable of imagining a transcendence and a future. Perhaps, like the story of Fake, an authentic view of our human condition will always require a double vision: a parallel storyline of past and present, religion and science, logic and mystery, doubt and faith.