Bartleby, The Scrivener
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 13, 2005
STANDARD: Bartleby. I'm asking you to examine copy. Take these papers. Take them now, please!
BARTLEBY: I would prefer not to.
STANDARD: What's that Bartleby? What'd you say?
BARTLEBY: I say, I would prefer not to.
Into a Wall Street law copyists' office one day walks Bartleby, the eponymous antihero of Herman Melville's novella and now of R.L. Lane's fine stage adaptation. 150 years ago, legal documents were copied by hand by scriveners, who worked ten hours a day (half a day on Saturday) and were paid four cents per one hundred words. Bartleby joins Mr. Standard's firm, that gentleman having recently been appointed Master of Chancery for the State of New York and consequently requiring additional staff besides his faithful employees Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nuts. At first, Bartleby is a model of efficiency, working swiftly and with a neat hand, without exhibiting either Turkey's post-lunch inebriation or Nippers's sour disposition.
And then, after weeks of earnest good service, Bartleby begins his quiet rebellion: "I would prefer not to." First he won't examine copy. Then he spends long stretches away from his desk, apparently just staring into space, at a wall or out a window. Standard says, "Come Bartleby: time is money!" And Bartleby says: "Is it? I cannot say for sure."
From here it's downhill all the way. Bartleby becomes more obstinate, Standard becomes at once more exasperated and more concerned. Eventually Bartleby ceases working altogether, but he won't even be fired; he won't leave Standard's offices even after Standard, at the end of his (considerably lengthy) rope, actually vacates them and moves to another location. Bartleby winds up in prison, alienated but never entirely alone—for Standard is steadfast to the end, even calling Bartleby his friend.
Is Bartleby, as some suggest, literature's first existential hero? I think not: he drives Standard not from but to the tenets of traditional Christian charity, transforming this erstwhile model capitalist into a humanist. For me, Bartleby is the quintessential individualist, or non-conformist. That he knows only what he prefers not to do (as opposed to what he prefers to do) is his tragedy, but in his determination to not live by bogus regulations, he's somehow triumphant.
Lane's stage version, which is taut and touching and often very funny, bears me out on this point, I believe. The laughs derive from absurdities, but these absurdities are not Bartleby's but everyone else's. Why do we let ourselves sit in gloomy offices all day long copying out other people's documents? Why do we engage ourselves with foolish pastimes like drinking and cards that lull us into assuming we're content?
In Marco Quaglia, this production has a riveting, soulful, eminently sympathetic Bartleby; his deep brown eyes and his hunched posture—a man squashed by the cosmic—are spectacularly eloquent, as is his delivery of his very occasional lines—soft, halting, fierce. Gerry Bamman, as the play's protagonist Standard, is a splendid match to Quaglia's Bartleby, coming upon his humanity dawningly and beautifully.
The supporting cast is generally excellent as well, especially Brian Linden's wonderfully caustic, almost-foppish Nippers (he has a grand moment during a sequence in which Standard's employees are trying to "cheer up" Bartleby with songs and games; his rapid-fire explanation of a complicated card game called "Preference" epitomizes the fight against meaninglessness that Bartleby appears to be waging). Hunter Gilmore is naive simplicity personified as the office boy Ginger Nuts, while Christian Haines is eerily efficient as an emissary from outside Standard's office named Fairchild. Robert Grossman nicely balances the pathos and seediness of a fellow called the Grub Man who keeps watch over Bartleby after he's imprisoned. Only Sterling Coyne, as the expansive, obsequious Turkey, seems a bit miscast, overdoing the faux-grandeur of this fellow in a manner that's often distracting.
Alessandro Fabrizi's staging feels less precise, in terms of spatial relationships and movement, than it could be, but the human relationships are delineated brilliantly and that's certainly more important. Harry Feiner's set—period office furniture in an abstract wall-less room, backed by projections/sketches of a building exterior and some windows—is richly evocative and seems the perfect surroundings for Bartleby's tale to play out in. Dennis Ballard's costumes add nice dashes of color (or lack thereof) as needed to explicate each of the main characters.
Bartlebys are important to society because they remind us of things that our daily hustle and bustle often make us forget. It's great to have such a smart and effective adaptation of this classic Melville work on stage here in New York right now.