Driving to my office at Brandeis, I heard a WBUR Arts & Culture announcer ask why Beethoven distracted himself with a banal project, when he was commissioned to work on his grand masterpiece a mass, eventually called Missa Solemnis. I knew I had to see this play by Moisés Kaufman, because I am writing a book about the creative process based on interviews with artists.
I immediately thought that I knew the answer: I have a chapter called “Change the Subject,” which describes how mind wandering or distractions of any sort will relax the mind and open the creative process at a later time. In Beethoven’s case as dramatized by Kaufman, this analysis proved to be wrong.
Kaufman has set his play in two different time zones: Beethoven, Anton Schindler his trusty assistant, (who really serves as slave, secretary, personal manager, and nurse), and Anton Schindler, his publisher and the publisher/composer of a waltz inviting leading composers to write variations for publication; and the present with musicologist Dr. Dr. Katherine Brandt, her daughter, Clara Brandt, and her German Colleague custodian of Beethoven’s sketches.
There are many parallel obsessions: Beethoven’s to continue to write more variations than the one invited by his publisher; Brandt’s to ignore her terminal illness and scour the aging papers in the Bonn library; Clara’s to be with her mother and help her in any way in her dying days. Oh yes, there’s the boyfriend Mike (a nurse and physical therapist!) who will go to any length to help Clara, even accompanying her to Bonn against Brandt’s wishes.
The play unfolds jumping between the past and the present with puzzling parallels; each scene has one of Beethoven’s variations as backdrop. The parallel obsessions are deftly written and I kept wondering: “where’s Chekhov’s loaded pistol?” I thought it was the illness, unnamed until the German musicologist recognized the symptoms from own her family loss, diagnosing this illness with German precision. Then perhaps it was Gertha’s icy exterior that gradually unfolded to diagnosing relationships and confirming Brandt’s constant findings of gaps in Schindler’s biography and in the notes in the library; then perhaps it was the diagnosis of Brandt’s daughter as mediocre in her life’s goals.
The denouement is flagged when the past and the present come together and both sets of actors repeat the same lines. Watch how Kaufman deftly signals the climaxing moments of the plot.
Brandt’s illness, Lou Gehrig’s disease or the motor neurone disease, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) does get worse with various muscles weakening and atrophying as the musicologist struggles to write her monograph and find the answer to her initial search. Paula Plum as Dr. Katherine Brandt is brilliant in the deterioration of the body functions, with facial and body contortions, her hand dropping off her wheelchair, and the slurred speech of the gradually frozen tongue. When she thinks she is hallucinating a conversation with Beethoven and returns to her former lithe self, holding his hand in admiration, it is evident that the other romance of the play is here, where Beethoven returns the admiration of her understanding of his creative process. The other creative process that we are witnessing is that of the musicologist as well. She has also worked as hard at her craft as Beethoven, and after putting in those proverbial 10,000 hours of honing her skill; she also takes the leap into creative insight. She also learns about “letting go,” the first prerequisite for leaping into new perceptions.
James Andreassi is at his best describing that moment of transcendence writing the penultimate variation while pianist Catherine Stornetta demonstrates every dynamic of volume sound and nuance note from fortissimo to al niente, fading to nothingness. Andreassi presence was Beethoven channeled.
Kaufman’s courting scene between Dakota Shepherd as Clara Brandt and Kelby T. Akin as Mike Clark is an interesting case study in Kaufman’s technique. The switches here are not of time, but of perspective. We see the courting moves (arm slipping around her shoulder, attempt at hand-holding) from both lovers’ thoughts until they finally (whew!) hold hands. Both actors’ facial movements are more than precious and highlight the wonderful humor of the play.
Yes, there is humor here. First it is suggested in the first variation as a march by Beethoven, who is rumored to name the whole enterprise as a Schuster fleck rosalia or “cobbler’s patch.” This may be a promotion by Schindler as his business manager. Who knows?
Maureen Keiller is the master of the straight face as the very Germanic fellow scholar, Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger. Her gradual thawing in is the creative process in action.
Victor L. Shopov as Schindler and Will McGarrahan as Anton Diabelli play off on one another, as Schindler manipulates delays with Diabelli. When a secret sketch of one of the variations is presented like a rabbit out of a hat, Diabelli’s reading of the notes against the backdrop of Stornetta on the keyboards.
The set design by Charles Schoonmaker was a moving actor in the production as well, especially during one scene when the notes were being written on the backdrop as we heard the notes themselves being played.
Why did Beethoven write the variations? The clue is revealed through the daughter, and you will have to see the play to find out.
I hope to certainly incorporate some dialogue and action in the revised chapters of my book subtitled, The Transformative Power of Creativity. Beethoven was transforming a simple string of notes into brilliant riffs time after time. Brandt was transformed as she worked at the answer to her question after she let go and was able to uncover the answer to her research question.
And I was transformed emotionally as I saw examples of my own thesis about creativity embodied before my very eyes.
For more about the Lyric Stage See:www.lyricstage.com/
For excerpts from the 2009 Broadway debut with sound bites by Jane Fonda and Beethoven describing his penultimate variation see:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CmYO-7F4RT0
To listen to a version of 33 Variations by a Russian pianist see:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pAI4-9yc6kA
For still another pianist play Beethoven’s 33 Variations while watching the score itself, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wctoxElV8Os