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Art Beneath the Floorboards

Notes from the Underground

Adapted by Bill Camp and Robert Woodruff
La Jolla Playhouse, directed by Robert Woodruff

“I am a sick man… I am an evil man. An unattractive man I am.” These are the opening words of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1864 novel Notes From the Underground. Bill Camp, who played Underground Man in the recent La Jolla Playhouse production, spoke them slowly into a webcam, while surrounded by cans of Goya fruit juice, office supplies, and dirty laundry. His enormous image was projected against the set behind him. Camp, together with director Robert Woodruff, adapted the novel for stage for the Yale Repertory Theater in 2009. It has just completed a run at the La Jolla Playhouse on the University of California, San Diego campus to considerable acclaim – and considerable distress: there were numerous accounts of disconcerted audience members leaving prematurely. The three-person cast included Camp, Merritt Janson, who played the prostitute Liza, as well as providing music and voice-overs, and Michaël Attias, who improvised the play’s music, provided voice-overs, and made a brief cameo as Man’s servant. The other characters from Dostoevsky’s novella appeared in the form of enormous projections on the set, who physically dwarfed Camp and taunted him through the lips of Janson and Attias. The performance, by humans and avatars alike, was as deeply unsettling as the original novel.

Dostoevsky wrote the Notes From the Underground during 1863-64, dark years among the many of his astoundingly ill-starred life. A few years earlier he had returned to St. Petersburg from exile in Siberia. While he was writing the novel, his first wife, Marya Dmitrevna, died. The populist thinker Nikolai Cherynyshevsky had published his utilitarian novel, What is to Be Done, in 1863, which proposed a utopian society built on the tenets of the Enlightenment, complete with communal living, and the achievement of absolute reason. Critics tend to agree that Dostoevsky’s Underground Man was supposed to be an exaggerated dramatization of the kind of nihilist Chernyshevsky had idealized in his own novel. Dostoevsky, who feared nothing more than a world without purpose, created a character in Underground Man who is slavishly faithful to the goal of achieving perfect rational truth, but who is prevented by his own human nature. The result is a fundamental clash between Man’s human response to the humiliation he suffers in society and a commitment to logic and rationalism that, as Joseph Frank puts it, “dissolves all such moral emotive feelings and hence the very possibility of a human response.” Underground Man gradually implodes: all of his loathing for his tormentors is eventually pointed directly at himself, and he retreats further into his lair, “incapable even of becoming a bug.”

One of my favorite episodes in the novel is absent from the play: Underground Man, offended by an officer who once brushed him aside in a pool hall and later ignored him on the street, spends months plotting his revenge. He purchases new clothes, complete with an overcoat (a hand-me-down from Gogol’s Akaky Akakievich), adorned with new, cheap beaver fur to replace his old raccoon collar, and goes out walking with the sole desire of confronting his offender when they pass in the street. The resulting minor collision of shoulders is the character’s great triumph, a meaningless moment that emphasizes the protagonist’s petty obsessions and lack of any true ambition:

I saw him about three steps away from me. Suddenly I decided. I closed my eyes and we banged hard against each other, shoulder against shoulder. I didn’t yield an inch and walked past him as an equal! He never even turned around, pretending not to have noticed a thing. But I know he was just pretending.

This passage is a brutal parody of a similar scene in Chernyshevsky’s What is to Be Done, in which the student Lopukhov refuses to stand down to a large gentleman on the street, and is immediately applauded by a couple of passing peasants: “Now at that time Lopukhov had a rule never to yield to anyone except a woman. They bumped shoulders. The gentleman, turning slightly toward Lopukhov, said, ‘What sort of swine are you, you pig!’”

Woodruff’s play puts far more emphasis on the relationship between Underground Man and Liza, a young prostitute from Riga. Man wavers between befriending and humiliating her. Their meeting in a brothel is also lifted from an episode in What is to be Done, in which another nihilist medical student, Kirsanov, convinces the prostitute Kryukova to give up her lifestyle and join a sewing commune. But Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, after terrifying Liza and earning her trust with dark predictions about her future, is too much the slave to reason to give in to his own compassion for the young woman – “What I was really after at that moment were power and a role to play, and your tears, your humiliation, and your hysterics,” he tells her later, when she has come in search of him, hoping for help. “But I couldn’t keep it up because I’m garbage myself,” Underground Man says, allowing his narcissistic quest for truth to bury the rare opportunity to connect with another human being. Then he rapes her. In Woodruff’s theatrical interpretation, this took place behind a stack of filing cabinets. All the audience could see was the movement of legs, slowing down, to the sound of Liza’s terribly even, terrified cries.

A Scene from the play. Photo: Joan Marcus

No one really understood Dostoevsky’s parody when the book came out, and Dostoevsky considered the novel a failure for this reason. Before seeing the play I tended to agree. The first half of the novel consists of the fictitious author’s long, existential argument with himself. The second half is somewhat more captivating, but is still a far cry from the redemptive Crime and Punishment, which he would write two years later, recycling some of the motifs he uses in Notes from the Underground. But Bill Camp, whose Underground Man swung quickly and terribly from a cowering outcast to a horrifying rapist to a mumbling clown, managed to polish the character with a century and a half of more mature existentialism. The audience had the benefit not only of the early Dostoevsky, but of Kafka, Sartre, and the late-night youtube broadcasters of their darkest fears. As Liza, Merritt brought a depth of empathy and chilling human terror to her role. At one point Liza hurled herself relentlessly against a windowpane built into the back of the set in a futile attempt to escape the fate Underground Man had described for her. The set, which was covered in snow and office debris, was a landscape of humiliation and loneliness.

This play (unlike Peter Stein’s 14-hour rendition of The Devils) had no intermission. A few people, knowing how the novella ends, slipped quickly out when Underground Man approached Liza during the final scene. The rest of the audience held their breaths, and looked deeply shaken when the lights were turned up. Good art, Victor Shklovsky reminds us, shocks us out of our automatization. It “restores sensation to our limbs.” I was humbled at how uncannily Camp had managed to portray my own darkest, most self-absorbed thoughts, and happy – very happy – to walk above the floorboards.

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Amelia Glaser is an Assistant Professor of Russian Literature at the University of California, San Diego.