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The Essayist Becomes the Protagonist

In a Taper production, Randolph Bourne is given the dignity he long deserved.

July 05, 2001|ALLAN JALON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"The Body of Bourne," a play at the Mark Taper Forum, is about a tragic essayist named Randolph Bourne. We all know about tragic poets. The muse sets them on fire, a horrible disease strikes them when they're young, they speak a beautiful last sentence and die.

But a tragic essayist?

The news of any essayist as hero would surprise no less a master than E.B. White, who said he suffered from a "second-class citizen" status compared with novelists, playwrights and poets. The contest between Bourne's body and mind drew playwright John Belluso to a writer whose life started miserably when a botched delivery mangled his face. At 4, he suffered the spinal tuberculosis that left him dwarfed and hunchbacked. He lamented his state as someone "impossible to be desired" yet "doubly endowed with desire."

Bourne's big subjects were power and culture. He extolled youth as an agent of change and critiqued America as a standardizing melting pot. His opposition to America's entry into World War I prompted his most famous line, "War is the health of the state." With his last gasp, at 32, he praised the color yellow.

He died in the flu epidemic of 1918, sipping eggnog: "It's such a pretty color."

Hearing that an actor is speaking Bourne's words from an L.A. stage amazes Robert Atwan. He recently co-edited "The Best American Essays of the Century" (Houghton Mifflin) with Joyce Carol Oates, and Bourne's essay, "The Handicapped--By One of Them," was one of their 55 selections. He says that "even if I had to cut the list down and say who is in the top 20 essayists of the century, I would have him there."

Though he hasn't seen "The Body of Bourne" (frankly, the play got mixed reviews), Atwan calls Belluso "gutsy" for dramatizing Bourne. "He's undeservedly obscure," Atwan said from Massachusetts. "I've been waiting for someone to do a film or a play about him for a long time. He played an important role in the essay and in the country at a time when essays were read a lot more than now."

The Golden Age of the Essayist

Bourne wrote at a time when ruminating essayists shaped American thought, when the written word had a power unimaginable in our age of instant, electronic opinions. Dozens of publications (Bourne wrote mainly for the Atlantic Monthly and the New Republic) tracked America's growth from a vast backwater of reserved potential into an industrialized empire with new social responsibilities. Atwan says the cloistered role of the essay was changing toward the highly personal, journalistic hybrids that writers often practice today. "Bourne, H.L. Mencken and others helped to transform the essay from the genteel, polite form inherited from the 19th century. Before, it had an ivory tower quality--rambling, whimsical, bookish.

"Bourne wasn't so different, at first," Atwan adds. "But then, in essays like 'The Handicapped,' he started to get both more personal and more polemical about the world." In the Taper's production--the playwright, who has spent his life in a wheelchair from a rare disease, and many other actors are handicapped--Bourne's words celebrating music, radicalism, love and friendship appear luminously against the set. A chorus conducts a dialogue of renewing insights with actor Clark Middleton, who plays Bourne. The baseline for this verbal fugue is "The Handicapped," as Bourne discovers both the essay and his dignity out loud:

"At the bottom of all the difficulties of a man like me is really the fact that his self-respect is so slow in growing up. And that is the best thing the handicapped man can do. Growing up will have given him one of the greatest, and certainly the most durable, satisfactions of his life."

The chorus gradually takes over, a kind of chant:

"So to all those situated as I am, I would say--grow up as fast as you can. Cultivate the widest interests you can, cherish all your friends and cultivate some artistic talent. Do not take the world too seriously, nor let too many social conventions oppress you. Keep sweet your sense of humor, and if you do not let any morbid feelings of inferiority creep into your soul, you may well come to count your deformity as a blessing."

Bourne's public musing lives at the level of deep psychological tissue and cultivates an idealism framed by an absolute realism about how the world treats those who don't fit in. The best essayists make the process of feeling and thinking visible, says Atwan, founding editor of the annual "Best American Essays" series, also published by Houghton Mifflin. He reads a lot of interesting essays but says relatively few writers devote themselves to emulating the purer short prose models set by Emerson and Montaigne (whose classic essayist's motto was a question: "What do I know?").

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