William Blake’s prophetic manuscript Vala or the Four Zoas is subtitled ‘A Dream of Nine Nights’. The manuscript is encircled by illustrations, two thirds of which are inscribed on engraved proofs of his designs to Edward Young’s Night Thoughts(1797). Over about a decade, Blake accumulated revisions to the text, including two Nights the Seventh, and then left the poem unfinished. It was found ‘unpaged, and unsorted’ and published by W.B. Yeats and E.J. Ellis in 1893. It has baffled readers and editors ever since. The Blake Archive is currently preparing a digital edition. In addition to the visual dimensions of Blake’s composite art, his texts also draw on apocalyptic traditions of ‘visionary theatre’, as well as street theatre and the world of late eighteenth-century afterpieces – meaning his epic scenes of inspiration and song are in dialogue with many contemporaneous theatrical traditions. In Night I of the text, the prophetic stage of Vala opens up in the porches of the ear, ‘in the Auricular Nerves of Human life Which is the Earth of Eden’, playing out Night after Night, until the last page, ‘the end of the dream’.
How might contemporary theatre practice be used to allow audiences to enter the prophetic dream of Blake’s text and its nine successive nights? We set this question as an impossible performative object to students of Birkbeck’s MFA Theatre Directing. Their answer was to stage the manuscript as an immersive sound-work, in which blindfolded audience members encountered an impressionistic theatrical rendering of Blake’s creation. As the directors describe below, though their decision to create a sound-work was prompted as much from practical limitations as an aesthetic response, their choice resonated with Blake’s own aural framing of the Nine Nights and the boundlessness of his text. After all, what material space can hold the expansive prophetic worlds conjured on the page? As the Zoas get their demonic worlds in action, from ‘Tyburns brook‘ to the River of Oxford among Druid Temples, the verses fill with tools (the anvil, the loom, the plow, the harrow, the harness, and the furnace): apocalyptic creatures (lions, leopards, ‘the tygers of wrath’, and the ‘horses of instruction’); daughters of Albion (‘Gwendolen Ragan Sabrina Gowrill Mehetabel Cordella’). The poem’s visionary geographies outline the limits of representation. What are we to make of ‘Albion gave his loud death groan The Atlantic Mountains trembled’?
My preparatory meetings with the directors focused on Blake as an engraver poet of ‘visionary forms dramatic’, using the Blake Archive and the British Museum Collections Online to look at Blake’s illuminated books, his watercolours for Night Thoughts, and the engravings and designs encircled around the text of Vala. Despite this strong visual dimension, reading the text aloud revealed to the group the intrinsic theatricality of Blake’s imagination. In approaching the text as an object of theatrical performance, the group’s first move was to narrow down this dreamscape to the measure of one night, to be experienced in a production for Birkbeck Arts Week 2015. They chose the second night, which opens and ends with scenes of hearing: Albion rises from his couch and asks ‘whence is this voice of Enion that soundeth in my Porches’? Her lamentation ends the night, producing a ‘swift Vibration’ in Ahania’s frame, ‘and never from that moment could she rest upon her pillow’.
I’ve long been curious to see what theatre professionals might do with such an overwhelming prophetic text. On the evening of the two performances of Blake’s Dream: Vala or the Four Zoas, audience members met in the School of Arts’ corridor, where chairs bearing slips of paper greeted us: ‘Welcome to your Dream’. The slips instructed us to sit down, wear our masks, and wait until each of us was collected and gently led on, one by one, into a room. Through this ritual, our familiar institutional place of work and study was transformed into a Blakean ‘darkness deep’. Blindfolded, we heard voices coming and going; we felt vibrations, forms half perceived and half imagined traversing the darkness visible. Like ‘the unreal forms of Ulro’s night’, the poem’s ‘multitudes without number’ were animated by a finite number of actors reading, singing, playing instruments at a distance, in our ear. ‘The bellows began to blow’ prompted saxophone and clarinet; ‘roar the bright masses, thund’ring beat the hammers’ called for Saint-Saëns. Other moods were captured by the guitar, Chopin’s piano, or song. During the performance, one by one, we were clothed in a heavy garment and led to perform an individual mystery in a little room of delights, where, temporarily unmasked, dim light helped make out the alluring forms of pomegranate-studded chocolates and drinks on offer. And then, from this scene of initiation, we were led back to the poem’s dark soundscape. At the performance’s conclusion, a gentle touch retrieved us from ‘the margin of Non Entity’ and gently walked us back to the corridor, where we returned to the prosaic world of the everyday: it is ‘The End of the Dream’.
Here, the directors describe their dramaturgical thinking and action towards the creation of Blake’s Dream: Vala or the Four Zoas – an unsighted experiential response to Blake’s excessive visual text.
“Before coming to Birkbeck I had just finished a degree in English at the University of Nottingham. My academic juices were still flowing, and I thought I was still enamoured of epic texts and flowing prose. However, when faced with the Nine Nights, I must admit – I was fearful. It was truly epic and beyond anything I had read before: a spiralling dream of the most technicolour variety. I was lost. But I reminded myself of two things – patience and instinct. I told myself to have patience that the text would stop being scary and would finally speak to me, and that instinct would allow me to get out of my head and into my gut.”
“Having chosen ‘Night the Second’, we needed to find a way to make the text more accessible. Few of us had experienced Blake before and found the text extremely dense, with many different narrative strands. Very early in our process, we decided to unit the text: to break it down into manageable chunks. We identified the main event in each unit and named it accordingly – for example “Unit 3: The Building Begins” – which meant we could easily differentiate the various sections of the text. Uniting in this way allowed each of us to go away and decide which sections of the text excited us. The process of uniting can be very helpful – particularly when dealing with a text as complex as Blake’s ‘Nine Nights’ – because it allows you to focus on individual moments, rather than being overwhelmed by the whole.”
“Perhaps our most challenging task in dissecting Blake’s rich and poetic material was deciding how we could truthfully convey it to an audience with the practical constraints that we faced. How would we overcome the problems of the small and inflexible space that we had to perform in, limited access to set, props and budget, and the likewise limited access that we had to actors? In an early exercise, we broke up our chosen sections of ‘Night the Second’ into smaller chunks, and as individuals, identified what they made us smell, taste and hear. It was with this exercise that we decided that Blake’s Dream was to be a sensory blindfolded experience.”
“David Mamet once stated: “If the audience members didn’t laugh, it wasn’t funny. If they didn’t gasp, it wasn’t surprising. If they did not sit forward in their seats it is not suspenseful”. But a blindfolded audience’s experience of an aural soundscape would be tricky to measure using these familiar criteria. As a result, in rehearsal, we focussed on what sensorial information we were providing, and tested our experiments out on ourselves (and our hapless course leader). Our decisions had an ethical bent to them, as our sightless audience would be reliant on us to keep them safe, both physically as we guided them through an unknown space, and emotionally – loud noises, sudden movement or physical contact can feel threatening when you can’t identify where they are coming from. The simple act of helping an audience member find a seat and sit down in it was a delicate operation. We had to be sure they would understand the silent, physical instruction to sit on the chair, rather than simply hold onto the back of it or kneel on the floor! For us it was fascinating to discover how the imagination can flourish and your other senses sharpen when sight is deprived, and exploring how this could be expressed for our audience was a fundamental part of our devising process.”
“The sensory effects of Blake’s Dream relied on the contrast between two states: a blindfolded interpretation of Blake that used sound, physical sensation and text, alongside a lushly designed ‘tiny dream room’, in which audience members would lose their blindfolds. The former experience was meant to be collective and disorienting; the latter, individual, contemplative, focussed and visually spectacular. In addition to Blake’s narratives and mythology, we were interested in capturing the phenomenological experience of reading Blake and the sensations embedded in his words. We spent a good deal of time thinking about how to allow the audience to feel safe enough to receive information this way, which was just as, if not more important than developing the delivery of the sensations themselves. Each audience member was assigned a performer who acted as an individually assigned caretaker, guiding their participant in and out of the room with confidence, delivering precise instructions about how to understand (or release from the need to understand) what was happening, and keeping a watchful eye for discomfort or confusion in the audience’s body language. While blindfolded, we hoped audience members would feel so cared for that they would begin craving some sort of adventure or risk. We orchestrated a reward for that growing curiosity in the form of their solo journey in the lush, intoxicating and – we hope – delicious tiny room.”
“In the small room, the audience member would encounter a tray of decadent chocolate truffles and small glasses of wine, which the person would be free to eat and drink – or not. Initially we experimented with the idea of really unexpected flavour combinations. The change of perception and the onset of uncertainty is a big theme in ‘Night the Second’. We wanted to try and surprise the participants and hopefully evoke doubt as to what they were eating within their ‘dream’. We experimented with various fillings within the truffles, the most controversial being slow cooked belly pork. It produced a great response when we tried in rehearsal: some people loved the unexpected flavour, while others hated it and wanted to spit it straight out. We finally decided that the truffles should include a crunchy piece of crouton (to add a different texture) and be covered with pomegranate seeds (for colour and depth of flavour).”
“Once we had identified the portions of the poem that we wanted to use, decided that the audience would be blindfolded, and that readings of the text would feature prominently, the need to create dynamic range through the performance became apparent. Music seemed an obvious way to shape the texture and pacing of the experience, by establishing the distinct flavour of each unit. As the text is so dense, we used music to help the audience to understand it, as well as to encourage them not to think too literally. Small moments of narrative bled through a shaped sensory experience, with music acting as a guide. Rather than ending with a ‘we just blew your mind’-style climax, we felt that the final section of text should take on a more mournful tone, as Enion’s song removes Ahania’s ability to ignore the pain and suffering in the world. We chose to end with Ibrahim Maalouf’s ‘Beirut’ (2011), thanks to its more thoughtful mode, its overlaps with earlier musical choices, and finally the tonal change that using a recorded track created, separating out this final, reflective section of the performance.”
“As a bunch of directors, we are a group that is hyper-aware of the ‘story’ told by each micro-action on stage. But with Blake’s Dream, there really was no stage. Every little shift and movement made by the blindfolded audience members told a specific story. We wanted to preserve the dream-like quality of the piece for each spectator, and it quickly became clear that removing a blindfold from someone after twenty minutes of darkness is an almost violent act, no matter how gently it might be done. That accounted for our final decision, nearly the last one we made, to reseat the blindfolded audience in the hallway, allowing them to re-sight themselves in their own time.”
“Our greatest issue in relation to the audience’s lack of sight was how to negotiate the journey, inviting them to stand up in the lobby, move into the performance space, and to get them to sit on a chair, and then, during the performance, to escort them to a small room inside the space where they would be invited temporarily to remove their blindfolds. In those specific moments of connection, we saw how easy it was for audience members to misinterpret our physical instructions. In performance, our relationship with the audience ran more smoothly than we had anticipated and we were hugely surprised at how many of our audience members appeared happy to trust our guidance. I wonder: had it not been a production in Birkbeck Arts Week with an audience who had a connection to us and the Birkbeck building, would they have trusted us in quite the same way?”