“There are sixty nine hundred languages in the world,” according to the linguist George, the central of Julia Cho’s The Language Archive.” Half of them are doomed to disappear in the next century.”
But there’s one language that, in this Forum Theatre production, is alive and well: ceaseless bickering among couples entering late middle age.
The principle character, George (Mitchell Hébert) is a linguist who pursues his desire to preserve foreign languages. Yet, even as he tries to save languages, communications problems are hounding him: his three-decade marriage to his wife Mary (Nana Ingvarsson) is disintegrating, while, coincidentally, the subject of his latest research is an old couple who speak a dying language. And having arrived from an unnamed (Eastern European) territory, they can’t stop from bickering.
In the original version of Julia Cho’s script, George and Mary are in their ‘30’s and 40’s’. Director Jessica Burgess made one essential change in the script: she decided to move the principle characters into later middle age.
Burgess notes that she was inspired in part by the experiences of friends whose parents have separated after thirty-odd years. She notes that separations and divorces in late middle age are certainly a part of modern life.
“After thinking about it, I really wanted it to be a story of a marriage that had two people well into their later middle age. So instead of being married for a decade or so, they’ve been married for two or three decades. What does that mean? And after thinking about that, I started to think about my mom and dad, who are still together.”
Almost as a counterpoint to the bickering couple in Cho’s play — Alta (Kerri Rambow) and Resten (Edward Christian), and to George’s own crumbling marriage is the dream of Esperanto. That enters the mix as George’s assistant Emma (Kate Atkinson) takes lessons in the universal language from a German lesbian Esperanto instructor. For that, says Burgess, the cast spent a while learning the basics of Esperanto from a member of the Washington DC Esperanto Society. And finally, we have a brief cameo by Ludwig Zamenkov, the man who, at the end of the 19th century, developed Esperanto as a medium for international communication.
Esperanto is George’s utopian tongue, a language which at least in his dream world, makes it possible for people to communicate. His facility in Esperanto, however, hasn’t done much to help his own dysfunctional marriage. As Burgess notes, this production wrestles with the impossible dream.
“It was the dream of this gentleman [Zamenkov],” says Burgess. “He wanted all of Europe, all the world, to be able to communicate in the same language. People dismiss it because not everyone in the world speaks it. But we found that there are actually millions of people worldwide who do speak it. [Our instructor’s] assessment was that the dream hasn’t been fully realized, but it’s accomplished a lot. And the character George also finds inspiration here, because he believes in the ideal of language. It’s supposed to help people communicate.”
Of course, despite the fact that he speaks dozens of languages, and dedicates his life to preserving languages, his own ability to use it to communicate with his wife and assistant is limited. Why does he fight so hard to preserve a dying language, if he’s got a dying marriage to contend with?
Burgess explains that for some, dying languages are memories of opportunities lost.
“George feels that when a language dies, it takes a whole culture with it. He’s fascinated by the ability of language to retain cultural identity. He also has a grandmother who spoke a dying language that he never cared to learn. So it’s tied into his own personal connections (and in his inability to connect).”
Playwright Julia Cho, she notes, had a similar issue.
“Her parents spoke Korean. She never learned it. She speaks French and German, and speaks English fluently of course, but she never learned Korean.”
As Burgess puts it, the production itself was an extended exploration with the cast about the clashes between layers of meaning – physical, intimate, and universal.
“Every night we would come in and peel out another layer of how these people communicate as characters.”
It was an exploration that she says brings an immediacy to the actor’s own task.
“It’s the job of the artist to find the space where human language and movement start to tell the same story. And we all worked together to reveal things about the ways that humans behave together. It’s really subtle, and if you come, you’ll see it get played out in George’s and Mary’s relationships. He can’t say what she needs him to say. He doesn’t listen very well to her. And even when he seems to be listening to her, he isn’t. We try to get that amplified in the acting.”
She pauses. “I hope that isn’t too inside-theatry!”
But she insists that the core of the play is emotional and personal.
“There are languages that are universal. And then there are the ones you develop over the course of your life with your best friends, or your wife, or the people in the office, and it’s not just about jargon. And with an older couple that becomes the essential part of the story. Over a period of time, people start to learn how to signal things to one another.”
The signals, she notes, go far beyond the realm of the written word. Months of rehearsals (and now the production) have turned this into an exploriation of what is, at heart, a physical language that seems to increase in power and pathos with age. Even in a dysfunctional marriage, after two or three decades, there is a language worth preserving.
“This is really about the way we look at each other. This play is about how we communicate with one another, though not just through words.”
Open Forum discussions will follow the performances on Thursday, March 1st, Saturday, March 3rd at 2pm, Thursday, March 8th, and Saturday, March 10th at 2pm.