Saltpeter’s performance of Wallace Shawn’s The Fever in a Brighton Gallery

This was a very very good and unusual performance of a very very good and unusual text.

You may wish to read this very good review (in both meanings of that phrase) by Josie Melia before reading the following. (I deliberately wrote my opinion before reading her review, with the exception of 14 which *is* what I thought during the performance, but had forgotten about until I read her review.)

A postscript (feel free to read that first) has notes on the ideas behind the text with links to some related ideas by George Orwell. What follows concentrates on the performance. So:

0. From
0.1. … indicate the truth or existence of (something) by suggestion rather than explicit reference
0.2. … (of a fact or occurrence) suggest (something) as a logical consequence
In the following I use “imply” near the 0.2 meaning, in a strict logical/mathematical sense, that is given the stated premises the conclusion is certain. (Of course, the premises might be wrong.)

1. This “one night only” performance by Saltpeter of Wallace Shawn’s “The Fever” started a little after 19:35 on Sunday 22 May 2011 in a T shaped basement gallery of approximately 70 square metres at the Brighton Media Centre. Pictures from the current exhibition were on the walls. There were stackable chairs in small groups around the space, with six actors and an audience of about 40 people. Both actors and audience were about half women and half men. [Queneau]

1.1. The ensemble of performers was: Adrian Gillott, Amy Simpson, Anthony Wise, Sarah Le Fevre, Sean Patterson, Vera Chok. The production was directed by Gary Merry.

2. Just before the start most people were seated; about 8 were standing of whom about 4 seemed likely to be actors.

3. The programme stated that the staging would start at 7:30pm and that: “The Fever will last 115 minutes without an interval. Please feel free to come and go from the space at any time.”

4. The performance actually finished at about 21:15, a running time of about 100 minutes. At no time did the performance seem rushed. Somewhat curiously, near the end of the performance I was wondering how much longer the performance would last (possibly a subjective feeling from the somewhat of an overestimate of how long the performance would be – but better an over than an under-estimate), but this was a rare occasion when that thought was *not* prompted or accompanied by the feeling that I hoped the performance would end soon.

5. During the entire performance a few people who were not actors moved about the gallery, in one woman’s case clearly to have a better view of the performers than by twisting in her chair which was facing a wall.

6. During the entire performance precisely two people (both women) left the gallery, separately. Both returned to the gallery after a few minutes. One was an actor, and she returned in good time to say her next lines.

7. Mostly the actors spoke mainly longish monologues, but there were some shorter sections, and occasional instances of what could be interpreted as dialogue.

* 1, 3, 4, 5, 6 imply:
8. The audience was held by the performers, or had nothing better to do on a very windy evening in Brighton. Given the number of nearby pubs and restaurant the former seems more likely: it was certainly the case for me, and for those I spoke with after the performance.

9. The performance started when an actor who had been sitting in a chair facing a wall twisted to face the centre of the gallery and speak the opening lines of Wallace Shawn’s text. She was followed by other actors successively speaking parts of the text. At no time did actors speak over each other. (Perhaps similar – albeit on a slower timescale – to Webern’s orchestration of Bach’s Ricercar from The Musical Offering, where a single musical line is passed between different instruments, sometimes with radical changes of timbre.)

10. After a few minutes (perhaps as many as five, perhaps as few as three) I realised that I was mainly listening to the sound of what was being spoken, and hardly at all to the meaning. I then concentrated on both the sound and the meaning.

* 10 implies:
11. The text by Wallace Shawn is very well written and can be listened to just for the pleasure of the words. Moreover, it isn’t overtly poetic (the text can be found and read on the internet): I strongly suspect it’s rather difficult to write “ordinary” text which can be listened to as sound. And it has meaning. So an interesting combination of meaning and almost musical sound. (Which is perhaps more than can be said for T S Eliot’s “The Wasteland“, which is very good words as music, but possibly more than somewhat dubious mythology.)

* 10 also implies:
12. The actors delivered the text excellently.

13. There were varying acting styles in the performance. All the actors engaged (where it was appropriate) with the audience. Some were relatively calm, others were at times more animated. Most had no props. But one actor had a glass of wine in one hand for much of the performance, and an iPhone (Blackberry?) in the other, which she intermittently used to text messages, presumably to friends not at the (imaginary or real?) event. In a way she was playing an intelligent socialite at a rather upmarket private viewing of an exhibition.

13.1. All the performances were appropriate responses to the text, and the variety made for interest and for some intriguing and relevant ambiguity: were we at an exhibition viewing, with different people arguing? Or at the same exhibition, with one person arguing with themself? Or at an imaginary exhibition in the mind of one person arguing with themself?

14. Some actors occasionally hesitated while they were speaking: was this because they had temporarily forgotten their exact lines? If so, it was inspired serendipity, adding to the performance. But given the quality of the acting, it seems much more likely that it was intentional – in Josie Melia’s words: “The actors behave as if they are thinking this stuff up, experiencing it, working it out in front of us, with us.”

15. An American actor – Douglas Lockwood – who has performed “The Fever” as a monologue has written: “It is the audience that must experience this play. … And if it becomes about them watching me have an emotional experience, then the power of the play is lost. So I’ve had to find a level of detachment that keeps me needing to speak this play but also providing the audience with their own individual experience of the play. [The result is a play that] opens up people’s awareness and the connection to things and to people that we interact with every single day.”

16. I’ve quoted that because one thing I felt watching this performance by Saltpeter was that there was a certain amount of detachment from the text by the actors, and that that seemed appropriate, but Douglas Lockwood puts it much more precisely.

16.1 (On the BBC Radio 3 Nightwaves programme on Monday 4 October 2010 extracts from a long poem by Christopher Reid were read by Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, and another poet commented that a problem poets have with actors reading their poems is that they can over-emphasize the lines, but not ET and AR on this occasion. Supporting that poet’s concerns I once saw and heard “The Wasteland” in a production by a famous actor and a famous director, which I thought was way over the top, but I seemed to be in a minority of one in the audience on that. And to be fair some poets can over-emphasize their own lines.)

17. A problem for a performance like this: how to signify to the audience that the piece has ended?

17.1. Solved very well, by a sort of variation of Haydn’s Farewell Symphony (without the candles): after each actor said their final lines in the piece, they casually left the gallery, until there was just one actor left. She finished her lines, and left.

* 17 and many of the other “facts/premises” imply:
18. A great deal of intelligent thought and hard work (for example, simply learning the lines) went into this performance, which produced a very great return on a (presumably small in money terms, but large in non-money terms) artistic investment.

19. It’s a pity that this was – I understand – a one-only performance of this type in Saltpeter’s ongoing relationship with “The Fever“: I don’t want to interfere with their praiseworthy intention of continuing to stage it in quite different ways, but I do wish to express the hope that variations of this production might be performed in other galleries or unusual performance spaces. (See note D.)

19.1 (If I was giving this production a “star rating” – which I dislike and I fortunately don’t have to here – I’d give it 4 stars. I don’t like “star ratings”, but given their ubiquity I wish they were a little less crude. I’d have no hesitation giving this production 4.5 stars, but 5 stars should be reserved for very very very good. But I do – appropriately? – feel guilty about rounding this down to 4 instead of up to 5.)

* Postscript:

A main idea of “The Fever” is liberal hypocrisy. (I plead guilty, with what I hope are somewhat extenuating circumstances, roughly along the lines of if someone else was in my position I think(?) they would be unlikely to behave much better than I do. Not a wholly convincing defence.)

As mentioned in (11) above, the text of “The Fever” can be found and read on the internet, so I’ll leave (any?) interested readers to find it.

But I do want to suggest two other things – an essay and a film – which I consider directly relevant to the points made in “The Fever“, supporting – and (in some ways) arguing against – its tenets.

(a) An essay by George Orwell on Kipling, reacting against T S Eliot’s introduction to his (Eliot’s) selection of Kipling’s poetry. (Or, to use Eliot’s term, Kipling’s verse. Orwell is very funny and scathing on this term, preferring – with reasons – to call Kipling a good bad poet.)
I won’t attempt to summarise what Orwell writes, but it’s required reading: Orwell discusses Kipling’s poetry and makes some telling points. I will quote in full two (separate) paragraphs that I consider relevant to “The Fever“:

But because he [Kipling] identifies himself with the official class, he does possess one thing which ‘enlightened’ people seldom or never possess, and that is a sense of responsibility. The middle-class Left hate him for this quite as much as for his cruelty and vulgarity. All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible. We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are ‘enlightened’ all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our ‘enlightenment’, demands that the robbery shall continue. A humanitarian is always a hypocrite, and Kipling’s understanding of this is perhaps the central secret of his power to create telling phrases. It would be difficult to hit off the one-eyed pacifism of the English in fewer words than in the phrase, ‘making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep’. It is true that Kipling does not understand the economic aspect of the relationship between the highbrow and the blimp. He does not see that the map is painted red chiefly in order that the coolie may be exploited. Instead of the coolie he sees the Indian Civil Servant; but even on that plane his grasp of function, of who protects whom, is very sound. He sees clearly that men can only be highly civilized while other men, inevitably less civilized, are there to guard and feed them.” …

[At university I knew a student whose father was a farm labourer: the student was quite angry that the British TUC (Trades Union Congress) did not do more for the wages of farm labourers.]

… “One reason for Kipling’s power as a good bad poet I have already suggested – his sense of responsibility, which made it possible for him to have a world-view, even though it happened to be a false one. Although he had no direct connexion with any political party, Kipling was a Conservative, a thing that does not exist nowadays. Those who now call themselves Conservatives are either Liberals, Fascists or the accomplices of Fascists. He identified himself with the ruling power and not with the opposition. In a gifted writer this seems to us strange and even disgusting, but it did have the advantage of giving Kipling a certain grip on reality. The ruling power is always faced with the question, ‘In such and such circumstances, what would you DO?’, whereas the opposition is not obliged to take responsibility or make any real decisions. Where it is a permanent and pensioned opposition, as in England, the quality of its thought deteriorates accordingly. Moreover, anyone who starts out with a pessimistic, reactionary view of life tends to be justified by events, for Utopia never arrives and ‘the gods of the copybook headings’, as Kipling himself put it, always return. Kipling sold out to the British governing class, not financially but emotionally. This warped his political judgement, for the British ruling class were not what he imagined, and it led him into abysses of folly and snobbery, but he gained a corresponding advantage from having at least tried to imagine what action and responsibility are like. It is a great thing in his favour that he is not witty, not ‘daring’, has no wish to ÉPATER LES BOURGEOIS. He dealt largely in platitudes, and since we live in a world of platitudes, much of what he said sticks. Even his worst follies seem less shallow and less irritating than the ‘enlightened’ utterances of the same period, such as Wilde’s epigrams or the collection of cracker-mottoes at the end of MAN AND SUPERMAN.”

There is also this by Orwell, from an article “No, Not One” written in October 1941:
The choice before human beings, is not, as a rule, between good and evil but between two evils. You can let the Nazis rule the world: that is evil; or you can overthrow them by war, which is also evil. There is no other choice before you, and whichever you choose you will not come out with clean hands. …
(There are many points made in these selected quotes from Orwell which are still pertinent and uncomfortable. See Note (B) below.)

(b) The film “Raise the Red Lantern“. In some ways this is an argument against “The Fever” (afterthought: more accurately, it has some arguments which are orthogonal – that is at right angles – to arguments in “The Fever“): it can be read in more than one way; moreover, I think it has several meanings; but one aspect that struck me forcefully the second time (but not the first time) I saw it is that it shows (*not* tells) you how social (and political?) constraints can make – or at least “encourage” – people who are not fundamentally bad to behave in very bad ways.
For a similar – but somewhat different – take on this film, I recommend reading this review by James Berardinelli:

But if you haven’t seen “Raise the Red Lantern” yet, you might want to see it yourself before reading reviews, and make up your own mind.


A. Relevant to “The Fever“: perhaps twenty or more years ago on one of his television programmes Clive James interviewed an Indian intelligent socialite in (I think) Mumbai, and asked her something along the lines of whether she felt uncomfortable about living in luxury when there were people sleeping and living nearby on the streets. I can’t remember what she replied, but I do recall wondering at the time why she didn’t simply ask him why she should behave differently to him and whether he felt uncomfortable about it. (Unless he had evidence that, for example, she had made hypocritical statements on the subject. In which case *I’d* want evidence that *he* wasn’t as hypocritical in comparable ways.)

B. While looking for Orwell’s essay online I found a 1997 National Review article “Revenge of the Smelly Little Orthodoxies” by the conservative Norman Podhoretz who castigates those on the left who – in his view – misinterpret Orwell: Podhoretz argues that Orwell’s later writings and actions show he must have defected from the Left, and that those on the Left who deny this are guilty of Orwellian double-think. People can make their own minds up about this – from the quotes above Podhoretz’s argument seems more than somewhat implausible: indeed, while it is true that there are those on the Left who are guilty of “doublethink”, it is hard to avoid using that word about Podhoretz’s own article.

In 1934 the English mathematician G H Hardy wrote to the science journal Nature responding to a University of Berlin mathematics professor who (in the words of Robert Kanigel’s book “The Man Who Knew Infinity“, about the great Indian mathematician Ramanujan and his collaboration with Hardy) “purported to show the influence of blood and race upon creative style in mathematics. There were, it seems, ‘J-type’ and ‘S-type’ mathematicians, the former of good Aryan stock, the latter Frenchmen and Jews. Hardy icily surveyed Professor Bieberbach‘s assertions, made a show of seeking ground on which to excuse them, finally found himself ‘driven to the more uncharitable conclusion that he really believes them true‘.”

Someone should make a similar response to Norman Podhoretz’s article.

C. I recommend reading Hardy’s short book “A Mathematician’s Apology“, both for what Hardy writes and for the memoir of Hardy by C P Snow which is printed in most editions of the book. The novelist Graham Greene said “I know no writing – except perhaps Henry James’s introductory essays – which conveys so clearly and with such an absence of fuss the excitement of the creative artist.” Yes: creative artist, not mathematician or scientist. (Albeit there must be a lot of creativity in good mathematics and science, and I’ve considered for a long time that mathematics is in some ways more of an art than a science, despite it’s being the most certain science!)

A rather good article in The Hindu on Hardy and “A Mathematician’s Apology quotes lines from the book: “Poetry is more valuable than cricket, but Bradman would be a fool if he sacrificed his cricket in order to write second-rate minor poetry (and I suppose that it is unlikely that he could do better).”

I did put more here on mathematics and art, but that is better as a separate post; in this linked post is Hardy’s letter to the Royal Society advocating electing Ramanujan to be an FRS (Fellow of the Royal Society): I tend to underestimate the positive effect and necessity of appreciation (by those who know) on people, including myself – Hardy knew better.

Not exactly the same thing, but in the late 1980s or early 1990s the British Indian actor Rita Wolf wrote an article in The Guardian newspaper about her early experience in theatre. She said that before she became a professional actor she had gone to see a production of Simon Gray’s “The Rear Column” in a West End theatre, and had only been able to identify with two characters on stage: black slaves, a man and a woman, who had very few lines. She could have added that the woman character had no lines at all.

(D) Ephemerality of performance

In August 1996 I saw a play in Edinburgh, “Slippery When Wet” by Suzen Murakoshi. It was revived in 2005 in St Paul / Minneapolis, and I thought so much of the play that I travelled from England to Minnesota to see it. I was very glad I did. It is an unusual play, for two actors and an improvising musician, who also interacts with the actors. One of the characters is a dancer, and she has a short speech about the ephemerality of dance.

Plays are less ephemeral than dance, but although plays can be read (or be read by actors in a playreading), in a way they only exist when they are performed.

So I hope that someone else will perform “Slippery When Wet“, maybe nearer England than Minnesota. And that Saltpeter will perform another gallery version of Wallace Shawn’s “The Fever” with several actors, despite it being originally written as a monologue: after seeing Saltpeter’s Brighton performance, I find it hard to imagine it being performed by a solo actor.


This factual “literal” introduction is a deliberate reference to the starting text of Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau, a French poet, writer, experimental poet and experimental writer, who had studied mathematics and philosophy.


About Colin Bartlett

I'm interested in arts, mathematics, science. Suliram is a partial conflation of the names of three good actors: Ira Aldridge, Anna May Wong, and another. My intention is to use a personal experience of arts to make some points, but without being too "me me me" about it. And to follow Strunk's Elements of Style. Except that I won't always "be definite": I prefer Niels Bohr's precept that you shouldn't write clearer than you think.
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