Flipping Borges, this lively academic pastiche by David Greig imagines Hell as an infinite library, containing “every book every written…and every book never written.” That endlessness might sound pretty good to academics, but when the Devil is your only librarian, it’s hard to get home.
Prudencia Hart is a Scottish academic traveling to a border ballads conference on a snowy midwinter’s eve. She believes in beauty, truth, and the snow tires that get her safely through the storm. Her bete noir is Colin Syme, a motorcycle-riding spouter of laddish quips and theoretical bon mots. He says that the literary tradition to which Prudencia has dedicated her life and career contains neither “borders” nor “ballads.” He thinks post-panel Karaoke is the real point of the conference anyway.
It’s a love story, as you might have imagined. But the male lead isn’t only the bloke in support of whom the audience joined in on a rousing football chant of, “there’s only one…Colin..Syme!”
It turns out, in fact, that introverted Pru finds another love, to whom she’s finally able to croon a song at the play’s end after having previously run away from the Karaoke mic into the snow and inadvertently fallen into Hell. She found her lover there, where he was her jailor-librarian for four millennia. All their years together vanished when she later escaped back into the present day with the help of Colin’s chivalric strip-tease and iron grip.
Like some of the ballads Prudencia studies, the play spins around the Devil loving a mortal woman. But in this case, Pru becomes the wooer. It turns out that the Devil can be brought into love only if you teach him to speak in rhyme. Even the immortal Enemy, it seems, can’t resist a good couplet.
The near-constant rhyming patter — much of the play’s dialogue is in ballad meter — gave the show a delightful energy, as did the setting among the tables and patrons of the GYPSY bar I used to go to in grad school.
As satire, it was pretty straightforward: Pru loves beauty, Colin just wants to start an orgy. Stop me if you’ve heard the one about academic careerism before! The dazzling Master-and Margarita-esque turn to Hell roughly halfway through the action, however, led to a deeply felt exploration of love, rhyme, and the allure of literary and nonliterary things. Pru finally chooses Colin’s fleshy world over the Devil’s library — but not until her 4,000-year Hades fellowship has run its course.
Prudencia and her songs will be in New Haven only two more afternoons, but there’s a US tour just starting now, with visits to New York, Burlington, Santa Ana CA, and a few other places before returning to Scotland and the UK in the summer. See her if you can!
The play is a perfect antidote for the exhaustion that follows on conference season!