“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
This is the first line of Joan Didion’s 1979 essay “The White Album,” and it remains among the most recognizable, and resonant, openings in contemporary American literature. Yet like so much in Didion’s writing, it is often misread. Think about it: What the author appears to be saying is that stories bestow meaning in a universe of chaos, that it is in the tendency to make narrative out of experience that redemption may reside. “The White Album,” however, resists such clear-cut definitions — or really, any definitions at all. Constructed as a set of fragments, it evokes both the necessity and the futility of narrative, the way the stories we tell ourselves no longer (if they ever did) add up.
In part, this has to do with the era it describes. Composed between 1968 and 1978, the essay seeks not only to record but also to replicate a kind of cultural disintegration; it is the literary version of an exploding universe. Charles Manson, Huey Newton, Jim Morrison, the death of Robert Kennedy, Didion’s residence “in a large house in a part of Hollywood that had once been expensive and was not described by one of my acquaintances as a ‘senseless-killing neighborhood’” — we are in the back end of the 1960s, and the author is losing her grip. Certain key concepts have ceased to make sense; “basic reality contact,” she writes, quoting her own psychiatric evaluation, “is obviously and seriously impaired at times.”
For Didion, the solution is to try to find the thread of something, a story or a conglomeration of stories, even as she can no longer put her faith in anything so direct. It’s no accident that almost as soon as she asserts the necessity of telling stories, she contradicts herself: “Or at least we do for a while,” she writes in the second paragraph. Here we see the tension that animates the essay, between the notion that stories will save, or at least console, us and the counter argument, that what she is, what we all are, witnessing “did not fit into any narrative I knew.”
Four decades later, in the midst of another era that does not fit the narrative, “The White Album” is having an unexpected sort of second life. On April 5, 6 and 7, at UCLA’s Ralph Freud Playhouse, the Center for the Art of Performance in association with the Center Theatre Group will stage an adaptation directed by multimedia artist Lars Jan. For Jan, this is the fulfillment of a longtime fascination with the essay; he first read it as a high school student 25 years ago. “That voice,” he enthuses on a recent morning at his studio in the industrial flats south of the 10 freeway and the Arts District, “there are two things about it. First, I love the collage structure, the way she keeps circling, doubling back. Then, there’s her suspicion of all intentions, the way she cuts everyone off at the knees, including herself.”
Jan is 40, tall in a hoodie and glasses, with a beard and short dark hair. We are sitting at a long table up a flight of stairs from his main workspace, and as he speaks, he often stands and walks around. It’s as if his ideas, his language, are a function of the physical, as if they can’t be accessed any other way. Performative, in other words, not unlike his rendering of the essay, which seeks to take the chaos, the dislocation Didion is tracking, and embody it in three dimensions on the stage.
As to how that happens, Jan insists “The White Album” is a work in progress, even though it had its world premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival last fall. This is partly a matter of necessity — the performance was developed under the auspices of Early Morning Opera, a multidisciplinary collective Jan founded in 2004 to push the boundaries of traditional storytelling, creating work that blurs text and technology, performance and social commentary.
But it is also a reflection of how Jan works. “Because we are an independent company,” he says, “we have to take out support where we can get it. This means we’re constantly juggling stuff.” At the same time, that juggling, that moving back and forth between projects, suits his aesthetic practice as well. “Basically,” Jan says, “the process is me daydreaming and working on stuff that won’t go away.” In the case of “The White Album,” this begins with his love of the essay itself. “It’s the piece of writing I most return to,” he tells me. “I’ve read it 20, 25 times. The structure is mystifying; it shouldn’t hang together, but there’s something about her point-of-view that makes it work. What she’s doing is telling a beautiful story about no longer being able to tell a story. We are watching a woman in crisis, describing a culture in crisis. I think of her as Ishmael in ‘Moby-Dick.’”
Jan is right — that’s one of the points Didion is making, that the received narratives, whether individual or collective, can no longer sustain us, or themselves. And yet, she is skeptical of the narratives that have replaced them, especially when it comes to politics. For Jan, this emerges most fully in passages on the murder trial of Black Panthers founder Huey Newton and the 1968 strike at San Francisco State University. Didion regards such incidents as another kind of breakdown; “The place simply never seemed serious,” she writes of the campus in revolt. What she’s saying is that the protests are more about theater than activism, a perspective Jan disputes.
“The late 1960s,” he insists, “was full of potential energy. That’s the genesis of this production — or no, not genesis, more like reading tea leaves, a retrospective realization — to have a conversation about those issues and what they mean.” To highlight that, Jan and his collaborators, including actress Mia Barron, who gives voice to the essay, have built a frame involving an “inner” and an “outer” audience: the former younger, “mostly in their 20s like the people in the essay,” and the latter older, more traditional, kept at a distance by the production’s design.
The inner audience arrives early and shares a meal with the company; during the performance, they are onstage, where they receive instructions via “in-ear monitors,” and interact with materials including a library of contemporaneous books and every record mentioned in “The White Album,” which Jan used as research. The outer audience sits watching from the house until the show ends, at which point, members participate in a talk-back session with the inner audience and cast.
For Jan, these conversations are not add-ons; they are the whole idea. In that sense, the audiences function not unlike Greek choruses, commenting upon and enlarging the narrative. “The White Album,” then, is less play than extrapolation, an attempt to re-create the essay in dramatic form. Unlike Vanessa Redgrave — who portrayed Didion in the author’s adaptation of her memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking,” a one-woman show that ran on Broadway in 2007 — Barron plays the essay more than she plays a character, performing it as if it were a score.
“I am not mimicking her,” the actress says by phone from Manhattan, where she has been working on a play. “I am bringing the speaker to life.” It’s a subtle distinction but an important one, allowing Barron to function as something like the narrator of the production; there are others onstage, both performers and the inner audience, but she is mostly on her own. “In this piece in some ways,” she suggests, “the language doesn’t calls for coherence but more a feeling of being deeply unsettled. I’ve had to find a way to attach to that, to develop a sense of internal need.”
Internal need, of course, is what “The White Album” is all about — the need for a resolution that is no longer available, if it ever was. “The essay,” Barron notes, “is almost a space for people to experience that contradiction.” Jan, for his part, agrees. The two of them are life partners and have a child together, but this is the first time they have collaborated on a piece of work. That intimacy, that sense of the private bleeding into the public, also radiates through Didion’s work.
The essay ends with another contradiction, another disavowal or complication of the declaration with which it begins. Citing the broken narratives she’s been tracing, Didion admits that “writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.” This is another reason Jan first sought to stage the essay, not to look back but to project outward, past the conditionality, the inconclusiveness, of that final line. “I want to be faithful to the essay but also to build on it,” is how he puts it, pushing back from the table and wandering his studio again. “We need to learn how to talk to one another. We need to think about the stories we tell and what they mean.”
‘The White Album’ by Joan Didion
Who: Lars Jan & Early Morning Opera
Where: Freud Playhouse, UCLA
When: 8 p.m. April 5, 3 and 8 p.m. April 6, 7 p.m. April 7
Info: cap.ucla.edu, (310) 825-2101
Ulin is a former book editor and book critic at The Times. He is editing the collected works of Joan Didion for the Library of America.