Dallas — For the Time Being is a Christmas poem written in 1942 by W.H. Auden. It’s an expansive poem, written for a chorus, a narrator, and all the characters of the Nativity story. On Dec. 13 at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, actor Justin Lemieux will assume all the roles in a one-person performance. The director is Katy Lemieux—their first theatrical collaboration as husband and wife. TheaterJones spoke with Justin and Katy contributor about staging Auden’s rich and deeply moving poem. This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
TheaterJones: I imagine you're a studious couple. Katy, what books were on the night table while you were preparing to direct For the Time Being? And Justin, what were you reading or watching while making your preparations to perform?
Katy: My nightstand is a perpetual graveyard of half-started books. Right now, I’m reading George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, which has been frustrating and challenging. But it’s this gorgeous metaphysical exploration of grief. I’ve just started Kenneth Lonergan's The Waverly Gallery, and Richard Adams’ Watership Down, which I have, embarrassingly, never read. I love literature that goes to dark places. Michelle McNamara’s Gone in the Dark has been on my mind for months. We’ve watched a lot of dark TV and movies lately: The Handmaid’s Tale, in particular, has really messed me up. We also just watched Sorry to Bother You. And the neverending news cycle, which may be driving me actually crazy. Getting deep into this poem and following the political news at the same time has proven to be more chaotic and difficult than I anticipated.
Justin: I’ve been reading an outdated Star Wars book that is no longer in the canon called Heir to the Empire.
There are several voices in the poem, some biblical and some modern. What is it like to prepare a solo performance with such a vast range of voices and experiences?
Katy: For me, in reading this, it always felt like the Chorus was an extension of the Narrator’s voice. So, putting it together for a performance meant identifying how the chorus felt like an internal monologue of our main character. The Chorus is saying things that the Narrator is wrestling with whether he knows it or not. The struggle there is very interesting to me. It’s his Dark Night of the Soul in some ways.
Justin: At the heart of it is Auden’s voice, but beyond that I go back to my days in speech and debate in high school. I’ve been doing pieces with multiple characters for so many years it doesn’t feel weird anymore.
Does it all come down to voice, or are there costumes and other elements of design?
Katy: There will be some set and costume pieces that help differentiate the voices as we go along. Especially when we get to the characters within the Nativity story. We felt that for a solo play it would be helpful for the audience, who cannot see the demarcations within the text, to break up the action so that everyone is not just sitting and watching a person recite for over an hour. We didn’t want this to be boring. Movement will also be important for the performance. The Narrator is working out a lot in this story. Literally having him move and struggle through it felt very natural and appropriate.
Justin: Some characters will be easier to differentiate than others. It’s less about the sound of the voice than it is the attitude of the character. Making that seem natural is a challenge, for sure.
Auden uses the Nativity story as a way of reconciling the fractured time of the 20th century with God's eternal time. Periods of war and persecution are redeemed by a cosmological event that took place long ago in a manger. But it isn't just large scale divisions that Auden has in mind. He also considers the hustle and bustle of the season, imagining that the commercial aspects of the holiday are also redeemed by God's humble aspect, a baby in hay, which is why holiday shopping can seem like such a charged experience. Auden worked all this out in a concise way, but I'm sure you still faced several challenges while transforming this philosophical poem into a dramatic performance. What were some of the larger hurdles you came up against?
Katy: I am the poetry lover in our house, but as we were reading through this last year Justin made a comment that was very astute. He said, “Oh so, poetry is like saying everything with the least amount of words.” And that is something I had never considered but is very true. Auden packs the entire history of Christianity into a poem. Auden, personally, was struggling with a lot when he wrote this, and we can’t ignore the backdrop of WWII. When he came to America from Britain at the onset of the war, he felt that the world was the most evil it had ever been. He felt that humans tended toward evil, not good. So to be really “saved” by God was about intentional, hard, often devastating work. He’s even a little tongue-in-cheek about it at times, saying in the poem that “We who must die demand a miracle.” Even in our search for a savior, we need one that we can believe in. We need it to be really SPECIAL to ensure that it’s worth believing in.
In 2018, I often feel beaten down by the state of the world, and it feels hard to believe in anything that can’t be plainly presented to me. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this poem. I think we can always relate to this kind of struggle: believing in something miraculous when the reality of our world is always fighting against that.
And to really break it down and make it even broader: I think Auden is also asking, “Is anything worth it?” No matter what your religious beliefs are, I think that is relatable.
Justin: Almost every part of this was a hurdle. Making heightened language feel natural to speak, making sense of often very dense poetry, and hoping that at the end of it it’s still interesting to an audience.
Herod interests me very much in this poem. He's the villain, obviously, but he's not drawn with one line; he's complex. His ideas about power have an eerie resonance today, in governments across the world. Like every political strongman, he believes he's the embodiment of reason and ought to be propitiated to. For Herod, Jesus represents the imagination gone unchecked, a promise of spiritual equity that also constitutes individual freedoms. Throughout his essays, Auden emphasizes the importance of the imagination in times of trouble, and specifically when faced with tyranny. What are your thoughts on Herod? Do you feel that Auden's spiritual ideas have a civic emphasis?
Katy: I’m so glad you brought up Herod. He is my favorite part of the poem. Herod is obsessed with reason. He mocks his constituents as dummards that still believe in witches. He’s the reason they have been saved from the gutter. And he’s completely terrified and insecure about this magical baby he’s hearing so much about. He’s a monster, but like all good monsters he reveals his intentions so slowly and insidiously that you don’t realize until the end what he’s ordered—the Massacre of the Innocents. There are scarily relevant themes here, but what resonated with me the most was, like you said, Herod’s complete rejection of the imagination. Order, infrastructure, and reason are all that matter. I think it’s very timely to read this section, especially given the crisis happening at our border. Americans are justifying putting children in cages. Fear of the unknown is a great motivator for bad people to do terrible things. At the same time, Herod is one of the driest, funniest parts of the play. I find him so entertaining. He’s a great villain.
I don't want to suggest to anyone who hasn't read the poem it that it is a giant block of weighty seriousness. Auden writes delightful verse. Do you have favorite lines or set pieces? Did you find many surprises in the poem?
Katy: Auden is very playful, and there is a lot of great humor in this poem. The modern speech makes it super accessible, and it’s kind of surprising how funny it is. I find myself laughing out loud, even having read it a hundred times now. My favorite line in the poem comes when the Angel Gabriel is basically telling Joseph to chill the hell out. Joseph is scared that Mary is pregnant, and he doesn’t understand it. Everyone is whispering about it and her “purity.” He’s begging for proof that this nightmare is real. The Narrator says, “You must learn now that masculinity,// To Nature, is a non-essential luxury.” I love that line. I’d like to say it to a lot of men who feel very self-important right now.
Justin: I’m constantly finding surprises. Every time I read it or run my lines, I discover something new. My favorite pieces are the ones that jump out and surprise me either because of their modern relevance or humor. I hope the audience will find those pieces too.
You are performing For the Time Being at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. What has your experience been like working with this venue?
Katy: The Institute is a hidden gem in Dallas. Justin did a reading of The Count of Monte Cristo with them last year, and it was fabulous. The whole experience has been so great. [Executive Director] Larry Allums was excited and on board from the get-go with this piece. We’ve always felt very supported and championed by the Institute. They’re doing really important work there, not only hosting a variety of events centered around literature, but also timely civic discussions. Larry immediately saw the relevance of this poem and knew there would be an audience for it. Literature and theater go hand in hand, and so the venue is ideal for something like this.
In addition to presenting Auden's great Christmas poem, do you have individual thoughts or wishes for the season you'd like to express?
Katy: This poem has been a part of my life every Christmas for many years now. I always come back to it and always find new meanings. After my second child was born, I took great comfort in Mary’s portion of the poem. There is fear and grief; she knows she just birthed a child that will die a terrible death some day:
“What will the flesh that I gave do for you,
Or my mother love, but tempt you from His will?
Why was I chosen to teach His Son to weep?”
As a mother, that was very comforting to me. There are times of great doubt that I have wondered why in the world I am raising these children—all I am doing is bringing them into a world full of pain. That’s the struggle, right? Why are we here? What’s the point? Auden has this uncanny ability to write in such incredibly human terms. Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, there is something for you in this poem. It’s magnificent.
Justin: I hope this is something that is a welcome addition to people’s holiday season; that it is something that strikes them as different and unexpected. Our first dance at our wedding was “White Christmas.” It feels very appropriate that this collaboration is a Christmas project. I’m lucky that I get to do things like this with Katy.
» Justin Lemieux is a Texas-based actor and monologist. His original solo play Warm Soda was produced last year at the United Solo Festival in NYC, where he received the award for Best Emerging Actor. Katy is a freelance writer (who has written for TheaterJones). They have two daughters and a small zoo of pets.
For the Time Being will be performed at The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 13. For more information, visit http://dallasinstitute.org/christmas-oratorio/.