Weeks have gone by since I caught the final performance of Ozzie actor William Gluth’s aggressively cerebral dramatization of I, Cydops at the Actors Studio Box. As far as KL theatergoers are concerned, the event has come and gone ‑ and thank goodness! I’ll bet the sweaty hordes of artsy types in the Kiang Valley who gave the show a miss are feeling righteously smug about having saved themselves a couple of hours of feigned absorption and 35 ringgit to boot.
I was tempted to keep procrastinating till it became totally pointless to even try and get my head around the idea of reviewing the… er, experience. But a couple of raggedy stray thoughts ‑ about touring actors in particular and high‑brow theater in general ‑ began rummaging through my garbage bins of deep memory and fishing out and sniffing the putrid remains of my own intellectual pretensions.
Don’t get me wrong. William Gluth was good. Very good indeed. It was a treat to watch the man in action, He knew his stuff, William did. And you could tell he was relishing every moment of his own incredible proficiency as an actor. Only a very dedicated and dynamic narcissist would put so much effort into lounging and strutting about on stage for over an hour in a seedy suit and a pair of silver‑rimmed shades, spouting a heady blend of literary erudition and rudeness from a moribund Greco‑Roman tradition.
I, Cyclops is, by any measure, a very verbose play written by Robert McNamara (not to be confused with the former U.S. Secretary of Defense). It’s exactly the sort of egghead fare that might have found a receptive audience in Georgetown University’s drama department or among final‑year acting students at NIDA.
The epic monologue was originally entitled I, Polyphemus or Dead in the Head: an Ancient Fable with a Modem Sense. Now, as everyone knows, Polyphemus is the dull‑witted cyclops blinded by Ulysses in Homer’s Odyssey. Every cultured person has at least heard of Homer, and not merely in the context of The Simpsons.
A cyclops named Polyphemus? The cyclops were a mythical race of giants with a single prominent eye. Legendary dickheads, you could say. “Polyphemus” means “spoken of by many” or perhaps even “multilingual” which suggests to me that Homer might have been hallucinating monster TV sets. If you want to put an Orwellian twist on everything, Polyphemus could even allude to a global espionage network. Was that why Gluth togged himself up like some jaded spy in a Graham Greene novel? He last performed I, Cyclops at La Mama in Melbourne. I wonder if there were lots of Greeks in the audience.
The Odyssey has thus far been read from a Grecocentric perspective. The great Greek hero Ulysses outsmarts Polyphemus at every turn, getting him drunk and blinding his all‑seeing eye with a burning stake. Now, at last, Polyphemus gets his turn on stage. Listen to his drunken lament, his Rabelaisian tale of woe. Commiserate, if you can, with his cyclopean downfall. Poor Polyphemus, all he wants is someone to pat him on the back while he rants and raves and scratches his balls.
It was indeed invigorating to be caught up in this crisply articulate and twisty yarn spun by an intelligent and supremely confident actor, but I couldn’t help wondering why some people would go to such lengths to impress. Why do such in‑grown academic exercises in theatrical esotericism continue to get written and performed? Because it’s sheer bloody hard work, I expect. And because, being so goddamn uncommercial, it simply has got to be High Art.
Aye, William, it was all worthwhile, I’m sure.
29 September 2000