On Sadness: Art, Nostalgia, and Dinner At Seven-Thirty

“If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills– then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory. It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach; and then breaking one two one two behind a yellow blind. It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out. It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling it, almost impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest [ecstasy] I can conceive.”
-Virginia Woolf, A Sketch of the Past, 1939

Memory. Light. Loneliness. Individual. Image. All.

In my apartment before the one I live in now my bedroom had a window that I was in love with. The building was old, Edwardian, crooked, and the window was wooden and clunky. It was always dusty, there was no screen, and if I wasn’t careful when closing the window it would slam shut, shaking the paper-thin glass in the frame. I would walk into my bedroom, or look up from my work, and become enraptured by the way light slanted through that window, the way it lit sections of my room, framed the world beyond, all golden, dancing trees and dark old houses. I, a silly young film photography enthusiast, would often reach for my camera and snap a picture in an attempt to capture the way that window made me feel.

In the apartment I live in now, a sterile, run down 1970’s setup, my window looks at the brick wall of the building across the lane, a single gnarled, decrepit tree standing between the two structures. I keep my blinds shut most of the time.

To create something, to put down words, to take a picture, to write a song, to choreograph a dance, is the act of trying to capture something; an idea, an image, a memory. To me, creativity has always been a latently sad thing. There is never perfection in creation. Like trying to describe a memory what you create is always going to be a little less perfect on the page than the thought you have in your head. Something is always going to be lost in translation.

Dinner At Seven-Thirty is the dramatization of this feeling. Invoking the words of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, creating a pastiche with movement, sound, colour and images, the production captures a sad collective nostalgia, that melancholy feeling of a fond memory where light plays across your mind as it shimmers through the leaves, and where everything was electric, and a permeating song sounds out as though you’re hearing through water.

In Portugese the word “saudade” is romanticized and mythologized as being impossible to translate. While the true meaning may be culturally specific, a rough translation is something like a nostalgic remembrance that goes hand-in-hand with longing, yearning or an absence of something or someone. “Saudade” is an active, enveloping, not-exactly-sadness. One feels it about a person that’s remembered but long-gone, or maybe even about a love one has never experienced but hopes for in the future. In his essay “Aesthetics of Saudade” Brazilian translator and linguist Leandro Feldmann ascribes this feeling to the natural: “Thus, ‘the naive is a childlikeness, where it is no longer expected’. So, saudade incorporates this feeling of idealization of childhood, combining the desire of being naïve and the remembrance of ourselves in a time that we were pure, in other words, pure nature.”

This is appealing to me, the manifestation of sadness, memory and reality that brings forth a fantasy, both on an individual and collective level. The friends in Dinner At Seven-Thirty collectively recreate their Hero (Percival in Woolf’s work) portrayed by the stunningly beautiful William Yong, dressed in saintly all white. Oversimplifying the levels of fantasy necessary for the production include:

  • the character of Percival was likely based on Woolf’s brother (and many of the novel’s characters were likely based on her real life friends)
  • the characters in Dinner At Seven-Thirty are inspired by those of The Waves, and they are each de-named, synthesized and infused with Allyson McMackon’s conception
  • the actors play the characters, who conjure up their lost friend though a multi-disciplinary performance
  • the entire audience transposes whatever understanding, fantasies and meanings they bring to the show
  • I, as an individual audience member with a very specific experience and lens, bring the above as well, and will come up with my own reading of the play

Another layer of fantasy is the soundscape created with altered classical musical and old dance standards, creating a kind of timeless-time. Music like “Dancing In the Dark” and “It’s De-Lovely” provokes a kind of dreamed up, romantic memory of glamorous dance halls, cigarettes, swing bands, that sort of darkly optimistic inter-war period. “Cascading reminiscence bump” is a bit of an inelegant psychological term that describes the phenomenon where children in their early adulthood resonate with music their parents listened to at the same age. Rightly so, I found this term with a Google search of, “nostalgia for a time you never knew,” but the idea doesn’t quite capture the feeling I’m trying to describe in full. The online search turns up people who feel the same way, which extends beyond nostalgia for the music our parents listened to.

I am 25-years-old and I have a playlist on my iTunes of almost 20 hours of swing, jazz and big band music, most of which was recorded long before my parents were born. Likewise, a couple of the analog cameras I own are decades older than my parents, and a few others are retro by design. I own a record player with albums by artists that include Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Glenn Miller, and an adored original Broadway cast recording of South Pacific. It may be easy to write this all off as hipster obsession for old-fashioned things, but to me, as I’m sure the feeling is for others, the feeling is something stronger than some aesthetic statement. I covet old things because of my nostalgia for a time I never knew.

To me, that’s a very inexplicable, lonely feeling. I can barely put it into words. I fully acknowledge the societal ills (the rampant homophobia, racism and sexism) of the early and mid (and late) 20th century, but my feelings persist. This longing for something I’ve never had, something between a memory, dream and fantasy.

And I love that sadness, “saudade,” the yearning for that fantasy. Immersing my escapist-self in it is like wrapping myself in a warm blanket, a cocoon. During my university days I had this fantasy of my perfect partner who was a personification of all these weird little things I loved, the nostalgia, and who was perfect because he would understand me through them. An astute friend once asked what my loneliness looks like, and I said it took the shape of a quiet old friend who dropped in to visit every once and awhile.

I feel a bit awkward sharing my love of sadness publicly, indulging in it. We’re taught not to be sad, that a sad person needs to be militantly cheered up. Maybe what I’m trying to say is that I believe a lot of the art we create and consume is an extension of our collective sadness (or madness), a public exorcism of it. We all feel it, some of us fear it, and others welcome it. As artists and audience members we participate in a public fantasy, at once together and totally isolated from each others’ experience. Whether in conversation or in the theatre, something is always going to be lost in translation, but we make up for it by filling in the holes with our own understanding

“I could spend hours trying to write that as it should be written, in order to give the feeling which is even at this moment very strong in me. But I should fail; (unless I had some wonderful luck) I daresay I should only succeed in having the luck if I had begun by describing Virginia herself.”
-Virginia Woolf, A Sketch of the Past

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photo of Lucy Rupert and Thomas Morgan Jones by Dahlia Katz.

Michael Lyons

You can catch Michael Lyons in his regular column, History Boys, in each issue of Xtra along with his historical coconspirator Jeremy Willard. Follow him on twitter at @queer_mikey

Read all posts by Michael Lyons

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