1900 The Pianist on the Ocean – Alesandro Baricco

1900 is an interesting evening’s theatre. I hesitate to call it a play because even its creator does not. Novecento, to give it its original title, was written in 1994 by Italian novelist and essayist Alessandro Baricco as a story/monologue for the actor Eugenio Allegri to perform. With the aid of director Gabrieile Vacis, it made its stage debut at the Asti Festival that same year. It is a sort of modern fable, a tale told by a narrator who is also part of the story about an enigmatic man who is born at sea and spends his entire life on a passenger liner. Raised initially by engineers in the bowels of the ship, the boy demonstrates a singular talent for music at age eight, and he becomes an on-board entertainer. His piano playing is quite unlike anything ever heard before, a form of free expression which goes beyond even the boundaries of jazz. He seems at one with the ocean and at peace with himself in a way which touches the lives of those who come into contact with him or merely hear tales whispered of him on dry land. His name is given to him by the engineer who finds him as a baby, marking the year it happens.

Though in English ‘1900’ is just a number, in Italian, ‘novecento’ can also mean ‘twentieth century’ (as it did in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1976 epic movie). This man’s story is clearly emblematic. Encompassing the images of industrialisation and social inequality which defined the modernist era, spanning the years including the two world wars and ending shortly after the latter, there seems little doubt that this life story tells more than the narrator is even conscious of. It is a text about boundaries: boundaries of understanding, boundaries of self-expression, boundaries of culture, economics, and nationality which define human beings within society (particularly that of the early twentieth century).

Music is the conduit through which this theme is most obviously explored, but the entire work is infused with a sense of parameters and limitations. Though 1900 seems able to transcend the forms and frameworks which constrain his fellows (exemplified by his musical genius), ironically it is his own inability to engage with a changing and ever-larger world which leaves him sitting on a carton of dynamite as the ship is being scuttled after the second world war. Though he doesn’t understand it himself, the narrator has become part of a postmodern world now shared by the audience which 1900 cannot.

The text is also concerned with shifting boundaries on a formal level. It blurs the distinction between theatrical monologue and prose storytelling. As Baricco remarks: "I don’t think there is a name for such a text. Anyway, it doesn’t matter much." 1900 presents itself as a stage show, performed by a single actor and backed by an original score performed live by a jazz quintet. It was therefore written with an actor’s interpretation of character in mind, a one-man show which relies heavily on the performer’s ability to maintain a strong narrative centre while also moving from character to character. The sense of dislocation is increased by the fact that the narration never even gets to the centre of its eponymous hero. 1900’s story is told in terms of his contact with others rather than his own point of view, and even then it is told by our narrator, a jazz trumpet player who joins the liner in the late 1920s. Though we occasionally hear 1900’s voice, he remains in the background until the final speech. He is a sort of Lord Jim figure; explained to us by a narrator whose perceptions are themselves flawed.

There is clearly much to ponder here, but the question of its entertainment value remains. The current Irish production, the first in the English language, is performed by Donal O’Kelly, an actor and writer himself and no stranger to monologues. This show demands much more of him that a vocal presence and a series of poses though. 1900 is a very physical work, requiring the actor to mimic the sensations of being tossed in angry seas and affect the demeanour of a variety of supporting characters from a swaggering night club host and ‘the inventor of jazz’ Jelly Roll Morton to a succession of coal-faced crewmen from belowdecks who oversee the boy’s growth to manhood. O’Kelly demonstrates excellent physical control and a good level of gestural expression in addition to managing a range of accents. There is a fairly high level of interaction with the on-stage musicians in terms of the dramatic and thematic rhythms of the piece. On the whole he does a masterful job, though one wonders how Allegri’s version would differ.

The score for this production has been composed by pianist Justin Carroll. It asserts a presence throughout on both practical and symbolic levels (jazz, as a modernist medium, represents transition and fluidity of form: it is also the music played on board the ship). In a sense though there is not much Carroll can do in terms of representing the transcendent music played by the title character, which makes one or two scenes less powerful than they promise to be. The other technical elements of the production have also been carefully planned, from the lighting by Dermot O’Donnell to the stylish set designed by Emma Cullen. Director Leticia Agudo has a strong sense of the visual dimensions of the action and allows O’Kelly to make full use of the props and stage space as he tells his story. It is little wonder that the basic story and the rich imagery contained within it inspired a film adaptation by Guiseppe Tornatore in 1998.

There is much to be admired and enjoyed in 1900: The Pianist on the Ocean, a work of contemporary European theatre which may not on the face of it seem like a candidate for popular success. It has been on tour in Ireland since November 2000 though, and its current, belated appearance at Andrew’s Lane is an extension of the original itinerary. Though not as consistently involving as perhaps it ought to be and not particularly emotionally rewarding, it is an intriguing mixture of performance arts and literary styles which lends itself to closer inspection.

Dublin, April 4, 2001 – Harvey O’Brien