Tonight I met up with my friend Melanie and saw the Folger Theatre’s production of The Conference of the Birds.
The play is based on a 12th century Persian poem. The overarching narrative follows a group of birds in their search for their king, but there are numerous stories nested within. Stories of other kings, slaves and princesses, a hermit obsessed with an eggplant and his beard. Of course, they’re not really “about” any of those things. At its core, the play is a meditation on our search for the divine and for self-understanding — that paradoxical notion that to discover the divine you must overcome the self, but in discovering the divine you encounter your true self. The message is never stated directly; it’s conveyed through the juxtaposition of stories: it’s up to the audience to interpret them. Late in the play a bird says there’s nothing more powerful than “something that is neither clear nor unclear.” He could have been describing the play itself.
My understanding is that the ideas in the poem reflect the mystical tradition within Islam called Sufism. Watching the play, I was struck again (as I have been before by thoughtful presentations of Islamic thought and art — e.g., here and here) by the elegance of the ideas and the aesthetic, and their concordance with many of my own beliefs and tastes. In many ways, The Conference of the Birds seemed to be a more subtle and interesting version of Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life (minus the Christianity part, of course).
It has been years — maybe ten? — since the last time I attended a play at the Folger. I’d forgotten what a fun place it is. The theater is just a small part of a larger library devoted to Shakespeare. The ambiance is wonderfully bookish and Elizabethan — lots of dark wooden paneling with rows upon rows of leather-bound tomes; a bibliophile’s paradise.
|The plasterwork on the ceiling is wonderful|
The main hallway had a particularly interesting exhibit this time. I especially enjoyed seeing an actual book of magic (“grimoire”) with spells and instructions to call upon the spirits and supernatural powers. I’ve read about those sorts of books (think Harry Potter) but don’t recall having seen one before tonight.
The library/theater is two blocks from the U.S. Capitol building, just behind the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress.