by Eric Overmyer
Online Notes by Bradley Foster
|Everyone is an explorer. How could you possibly live your life looking at a door and not go open it?
--Dr. Robert Ballard
About the Playwright
Eric Overmyer hails from Seattle, Washington. In 1973, Overmyer majored in Theatre at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and he credits his education with giving him the courage to claim his identity as a writer.1 He has received grants and fellowships from numerous foundations and from The National Endowment for the Arts. In addition to On The Verge, Overmyer has written nearly a dozen other critically acclaimed works for the stage such as In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe and Dark Rapture. His publisher is Broadway Play Publishing, Inc.2
In a 1991 interview with Hofstra University's John DiGaetani, Overmyer states that his main concerns are language and theatricality.3 He goes on to say that “all my characters are obsessed with language,” and that “the theatre is the place where language can happen.” He cites Samuel Beckett and Anton Chekhov as major influences on his approach to theatre as well as novelists like Don DeLillo and John Barth. Overmyer is interested in the strengths of the stage for storytelling, linguistic and visual experimentation, metaphor, and poetry; he views film and television as a better medium for well-made plays and naturalistic realism. In his conversation with DiGaetani, Overmyer admits, “you can't make a living writing for theatre,” so to support his “theatre hobby” he has written extensively for television. Nevertheless, he says that “as far as satisfaction in the writing goes, I of course prefer plays because they're mine, I'm not writing them for someone else.” Overmyer’s small-screen credits include St. Elsewhere, Homicide: Life on the Streets, Law & Order, The Wire, and Treme.
"Masai Men, Kenya" by David McClain, Visions of Earth, 2012
- GROVER, ALPHONSE, THE GORGE TROLL, THE YETI, GUS, MADAME NHU, MR. COFFEE, and NICKY PARADISE
All three ladies are adventurers.
GROVER, ALPHONSE, et al., are played by a single actor.
The play begins in 1888. In Terra Incognita.
|Alas! at Zanzibar I found that my world-renowned reputation of mad woman preceded me, to my prejudice. In America, England, Aden, and Mombasa, and now here, I had to listen to and confront as best I could public censure. The bare idea that a woman should be foolhardy or ignorant enough to dare to enter Africa from the east coast and attempt to penetrate interior as far as the Kilimanjaro district of the late Masai raids, at a time when great disturbances had been provoked by the Germans and a revolt was brewing, and essaying thus to do as the sole leader and commander of her own caravan, -- the thing was preposterous, and the woman boldly denounced as mad, mad, principally because there was no precedent for such a venture; it was a thorough innovation of accepted properties. It had never been done, never even suggested, hence it must be impossible, or at least utterly impracticable, and certainly outside a woman's province.
-- From May French-Sheldon's Sultan To Sultan, 1892
"Ice Canyon, Greenland" by James Balog, National Geographic, June 2010
On The Verge; or, The Geography of Yearning premiered in 1985 at Center Stage, Baltimore.4 It played in regional theatres nationwide for two years before premiering off-Broadway. Reviewing the Acting Company's 1987 production at the John Houseman Theatre, The New York Times theatre critic Mel Gussow wrote that “'On the Verge' is, by intention, a highly speculative and specialized venture, but for the linguistically inclined, this ardently alliterative and omnivorously onomatopoetic safari should be difficult to resist.5 The play continued to be staged across the country including at the Yale Repertory in 1991.6 On The Verge was revived off-Broadway in 2007 by the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble at the Connelly Theatre.7 Because of the challenging language in the script, the central focus of productions of the play is almost invariably the actors' performance. Production design stands out where it complements the spirit of imagination expressed in the dialogue.
"Orinoco Crocodile, South America" by Robert Caputo, National Geographic, April 1998
A Brief Field Guide to the Language
The language Overmyer weaves together to create On The Verge's intricate tapestry can come across as byzantine and inscrutable; the words that Fanny, Alex, and Mary use range from 19th century idioms to contemporary American slang. For actors inevitably more accustomed to the latter than the former, bringing the script to life requires hitting the books to research the meaning of their characters' strange words and utterances. Beyond that task stands the mountain to tackle of anthropological details, specialized explorers' parlance, and the names of faraway destinations like Ladakh and the Irriwaddy River Delta. Successfully communicating the language of the play to the audience demands the actors know and understand what they are saying. Here is a brief selection of some of the words our actors investigated:
- Anthropologist – a researcher engaged in the study of humans, their origins, physical characteristics, institutions, religious beliefs, social relationships
- Caravanserai – a roadside inn, usually with a large courtyard, for the overnight accommodation of traders' caravans
- Masai – a member of an African people inhabiting the highlands of Kenya and Tanzania and having a largely pastoral economy and a society based on the patrilineal clan.
- Osmosis – the diffusion of fluids through membranes; gradual absorption of ideas, learning by contact/proximity
- Palaver – a long parley, especially one between primitive natives and European traders, explorers, colonial officials, etc.
- Terra Incognita – an unknown or unexplored land, region
An extensive On The Verge Glossary is available at our Online Callboard.
|September 11, 1985: I have to keep walking. To stop means to freeze, to die. The sun has set and taken all warmth from the earth with it. The burning sensation on the tips of my ears, the numb needling pain in my toes tell me the temperature is well below zero. MOVE, Sorrel – WALK! On and on... The god of night wraps me in sequined black velvet, a sky cloak of diamonds. I am too cold to appreciate the resplendence of these stars, too delirious to comprehend the speed with which so many shatter – and fall. Cardboard cutout mountains surround me. I am alone.
--From photojournalist Sorrel Wilby's diary, printed in her story “Nomads' Land: A Journey Through Tibet,” National Geographic, December 1987
“Monastery Window, Ladakh” by Segrjio Alware, National Geographic, November 2009
Dramaturgical Roadmap – or, How Did I Get Here?
On The Verge is filled with iconic Americana like TV's Gunsmoke, Rock & Roll, Ovaltine, and Burma Shave. The language of the play also draws on a diversity of literary references, from James Joyce's Ulysses and Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman to poets Dylan Thomas and Robert Lowell. The connections run deep – Joyce was a friend of fellow Irishman Samuel Beckett, one of Overmyer's playwriting touchstones. In his interview with DiGaetani, Overmyer states that “from Beckett I learned about rejecting traditional narrative, the spare theatrical moment, and the sense of poetry in the language.”
|The only true voyage of discovery is not to go to new places, but to have other eyes.
-- Marcel Proust
Eric Overmyer includes a paraphrased statement from French Surrealist Andre Breton to preface On The Verge: “Perhaps the imagination is on the verge of recovering its rights.” Breton's Surrealist Manifesto is a call to arms for defenders of dreams, the imagination, and poetry in the war against the mundane and boring. Below is a selection from his work.
|Under the pretense of civilization and progress, we have managed to banish from the mind everything that may rightly or wrongly be termed superstition, or fancy; forbidden is any kind of search for truth which is not in conformance with accepted practices. It was, apparently, by pure chance that a part of our mental world which we pretended not to be concerned with any longer -- and, in my opinion by far the most important part -- has been brought back to light. For this we must give thanks to the discoveries of Sigmund Freud. On the basis of these discoveries a current of opinion is finally forming by means of which the human explorer will be able to carry his investigation much further, authorized as he will henceforth be not to confine himself solely to the most summary realities. The imagination is perhaps on the point of reasserting itself, of reclaiming its rights. If the depths of our mind contain within it strange forces capable of augmenting those on the surface, or of waging a victorious battle against them, there is every reason to seize them -- first to seize them, then, if need be, to submit them to the control of our reason. The analysts themselves have everything to gain by it. But it is worth noting that no means has been designated a priori for carrying out this undertaking, that until further notice it can be construed to be the province of poets as well as scholars, and that its success is not dependent upon the more or less capricious paths that will be followed.
--From Andre Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism, 1924
“Big Cypress Reservation, Florida” by Jack Dykinga, National Geographic, September 2010
Perhaps the greatest source of detail for the play is May French-Sheldon's 1892 account of her journey to Mt. Kilimanjaro, Sultan to Sultan: Adventures of a woman among the Masai and other Tribes of East Africa.8 French-Sheldon was a remarkable American who elected to lead her own expedition into the heart of Africa without her husband or any white man to lend her authority. She proved that a woman could be every bit the explorer that a man could be, and the people she encountered named her “Bebe Bwana” -- the Woman Master. When palavering with chiefs and sultans, French-Sheldon would appear in a blond wig and formal gown; she had very firm beliefs about showing and receiving respect through ceremony and civility. By virtue of her singular nature, she was able to make some of the first ethnographic studies of African women and children. May French-Sheldon's contributions to science earned her a membership in the Royal Geographical Society in 1892. Several excerpts from Sultan to Sultan are included here.
|At Taveta I met a woman, whom I please to call “The Woman of Taveta,” who was in sore trouble. Immediately upon seeing me, if I may use the expression, she adopted me into her confidence, and all her troubles were poured into my ears, and by her earnestness she so engaged my interest and sympathy it was a delight to try and assist her to some better state of daily existence, which would preclude certain trials she was subjected to. She was a woman of intense feeling, a lover of power, indeed was a leader among women, and the wife of one of the elders. Her word seemed to be beyond dispute with them all. She was eager that I should be a friendly witness to all of the strange customs and habits of her tribe, and she had the power as well as willingness to give me the open sesame to them all. Twice at midnight, when the moon dances of the el-moran, from which women of the tribe are excluded, were in full swing, she stole to my tent, mysteriously signed me to follow, and silently led me through the forest to a sequestered spot to be an unseen spectator to the wild, riotous performance of the utterly nude fellows, who were unaware of the presence of an interloper. Thus I was enabled to become familiar with customs forbidden to the presence of white men.
--From May French-Sheldon's Sultan To Sultan, 1892
May French-Sheldon's British contemporary, Mary Kingsley, explored and catalogued West Africa much as her sister sojourner did in East Africa. Birds, fish, and reptiles she collected for the British Museum included three new species that would be named for her: Ctenopoma kingsleyae, Mormyrrs kingsleyae, and Alestus kingsleyae.9 Her 1897 book, Travels in West Africa: Congo Français, Corisco and Cameroons,10 reveals Kingsley's meticulous attention to detail; she also devotes several chapters to attempt to explain “fetish” -- “juju” and talismans and charms. In On The Verge, Mary, Fanny, and Alex discover a number of mysterious out-of-place artifacts on their journey. What makes objects like these so fascinating? For us, just as for Mary Kingsley over a century ago, artifacts that we can hold and feel are perhaps the most immediate connection we have to people of other places and other times. This interview from the PBS NewsHour features Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, talking about his 2011 book A History of the World in 100 Objects as well as a slideshow featuring some of the artifacts he chose. MacGregor talks about how understanding objects, how we make them and how we use them, helps us understand the people who left them behind.
|We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
-- T. S. Elliot
-  Reed College: Notable Alumni. http://web.reed.edu/apply/about_reed/notable_alumni/notable_alumni_indies.html
-  On The Verge. Broadway Play Publishing, Inc. http://www.broadwayplaypubl.com/onthe.htm
-  DiGaetani, John. A Search for a Postmodern Theatre: Interviews with Contemporary Playwrights. Greenwood Press, 1991.
-  Gussow, Mel. “Theater: Overmyer’s 'On The Verge.” The New York Times, May 14, 1986.
-  Gussow, Mel. “Theatre: On The Verge,' At The John Houseman.” The New York Times, March 3, 1987.
-  Klein, Alvin. “Theater: Overmyer Play at the Yale Repertory.” The New York Times, October 20, 1991.
-  Hampton, Wilborn. “Stomping Through a Metaphoric Jungle, Parasols at the Ready.” The New York Times, May 8, 2007.
-  French-Sheldon, May. Sultan to Sultan: Adventures of a woman among the Masai and other Tribes of East Africa. 1892. Available in reprint from Trotamundas Press, a publisher devoted to travel literature written by women.
-  Lopez-Tomlinson, Mercedes. “Travelers: Mary Kingsley.” Trotamundas.com, 2005.
-  Kingsley, Mary. Travels in West Africa: Congo Francais, Corisco and Cameroons. Macmillian, 1900. Travels in West Africa is available to read online at the Open Library.