By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
James Murray was the fourth editor, or, at least, person in charge of the Oxford English Dictionary project. Murray held the reins from the 1880s and died in 1915, never living to see the complete version he was compiling with the help of kin and volunteer readers, though several "fascicles" did make into print. Volunteers in England and the U.S. hand-scribbled definitions and usages of words on thousands of scraps of paper, which were meticulously filed in pigeonholes stowed on planks, first in a small London office in Mill Hill, and later on Murray's own Oxford, England, property, in a transformed garden shed, or "scriptorium."
The dictionary was a project of the London Philological Society, subsidized by Oxford University Press. As the years passed, Murray was harassed by the publisher for the time he was taking and for escalating costs. Murray wasn't compiling a book, however, but a bible. The exigencies of commerce were not his first concern, and rightly so. When the first fascicle was published in 1885, it sold a disappointing 4,000 copies. It was another 48 years until the Oxford English Dictionary was finally published in full, and it's impossible to imagine that any editor of such a monument would not be an eccentric, to put it mildly.
The eccentricities of words, their origins, and the people who study them, are the source of curiosity in Moby Pomerance's intriguing and gentle new play, The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder, which opened over the weekend at the Boston Court Theatre, in a co-production with Circle X Theatre Company. The silver-bearded Murray, played with stern tenacity by John Getz, is the play's anchor, though his lithe, adult daughter Jane (a prim Melanie Lora, blending a touch of snootiness with a dollop of sweetness) is the central character of a play that concerns itself with her emancipation from the tiny empire of words clutched so tyrannically by Jane's increasingly raving father.
Brian Sidney Bembridge's set, depicting Murray's Oxford scriptorium, contains walls comprising filing compartments. Bembridge also tucks books into crannies and beneath the floorboards of a strategically claustrophobic confine — made more so by an overhanging panel near the front, which blocks the air of the open stage and urges focus down onto a hierarchy of three or four desks (depending on the scene), with size and height corresponding to the rank of the employees. In a pair of comparatively metaphysical scenes, the walls open onto the carcass of a tree and a larger, more open universe that nonetheless hints of a horizon consisting of tiny files extending into eternity.
Bruno Louchouarn's original orchestral music and sound design contribute to the mystery hovering over the play's first half-hour, during which we're trying to fathom what world we're in and, frankly, what these people actually want. They consist of clerk Smythic (Time Winters), and a newer, younger employee named Mr. Williams (Henry Todd Ostendorf), who opens the play, terrified by the consequences of having to tender his resignation — the source of fear of course being the untender James Murray.
Pomerance's clever plays on language and the world of words holds a fascination that begins to wear thin, not because of its confines but because those confines aren't explored in the way that the play would seem to promise. Actually, the play more than suggests that its primary concern is words and their origins in extinct cultures and multiple continents, a drama about mortality and rebirth through lexicons of utterances. The plot, however, suggests that this is a play about people coming and going, and the family traumas and emotional neglect that cause them to do so. Those two sets of ideas remain largely untethered, or at least connected very loosely via domestic intrigues in a Masterpiece Theatre kind of way.
James' returning and sorely neglected prodigal son, Paul Murray (Ryan Welsh), has now become a cartographer, which Dad barely notices and certainly has no respect for. The old Lear is incapable of showing appreciation, let alone respect, for anybody. His own children top his list of disregard. There's a new hire named Owen (Ostendorf again), and the issue of a former clandestine affair between he and Paul. Are they now capable of working together in the midst of their furtive attraction? It was with this dramatic question that my thumbs started to twiddle.
The making of maps and the accruing or words are, in conjunction, the signposts of empire. That pivotal conjunction here remains hinted at but unconjured.
The meanings of words and their connection to empire — even if that empire is a personal one — have been treated by wordsmiths from Samuel Beckett and Brian Friel to Caryl Churchill, who show the consequences of words that no longer work, that become either tapes or tropes, spoken through thoughtless habit, or disembodied from breath. The end of words that carry meaning is the beginning of death.
The editor, James Murray, is facing his end, but everybody here chatters, including him, after two hours of action, as they had at the beginning, as though they all understand each other perfectly. Even James' diatribes about Galileo — described as ravings though they actually make perfect sense — neglect the mortality that the loss of language, or the Sisyphean effort that birthing a dictionary, imply. The play's weakness, ironically, is not so much with the story but with the treatment of language itself. That language remains cogent and beautiful and clever, but it alone has scant connection to the birth-death ordeal of building a dictionary.