I was more than a little pleased to learn during the high summer that the We Players were to bring forth a production of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and deliver the work from the deck and rigging of the scow schooner Alma, an historic ship sailed by crew of San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.
This pleasure with the advent of the Ancient Mariner to our park derives from my own private albatross and my own urge to prophesy:
Like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, I attend a good many weddings, often as an uninvited guest, often with words well-woven for unwanting ears.
Usually I stand unnoticed by flurries of wedding-guests passing in hopeful finery up the stairways and onto the breezy verandas of San Francisco’s Aquatic Park Bathhouse. Occasionally I am noticed. Occasionally, chance allows me to let fall a yarning of history.
The wedding guests rarely ask about the Bathhouse architecture or the murals. When a guest hesitates in front of an exhibit or an element of the lobby murals, I sense the opening. Often, too, there is the wedding guest who asks, “why is this place empty? What are you planning to do with it?” I point out that the building, artistically speaking, is far from empty and proceed to offer up a story that starts with a strange recurring dream I have.
In this dream it is September 1939, the year the Aquatic Park Bathhouse opens; the year the European phase of World War Two begins. The dream is in French. I am sitting in a dark wood-paneled study, a globe nearby; a green shaded desk lamp cast suffused light across a table-top dressed in leather and vermilion felt. It must be midnight or nearly so. I sit across from a young Charles De Gaulle, whom I inwardly dislike but toward whom I am being superficially polite. He offers me a snifter of Armagnac ; I want something from Jerez in my glass; he has none. He smokes; I do not. He sits dressed as a Colonel of the Third Republic; I stand in the rumpled tweeds of a washed-out intellectual. The meeting is not going well.
De Gaulle stabs his cigarette stub into a brass ashtray mounted on a small Gingham patterned bean bag cushion. The ashtray is too English to be in the room and I wonder where it came from. De Gaulle rings a bell, stands, and a valet presents the Colonel with an egg and a needle. Over a garbage can, the future leader of the Free French de-yolks the egg and sets the now hollow and fragile alabaster-white eggshell on the desk before us. He signals me and we sit. De Gaulle leans over to me and says:
“It is hollow, Monsieur, but it is not empty.”
I fail to follow his line of thought and De Gaulle really does not care. Colonel De Gaulle gets to his point quickly. “I have a mission for you,” he begins, “you are to change into a tuxedo, take this eggshell, and parachute into Warsaw. You are to carry this eggshell throughout the capitols of Europe while the war rages taking care that it does not break. Perhaps find a spot where you can keep the eggshell and its contents safe for posterity. After the war we will have another drink. Remember the eggshell is hollow but it is not empty. I will not wish you luck Monsieur; a man should know what kind of luck he has by your age.”
De Gaulle stands, presents me with the eggshell, a tuxedo, and a parachute. Then he leaves. Then I leave. I enter some kind of anteroom flooded with harsh light. I am conscious of a clock on the mantel ledge ticking. On an impulse I hold the eggshell up to a light and peer into the hole in the bottom; my eyes and senses are dazzled by scales of color harmony and dancing patterns of the French Avant Guarde. Along the interior surface of the shell are Hilaire Hiler’s Parisian murals; the egg is hollow, but it is not empty.
It sometimes takes the wedding-guest a moment, or perhaps long moments, to grasp the idea; the alabaster-white color of the Streamline Moderne building of the Bathhouse, the hollowness of the interior, the richness of the art that Europe lost but San Francisco preserves, in spite of itself, in the murals and mosaics that adorn the walls: rarely does an Ancient Mariner and a wedding-guest start out seeing things eye-to-eye. Oftentimes the art and act of an Ancient Mariner is to turn apparent reality inside out, and unlock deeper meanings and histories. In the story I related in the dream of De Gaulle’s Egg, I set the narrative in a past most listeners would understand, the Second World War, and used the metaphor of an egg that was hollow but not empty to demonstrate the value of an often overlooked piece of art and architecture.
“The mark of a civilization is the care and thought it devotes to the next generation. I have a strong instinct to save ships for people I will never meet.” (Karl Kortum,1987).
We Players’ Rime of the Ancient Mariner begins October 31st and runs Fridays and weekends through November 16th.