Do you really know Rilke?
If all you have read by Rainer Marie Rilke is Letters to a Young Poet, then you really have not read much Rilke.
True, there is much wisdom and comfort in these Letters. Who, having read these lines, has not been heartened:
“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart…live in the question.”
Nevertheless, his absolute best works, from The Book of Hours to Duino Elegies, are his poetry.
Even so, when Rilke himself was a young poet he wrote 13 stories in seven nights, titling the collection, Stories of God. Rilke called this youthful exuberance an attempt to bring God into direct and daily use.
My Experience with Rilke’s Work
When I found these stories, I was going through a dark interval.
I began at the beginning, with A Tale of God’s Hands, which the narrator, the Storyteller—Rilke’s alter-ego, warns us is a fairy tale.
Like the arc of Rilke’s calling as a poet, wherein his poetry moves from the relatively minimalist Book of Hours, The Books of Images, and New Poems to the complex, cathedral-like Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, these stories take the notion of God from the realm of fairy tale to the realm of a Being that is loving and alone and in need of us.
As I cycled through the collection day after day as the months went by, I got to know something of God as if for the very first time. And it dawned on me that these stories should be staged and filmed and given to the world in a way that they had never been.
Each story is within an envelope of sorts. The envelopes that tie the collection together have our Storyteller meeting and speaking with the townspeople. We meet a neighbor woman with children, a schoolteacher, a student, and, the Storyteller’s dearest friend, a lame man, a cripple in the vernacular of the day, Ewald.
With each meeting, until the final Story Told to the Dark, the Storyteller presents one of his neighbors with a story about God—even, as he says once, “God comes in only at the end, there is still God.”
These inner stories, so to speak, introduce us to the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost, Saint Nickolas, the Czar of all Russia, a singing Cossack, a Jewish Venetian merchant, Michelangelo, seven children, a gravedigger, a saint and, finally, a man in the throes of what Victor Frankl called the existential vacuum, Clara and her baby.
The stories have been transformed for the stage in three iterations.
The most elaborate is suitable for a professional theater. The script stages these inner stories as well as the outer stories. The stage must be large enough to handle a split stage, so to speak. With parts alternating between simple, small town backdrops of the outer stories while the other part is being quickly transformed into the particular inner story about to be told. It calls for highly technical special effects capabilities and a large cast or a cast comfortable playing many roles across multiple acts and scene changes.
There is a minimalist iteration, with one man, live and alone, simply telling the stories to the audience. It requires an actor with a strong, captivating storytelling presence. It requires minimal scenery and few props, essentially being set in a library-like room in a home, with a desk, couch, some windows, two doors and several hand props suggestive of aspects the various stories.
And there is something in middle, with the outer stories being staged while the inner stories are a mix of staged and narrated by the Storyteller. It calls for a relatively small cast and minimal scenery and props. Here too, the presence and expressive gifts of the lead actor are key to success.
“I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world.”This quote from Rainer Maria Rilke embodies the goal for the play to reach out across the world.