The third of Thomas Pynchon’s Proverbs for Paranoids in Gravity’s Rainbow: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.”
In 1927, at age 32, R. Buckminster Fuller decided to stop asking the wrong questions. In the midst of the Great Depression, he lost his job. Along with bankruptcy, the birth of his daughter Alegra added to the pressures. He took to drink. According to the world, he was a lost cause. So he decided to take a walk in Lake Michigan — a long walk, one-way.
But “you do not belong to you,” he realized, “you belong to the universe.” So instead of committing suicide, Fuller chose to commit “egocide.” He would “throw away” his ego and reexamine everything from scratch. His aim: “find what a single individual [could] contribute to changing the world and benefitting all humanity.” He’d be “Guinea Pig B” and “think the truth.”
Naysayers claim Fuller made up this secular Dark Night of the Soul. Either way, from 1927 until the day he died, July 1, 1983, Fuller devoted his experiences “to the higher advantage of others.”
D.W. Jacobs’s R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe stages the results of that quest. Fuller made so many discoveries, and with such irrepressible genius, he’s often included on those mythical “dinner lists”: which five people from history would you invite? But if “Bucky” came, the others might not speak. They’d just learn about geodesic domes, synergy, futuristic vehicles, and Cloud Nines (floating cities) in awe.
And no matter their era, they’d be astonished to hear him say we have the resources to feed the world, right now, and that “war is obsolete.”
The key, he says, is “ephemeralization.” As technology advances, people can do “more and more with less and less until eventually you can do everything with nothing.”
Along with personal anecdotes, the first act follows the growth of Fuller’s thought. Act Two includes reactions, by governments and corporations, to stifle it. Like Nikola Tesla (discovered alternating current) and San Diego’s Royal Raymond Rife (may have cured cancer in 1934), Bucky’s inventions so endangered the status quo, the Powers labeled his thinking — his asking the “right” questions — “eccentric.”
Bucky had a few words about them as well: “Great nations are simply the operating fronts of behind-the-scenes, vastly ambitious individuals who had become so effectively powerful because of their ability to remain invisible while operating behind the national scenery.”
R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe premiered at the Rep in 2000, with Ron Campbell as Bucky. It was one of the company’s biggest hits. Since then, the two-act piece has traveled the globe and is now part of the Rep’s 40th anniversary season.
For those who saw the original, the current staging is, and is not, déjà vu. This version reflects the growth of theatrical technology in the past 16 years. David Lee Cuthbert’s set places Bucky on blue, concentric circles, either ripples from a tossed stone in a pond, or a whirlpool. Stick figure, geometric shapes and a chalk cluttered blackboard depict a lecture hall, while arches, like the time-travel portals in the movie Stargate, suggest dimensions beyond.
Technology enhances the picture with rinses of lighting, sounds, and music. Jim Findlay’s extraordinary projections constitute a video album of Bucky’s life.
In one of his talks, Bucky said there is no up or down (and no straight lines, and no sunset, since the sun keeps moving). As if to prove the point, a TV camera shoots him from various angles, even from above. The multiple-Bucky effect falls just a few jagged angles short of a Picasso.
The script’s been revised and expanded since 2000. It runs long. Like the late Al Irvine, to whom the show is dedicated, Bucky had a near infinite number of sides. Throughout, the writing evokes his free spirit — the sense of a vivid mind eager to question everything (“Experience,” Bucky said, “can only increase”). But although it has breaks and humorous way stations, the script hops from one often difficult subject to another and has at least three different endings. Less would have been more.
Ron Campbell is 16 years older than when he world-premiered as Bucky. And has performed him so many times that acquired traits — like tapping fingers together or touching the top of his head — don’t feel tacked on. They’re now so unconscious, Campbell may not be aware of them. When he lectured, Bucky was theatrical, which frees Campbell to perform some amazing feats of mime and physicality, as when he follows a breakfast backwards to its myriad sources.
Bucky Fuller had one of those minds that, the more you learn, the more he knows. And given the more we’ve learned about global changes in the past 16 years, the more people should heed his findings, in Critical Path and Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, and now onstage at the Rep.
“Humanity is acquiring all the right technology for all the wrong reasons.”
“I am certain that none of the world’s problems...have any hope of solution except through social democratic society’s becoming thoroughly self-educated.”
Written in 1981: “Eventually the U.S. taxpayers will be asked to make ‘free-of-risk’ bail-outs of ‘private enterprises.’”
Directed by D. W. Jacobs: cast: Ron Campbell; scenic and lighting design, David Lee Cuthbert; costumes, Darla Cash; sound, Luis Perez Ixoneztli; projections, Jim Findlay
Playing through April 3; Wednesday at 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Sunday at 7 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.