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The stage adapts to the strange world of ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’

By Barry Johnson
May 7, 2013

I just finished reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness” for the first time in decades, spurred by the new production by Portland Playhouse and Hand2Mouth Theatre, which opened on Saturday. It’s amazing. The planet Le Guin created brims with the possibility of stories and plots because its structure is so strong and dense with detail, observation, carefully constructed cultural practices, geology, history. She could have spooled out dozens of plots without exhausting her planet or her reader.

And then, just as we’re starting to understand this whole kemmering business, it all ends. Le Guin had other planets and times to visit.

For the uninitiated, kemmering is the sexual practice of the humans on the planet Gethen. Those humans are neutral, sexually speaking, for most of their 26-day cycle, and then when they enter the kemmer state, they can be either male or female, depending on which side of them emerges with their partner in their three days or so of coupling. I don’t think anyone works during a kemmering period. And some people have a kemmer partner for life; some just head over to a kemmer house and encounter others who are in the same excited state. Oh, and a Gethen can both sire and bear a child, depending…


When Le Guin wrote the novel in 1969, she was ahead of the curve on gender issues back here on Planet Earth. People were coming to grips with the idea that sexuality was more like a spectrum joining male and female, and that nearly all of us weren’t “purely” either one or the other. Pressed, I’d say that we never fully embraced that idea, primarily because the culture constantly divides us into one or the other, though sexual mores have changed since then.

The gender exploration is what I mostly remembered about the novel, when I sat down with it this week. But its so much more than that. The stranger, the journey, the authoritarian society v. the country that seems more like a family quarrel than a nation, the impact of a harsh climate on culture, power, relationships with “truth,” customs of reserve and revelation, mystical practices, an encounter with aliens.

Le Guin could have written around this creation forever. She didn’t, which leaves us with so much imaginative space to fill ourselves, which is even more fun now, I found, than back in the day.


Julie Hammond and Damian Thompson in "The Left Hand of Darkness"/Portland Playhouse and Hand2Mouth Theatre

Julie Hammond and Damian Thompson in “The Left Hand of Darkness”/Portland Playhouse and Hand2Mouth Theatre

A production of a play is a “reading” of the script by the director, players and designers—a practical analysis. A script based on “The Left Hand of Darkness,” this one by John Schmor and Hand2Mouth artistic director Jonathan Walters (who also directed this production), is a “reading” of the novel—a practical analysis that leads to its conversion to a theater script. We can judge it a couple of ways, if we’re inclined to judgment and humans tend to be. We can decide whether or not its reading opens up the text in interesting ways for us, for example. Or we can base our judgment on how sturdy a platform it creates for the interpreters who are going to read this script. And then we can make a judgment about that interpretation, if we want.

The primary advantage a novelist has over a playwright? Space and time and the reader’s imagination. So, Le Guin talks a LOT about kemmering: she explains it in anthropological terms and then gives examples over the course of the novel. As a reader, I can picture this intercourse as, gulp, intimately as I choose. “The Left Hand of Darkness” has a lot of talk about sex in it, sex consummated and sex repressed, without ever becoming the least bit specific about it.

It has just as much “winter”: Gethen is a very cold planet, sub-arctic at its warmest, and Le Guin never lets us forget it. Usefully, her main character, Ai Genley, is an envoy from the confederation of human-controlled planets, the first to attempt an alliance with Gethen, a stranger who is puzzled by the hermaphroditic aspect of kemmer and who shivers in the cold. He’s always explaining things to us, sometimes at length.

That explication and repetition, theme and variation, transferred to the stage would have the audience squirming uncomfortably for several hours. So, yes, compression.

l’ve gone this long without a plot recap. Do you need one at this point? I admit that I do. Envoy Ai arrives on Gethen as the first ambassador of the Ekumen, a confederation of 83 planets and the nations on them. Gethen has been spotted and “probed” a bit, but Ai is the first deliberate contact. His mission is to convince Karhide, where he lands first, to form an alliance with the Encomium, which as the name suggests is a benevolent organization. He lands in the middle of border dispute between the clans of Karhide and the bureaucrats of Orgoreyn, and he misunderstands a lot of what’s going on around him, specifically with regard to Prime Minister Estraven. Pretty soon both he and Estraven are on the outs in Karhide and then out of the frying pan and into the fire of Orgoreyn.


I thought that Schmor and Walters analyzed “The Left Hand of Darkness” respectfully and well. They had some stage “fun” with the top bureaucrats of Orgoreyn and the mad king of Karhide: The cast made the leadership of Orgoreyn bureaucracy (I love how close it is to Oregon) seem like the 17th century French court, wackily expressive and guileful at the same time, and Lorraine Bahr plays the king of Karhide, who doesn’t SO mad in the novel, with a dark battiness.

And without the time and space to develop the culture as fully as the novel does, they suggested it with songs. I liked both of these choices: some things work BETTER on stage than the page, and an adaptation ought to take advantage of those things. I thought the song and movement could have been better, though I know that sort of thing can take a huge amount of rehearsal time.

I’m thinking of Hand2Mouth’s “Something’s Got a Hold of My Heart” here, which I thought was truly first-rate in this regard. But I saw it at the end of its run and after it had been two years in the making. I couldn’t help thinking what “The Left Hand of Darkness” would have been like after a performance process like that one.

I wished that Schmor and Walters had pushed the characterizations of the envoy Ai and his counterpart on Gethen Estraven a little more. They hewed close to the novel with them, very straightforward, and there’s room for more exploration. Ai is relatively young (suspended animation of some sort allows him to space travel) and that suggests some ways to take him, for example. And Estraven’s life has already been wracked with loss when Ai meets him (I’m using the male pronoun as Ai does in the novel), and maybe that’s a starting point for that character? I don’t know, I’m just thinking out loud.

This isn’t to disparage the actors in those roles, Damian Thompson as Genly Ai and Allison Tigard as Estraven, because they do excellent work carrying us through the story. Their best moment was their closest, when they come close to entering kemmer together (or kemmering or whatever the proper term would be), and in fact, that’s the best example of the sexual part of the Gethenian cycle in the play.


I’ve mentioned that Gethen is cold. Ai is always complaining about it, and the epic journey at the end of the book is over a giant glacier field, the Ice. That’s almost impossible to convey on stage, especially if the theater is quite warm, as Portland Playhouse was on Saturday. Ice, you say? How about a little for my forehead and neck.

Epic is hard to pull off, of course, but this production manages, mostly by clearing the stage and using props wisely. We move from place to place in our minds, just as we would in Shakespeare’s scene-jumping plays, notably “Antony and Cleopatra.” So is “androgynous.” What do people without specific gender identities look like and how would conventionally gendered humans play them? The production mixes men and women together covered by heavy clothing, and that seems to do it, and Tigard as Estraven is quite successful somehow.

The cast mixes Hand2Mouth regulars (Matt Dieckman, Julie Hammond, Liz Hayden, Jeb Pearson) with Portland Playhousers (Thompson, Bahr, Jason Rouse), and they work together seamlessly, each playing a number of different roles.


So, should you read the novel before you see the play as I did? Well, I’m always in favor of a little preparation, I suppose. It helps to keep things straight right from the beginning. On the other hand, the play seems clear enough without this aid. My case for reading is simply that the pleasures of these characters, this story and the delicious details are a joy to repeat.

As I read, I found myself thinking about the issues Le Guin raises: the global view of the outsider who knows so much about so many other worlds but can still get confused in the maze of the particular; Le Guin’s interest in mystical practices (future telling, mind-to-mind communication) and religion; what “gender” really means; and lots of other things. And then the play underscored them, one way or another.

I enjoyed the narrative imperative of the play—to tell the story economically. At something like 2.5 hours, maybe it’s a little long on a warm evening, though much more cutting would have meant a “reconception” of the novel. That’s not something I’m against necessarily, but with Le Guin herself in the audience and the novel close to hand, I preferred the longer take. Maybe you will, too.

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