When she was 93 years old, Tiago Rodrigues's grandmother learned she was going blind, and soon. There was nothing she could do about it; she was just getting old. But losing her sight meant losing one of her dearest and most liberating occupations: reading books. Since she feared she'd be too old to learn braille, and since she loved learning things by heart—songs, recipes, riddles, poems—she decided she needed to memorize an entire book before the darkness settled in.
Growing up in a small village in northern Portugal during the first half of the 20th century, she never received a formal education, but she devoured the written word and passed that appetite along to her children and grandchildren. One of those grandchildren, Tiago, would bring her boxes of books when he came to visit. And so she entrusted him with the mission to select the last book she'd ever read.
Rodrigues got to work immediately. After a few weeks of searching, he found the perfect book.
Now he's sharing a story that ties together the lives of fictional characters, revolutionary authors, his own grandmother, and audience members in an enlivening, surprisingly political, and deeply touching performance called By Heart, which is running at On the Boards January 12 to 15.
Rodrigues sits onstage surrounded by a few crates of books and 10 empty chairs. He invites the audience to fill the seats beside him and says the show won't start until they do. After admitting that he's personally "allergic" to participation theater, and promising it's not going to get weird or anything, some reluctant crowd members join him onstage. He then begins to teach them the lines to Shakespeare's Sonnet 30, interspersing his lessons with stories about literary critic George Steiner, writer Ray Bradbury, and Russian dissident poet Osip Mandelstam.
When I watched footage of the performance online, I was like: "Wait, seriously? Is the whole thing just a group of people memorizing a Shakespeare poem? Is this like a durational joke except even more boring because it's vaguely educational?"
Actually, I didn't think any of that.
When I watched the real show, Rodrigues had me at "93-year-old Portuguese grandmother," married me at "poetry," and raised my child when he said "Osip Mandelstam." And like the final couplet in the sonnet he teaches, the show's winding narrative and formal elements came together in the last 10 minutes and set off within me a fireworks display of intellectual and emotional responses. What I'm saying is the intergenerational, international literary-theatrical experience made me awe-cry. But I know others don't share my frankly erotic love of language and Russian revolutionaries, so I asked Rodrigues what kind of game he was running here.
He tells me by phone that the structure for By Heart was inspired by the story of Nadezhda Mandelstam—writer, resistance leader, and wife to Osip—who preserved her husband's censored poems following his banishment and eventual shipment to the gulag. As Rodrigues explains in the piece, Nadezhda would invite friends into her kitchen and teach them her husband's poems. Those friends would teach 10 of their friends the poems, and so on. Stalin could force publishing companies to censor, but he couldn't censor anything people had memorized. Thus the poems were preserved in the hearts of Russians, if not within the pages of their books.
Rodrigues tells me he doesn't propose memorizing poems as a serious form of resistance against today's subtler forms of censorship, nor against the ascension of ultra-right-wing populism in the West, but he stresses the "undeniably political" act of a small group of people engaging with a theatrical experience.
"I don't distrust social media as a democratic tool, but it isn't as political as people being in the same room," he says. "Singing in a choir, learning a poem by heart, having a political debate, being in a town hall and discussing the problem of sewers—that's the stuff that has an impact."
He's been performing the piece for three years now, which means that 1,670 people from all over the world have learned the poem with him onstage. He says people who couldn't learn the full poem during the show send him videos of themselves reciting it at home. He runs into others in the streets of Lisbon and Paris months later, and they're still able to recall all the lines. For Rodrigues, these students are soldiers in an ever-growing army that is fighting against extinction.
The performance also provides the pleasure, of course, of learning something new about something so old. "Although you speak better English than me, still I can teach you something in your language, being a foreigner," Rodrigues says. "That says a lot about the little pockets of beauty in poetry, ones you can still share in this mega-globalized world where a Portuguese man can perform in Seattle and teach Shakespeare."