Bard day at Black Rock

Shakespeare had been a tedious companion for Geoff Dyer and his wife on their journey round the world - until they rediscovered him at Nevada's Burning Man Festival
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

Earlier this year, in the course of four months of travel in South-East Asia, my wife and I regularly found ourselves in places where there was, as they say, nothing to do of an evening. We'd have dinner, read, read some more, then sleep. Turning this entertainment-less situation to advantage, we decided to read Shakespeare aloud, perform it for ourselves. We swapped a copy of Mr Nice for one of the plays we didn't know so well: Antony and Cleopatra. I was Antony, obviously, and my wife was Cleopatra. The rest of the parts we divided up arbitrarily, taking turns to speak whichever lines came our way.

We hadn't read any Shakespeare for years, but were both entirely unsympathetic to the philistine argument that he – let alone Spenser or Chaucer – no longer has anything to say to kids from the inner city, that an appropriate education demands something more relevant to their own situation and experience than Coriolanus or As You Like It.

It came as a shock, then, to discover that he no longer had anything to say to us. It was unbelievably boring, and we had trouble making sense of a lot of what was being said. The play seemed to consist entirely of messengers coming and going, delivering reports on what was going to happen later. Off traipsed one messenger, in trudged another. It was like a cross between a cable news channel ("Coming up on CNN...") and a toga party.

Then there were the passages where the characters competed with each other to dress up some commonplace observations in all the rhetorical finery they could muster. The famous bits ("The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne...") seemed to come shrink-wrapped in quotation marks and sounded as if they had been lifted from The Waste Land. We made only halting progress. Weakened by the end of the first act, our resolve collapsed entirely midway through the third. We started skipping, and then we ground to a halt. Even with nothing else to do, reading Antony and Cleopatra seemed a pretty poor option compared with sleep.

Three months later, we were in Nevada for the Burning Man Festival. We arrived at the gates of the temporary city of Black Rock and were greeted with the words "Welcome home". That's what Burning Man is to me and the thousands of others who each year make this trek to the desert. Burning Man is the defining centre of my life. Asked recently by an Italian literary magazine if I considered myself a Londoner, English, British or European, I responded that I am, first and foremost, a citizen of Black Rock City. When I die, I want my ashes to be scattered on one of the communal fires there. On several occasions I've written little things about Burning Man, but what happens there exceeds all imagining. If you boiled down everything that was best about a year in London, you could trade it for about an hour here. An ideal city – as fantastic as one of Calvino's Invisible Cities – comes into existence and, then, at the end of the week disappears, leaving no trace in the white emptiness of the desert.

The Man burned on Saturday; other structures and art works were due to be burned on Sunday evening, but we had to be back in San Francisco and left at midday. The temperature was close to a hundred degrees. However slowly the traffic moved the dust was thick, choking. To organise the exodus, volunteers stood in the middle of the scorching desert, swathed in dust, directing traffic with endless patience and humour. I was exhausted from lack of sleep, feeling, as DH Lawrence put it when he was near this part of the world, that "I might drop dead if any more stupendousness assailed me". A few days earlier, my wife had become so dehydrated that she had to spend hours on an IV drip. It felt as if we had lived several lifetimes in the course of six days. We had seen and participated in something miraculous, but the most intense experience of the week still awaited us – and it was a literary one.

As you head towards Black Rock City, little messages of about five to 10 words are written on signs. These signs are spaced at 10-yard intervals, so that sentences emerge as you drive by. On the way out there are usually none of these signs, but this year there was one small sequence, barely legible through the swirling dust. On the first sign I read: "Our revels now are ended..." It was the beginning of Prospero's famous speech from The Tempest. How many times have I read this speech? I've lost count – enough, certainly, to mean that I don't read it so much as recognise it. I know it so well that I'm almost oblivious to it. Except now, as we drove slowly by, the lines unfolded in a new way. Each measured phrase was framed and isolated by a single sign. Cadence followed majestic cadence, exactly describing the indescribable wonders of which we had been a part:

"Our revels now are ended. These our actors,/ As I foretold you, were all spirits, and/ Are melted into air, into thin air;/ And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,/ The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,/ The solemn temples, the great globe itself,/ Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,/ And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,/ Leave not a rack behind. /We are such stuff/ As dreams are made on, and our little life/ Is rounded with a sleep."

I was in floods of tears – of awe, gratitude, love. Now, I am not one of nature's huggers, but as I got out of the car to hand a six pack of Calistoga to one of the guys – pierced, tattooed, as wild-looking as Caliban – directing traffic, I found myself embracing him as though he were a brother from whom I'd been separated at birth. Totally unfazed, looking at my tear- and dust-smeared face and still managing to direct traffic, he said, "You should stick around longer, man. We're gonna burn the rest of this shit tonight."

William Shakespeare himself could not have come up with a better response.

Comments