Just over a couple of weeks ago, I began writing a new stage version of Rip Van Winkle. I finished it a few days ago. I have always loved the story, but it was the last play I directed, The Odyssey, that opened my eyes to a whole new way of seeing Rip. He is Odysseus––a strange Odysseus, yes, but Odysseus none the less.
Odysseus is gone for twenty years. So is Rip. Odysseus visits the dead and serves them a drink. So does Rip. Odysseus has a fleeting encounter with his dog when he returns. So does Rip.
But, of course, Rip is also very different from Odysseus. Odysseus faces danger and conflict head-on. Rip avoids confrontation. Odysseus goes from one adventure to another. Rip doesn’t even get in on the game of nine-pins the ghosts are playing. He just watches. Odysseus is restless, obsessed with his goal. Rip is a daydreamer. He sleeps through his odyssey. To quote Stephen Dunn again, Rip belongs to “the untested part [of a man], which never has transcended dread, / or the liar part, which always [speaks] like a citizen.”
Rip might dream of being Odysseus, but he never does anything about it. His inaction becomes a coma. He wakes, suddenly old, most of his contemporaries have passed, and he is in a different country. (He falls asleep before the American revolution, and wakes up after.) How many of our elderly have described their position in a similar way? Old age seems to happen all of a sudden, they say. Loved ones are gone, the country in which they grew up has changed so much that it is unrecognizable.
In this sense, Rip Van Winkle is a wonderful and melancholy Everyman story. Are most of us like Rip? Is Odysseus the part of being human we only dream of? If Odysseus were an actual human being, would he have spent his life merely dreaming of being Odysseus?
Whatever the answer, it is the actual passage of time that is the strongest connection between Rip and Odysseus. As I wrote the play, I spent a lot of time in my office foraging through my bookshelves, reacquainting myself with my favorite poems on the passage of time. When I came to Carl Sandburg’s Timesweep, I read this:
There are hungers
for a nameless bread
out of the dust
of the hard earth,
out of the blaze
of the calm sun.
The bread is nameless. The hunger is time. In the end, will we wake having only dreamt of feeding it?