I had forgotten how well I remembered "Bartleby the Scrivener." Bartleby himself, "silent, pale, mechanical," had been there all along, standing in his customary corner, vigilant only to the dogged lope of time, passionate only in his religiously kept freedom from all human responsibility.
Herman Melville's short story may be on required reading lists on high school and college, but that makes it no less brilliant and haunting. Now, a new TV adaptation of the story, by the Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting in association with Baltimore's Center Stage, proves to be a landmark in local production, but it is the kind of landmark that can be appreciated in its own time.
The one-hour tape will be shown tonight at 8 o'clock on Channel 11 and other Maryland public TV stations, then repeated at 5 p.m. on Dec. 24 and at 7 p.m. on Dec. 25. Eventually it is almost certain to be shown by other stations through the Public Broadcasting Service.
Israel Horovitz, whose off-Broadway works include "The Indian Wants the Bronx" (starring the then-unknown A1 Pascino), adapted Melville's tale of an inscrutable young law copyist who be-devils a Wall Street lawyer. The story remains in its own era, circa 1853, with no attempted updating; since Xerox has long since assume the function of the scrivener, this is for the best.
Yet there remains something madeningly contemporary about Mellville's Bartleyby, this ambiguous wounded specue who stares mournfully out through a closed window and who responds to the most meager requests from the outside world with, "I would prefer no to."
As movingly played by Joel Colodner, Bartley is angst itself, but in keeping with Melville's tone, a witty and even funny consummation; he is Munch's silent shrieker but he is also Magritte's menaced assissin. The employer, played by Nicholas Kepros, is helpless before Bartleby's "passive resistance" (this was about four years after Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience") but sees in Bartleby's unyielding singleness of purpose a kind of purity, a kind of perfection.
Stan Wojewodski of Center Stage directed the actors, and a little too stagily too, but Tom Barnett's TV direction seems ideally austere and, except for an awkward moment or two when the narrator-employer is speaking to the camera as if it were a person ("Oh, there you are"), Horovitz has shown remarkable and heartfelt fidelity to Melville and to Bartleby, to literature and to life.