The Matter of Time

Well, this is one the most supremely fascinating things I’ve read all year. It is also, in a very literal and non-hyperbolic sense, awe-inspiring. It inspires awe.

Long story short: there is a clock being built, inside of a mountain, that will tick for 10,000 years. But you should go read the whole thing, believe me. There’s even a robot with a chainsaw arm, just to spice things up in the middle.

“Over the lifetime of this clock, the United States won’t exist,” Bezos tells me. “Whole civilizations will rise and fall. New systems of government will be invented. You can’t imagine the world — no one can — that we’re trying to get this clock to pass through.”

I think that, in theatre, we have a very schizophrenic relationship with the immediate. We want to make things that last, obviously; we want to create experiences that resonate, that live on when they’re done, that fundamentally become a part of people’s lives. If we’re playwrights, we want more than one production, a lot of the time; we mostly want to pen words that will carry down and be found relevant through time, and space. We want to last.

Of course, we can’t. Our works can’t either. Certainly not on the scale that the makers of this clock are talking about. Theatre is about immediacy. It’s about the moment; it’s about a shared communal experience of story and catharsis and fleeting togetherness that is so great exactly because it can’t be repeated. It’s what we all love about it, but it guarantees that anyone writing with “posterity” in mind is going to fail, more often than not.

At its best, a great show can be a pebble in someone’s shoe for the rest of their lives: quietly niggling, never quite settling, it can echo in their actions and can even change their behaviors, but it can’t stand as a monument unto the ages. It just doesn’t have that kind of power, or intent, behind it. It’s not one of the tools.

So on first glance, after reading an article like that, it seems a little silly to me that we’re running around on painted, temporary sets speaking words few will ever hear while out in the desert of Texas these clockmakers are building an apparatus that will quite possibly last longer than our entire species. It’s a humbling realization, and it’s even a little shaming, because how do you measure up against ten millenia? What kind of ambition can we have in the face of that sort of time, if we’re just trying to put together a show for next season?

But that’s the beauty of the clock: it’s not about the clock. It’s about the theatrics of the clock. And, really, the way that the clock is employed has a whole lot in common with what we do as theatre artists. (Minus the robo-chainsaw. For now.) Building this clock isn’t about the people/beings who may/may not find it 10,000 years from now. It’s entirely about us, in this moment, and the attempt to make an impact on the way that we live our lives. For one thing: it’s gigantic. It’s inside of a mountain. It’s shiny and pretty and there’s a big spiral staircase you take to walk all the way up it. It’s grand and immense and fantastic, and designed specifically to take your breath away. It’s theatrical in the way a cathedral is theatrical. And then, there’s this passage from the article:

To conserve energy, and to encourage visitor participation, [the clock] won’t actually display the current time on its face most of the time. Instead, the face will show the time and date (and the corresponding position of the stars and planets) of the last person’s visit to the clock, whether that was yesterday or 300 years ago. If you want to view the current time, you’ll need to turn a wheel near the clock face, which advances the clock’s dials, moving through time until it automatically clicks to a stop at the present moment:


The point of the clock isn’t to make something that lasts 10,000 years. It’s to make us, right now, think about what 10,000 years means, and to help us realize that as vast as that length of time is, we’re a part of it. We’re in the continuum. And we’re connected to everyone else in the stream, and we can see that by simply turning a wheel and leaving our mark for the next participant. We can take a hike through the desert, walk up a staircase, marvel at something that’s going to last exponentially longer than us, and we can then directly participate in its existence, and put our own little timestamp on its face.

Then we can go back outside, and walk back to our cars, and drive home to our relatively short lives. But if we visit the clock, then we’ll have one more pebble in our shoe, slightly changing our gait. We’ll have a big, quiet ticking in the back of our minds, reminding us that we have a place in the cosmos.

Sounds like a pretty awesome piece of theatre, I’d say.

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