Shadow of Himself

Spring, 2007
Written By: Neal Bell
Directed By: Jody McAuliffe

Neal Bell started writing plays in the turbulent late 60s, so it's no surprise his plays tend to examine the human condition in times of turmoil. "In troubled times theater can be a great public forum," says Bell, award-winning playwright and Professor of the Practice in Theater Studies.

In Shadow of Himself, Bell's play premiering in Duke's Sheafer Theater April 5th, he has chosen Gilgamesh, one of the world's earliest known literary works, as a springboard to examine our own troubled times.

"I was fascinated at its relevance 30 years ago when I first read Gilgamesh," says Bell. "At the beginning of recorded history, humans were wrestling with the same issues that challenge us now. Our ability to delude ourselves goes all the way back. What makes the parallel even more insistent is that the story takes place in the same area of the world where we currently find ourselves wrestling - in modern-day Iraq."

While the play is based on the ancient tale and Bell uses the early literary device of the Chorus as narrator, Shadow of Himself is sprinkled with modern references like singles bars, speed dating, root canals, and blow-dryers. The juxtaposition of contemporary references with the old story provides both surprise and humor. But humor, says Bell, is not just comic relief, but a conscious way of getting into darker subject matter.

Shadow of Himself is directed by Jody McAuliffe, Professor of the Practice in Theater Studies. McAuliffe chose Bell's play because of its relevance. "It's about a leader with a restless heart who behaves as if he's a god, even though he's mortal" she says. "First he convinces his best friend that the guardian of the sacred wood is evil, based on faulty evidence. Then he invades his presumed enemy's territory without justification, and slays him. In so doing he brings the wrath of the gods down on himself and his best friend. This reminds me of something contemporary."

McAuliffe has worked with Bell several other times, but before he joined the Duke faculty last fall. "It's a great opportunity for me to work with Neal again," says McAuliffe. "We have never had the luxury of actually living in the same place while we collaborated before. Now we have the whole rehearsal process to get to work together. This is a dream."