Note: This is a cross-posting from Paul Holmquist’s “Neverwhat?” blog, chronicling his research for directing our spring MainStage production of Neverwhere. This post is by Maren Robinson, our production dramaturg.
There are moments in the rehearsal of a play where an actor will simply stop to make sure they understand what a word means in a particular context. Unlike when you are reading a book and speed by a word you sort of know without pausing to lug out the dictionary, it becomes much more important to know what those words might mean when an actor must interpret them on stage for an audience.
I have been thinking about the title, Neverwhere. It is a place, a new adverb, a coinage and yet because we are familiar with both never and where we have an intuitive sense of what it means. To not be in a place. implies a dislocation in both time and space. But this is stronger than the no in nowhere is never as it it has never been. The other half of the word is also ambiguous. Where is an adverb used for questions. It is not neverthere but neverwhere. Where implies uncertainty.
This is further complicated by the way language develops. I looked up neverwhere in the Oxford English Dictionary. (A wondrous multi volume dictionary which gives not only definitions but also etymologies and usage in sentences from various time periods, I highly recommend perusing it.). There was a time between about 1400-1500 that neverwhere or rather newer whare or newyr quhar or neuer where was used interchangeably with nowhere. Of course where and there and that and what were all sort of interchangeable for a time. My favorite example being from the circa 1580 Towneley Plays “If thou com agane to nyght, look I se the neuer in syght, neuer where in my land.” (Roughly “If thou come again tonight, look I see thee never in sight and neverwhere in my land.”) This jives well with the ambiguous time period and social structure of London below.
Door uses the words “fiefdom” and “duchy” and asks Richard to whom he swears allegiance. The social structure of London Below seems to be feudal rather which is just one more incongruity which further displaces Richard.
There is a long history of displacement in fantasy. Of course when looking at the title, Neverwhere. One must also think of J.M. Barrie’s Never Never Land in the Peter Pan books (in which there is a surprising hint of menace for all that the books are children’s classics). The lost boys are lost. They have slipped through the cracks of their London with the real risk of never returning.
Similarly in the Welsh epic the Mabinogion, which feels akin to Arthurian tales, the knights slip in and out of magical realms without realizing it until they encounter a magical person although the shift from ordinary to magic is often signaled by the hero seeing a puzzling event like a sheep crossing the river and changing from black to white and back again.
In Shakespeare, characters often enter a wilderness and encounter the magical and are transformed. The lovers and mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream enter the forest, King Lear wanders in the wilderness, Rosalind flees to the forest of Arden in As You Like It, Prospero and the infant Miranda are shipwrecked on an Island in the Tempest.
These places that are outside the normal social order provide a place for magical encounters and more importantly transformation. Being outside the normal social order allows a character to reflect on that social order and see it with the perspective of an outsider or find that he or she has changed and no longer fits within that social order.
So both the place name and the place itself are dislocating. It is interesting however that the inhabitants of London Below call it London below. Neverwhere is not used as a place name. The place is real to those that inhabit it.
Which brings me to one other meandering thought about fantasy or more specifically the genre often called magical realism. I don’t know whether those who make book classifications identify Gaiman’s work as magical realist but he does share something with magical realist author Gabriel Garcia Marquez- a grounding in journalism.
The magical in Neverwhere is simply reported, in a matter of fact journalistic style. In fact the only person to whom this world is odd is Richard Mayhew so explanations are not forthcoming. It is part of what makes the world so plausible.
We are familiar with slipping into magical worlds and the honest way the events are reported is useful for actors in performance as well who are always in search of authenticity in performance. The world has to be real for the actors and the audience even when it is paint and flats.