Abstract: Nora is a curious writer who seeks to understand her friend and collaborator Katherine’s obsession with 20th-century French philosopher and activist Simone Weil. As their discussion deepens, Nora and Katherine embody scenes from Simone’s life in an attempt to communicate with her across time and space. Feeding on Light is based on playwright Lenora Champagne’s personal relationship and discussions with Undermain Theatre’s late Founding Artistic Director Katherine Owens, to whom the play is dedicated. (The copyrighted excerpts below are reprinted with permission.)
Excerpted scene introduction: In Feeding on Light Katherine and Nora, two middle-aged contemporary women who are friends, consider Simone Weil’s life and ideas. Simone is a character in the play, both in her own time and when she joins them for tea in the present day. Excerpts begin below (trailer here):
When Simone wept about people starving in China, DeBeauvoir wrote, “I envied her for having a heart that could beat right across the world.”
She always sympathized with workers and challenged herself to be physically more like them.
When she is twenty Simone works in the fields of the Jura ten hours a day.
The amaranth is wild. It appears one day and takes over. We can either have amaranth or garden vegetables. I am torn. Letting nature have its way is easier than clearing the ground for tomatoes and potatoes, for squash and corn.
Pulling up amaranth is backbreaking work. I grab it at the bottom, near the dirt, and tug. If the ground is damp, I bring up a clump of earth and a long, red, ragged root.
Then I move on to the next one.
“The weeds are pulled up by muscular effort, by my will, but only sun and water can make the corn grow. The will cannot produce any good in the soul.”
It is human to cultivate. But what is the divine will?
I fight desire and appetite and strive to open myself to the answer.
When clouds darken the afternoon sky, the end of time grows near.
The garden is ready, the greens are ripe, drops of dew on the new leaves, ready for harvesting. But I let them stay, because after all this work, I like to look them, at what they promise, not at the labor that still lies ahead, that’s entailed in the cooking and eating. Perhaps the growing and the readiness is enough, as the light shines upon the bounty and is reflected in the dew? When the crop is in, the ground will be blank again; the light will fade into winter. Better the light is held here as long as the green lasts, even once the lettuce bolts, beyond saving.
I don’t mind bitter lettuce—it is sweet enough for me.
The sun blazes on fields of light.
It bothers me that Simone’s parents are always around to rescue her. Sacrifice from a position of privilege can be annoying.
Simone sacrificed beyond the point of pain. Perhaps what bothers you is that her sacrifice from a position of privilege puts us in the uncomfortable position of asking ourselves what we’re willing to sacrifice for a greater good, or for another person.
Ouch. You may have a point.
I was thinking—when we were younger we had convictions, and I suppose we—outgrew them? It’s important not to negate or minimize the power of those convictions. She died young, at age 34—she didn’t get to a place in her life where she relaxed her convictions—she held fast and stayed fervent.
I think there’s something admirable about her self-sacrifice and self-denial. It was hard to put my life on hold to take care of my father, but she modeled it for me.
Wow. I am so far from that right now.
We’ve lived in a time of plenty. But there’s so much uncertainty ahead.
She remains her stubborn self.
The farmers she works for offer her a fine cream cheese,
(As the farmer)
“You have worked hard. Please, enjoy this cream cheese.”
but she refuses it, saying,
“the Indochinese are hungry.”
Doesn’t she ever consider how much trouble she causes other people with her strict demands of self-denial?
The farmers offer me a comfortable bed near the warmth from the fire. But the bed is too soft, the quilt filled with goose feathers. In this bed, I might wallow for hours. I too often postpone doing my duty, and such comfort would be self-indulgence of the worst sort.
I refuse this room.
Instead, I move into an abandoned stone dwelling on the edge of a wood, near the river.
This hut is perfect! I’m in the womb again—I feel sheltered here. The stone walls enfold me; the ceiling is just high enough. There is light from an opening over the door, covered by mesh. I sweep out rat droppings and wipe away cobwebs—in niches in the wall I put the treasures I find—a leaf, some berries, an acorn. A tree stump serves as a sturdy seat—I am in a fairy tale house! I hang a pot to cook potatoes over the hearth—it takes a long time for the water to boil, but this food is delicious to me. It’s wrong to eat my fill when our brothers are starving. I can content myself with berries for a meal. A mattress of pine needles on the earthen floor suits me. Here on the edge of the woods, I hear the owl.
Ah. Providence is with me today! I found a bush full of berries and picked a handful for tonight. Candlelight dinner—even if only potatoes and berries—is romantic.
Outside the kitchen window
Migrating Canadian geese forage in the corn stubble.
A low mountain in the distance, its ridge soft against the cloudy sky.
A light mist falls. Before the wild hedge, a Buddha and a dwarf cherry tree. Two gray birds jockey for seeds at the feeder.
Before me, broken stone steps and the vegetable garden enclosed in a white wooden fence. A bird alights on the fence. It surveys the garden. It finds a worm!
Another bird perches on the fence, just looking.
The Buddha, directly opposite me, contemplates the scene.
The beauty of the world.
“When a soul has attained a love filling the whole universe, this love becomes the bird with golden wings that pierces an opening in the egg of the world. “
The bell is tolling. Time passed while I wasn’t looking.
What yolk can the egg of the world yield?
What birth can come from this piercing?
The angel announced the spirit of God to Mary.
That was a piercing.
She chose to accept the seed.
She gave birth to his son.
His son died on the cross, the death of criminals, of slaves, asking,
Father, Why have you forsaken me?
This is the question we must be reduced to asking, stripped of our ego, ready to receive the spirit that can only come when we are relieved of ourselves. God created us so we can choose to deny ourselves in order to receive him.
“Her mouth uttered thoughts as a tree gives its fruit.”
Lenora Champagne is an American playwright, performing artist, and director. Champagne is Professor Emerita of Theatre and Performance at Purchase College. She received her Ph.D. in performance studies from New York University and teaches a class in Solo Performance in Spring for NYU’s Gallatin School. Ms. Champagne was the inaugural recipient of a $10,000 commission from the Katherine Owens/Undermain Fund for New Work in 2021 for the development of Feeding on Light.1 Recommendation