Great Man Out Of Time: On Dan Schneider’s “A Notch Of Eternity”

A bust purportedly depicting Sargon of Akkad.

Think “tragedy”. What fits? Greek ones, the struggle of gods and mortals. Shakespearean ones, perhaps, involving the grand relations of power, and everyone dying at the end. The more modern might think of Arthur Miller’s dramas, involving little men whose middle-class worlds, desperately clung, are fated to crumble. To call Dan Schneider’s play on Sargon of Akkad, A Notch Of Eternity, a tragedy, is reductive. Great works always escape easy classification. They also illuminate old ones in novel ways. What does it mean to call a play where no blood is spilt, or spilt only in memories, a tragedy? For Dan’s Sargon never really suffers external pangs, is shown mostly in peace, has led what one might even call a rather fulfilling existence. Yet, it is the indifference of the cosmos that pangs in him.

Deftly, the expected tragic tropes are evaded. Sargon of Akkad’s enemy really is time, the fate of being a great man born in a wrong time. Unlike the assassin’s blade, the jealous harem, these enemies are invisible, known little to most even as they wear away their names in eternity. Sargon is aware of this, obscurely. Within, he fights. But little can be done with human hands, without technologies or the accumulations of thought. Sargon is a stepping-stone, cannot be anything more than such. Sometimes, the only course of action is to accept this. I know I will never survive to see art’s greatest revolutions. There is some grief in that, but Sargon’s rings greater.

Some recourse is given to him. He has his empire, his dynasty. So far back, the chain of genetics proves the most common path to eternity. The play opens with Sargon of Akkad in his garden, talking to his son, attempting to guide him in ways. Rimush, the son, is questioned on his sensitivity to the world of the garden. His answer is blunt: “I notice them, I just do not regard them.” He is insecure, interprets Sargon’s wisdom as condescension. Sargon tries to instil humility in him: “We human beings are just a part of the grand scheme of things. We sometimes think we are more, but we are just a part-” But Sargon is rebuffed: “A KEY part, Father.” That’s the trouble with genetics: it’s all dice-rolls. Even then, the son has some insight of his own, because he can see parts of Sargon as an outsider and diagnose them: “You think too much Father. Sometimes I see you imprisoned in your memories. You wander about, out here, and are like a man in a jail.” What is Sargon’s empire to be in its final accounting? Still, he advises his son, as a father must.

The dialogue is rich and plentiful. Even a scene involving a garden stroll touches on things minute and cosmic. One of the minute things Sargon cares about is his adoptive father. Anyone who has read enough of Dan Schneider’s works sees parallels to his own family situation. When transplanted to the Akkadian Empire, it adds a new dimension to the matter of dynasty: Sargon knows the insufficiencies of blood, knows the importance of souls, rather than biological binds, for it is the wisdom his adoptive father, Akki, left him. But Akki himself has not left him, appearing to Sargon as a ghost. The father gently chastises the son for his harshness towards his own son. With Sargon and Akki, we see none of the distance as between Sargon and Rimush, though they are apart in blood, years, and life. The ghost might not be real, merely a part of Akki that Sargon has internalized and idealized. Yet, within the confines of the text, he is made real.

The garden becomes a major motif in the play. Sargon of Akkad views it as his legacy, as something greater than the usual self-aggrandizing monuments of monarchs. It is something alive, giving, beautiful. It is also cruel, home to wars of mantis and ants. Viewed in this slant of meaning, the garden is both sanctuary and arena. In a comedic scene with Jo-Minnu, his personal valet, Sargon ponders the philosophy of insects: “…it is as if the mantis exists to test out whether an ant colony is fit to survive…If they can drive him off- a rarity- then they have passed muster. The cosmos will look down with favor upon the ant colony, or so the theory goes.” The idea here is the survival of the fittest, though Sargon cannot give voice to it in any greater transparency, born as he was centuries before Darwin provided its cohesive formulation. But it speaks the truth of his situation: Sargon’s struggle will be eternal, either as the ant pushing against ever higher foes, or as the mantis clawing away at the infinite. Jo-Minnu, with great commonsensical humour, gives a third option: “I should stomp on them, my lord.”

Sargon of Akkad’s daughter, Enheduanna, presents another path against Time’s erosions: the poet-priestess stands on the side of Art. From our modern perspective, we know this to be the best answer to Sargon’s mullings. Gardens can decay, but words create an inner garden. Initially, Sargon rejects his daughter’s request to use him as a subject in an epic poem. He believes his worth should stand by his actions, not what he deems as mythicizing: “I am a man, not a myth. I want people to know that all I do was done by a man that is mortal, not a demigod.” Later, he shifts his view, granting her permission to write about him: “The truth is that little that I or any leader can do will last as long as the great arts that are made by people like you.” One wonders if Sargon himself could have been a poet, for he is swamped by powerful visions, notices details, and has elaborate fantasies that indicates a creative cast of mind. The text leaves many possibilities open. But, if that was ever an option, it has long been relinquished. Power and politics are his lot. Sargon must make do with circumstance.

How good a man is Sargon of Akkad? Within the play, his conduct is almost exemplary. Dan Schneider reveals strong morals in actions large and small: he requests leftover portions of family meals to be set aside for staff, is progressive in his treatment of women, values matters of mind more than matters of men, and chastises the elite attitudes his family may be falling into. But, as per his position, he has wrought death. Violence is needed to overthrow old orders. Absolute control of one’s men in war is an impossibility, and, as men are wont, they run rampant. Sargon faces his phantoms in a dialogue with Gilgamesh. It is left up in the air if the king of Uruk is diegetically real, or imagined, as they discuss visions of the future beyond Sargon’s knowledge. Sargon’s empire will be shattered under Rimush and other descendants; we now know this to be historical fact. In a great metafictive touch, Gilgamesh questions the truth of events, replays past scenes, and even adds a new continuation to one. In it, Sargon is faced with an ethical dilemma. His soldiers have committed an ‘incident’ in Elam, and he is under pressure from the king of Elam to cover it up. Before we hear of his choice, the scene is cut, and Sargon himself denies its occurrence. The reader is left to decide on the reliability of how Sargon is portrayed.

The climax of the play can be viewed as a battle, one entirely internal. Enemies, lovers, acquaintances flood upon Sargon, and he faces each in symbolic dialogue. To say he is reckoning with guilt, regrets, sins, would be wrong. The attitudes held towards these multitudinous ghosts are too complex to reside in the negative. Acceptance, submission, conquerance: these too would not fit. There is merely the struggle against time, against life, and intimations of its ever abrupt, dissatisfying conclusion: “Arrows, spears, fire, and all come to a head, and all end in the end”. But there is also the glory of remembrance, as the next scene recollects Sargon at his youthful height, having defeated his enemy Lugalzagesi, sparing his life and pledging to transcend the old, cyclical, power-hungry ways. Did he make good on this pledge? We have an entire play to arrange the facts, and our judgment will likely reside somewhere in between. There is only so much Sargon can do.

The end of the play is one of decline, humorous yet saddening. In a faux interview style, Sargon of Akkad attempts to showcase the accomplishments of his Empire through the common citizenry. As enthused as he is, they are plagued with those trifling yet perennial human woes, and little understand the progress he has made, while others note the areas that are still lacking. In a sense, great leadership does ultimately amount to that: maintaining the human core in a stable, peaceful mean, free to pursue their own problems without obstacle, while leaving room for those of higher view. But Sargon cannot even guarantee his mean, for the final scene shows Rimush undoing all of his works, gutting the Arts and waging war once again. Sargon, now a ghost, looks upon all this, sighs, yet smiles. In his garden he speaks to the mantis, as the play closes: “I see you, too, battle these same damned ants as your forebears did.” Sargon’s story will not end here. He will appear in the later plays of the Great Trilogy, as ghost, and legacy.

It is unlikely that the real Sargon of Akkad was as progressive and as benign as Dan Schneider depicts him. The very opening of the play emphasizes this fictionality through a short statement by the playwright’s fictional counterpart, Danny Wagner: “Since the least is known about his life, this gave me the room to more freely sketch his person and personality, and, in doing so, the play formed itself about that elision of self and history.” Yet, far more than historical document, the play dramatizes Sargon’s role in history, the role of a great man born out of his time, unable to actualize his complete abilities. Now, think “tragedy”. See. It just might fit.

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