New Theatre Quarterly

The Ventriloquial Paradox: George Steiner's ‘The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H.’

Nick White 


Surveying the intellectual passions and pursuits of a lifetime in his memoir Errata: an Examined Life (1997), George Steiner commented that ‘such was the response to The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H. and to Alec McCowen's overwhelming interpretation on stage of the dominant figure that I could have made of the novel or novella my foremost business’. Adapted by Christopher Hampton and directed at the Mermaid by John Dexter in 1982, The Portage is the only example of Steiner's fiction to have been dramatized for the stage. Through the character of A. H., Steiner – Britain's foremost scholar, critic, and polemicist on the Shoah and European thought in a ‘posthuman’ era – proposes the metaphysical idea of ‘negative transcendence’ as necessary to any attempt to understand Jewish fate during the Holocaust, a perspective unique amongst dramatic representations seen in Britain. The play itself has not been produced on the professional stage in the following twenty years, and critics and commentators continue to be perplexed by Steiner's decision to present his arguments in such a fashion. Nick White argues that while the novel's weaknesses were mercilessly exposed by the ‘translation’ of Steiner's novel into the dramatic idiom of stage naturalism, it was the subsequent controversy which exposed as fundamentally flawed Steiner's attempt (through recourse to the ideas and language of his own critical writing) to construct a composite, ‘inter-textual’ identity for the character A. H. He goes on to show that the initial confusion became polarized around conflicting interpretations of Steiner's intentions: were the arguments advanced by A. H. to be understood as an accurate rendering, or a misinterpretation – by the master manipulator of language, A. H. – of Steiner's published theses about the compulsions upon which Jewish fate depended during the Holocaust?