As readers of this series have surely noticed, some of our “locations” fail the strictest definition of the term. Not all are the backdrop for scenes with characters and dialogue, but only mentioned by narrators seen and unseen. This Cambridge theater company is such a location, and one of several requiring a bit of detective work to even (possibly) identify.
The case unfolded like this: early in the novel, compulsive marijuana user, swear-offer, and return-toer Ken Erdedy awaits “the woman who said she would come,” about whom we learn:
Her family was well off, she’d said to explain how her condominium was as nice as it was when she worked designing sets for a Cambridge theater company that seemed to do only German plays, dark smeary sets.
As far as I can tell, there are only a handful of theater companies in Cambridge, and two actual theaters worth discussing. (I am going to leave aside the possibility that the inspiration was a theater company which has since closed its doors, but feedback from longtime Cantabrigians is welcome.) These include the American Repertory Theater, which is based at the Loeb Drama Center on Harvard’s campus, and the Underground Railway Theater and Nora Theater Company, which share space at the Central Square Theater.
First, let’s acknowledge that none of these perform German plays exclusively, although I suppose one company could perform only the plays of Bertolt Brecht for years without restaging any.
The Underground Railway Theater is the oldest, but its oeuvre seems to have long included children’s theater—perhaps not the likeliest employment opportunity for a trustafarian pot dealer. The Nora Theater Company is the youngest of the three, and possibly self-serious enough: notable stagings include Death of a Salesman, Equus, and Sam Shepard’s delightful Buried Child. However, it was perhaps a little too fledgling when Wallace began writing Infinite Jest in 1991. Both Railway and Nora were also, during those years, moving among various theaters in the Cambridge area.
So we come back to the American Repertory Theater, or the A.R.T.: it’s located in Harvard Square, known place of addicts and artists, highbrow enough to be plausible, certainly old enough (founded in 1960) and, better still, its location has been much more stable. It’s also about where I ran across that honor system book sale just past Harvard Square, and across the street from the former Radcliffe College, where Avril once taught.
From the street it is imposing and uninviting. Its upper story is wrapped in a kind of iron latticework resembling a giant, rusty cheese grater. The A.R.T. certainly looks like the kind of place that would specialize in German theater. For the purposes of our amateur gumshoeing, appearances will have to be enough.