On Jacob's Hands : A Reading at the Merchant and Ivory Foundation in Support of the Arts,

by Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood. Conceived and performed by Matthew Modine

Presented at the Red Mills in Claverack NY July 27, 2002
By Chris Terrio

Its manuscript lost for more than fifty years, Jacob's Hands is one of those literary creations which defies classification into genre: part novella, part treatment for a film, Jacob's Hands lacks the extended interior meditations of a novel, but also refrains from entering a purely visual world, fleshing out its characters and settings as a screenplay would. Jacob's Hands, then, is a kind of ghost: lacking a body, half unseen, drifting in and out of consciousness, and demanding to be heard.

The two expatriate Englishmen Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood met in California after the Second World War and decided to collaborate on a screenplay about a healer. Hollywood offered a means for some of the century's greatest novelists -- F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner among them - to earn a living and support their fiction by writing for the screen, and Huxley and Isherwood looked on a screen collaboration as a lucrative way to pursue their mutual interests in mysticism, healing, and their fascination with the American West. Huxley, the son of a biologist and Eastern philosophy devotee, and Isherwood, who would spend his whole life pursuing Indian philosophy and mysticism, would meet on ground of common interest in Jacob's Hands.

Jacob's Hands is about a simple farm boy who, after healing a calf simply by holding it, finds himself the object of hope, of ridicule, of optimism and cynicism, and of what we would now call a media circus. Jacob is coerced to use his gift to heal the afflicted of every kind, and, in his naivete, his gift is co-opted into a vaudeville act and medicine show of sorts. Jacob does not even know whether his power is real, whether the healings are the result of a metaphysical power or of psychosomatic suggestion. In spite of himself, Jacob comes to represent the last best hope of Depression-era Californians who want to believe a miracle is possible.

Actor/director Matthew Modine, a Utah native, has imagined Jacob's Hands in the black-and-white world of Dorothea Lange, one of the great chroniclers of American faces and American dreams in the era of the Dust Bowl. For this reading of Jacob's Hands, we have worked with period images that suggest time, place, and feeling - not only the familiar Tom Joad portraits suggested to us by Steinbeck, but the more personal and intimate images we could find of that period in California and the West.

Presented as a reading for one actor accompanied by voices, this incarnation of Jacob's Hands features Matthew in the title role, accompanied by Mia Farrow, whose voice has the uncanny ability to at once suggest childlike innocence and cynicism; Dianne Wiest, playing Mrs. Medwin, the over-bearing matriarch who has Isherwood's stamp all over her (and whose persona would appear years later in Isherwood's work on the screenplay for The Loved One); Sam Waterston as a stalwart desert rancher; Tate Donovan as the ailing young millionaire Earl Medwin; Fisher Stevens as Lou Zaconi, the unscrupulous agent who manipulates Jacob into entering his showbiz underworld; and, as Dr. Ignatius Waldo, Wallace Shawn, whose ability to play smarmy and manipulative characters is without equal.

Their voices bring us from a desert plain to a revival church to the movie-house glitz of old Hollywood, giving life to the ghosts that Huxley and Isherwood imagined more than fifty years ago.

Chris Terrio co-directed Jacob's Hands with Matthew Modine.

Courtesy of Merchant Ivory