Gurdjieff International Review

Bill Segal

“They are all angels, but they don’t know it!”

Andrei Serban


hen life challenges us to the limit, as has been the case recently, I feel more than ever the need to find some wise advice, a palpable support, a light. In my living memory I look for inspiration from encounters with great and truly special people, whom I had the chance to meet in my youth, not too long after I arrived in New York straight from communist Romania. One of them was Mr. William Segal, or Bill, as he liked to be called.

Who was Bill Segal? His parents also emigrated from Eastern Europe, from Northern Moldavia, and settled in America, in a small town in Georgia, where Bill was born in 1904. After studying at New York University on a sports scholarship (he was a gifted and popular football player), he began his career as a journalist. He also founded the avant-garde magazines American Fabrics and Gentry, which he quickly made famous. When he became a millionaire at the age of 30, he gave up business and started painting. Driven by boundless curiosity, this renaissance man found himself attracted to Buddhism. He traveled to Japan, where he made contact with D.T. Suzuki, the supreme authority on Buddhism and author of well-known books on Zen philosophy. Suzuki facilitated Segal’s entry into temples for initiation, where he decided to spend a considerable amount of time. He even learned medieval Japanese in order to understand the sutras and prayers that monks practiced regularly at the traditional Rinzai and Soto monasteries. Back in the West, with Ouspensky’s help, he met Gurdjieff, whose teaching became the core of his own philosophy. The solid foundation laid by spiritual training helped him survive a serious car accident in which his body was almost destroyed, becoming unrecognizable.

After prolonged suffering and an impressive number of surgeries, he miraculously recovered, with even more vigor. For a group of young people looking for a path of spiritual practice, which I was part of, Bill Segal was an example to follow for many years, until we were no longer young. He died in 2000 at the age of ninety-six. His dead body was hard to look at. It reminded me of Prospero’s words, “And my ending is despair.” One imagines that a wise man finds peace at the end of life and dies with a calm and serene face. What an illusion; it appeared to be exactly the opposite. Bill’s expression was restless, not at all peaceful but questioning, expressing deep suffering, as in Rodin’s sculpture of the man in a tempest. It was the same with Shakespeare, did the Bard truly find peace and harmony as he concluded his last play? Why then did he call it The Tempest?

The question seemed to have followed Bill Segal even after death.

I met Bill on various occasions. First it was Dr. and Mrs. Welch who brought him to my experimental production of Medea in ancient Greek and Latin at La Mama, performed in a small, dark basement. I didn’t think he was very happy to be there, nevertheless, he was generous to invite me to his home the next day to meet his “Romanian wife.” Indeed Marielle, his second wife, was born in Lyon to Romanian parents so, naturally, we became friends. She spoke Romanian enough to recite “Mioritza” and proudly say “Christ is risen!” in her ancestral tongue, when we were exchanging traditionally decorated Easter eggs. She was a talented visual artist and I invited her to create sets for my opera and theatre productions.

Memories of the time I spent with the Segals resurface unexpectedly. Here are a few examples that come to mind.

Often, as soon as Marielle, who was the world’s best hostess, welcomed me, Bill would ask me, with his usual smile, whether I thought there was another world, where we would go from here, what was our ultimate goal, or what I thought it was all about.

There I was, a confused, ignorant young man, facing someone who undeniably possessed real presence, and at the same time included me in that presence, who looked at me as a real human being. Open to listening, he was asking in all seriousness and was waiting for a sincere answer. Bill had an infinite curiosity mixed with warm compassion and incomparable modesty.

I remember Bill watching from his balcony as people coming out of their daily work waited for the bus, some looking tired and depressed, as a little rain was falling on a gray Lexington Avenue. He said, “Look at them carefully, they are all angels.” I looked surprised. “Is that so, really?” “Yes, they are angels, only they don’t know it.” Was he joking? Yes and no. Actually, I don’t think he was joking. Peter Brook and others heard him say the same thing.

One morning, while Marielle and I were working on a set for “The Merchant of Venice,” which I was about to direct in Boston, Bill was setting up his cushions for his daily meditation. I asked Marielle if we were disturbing him, but she signaled that we could go on because “nothing bothers Bill.” The housekeeper began vacuuming right around him, while he sat, attentive, with his eyes closed, immersed in meditation, not moving from his lotus pose. He had the power to block out any ambient noise or distraction. This memory still follows me, as I continue to ask myself how to be in the middle of the usual loud street uproar and not be affected, and when even little noises irritate and destabilize me. Many of us often saw Bill appear perfectly calm and regal in the middle of a busy marketplace. One wondered, what was his secret?

It is helpful to me to re-read notes I took from Bill’s accounts of the nearly fatal experience caused by his car accident. In these extremely difficult days of the coronavirus epidemic they acquire a special resonance.

According to Bill, everyone who suffers a severe trauma or serious illness gets very close to a major change, or even a real transformation. When things get back to normal, old habits are restored, but another attitude remains, deeply buried, and brings about a certain tolerance and understanding. These people are not exactly the same as they used to be. Deep trauma is comparable to a death experience or, at least a taste of it. Everything changes. He said he sometimes thought, “Would I agree to go through an experience like that again, if I was given the choice? Being old now, my body weak, I would tend to say. No, I’d rather die on the spot. I wouldn’t want to go through all the torment again. But, from another point of view, if I wisely weighed the pros and cons, I would agree to relive the whole experience.”

A person standing in front of a building

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Bill and Marielle

His words make me question the attitude I usually have when, feeling well, with no real worries, I think I have everything under control—as if it were all “mine,” “my” life, “my” decisions, “my” situation, “my” career, etc. Bill Segal saw, like other true seekers, that to live in this way is to live in illusion. Even before the accident, he had seen a glimmer of the truth, but the accident helped him to fully appreciate the gift of life, not to lose sight of the essential, not to waste more time with unimportant things. What can I learn from that? The idea of accepting the real situation given to me at every moment is much more complex than it seems.

Under Bill Segal’s influence I thought about the most important question a man can ask himself. Why was I born? Why am I here? When I was young, I was sure it was up to my wonderful intelligence to find the answer. Over time, I realized that that is not what the question requires, but, on the contrary, I need to see that “smart” answers, or in fact any answers, can be cheap; that I simply cannot, do not, know how to truly answer. I need to keep searching, to struggle, to ache, it needs to cost me. I am actually asked to answer with my whole being, not just from the tip of my lips, as I usually do.

I continually identify with my profession of theatre director and with the theatre itself. I chose my path in life at an early age, but I could have been a lawyer, a taxi driver, or anything else. Nevertheless, the question would have remained the same, who am I? What does it mean to be a real man? An old friend, who knew the great Romanian sculptor Brancusi, told me, “When I saw Brancusi step inside, I spontaneously said to myself, ‘Here is man!’ I didn’t think he was a strong, rich or talented man. I just thought, ‘Here is a man!’”

Hamlet asks the question” “What is man?” In the theatre I am interested to understand what he means, but it is a professional concern. I prepare my staging, I read studies and essays; the actors also have their opinions about what it means to be a man. We try to find solutions on stage together, hoping that these words will resonate. Then, the house is full, and Hamlet asks the audience directly, “What is man?” Suddenly the words vibrate, and we are touched. But, once we leave the theatre, we are swallowed up again by the tumult of life and we forget.

During the Covid-19 confinement, I have set out to read daily a fragment of the Gospel according to John. But I also incessantly read breaking news about this pandemic. I see shocking images of people with breathing difficulties being carried on stretchers. I feel for them while I realize how lucky I am to be able to breathe freely. In what are called “normal” times, I wouldn’t even care to notice. The shocking news about people falling ill, suddenly losing all their energy, wakes me up from the dream in which I live. Confidence in my “healthy” body is shaken. I am no longer so proud of “my” strength, “my” intelligence, “my” talent.

I discover in amazement that what I thought was mine doesn’t really belong to me. How easily everything can be taken away from us. We don’t really own anything. I can no longer live in my total illusion. What does it mean to be a man in these conditions?

In his own way, Mr. Segal knew something when he would often echo some of the Zen sutras during the meditations that he guided. One of them was: “Quietly watching, anticipating nothing, I am open to what is here, now.”

And another, “I am the witness and the witnessing, passively watching and actively being watched.”

Andrei Serban is a Romanian-born American theater director. A major name in twentieth-century theater, he is renowned for his innovative and iconoclastic interpretations and stagings. This piece was previously published in Romanian by The first photo is by Lee B. Ewing.


Copyright © 2020 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Fall 2020 Issue, Vol. XIV (2)
Revision: January 1, 2021