Amherst College professor pens, stars in one-act play

  • “The Oven: An Anti-Lecture”

Staff Writer
Published: 7/25/2018 11:30:31 AM


By Ilan Stavans

Photographs by Bill Hughes

University of Massachusetts Press

Aside from being a prolific writer, Ilan Stavans, professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College, is a regular speaker and commentator on a number of subjects. But it may be news to some that he’s also an actor in a one-act, one-man play, “The Oven.” He worked with Matthew Glassman, a co-artistic director of Ashfield’s Double Edge Theatre, to develop the piece.

“The Oven” recounts Stavans’ experience some years back of traveling to Colombia, where he meets an engaging, 40-something man, Benjamin (“He was relaxed in a Zen-like way … (and) he looked like a young, modern version of Don Quixote”) who describes himself variously as an artist and a shaman. Benjamin tells Stavans he’s a member of an Indian tribe from a region of the Amazon rainforest and invites him to take part in a shamanic ceremony there.

Reluctantly, Stavans finds himself agreeing to the proposal. He senses taking part in the ritual will be about letting go of his self-control and his rational, cerebral approach to life; he fears that, yet he’s also strangely drawn to it because routine has become too much a part of his life. “At some point,” he says, “evidence of the disquiet came pounding down on me.”

The ceremony involves ingesting a hallucinogenic brew called ayahuasca, after which he begins experiencing all manner of bizarre visions (“I eat a deer. Leisurely.”) and imagines twin rabbis having a conversation — in the middle of an oven. He finds himself questioning many of his core beliefs.

The University of Massachusetts Press presents the full text of the “The Oven” in an edition that includes multiple photographs of Stavans during a performance. The photos mirror his journey from calm academic to disheveled, sweat-soaked raconteur, one who later finds himself rejuvenated and his life refreshed — because, as he says at the end of the performance, “It is true: An unexamined life is not worth living.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at


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