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hurting a kid, or the art of lazy (meta)playwriting

I’ve been out of the stream of American theater for a while, living (as I do) in the hinterland of San Francisco. I have given the Bay area theater scene the old college try many times, and have nearly always come up disappointed. (Dance, I have found, is much more often satisfying in this town.) And I supply my own theatrical oxygen, in a sense, with my teaching: we work on plays that I like in class, and the actor and the text is always front and center. But with finishing my dissertation on Thomas Bernhard’s novels, and with less than a month to my fortieth birthday, I am beginning to consider how I might form my own theater company, and what that company might look like, more specifically, what kind of work that company might do. I have started to look around the theatrical blogosphere and take note of the writers people are talking about. In the process, I have encountered three contemporary works by writers who, despite their evident talents, have recourse to clumsy and debilitating plot devices which mar the their works’ potential even as it is being born.

The first play in this set is one produced in the last few years by Berkeley Rep: Martin McDonagh’s The Pillow Man. I didn’t see the production, but I did see the later Berkeley Rep production of the same writer’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore. My beef is with The Pillow Man. I ordered the script because I thought it might have potential as a new play to work on in class. I read much of it; not all, but enough to know I could put it aside. The difficulty with the play is that it depends, for much of its effect, on anecdotes told by the characters of harrowing, grizzly violence perpetrated on children, stories which may or may not turn out to have actually happened. Although I can understand someone objecting to this on moral grounds, my reservations are not moral, exactly, but rather aesthetic: a narrative that relies on this type of shocking victimization is, well, not much of a narrative anymore. This type of gesture snuffs out the atmosphere of possibility, competing priorities and painful choice that narrative art requires to operate successfully. As spectators, our reactions to horrific stuff done to children is, aesthetically speaking, utterly coerced: we are given no latitude, no room to doubt, to wonder what if, to imagine alternative ways of looking at the matter at hand. The great Richard Gilman: “Henry James once spoke of the public’s inability to distinguish art from “sensation” in the theater, and in fact of it’s preference for sensation.” McDonagh’s work, in this play at least, for all its “meta-narrative” reflectiveness, is totally preoccupied with the sensations of horror and outrage that violence against defenseless, innocent beings cannot but arouse.

Clicking through the blogosphere, at a blog called Thompson’s Bank of Communicable Desire, I read about the work of Tim Crouch, and then learned he was bringing his show An Oak Tree to Los Angeles. From reading the interview with him, I got very excited, and went so far as to enjoin my current acting students in Los Angeles to go and see the show. I went in to the experience prepared to truly enjoy myself. And I hadn’t even learned about the different-guest-star-every-night gimmick yet.

Crouch finds some movie star or theater luminary to be in the show every night. The guest is given clipboards with scripts to read off of and has an earpiece through which he is fed instructions of some sort (Peter Gallagher was the guest on the night I saw it). Crouch and the guest star interact and enact various situations, and eventually a sort of narrative emerges, a back story if you will, that has something to do with a child being hit by a car. I can’t really remember the details now, it’s been six weeks since I saw it, but I left the theater thinking, “that was a bunch of meta theatrical tricks enfolding a story about someone running over a kid.” It had the playfulness and headiness of a constantly shifting theatrical frame combined with the indisputably awful anecdote of the child being run over. The evening was unsatisfying for several reasons, but the reprehensible aspect of it is the exploitation of the spectator’s visceral recoil from the idea of the arbitrary and senseless death of a child. My indignation is not on behalf of the fictional child but of the very real members of the audience who were coerced into shock, outrage and sadness at the death of this child about whom we really knew nothing.

Apparently, hurting fictional children is Crouch’s usual schtick, because in the blog post I linked to above, he and the blogger who interviews him discuss another of his pieces in which a child is apparently, or at least possibly, molested, again as part of the back story. It is clear that the function of these anecdotes is to add some type of weight and gravitas to the otherwise mostly gimmicky metatheatrical antics that comprise the work.

Then, just this past week, I read Will Eno’s Thom Pain (based on nothing). The piece is a monologue of digression, rumination and banter on the performer, the audience, life, desire, pain, the good stuff. “Anyway. Now. I guess we begin. Do you like magic? I don’t.” The reviewer for the New York Times, in his review of the piece, famously characterized Eno as “a Samuel Beckett for the John Stewart generation.”

The piece has only the slightest of narrative context, wisps of back story, that involve a boy’s dog being electrocuted, with a graphic description of the wounds to the animal, and then the boy being brutalized by a hive of bees that “swarmed into his eyes and mouth, stung him on every skinny surface.” Did I mention that the audience is instructed, when the boy is introduced, to “break his arm, give him an injury, some problem with his hip so that he stands funny, can’t walk ‘real good’.”

Are we seeing a pattern yet?

Eno’s piece shows enough promise that I want to read his full-length plays and other works. But I have to say, I concur with Peter Marks of the Washington Post who says about Thom Pain:

Yet the monologue stints on illumination; the light it sheds pours through nothing larger than a pinhole. In the end, it feels a rather ordinary, single-dimension exercise in navel-gazing.

Or this critic in Seattle:

Seattle has seen Eno’s Thom Pain (based on nothing) at the Seattle Rep, and now TRAGEDY: a tragedy—getting cute with capitalization is always a bad sign—by new-to-Seattle company Satori Group. Not so much Beckett as bumptious, Eno writes loping, postmodern laments about the emptiness, alienation, and shit-slog that is modern living. Like an adolescent poet, Eno can’t see past his own ennui.

I have nothing against meta. I love me some Miranda July, Wooster Group, Brecht, Peter Handke. But it only goes so far by itself, and cheap narrative gambits involving damaging children doesn’t do anything to imbue the work with significance. Rather, they betray the writers’ insecurity at their own ability to purvey characters and situations that will invite our aesthetic and imaginative capacities to unfurl, be challenged, and find the deeper varieties of satisfaction.

Andrew Wood Acting Studio