Off- and Off-Off-

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Published in The Hopkins Review, New Series 5.2, Spring 2012 Issue

            New York is the hub of America’s theatrical creativity, the preeminent place for new playwrights giving us new shows.  But the innovation does not primarily come from Broadway. As I pointed out last time, Broadway is seldom in the originality business.  Almost everything found on the Great White Way is recycled somehow from works of art that have gone before.  Completely original projects abound in New York, but not in the 40 houses that give us the really big shows.  Instead the thrill of the truly new must be pursued in Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway houses.

The label of Off-Broadway is technically restricted to New York houses from 100 to 499 seats that honor certain Actors’ Equity rules.  Many are found in the Theater District, so Off-Broadway does not necessarily mean literally off Broadway.  Off-Off-Broadway denotes houses that are smaller than that and (though here the nomenclature gets tricky and inconsistent) follow so-called Showcase rules when employing Equity personnel.  Some use the label Independent for small houses that don’t follow the rules, though I cannot see why a larger house that failed to do so would not also qualify as Independent.  As I’m here neither as lawyer, lexicographer, nor land surveyor, I shall leave the exact boundaries to those who care.

My point, instead, is simply that the truly new is almost always found in the truly small.

On a recent November weekend devoted to these smaller venues I was able to supply experimental validation of this thesis.  The new works were here, and they were excellent. I was not looking for a particular theme, but of course one emerged.  Each play waded into some big issues, in the popular modern mode of mixing a lot of humor in with the seriousness.

What You Can Remember, And What You Can Say

I’ll acknowledge that not everyone would agree that the issues in The Atmosphere of Memory, by David Bar Katz, which played at the Bank Street Theater for a “showcase” limited run, are big ones.  Bar Katz’s play examines the role of the artist mining family memories.  Jon, the protagonist, a playwright, has crafted a “memory play” a la Tennessee Williams (except that the characters frequently speak like refugees from Woody Allen).  The play-within-the-play is in rehearsal as the play-without-the-play begins.  Jon has arranged to cast his real mother (Ellen Burstyn) as the character based on his mother, his girlfriend in the role based on his sister, and ringers for himself and his father for the roles based on himself and his father.  This highly inopportune mingling of real and fictional worlds goes off the hook completely when Murray, his estranged father (the uproarious John Glover), crashes the rehearsals and then the family circle.  Murray holds to the thesis that Jon has got the critical facts wrong, and that Jon’s dramatized whining about his childhood is completely off-base.  A pile of notebooks and tapes then emerge to referee the clash of Jon’s memories and Murray’s debunking.

This setup gives us a jumping-off point for explorations of the unreliability of memory, as well as the moral responsibility (if any) of the memoirist or the fictionalizer of memoirs to the real people depicted in his/her writing.  Despite a somewhat comic treatment, Bar Katz is trying to make a serious point.

Jon is convinced that his mom loved him and his dad rejected him, and that there was some hideous dark secret in his family which led him to cut the somewhat nebbishy figure he does.  Eventually we get to the bottom of it, which is essentially that there’s no bottom there.  We find out, in fact, that his family suffered from no more than the ordinary amount of disharmony, and it was his mom who didn’t love him all that much, not his dad.  But even his mom made a reasonable effort to get on with the business of parenting.  Jon’s angst, it is suggested, is a predictable outcome of his need as an artist to have some raw material, little more.

It also emerges that he has been misrepresenting his sister all his life, and in rather cruel ways.  His depiction of her in his play-within-a-play is both uncomplimentary and inaccurate, and yet he cannot, will not, amend the play, because it helps make the play work.  In the end, his stance seems to be that this is what he as memoirist/dramatist does, and the others will have to live with it.

These are neither trivial issues nor unacceptable conclusions.  When most writers start out, they’re advised: Write About What You Know.  Followed even a little, that guidance leads almost immediately to the land of the frank or the disguised memoir, for the self is the subject every writer knows best.  And the memoir is instantly susceptible to the well-known unreliability of memory, and to the quite reliable reality that telling the most important aspects of one’s story is apt to be hurtful to someone.  If one decides to tell the story nevertheless, one chooses not only for oneself but also for others, a responsibility few writers do or should enjoy assuming.  But that is far from saying that a writer should not make that choice.

What’s Important

In calling the issues in Atmosphere of Memory serious ones, I do not mean in the grand scheme of things.  It may make no difference there whether a memoirist is kind or hurtful, spot-on with the facts or artistically manipulative.  No; this is of consequence only in the artistic sphere and in that of human relationships.  But in the world of art, these are issues of consequence.  And the world of art matters, at least to those engaged with it.

The play did not do very well with other critics, who rightly called out some of the silly efforts to be shocking (the playwright’s protagonist in the play-within-a-play confesses to his psychiatrist that he makes his living in a way that, even in a world filled with highly perverse people, could never locate a paying customer base), the obsessive literary and dramatic allusions, and an unevenness in tone.  I could see all this, and agree the play needs some shaping up, and yet Bar Katz’s piece spoke to me.

Suicide, by contrast, is a big issue in anyone’s book.  Camus called it the only important question, though I doubt that Andrew Hinderaker, author of Suicide, Incorporated, featured during November and December at the Black Box Theater as part of the Roundabout Underground’s New Play Initiative, would go quite that far.  The conflict in Hinderaker’s play lies between the view from inside the potential suicide’s mind and the view from outside, neither one of which is conceded unquestioned sway.  Two things stand out in Hinderacker’s presentation: suicide is generally a somewhat rational response to pain and failure, and the choices for suicide – and also against it – are contagious.  We are all familiar with suicide clusters, where one person’s exit encourages similar behavior from those close to him or her.  We also know that suicide prevention hotlines have some success, because one person’s resistance to suicide in general can persuade others not to do it.  Both sorts of contagion are on display in this play.

The framework is partly satirical.  Hinderacker has said that his dual inspirations were the suicide of someone close to him and his work (for the two weeks he could stomach it) at a company that “edited” college application essays.  Mashing these two notions in his head, he came up with the concept of a company devoted to buffing up or outright writing suicide notes.  The smooth, sadistic young man who runs it aims to justify the motto: “96% of our clients would recommend our service to a friend.”  Into this send-up of cutthroat corporate mores stumbles Jason, the new trainee.

Clusters In Conflict

It becomes apparent rapidly that Jason has also stumbled into a potential suicide cluster, in which all of the five principal characters are tempted by the thought of suicide, and one has already succumbed to that temptation (as will another in the course of the play).  It emerges too that Jason himself has a conflict of interest, which is drawn into focus by his new client, Norm (James McMenamin).  A failed romance drives Norm’s suicide plan, a story of tragicomic loserdom.  McMenamin has a slightly stoned-sounding delivery when he recounts his marriage that would probably make a reading of the Yellow Pages sound droll.  But underlying that amusing tale of haplessness is a mortal dispute, not resolved until the ending: whether Jason will get drawn into Norm’s suicidality or Norm will be dragged back from the brink by Jason.

I’m not sure to what extent suicide is explicable.  The standard explanation today does not pay much obeisance to the view of suicides as philosophers who respond rationally to arriving at a conviction like the one Camus rejected, i.e. that the absurdity of the universe in some sense argues for self-extinction.  Instead, suicide is generally seen as a kind of pain avoidance, an anesthetic if you will, whether the pain is caused by objective circumstances or irrational depression.  To the extent the play looks at explanations, that is where it too comes down.

Yet Suicide, Incorporated seldom goes close to philosophy or even explanations; it wisely stays mostly in the realm of experience.  A dramatist need not sell an audience on the philosophical soundness or moral correctness of a position most of its members will instinctively adhere to.  The unfolding lives of the characters tend to succeed dramatically, or not, according to principles of symmetry that reside far deeper in the mind than abstract thinking, though they are close to our experiences.  Suicides affect us, they horrify us, they engross us, and stimulate us to try to explain them.  And to the extent we have a position, most of us would say we are against it most of the time – based on our reaction to suicides in our social vicinities or in the media to which we are exposed.

The resolution of the play, therefore, is dramatically satisfactory, in the kind of provisional fashion that the ever-present importunities of suicide (to those who feel them) will permit: provisional victories of indefinite duration.  That is all any of us can achieve against death, even when it is not of the self-inflicted variety.

World Views In Conflict

There are no victories and no losses in the fascinating imagined encounter between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis in Freud’s Last Session, in a long run at New World Stages.  We have no strong reasons to think that Freud (Martin Rayner) and Lewis (Mark H. Dold) ever met, far less that they met three weeks or so before Freud’s own assisted suicide to escape the misery of cancer and, perhaps, the unfolding horror of world war, both of which are ever-present in Mark St. Germain’s play.  But it seems likely that if they had had an encounter, and we could have watched it, we would have seen something like this.  I speak as one who knows more about Lewis than Freud – but that’s probably a common circumstance these days.  Freud is still revered, but the psychoanalysis he pioneered is in desuetude to a far greater extent than Lewis’ Christianity.  We revere Freud more for his willingness to ask difficult questions than for the answers, much less the techniques, he came up with in response.  I think it is legitimate to say that Lewis, by contrast, has followers fifty years after his death.

It may be objected that Lewis himself was a follower, of Christianity, which had a well-developed theory and praxis centuries before Lewis came along.  He had a ready-made doctrine, unlike Freud, who needed to improvise.  If one is to compare their statures from the standpoint of originality, Freud would surely deserve the palm.  But if, from a philosophical standpoint, Lewis was working with existing elements, it must be acknowledged that what he did with them was indeed innovative.  Starting with his earliest apologetics, he wedded considerable learning and philosophical rigor to the exploration and explication of human longings for the divine – what in Lewis’ view was the drama of the dialogue of divine and human.  He both dramatized human longing for God and seriously explored its logical and philosophical consequences in ways that may fairly be called original.

In his first major apologetic work, an allegory called Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), as the play correctly reports, Lewis had lampooned Freud as a character called Sigismund Enlightenment.  And the conflict between John, Lewis’ alter ego, and Enlightenment in that work exactly prefigured the conflict between Lewis and Freud in St. Germain’s play.  John is pursuing a divine vision of a perfect Island, and Sigismund Enlightenment says John believes it exists simply because John wants it so badly to exist, and that the vision is sexual in origin – roughly speaking, the argument of Freud’s The Future of an Illusion (1927).  In the play, in Freud’s London consulting-room, Lewis the character responds to this debunkery of his hunger for and belief in the divine with many of the arguments he would pursue thereafter: the problem that a materialist approach which argues that all viewpoints are predetermined by social conditioning and the like must logically admit to the same disqualification as attends the viewpoints it attacks ((The Abolition of Man) (1947)), the circularity of inductive reasoning behind many critiques of a belief in miracles ((Miracles) (1947)), and most of all the well-recounted experience of the entire arc of Lewis’ own life and spiritual development (Surprised by Joy (1955)).

No Winner

The polite struggle between Lewis and Freud is not the dramatically common war of hero and villain, nor even the kind of contest between religious rectitude and materialistic cynicism on display in many history plays, for instance A Man for All Seasons or The Crucible.  This is a dispute between two admirable people who are living difficult lives in keeping with the diametrically-opposed convictions they expound.

Freud maintains his courtesy and consideration without yielding an inch in his view that the universe is without comfort or meaning to the enlightened, whether the temptation be Lewis’ kind and optimistic blandishments or the horrors of Freud’s cancer, which are graphically portrayed at one moment that may cause members of the audience to look the other way.  We know he is about to choose death and will not turn to the reassurances of religion even in that comfortless place.

Lewis, by contrast, cheerfully acknowledges the irregularities of his life with a dead friend’s mother (suggesting some emotional deficits in him that might confirm Freud’s notions of the origins of religious desire); he owns the shaky evidentiary basis for his somewhat unfashionable creed (reaching a belief in Jesus while sitting in a sidecar on his brother’s motorcycle en route to the zoo).  But he does not surrender that creed in the slightest, even knowing it is about to be tested in another world war.

At least one critic commented of this play – and I think the criticism could to some extent be leveled at the treatment of serious issues in The Atmosphere of Memory and Suicide, Incorporated – that there is no winner, that the play consists in essence of two points of view being aired out.  A prizefight should have a winner, this approach suggests, and not just a few rounds of Lewis being Lewis and Freud being Freud.  But there is no such requirement.

The Versatility of the Drama of Ideas

Of course there does exist a drama of ideas that establishes one viewpoint and conclusively debunks another.  At its best it brings us plays like the aforementioned Man for All Seasons and Crucible, and at its worst, it gives us pedantic agitprop.  (I leave it to the reader to determine where Brecht falls on this spectrum.)  But that is not the only kind of theater of ideas.  There are some disputes where no honest conclusive victory is possible.  And I would argue this particularly of the kinds of ideas up for debate in the three plays considered here.

Is it more important for an artist whose metier is the memoir to avoid inflicting pain on those close to him or to tell the truth as he remembers it?  Is the allure of suicide to be taken on its own terms or treated with the taboo our society generally imposes upon it?  Which should sway the thinking person: the less than conclusive evidence for God’s existence and meaning in the universe or the less than conclusive evidence against God and meaning?  There is not going to be an objectively final resolution to these problems.  Should drama therefore not “go there”?  And if it does “go there,” must the dramatist furnish a right answer?

Not in my book.  A dramatist may, but is under no obligation to, take sides in the ideological or philosophical or religious contests that animate his or her plays.  And the more sophisticated generally will not.  For example, it could well be argued that the worst and weakest moments in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt (2006), that drama built around the Vatican Two opening of the Church and the pedophile priest scandals, are when Shanley nearly tips his hand as to what “really” happened.  Call these plays prizefights without undisputed champions if you like, but the same canard could then be leveled at Waiting for Godot or Tiny Alice.  What “really” happened and what the “real” state of affairs is and what the “real” correct ethical choice is may all be indeterminate.  Are we as audiences so needy for a well-crafted and conclusive ending that we cannot accept dramatic indeterminacy?

For those who answer yes, it may be best to stick with Broadway.  Not too many dramatic and philosophical loose ends there, which are about as unacceptable as dropped lines, fluffed notes, and dramatic structures undigestible by the visiting dentist from Orange County and spouse.  (They, after all, can afford those tickets.)

Nor is the failure to resolve these big questions a cop-out.  The big questions usually don’t resolve that way anywhere else; why should we insist on seeing them resolved whenever there happens to be a proscenium arch in the room?

Seductive Levity?

There is also a legitimate question about the tone of these shows, specifically about the way that jokes keep pushing up like weeds through the pavement of seriousness.  And I am not talking about infrequent, isolated lightening of the mood, like the irruptions of a clown once or twice in a Shakespeare tragedy.  I’m talking about something more continuous.

Is this a distraction?  Worse, is it a way of maintaining an inappropriate sense of reassurance, a laugh track at a sentencing hearing, drinking songs at a funeral – only more seductive?  Such objections, I would maintain, may not be entirely misplaced.  Modern audiences do like a very large spoonful of sugar with any kind of medicine.  Yet I cannot help thinking that this accurately reflects the way most of us, most of the time, encounter big issues, even serious ones.  It takes severe and continuous pain to keep humans from joking, from seeing the ironies, from word-play and funny analogies.

Moreover, there are few serious arguments that do not have humor naturally embedded within them: what Lewis called “the bloom on the argument.”  One ignores them at the peril of missing something important.  For example, one of the antagonists in Freud’s Last Session remarks: “One of us is a fool.”  It draws a laugh, naturally.  But it summarizes at once both the pathos and the absurdity of the situation.  Two of the most rational and cultivated debaters, neither able to score a knockout punch precisely because there are no conclusive proofs of the ultimate realities.  They can slug at each other forever and never retire the other from the ring.  If the ultimate truths were knowable, there would indeed be a victor – and a fool.  Given the huge stakes in their debate, the indeterminacy that prevents a definitive outcome is both a tragic circumstance for us all – and a somewhat laughable incongruity.

So I do not think it devalues the enterprise much to see this level of levity, any more than I found the unresolved dialectic a demerit.

Credit Where It’s Due

Instead, I am grateful for the programs (Labyrinth Theater Company for Atmosphere of Memory, Roundabout New Leaders for New Works for Suicide, Incorporated), and for the regional theater farm systems (Suicide Incorporated was produced first in Chicago, Freud’s Last Session in Massachusetts) that gestated these serious plays, and the network of New York theaters – let’s call it Non-Broadway, to be completely inclusive – that can serve as the ultimate mecca for works of this class.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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