Mimesis, Madness, Monstrosity and Other Matters: Eight Short Essays on Dramatic Method
By Robert J. Cardullo
What follows are eight relatively short essays on dramatic method as it is used in an eclectic group of plays. The titles, I trust, speak for themselves: "Method as Unmasking in Miller's 'After the Fall'" or how Arthur Miller's method in this drama reveals more about him and his personal life than about the ostensible subject at hand; "Manipulation as Method in O'Neill's 'Anna Christie'" or how Eugene O'Neill's seemingly awkward plot manipulations in this play work out in the end to be not manipulative but revelatory; "Mimesis as Method in Tally's 'Coming Attractions''" or how what once appeared to be Ted Tally's satirical method in this drama has been revealed, through the passage as time, to be far closer to mimesis or realism; and "Madness as Method in Dorst's 'Ice Age'" or how, in this work, Tankred Dorst "madly" attempted to create drama out of a static situation in which the main character himself may be a madman.
There are four more such titles: "Method as Minor in Storey's 'In Celebration'" or how in this play David Storey uses two minor older characters, one as a parallel figure and the other as a foil, to underline the deleterious influence of two major older characters on the lives of their sons; "Method as Meaning in Pinter's 'Old Times'" or how Harold Pinter's dramatic method here – of pause, silence and terseness – creates gaps that only the audience can fill, within boundaries described by the playwright and in response to data and stimuli that he supplies; "Manner as Meaning in Brenton's 'Sore Throats'" or how Howard Brenton's extensive use of the aside in this play is designed to reveal something about character, not to revive an archaic device; and "Monstrosity as Method in Kraus's 'The Last Days of Mankind'" or how Karl Kraus uses a "monstrous" or gargantuan method – consisting of 259 scenes in five acts and 800 pages – to both document and reflect the monstrosity that was World War I and its aftermath.
I make no pretence here as to comprehensiveness in the dissection of dramatic method. I wish only to demonstrate several different ways in which some well-known, and lesser known, playwrights use method – certain devices, techniques and strategies – to create meaning: sometimes seemingly against their own will, as in the case of Arthur Miller in 'After the Fall'.
Method as Unmasking in Miller's 'After the Fall'
Arthur Miller's play 'After the Fall' (1964), despite the author's punctilious denials during his lifetime, is plainly autobiographical. The hero, Quentin (who has been made a lawyer) has a crisis of conscience caused by a congressional committee investigating (Communist) subversion. He leaves his wife for a second wife who is a highly neurotic, popular sex idol; after she commits suicide, he marries a European woman.
There was much debate in the press at the time about the propriety of Miller's writing here about his second wife, Marilyn Monroe, so lately deceased by her own hand. Much more to the artistic point would have been debate about almost every other subject touched in the play, for the portrait of Maggie (as she is called) is the most vital element in the work. Yet her character is not realised in dynamic purpose: it is merely telescoped biography. Her dialogue, however, has a ring of authenticity that at least gives it veracity, a sting and immediacy that the other characters' words lack.
An American curse, it has often been noted, is the lust for bigness, and this is nowhere more apparent than in the arts. And, in the arts, it is nowhere more apparent than in an artist who is desperate for material. If a writer is searching for a subject and can find nothing within the scope of personal experience or of human observation and interest to move him, he can always fall back on what can be called "spiritual navigation", or the Big Questions (such as "Where is Western man going and why?"). It seems fair to assume that this was true of Miller, who had been silent for years prior to 'After the Fall' (his previous play was 'A Memory of Two Mondays' ).
A true heir of Strindberg might well have written ﬁercely on his marriage to "Maggie" and, by concentrating on that relationship, would have permitted the whole era to ﬁlter in, as it must. But Miller, more grandiose and less perceptive, felt compelled to be "large", to produce a play that confronts all the great subjects of the recent American past and the present (not to speak of the already large cultural subject of Marilyn Monroe herself), almost as if he had drawn up a checklist and ticked off the items one by one. The HUAC investigation menace, the scars of the Nazi concentration camp on the Western world, the resultant anomie and ultimate quest for hope that are central issues – these are all mentioned rather than explored and are bound together with dialogue that is most of the time laboriously ﬁgurative. ("I hear your wings opening," Holga says to Quentin at the site of a concentration camp; Quentin anguishes, in the same place, "Why does something in me bow its head like an accomplice in this place!") What is worse, this is less a drama of contemporary dilemmas than of the autobiographical hero's search for exoneration for every aspect of his private and public action and inaction.
The structure of 'After the Fall' resembles that of Miller's 'Death of a Salesman' (1949) in that there is a free time-flow. As memories come into Quentin's head, relevant characters appear. This is a serviceable technique and was highly effective in the earlier play because the juxtapositions were meaningful. Here the motifs that recur – for example, a crisis when he was a child, a scene with his brother – have no relation to what is happening "now", no bearing on it, and the method is merely used, not used to a purpose. It reminds us clumsily of the earlier occasion when Miller used it well, as also do the family quarrels, which are reminiscent of both 'Death of a Salesman' and 'All My Sons' (1947).
Certain enforced events (such as Maggie's suicide and the toll of the concentration camps) only emphasise the straining for universality, the conscious attempt to write an Everyman of the mid-20th century. But Miller has created neither a protagonist capable of tragedy nor a credible symbolic character. Little skilful moments (like the scene when the father hears of his wife's death), numerous pungent lines of Maggie's (like "I'm a joke to most people" and "I just have to think of nothing and that's me!" – lines, one feels, that Miller has remembered from life) do not compensate for the play's philosophic and artistic failure. Miller tried in 'After the Fall' to embrace the cosmos by agonising blatantly about contemporary themes, instead of distilling the effect of these themes into a microcosm where very little needs explicitly to be stated or argued. The difference, finally, is that between surface garrulousness and a subsurface of echoing silences, between a poetaster's verbiage and succinct metaphor. After the fall, indeed.
Manipulation as Method in O'Neill's 'Anna Christie'
The dramaturgy of 'Anna Christie' (1921), full of clumsy manipulations, directly contradicts its tonality: the construction is that of the James O'Neill period (or the mid- to late-19th-century), here used for the New Realism. But there are some illuminations in it, particularly about O'Neill's subsequent work.
Primarily 'Anna Christie' is an example of early 20th-century American naïveté about realism. The great European dramatists of the 19th century had, in general, borne down veristically on the bourgeois life around them. For O'Neill, one of the first American dramatists to respond to that veristic impulse, truth in art was pretty much limited to squalor – just as he had felt that in order to see life, he himself had to become a sailor, booze it up and brothelise. He had treated middle-class life in such plays as 'The First Man' (1922), but, in his early days, his best strength was with sailors and stokers and hardscrabble farmers, probably because he believed that their lives were "realer". 'Anna Christie', however, for all its attempt to appear at home in similar seaminess, is really a bit wide-eyed and adolescent in its awe of the underside. (Compare early Gerhart Hauptmann and Herman Heijermans.)
Thematically, 'Anna Christie' forecasts some aspects of O'Neill's belated maturity. Like 'A Touch of the Poet' (1942) and 'Long Day's Journey into Night' (1941) and the lesser 'Moon for the Misbegotten' (1943), it is fundamentally about immigrants in America and the psycho-cultural shock of transplantation. And as in 'Journey' and 'Moon' and 'The Iceman Cometh' (1946), the view of women's morality is black-and-white: there are Good Women and Bad Women, easily distinguished. As in the last plays about O'Neill's family, the hero is Irish Catholic, living by a double standard. For example, Anna says to Mat, who has bragged of his prowess with whores: "You been doing the same thing all your life, picking up a new girl in every port. How're you any better than I was?" His reply: "Is it no shame you have at all?"
That leads to the ending of the play. When it was first produced in 1921, O'Neill was hit by some critics for what they considered an arbitrary happy ending. Mat should not have returned when he found out about Anna's past, they implied, and Anna should have slipped back into a brothel. O'Neill said it would have been "obvious and easy" to make the ending tragic, and, though this may have sounded like fancy footwork at the time, I think he was right. First, there would have been no drama, only an unwinding, if the play had consisted simply of revelation to one character of something we've known from the start, with consequent collapse. More important is the fact that the ending states one of O'Neill's favourite subjects: redemption. In this case, it's woman's redemption by man. Mat forgives Anna only after she swears on a cross that she really loves him and that she has changed because of her love for him.
This "manipulative" conclusion – the roustabout whoring sailor forgiving the whore because she really loves him – has an irony far removed from a conventional happy ending. O'Neill had a clear sense of this irony and (in this play anyway) a limited faith in redemption. He wrote to George Jean Nathan: "The happy ending is merely the comma at the end of a gaudy introductory clause, with the body of the sentence still unwritten (in fact, I once thought of calling the play 'Comma')." When you consider what their future is going to be like – Mat off at sea most of the time, Anna alone – the play's seeming final period looks very much like a comma. That irony is the most interesting aspect left in 'Anna Christie'.
Mimesis as Method in Tally's ''Coming Attractions''
'Coming Attractions' (1982), by Ted Tally, was once called by critics a funny satire. This is not quite true. It's funny, all right, but Tally takes some standard satirisable aspects of American life – TV, celebrity-selling, beauty contests, etc. – and shows that they are now far beyond satire.
When the play begins, four bound and gagged hostages are sitting on stage, and Lonnie, a young fellow with a gun, is shouting his demands to cops out front. (What he wants is celebrity. Among his demands: a personal appearance on the television programme '60 Minutes'.) A man with a tape recorder, apparently a reporter, tells the cops he's going in to talk to the kid. Lonnie is happy; he thinks he's going to get publicity on the networks. Networks, for four lousy hostages? No way. The networks, we learn, are off covering someone who's holding 50 hostages. But the man can help Lonnie. He's not a reporter; he's a talent agent named Manny, and he knows how they can both cash in – TV, books, movies.
Manny devises a persona for Lonnie, with a skeleton costume, and sends him out to shoot people who answer their doorbells. (Trick or treat? Blam.) Lonnie becomes the fabulous Halloween Killer, shoots 28 people, is captured, and goes through legal manoeuvres that assure him plenty of time before he comes to trial. Meanwhile, he does television shows and, disguised as Miss Wyoming, he crashes the Atlantic City beauty pageant to kill Miss America on camera. (Manny, who planned this stunt, is expecting network coverage in prime time.) But a fatal flaw cracks Lonnie: he falls in love – with Miss America.
It does him in. After zooming through the show-business stratosphere, after showering show-biz benefits on everyone he meets – each witness, each cop writes a bestseller – Lonnie ends in the electric chair. On prime time TV, of course. He dies "live". (Just before airtime, the warden asks the television director some Actors' Studio questions about his "role".) Thus does this funny show end with Lonnie frying.
The pitch of the story, as you can see, is insane, but it is only dailiness goosed to a slightly higher level. 'Coming Attractions' isn't a chuckly old-fashioned nudge like George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's 'Once in a Lifetime' (1930); it isn't a grab for titters like Christopher Durang's spoof of chic New-Yorkniks, 'Beyond Therapy' (1981). These could be called satire, which, in H.W. Fowler's definition, aims at amendment. Tally is describing a condition – exaggerated to underline a blackly comic reality – that is, without the slightest hope of amendment. His method is touched-up mimesis. To wit: before you go to the theatre, you turn on the TV news and see, in this order, a murder in Northern Ireland, a sexy blonde selling you new cars, and deaths by arson in Jersey City. Then you go to 'Coming Attractions' and hear Tally's newscaster say: "We interrupt 'Celebrity Funeral' to bring you a news update." Which is the satire?
Tally's ultimate triumph is his initial perception. He sees that most of the usual American subjects for cartooning have now been made corny by life, not cartoonists; and he uses that fact as his launching pad. From the start of his career, Tally has shown a similar sense of the Zeitgeist. His first play, 'Terra Nova' (1977), written in 1976 while he was a student at the Yale School of Drama and performed since then in many theatres in several countries, is about Scott of the Antarctic. When I heard about the subject, before I saw the play, I thought: "The 'Vietnam time' is over. A young man has written a play about courage." Authentically, with no thought of fashion-mongering, Tally had responded to social atmospherics. 'Coming Attractions' proceeds from the same core of aptness, confronting some acceptances that have become central in our culture. The play is about repulsions, not attractions, and they aren't coming: they are here. Tally is a Jeremiah disguised, wittily, as a wit.
Madness as Method in Dorst's 'Ice Age'
I read Knut Hamsun's On Overgrown Paths (1949) a long time ago, and it has haunted me ever since. I was editing a new translation of his early novel Victoria (1898) and was freshly convinced of his genius, a genius that was coming back into light after the cloud thrown over his career by his support for the Norwegian Nazi party and his praise of Hitler. Rereading some other books of his, I came across his last work, then new to me: the aforementioned On Overgrown Paths, a kind of journal interspersed with memoirs, written during the years 1945 to 1948, when Hamsun was interned on suspicion of treason, first in a hospital, then in a home for the aged, then in an Oslo psychiatric clinic. It's a short book, done in a style that can be called close-mouthed, wry, patient, solitary.
He was 86 when he was arrested. Apparently the Norwegian government was trying to find him mentally incompetent in order to excuse his political behaviour so that they wouldn't have to punish him, but Hamsun stubbornly and very competently insisted that he had known what he was doing. Their Nobel Prize author – he, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and Sigrid Undset are the three that Norway has had to date – would not let them off the hook. He passed all the psychiatric tests and, in a sense, forced them to find him guilty, which they did in 1948. He was heavily fined, though the fines were later reduced; if he had been younger or obscure, he might have been shot. He died in 1952, aged 93.
The obvious parallel is with Ezra Pound, but Hamsun is personally much more appealing; he has none of Pound's nastiness and viciousness. Hamsun's book – in a taciturn, unbending manner – compels. If one knows some of his best work, his memoir is disturbing in at least two ways. How could a writer of such powerful human insight have subscribed to a ruthlessly anti-humanist politics? When does one stop honouring honour and courage? Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi documentary 'Triumph of the Will' (1935) is frightening because she had filmic genius, employed for odious propaganda, that makes us viscerally respond. But here, alone and unpopular, past propaganda, is this stubborn old man refusing to bend, and you find yourself finding him – it's the only word – admirable. His book is shaking because it shakes the bounds of human encompassment.
Evidently the book haunted the German playwright Tankred Dorst as well. Dorst (1925–2017) was the author of a number of plays and opera libretti performed throughout Germany. (He was in the US at least twice: as a prisoner of war and as a writer-in-residence at Oberlin College.) His play 'Ice Age' (1973) is based on the Hamsun memoirs; it was done in a number of German cities, including Berlin; was filmed for German television and, in 1975, for theatrical release by Peter Zadek; and it has been produced in the US (at the Chelsea Theater Center, in the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in 1975) and Great Britain, as well as Australia.
It's as easy to understand why so many people wanted to produce 'Ice Age' as it is to understand why Dorst wanted to write it. The subject is tantalising. But tantalising subjects don't always make satisfactory plays. In this case, at least, one can legitimately use a worn rationale: 'Ice Age' is the kind of unsatisfactory play one is glad to have read or seen. The dramatic trouble is central: the central figure is a portrait, not a protagonist. The Old Man, which is all he is called, observes, comments, responds, but he initiates nothing and does not change. The core of his persona is to initiate nothing and not to change. There can be drama in stasis, as Samuel Beckett showed, but Dorst doesn't venture that far. He sees the Old Man's stasis as a handicap, not an opportunity, and he tries to compensate by adding material that is meant to make the play function in relatively conventional terms.
Most of this added material is strained. He sets the play in one place, an old-folks home, and he surrounds the Old Man with contrasting old people, blithering about complicated trivia. To dramatise the moral complexities and the effect of the Old Man's character, Dorst invents a young ex-partisan named Oswald, son of a rich collaborator, who has wanted for a long time to kill the Old Man, who tries to shatter him with symbolic charades, and who is himself shattered by the Old Man's fixity. If the character of Oswald had been written well, it might have crystallised some of the feelings that Hamsun's book gives the reader. Instead it's all merely arty.
And Dorst does some funny fiddling with the Old Man's wife. She was, as he says, much younger, but he omits the fact that Hamsun's wife (who had previously been married to a German) was believed to have intensified his pro-German, anti-American and anti-British feelings. She was herself in prison at this time and served three years. Dorst converts her into a bland, baffled woman with a flabby son, who brings the Old Man muddled news of his farm and wants only to do everything he wishes.
There are a few good scenes, particularly one in which the Old Man encounters an old-timer named Kristian from his part of the country. They smoke a pipe together and count up which of their acquaintances are dead, chuckling because they are still alive. This encounter, drawn from a somewhat different scene in the book, strengthens the essence of the Old Man, his rootedness in his soil and community, his consecration of the life that gave him life. And there is an earlier scene in which the Old Man takes a word-association test given by a psychiatrist. After he answers a particularly inane question, he adds quietly: "I've written 30 novels."
But the strength of the play, which is also its weakness, is that it works not in dialogues or clashes but in the being of the Old Man. He becomes vivid as a man who loves simplicity, his language, his people, his farm, his mind; who hates slovenliness and lack of self-discipline – and can therefore find plenty to mock in democratic society. He says that he wanted to see Norway take her place in a Germanic union. (And Dorst might have added, from Hamsun's strong statement to the court: "Every single proud and great name in Norwegian culture had first gone through Teutonic Germany before becoming renowned throughout the world. I was not wrong for thinking that. But I was faulted for it" [On Overgrown Paths].) The Old Man rests his support for Hitler and the Quisling party (as in the book) on his ignorance of the Nazi tortures and his desire to save Norwegian lives from being wasted in futile resistance, particularly in aid of the Britain he disliked.
If it could be proved that Hamsun really knew of the Nazi crimes in Norway and elsewhere, then his book and this play would take on very different colours. But he was an old man when the war started, living an isolated rural life, reading only a doctored press. That is explanation, not excuse, but it helps to explain how he was able to remain steadfast to an ideal abstracted from its barbarous application. When in fact Hamsun later learned of the horrors, he refused to comment on them, as if acknowledgment of the horrors would have been a way out for him, a way to regret his past. It's almost as if, by rejecting acknowledgment of the horrors, he was punishing himself for his mistakes, making himself live with them without admitting them. Now there's material for a real drama of stasis…
Method as Minor in Storey's 'In Celebration'
Jim Reardon and Mrs Burnett are minor characters in David Storey's 'In Celebration' (1969; faithfully filmed by Lindsay Anderson in 1975), and at first they may seem superfluous in a play concerned with dissecting the life of a family to which they do not belong. But in fact each serves an important function, though neither character has received any critical attention. Reardon is a parallel character to Harry Shaw, and Mrs Burnett is Mrs Shaw's foil.
Jim Reardon and Harry Shaw have known each other for 35 years. Shaw is a coal miner, while Reardon is a clerk in the mining office. The latter is not on the best of terms with his wife, saying to Mrs Burnett at one point, "Mrs Reardon, alas, has not wanted me home in bed, or anywhere else for that matter, for more years than you and I could count together." Shaw is not on the best of terms with his wife, either, although he works hard to keep up appearances. (The occasion for the play's action is this couple's 40th wedding anniversary.) Mrs Shaw is at times almost contemptuous of her husband; at best, she tolerates him. The following stage directions may serve as an example of the extent to which she discourages his affections:
Andrew, the Shaws' oldest son, discloses the reason for his parents' strained relationship: "[My mother was] raised up by a petty farmer to higher things… ends up being laid – in a farm field – by a bloody collier… never forgiven him, she hasn't." Mrs Shaw became pregnant with baby Jamey out of wedlock, but the boy died of pneumonia at age seven. Out of his sadness over the loss of their first child and his guilt at not having given his wife a better life, Shaw treats her as if she were a saint and never complains when she rebuffs him.
The object of the affections of both Reardon and Shaw is Mrs Burnett, of whose husband, significantly, no mention is ever made. Shaw grumbles about the fact that Mrs Burnett gossips a lot, but he obviously enjoys the attention she gives him. Mrs Shaw herself declares, "You should see him skip in the back and comb his hair when Mrs Burnett comes around." Indeed, Mrs Burnett has a key to the Shaw home and comes and goes there as she pleases – so much so that she is almost Harry Shaw's surrogate wife.
In Act I, Scene 1, the following rich exchange occurs between Mrs Burnett and Shaw:
During World War II, Shaw had built a bomb shelter that he attempted to share with Mrs Burnett:
Mrs Shaw is present during this dialogue, which goes on for over a page, with interjections by Reardon and Andrew, but she does not comment directly; instead, during the last lines by Shaw quoted immediately above, she begins singing a religious hymn to herself.
Reardon says that he, too, would like to build "a deep, concrete, lead-lined, bomb-proof, atomic shelter," because he has "a vision, a presentiment… of a holocaust so gigantic, so monumental in its proportions, that beside it all our little dreams and hopes, our sorrows, and our little aims and fears… must count as nothing." As Shaw did during World War II, Reardon wants to share his bomb shelter with Mrs Burnett. He says to her, "I will – if you'll grant me the privilege – take you with me." At the end of 'In Celebration', Reardon then joins Mrs Burnett and Shaw in leaving the house to send off the three visiting Shaw sons: in addition to Andrew, there are Colin and Steven. Mrs Shaw remains inside.
Despite their sorrows, the four older characters – Mr and Mrs Shaw, Reardon and Mrs Burnett – keep up cheerful appearances about their lives. Not so the three sons, who in one way or another are all victims of their parents' silence and hypocrisy. (Like Mrs Burnett, Reardon may be called their surrogate parent, for after Jamey died and Steven was born, Andrew went to live with him in order to take some of the burden off Mrs Shaw.) Andrew himself tries to bring everything out into the open, to get his parents and brothers to face the truth about their lives together, but he fails. The life of the Shaw family will go on as it always has.
The Allied victory in World War II has led, paradoxically, to the horrors of the atomic age and of modern industrial-technological society. (Not by accident, Steven has been writing a book on the "passivity, industrial discipline, and moral turpitude of modern life.") Similarly, the surface victory of the Shaws' 40 years of "marital bliss" and their boys' professional success has led in reality to their own misery, as well as to the anomie and compulsion of the sons' lives. Andrew has given up on his career as a lawyer to become a penniless artist who is half-hearted in pursuit of his art – and in support of his own family. Colin is a wealthy "workaholic" labour leader who may be homosexual. Steven is a failed scholar who has given up on writing his book, and whose wife and four children seem small consolation to him; his only release is to cry.
Jamey himself is dead but his shadow hangs over the play: Mrs Shaw appears to regard his premature death as punishment for her premarital sex, and has allowed that death to colour her relations with her husband; Andrew sees Jamey's death as the occasion for his being "expelled", as a boy, from the family home; Steven knows that his mother, pregnant with him after Jamey's death, tried to kill herself.
The four sons thus represent one generation, while the four older characters represent another. Of the boys, one is already dead and the other three are in decline. They are separated from their parents (biological or surrogate), living in the big city, visiting infrequently. But their separate lives and infrequent visits have not nullified the negative influence of their elders (an influence insidiously magnified by the addition of the parallel character Reardon and the foil figure Mrs Burnett) – and never will.
Method as Meaning in Pinter's 'Old Times'
It's relatively easy to "decipher" a plot and theme in 'Old Times' (1971), which I, like many others before me, mean to do and then move on from it. The play has only three characters. An English couple in their 40s are visited in their country home by a former girlfriend of the wife's whom she hasn't seen in 20 years. As single girls, they shared an apartment in London. It's easy to demonstrate that the two used to have a lesbian relationship in atmosphere if not in fact; that the husband knew them at the time, although he and they now pretend he didn't; that there's a threat that the lesbian relation will be resumed; and that the husband breaks down and cries for pity at the end. I put all this more clearly than the play does. Pinter uses overlaid "exposures" as in photography. Details do not quite jibe. Time is constantly past and present, as in cubist painting that shows us simultaneous views which would be impossible simultaneously in life. But my précis is supportable.
Construed from this story, the theme can be seen as the power of the female – to create a realm in which the male is trapped, a kind of golden moist web woven by women laterally through time, within which men can strut for a bit but are finally subordinated. In short, the world as the realm of Astarte-Lilith-Erda, with men allowed to delude themselves about mastery. It's not a new Pinter theme. At the end of 'The Homecoming' (1965), the one woman is seated with two of the play's toughest men kneeling next to her, begging for affection. At the end of 'Old Times', the one man has wept, then kneeled with his head on his wife's lap, while the other woman waits prone on a bed.
I don't contend that this theme was carefully selected by Pinter. He himself has said that the play began for him with a flash of "two people talking about someone else" (Mel Gussow's 'A Conversation (Pause) with Harold Pinter', published in The New York Times, December 5, 1971), and his statement fits what we know of his methods: that he's largely an intuitive, "automatic" writer, whose real work of design begins only as the words begin on paper. What lies behind this process is the aesthetic history of the 20th century. Indeed, since art began, every artist has known that he had in him something unsayable which he was trying to express within the conventions of his art and that he was, to some degree, failing to express it fully because of those conventions, which still were his means of expressing what he did manage to express. The better the artist was, the more keenly he felt the failure. Shakespeare, I'm sure, felt that he had failed.
In the 20th century, artists of all kinds began to try various means to circumvent that failure, to circumvent the conventions of their art and to say the unsayable without the mediation of traditional forms. This was essentially the impulse behind, say, John Cage's music, Antonin Artaud's theatre, and various kinds of abstract and action painting. Pinter's playwriting itself can be seen as classic surrealism, dealing with well-defined objects arranged in such a way that the point is not in their detail – the fine details are in a way a deliberate deception – but in the trajectory outlined by the way they are deployed, in the space they enclose, in the surprise and shock and laughter that the succession of these details arouses in us.
In this view the audience writes the play (as the audience writes Cage's music) within boundaries described by the author and in response to data and stimuli that he supplies. The pauses and silences specified in Pinter's scripts are not only musical similes, they are opportunities to "catch up"; the play rests for a moment while you draw abreast of it in simultaneous creation. Of course this process of audience collaboration is not exclusive to surrealists. It's part of all aesthetic experience, but it's a much greater part when the work's primary purpose is not mimesis or representation but the opening of a direct conduit between the deepest region of the author's psyche and ours.
How, then, do value judgments pertain? Once an author establishes that he is able to make these connections with us, are all his works equally good? How do I know that I like 'The Caretaker' (1960) more than 'The Birthday Party' (1958), 'The Homecoming' more than either, 'Old Times' somewhat less than 'The Homecoming'? Principally by the gravity of the material encompassed in our psyches, by the breadth of the encompassment. 'Old Times' touches mysteries, but the compass seems narrower than in 'The Homecoming'. The previous play seemed to entail more about more men and women, a larger aspect of the male-female cosmos, than the new work. 'Old Times', enticing as it is, enjoyable as it is, is less resonant.
Pinter has often been compared with Samuel Beckett, his presumptive master, so a further hierarchical statement may be useful. Pinter deals with aspects of mortality. Beckett, quintessentially, deals with mortality in the purview of immortality. E.M. Cioran once pointed out that Beckett is not a nihilist but a mystic, to whom physical existence is an interruption of a greater and perfect existence. Nothing like this view is to be found – yet – in Pinter, whose "unsayable" still resides in London. But, like Beckett, he is highly comic. Part of his comedy lies in non sequitur (a surrealist hallmark), which is often launched with furious, hilarious eloquence. The husband has most of the funny stuff in 'Old Times' because he is the one who is thrashing about desperately: he is the butt.
All this talk of instinctive writing, of surrealism, doesn't deny the theme I cited earlier. It means only that the theme became clear to Pinter, out of his own depths, as he wrote rather than before he wrote. Nor does it imply that Pinter merely slaps things down on paper, any more than René Magritte or Max Ernst or Yves Tanguy merely slapped paint on canvas. After the impulse, the exquisite modelling. Take the very first sight, the very first line, of 'Old Times'. When the curtain rises, the husband and wife are seated in light, the other woman is standing in shadow at back, looking away. She is waiting to "enter". The visible and predictable sequence is immediately taking; before the play is a minute old, we know that relativity of time is part of the drama.
The first line is just one word. The wife says, "Dark." Then, as per the printed script, comes the first stage direction: Pause. One word "Dark" then a pause. The other woman is in the dark. Is that what's meant? What kind of dark? A half dozen questions flash through our minds. The pause is to allow them – and to allow the picture – to sink in. Then the husband says, "Fat or thin?", the wife replies, "Fuller than me. I think," and we realise that they're talking about the other woman and that "dark" means dark-haired. The process is much like the clarification of an open chord in music by the addition of tones. How well it all works. No wonder actors love Pinter.
Though now deceased, he is a chief reason why the theatre of the word – the theatre of the word that understands the unsaid – continues to be alive.
Manner as Meaning in Brenton's 'Sore Throats'
Raging, singing, embracing, mocking what is shoddy in the world around him, the English dramatist Howard Brenton has written more than 50 plays, long and short. In Britain he is grouped with such contemporaries as Edward Bond, David Hare and Caryl Churchill. Yet, unlike them, Brenton is not so well known in the US. Perhaps a clue to his neglect here is in one of his poems. In 1979 he published 'Sonnets of Love and Opposition'. In No. 30 he presumes to ask Shelley, himself a radical, for "a tip" about writing. The poet gives him some stringent advice, ending, "Declare you are a public enemy / Of kingly death, false beauty, and decay." To which, in the last line, Brenton replies, "Ta, Percy. I'm on my way."
Much of Brenton's writing has been about thoroughly British subjects; some of his dialogue is in untranslatable dialect; his politics are radical. Although examples of such matters can be found in British imports that have been performed in the US in the last 40 years (Broadway generally excepted), certainly Brenton relishes the role of provocateur. In one interview he offered the opinion, since often quoted, that the theatre is "not the place for reasoned discussion; it is the place for really savage insights" (from Peter Ansorge's Disrupting the Spectacle: Five Years of Experimental and Fringe Theatre in Britain published by Pitman in 1975). Savage insight figured in 'The Romans in Britain', which ran into censorship troubles in 1980, not because of the savagery of the Romans when they invaded in 54 BC nor because it interwove their tactics with those of the British in Ireland in 1980, but because of its "insight" about a homosexual rape.
This uproar was recalled in 2005 when the National Theatre in London announced that it would present Brenton's new play, 'Paul', about the apostle. Before it opened in October of 2005, the theatre received 200 letters of complaint, some of them arguing in advance that the play would violate the new law against religious hatred. But there was no disturbance during the run of 'Paul', no prosecution. In fact, Brenton's play presents a Paul who, unlike the other apostles and their less exalted version of events, fervently believes in the Jesus of the Gospels. Religion has had a recurrent fascination for Brenton, possibly sparked by his father, who had become a Methodist minister after 27 years as a policeman. Two relatively immediate responses: a dubious character in one of the son's plays has a "copper" father, and Brenton wrote a fiery short play about John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.
He started working in the theatre after getting a degree in literature in 1965 from Cambridge (a place he loathed). He joined a fringe-theatre company that included Hare, who directed several of the early Brentons and became a frequent collaborator. (The best-known result came in 1985 when they co-wrote the highly successful 'Pravda: A Fleet Street Comedy', which presented Anthony Hopkins in a role that reminded many of Rupert Murdoch.) The young fringe company toured Britain, and Brenton himself did some acting, but principally he wrote.
His view of the English theatre in the late 1960s was, to put it gently, sceptical, like his view of politics. He has often called himself a Socialist, though, as with the earlier Socialist George Bernard Shaw, it is difficult to find overt Socialism in his plays. Like Shaw's, Brenton's politics are clearest in his choice of subjects and his attitude towards them. In 1969, for example, he wrote two plays. 'Revenge', his first full-length production in London, deals with a convict who is released from prison with one thought in mind: to nail the detective who sent him up. The detective and the convict are played by the same actor, a device used to underscore some moral generalities in Britain. 'Christie in Love' is about an actual serial killer named John Christie, who had already been executed. The play moves fantastically through the mind and dreams of the murderer, not to justify him but to deepen the horror of being that man and knowing it.
Brenton's abstention from propaganda has not diverted him from political subjects. For instance, 'The Churchill Play', written in 1974, uses the device of a play within the play to slice away at inflated Churchill mythology. The whole work is conceived, Brenton says in his subtitle, 'As It Will Be Performed in the Winter of 1984 by the Internees of Churchill Camp Somewhere in England', a sort of concentration camp for dissidents. (The date that the author selected is plainly Orwellian.) Winston Churchill returns in the course of the play and says he wants to be prime minister again. When he is told that he can't because he is dead, he says that this hasn't stopped others. In 'Weapons of Happiness' (1976) Brenton uses another actual figure, Josef Frank, the Czechoslovak Communist who was hanged after the Prague show trials of 1952. Here, however, Brenton rescues Frank and makes him a refugee working in a London potato-chip factory, where he comes into contact with the dewy ideas of the young English radicals around him.
It hardly needs underscoring that Brenton's range has been extraordinary. But there is more. Besides his stage plays, he has written screenplays, a radio drama and a libretto, as well as a novel, poetry and essays. In addition, for the National Theatre he has done translations of Bertolt Brecht's 'Galileo' (1980) and Georg Büchner's 'Danton's Death' (1982, 2010), and for the Royal Shakespeare Company he has translated both parts of Goethe's 'Faust' (1995–96). In his own work the aesthetic qualities are varied, even deliberately contradictory. He has very often blended realism and fantasy, turning his plays almost physically about as if to display their subjects from different vantage points, yet the characters and the dialogue are intensely naturalistic. What is consistent in his work is a pungency, a sense of intent, a determination to propel the theatre through entertainment – which he never ignores – to a plane of immediate, disturbing verity. He writes for the most part as if playwriting were a morally grave responsibility with which he has been charged.
Brenton's 'Sore Throats' (1978), a short two-act play as realistic as any he has written and my subject here, is about three characters, Jack, Judy and Sally, who are trying to escape the restrictions and artificiality of bourgeois life. Any fantasy in the drama belongs to the characters, not Brenton, who bears down here with acetylene heat on his characters. In Act I, Jack, a 45-year-old British policeman, and Judy, 39, are divorcing and, at the same time, moving through strophes of strenuous conflict and unforeseen linkages and sheer phantasm that leave them emotionally naked. He happens to want half the money from the sale of their former home so that he can run off to the wilds of Canada with his girlfriend Celia. (Jack had previously agreed in writing to give Judy all the money.) Jack beats Judy savagely in an attempt to get her to give him half the money, but he finally leaves her apartment empty-handed.
Judy, for her part, takes up with Sally, who is 23 years old. Together they freely spend the proceeds from the sale of the house, live like pigs, and do not work. When Jack returns in Act II – after his experiment in Canada has failed and Celia has left him – he desperately needs money, but Judy responds to his request for financial assistance by tearing up the little cash she has remaining and burning it. Her last words, and the final words of 'Sore Throats', are, "I am going to be fucked, happy and free."
'Sore Throats', as one might have guessed by now, is oddly – indeed, ironically – titled. First, the title is ironic because the three characters in the play talk a lot, and if they had sore throats, they could not do so; moreover, there is no indication that their throats become sore from all their talking. Second, the title is ironic because a body – not anyone's throat – gets sore in the course of the drama: Judy's body, from the beating Jack gives her in Act I. Finally, the title of 'Sore Throats' is ironic because it refers to a condition that supposedly results from lovemaking, and there is no lovemaking in the play. There are only hatred, violence, despair and disintegration. Judy and her friend Sally do speak of having sex with teenaged boys, but the boy Sally describes as sleeping naked on the floor, and whom Judy thinks of sexually assaulting, is only a figment of their imaginations. Jack says in Act II (which occurs a year or two after Act I) that he has a baby girl in the "carrycot" he carries onstage – the ostensible product of lovemaking between him and Celia – but the baby, like the teenaged boy, turns out to be imaginary.
In an epigraph to the play, Brenton quotes Bertolt Brecht, who himself was being ironic when he wrote:
Through his wry alter ego, Herr Keuner, Brecht argues here for the one activity that most people do not need an argument for: lovemaking. Jack, Judy and Sally do not need an argument for it, either; still, on the physical level, they appear to lack willing partners, and on the spiritual level each seems to be incapable of love. They are the victims, Brecht implies, of a society – of capitalist society – with a sore outlook: one in which money is the root of all contracts, including marriage, and one in which modern technology and urban overpopulation have increasingly compartmentalised people's lives.
So much so that, in 'Sore Throats', Brenton uses a number of asides, not simply to tersely reveal his characters' innermost thoughts, but to express their alienation from one another and their retreat into themselves from the regimentation and impersonality of contemporary life. They literally talk to themselves. Their asides are no mere archaic convention designed to tell us what, in the modern theatre, we take pleasure at discovering for ourselves beneath the surface of the dialogue. In his famous book Technique of the Drama, Gustav Freytag comments as follows on the use of asides: "The usual device of asides must be used in extreme cases, and for a few words." In Brenton's play, despite its brevity, there are 46 asides, and some of them turn into long speeches (soliloquies, as it were). Sore throats, anyone? More Brenton, everyone?
Monstrosity as Method in Kraus's 'The Last Days of Mankind'
I first heard of Karl Kraus in 1967 when I read the chapter about him in Max Spalter's Brecht's Tradition (1967). I felt less ashamed of my lateness in coming to the subject when, the next year in Walter Benjamin's Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, I read the note by the editor (Hannah Arendt) saying that she had omitted Benjamin's essay on Kraus because he was "practically unknown in English-speaking countries." Since then, Kraus's name has kept popping up. W.H. Auden's A Certain World: A Commonplace Book (1970) is sprinkled with apothegms from Kraus. Wittgenstein's Vienna (1973), by Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin, describes the great influence that Kraus had on the intellectual development of Wittgenstein as well as on the music of Arnold Schönberg and the architecture of Adolf Loos.
Who was Kraus? His dates are 1874 to 1936. He was born of Jewish parents in Moravia but spent most of his life in Vienna, most of it as a Catholic. His chief work was as editor of a journal called Die Fackel (The Torch), which he founded in 1899 and edited until his death. During its first 12 years the contributors included August Strindberg, Frank Wedekind, Oscar Wilde and Georg Trakl; from 1911 until the end Kraus wrote all of every issue himself. In that writing, in every possible rigorous and fruitful sense of the term, Kraus was a critic – of art, politics and society. He was (I take this at second-hand) strong, keen, angry. Berthold Viertel, the theatre and film director, said of his own departure from Vienna, "When I fled from Karl Kraus, I was actually fleeing from the most acute mirror-image of an era and its humanity."
Kraus's principal passion, the foundation for all his other concerns including politics, was language. (In this he antedated and out-scorched Orwell.) He founded a Theatre of Poetry that consisted mostly of his own readings. He wrote poetry. Auden quotes Kraus's reflection on the mystery of words: "I have drawn from the well of language many a thought that I do not have and that I could not put into words."
All this is introduction to the reason for his appearance in this group of short essays. Kraus's major work outside his magazine was a drama called 'The Last Days of Mankind' (1922), which is in five acts and 259 scenes, and fills 800 pages in the original German. Kraus says in his preface: "The performance of this drama, whose scope of time by earthly measure would comprise about 10 evenings, is intended for a theatre on Mars." Perhaps Mars because its subject is war – World War I. The drama was first published in Die Fackel of 1918–1919, and the fact that Kraus escaped lynching is one of the few tributes to sanity that I know of during this period.
In 1974, an abridged version of the drama was published in English by Frederick Ungar, who did it, he says in a pleasant introduction, to help pay his emotional and intellectual debt to Kraus, whose readings he used to attend. The translation is by Alexander Gode and Sue Ellen Wright, and is at least in more flexible English than that of the few scenes translated by Max Spalter in 1967. A helpful concluding essay by Franz H. Mautner fills in the general shape of the drama. This Ungar edition contains about a third of the original; between this condensation and Mautner's essay one gets a good feeling of the texture and a clear idea of the design.
The immediate reference point for readers of English is Thomas Hardy's 'The Dynasts' (1908), but Hardy's Napoleonic drama, though comparable in several sorts of size, is intended as an epic of the spirit of history, 'An Iliad of Europe' (as the play is subtitled) with attendant bands of Spirits marking the onward journey of mankind. Nothing could be further from Kraus's tone or intent; he is writing a Menschendämmerung – the human race sliding inexorably into the pit that it has dug for itself. He saw the First World War as a steaming stew, started by Austrian stupidities, thickened by German brutalities, compounded by international greed and ego and profit-hunger and sloganeering and blindness. We watch through this work the gestation of the spirit that was coming to mate with Hitler – which has an added irony because Kraus, the ex-Jew, has some bitter things to say about Judaicised Christianity and Jewish capitalists. One could play the role of apologist and argue that Kraus attacks Jews because they have the greatest moral tradition to live up to. Well… possibly. He is not the only Germanic ex-Jew to note the shortcomings of Jews, as he saw them, with special bitterness. And, further, I think Kraus made sure not to spare the Jews his lash lest he be accused of partiality and to be certain that nobody could claim him as champion.
This drama is continental, immense. Each act begins on a corner of central Vienna with four inane army officers, and each of the five acts deals with events of one of the five calendar years of the war. Ungar calls it a documentary drama, and indeed Kraus does get much of his effect simply from quoting and juxtaposing speeches and editorials and news reports; still, the ways he uses them, the manner in which he builds on them, are the work of poetic imagination. For example, during the play there is the boastful report of the sinking of an enemy ship carrying 1,200 horses. Near the end the 1,200 horses emerge from the waves and chant a poignant chorus as they trot across the stage. One very brief scene has an army company marching past a garden gate just so that the Crown Prince, in tennis clothes, can speak one line of commendation; another scene has a crowd of 500 people waiting at a railroad station. In contrast to this profligacy there is a choric sequence of scenes between two people: the Optimist and the Grumbler (who is obviously Kraus himself). At one point the Grumbler has an 11-page monologue. Generals, war correspondents, psychiatrists, victims, the Pope himself, all appear.
At first the individual scenes seem pungent or less pungent cabaret sketches, dealing often with satirical points now fairly familiar. But the work pours on with such grandeur of loathing, such prodigality of disgust, such mordant anguish that the deficiencies fade in the glare of a large Spenglerian fire. One easy and, I think, false modem view of such a drama is to say that it might be practicable as film. But Kraus clearly wanted his work to be impracticable. That is his last intrinsic gesture of disdain: civilisation can't even perform this drama about its own incapacities.
Kraus, to whom language was the holy of holies, can never really exist outside his own language. (One detail: Mautner says Kraus used a dozen dialects in this play, impossible to render.) But Ungar did us a benefit in 1974 (and Yale a bigger one in 2015, by publishing the complete text of 'The Last Days of Mankind') by at least bringing us a bit closer to this sharp-eyed, angry, prickly, brilliant lover-hater of mankind.
Similarly, if Karl Kraus can never really exist outside his own language, no playwright – be it Kraus, Miller, O'Neill, Tally, Dorst, Storey, Pinter or Brenton – can exist outside his own dramatic method. In that sense the medium, as filtered through the man, is ever the message.QLRS Vol. 18 No. 3 Jul 2019
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