Medea by Catherine Theis

medea

I got the feeling that you have to be in a certain frame of mind to do justice to this play – when I first read it about two months back, I was unable to grasp it, which had more to do with the mood I was in than with the play itself, so I came back to it after a while and now I felt I had bigger success understanding it (even though I harmed no spouse or offspring in the intervening months).

Besides my earlier mood, my initial failure was partly due to the fact that I’m not up to date on my mythology, so at first I thought that doing some reading about Medea might be beneficial. I did that, but when I realized how big and far-reaching this myth is, I decided to stick to my favorite reading method: just read what’s in front of me and try to interpret it on its own. So that’s what I did in the end – and it turned out to be rewarding.

Theis’ play is a feminist tragedy or a tragedy of female self-realization (or perhaps not a tragedy – perhaps it’s just facing the truth, which can be ground-shaking enough), where Medea’s been together with her husband for about a thousand years, and their relationship is characterized by all the little pains and little boredoms of thousand-year marriages.

You know, by the kind of frustrated boredom and by the kind of feelings where you’d just love to discuss unimportant but extremely interesting topics, but your spouse is at that moment busy dealing with the bills and his official correspondence (and not just at that moment – but always, it seems), so the highest form of intimacy you can hope to get is licking the stamps your spouse will stick to the very important letters.

Medea is thus a frustrated wife – and I can deeply understand her feelings, even though I’m not frustrated and I’m not a wife. There are so many wonders in the world. There’s so much, both inside and outside, you could show to the other person. There’s so many experiences you could have together. You could – but in reality you won’t. The husband will never bother teaching Medea to drive a car; he will never really think it through whether he’d like taste an ant covered in chocolate; he will never take the time to get to the end of Medea’s wildly associative trains of thought.

(Naturally, the husband probably has his very own frustrations and little pains, but this play is not about him. Suffice it to say that here the husband tries to build himself an easier life with another woman, but – as far as we learn – his lover also possesses uncomfortable depths.)

Anyway, after a while, desire and anger erupt from Medea, and after that nothing remains the same.

Is this a tragedy – the destruction of dysfunctional relationships, the eruption, the great desire for truth, the real or metaphoric murder of everything that’s lifeless, routine, silent?
I don’t think so. I think it’s utterly thrilling and uplifting.

I don’t know how big a price you should pay for this (and fortunately I’m not in a situation now where I’d have to wonder about this), but Medea’s new, independent life (unprotected by the gods but swarmed in butterflies) feels like something that’s worth it.

If I were Medea, I hope I’d be strong enough to choose that.

Exit, Pursued by Dalton Day

exitpursued

Dalton Day’s dramatic poem/drama-like literary work is made up of 41 one-act plays. The plays are as one-act as they come – minimalist drama, let’s say. And perhaps here “act” from one-act really means that the plays consist of a single act or action, and sometimes not even that.

All the plays have fascinating and detailed titles – and the titles are just as important as the plays they are followed by, especially because in many cases, nothing happens in the play. (There are some which only contain the description of the scene, and nothing else.)

The recurring characters of the plays are You and Me. This makes me immediately excited because second person literature is one of my long-time obsessions, and Dalton Day even develops it further by using both the second person and the first person, with intriguing results. If there’s a You and there’s a Me in a play, the question immediately arises: which one am I? Which one should I identify with? It’s a difficult and exciting choice, and I sometimes switch positions even during the course of a single play – sometimes I feel closer to Me, and sometimes I feel I’m the You the Me of the plays is talking with.

And sometimes You and Me seem to be the same – there’s a play, for instance, where You and Me appear to read each other’s mind, and they start and finish each other’s sentences. In cases like this, understanding and harmony seem possible. (One-Act Play In Which There Is A Blueprint, & That Blueprint Is Ignored Entirely)

Understanding and harmony are, by the way, rare pleasures here, because the main themes of the plays are the difficulties of (love) relationships, breakups, losses, and the impossibility to understand and know another person. And all this is heart-breakingly sad – this all-permeating feeling that we’re alone – even when we’re with the person we feel the closest to. So – there’s existential angst here, a lot.

And besides that there’s a lot of beauty and tenderness – because it seems we must and will do everything in order not to feel so immensely lonely. In one play, for instance, You is afraid of hands, so Me offers to trade hands. After switching hands, You is still afraid of hands – and now Me is afraid of them, too. Could this be love? Caring? Making strange gestures so that the other is not alone in their fear? Taking on the other person’s fear, sharing it? Perhaps. (One-Act Play In Which Not All Problems Can Be Solved, & Not All Problems Are Problems, But Even So, Some Are)

And there’s also a lot of musings about how love and relationships work – how it’s always the people we love the most (or who love us the most) who bring us down, trap us, hide the wonderful richness of the world from us – but it’s also possible that they don’t trap us, they don’t tie us down – perhaps they are the ones who keep us from falling apart. (One-Act Play In Which The Weather Is Just An Echo Of The Weather Before It)

These feelings aren’t only present in personal relationships – they go out and encompass the whole universe. In one of my favorite plays (One-Act Play In Which Change, Change, Change) You and Me talk about how one of them was deeply shaken when Pluto ceased to be a planet – because we’re already used to it in everyday life that things and emotions change, and that something that was true today will only be a memory by tomorrow – but for the same thing to happen on a planetary, universal scale, that can be much too hard to bear.

I feel this cosmic melancholy, the sadness of the thought that things cannot be expressed, neither here on earth, nor out there in the universe. You, for instance, is on the moon once, and with the last breath, You shouts into the universe, where voice doesn’t carry, the thing that had never been voiced before. (One-Act Play In Which Hands Are Irreplaceable)

And in some plays, even words are missing – there’s only a silent glance towards each other from the two ends of the world, and even if the glance connects you with the other, it’s impossible to know whether you’re even thinking about the other person when you look at him. And it’s equally impossible to know whether the experience is the same, whether it can be the same. In one play, for instance, there’s the question of what happens when someone looks into the sun. Here’s part of the conversation between Me and You:

YOU: Tell me what happens when you look into the sun.
ME: Oh, well, I, I don’t know. I don’t know what happens.
YOU: Then tell me what happens when I look into the sun.

(One-Act Play In Which The Earth Has A Circumference Of 24,902 Miles, For Once)

The immensely intimate, personal and emotional character of the plays is both offset and emphasized by the important role the audience plays here. In many plays, there are descriptions about the reactions of the audience, there’s a play where the audience members are the players, and there’s one where the audience members flee the theater because the smoke alarm goes off, and they don’t see what finally happens between the characters. Which brings us to the eternal epistemological question: did it happen if no one was there to see it? (One-Act Play In Which You Forget To Laugh)

I’m glad I saw this play happen, on paper at least.

The Cryptogram by David Mamet

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I was somewhat surprised by The Cryptogram because Mamet’s plays I’d read or seen so far always contained some humor, and I didn’t find even a grain of humor here – this is a very dark and depressing play.

The play deals with existentialist topics: with the inability to communicate, with the lack of understanding among humans, with alienation, with the ultimate unknowability of other people. Besides this, there’s also a fair bit of philosophizing about who we are, why we exist, and how do we even know we exist. (These topics always fascinate me, and I can read any number of books about them.)

As regards the events in this play: the characters are a mother, her son, and a family friend. During the first act, the three of them spend the evening together, packing things, drinking tea, talking – mostly about little nothings, constantly interrupting one another, circling over and over the same ideas. Every once in a while they try to touch on more serious topics but someone always steers the conversation away – and anyway, it’s hard to conduct any meaningful conversation when the participants are often in different rooms of the house and they can’t hear or understand what the others are saying. In any case, this is supposed to be an average evening at home – the characters are waiting for the father to come home, and meanwhile they are packing some bags because the plan is that the father will take his son on a trip the next day. At the end of the evening, however, they come upon a letter that had been lying around somewhere – in the letter the father says he’s leaving his wife.

In the other two acts, the theme is developed further, we learn the details of the relationships between the characters and the missing father, and the characters wonder whether the father’s departure had already been in the air, whether the family friend had known about it in advance, and why he didn’t say anything if he had.

Besides the impending divorce, the other main theme is the son’s, John’s insomnia, which is not taken seriously by his mother – and this topic is much more prominent than the divorce. John’s been having a hard time falling asleep – he spends his time in bed wondering about life, he thinks he’s hearing voices, and he’s afraid of being alone with himself and his thoughts, which is not surprising, as he struggles with the kinds of thoughts that can be terrifying for not only a 10-year old boy.

The climax of the play is John’s extremely affecting, fragmented-frightened-desperate monologue where he tries to articulate his night-thoughts. In fact, the boy doesn’t want to deliver a monologue – he’s trying to have a conversation with his mother about everything he finds bewildering or confusing, but his mother’s reactions don’t amount to more than a few “well-well” and “aha” scattered here and there.

In John’s monologue there’s everything I mentioned in the second paragraph, and it left me shivering, the way he expresses how absolutely terrifying it can be – simply to exist, and how frustrating and hopeless it is – to try to understand anything or anyone, to try to crack an infinitely complex cryptogram. A cryptogram we make all the more confusing for ourselves – with lies, with interruptions, with lack of attention, with digressions, with deliberate misunderstandings.

I’m not a depressed existentialist in general – I like to think that understanding is possible, and that living forever and ever in our own private world is not the only option we have. But for the characters here, understanding is out of the question. And this is devastating.

The Mystery of the Seventeen Pilot Fish by Mike Kleine

pilotBased on the two books I’ve read out of the three he’s published so far, I have the feeling that Mike Kleine is an extremely contemporary writer. By this I mean that his work seems to be anchored very firmly to the present moment and the present atmosphere, so reading his books gives me a sense of inclusion and insider knowledge because I also live in the present moment and I know something of its atmosphere, too. But I can’t be sure how his works will come across 20 years from now – I have no way of knowing whether they will persist or expire.

Comparing this play to Mastodon Farm, Kleine’s first book, I think this has a higher chance to survive and avoid expiration because it’s not anchored as deeply to the present reality and to the pop-cultural products and the entertainment industry of the present as Mastodon Farm is. Instead, The Mystery of the Seventeen Pilot Fish is set in an undefinable place and time, somewhere around the (both temporal and spacial) end of the world. (So after all – it could just as easily be set here and now.)

There’s no point going into the details about the plot because the play doesn’t have a plot. It doesn’t have characters, either – at least not the kind of characters whose physique and identity remains roughly the same. It’s certainly no accident that the cast overview is missing from the beginning – here neither the appearance, nor the personality of the characters is stable. (Clearly, appearance and personality are never stable – but Kleine takes this changeability to whole new levels.)

What’s here instead of plot and constant characters is three persons switching their form, gender, name, occupation and personality throughout the play while sitting in a house where the floor is painted a deep ocean blue, and where hundreds of painted fish (including the titular seventeen pilot fish) swim without movement through the big big blue. The three characters spend most of their time discussing whether one of the male characters is the husband of the one female character or not, and they also try to find out the source of the noises that come from the wall. Meanwhile, the world outside is collapsing. In a very matter of course fashion.

So yes, this play is rather absurd. And it resists easy interpretation. During the last couple of weeks I read it three times, and it was only after the third time (which was incidentally the first time I read it with sufficiently fresh brain) that I realized that Kleine’s words are where they are because they need to be there. It was only after the third time I realized that Kleine is not just being absurd for absurdity’s sake (which would also be fine with me) but he has a point (several points) to make (and having a point in absurdity is even more to my taste than being absurd just for the fun of it).

A couple of themes this play examines: how hard it is to find meaning – in things, the world, and other humans; how everything is ever-changing and open to thousands of different interpretations; and most prominently: how weird, magical, reality-creating and reality-changing things words are – and how all the meaning we convey with them is based on strange, silent agreements, agreements that can be broken anytime – easily, unilaterally. And how all this – all this is scary and intimidating.

Just one example. The female character of the play once tells one of the male characters: „You can call me Heather.” A little later the man calls her Heather, to which she replies: „My name’s not Heather.” Sure, it’s absurd, but if we stop for a moment and take the meaning of words seriously, and not just interpret them on autopilot mode as we usually do, then it makes perfect sense. Offering someone to call you something doesn’t at all mean that that’s your real name. And anyway – does it even matter what’s someone’s real name? And what makes real real?

The themes are definitely interesting here, but I can’t avoid the question: why is this a play, and not a novella, or something else? I have a strong suspicion that it would be virtually impossible to stage this play. Granted, I can imagine a sort of divided stage, where one part is the house, and the other part is everything else out there (but both must be visible at the same time, as the events often happen simultaneously inside the house and outside in the world), and I can also imagine projecting photos and videos to show what’s going on outside – but none of these would be precise. I often feel that the words here are not translatable to another medium, they couldn’t be shown or acted out because their effect lies in the fact that I consume them as written words.

Seeing onstage that the ocean blue floor of the room is teeming with painted fish wouldn’t have the same effect as reading about the ocean blue floor of the room, and then reading a list running several pages about the exact types and number of fish covering the floor. Reading the list of dozens of fish species (while I secretly wonder: do all these really exist, or are some of them just fictitious fish?) on the one hand gives the play lots of verisimilitude (because only reality can be so messy, so random, so disorderly as Mike Kleine’s fish), on the other hand it creates a distance between me and reality – because reading lists of several dozens of items makes my brain switch off after a while, and I just keep reading hypnotized, and no – I’m not going online to check whether each and every type of fish here is real or not.

So why is this a play then? I presume it’s because it’s a good genre for Kleine to play with the things he likes to play with, to use lots of music and visual elements in his work, and to be as minimalistic as possible. After all, in a play there’s no pressing need to provide detailed, explanatory descriptions of events and characters (not that there’s too much of those in Mastodon Farm, either). Here it’s only language, only random and pointless and contradictory and all-too-real utterances – with no background, no explanation. Yes, it feels real. Often frightfully so.

Buried Child by Sam Shepard

buried

Sam Shepard’s plays, as far as I know them, often deal with the questions of family inheritances/curses, and with the idea that progress is impossible. In Shepard’s world, a family is something you can never get out of, something that will keep pulling you back, no matter how hard you try to get away – an institution where change cannot happen and where the same themes and patterns keep recurring for eternity.

This play is no exception. The characters are the members of a dysfunctional, half-ruined family – each of them unable to communicate and unable to understand the others, all of them kept together by an old family secret/curse (a curse they brought upon themselves).

At the beginning of the drama, the old parents and their two adult sons are merrily indulging in deep family misery: they all lack trust in the others; they don’t listen to each other (it’s a telling detail that a significant percentage of their conversations is conducted in shouts as the conversing parties are usually in different rooms); they casually ignore the reality and needs of the others; they lie all the time – just for the hell of it; and they have serious doubts about both their own, and about the others’ sanity.

Then one day the 20-year old grandson shows up with his girlfriend – the prodigal child is ready to reconcile with his family he abandoned long ago.

According to the traditions of literature, the arrival of outsiders usually signifies a major change, so at this point we might start expecting that suddenly all the family will confess their sins, rebuild their lives from scratch, and so on. How surprising then – though probably not in Shepard’s world – that here all these efforts stop halfway, and no major improvements take place.

The outsiders are not outsiders enough, or not strong or dedicated enough to push any major change through.

After all, the prodigal grandson, Vince just wants to find his proper place in the family again, and he works hard to achieve this goal: he even goes so far as to evoke wild horseplay and childhood tricks, hoping that this way his father and grandfather will recognize and accept him again – the fathers, however, remain silent and are unwilling to embrace Vince. (And again, it’s typical: Vince manages to find his way back to his family when he stops trying, and assumes the irresponsible behavior characteristic of his family – then he becomes instantly recognizable.) All in all, Vince is only interested in the big family reunion, so his presence doesn’t really shake the boat.

The other outsider, Vince’s girlfriend, Shelly is a different matter, though – and she’s quite an exciting and unpredictable character. At first glance, Shelly is a stereotypical dumb California chick, accompanying her boyfriend on a family visit without much enthusiasm, thinking that the great reunion will involve roast turkey and apple pie, a caring granny and a gentle grandpa – but when it turns out that things in the family are not exactly as she imagined, she stands up to the challenge and deals with the less than comfortable situation with admirable presence of mind.

Her foreignness is truly foreign, and she has no interest at all in finding her place in the family, so she really acts as a catalyst: because Shelly is a stranger, her presence doesn’t seem to matter all that much, so everyone goes ahead and tells her about deeds and secrets that have been age-old family taboos. Still – Shelly is only one outsider, all alone against five living and hordes of dead family members – there’s no way she can bring about real change on her own.

In the end, I’m not sure if all this is tragic – because Shepard has a bizarre, wicked sense of humor, and it’s just enough for me not to quickly succumb to deep melancholy. Still, if I think about it for a minute – Shepard’s world is a gloomy and hopeless place.

The Caretaker by Harold Pinter

the_caretakerAs far as I know Harold Pinter, plot and story are usually non-existent in his works, but I write a few lines about what goes on in this play. (I don’t think it really matters here, but I must add that my post contains spoilers.)

So, the play is about two brothers, Mick and Aston. Mick works in the construction industry, and leads an average, moderately pointless life; Aston – through no fault of his own – doesn’t work anywhere, and leads an absolutely pointless life. Mick is the owner of a run-down building, and his idea is that he lets Aston live there, and Aston, in return, renovates the house. At the beginning of the play Aston brings home an old never-do-well, Davies (or perhaps his name is Jenkins), and he offers him a bed to sleep in. Aston wants to help Davies – who is even more screwed-up than him – and he comes up with the idea that perhaps Davies might become the caretaker of the building. Some time later – independently of Aston – Mick also comes to the conclusion that it would be nice if Davies became the caretaker. But finally Davies doesn’t become the caretaker.

Basically, this is it, but of course the story isn’t too important here. What’s important, and what the play is about is the characters’ inability to communicate, their impotence, helplessness, and their all-permeating, almost tragic cluelessness. Each of the three characters is impotent, helpless (etc.) to some extent, but the level of their defencelessness varies greatly.

To understand the level of the characters’ emotional and mental nakedness, it’s worth considering their typical, trademark sentences one by one because these sum up their philosophy in life very succinctly. For instance, Davies, the old idler (who says that he’s a jack of all trades but I’ve got the hunch that in fact he’s a jack of no trades) keeps repeating that as soon as the weather clears he’s going down to a distant London neighborhood to get his identity documents which he had left in the care of an acquaintance ten-odd years ago. Davies argues that all his problems will be miraculously solved once he gets his documents back – for example, he will be able to prove his real name, and he will also be able to prove that he’s the perfect candidate for the caretaker position. Of course, Davies never goes down to Sidcup for his papers, but there’s always a good reason for his inertia – it’s either raining; or it looks as if it’s going to rain; or his shoes are so worn that it’s impossible to take a long walk in them. (But then again – Davies’s constant search for excuses is understandable, given the fact that he probably knows well enough that having his documents on him wouldn’t really change a thing, but as long as he doesn’t have them, he can pretend that his failure in life is due to the missing papers.)

Aston’s philosophy greatly resembles that of the old would-be caretaker: he keeps saying that he will start the renovation of the house by first building a shed in the backyard, and when it’s built, he will be able to get down to the more important tasks. The shed, however, never gets built – Aston’s only noteworthy activity around the house is that he collects junk, and he tries to repair a broken toaster. Aston’s impotence and his constant procrastination arise from the events in his past: as it turns out, he suffers from some mental illness and he was treated with electric shock therapy when he was younger. The treatment left him even worse off, and since then, Aston keeps wandering around in reality and he’s virtually unable to act and think „normally”.

And Mick – even though he lives a more or less „normal” life – is also constantly waiting for the ideal circumstances, and he does virtually nothing to advance his plans. His dream is that one day he will live with his brother in the beautifully redecorated house, and everything will be just fine and idyllic – but presumably he knows that if it’s up to Aston, the house will never be renovated. So the suspicion might arise that perhaps Mick doesn’t really want to live together with his mentally deranged brother.

These underlying thoughts and motivations, naturally, never come to the surface. And even the thoughts that are given voice to are such that the others never understand (or completely misunderstand) them. We might say that The Caretaker is a „typical”, depressing, sickly-funny absurdist play. But the reason why I find it almost unbearably sad and depressing is that The Caretaker – contrary to some really absurd/abstract absurdist plays – is too much like the reality I know. Reading this play broke my heart now – partly because it’s very real, and partly because it’s clear from all the fragmentary, meaningless conversation attempts of the characters that these people basically mean well, and if the need arises they protect and stand up for each other (e.g. Mick doesn’t let Davies dismiss Aston disparagingly) – but in the end, all this good-will, all these plans are for nothing.