play thirty three: oh, the humanity and other good intentions

the hindenburg
the hindenburg

Author: Will Eno

Published: 2011

Synopsis: This collection of five short plays is explained best the Writer’s Note.

“The five short plays that make up Oh, The Humanity and other good intentions move toward feeling by way of thought, and toward gratitude by way of loss. These largely sane plays feature people alone or in pairs, or both, attempting to present themselves in the best light, or ultimately, desperately, in any light. Inadvertently vulnerable, or unconsciously callous, or both, the characters here realise that they are stuck in a body that will fail, and they try to put the best face on it. They are, at times, like all of us, unsure of who they are, what they want, and what exactly they’re on the way to. Is it a funeral or a christening? Is it both or neither? Though this might all seem hazy and conditional, it might all in fact be painstaking and absolute. This is life, for the Problematical Animal.”

Will Eno

What moved me: Unaccountably, I googled “Oh, the humanity” to find a picture to accompany this post and came across this. It is a recording of Herbert “Herb” Morrison, an American radio reporter, reporting on the Hindenburg disaster, a catastrophic fire that destroyed the LZ 129 Hindenburg zeppelin on May 6, 1937, killing 36 people. If you go to the link and listen to the recording, if you listen to Morrison unravel as he watches this devastation unfold before him, the framework for this play crashes to earth much like the zeppelin must have.

What is joyous, though, is that being aware of this context is totally unnecessary to encounter this play. I find a lot of comfort in this fact – that every time we encounter the world meaning will be made, regardless of whether that meaning was intended.

play twenty one: cat on a hot tin roof

What a pair.
What a pair.

Author: Tennessee Williams

Published: 1955

Synopsis: A family sweats around the unspoken in a plantation home in the Mississippi Delta. It’s Big Daddy’s birthday and he’s been given false hope about his terminal illness, his youngest son Brick is drinking himself to death, Brick’s wife Maggie is doing her best to make what she can of a loveless marriage, and the whole family are festering over who will inherit.

What moved me: like Arthur Miller, I think the full strength of Williams’ genius can be found in the clarity and depth of his stage directions.

BRICK [stopping short downstage as if backed to a wall]: ‘Not right’?

BIG DADDY: Not, well, exactly normal in your friendship with –

BRICK: They suggested that, too? I thought that was Maggie’s suggestion.

[Brick’s detachment is at last broken through. His heart is accelerated; his forehead sweat-beaded; his breath becomes more rapid and his voice hoarse. The thing they’re discussing, timidly and painfully on the side of Big Daddy, fiercely, violently on Brick’s side, is the inadmissible thing that Skipper died to disavow between them. The fact that if it existed it had to be disavowed to ‘keep face’ in the world they lived in, may be at the heart of the ‘mendacity’ that Brick drinks to kill his disgust with. It may be the root of his collapse. Or maybe it is only a single manifestation of it, not even the most important. The bird that I hope to catch in the net of this play is not the solution of one man’s psychological problem. I’m trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent – fiercely charged! – interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis. Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of character in life, even in one’s own character to himself. This does not absolve the playwright of his duty to observe and probe as clearly and deeply as he legitimately can: but it should steer him away from ‘pat’ conclusions, facile definitions which make a play just a play, not a snare for the truth of human experience. […] ]

BIG MAMA [terrified, rising]: Is there? Something? Something that I? Don’t – Know?

[In these few words, this startled, very soft, question, Big Mama reviews the history of her forty-five years with Big Daddy, her great, almost embarassingly true-hearted and simple-minded devotion to Big Daddy, who must have had something Brick has, who made himself loved so much by the ‘simple expedient’ of not loving enough to disturb his charming detachment, also once couple, like Brick’s, with virile beauty.

Big Mama has a dignity at this moment: she almost stops being fat.]

play seventeen: how i learned to drive

the cadillac el dorado.
the cadillac el dorado.

Author: Paula Vogel

Published: 1997 (won Pulitzer in 1998)

Synopsis: Our narrator Li’l Bit takes us along the mainline of her difficult life and her fraught relationship with her aunt’s husband, Uncle Peck. A series of purported driving lessons that extend from the cusp of pre-adolescence into adulthood explore the role that our rampant cultural misogyny plays in creating a social framework for psycho-sexual abuse.

What moved me: perhaps what I found most distressing about this work was the sympathy I felt for Uncle Peck. His manipulation of Li’l Bit is inexcusable – the abusive power that adults may hold over children is perhaps the most vile manifestation of control. However. Vogel gives him a monologue in which he makes his nephew promise that he will never be ashamed of his emotions, and we see his own suppression of whatever terrible demons (from his time as a soldier in the Pacific) force him to sometimes stand still, silent, choking so that this emotion does not spew out of his mouth. My sympathy led to self-disgust. How could I identify with this man’s trauma when his behaviour is so reprehensible? But that is the power of Vogel’s work. Humans are messy, complicated, loving, destructive beasts, and she forces us to encounter them fully.

play fourteen: angels in america part two: perestroika

Marcus Graham's portrayal of Roy Cohn in the 2013 Belvoir production was electrifying.
Marcus Graham’s electrifying portrayal of Roy Cohn in the 2013 Belvoir production.

Author: Tony Kushner

Published: 1993

Synopsis: (as before) Three threads of American living gradually interweave in the cold new era of Reagan and in the face of the catastrophic AIDS crisis. Louis is confronted with his own cowardice as he abandons his lover Prior to struggle with his diagnosis of AIDS alone. Mormon couple Harper and Joe struggle with the constraints of their religion as sexuality and addiction collide. Roy Cohn, a New York arch-conservative lawyer responsible for the death of Ethel Rosenberg, refuses to submit to the label entailed by his deteriorating health.

What moved me: perhaps what is most moving about this work is that it has such a thick weave – there is so much going on in every moment – that its indictment of American Individualism coming at the cost of universal healthcare becomes just a single, ironcast, thread amongst many.

BELIZE: Well I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you.

The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word “free” to a note so high nobody could reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing on earth sounds less like freedom to me.

I also cannot pass the final paragraph of Kushner’s ‘Afterword’. This is what I hope for:

“I have been blessed with remarkable comrades and collaborators: Together we organise the world for ourselves, or at least we organise our understanding of it; we reflect it, refract it, criticize it, grieve over its savagery and help each other to discern amidst the gathering dark, paths of resistance, pockets of peace and places from whence hope may be plausibly expected. Marx was right: The smallest indivisible human unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction. From such nets of souls societies, the social world, human life springs. And also plays.”

Tony Kushner, ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’, 1993, 155

play thirteen: angels in america: a gay fantasia on national themes (part one: millennium approaches)

The HBO Angel. Emma Thompson, naturally.
The HBO Angel. Emma Thompson, naturally.

Author: Tony Kushner

Published: 1993 (Pulitzer Prize winner)

Synopsis: Three threads of American living gradually interweave in the cold new era of Reagan and in the face of the catastrophic AIDS crisis. Louis is confronted with his own cowardice as he abandons his lover Prior to struggle with his diagnosis of AIDS alone. Mormon couple Harper and Joe struggle with the constraints of their religion as sexuality and addiction collide. Roy Cohn, a New York arch-conservative lawyer responsible for the death of Ethel Rosenberg, refuses to submit to the label entailed by his deteriorating health.

What moved me: it is incredibly difficult to articulate a single element of this work that is not breathtaking. I think, though, Kushner’s note about the staging is worthy of reproduction here for the perfect framework it creates for the play.

“The play benefits from a pared-down style of representation, with minimal scenery and scene shifts done rapidly (no blackouts!), employing the cast as well as stagehands – which makes for an actor-driven event, as this must be. The moments of magic – the appearance and disappearance of Mr Lies and the ghosts, the Book hallucination, and the ending – are to be fully realised, as bits of wonderful theatrical illusion – which means it’s OK if the wires show, and maybe it’s good that they do, but the magic should at the same time be thoroughly amazing.”