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.

Step into my coffin. I’ll show you around.

chessI’m in the thinking stages of making a show about what it might be like to wake up in your own coffin. Writer Ellana Costa and I want to look at the hard reality of ghosthood. What if you were a ghost with limits? What if you couldn’t defy gravity or boundaries but were stuck for eternity inside a wooden box?

Performance Space (a theatre company based at Carriageworks) are running a short work evening at the beginning of March called ‘Nighttime: Live and Let Die’ and to apply to be a part of it you had to pitch an idea around the themes of death, night, dreams, ghosts, rebirth, etc. Coincidentally, I saw a performance two days before the application was due in which a man dreamt that he had died and yet was awake in his coffin. The avalanche this scene set off in my head resulted in this pitch (I’ll spare you the artistic masturbation and just give you the broad outline):

“Step into my coffin. I’ll show you around.”

Tom has just woken up as a ghost. He’s in his coffin and is surrounded by objects. The only problem is, he can’t make sense of them. What is so important about that whistle? And why is there a bible underneath his pillow?

come and join me’ is about the disconnect between how we are seen by our loved ones, and how we see ourselves.

If an audience member gets close enough, Tom will ask them to step into his coffin and help him work out why he’s been buried with a bible, and why he’s wearing a Ramones T-shirt.

When we are grieving the loss of a loved one, we bury them with objects symbolising who they were to us, but perhaps not to them. What if you never told them what you loved about them? Or what if you loved the part of them that they despised?

‘come and join me’ is also about the inexplicable choices we make in life – why we choose to learn the clarinet instead of the oboe, or to be a novelist rather than a dancer. Buried with the objects that mark these choices, we are faced with an eternity of contemplation.

The possibility that I’ve now realised, which I should have put in the application, is this: what if a ghost was given a chance to explain their chest-pieces?

Chest-pieces is an idea I had a while ago that runs vaguely along these lines:

What if every sternum was a door that you could swing out to reveal the six precise memories that have had the most formative influence on a person? What if you could reach your hands inside and take them out, one by one, and roll them between your fingers? I imagine that these six memories would be concentrated, like juice, to resemble something like chess pieces that you can roll around in the palm of your hand. Imagine if you could handle the chest-pieces of another person to discover who they were, rather than trying to negotiate the said/unsaid of language (and our heinous ability to understand our own selves and then communicate that understanding) […] What if these six pieces were lined up before you the moment that you died?

The trouble we have with being alive is that our lives are spooling out like thread – this thread will continue to spool until it runs out. Obviously, this is not really a problem, but the one thing we are denied with death is a definitive line-up of those six chest-pieces, those six moments that you could place in the hands of another human to make them understand how and why you lived your life.

BUT. What if you were a ghost? You would no longer be living. Your thread would have stopped spooling. But you would have your six chest-pieces. And you’d be able to hand them to somebody and make them understand what you lived for, maybe what you died for.

I guess the challenge for Lana and I is to work out how to minimise the elephant tread of language in this imagining.

muscled love

trainOn NYE I caught the train from St Peters in to Town Hall at about ten in the evening. Flynn and I got into the end carriage and sat down on the same bench as two burly, mean-looking blokes. Of course, I was immediately forced to eat my own prejudice, for the moment we sat down the man next to us introduced both himself and his friend to Flynn, asking him what our plans were for the night. I didn’t catch their names. The man closest to us was missing some teeth. I could not focus on the conversation he was having with his mate as I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the couple sitting opposite us, who were clearly travelling with these two.

He was swaying in a two second lag behind the train. His head drooped like it was too much weight for his neck to bear – almost like heroin-dropsy. He was very tall, angular; the kind of skinny where the absence of fat lets you see the inner workings of the body, like looking through a glass-bottom boat. All the veins, tendons, beating pulse-points, much of which was covered with a full spectrum of inky tattoos. He was bald, or very closely shaved. Shorts, white singlet, longish white socks falling down, sneakers.

With him was a woman I don’t think I will ever forget. She was biggish and wore short denim shorts and a tight pale pastel green singlet. She had thongs on. Her hair has stayed with me the most. I think it must have originally been blonde and she’d died it dark. Her light roots left the impression that her hairline was receding.

She loved this man. He was clearly coming down with something. I offered her my water for him but she politely declined. He tried a swig of lemon ruski instead, which she balanced delicately underneath her seat and in one smooth motion forced him to lie his head in her lap, his feet lifted above him against the carriage wall (this on the advice of our toothless friend). She had fake fingernails, which I watched as she soothed him.

Once he closed his eyes she joined in the conversation with the other blokes. A name was mentioned by one of them, to which she quickly fired

“What do you think of him?”
“Yeah, he’s a bit of a scumbag. Why? Do you know him?”
“He’s the father of my daughter.”
“Oh, well…”
“No, I think he’s a scumbag too. I should know. He slapped me around for four years.”

Now, my memory has failed me here. She did not say slapped but said instead a word that took my breath away. With this one exchange, and with the man she held in her arms, her life was filling the carriage like gas, a train-shaped snapshot of muscled love and survival.

I wish that I’d heard her name.