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ThomPain – Will Eno

February 20th, 2007 No comments

Thom Pain (based on nothing)as seen at Dobama Theatre on 4 February 2007.

I think the biggest thing of interest to me about seeing Will Eno’s Thom Pain, as opposed to reading it, was the interpretation made in the presentation; or, using the more cliche lingo, the "choices" that were made.

In the post performance discussion, Scott Plate said that he and Joel Hammer had made decisions regarding the character that were different from the New York show. This was based on descriptions provided by Tony Brown, who apparently saw the original show in New York. Brown said that the character/interpretation was somewhat vicious in his incarnation and distant. The performance was menacing and left the audience with a distinct and pervasive feeling of having been ravaged.

The performance I witnessed was that of a more neurotic character, a man who was decidedly in mental chaos: clear and articulate, piercing and insightful; then muddy and worried and uncertain. I found the character, as presented at Dobama, to be worthy of empathy and concern: a human character worthy of compassion.

In seeing the performance, as again opposed to reading the script, I was surprised at how clearly the "spine" of the work became clear: the failure to connect with the family, the loss of the dog, the failure to connect with society, the loss of the lover. These points of the play stood out very well, in my mind–where in the text they were somewhat more difficult to discern. In seeing the piece I found it highly compelling. Additionally, the intentionally theatrical moments of the performance: where the character addresses and interacts with the audience, were very real and had a tantalizing influence on me as a spectator: even though I knew they were coming. In fact, I found this the most peculiar part of the experience: knowing full well something was coming and the nature of that something and yet still being affected by it.

I also noted that one of my favorite lines was botched; but I gained a completely new appreciation for one line that still haunts me, and likely always will. The line that was botched was: "And somewhere in the same night another youth bleeds between her legs, wondering what for, sure she’s done something wrong, unsure whom to tell." I was very disappointed because I thought it so profound. It was either botched or cut. I found it profound and disturbing all at once, along with the line that has become my favorite: "What a surprise to have a body." I am not sure why these two lines resonate so deeply with me, but I will try to put a finger on it. I think it is Eno’s very precise association of bodily events with the mind’s judgment of the self. The mind searches the universe incessantly to make connections between things. That is what makes great artists and inventors and businessmen and–well, any great person–great–is their ability to connect things that are unconnected. It is the true act of creativity in the world. A person can do something or create something or write something never being sure that it hasn’t been thought or written or created by someone else before. But the connection of two disparate things: two things that have not been connected is an original act; unique in that it creates something larger than itself and releases a new energy into the world. The mind is always trying to connect things: connect, connect, connect, connect–what does this mean, how does this relate to this other thing–why me? What have I done? And that is what is haunting about Eno’s lines. The mind judges. Bleeding is bad. Bleeding from your “secret parts” (to use the Medieval phrasing) is very bad. There is no reason for it. The mind is magical. The mind connects unrelated things to create meaning. That is magic. That is why science will always loose to the superstitious mind. We are hard wired to believe, to our souls, things that are refutable: but to the mind as hard as scientific fact will ever be. To the primitive mind, a yellow bird pressed against the skin will take the yellow evil of jaundice away with it out the window. It makes perfect sense. If it doesn’t work, then it is not a reflection on the concept, but on the recipient. The girl lying in the dark will associate this bad thing happening to her with some act that she must have committed. Somewhere a brooding justice falls on her for what she has thought, or may have done, or may have thought, once, of doing. Blood doesn’t just happen. There is a reason. And in the illogical darkness: the murk of the primitive jungle in our unconscious: judgment. Taboo.

I know this feeling. Who doesn’t? And I am moved, wrenched to think of that girl in that darkness fearing that she has done something wrong when the body is just doing what it does to advance the species. Oh, how science takes the magic from us. How clinical and removed it is. Cut off your arm and it becomes a thing. The sensation it has provided you is gone; the utility of movement is lost. Science. Of science, as Yeats says, more poetically than I can ever dare imagine:

from The Song of the Happy Shepherd

"… Seek, then,
No learning from the starry men,
Who follow with the optic glass
The whirling ways of stars that pass –
Seek, then, for this is also sooth,
No word of theirs – the cold star-bane
Has cloven and rent their hearts in twain,
And dead is all their human truth."

I find that I am strangely drawn to this play. I enjoy it. The more I think about it the more I find myself discovering. These are excellent qualities in anything. But I also don’t like that I am drawn to it. My mind rebels against these postmodern plays, or these post post modern absurdist plays. The plays that all the "hot" writers write; the "up-and-coming" writers. They seem to me hyperpersonal. It is as if each is vomiting his or her neuroses. I feel at once like quoting a Neil LaBute character and a character of F. Scott Fitzgerald. There’s an odd combination. In The Shape of Things, Adam says, outraged at the end,

I’ve completely missed the point here, and somehow puking up…all your own shitty little neuroses all over people’s laps is actually art–

Nick Carraway, at the beginning of The Great Gatsby remarks,

I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accuses of being a politician, because I was so privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought-frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon…

I feel often that I am somewhere in between these poles when it comes to "new" theatre. I am pulled constantly between the poles of expressing myself and hoping that my own little, neurotic experience is universal enough that it connects with people; or expressing myself through attempts at displaying universal, epic themes, and flinching away from the postmodern accusation that you cannot generalize anymore–that horse is dead and beaten and buried.

I am clearly moving into a new phase in my own writing. I know this. I can feel it, and feel the urge to explore. This is good. I just wonder if it will lead me to a clearing in the jungle that no one wants to visit. A place that is not only unremarkable, but perhaps, repulsive.

That is to say, to sort of crystallize this, what is theatre today? What is the point of it, what is the goal of it, what should it be? I am torn between my traditional expectations of the Aristotelian model: the proud and noble character who experiences a reversal, fails, repents, and is destroyed in front of everyone; to the now post, postmodern offerings of completely destroyed personalities offering up their dreadful experiences as something universal. One could argue that it is a reversal of what is right (or is it just beginning at a different point?). I am reminded of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals:

The slave revolt in morality begins when the resentment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the resentment of those beings who are prevented from a genuinely active reaction and who compensate for that with a merely imaginary vengeance. While all noble morality grows out of a triumphant self-affirmation, slave morality from the start says No to what is “outside,” “other,” “a non-self”. And this No is its creative act. This transformation of the glance which confers value–this necessary projection towards what is outer instead of back into itself–that is inherent in resentment. In order to arise, slave morality always requires first an opposing world, a world outside itself. Psychologically speaking, it needs external stimuli in order to act at all. Its action is basically reaction.

That is, what has been viewed as good, right, and moral is viewed by those who are disaffected as evil, wrong, and immoral. Hence, the inversion begins. I am torn by this and think often that what I am seeing in modern theatre is nothing more than the utter dissolution of anything noble or (hating to use the loaded word) moral. And I don’t know that I mean that in a religious judgmental sort of way, but a more humanistic way: that we elevate what is debased and dismiss what attempts to lift.

Well, there is no easy way to wrap this commentary up. So, it will be left as it is, with that flat and petered-out ending. These are my thoughts, though, on the 19th of February, 2007. Where they shall lead me on the 20th, and 21st, and all days after I must wait, like everyone else, to see!

Realistic Joneses

February 23rd, 2016 No comments

The Realistic Jones

Steve Wagner photography

Realistic Joneses at Dobama, Steve Wagner photographer

Why realistic Joneses? Perhaps the sidelong look at our neighbor has turned more to issues of plain old health and sanity rather than that of material wealth? Perhaps Eno is touching on the reality that many of us are floundering around in the same pool and that any aspirational measure of superiority—-or fear of inferiority-—has long given way to something much more frightening.

Both sets of male characters have a mysterious disease that causes pain, affects their vision, and undermines their memory. Dementia? Something else… But as memory is suspect, this affects virtually every aspect of each of the two male characters, making them impossible to trust. The blindness that each experiences, while certainly medically disconcerting, also points, metaphorically, to a troubling set of character issues—-certainly Oedipus would have a thing or two to say about the nature of blindness.

The characters, all around, are worth comparing because Eno uses two sets of couples—each in a similar set of circumstances (but at different ages). This sets up comparisons of gender relationships, age relationships, generational attitudes, as well as cross comparisons between how the couples work internally. The men, for instance, are predictably resistant to speaking about how they feel or what they feel, but mask it in different ways: the older male Jones—-Bob (Joel Hammer), resists talking at all about his feelings, fears, etc., mostly by gruff barking, harrumphing, or deflecting defensively—pushing any emotional engagement right back at his wife—-Jennifer (Tracee Patterson); the younger male Jones—-John (Chris Richards), resists talking about his feelings, fears, etc., by engaging in verbal puns, non sequiturs, and rhetorical question that, often as not, are barbed jabs at whomever else is around: a method that works remarkably well with his wife/girlfriend/significant other—-Pony (Rachel Zake), who is oblivious to nearly everything going on around her.

The characters are representations and commentaries on our current cultural condition. As funny as they may often be, it is a bit depressing. Pony, certainly, is cause for consternation. If her hold on reality and competence were to be judged by ten strands of hair, I’d say that nine of the strands were snapped already. Pony is flighty, airy, inconstant, and largely indifferent—-especially to anyone with a disease or health condition—-whom she’d prefer to avoid entirely. In short, Pony is very much a child. John, her SO, is overly confident and opinionated, though he immediately admits that his opinion are based on nothing and many not even be correct. It is my assumption then that Eno is pointing to something very frightening about our society: inattentive, unconcerned with truth, uncommitted, etc. And yet, despite these flaws, the pair of characters is human, emotionally vulnerable, and clearly hurting—-thus deserving of compassion.

Bob is battling his own mortality and reckoning with a disease progression that he cannot control and one that is not predictable. It is one thing to suffer from a disease whose progression is clear, with markers by which you can judge your own health or lack thereof. But when the disease is unpredictable, whose symptoms affect memory and, thus, personality, the effect is to shake one’s sense of self. Bob is angry, an anger that he levels on his wife, Jennifer. He is also defensive, and unwilling to even discuss his thoughts, fears, and emotions with his wife. On the whole, Bob is inconsiderate, cranky, and often just mean. He’s lucky, however, in the love of Jennifer, who is filled with empathy, and willing to tolerate much. Strangely, Bob finds his softer side with Pony, as well has interest in speaking about this thoughts, fears, and emotions, a fact that leads to an affair with Pony. It is likely Pony’s complete indifference that leads Bob to this attraction. The surreptitious relationship between Bob and Pony is not surprising, in that these two characters are the most self-involved and seemingly indifferent.

John suffers from the same malady as Bob, with the same set of unpredictable symptoms, however, in Pony, John has a “spouse” that is not empathetic at all. In fact, it is clear that John hasn’t even bothered to tell Pony what is happening to him, for fear that she will run away. Pony evinces no courage. Strangely, or perhaps predictably, this set of character flaws in Pony and Bob lead John and Jennifer to each other. Though they do not have a physical affair, one can argue that they do have an emotional affair. It is clear that John receives what he needs from Jennifer: compassion and empathy, and Jennifer receives from John what she does not get from Bob: a man who talks about his thoughts, fears, and emotions.

Eno does a masterful job revealing the more intimate nature of each of these characters by forcing each character, and the audience, to peel back (or hack off) the crusty exteriors to find the soft underside. The fact that Eno uses a small town on the edge of a mountain as his setting, as well as night encounters with plenty of star gazing, points explicitly to the “higher” nature of this play’s consideration. Often the play has that aspect that one can only get when staring up at the stars: a wistful sense of one’s smallness, an expansive sense of history, a confrontation with one’s mortality, a sense of God or the infinite. The external setting often leads to shocking statements in the midst of banal small talk.

I’ve seen two plays by Eno at Dobama: Thom Pain (Based on Nothing), and Middletown-—Eno’s response to Thorton Wilder’s Our Town. I’ve read others, including Tragedy: A Tragedy in New Downtown Now: An Anthology Of New Theater From Downtown New York. In each play Eno is obsessed with the tenuous nature of meaning inherent in our language and how we understand or misunderstand others and the world around us, and the things happening within us: thoughts, emotions, etc. All of this is rife in The Realistic Joneses. Virtually every statement by John, for instance, is undermined in the next statement, sometimes within the same sentence. An example, when the couples are parting ways at the end of scene one, might shed a bit of light, when John says: “This was fun. I mean, not fun, but definitely some other word.”

Some other word. That might be the best description of this play, or any of Eno’s plays. The quote might be, “I’m telling you something important, something vitally important; but not really important, maybe trivial, in fact. I’m not sure.” Thom Pain is one hour and ten minutes of savagery that is similar to this: a brutal search for meaning, for something real, that may or may not quite come to be. It’s as if Eno’s characters are frantically searching through a sand drift for something lost, but they can’t quite remember what it was, and maybe he or she finds something else.

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