Thursday, February 7, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "The Empty Pool" (on John Hawkes' The Innocent Party)

the empty pool
by Douglas Messerli

John Hawkes The Innocent Party, in The Innocent Party: Four Plays by John Hawkes (New York: New Directions, 1966)

Novelist John Hawkes’ fascinating play, The Innocent Party, seems, at moments, to be channeling elements of Tennessee Williams, particularly in its location—“patio of an abandoned motel in a subtropical area of the United States”—but also in its central character, a strong survivor very much the mode of Clarissa Foxworth of Williams’ last play, In Masks Outrageous and Austere. I could almost hear Shirley Knight’s voice behind Hawkes’ Phoebe, a fabulously wealthy and world-weary woman who inexplicably has descended upon her brother and sister-in-law’s down-and-out motel after years of sailing around the world, seemingly, it appears, just to get a glimpse of her part-Tomboy, part Aphrodite niece. The strangeness of the family and the unpredictability of their comments, moreover, help the work feel akin to Williams’ world.

      Despite all of the play’s apparent relationship with Williams’ works, however, the play seems even more linked to another, far more traditional American playwright, to whom, stylistically Hawkes has little kinship. For what we begin to perceive early on in this dark comedy is that the central character, Phoebe, is perhaps less of a real figure than a figment of this fallen family’s imagination. Like “Uncle Ben,” the mythical elderly brother of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, who when he was 17 walked into a jungle only to walk at 21 as a rich man,” so is Phoebe an wealthy woman who has traveled the world, while her brother Edward stayed home to “go under,” losing his small business of selling cheap cameras, and turning to collecting shells. He and his coarse wife, Beatrix, spend most of their time creeping around of their empty lives, by the empty pool, half filled with garbage, trying “not to mind” about the normal adolescent activities of their daughter, Jane. In short, like the Loman family, they have lost all hope of achieving the American Dream, spending most of their time moping around or pointlessly praying for a miracle of changed fate.

      And just as Ben, in Miller’s play, seems to be figure of hallucination, so too does Phoebe seem to be the family’s hallucination. They nearly worship the Phoebe’s white car, peering into it with lurid desire. It may be that Jane herself has called her aunt up in an act of utter desperation, since she has no possible alternative in the closed and timid poverty of her parents’ lives and minds. As she puts it, she wants to “go under” too, not financially, but under water in dare-devil dives, somewhat like, as her aunt describes her, a mermaid able to alter her boyish young body. She has already begun to steel from the neighboring Black boys, playing out a sense of endangerment in a world in which parents neither drink nor dance, but simply complain and collect fragments of old sea-life.

      Although Phoebe attempts to throw a party, the participants ignore all attempts at celebration. Having already stolen from her aunt, Jane is banned from the party until Phoebe calls her out, pretending, in private, to both help the young girl learn to dance, but at the same time hinting at much more carnal desires. Despite Jane’s adolescent turmoil, however, she is still innocent, and, in her refusal to participate in her aunt’s lascivious Salom√©-like activities, the party itself becomes an innocent remnant a sinister world which her youthful imagination, possibly, has whipped up.

       As suddenly as she has appeared, Phoebe, her large pocketbook filled with cash, and the hammock upon which she has slept all night and much the afternoon, disappears, while the young Jane repeats her fervent pattern of rising, holding her hand before her eyes to sniff out the flowers before looking, like narcissus, into the pool at her own being, magically swimming away into a kind self-loving paradise.

      At curtain’s fall, however, we realize that this young innocent is as deluded as her horrific parents: for the pool is, after all, empty; any dreams it might have proffered drained away before she has come to life. And so this dark comedy reads as tragedy at last.

Los Angeles, February 6, 2013


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