Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Douglas Messerli | "Sweating It: Three Mid-20th Century Tragi-Comedies" (on Waiting for Godot, West Side Story, and Exit the King)

by Douglas Messerli 

Samuel Beckett Waiting for Godot / Studio 54, New York City; the production I saw was a matinee on Saturday, May 9, 2009
Arthur Laurents (book), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Leonard Bernstein (music) West Side Story / Palace Theatre, New York; the production I saw was Thursday, May 7, 2009
Eugène Ionesco Exit the King / Ethel Barrymore Theater, New York; the production I saw was a matinee on Sunday, May 10, 2009 

Through accidental intent I saw three plays on my recent trip to New York City, all works from the 1950s through the early 1960s that revealed not only Auden's description of that period as "The Age of Anxiety," but reiterated from me the dramatic tensions at play in 1950s society. All three works might be described by the subtitle of Waiting for Godot (1953), a "tragicomedy," although one does not necessarily think of that phrase in relationship with West Side Story. Yet its appropriateness became clearer than ever upon seeing Arthur Laurent's new production.
     The terrified participants of Beckett's landscape—in this production presented as an inhospitable plain surrounded by rocks—have seemingly nowhere else to go, although they incessantly speak of "going." Although Vladimir (stunningly played by Bill Irwin) and Estragon (Nathan Lane) spend each night separately (sleep is probably the most isolated activity that man endures), they gather each morning to discuss, in the absurd language of Laurel and Hardy, their possible alternatives and attempt to entertain themselves until the arrival, promised each day to Didi (Vladimir), of Godot.
     Numerous readers and critics of Beckett's work have speculated that Godot is God. He is, after all, seen as the agent of their salvation; at the end of the play, as they discuss possible suicide, the two speak: VLADIMIR: We'll hang ourselves to-morrow. (Pause.) Unless Godot comes. ESTRAGON: And if he comes? VLADIMIR: We'll be saved. Even the child who reports each day that Godot (pronounced in this production as Godot) will not arrive describes his master in the standard Christian manner: a man with a white beard. Yet if this elusive Godot is God, perhaps we would be better without him, or, at least better off not spending our entire lives in wait.
     The conditions of their lives—both are tramps who apparently recall a previous life in which they were better off—is abhorrent. Gogo, in particular, is plagued by swelling feet, and is often unable to remove his shoes. Each night, so he tells Didi, he is beaten while he sleeps. So too is the child's brother beaten by Godot.
     The appearance of a passing landowner (he claims to own all the land about), Pozzo (grandly performed by John Goodman) and his slave, Lucky (John Glover) demonstrates the scandalous condition of others. Carrying Pozzo's dinner, table, and folding chair, Lucky stumbles about on a chain, whipped from behind by Pozzo. Both Vladimir and Estragon are horrified to discover someone worse off than themselves, but gradually perceive that Pozzo is completely dependent on Lucky; and when Lucky is commanded to dance and to think, we discover he is such a clumsy oaf and academic bore, that he is perhaps more useful to the world in his subjugation than in freedom.
     Even more disconcerting is the Alzheimer's-like condition of all Beckett's figures save Didi. When Pozzo meets up with the two on the second day, he is even more dependent on others than previously, but has no memory of meeting the two tramps a day earlier. Estragon must be reminded each day of the previous day's events and is often incredulous of Didi's recountings. Even the child who reporting for Godot cannot recall seeing Didi each day. For Didi it is as if what he perceives is eternally in question, and he spends much of the play trying to uncover evidence that his vision of reality is correct.
     But that is just what makes this work a tragedy: there is no reality. And it is also that which makes it comedy, which induces us to laugh: because there is no reality, these beings have nowhere else to go. Their entreaty to "go," "Yes, let's go," results only in stasis. They have no choice but to return day after day to their rocky lives to wait for someone who may beckon, but will probably never come. In Beckett's final stage instruction, They do not move, even the most determinist of us realizes that we are all "frozen" into our own ridiculous lives. Like figures of the commedia dell'arte, we can only pull up our trousers and wait for the inevitable end of existence.
     Ionesco's less performed Exit the King (1962) explores just that end. King Berenger's (Tony winner Geoffrey Rush) empire has, over his long rule, shrunken extensively. The sun has frighteningly diminished and a large sinkhole threatens to suck up the entire kingdom. As Queen Marguerite (Susan Sarandon) recognizes: "The party's over," reporting to her husband that by the end of the play he will die.
     Terrified by that fact, Berenger fights his approaching death with the tenacity of a spoiled child let loose at a table of doting adults. The palace maid (Andrea Martin)—although complaining of the endless burdens of her job (she is only one of three who continue to serve the court)—servilely straightens his winding robe, picks up the crumpled carpet, cooks, and performs thousands of other chores. The King's younger consort, Queen Marie (Lauren Ambrose) coos her love, insisting that he continue to fight his inevitable death.
     Fight he does, but with the attacks coming every few moments, Berenger's absurd pleadings and rush of memories become more and more ridiculous. What may seem to be a topic that would send most audiences fleeing from the theater is here transformed into a long-standing joke (almost overplayed in this production), as the King dies and dies and dies, Marguerite cheering him on as Marie tenderly dotes on his numerous last gasps.
     One of the difficulties in this play (as in Beckett's) is to keep those laughs coming while, at the same moment, the audience grows uneasy in its recognition that it, like the characters, simply must wait and die. And although Ionesco could be as wickedly ironic as Beckett at times, Beckett's crisper diction—which at nearly every moment seems to combine the tragic with the comic—allows his play to better function than Ionesco's broader farcical conceits. Still, in all, Exit the King is a brilliant play that tenderly takes the King (and we, his consorts) from living into death.
     Both of these plays, accordingly, offer us a world in which its characters are literally forced to face the void, nearly swooning in its heat. Based as it is on Shakespeare's great tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story at first appears to be without the comic redemption of the Beckett and Ionesco plays. Yes, there are comic moments in Laurent's script, the self mockery of the Jet's psychologically frenzied lives expressed in "Gee, Officer Krupke" and the equally playful putdown of the Shark women against a girl who wants to return to Puerto Rico in "America" (note: unlike the great dance scene in the motion picture version of the musical, in which both Shark males and females dance "America," the stage version includes only women). And there are those tender and light moments "Something Coming," "One Hand, One Heart," and "I Feel Pretty"(sung in this production in Spanish). But for most viewers, I suggest, West Side Story would not seem to be properly described as a tragicomedy. Where's the comedy? many might ask.
     If we recognize, however, that West Side Story presents us with a society with no adult moral examples (Doc is so passive he is completely ineffectual, the police are as nearly as disgusting in their prejudices against the Puerto Ricans as the Jets), it becomes clear that the given world of this musical is as absurd as that presented in both the Beckett and Ionesco works. Living is being part of a gang, and being part of a gang is to be willing to fight, kill, or be killed. Although both Maria and Tony attempt to live outside that reality, they have no other choice, and are inevitably pulled in through the vortex of love and hate into the absurd world surrounding them.
     On the streets of the upper West Side, New York, Tony has no choice but to fight for his own kind, even if it means destroying, in the process, the woman he loves. Only Maria seems intellectually to be able to create a different reality, a reality not based on territorial and familial domains, but on love; despite the fact that Tony has killed her own brother, she insists that her love for Tony takes precedence.
Obviously Tony's inevitable death produces no laughter. But in terms of the play's inverted realities, his death returns that world to normality.
     The singing and dancing of this production was excellent, and the leads, Matt Cavenaugh and Josefina Scaglione were far better than Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood. But I still prefer the movie version, simply because its characters are better delineated than the stage production, and Jerome Robin's filmic dances, particularly "America" and "Cool" (which on the stage is performed in the drugstore early in the play), are simply masterpieces which are nearly impossible to match. Although Laurent's new direction brought two of the songs into Spanish, it had no great effect on the timbre of the piece, and the cute dancing chorus members detracted from the anxiety of the world the script expressed.
     As the film's Baby John made clear through his tears and the gang's pent up fears released in "Cool" evidenced, the young men and women of Bernstein's West Side New York were also forced to live in a sweat. And unlike the film, where there is at least a hope of change as the gang members come momentarily together to carry off the body of the slain Tony, in the stage version his corpse remains bound to earth, Maria mourning him alone as she declares that she too has now learned "how to hate." As in Exit the King she has now come face to face with death, and as the curtain falls, just as do the characters in Waiting for Godot, she is frozen in space. 

  Los Angeles, May 30, 2009
Copyright (c) 2009 by Douglas Messerli

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Douglas Messerli | "The Compromise" (on Gore Vidal's The Best Man)

the compromise

by Douglas Messerli


Gore Vidal The Best Man / New York, Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, the performance I saw was a matinee on May 5, 2012


The Best Man is a play of political demands, subterfuge, lies, blackmail, and, most importantly, compromise—although the hero of Vidal’s witty political parable, William Russell (John Larroquette), refuses compromise with his arch-enemy, Joe Cantwell (Eric McCormack) or with his own conscience, and in that respect both Cantwell and the out-going President Arthur Hockstader (James Earl Jones) are correct in insisting that Russell is not a political beast!

     The compromise that Russell makes is a rare one for any political contender, sacrificing his own career and his political battle for power for moral victory and, possibly, a reaffirmation of his relationship with his wife.

    In this star-studded revival of Gore Vidal’s 1960 comic-drama Candice Bergan, Kerry Butler, Angela Lansbury, and Jefferson Mays together with Larroquette, McCormack and Jones, act up a storm, somewhat cloaking the fact that, for all its noise and hoopla (the sound of booming applause of convention goers and cackling reporters being broadcast through the theater’s sound system even during intermissions) the play is really a series of drawing-room comedic skits of wit and bluff.

     Like Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the revival of which I witnessed a night earlier, The Best Man encapsulates, moreover, a vision of a world that no longer exists: the whirl of backroom politics, where decisions for party nominations were played out in convention hotel suites, votes bought and sold through a series of brokerings based on individual reputations smeared with lies, rumor, scandal, and partial truths.

     If, given today’s preordained presidential campaigns where all has been long-decided before the convention’s bland rhetorical flourishes and flag-waving remonstrations, we might feel superior to the nasty bloodbaths of earlier party gatherings, we might take note that, at least in Vidal’s fantasy, politics still mattered and the individual candidates, freed from appealing to the whole of the American populace, could at least imagine (even while recognizing the reality was something far different) that their personal values might matter.

     While Vidal remains, ultimately, cynical of that process—awarding the nomination to a “best man” whom neither of the leading candidates seem to have met and nothing of his values, both Russell and Cantwell—as different as they are—attempt to forge their campaigns based on very personal visions.

    Today elections are won more on “general” appeal—which one might describe as campaigns based on generalities and artful waffling as opposed to personal integrity and individual history. One need only note how current Republican candidate Romney attempts to cover over his own tracks regarding his Massachusetts support of health coverage and silence his family roots in Mexico—ancestors of his whom engaged in polygamy, or perceive Obama’s attempts to downplay his Indonesian childhood and diminish his real accomplishments on such issues as health care, currently unpopular with right-leaning independents and aspects of which may soon be overturned by the Supreme court.

     It is true that in Vidal’s play both major candidates have something to hide: Russell, his nervous breakdown and its attending medical history, as well as the subsequent failure  of his marriage; Cantwell, his possible involvement in his young military days with a homosexual roommate. But, in real terms, it hardly matters whether the latter was involved in sexual acts or in merely squealing on his roommate, for in the context of the play either demonstrates his moral hypocrisy and his commitment to “the ends justifying the means.” Russell’s bout with mental exhaustion, it is clear, has little to do with his career, including in his more recent performance as Secretary of State, and, in reality, may simply indicate his inability to accept simple solutions to complex issues. And both men, despite their real and implicated blackmail, still stake their claims on their political actions and personal values reflected in their public service. While Cantwell’s politics are ruthless, opportunistic, and play directly to the most ignorant elements of public perception, he is nevertheless a man of action, a true political beast who will clearly accomplish whatever he sets out to do. Despite Russell’s superior sense of ethics and his erudite comprehension of American and world history, he is, as his campaign advisor and the current President point out, a man who when faced with critical choices, wavers—or, to express it another way, is a man who stops to think before acting— a fatal flaw, evidently, for any leader.

     While one might be tempted to compare Vidal’s rivals with today’s presidential candidates, accordingly, Obama is no Russell, despite his intelligent projection of moral issues, just as Romney is no Cantwell, despite his obviously expedient shifts to the far right in order to appeal to those constituents. We live today in a time where everything is far more prepackaged and, consequently, morally blurred.

     The politics of Vidal’s parable, represented by the enormous compromise of candidate Russell, are no longer possible in our society of political and social extremes. As in the Miller play, I suspect, very few members of the audience under sixty—none of whom I spotted at the Schoenfeld matinee I attended—might have difficultly comprehending a drama so centered on one man’s moral scruples. When did morality and politics ever share the same bed? today’s voters might scoff. While in 1960 Vidal might have pointed to John Kennedy (even if mistakenly), today we have “hot mic” statements from our President admitting to Russian President Medvedev that during the election he needs the “flexibility” of not saying what he eventually might. And anyone reading the daily papers perceives that even expediently political compromises rarely occur in the chambers of congress. The idea morality today often has little to do with a truly thought-out position. A man like Vidal’s Russell, sad to say, is either a political dinosaur or a literary fabrication at best. And a man of compromise, as Republic Senator Dick Lugar's defeat yesterday confirmed, is someone who cannot be reelected.


New York, Minetta Tavern, May 6, 2012; Los Angeles, May 8, 2012

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Douglas Messerli | "Getting Martin's Goat" (on Edward Albee's The Goat: or, Who Is Sylvia?)

getting martin’s goat

Edward Albee The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? / the production I saw was at the Davidson/Valentini Theater of the Los Angeles LGBT Center, on Sunday, October 12, 2014

Martin (Paul Witten) and his wife Stevie (Ann Noble), along with their son Billy (Spencer Morrissey) live in an well-appointed apartment in what is clearly a urban (Manhattan or Chicago) setting—in the original Broadway production, their abode was a wealthy suburban retreat, with high vaulted ceilings, an impossible requirement for the tiny stage of Los Angeles’ LGBT Davidson/Valentini Theater—a family one might describe as among the elite. Although they live in casual comfort, the very décor of their cozy living-room bespeaks good taste, as do their clothes and, surely, the bedrooms a level above the public space. Indeed, Martin, a successful architect who has just won the prestigious Pritzker Prize (which his friend, Ross [Matt Kirkwood] describes as the “Nobel” of architectural awards), has also just been chosen to design a multi-billion dollar city of the future somewhere in the “wilds of the Midwest.” Their life, it is gradually revealed throughout this play has been near perfect, the couple very much still in love with one another, being open-minded liberals gifted with witty intelligence and a son, who declares he is gay, and whose sexual decision they readily accept. As Billy himself later reiterates, he has been well educated in one of the best of schools that money can buy, and is blessed by nearly ideal parents. It is, in short, the kind of family one encounters throughout contemporary Manhattan—or in the wealthy suburbias of Massachusetts, Detroit, Chicago, or Los Angeles—self-satisfied, if artfully modest members of the cultural elite, tastefully attired at home in the empire of the gods.

     In the domestic banter of the play’s first few moments, indeed, the audience might almost imagine that they have accidently wandered into a play, as The New York Times Ben Brantley suggested in his 2002 review, written by one of the most beloved playwrights of these ruling class member’s parents, Neil Simon. But we also immediately sense something is amiss, as if the jokes are there but the actors keep missing their lines. In fact, Martin not only seems absent-minded, but is fearful that he is developing Alzheimer’s Disease. About to meet with his old friend, Ross, for an interview celebrating Martin’s 50th birthday and his two recent achievements, he cannot remember, for example, the name of Ross’s grown son. He enters the room but forgets for what he has been searching. Stevie jokingly reassures him, but soon their “banter” gradually is transformed into a kind of comic inspired sketch about sexual infidelity, ending with Martin’s unexpected and somewhat inappropriate quip that he is seeing someone named Sylvia and that she is a goat. If the audience laughs at Stevie’s comeback—I’ll stop at the feed store on the way home—it is an uneasy twitter since by the very title of the play we already know that Martin is telling her the truth: that, as a modern-day Zeus, he has fallen in love with a being outside of his own kind.

     Suddenly we recognize that we have entered Albee territory, and that any laughter the play elicits hereafter will not emanate from punch-lines as much as it does from our ill-ease with the subject and the characters involved. In the very next scene, as his friend Ross attempts to interview him, we observe that Martin is almost purposely subverting any attempt at “real” communication—meaning, in the context of this play, any attempt at a preconceived and canned vision of reality that the media often whips us for its listeners. A man who has never cheated on his wife and, therefore, unlike so many of his male friends, Martin has never had an opportunity to brag about his sexual conquests, and he suddenly seems like an adolescent jock desperate to reveal his newly-discovered sexual prowess.
     Although Martin quickly knows that he about to tread on dangerous ground, he cannot resist revealing the source of his new-found sensations of what he describes as “love.” The tale he tells is similar to all such tales set in bucolic setting in which, along with nature itself, the would-be lover catches the wide-eyed gaze of his soon-to-be lover, with a sudden urge to reach out and touch her, with all the wonder and excitement of knowing what joys might lay ahead. It might well describe the events of mid-life crisis that strike down many an everyday male where it not that Martin, as he and Albee keep hinting, is not an ordinary being, but a contemporary Zeus, and the object of his affection, accordingly, lies outside of everyday “normality,” while very much within the Greek god’s recorded assignations. Self-satisfied to the point of delusion, Martin simply cannot comprehend why it could be wrong to fall in love again, even if, this time, it is with a goat! After all, the goat does not truly contend with his love for his very human wife.
     Surely, we grasp, Martin must know—despite Ross’ reassurances, as his best friend, he is to be trusted—that as a member of the media, whose definition of reality is always the most narrow one, will not keep quiet about Martin’s revelation. But then, the gods of our society are often so used to working hand in hand with members of the media who have helped them to achieve their god-like status, that they are brought down by those very women and men. The shocked Ross rushes out to immediately write a letter to Martin’s wife, outlining, with the expected rhetorical flourishes, his word-for-word encounter with his life-long confidant. If Martin has jokingly thought that he has heard the voice of the Eumenides earlier in that scene, Ross describing it as “a kind of…rushing sound, wings, or something,” it is nothing compared to the fury he is now about to face.
     If there is any question that we are now in an Albee play, the battle now re-enacted between the sexes is far more furious even than George and Martha’s pitchforked duels in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Indeed, in the small theater in which I experienced Martin and Stevie’s violent quarrel, the second row, where Howard and I sat, was perhaps too close for the howling and heaving banshee into which the small-statured actress Ann Noble was suddenly transformed. The only temporary ceasefires to the seething, spewing froth of hate she sputters out—along with images of vomit, blood, excrement, and murder—were the tortured interruptions of their utterly tortured son, the couple’s narcissistic congratulations of one another when, in deep verbal battle, one of them achieves a moment of stunning locution (the kind of touchćs that George and Martha also award one another in their “battle-play”), and Martin’s helplessly prosaic descriptions, once again, of his first encounters with Sylvia the goat and his brief introduction to a self-help group of bestial-offenders, such as a man who once but no longer has intercourse with piglets, an multiply abused woman who has sex with a German Shepherd, and a man so ugly that he has found love only with a goose. Martin’s attempts to explain his guiltless emotions of joy appears to his wife appear to be the expressions of an alien from a distant planet. His acts, she makes clear, are beyond “all the rules,” representing a behavior that “shatters the glass” of their existence, and which have inextricably destroyed the near-perfect inter-depency they have both fabricated for themselves. She has been ready for everything, she explains, except for this transgression!
      Exhausted, the audience along with her, Stevie, like Nora, slams the door for what appears to be a forever, despite Billy’s terrorized insistence on knowing where “his mother” has gone. Although a lesser fury, he too rants about having what appeared to be an ideal mother and father, before the latter began digging in the metaphorical basement of their home, hallowing out a hole from which he can never return. But in his youthful angst, we more clearly perceive that Albee is attempting to explore the larger issue of where human beings draw the limits of love. If Billy, who as a now socially-accepted gay, can only realize that in another day his own definition of love would have been damned, he must now, far more than his mother, question, at least, his father’s seemingly absurd search. And that leads them, if nothing else, to admit their own love for one another, expressed painfully in hugs of sorrow and protective embracement, which suddenly for the confused adolescent explodes into a momentary series of full-lipped kisses with his dad—at the very moment when the voice of conventionality, Ross, creeps back to their doorway to observe what he calculatingly perceives as another unforgiveable transgression.
     Billy pulls away in a self-hating pang of senseless shame, with Martin attempting, with fatherly love, to relieve the situation by describing a friend who admitted to being aroused temporarily while cradling his infant child, yet, soon after, realizing it was simply a natural and innocent moment that had no sexual component.
     For Ross, obviously, it is simply another explanation of degradation of the former “god-like, friend” a representation of pedophilic tendencies, yet another taboo to be tied to Martin’s tail/tale. “Where do you people stop?” he cries out. Yet Martin, challenging him, makes it clear that it is not the behavior which matters to Ross, but the possibility of public exposure, of the inability to “get away with it.” In short, for people like Ross, for the media, for example, it is not ever a really moral issue but a matter of defining a nonexistent “public” limit, of creating an invisible line that cannot be crossed. The question, of course, really concerns “when is it a sin to love?” Where the society draws those lines, the playwright suggests, defines the limitations of the society’s abilities to express what is perhaps the most important of all emotional and physiological responses to life.
     Despite any chortles of discomfort that some audience members may still utter, we all now realize that this work is a tragedy without an ending. A moment later, covered in blood, Stevie drags in Sylvia’s corpse. Vowing revenge, she has destroyed Martin’s innocent love for her own values and others’ personal definitions of where love has crossed the boundaries of decency; and, in so doing, she has doomed herself to the conventional limits of the living. And, suddenly, she becomes a being as dead to love and life as the beast she has just sacrificed.  
    As Martin hugs his dead goat-lover to his breast, his pained silence sings out like a “goat song”—the root word of Greek “tragedy”— a knell for any possibilities for a return to his or any other Eden.
    As my companion, Howard, expressed it: “everything is so sad—all of them, so basically innocent and yet so full of hurt.” In limiting its borders, love has been drained from their lives.

Los Angeles, October 13, 2014