As serious as it gets

In quotables, writers writing now on January 20, 2011 at 8:38 pm

Notes on and quotes from Fallout (2003) Roy Williams

fallout royal court

“See dat woman’s face? See how scared? Feel my heart… Better than weed.” (Perry)

Fallout barrels onstage via a brilliant coup-de-theatre – four characters kicking a fifth – who isn’t present – to death. Deftly, Williams sidesteps the awkwardness, the ultimate insufficiency of stage violence (especially something so one-sided, so undignified, so free of grand gestures as a street ambush). Equally, the audience find themselves focusing precisely on the victim, lost in more than one sense – but who will echo throughout the action, as police descend and the kids involved – killers, witnesses and friends – button up.

“One time we had dis new teacher in, yeah. So we all decided to play a joke on him. No one was gonna speak fer the whole lesson, not do any work, juss stare out, see wat happens, wat he does. Everyone was up fer it right, except Kwame. Deh he was, sittin deh, doin his work. He ruined the joke.” (Shanice)

Nailed by the title, this is all aftermath – but that doesn’t equal solving a crime (officially), changing anyone’s character (outwardly), even explaining the act (reductively). Formally, the play reels from step-by-step scenes unfolding for a constant flow between crowds – endless jokes and jockeying for position, only occasional mumbled intimacies.

“Have you noticed, everything’s scaling down? … It’s not news any more. Soon, he’ll just be another dead black kid. Kids round here aren’t made to feel important. They never have. They know a token gesture when they see it.” (Joe)

Williams stays on the surface because his mission is to show how complicated this world is, how patronising to presume that, in writing from above, one can unearth, clean off, and exhibit the cause beneath the effect. When the fabric is embroidered with such rich interchanges as girls menacing the teacher who expelled and thus lost authority over them, inept car thieves as a spectator sport, a father too far gone on his daily booze to put a name to his son and even clashes between the officers investigating, a ‘point’ (as such) would deflate the world.

“Yu made me feel special. I wasn’t juss some yattie to yu. Dwayne comes along, and yu stop noticing me. Yu were too busy impressin him. Yu made me lose faith not just in yu, but in me, man.” (Shanice)

This world has its own, often unspoken rules – nowhere are crime series cliches allowed to overwrite. Emile, ground down by grief, is willing to share his girl (Shanice) with his leader (Dwayne), just for some quiet. There is widespread resentment at the victim’s supposed special treatment by the media. And, at the end of the play, this world’s own logic prevails. Time finally seems to be moving forward again – one character gets his qualification, others leave the area for self-protection, and Dwayne and Shanice step toward each other. Life goes on, for the survivors.

“Yer hauntin me, yu know dat?” (Dwayne)

It isn’t my duty to be unhappy

In quotables, writers writing now on January 17, 2011 at 7:54 pm

Notes on and quotes from Under the Blue Sky (2000) David Eldridge

I’ve been away. Mostly internally. Meanwhile, Subjectiviste splutters back to life with a series of posts based on the string of 10 plays chosen by Methuen to represent the Noughties in their recently published collections Royal Court Plays 2000-2010 and Twenty-First Century British Plays. This, as you may have already noticed, is the first. And that’s enough intro.

under the blue sky / telegraph

“You were heavy and pissed and you moved me around the bed like I was a prone body. But your words? The things you said. Your promises.” (Helen)

‘Under the Blue Sky’ is a tryptich of long, pointedly naturalistic scenes (the first even synchronised to the step-by-step cooking of a meal) between couples of teachers. The first sees said dinner – which one assumes is a romantic gesture – ratchet instead into confrontation as it’s revealed as an apologetic leave-taking. But Eldridge’s intentions are so anti-dramatic, a knife brandished (pathetically) at the fight’s height is returned to domesticity without a word – ‘He takes the knife from her, wipes it with a cloth and uses it to slice the bread’. The play’s world is as much defined by its mass, its mess of rhythms, as its content.

The second pairing is yet more disastrous – an effete history teacher and a promiscuous maths teacher, equally brutalised by booze, using a horribly embarrassing fantasy as their only means of meeting in the middle. When even that goes wrong, we are left with revelations, recriminations and blackmail. It’s pure poison – amid a tone set in large part by the symbolic role of teachers in our culture, ideals compromised and lessons unlearned.

“A thousand humiliations behind closed doors and yet so, so pleasant on parents’ evening.” (Michelle)

And, since these two first acts reflect each other in all essentials – unequal relationships where the most loved holds the power, where negotiations lead to artificial, all too adult arrangements – one can imagine the original audience bracing for the third. Eldridge makes every effort not to disappoint, with a still older couple attempting a civilised split in the aftermath of a party.

It becomes apparent the scenic structure does not merely echo – each becomes a lens to reframe the previous. And thus, we learn what happened next to each of the other couples with gossipy precision – these offstage endings only reinforcing the bleakness descending. After the histrionics of youngish love gone wrong and the sour libidinal twists of more or less middle age, we’re set for a finale which enforces the law of gravity and puts the story to two single beds.

“I’m holding you back. I know I am.” (Anne)

But no! There is to be no long elegiac taper toward numbed applause. This last love is not doomed – although it must navigate the traps of sentiment (a relative’s historical lost love story) and convention (their age difference) – at long, long last, it’s not romance but pragmatism that constructs this particular happy ending:

“I don’t know what love is but I do know that your face is the face I think about every morning… Your twinkling eyes and your hair. Your appalling bad manners in restaurants. Reading me favourite bits of books you’re reading. I think about your lined hands and kissing them… I know I’m just a fat English teacher who drinks too much and insults your students but I think you love me in fact you said a minute ago that you did so let’s please do it and be happy becuase I know we can…” (Robert)

Because, you see, the other thing about ‘the symbolic role of teachers in our culture’ is that they’re in charge of the future.

under the blue sky two

In ten years time she’ll still be dead

In classics long after, quotables on November 2, 2010 at 9:37 am

Notes on and quotes from 4:48 Psychosis (2000) Sarah Kane

“Some will call this self-indulgence / (They are lucky not to know its truth) / Some will know the simple fact of pain / This is becoming my normality”

When people say the psychic firestorm of Kane’s last play – entirely free of stage directions and thus endlessly re-interpreted since – symptomises a natural end, they show a want of imagination. Nothing was inevitable; if anything, art is the enemy, rather than the accomplice, of fate.

4:48 NYC

Such free plays, blank cheques from writers to directors, had been produced before – but even (for example) Handke’s Offending the Audience came with rules and sets. Kane waived such frames, and the form’s predominantly conceptual angle was here wrenched from public address to inward reflection (Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life had still mostly engaged from behind the third person). No directions, only text, and the text only fragments.

Although occasionally rising to the rhetorical highs of performance poetry, more often words pool in the (seeming) first-draft intimacy of diary depths. But beneath the stylistic scattershot and centrifugal emotional flux, there is a story. Of illness, and treatment. Of doctors who ask stupid questions, who understand less with each answer, doctors who prescribe drug after drug, each its own special effect. (“Please. Don’t switch off my mind by attempting to straighten me out.”) One seems to care, but cannot ultimately stretch beyond professional conduct: “You don’t need a friend you need a doctor” (After a pause: “You are so wrong”). Insomnia. And a moment of clarity – at 4:48.

“Nothing can extinguish my anger / And nothing can restore my faith / This is not a world in which I want to live”

4:48 2007

The title of this post is a quote from the playtext. It’s that reflexive, that tangled in tenses. Kane committed suicide in 1999. Even its first performance was posthumous. I could spin out sentences on what might have been, had she lived, but enough, I think, to acknowledge that her works have gone on to be mainstays of modern European theatre. Their questions live on.

“They will love me for what destroys me”