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.
“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.