The Lesson and
Desire, Desire, Desire
By Jack Helbig
The 1979 edition of the Concise Oxford Companion to Theater smugly announced that theater of the absurd--the darkly comic style of drama that rose out of the ashes of World War II--"seems to have spent itself." But the sad truth is that theater of the absurd never died--it was absorbed into mainstream America, where it haunts us in the form of robotic bureaucrats, virtual love affairs, and automated phone systems that aim "to serve you better" by making you hold for a quarter of an hour. Every time a congressman twists the language to the breaking point, arguing that the NEA must be abolished because it "censors" those it doesn't fund, that's theater of the greatest absurdity. And every time someone abandons real life for the satisfactions of cybersex and chat-room romance, that person has entered a world Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco would have recognized as their own.
We're so saturated by the absurdity of everyday events that theater of the absurd is hard to pull off. No matter what insanity an absurdist playwright cooks up, the world can provide a greater one. Among Ionesco's jokes in his one-act The Lesson is that the French word for "knife" is "knife." But that linguistic absurdity pales beside the fact that, at the Dayton peace accords, the Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians--who speak essentially the same language, Serbo-Croatian--all insisted on their own translators, a move not unlike an Illinoisan asking for a translator so she can speak to someone from Virginia.
So it's a treat to find a director like Bill McGough, who knows how to make theater of the absurd fresh in an absurd world. In the two one-acts on this bill--Christopher Durang's 1995 Desire, Desire, Desire and Ionesco's 1951 The Lesson--he carefully balances the works' comic and tragic elements. And his actors know when to go for the laugh and when to hold back, a tactic that allows the plays' darker messages to seep through.
At first glance the Durang one-act would seem the easier of the two to produce. Durang is a gifted comic writer, and though his parody is full of cultural references, all but the most uninformed audiences will get them immediately: Stanley Kowalski crying out "Stella!" in A Streetcar Named Desire, Maggie the Cat begging Brick for a baby, and Blanche DuBois wavering on the edge that separates neurosis from psychosis.
But as in too many of his other plays, Durang gets carried away by his own quick wit, which detracts from the seriousness of his work. Dubbed the "grandson" of absurdism by McGough, Durang is much more frivolous and self-absorbed than Ionesco, "the grandfather of absurdism." Like Woody Allen, another child of absurdism, Durang tells stories about poor, put-upon whiners who claim they're being crushed by a crazy world but who are, in reality, every bit as dangerous and crazy-making as the world they kvetch about. And, again like Allen, it's not always clear whether Durang is aware of the second half of this equation. Does he understand, for example, that both characters in Laughing Wild--the oversensitive, overeducated yuppie and the raving street person--are simultaneously the aggressor and the victim?
In Desire, Desire, Desire Durang parodies Tennessee Williams's Streetcar Named Desire, making Blanche much more the hapless puppet of destiny than she is in the original. He also twists the plot: this time Blanche must suffer both the indignity of living with the troglodyte Stanley and the nuisance of living in a play that refuses to coalesce into Streetcar. In Desire, Desire, Desire Stella disappears for years at a time, characters from other Williams plays and from plays by such writers as Eugene O'Neill appear suddenly at the Kowalskis' door, and everyone is so caught up in Durang's world that no one really listens when Blanche prattles on about Belle Reve or her tragic first love.
You could play these bits for laughs and get them, but in the long run the laughs would undermine Durang's (perhaps unconscious) message: that in the postmodern world of contemporary America everything is up for grabs, nothing makes sense, and no one is without sin. Wisely, McGough directs Donna Smothers to play Blanche as if she were indeed in Streetcar--or better still, yearning to be in Streetcar. She may end up crazy in Williams's tragedy, but at least she knows where she fits in the established order. In Durang's play there is no order: Blanche must cope with the sudden appearance of not one but two Maggies (escaped from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) who spirit Stanley away, claiming that he's Brick. And in the confused state Smothers conveys so well we can see the first glimmerings of Blanche's redemption: by the end of Desire, Desire, Desire, her eyes gleam with an existential awareness that, because the world is absurd, she is free. And with that freedom begins responsibility.
Responsibility, or the lack thereof, is one theme in Ionesco's classic absurdist drama, in which a professor becomes so frustrated with his dense students he ends up killing them. And like Desire, Desire, Desire, The Lesson could be played strictly for laughs. Full of marvelous wordplay and Ionesco's own nutty brand of academic humor--including a long lecture on the neo-Spanish language that culminates with the revelation that the Italian for "I live in France" is "I live in Italy"--the play yet contains deeper messages about the limitations of language and human communication.
The relationship between the professor and the pupil has a perversely erotic subtext, hinted at early on in the pupil's eagerness to please and the professor's delight at his student's compliance; later in the play, the professor is driven into a jealous rage by the student's refusal to focus on the lesson because she has a toothache. And I know I'm not the first to note that the stabbing of the student is a symbolic rape.
Under McGough's direction, Liz Fletcher and Patrick Dollymore play the one-act's comic and tragic elements with equal ease, shifting from one to the other with a facility that allows us to laugh even as we realize what a sadomasochistic hell these two inhabit. Long before the student is killed, we know something awful is going to happen to her, as she winces from the pain of her toothache but is unable to leave the room.
In less capable hands, the hapless, passive pupil and the pretentious, puffed-up professor would seem mere caricatures. But Fletcher and Dollymore, fully invested in their roles, give Ionesco's characters an indispensable third dimension, with the result that we don't just see the absurdity of the world, we feel it in the pit of our stomachs. i
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Lesson/ Desire, Desire, Desire theater stills.