SWEENEY AGONISTES and THE BAD INFINITY
Blind Parrot Productions
Mac Wellman sometimes asks his students to write a bad play. "As soon as you tell somebody to write a bad play, the language becomes large and theatrical," he told American Theatre magazine. "You get a lot of emotion, and you get a sense of humor."
The Bad Infinity demonstrates that Wellman has mastered his own assignment--his play is colossally bad. The characters are all flamboyant and melodramatic. The action is completely arbitrary and virtually impossible to summarize. (A bunch of people at a party, or something, talk very loudly to each other.) And the dialogue is so obtuse and inaccessible that the play should be called Non Sequitur--absolutely nothing follows logically from anything else.
As though The Bad Infinity weren't punishing enough, Blind Parrot Productions has paired it with Sweeney Agonistes, by that old symbol meister T.S. Eliot. Subtitled "Fragments of an Aristophanic Melodrama," this play is every bit as impenetrable as Wellman's. In her program notes Diana Spinrad, who directed The Bad Infinity, includes a fair and accurate "warning" about this double bill: "If you try to understand these plays as you watch them, your head will explode and you will be very unhappy!!" My head didn't explode, but I left the theater very unhappy.
Spinrad admits she has a hard time putting her enthusiasm for these two plays into words. "The head is just not the place where these plays live," she writes. And yet she sees in the plays "the struggle against madness in a mad society." She claims that both "deal with consequences of actions" as well as such disparate topics as "religious concepts, primal instincts, chaos theory, infinity."
Well, maybe. But if these ideas exist in The Bad Infinity, they are embedded in such opaque passages as this: "I was just about to explain, Ramon / how the future can be controlled only / by changing it into the past. / Traditionally this has been / the function of life, but now / that mere life has become a / far too chancy enterprise / for those of us whose cat tracks / the pavement singing old Beatles' / dungbeetle. One requires a thorn. / I assure you, if you look out this / window you can hear shapes of your / eyesight drilling holes to China. / Rearing up dead heaps of dollar / bills. Banks going at it, bang, bang! / And cropped photos of famous / politicians turned into living turds."
Call me old-fashioned or hopelessly linear in my thinking, but I believe that anyone who sees anything in this passage is hallucinating. At best these words function like an inkblot test--they invite you to make your own associations. Inkblots are not art, however, and The Bad Infinity can barely be called a play.
Same with Sweeney Agonistes, directed by Beth Ellen Carter, which consists of two brief dramatic sketches --Fragment of a Prologue, published in 1926, and Fragment of an Agon, published in 1927. Though intended as theater pieces, they are essentially poems distinguished more by sound than sense. In Fragment of a Prologue, for example, two call girls, Dusty and Doris, engage in aimless exchanges.
Dusty: How about Pereira?
Doris: I don't care.
Dusty: You don't care! Who pays the rent?
Doris: Yes he pays the rent.
Dusty: Well some men don't and some men do / Some men don't and you know who.
This play also contains flashes of the bleakness that Eliot poured into his masterpiece, The Waste Land. "Birth, and copulation, and death. / That's all the facts when you come to brass tacks," Sweeney asserts. "I've been born, and once is enough. / You don't remember, but I remember, / Once is enough."
Both Eliot and Wellman use language the way abstract painters use color--for its own sake. This can result in surprising and even delightful juxtapositions. Wellman, for example, turns the word "America" inside out: "Ameria. Meria. Mericanica. Mericanicamera. Bodiless ordinaria." But unless you have an extraordinary love of sound, you will quickly start to wish for some sense, especially since these words are delivered by actors who try to fill with volume and flourish the vacuum created by obscurity.
Playwright Jeffrey Jones talked about "experimental" theater several years ago at the League of Chicago Theatres' summer retreat. He began his talk by saying (I'm paraphrasing slightly), "In any group of people, there will be a few who can ask themselves, 'What are the rules here, and how can they be broken?'"
That is essentially what Wellman and Eliot were doing when they wrote these works. They were seeking the boundaries of theatrical expression for the express purpose of violating them. But artists who function this way are like people who want above all else to be famous--they have their priorities reversed. Instead of concentrating on self-expression, which may sometimes require a new form, such playwrights merely want to create a new form. The content of that form doesn't interest them nearly as much as its newness.
The Bad Infinity and Sweeney Agonistes may substitute rule breaking for genuine insight and innovation, but one rule simply can't be broken--an effective play must engage the audience. And The Bad Infinity and Sweeney Agonistes leave the audience gaping in bewilderment.