Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Other People’s Worlds - William Trevor
Trevor should be given credit for making me respond viscerally to his exploration of the depths. His main character is a charming psychopath named Francis. He sees people as objects he can use to fulfill his needs, and in his wake he leaves a trail of misery. This victimizer was, in his youth, the victim of prolonged sexual abuse; he coped by escaping into his own distorted world. As an adult his actions are responses to compulsive emotions, always carefully hidden behind a smile. To enter his mind is a creepy and disturbing experience. The book focuses on three people who fall under his influence. Doris, with whom he had a child, is similar to Francis in that she distorts reality to suit her illusions, and the scenes of her descent into alcoholism and rage-filled madness are frightening. Their twelve-year-old child is inappropriately named Joy. Julia, a middle-aged widow, is easy prey for Francis. On their wedding night (one without sex) she becomes aware of the ugliness and cruelty that she’s been sheltered from all her life. But Julia, unlike Francis’s other victims, has emotional resources. She realizes that her world – which has been blessed with kindness – can have a purpose: she must rescue Joy. On the last pages she imagines a tranquil scene in which four people are gathered under a tree; one is a child. Yet she sees the scene mistily. Trevor’s life-affirming ending is so nebulous that it’s only a crumb of hope. That’s not enough. If he raises the possibility of Julia rescuing Joy, it needed to be attempted, and to either succeed or fail.

Four Plays - Eugene Ionesco (French)
To do it justice, a play should be seen performed on stage. Despite that, I read these plays (or parts of some), so I’ll dutifully review them. “The Bald Soprano” makes no sense. This was intentional; what goes on is meant to be absurd. I thought it could, if done with brio by actors, be quite funny. “The Lesson” is more structured; things progress in a logical (albeit maniacal) fashion. I liked its wildness and thought it was the best of the four. As for “Jack or the Submission” and “The Chairs,” I made it halfway through each, and my mood had soured. The Theater of the Absurd had a point to make about life, but it was a limited one. Okay, we live in a nonsensical world. But nonsense, if not presented in an intriguing or amusing way, can be boring. In the two plays I abandoned the boredom was stupefying, and no amount of brio could have enlivened them.

The Barbary Light - P. H. Newby
The main characters (a man, his wife, and the woman he’s having an affair with) had the potential to be interesting, but Newby imposes so much baggage on their story – obfuscation, false leads, about-faces, ruminations over matters such as identity – that he detracts from what’s good in the novel. We constantly get dead-end sentences like these: “What mattered was what you did. And how did you know what you did?” The person thinking these thoughts is Owen. I could never get a grip on what his problem was (for one thing, it keeps changing); instead of being enigmatic, he winds up seeming implausible. I also couldn’t understand how two attractive and intelligent women could be deeply in love with him. The flat-as-a-pancake ending, which provides no insight or resolution to all the complexities, suggests that the author was in as much of a quandary as Owen. When Newby uses a straightforward approach, scenes and characters have freshness and vitality. But in this book he thinks too much, to no good purpose.

Three Plays - Harold Pinter
These early Pinter plays feature elements that he would use again and again. In a “A Slight Ache” the three characters (one never speaks a word) act oddly – odd enough to create mystery and an atmosphere of menace. A husband and wife talk to each other but don’t communicate; their disjointed dialogue makes no sense. The play ends with a plot twist that tops all others in its peculiarity. In “The Collection” people communicate, but it’s not clear who’s telling the truth and who’s engaging in elaborate lies (no reason is given for why anyone may be lying); as soon as things seem to be resolved one way or another someone does something to muddy the waters. Pinter includes a liberal sprinkling of menace and an inconclusive ending. In “The Dwarfs” he ramps up the oddity angle to the point where the characters are lunatics; they go into long, senseless monologues filled with violent imagery. So there they are, the three elements which would become Pinter trademarks: oddity, menace and incomprehensibility. Each has appeal for an audience. Oddity fascinates, menace titillates, and not making sense creates the impression that there’s hidden meaning to be unearthed. Did Pinter produce good work using this bag of tricks? Yes, but in these plays it smacks of gimmickry.


jimmy scoville said...

The Theatre of the Absurd can be perplexing to utter an understatement & awfully uneven until one comes to the point realizing they are reading/watching a vertical drama instead of a horizontal (as is most theatre) & were never given any stilts. I agree, they are hard to read, better seen on stage, as you noted, but even there, sometimes, as in Becket's "Trapp's Last Tape", are painful to watch. Yes, they do have points, often buried in too much anti-symbolism, as they attempt to expose the absurdity of society, especially in a post-World War 2 reality after such shocking truths as the Nazi atrocities were uncovered. I have seen none of these, having viewed only Ionesco's Rhinoceros & Pinter's The Dumb Waiter on stage, but those were more accessible I feel than what you described. I have read Ionesco's Four Plays & have it somewhere in my library. I agree with you on all levels, although I did finish all the plays. To read absurdity for one's own sake is quite undermining if not, downright confusing. I read because i was a budding playwright, seeking a difference in my acts. Nowadays, far from theatre, I wouldn't do that to myself. You are a braver man than me, Phillip Routh!

Phillip Routh said...

You gave me a new way to look at narratives.
I prefer the horizontal, in which events proceed as they do along a time line.
Can you think of a novel that uses a vertical narrative?
BTW, I wasn't that brave: I couldn't finish two of the Ionesco plays and one of Pinter's.