Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Free Association

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Free Association

Article excerpt

GEORGE BERNARD SHAW ONCE SAID that when he wrote his plays, he never thought about plot. Instead, he just created some characters and "let 'em rip." This reaction against the well-made plays that dominated the late nineteenth-century stage continues in our own day, with play-- wrights spewing out dialog at random. Some, like Samuel Beckett, have consciously applied the free association technique of psychoanalysis, letting the talk go where it will, ad-lib, never censoring or revising. This risky method can of course result in pompous drivel when the writer lacks Beckett's discipline, intelligence, vast reading, and strong sense of characterization, but it can also yield a strange poetic intensity. Plot is all but dead in today's theatre; imagery, both visual and verbal, reigns supreme. The plays of Tony Kushner exemplify the formless style. It is hard to say what Angels in America was about, much less describe its plot. At the beginning, Prior is diagnosed as having AIDS; after six hours of playing time, and several years of his life, he is still struggling along, the playwright unable to bring the obvious closure to his story. Diverse characters, including Roy Cohn, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, several of Prior's ancestors, and the Mormon angel Moroni, wander through. Even Shaw or Beckett would provide more focus. What makes the play work is the incredible drive the characters have. The speeches may ramble, but they are not mere reverie; the characters are obsessed with reaching an understanding, which they then drive home to their listeners. Narrative in drama works only when it is motivated for the speaker, and when it has a strong effect on the listeners. (Even with Beckett, we feel that the monologs are character-driven, rather than simply being eruptions from his unconscious mind.) When Roy Cohn rambles on that "homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout," he is not just making a philosophical observation, but creating a whole raison d'etre, a rationalization for his own homosexuality, with which he overwhelms his listener. "Does that sound like me, Henry?" Roy sneers. He has sex with men, but by his definition he is categorically not homosexual, not a wimp.

Kushner's long-awaited new play, his first new full-length play in over a decade (unless you count his translation/adaptation of Corneille's The Illusion), awkwardly titled Homebody/Kabul, begins with a thirty-minute monolog by an Englishwoman, the homebody, in her London sitting room. "I speak elliptically, discursively," she admits, babbling about an obsolete guidebook to Kabul, Afghanistan, which she holds on her lap. The book is thirty-three years old, "long enough for Christ to have been born and died on the cross," a remark that is, typically, superfluous and soon forgotten. Heavily dosed with antidepressants (like Harper with her tranquilizers in Angels), she imagines her brain floating in a salt bath.

As usual with Kushner, this spontaneous gobbledygook is spellbinding. It is delivered directly to the audience, a departure for Kushner, whose previous monologs were never soliloquies. Yet in a sense this monolog is not a soliloquy either; we the audience become partners in the scene, like the silent Henry with the Roy Cohn monolog. At one point during the performance I witnessed, an audience member even gave out an audible, knowing "Ah!", as the homebody read from another book on the history of Afghanistan. She is obsessed with that exotic, sad country, and desperate to share her obsession with us. Of course, the scene was all the more poignant because of the September 11 atrocities and the subsequent, ongoing war, but that result was serendipitous. The play was written well before Afghanistan was in the news; in fact, I first saw the monolog, presented alone, three years ago in London, where it worked just as well as in the full-scale production. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.