Sometimes, a play can ask too much from an audience.
In Edward Bond’s Saved (1965), we were forced to watch a group of young ruffians stone a helpless baby to death while it sleeps in its carriage. In Sarah Kane’s Blasted (1995), we witnessed rape, torture, and cannibalism on stage. Fortunately, in Euripides’s Medea (431 B.C.), the brutal killing of two children by their mother’s own hand occurs offstage (according to the convention of ancient drama). Still, we can hear their screams.
Granted, all the above-mentioned are written by serious moralists with urgent messages to convey. Bond wrote about a generation of impoverished, disaffected youth; Kane was troubled by the conflict in Kosovo; Euripides exposed the tragic consequences of revenge. But for some, including me, these plays are too traumatic to sit through. The messages get lost in the method.
I found myself in that double bind last week, watching The Father and Blackbird, two highly anticipated dramas on Broadway, both well written and directed, both powerfully performed, both dealing with agonizing subject matter.
Langella as an old tree
In The Father, the French playwright Florian Zeller has found an extraordinary way to portray an octogenarian suffering from dementia: by showing us the world through the eyes of his central character. As played by the remarkable Frank Langella, André lives in a comfortable apartment in Paris that he bought 30 years ago — at least, he thinks he does. Through a series of taut scenes, punctuated by sudden, jolting blackouts, we discover that the apartment isn’t really his; it belongs to his daughter, Anne (Kathryn Erbe), who has invited him to live with her so she can look after him. Another man lives in the flat — who is it? (Anne’s lover, but André doesn’t recognize him). Where is André’s daughter, Elyse, whom he keeps asking for? (She died years ago, but André has forgotten.) And who keeps stealing André’s watch? (No one — it’s in his hiding place, but he can’t remember where.)
As scene after scene flies by, we experience the same disorientation that André feels, in a world that’s increasingly alienating and frightening. “I feel like I’m losing all my leaves, one after another,” André laments. Langella personifies an old tree amazingly, standing stiff, proud, and utterly alone, desperately weathering the storm of old age.
Under Doug Hughes’s meticulous direction, we feel trapped together with André inside Scott Pask’s severe set, a frightening landscape that constantly changes before our eyes as the play draws to its inexorable conclusion. As one who has watched a close relative suffer the indignities of dementia, I found this powerful but merciless play devastating in its impact.
David Harrower’s Blackbird is equally harrowing and uncompromising in its purposes. Here the playwright puts two characters on stage who never should have met again, given their traumatic history. Una, a young woman, has sought out Ray, a man from her past, to confront him for having had sex with her 15 years earlier, when he was 40 and she was only 12, to let him know that he ruined her life. Instead, they find themselves reliving the trauma of their one night together.
“What did you come here for?” Ray cries at the top of a play that lasts 90 relentless minutes, performed by Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams at a feverish pitch. Trapped together in his workplace, Ray finds no way to escape Una’s ferocious assault. It turns out that Ray turned himself in and served three years in jail for having sex with a minor. He’d written her from prison to ask for forgiveness. But, as Una explains, forgiveness is impossible. The trauma and her resulting rage have defined her life. While Ray changed his name to escape the past, Una can’t. “I lived your sentence,” she tells him. “I never had time to begin. I had to keep my name.”
Under Joe Mantello’s fast-paced direction, Daniels and Williams are on a violent collision course that explodes in a shocking conclusion. Ultimately, we’re left with an unanswerable question: Why do we relive past traumas, when they can never be exorcised? “It’s all I have,” is Una’s pathetic explanation.
Touch of humor
The theater is a place to experience the full spectrum of human existence, including the dark side. It follows then, that there’s a place for plays like Blackbird and The Father — hard-hitting works that confront the darkness head-on. At the same time, in my theater-going experience, I’ve found it more effective when the dark side is filtered through metaphor, or leavened with humor. There’s a tender scene in Shakespeare’s King Lear, that towering masterpiece about old age, when Lear (who also suffers from dementia) wanders along the cliffs, in rags, lost, with flowers in his hair. Many Lears (among them Frank Langella himself) have played that heartbreaking scene with a light comedic touch, and when they do it’s breathtaking in its power.
As for metaphor, playwright Margaret Edson found a powerful way to write about the devastation of cancer — through poetry. In Wit, her 1999 Pulitzer-Prize winning drama, her protagonist is a professor of English, dying of stage IV metastatic ovarian cancer. Throughout the play, while she suffers the agonies of chemotherapy, she defiantly recites John Donne’s sonnet, Death Be Not Proud (“Death, thou shalt die” is her favorite line). In Wit’s final moment after her death, she walks naked into the light. It’s one of the most uplifting moments I’ve ever seen in the theater.
To read commentaries on Theatre Exile’s 2009 production of Blackbird, begin here.