Last year playwright Arthur Kopit came up with a provocative title -- "End of the World" -- but couldn't manage to write a play to do it justice. As it happened, his central character was having the same problem. He, too, was a playwright who had been commissioned to write a play about the end of the world, and he was finding the task impossible.
Indeed, the whole subject of the planet veering out of control and heading straight for the cosmic abyss has proved startlingly resistant to dramatization. It could even be argued that to the extent man feels himself a helpless pawn, he is essentially non-theatrical. Whether or not we can modify our destiny is beside the point. The theater has always been interested in creatures who think they can. And it's the thought that counts.
Since the awful notion of annihilation was rudely implanted in our consciousness with the explosion of the first atomic bomb, only one playwright has truly made art of the nightmare, and esthetic sense out of the chaos: Samuel Beckett.In his stark and stunning plays, the world is emitting a death rattle; the landscape is devoid of all signs of life, save, perhaps, a sorry tree that manages to sprout a solitary leaf or a misguided ant scrambling pointlessly over a mound of sand. Destruction already seems to have come and gone. The eternal night is falling fast and man is but a leftover -- a speck in the unknowable cosmos.
Beckett first elaborated his vision in "Waiting for Godot," which premiered in 1953 to widespread puzzlement and outright indignation. Here, after all, were two broken-down tramps with nothing to do with their days and nights but wait for a certain Godot, whose arrival would presumably give purpose to their existence and relieve the emptiness in the pit of their stomachs. To pass the hours, they joked, indulged in idle philosophy, fretted, wailed, tried to tug the shoes off their swollen feet and munched on a bit of carrot. Godot, of course, never showed. Mankind was on its own.
Beckett's subsequent plays have further restricted his characters, confining them to bare rooms, burying them up to their necks in the earth, imprisoning them in funeral urns or, of late, simply isolating them in puddles of fading light. All of them are engaged in last-gasp variations of the "Endgame," as the title of his 1957 work puts it. Mobility is gone; their biological faculties are failing; what's left them are memories, increasingly fragmented, of a time when life was fuller, more robust, when "it" all might have made sense, whatever "it" may be.
If his plays initially seemed to be propounding outlandish metaphors for the human condition, they have since proved themselves to be extraordinarily prophetic and more "real" than we ever could have suspected. What scientists now tell us with their grim, doomsday scenarios is nothing that Beckett hasn't already said with far more poetry, humor and compassion. There is even an odd and courageous gallantry to his characters, as they attempt to stave off the voracious darkness with the only weapons at their disposal: cries and whispers and, occasionally, an ironic chuckle that recognizes the odds were stacked from the very beginning. Beckett alone seems to be able to paint the void convincingly at the same time, paradoxically, he negates it with the sublimeness of his art.
From the time of the Greeks, man has suspected that he inhabits a capricious and irrational world. But the bomb brutally confirmed those suspicions, its colossal power underscoring the puniness of human beings and the ultimate futility of human endeavor as the gods never could. After all, the gods at least cared enough to meddle in men's fortunes, constructing the sundry traps and snares that would bring the arrogant to heel. The bomb is indifferent. We may have built it, but it no longer does our bidding. It has become the implacable master of our fears.
In the late 1950s and especially in the 1960s, that awareness translated itself into what came to be known as the Theater of the Absurd. Actually, the term was a catchall for a variety of playwrights: among them, Ionesco, Adamov, Beckett in France; Arrabal in Spain; Pinter in England; a young Albee in the United States. Each, in his separate way, set about fracturing traditional dramatic structure in an attempt to give expression to the endemic senselessness of life.
In the absurdist play, events were often yanked from their realistic moorings; cause and effect were split asunder. Time misbehaved. The linear plot, which took characters logically from A to B to C, was turned on its head. Plots could just as easily go from C to A to X; sometimes A and B and C unfolded simultaneously. Like a naughty child, logic was banished to the basement.
Words were acknowledged to be one of the least reliable means of communication. Language spelled nonsense, and it frequently took the characters by the nose (or the noses; in Ionesco's "Jacques, or the Submission," one character had three) and led them on a gibbering goose chase until they were no longer certain of their identity or even their sex. Identity was up for grabs anyway. People tended to be either interchangeable pawns or else impenetrable mysteries. Menace, undefinable but no less frightening for that, lurked everywhere, and inanimate objects were known to proliferate on stage, like cancerous mushrooms after the blast.
In Ionesco's "Ame'de'e or How to Get Rid of It" a corpse grew with steady eeriness, until it occupied an entire apartment, threatening its inhabitants with expulsion, while the title character of "The New Tenant" found himself buried by furniture, initially brought on by a pair of movers, but ultimately streaming in of its own accord. In his grotesque "Wipe Out Games," a whole city went through the comic contortions of death from a plague of unknown origin. A muscular beach boy in Albee's "The Sandbox" turned out to be the angel of death. Max Frisch's "The Firebugs" charted how a prosperous businessman and his wife vainly ingratiated themselves with a trio of arsonists, who introduced drums of petrol, detonators and fuses into their house, and then borrowed the match that sent the edifice, the town, civilization itelf, sky-high.
In Pinter's "The Caretaker," a perverse tramp and two brothers engaged in nefarious power plays for the control of a shabby room -- Eden, maybe -- while "The Birthday Party" showed a rundown pianist being plucked from a dingy seaside boardinghouse and carted away by two unidentified, but clearly lethal, callers. Propelled by a nameless terror, the neighbors in Albee's "A Delicate Balance" fled their house and settled in, wide-eyed and near-speechless, with their best friends. In these and dozens of other works, a generation of playwrights seemed to be obsessed with the notions of eviction, menace, death, panic and sterility. It takes little effort to connect those themes to our anxieties about the bomb itself.
In that it helped liberate the stage from the shackles of realism, the Theater of the Absurd was a salutary force. In its topsy-turviness, it was, after all, being true to a topsy-turvy universe. But it produced few memorable characters; in many cases, it rejected the very idea of character, one man in its view being quite like the next and all of them bearing a dangerous kinship with marionettes. It recognized our tenuous foothold on the edge of the precipice, took cognizance of our nightmares, and gave palpable, often highly original expression to our collective anguish.
But once it had done that, it had nowhere else to go. The Theater of the Absurd probably remains the theater's most vivid expression of atomic angst to date, but it was always more descriptive than dramatic, and today it is largely spent as a creative force.
Indeed, drama by its very nature depends upon a clash of opposing wills to function. It generally shows us an individual in light of a prevailing social system, which he may try to change, or which may change (i.e., destroy) him. But to do that, it requires the taking of sides, a belief in primacy of some values over others, a faith in the potency of the human will to effect a difference. If we can't assure the perpetuation of the species, the preservation of one set of values over another is irrelevant. On the eve of impending destruction, morality itself can seem redundant. The less we feel able to negotiate our fate, the less we subscribe to the possibility of drama.
That may be why today's playwrights have turned away from the bomb. The questions are entirely too big; the opposing forces, too lopsided; defeat, seemingly all too certain to risk the battle. The wide world has become an arena in which we no longer consider ourselves qualified players, so we've relegated ourselves to the locker room.
Kopit's befuddled playwright/hero explained the atomic dilemma this way:
"In every play there is a central character and this central character does not just want something; he needs something, needs it so badly if he doesn't get this thing, he will die . . . not necessarily physically, could be emotionally, spiritually, all right? In fact, dramatically, the worse his potential fate, the better. But! But! only up to a point. And that's the problem in this instance. Here the consequences of failure are so far beyond our imagination, so far beyond anything we have ever experienced, or even dreamed, an audience could not believe, fully believe, what it was watching . . . it would all seem like a lie."
As a society, we turn our backs on the peril and hum another tune altogether. So, naturally, does the theater, society's reflection. It has traded in the telescope, which looks outward, for the microscope, which looks inward. The subjects we are comfortable with are the quirkiness of our relationships, the traumas and tribulations of our families, the strange entanglements and exotic psychology of our sexuality.
The bomb is no less real for the characters in the plays of, say, Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson or even nutty Christopher Durang. But they, like most of us, have tucked it away in the dimmer recesses of their minds. It is another fact of their lives, like pollution or violence or inflation. They don't search for solutions. Swallowing their anxiety, they put themselves instead through those endless convolutions that constitute the search for self.
The bomb, by making us all feel smaller, robbed us of our theatrical stature.