Read Drinks Before Dinner Online
Authors: E. L. Doctorow
Tags: #Drama, #American, #General
Copyright © 1978, 1979 by E. L. Doctorow
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Drinks Before Dinner
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Drinks Before Dinner
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This play originated not in an idea or a character or a story, but in a sense of heightened language, a way of talking. It was not until I had the sound of it in my ear that I thought about saying something. The language preceded the intention. It’s possible that the voice the writer discovers may only be the hallucination of his own force of will; nevertheless, the process of making something up is best experienced as fortuitous, unplanned, exploratory. You write to find out what it is you’re writing. Marcel Duchamp was once asked why he gave up painting. “Too much of it is filling in,” he is reported to have said. The worker in any medium had best give it up if he finds himself only filling in what had been previously declared and completed in his mind, a creative
. Writers live in language, and their seriousness of purpose is not compromised nor their convictions threatened if they acknowledge that the subject of any given work may be a contingency of the song.
Now, this language of the play, this way of talking, derives from two very odd sources, the prose of Gertrude Stein and Mao Tse-tung. I read a quotation of Mao’s one day from a speech he gave to his officers in the field sometime in the 1930s. And the rhetoric of it was startlingly like Stein. I think now it is probable that anything transliterated from the Chinese sounds like Gertrude Stein, but I
was set off nevertheless. I reasoned that a style of language common to an American expatriate avant-gardiste who lived in Paris seventy years ago and the political leader of eight hundred million people was worth the writer’s attention.
I didn’t analyze this language but merely set out to see if I could do it. It is a frankly rhetorical mode that loves repetition, the rhythm of repetition, and at its best finds the unit of sense not in the clause or the sentence, but in the discursion. I have since detected a similar sound in the recorded lectures of Zen masters and in sections of the Old Testament. Once you hear it, it is all around. It’s a spoken language, a flexible language with possibilities of irony and paradox that are as extended as any modernist could wish, but a simplicity to satisfy the most primitive narrative impulse. I quickly and easily wrote four or five thousand words and took the opportunity to deliver them aloud several times in public readings in different parts of the country. I gradually understood I had composed a monologue, that someone was speaking and that he had a lot on his mind. His point of view was so single-minded in fact, and his dissatisfactions so vast, that everything he said could be answered by someone stepping a little bit to one side or the other of where he stood.
I began to respond to his remarks with the remarks of others. They were soon engaged in dialogue, and to keep things clear I had to give them all names. The one who started everything, the malcontent, I gave the name Edgar. But they were all in the same universe, these people; they were defined by how they spoke, in this heightened language that seemed to ebb and flow and rise and break on itself. The leisure for such language seemed to me to go hand in hand with privilege, Chairman Mao notwithstanding. I had a sense of time that had been bought, accomplishment of the kind our society endorses. So I put them into a dinner party (the habitual means by which
privileged people wait for the next day), I put drinks in their hands, and I wrote the play.
Now, what this account says about my dramaturgy may seem to betray a serious flaw of composition. If the sound came first, the words second, and the names third, do we not have here a defective understanding of what theatre is supposed to do? Apart from the fact that I find among playwrights I admire a tendency of all their characters to speak the same way, I suspect so. Especially if we are talking of the American theatre, in which the presentation of the psychologized ego is so central as to be an article of faith. And that is the point. The idea of character as we normally celebrate it on the American stage is what this play seems to question. I must here confess to a disposition for a theatre of language, in which the contemplation of this man’s fate or that woman’s is illuminated by poetry or philosophical paradox or rhetoric or wit. A theatre of ideas is what has always interested me, plays in which the holding of ideas or the arguing of ideas is a matter of life or death, and characters take the ideas they hold as seriously as survival. All of this is, dramatically speaking, un-American. What is clearly American is the theatre of pathos wherein a story is told about this man or that woman to reveal how sad his or her life is, or how triumphant, or how he or she does not realize fulfillment as a human being, or does realize it, or is trapped in his or her own illusions, or is liberated from them, or fails to learn to communicate love, or learns, or is morally defeated by ethnic or economic circumstances, or is not defeated. Comic or melodramatic, this is the theatre of domestic biography, and I contrast it to any other—classical, absurdist, metaphysical, epic—that avoids its bias of sociological realism.
This theatrical mode has been so exhausted by television and film that I’m astounded it is still thought by playwrights to be useful and interesting. Because presumptions
of form tend to control presumptions of thought, even what is most basic—the solicitation of emotion from an audience—must be questioned if the emotion is no more, finally, than self-congratulatory. Having written this play and seen it through its first production, I understand Brecht’s disavowal of standard theatrical emotion not only as an ideological decision but as a felt abhorrence for what is so cheaply and easily generated. Since the onslaught of television in the late forties, the dramatic mode has swept through all the media; everything is dramatized—news events, the weather, hamburgers. The responsiveness of the media, print or electronic, to every new idea or event or terror is so instantaneous that, as many people have pointed out, experience itself has lost its value, which is to say, life as an experience rather than as a postulate for dramatic statement has begun to disappear from our understanding. Every protest, rage, every critique, is absorbed by our dramatizing machinery and then reissued in appropriate form. The writer confronts not only moral hideousness but the globally efficient self-examination in dramatic terms of that hideousness. Where is wisdom? Everyone has faster hands than the artist. His devices and tricks of the trade have long since been appropriated not only by the media but by the disciplines of social science, whose case studies, personality typing and composite social portraiture are the industrialized forms of storytelling.
What are the presumptions of thought determined by the formal presumptions of this play? As it happens, the corruption of human identity is exactly the preoccupation of the speaker or character (not to be coy) who sets off the action, and whose point of view annoys, frightens and, if I’m right, finally enlightens the others. This is Edgar, whose complaint is with the weak Self that loses its corporeality to the customs and conventions and institutions
of modern life. His dissatisfaction is so immense that he pulls a gun and looks for someone to blame.
But not only Edgar but all of the others too who join him in dispute speak in terms of human numbers, in images of replicating humanity, and of themselves not as individuals but as members of larger classes, and for a good deal of the time, but especially at the beginning of the play, their argument is in the first and third person plural. And when Edgar pulls the gun it turns out that he is crucially unattached to the act: it is the situation that determines what he is doing, the others define him as much as he defines himself, and his own intentions are something he may learn only as they occur—not before. The images of replicating humans are reflected onstage in this one person divided from his subconscious impulses.
So my characters are formal expressions of the basic passion of the play—an imitative fallacy perhaps, but only if you want from the theatre what you’re used to. They seemed to be uniformly well-to-do and reasonably well educated, but they have no domestic biographies to offer, no childhoods to remember, no religion, no regional identification. Only two, Joel and Alan, are given professions. There are no blood relationships except for the parents Joel and Claudette and their two children, but even this is conceptualized as an arbitrary genetic circumstance. Deprived of virtually everything else, these characters can only have their being from their positions in the dialogue. After Edgar proposes that they not have the evening they expect to have, the sides are drawn. His wife Joan is his first antagonist. She is succeeded by Joel and Claudette, who defend the life and attitudes that allow them to give parties and live well. Joel is perhaps less resolute and more foolish than Claudette, and he lacks her bitter fatalism, but he is quite capable of being clever at Edgar’s expense. In Act Two, Joel and Claudette are superseded as antagonists
by Alan, whose capacity for disguising himself as a function of the argument, agreeing or disagreeing with Edgar as tactics demand, gradually betrays him to a cynicism that loses the sympathy of everyone else in the room. For it is Alan who torpedoes the one presumption not questioned by Edgar insofar as he believes in the idea of the end of the world—the theological hope of redemption, of the possibility of something more through suffering and universal purgation.
As for Andrea and Michael, I think of them as the ballast of the play, their weight shifting to one side or the other as the moment demands, Andrea because she is willing to discuss anything, consider anything, in the spirit of self-improvement, or to mediate as one always sensitive to the feelings of others, and Michael, more mysteriously, because he is observant, and curious and thoughtful. I think it is Michael who becomes the most thoroughgoing disciple of Edgar, but for purposes entirely his own.
Drinks Before Dinner
deals in general statements about the most common circumstances of our lives, the numbers of us, the cars we drive, the television we watch, the cities we live in, our contraception and our armaments, and our understanding sense of apocalypse. None of these circumstances are visible onstage except as imagery makes them visible. Instead of a play in which specific biographees suffer experiences that we enlarge upon to reflect our own, instead of a progression from the particular person to the thematic implication, we have a play already in the region of the implicatory when the curtain rises. That is why it is so offensive. It is a play turned inside out. It displays human beings not filled in with the colors and textures of their individual peculiarity, but delineated from the outlines provided by the things that shape them, their technology,
their failing rituals and faltering institutions, their platitudinous ideas and common fears. They are invisible presences, these people, ghosts, shown only as a space in their surroundings. Like Wells’s Invisible Man, they can be seen only when wrapped in bandages.
Since the character of Edgar carries the burden of the argument, he is the center of the play’s offense. Edgar is insufferable. He insists upon talking about what everyone knows. He is not a criminal psychopath, nor is he a revolutionary—two suggestions the others come up with to explain his behavior. He is not a psychopath, because he is fully connected to the realities of his life and is more interested, I suspect, in dramatizing the issues that obsess him, or in sharing his passion, than in killing or taking revenge. (The culmination of his violence occurs only when Alan, a man of power, seems unwilling to accept the moral responsibilities of his office.) And he is not a radical, because he offers no analysis as to why things are as he finds them. He can feel, he can describe, but he cannot explain. What he is, truly, is a person suffering from acute moral revulsion; he is a moral hysteric who has reached the limits of his endurance.