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Sunday, December 27, 2020

Ehhhhh...Marty...Ya gotta be careful...



Some years back my wife, Maura, and I were hit by lightning.

Yes, at the same time. We do many things together.

I'm writing about this now because by random conversational chance, three different people somehow managed to trigger mention of it.

2010. Tadoussac, Quebec. At the junction of the St. Lawrence and the Saguenay Rivers. It was a lovely day, with lots of sunshine and a bright blue sky.

[SFX: Portentous double note—da-dummmm]

We decided to go for a walk on the mile-long horseshoe-shaped beach. Imagine the horseshoe standing on its curved end, open end facing upwards. Entrance is at the top right end of the horseshoe. At the other end, that is top left, is a rock outcropping about sixty feet high that, should it be scaled, would leave us a quarter-mile from our friend’s cottage. Not that we were actually planning to scale it. I was 51 at the time and under the impression that I could still perform feats of youthful physical prowess and I had been a rock climber, so this relatively mild slope prompted no second thoughts.

Maura and I strolled along, letting our bio-energies meld with the bucolic rhythm of the gently lapping waves. We absorbed and reveled in the Joys of Nature.

I don't like Nature. Some of it is indeed wonderful to experience (like on a wide screen from inside a hotel bar), but by and large it is a coordinated force meant to shorten lifespans in the service of creating sustenance for other lifespans. The words “nasty, brutish, and short,” sum up those natural lifespans nicely. Thank you, Mutual of Omaha, Nature Channel, and David Attenborough.

But we had time to kill that day, so hey.

[SFX: Portentous double note—da-dummmm]

As we took our afternoon constitutional, perambulating betwixt the scores of bay-washed rocks that dotted the shore, we noticed off to the east (over the right hand of the horseshoe), very far off, ominous-looking clouds and distant blips of lightning. As the weird weather was clearly many miles away, we took no care and continued to promenade farther from the solitary entrance—and egress—of the beach.

We arrived at the “upper left” end of the beach, faced by the moderately-sloped promontory.

However . . .

[SFX: Portentous double note, with noticeably deeper tone—da-dummmm]

Looking up as we felt a chill, we saw that the once-far-off storm had now nearly caught up with us. How it had managed to cross miles of air in so narrow a window of time was a bit of a shock. I'm convinced it had a Stupid Humans radar and had locked onto us.

As there was lightning involved, we faced a choice: try to dash back to the steps leading up to the road, a dash of approximately a half-mile on sand, or scale the aforementioned doesn't-look-bad-to-me-and-will-get-us-out-of-harm's-way-much-sooner rocky slope right in front of us.

We began to scale the now-somewhat-more-vertical rocky slope.

The climb started off quite well. The rock was gritty and grippy, great for fingerpads to find frictioned purchase. We had ascended about twenty-five feet when the rain hit.

When I say “hit” I mean “slammed with extreme prejudice.” This rain was tropical, or should I say biblical in force. Biblical in the sense that all of Noah's animals would have drowned waiting to board the ark. Millions of gallons of water pummeled us.

Which made it hugely difficult to continue upwards. The rock was now like Teflon, slippery and frictionless. All holds had to be cracks or edges. Which would have been okay, had the edges and cracks been just rock, but nature abhors a vacuum, and if there's a place for weeds and micro-bushes to set up shop, they'll do it. Which made it twice as slippery.

Looking behind us, we realized that downclimbing would almost surely guarantee multiple injuries. It was safer to struggle onwards. Which we did.

It was excruciatingly slow going. And the lightning hadn't stopped. We saw it out of the corner of our eyes, working its inexorable way towards us.

Maura’s glasses were knocked off and bounced merrily down the rock slope to the beach below.

We were completely and utterly soaked and at the mercy of the deluge, which had in no way lessened. Did I forget to mention I was carrying my backpack, which had my brand-spanking-new Macbook in it? Sorry.

We’d made it to the two-thirds mark. We could see just up over the next curve the tops of the trees at the edge of the woods. If we could make it there, we would be safe.

Checking in with each other every six inches: Can you make this?

Yes. Let's go.

We've all seen lovely bolts of lightning streak down from the skies, the intense flashes dramatically stitching through the night sky. Oohs and ahhs abound.

Seeing one erupt from the rock inches in front of you is an altogether different matter. It's a two-foot wide column of electrons, whiter than you could ever possibly imagine, as eyeball-searing as Dante's pinnacle of Paradise, tinged with what Terry Pratchett called the eighth color, octarine.

And the sound? Hearing it erupt like a small nuke from a quarter mile away as you sit in your porch-bound rocker is exciting. Picture being inside that thunderclap.

Because we were climbing on all fours, the electricity shot up through our bodies via our arms and legs. If you have never been eloctrocuted, take my word for it that it's a sensation you don't want to experience. Ride the roller coaster till you puke if you must seek extreme adventure, but avoid the "Electro-Cliff."

They say time slows in extreme situations. For me, time became glacial and I was stunned by the number of things that registered in my brain in that micro-second:

I was aware of the massive surge of electricity as it shot completely around me. I had newfound respect for Doc Brown and his 21 gigawatts of electricity.

I was aware that it forced me up off the rock.

I was aware that I was now airborne.

I was aware that I was flying backwards.

I was aware that movement along the X-axis made the inevitable distance down the Y-axis much greater.

I remember thinking “Great. I'm gonna die in Canada.”

I hoped that my $3500 Macbook Pro, which was resting inside my now-sodden backpack, might help cushion my landing.

I struck rock and amazingly, did not roll anywhere.

I was aware that I was aware that I had struck the rock, which meant that I was still in command of my senses. Which meant I still had brain function and a pulse.

I opened my eyes and, as my pupils began to open, the lightning flash having closed them tighter than a guppy's asshole during shark week, I saw Maura six feet away saw her stunned look turned up to eleven.

The next thirty seconds were graced by my bellowed repertoire of every known (and a few made up on the spot) synonym for “Holy fucking shit.”

What mattered first was we were both still alive. What mattered second was getting the hell outta there. I was not gonna wait for Zeus to find his spectacles.

Upwards didn't look so good anymore. Rushed discussion resulted in our deciding to take what seemed an easier downclimb. Took us another fifteen minutes—still through the never-weakening downpour of every atom of water in the world--to negotiate the route. Problem was the downclimb caused us end up in the bay. We thought “Water...Lightning...Hmm.” Still, it was the avenue of least serious rock-induced physical injury.

We lowered ourselves into the water, which reached up to my nipples, and waded. I carried my knapsack with what contained my undoubtedly ruined $3500 Macbook Pro over my head and we eventually made it to the beach. Now all that was left was the half-mile to the exit stairs.

Which was okay, we thought, because now the rain had nearly stopped. And the overhanging trees on this side of the beach sheltered us. At least they did up to the halfway point, and we faced wide open ground for the second quarter mile ahead. Then the stairs. And across the road. Then across the fifty-meter wide hotel front lawn.

And lo and behold the rain, realizing we were once again without any kind of protection, ate itself a can of spinach and started up again.

Ready? I asked.

Shut up and run, she replied over her shoulder as she sped away.

We sprinted as well as two completely out-of-shape people of a certain age could. I am forever grateful there was no video of that humiliating penguin-like hyper-waddle. Then suddenly we were at the stairs, feet squelching up the wooden treads.

And the rain, seeing us near the end of our journey through Hell's nine swimming pools, inhaled deeply and blew out a last-ditch frenzied barrage.

We tore ass (squelching like overweight ducks) across the 50-yard lawn of the hotel.

We shoved aside the under-the-porch storm gawkers and made it inside the lobby. I immediately collapsed to the floor, completely exhausted.

And therein lies another of life's strange juxtapositions. The lobby was half-full of relaxed folks having coffees, beers, lunches. Talking jovially, not a care in the world. All of them as dry as cardboard in the Sahara.

And the two of us were each doubled in weight due to our clothes being as full of water as a well simmered risotto. And realizing “Holy shit we just got hit by lightning and did not fucking die.”

We begged a ride home and after a shower (Really? Yes, really!) spent the rest of the day and evening heavily medicated. Heavily. I ate three brownies.

Addendum #1: the Macbook Pro actually made it trough the ordeal unscathed. I recommend with unchecked assurance that the $50 or however much Apple charges for a zippered neoprene slip-case is well worth it.

Addendum #2: Afterwards I became somewhat obsessed with the behavior, dynamics, and mechanics of lightning. It seemed a miracle (and make no mistake, it was) that we survived. Because that bolt of lightning was less than two feet from us and we both felt the electrons cover our bodies. 21 gigawatts (or whatever) of instant, no begging or argument tolerated, one hundred percent cosmic fricasee. The secret of surviving this, as far as I can discern? Being as wet as possible. Days of internet searches led me to a widely respected scientific website specifically dedicated to lightning research where I witnessed a rather professional-quality video wherein which pieces of wood, both wet and dry, were subjected to precisely calculated electrical bombardment. The wood that had been soaked for hours came out nearly unscathed. The electric shock (and this is why that scene in The Green Mile is so painful to watch) was conducted around the wood itself--and our bodies--by the water. A natural conductor of electrons, water served as a fast lane for electrical charges.

Dry wood? Sorry, Charlie. With nowhere else to go, the electrons passed through the wood itself and vaporized it into toothpicks and powder.

Take-away lesson? Avoid Canadian beaches. 

Monday, August 3, 2020

One Government Department That (Literally) Pulls Its Weight



I worked for the United States Postal Service for five years, as a substitute rural route carrier. During that time my colleagues and I sorted many hundreds of thousands of pieces of mail and delivered six days out of seven. I drove a little “tin box” rural postal truck, sometimes on icy or snowy roads of all grades. We delivered in the dark, in the rain, and yes, fulfilled the mandate we've all heard before: "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."

Sounds corny, right? It isn't. It's true—every word.

An easy day for one of my routes consisted of me arriving at 6:30 a.m. to my cage. The cage is a four-foot by four-foot three-sided system of shelves starting at waist height and divided up into hundreds of small vertical slots, one for every mailbox. My last route (an average one; some were easier and some had way more addresses) had 509 individual boxes. That meant 509 slots in my cage. 

I’d sort magazines first. They come in plastic-wrapped bundles, sometimes up to twenty bundles a day, each bundle containing anywhere from 10 to 50 magazines. These I’d “taco”—fold them like a horseshoe, open end up. Successive magazines for each address are inserted into the first magazines likewise. Then comes the first class mail: trays of letter-sized mail, sorted by address and route progression. The letters are arranged to follow the prescribed driving route, so sorting them is easy. 

Then come the packages—everything from small plastic envelopes to boxes that can fit in your pocket to shoebox-size boxes to appliances  the size of a small human being. The loads vary daily.

Then we “pull” the mail, several addresses at a time, rubber band them, and arrange them into trays in order of delivery.

This part of the job took me two-and-a-half to four hours (of course, every route is different and every day varies).

Then your postal carriers load all the mail and all the packages into our trucks and move out. Without mishaps and depending on weather and traffic condition, a delivery route in my district takes three to five hours.

But we are not paid by the hour. Every route is gauged by number of addresses/boxes and amount of mail. My last route, with 509 boxes, put 47.5 miles on the tin box; some algorithm determined that sorting and delivery on this route should take an average of 7.17 hours per day. I’d earlier had another route that almost doubled that number of boxes, and another that stretched for 80 miles including many unpaved, steep, winding hills with houses a mile or more apart. The alloted time for that route was 8.4 hours. 

Carriers are expected to fulfill our job obligations in the time allotted. If we do, great. If we don’t, we don’t get paid for the extra time. But we are required to deliver every single piece of mail every day.

Working conditions at my post offices were above average. Two of my favorite bosses were the postmasters for the smaller offices I worked for in Spencer/Van Etten and Brooktondale, both in central New York State. These bosses were fair, helpful, reasonable, and understood the challenges we faced. Their support for employees was exemplary. Both were women, by the way.

Good carriers who have worked their route for some time get to know the people on their routes. Change-of-address forms let them know when cousin Betty has come to live with Ed and Nancy, so they add her name to their list. They also know when Doris and Wilbur have separated and Wilbur’s mail now gets delivered across town to 113 Doghouse Lane. We know who picks up their mail every day and who lets it sit for weeks. We also know which boxes really need repair. We know where each household wants its packages placed. We know who is disabled and needs extra effort to be able to get their meds when delivered. We know who has dogs, too. I've never been bothered by dogs. Most often they were the highlights of my route. Having three Saint Bernards at one address run up to tell me they loved me every day was a joy.

Most of my days on the job were made for driving country roads; when it was sunny and warm, or even cloudy and brisk, it was a pleasure just to be outside. I loved it, and generally couldn't wait to get the truck on those country roads, and I still miss it.

The winter holiday season, however, was an absolute nightmare. That’s a given for U.S.P.S. employees, especially in the northern part of the country. The cold was the least of the worries; most trucks had great heaters. Mail carriers drive with the large window down for nearly all of the ride. Bad weather, and I mean anything more than mild precipitation, was enough of a challenge. People who live in snow belts know how difficult slushy and icy roads can be. We spend a lot of time gauging the road conditions, trying not to slide off the road itself and simply make it through the day without an incident. 

But between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, the amount of first class mail doubles (at least) and  packages triple (at least). Plus, daylight is gone by 4:00 p.m., meaning we drive and deliver the last part of our routes in the dark. But people need their packages and mail! Every carrier I have ever worked with made sure that their routes were done without fail. For most it’s a matter of personal pride.

And yet, rarely did I hear a complaint from my co-workers. Everyone just buckled down and got the job done. Every single day. Based on weather and road conditions, if we judged that the delivery to a certain box was too risky, we’d skip that box and deliver the mail at the next accessible opportunity. We’re dedicated but not suicidal.

And we do this nearly every day of the year. And for some of us—the substitutes--it is nearly every day of the year, because that includes Sundays, when our trucks are filled with Amazon packages—and nothing else. Those get delivered on Sunday, according to contract. I had an average of 110 packages every Sunday. 100-plus stops. I worked nearly every Sunday, making my work week most often seven days a week.

The Post Office gets it done, every single day, and better than any other package carrier.

The Post Office has historically been run very well, supporting itself without benefit of public funds. It made its own money via its simple and highly effective business model. Your tax dollars may go to many places...police, fire, senatorial junkets to Monte Carlo, but the only way you've ever supported the Post Office was by buying postage.

And now the Trump government wants to destroy the United States Postal Service by denying it the funds it needs to keep itself going. Think about that. The Post Office has been around longer than the United States—for nearly three-and-a-half centuries, since 1672. Back then they delivered stamp-less letters. Today, for half a dollar your letter will go anywhere in the United States. 

Allow me to quote Wikipedia (italics and boldface mine): “The United States Postal Service employs 633,188 workers, making it the third-largest civilian employer in the United States behind the federal government and Walmart. In a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision, the Court noted: "Each day, according to the Government's submissions here, the United States Postal Service delivers some 660 million pieces of mail to as many as 142 million delivery points." As of 2017, the USPS operates 30,825 post offices and locations in the U.S., and delivers 149.5 billion pieces of mail annually.

If you want to support a worthwhile institution and do something for your country, buy stamps. Skip those other high-priced delivery services and send things by the Post Office. Finding an efficiently  working governmental office is not easy; this remarkable one is a tradition we cannot afford to lose.

Trump is trying to destroy the United States Postal Service for at least two reasons: to privatize it and turn it over to his robber baron buddies to run so they can squeeze out more profits for themselves. And also—and most importantly—to keep voting by mail from becoming a regular and viable method of vote-casting. Trump and his ilk would like nothing better than to see the democratic voting process crippled, or at least manipulated to their best interests. In this administration nothing is sacred and everything is up for sale. If there's a way to make a buck on parts of the near-corpse of the U.S., they'll try to sell it. We cannot let this happen.

Two things you can do to help the post office, easy as anything--SIGN THESE PETITIONS:
and

And share these address with your friends!!

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

#THEATREWILLSURVIVE


COVID-19 and social distancing requirements have closed most theatres. Tragically, some will stay closed permanently. Some theatres will recover. But these lucky ones may reawaken to a new normal.
We already have many questions about how theatre, if it (a) does, as a profession, manage to hang on and its people produce live shows as they have for millennia, and (b) how they will actually accomplish that.
I've recently sat in on several discussions among professionals about how theatre artists will continue to ply their trades. No one seems to have a clue how it will all pan out. I don't really expect them to know. I don't have much of a clue either, FWIW. But I do have some thoughts.
The answer to everyone's big question: Yes, of course, theatre will continue. Because for a couple of thousand years so far, despite pre-COVID-19 pandemics, innumerable wars, catastrophic natural disasters, and The Lion King, nothing has managed to kill it.
Theatre always emerges stronger, as it will in this case, because it now has thousands of new and important human stories to tell. As Jeff Goldblum would have said in the sadly-never-filmed Jurassic Mamet, “Theatre life finds a fucking way.”
Not only will it survive, it will flourish--undoubtedly and indubitably. Because we humans need and cannot do without the thousands of personal stories told to us by friends, relatives, and live performers. Patti Digh, in her book “Four-Word Self-Help: Simple Wisdom for Complex Lives,” wrote: “The shortest distance between two people is a story.” Theatre is really just dressing up these stories and letting only your close friends play the parts.
Nothing can replace live storytelling, and nothing ever will.
But how will it survive? In what form? Are the days of too-small seats and surreptitious elbow-angling for joint armrests over?
At least for now, yes.
What will theatre in the days of social distancing and viral contamination look like?
Some theatres have already had the foresight (and hefty budget) to embrace “The Tech” and this is a three-pronged benefit:
• It satisfies the inevitable requests to provide opportunities for folks to view a production they missed when it was originally presented.
• Theatrical archives are eminently useful for later analyses of script, acting, and technique.
• It lets people see plays not available in their own area.
Live performances by virus-free actors and crew will be streamed. Computer and personal devices, which most of the people in the theatre-available world have, can act as both senders and receivers. Just imagine Facetime-ing The Vagina Monologues. The Tech has already bridged the gap between our massive geographical distances; people thousands of miles away are now at arm’s length.
I posit that, because of the ease of viewing (and as long as prices are affordable, if not free), theatre audiences will undoubtedly increase.
For years now, podcasts (including my own, Onstage/Offstage [onstageoffstage.org], in which we showcase the work of artists and technicians from virtually all theatre professions) have been broadcasting audio versions of plays. Now we have easy video in the form of Zoom and similar apps, all publicly available and all relatively simple to learn and use. It's very much like what Garage Band and Pro Tools did for the music industry--they put the tools in the hands of amateurs.
We have to stop looking at this as “what we no longer have,” and start looking at it as “these are the tools we now have.” Think about it: Good plays are all about unbalancing the status quo. Evolution works the same way. Stability is good, but it has always been temporary. Without periodic apple-cart-toppling, humans would rarely change their perspectives.
Granted, we now have Zoom, a communication boon. But how long will our play performances resemble Hollywood Squares or the TV intro to The Brady Bunch? At the moment the medium is what it is, and we have to adapt our profession to it and create specifically for it. But, as with all technological progress, our needs will dictate the changes to come.
I believe The Tech will provide, at first with viable alternatives for our previous practices while concurrently expanding our production choices. What will we ask for in future upgrades? Will we still Zoom on actual hand-built sets or situation-specific virtual backgrounds--modern-day digital cycloramas? How will The Tech handle lighting? Sound? Will it do it all in “post,” that is in the computer? Will it, if this virus throws us new curves, allow us to represent live actors with avatars or computer-generated figures? Will COVID-19 turn us into Pixar? Will we soon have “Zoom for Theatre”?
I'm a playwright, and I know that if all theatres were suddenly converted to Taco Bells I'd still keep writing, and so would many of my colleagues. Because this is what we do. And we’ve done it on street corners, storefronts, and outdoor malls. We are specifically built to tell stories destined for live, immediate performance. And we will undoubtedly find a way to produce them.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Go, Teem!


There are millions of words teeming around
in my nether-wherevers,
all jockeying for position to get onto the next page.

They don't always follow a strict kind of order;
some gone and have jumped ahead;
some never made it in time and then
I have to go
back inside
looking for them.

For the most part, though, they are generously cooperative.
But not all.

Some words make me change the ones that came before.
Some words that got the good seats first make me abandon the ones I thought would come later.

Some words lead me to a place I have not thought of yet.
Sentences to nowhere.
Sometimes I have to wait for a long time to see the words that come and finish the trip.
Other times I have to thank them for their effort, and wipe them clean.

They teem noisily, btw.
Banging into each other.
Some are very rude.
Some of the rude ones elbow the rest aside and barge onto the page.
Many times, the ones that come later make them move out.
You were just using me,” the rude ones accuse as they exit.

I nod because they are right.

Still I sit, unmoved by their complaints, and wait impatiently for the next spill.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Thoughts on a Hopeful Future.


In the happenstance that we somehow manage to survive this administration's blatant attacks on the people of the United States, let’s ponder a few changes we might make to the system to prevent a reoccurrence of this travesty.
1)  Require all presidential candidates to have a thorough knowledge of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. It is important that each candidate who proposes to lead the country should have extensive knowledge of its rules and operating system.
I further propose that each candidate be publicly scored on their knowledge through a candidate-wide series of Jeopardy-like competitions in which selected candidates (drawn by random chance to compete in each episode against each other) face a series of questions, both theoretical and practical, on all issues in both documents. The sheer gladiator-like, deer-in-the-headlights spectacle of this competition should achieve legitimacy by entertaining the masses while giving an equal playing field to people from any profession or background.
2)  Have all candidates face a thorough and publicly available background check to determine their moral fitness to stand as POTUS. Again, to weed out individuals with a public track record of sexual abuse, human rights abuses, racial discrimination, warmongering, or other established criminal actions or humanitarian “indiscretions.”
3)  Same as above, but for financial integrity. Have their financial backgrounds examined for corporate or investor malfeasance and possible criminal activity. It is important that POTUSes prove that they behave legitimately and honestly.
4)  Award extra points (akin to college and university scorings for volunteer work) for:
i)    Time, effort, and projects initiated and fulfilled in helping those less fortunate. If a POTUS likes to talk about making our country strong, let's see how they have already worked towards that goal. A strong country has a strong citizenry, meaning its residents have access to jobs, living wages, civic financial support such as unemployment, affordable and universally available—medical care.
ii)  Demonstrated efforts to strengthen, expand, and make available to all the educational system.
iii) Substantial time spent among cultures other than the United States, or at least in communities made up of significant numbers of non–white/ male/ wealthy/ Christian/ heterosexual/ sheltered people. A good POTUS should have a knowledgeable and thorough worldview, with experience outside these privileged spaces, with workers, immigrants, the poor, and those suffering from environmental and social injustice.
If a candidate proposes to stand as POTUS, let's hold them to a much higher standard that the rest of us. POTUS is arguably the most important position in the United States government, with ramifications that affect hundreds of millions, both at home and around the globe, and as such each candidate must demonstrate an exceptionally high level of moral, financial, and personal integrity.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Not for nothing, but...


...You will fail. You will fail a thousand times. Some of these failures will be astonishingly acute. You'll watch your colleagues achieve great successes and you'll feel inadequate, out of the loop. Not one of the cool kids.

But your few successes will be worth both the thousands of dedicated hours spent bringing your visions into tangibility and the disappointments of those awaited emails that say nothing but, Sorry kid, we had this many submissions taken in and we thought a bunch were more worthy than yours. And when these e-notices come from friends, they sting a bit more.

Fact is you will, in all likelihood, not win nearly as many times as you think you should. Your belief in your own work is your greatest strength and your Achilles' Heel; it will keep you afloat during the Dark Ages and serve to highpoint the bee stings that plague your inbox. Your work will take hundreds of hours and miles of internal digging to bring to the surface—if it's to be any good at all. This comes with a mighty cost. But no matter how good it is—intrinsically--someone will not feel it appropriate for their own purposes. This is not you; this is simply bad chemistry.

(And here's the rub: even if your work does“suck”--whatever that means—somebody, somewhere will take a shine to it. Seriously: how much self-indulgent twaddle have you seen sponsors' dollars invested in that the rest of the audience simply adores?)

The hard part is that you have two choices: persist or change your road. Changing one's road means deciding that you're best served in another medium where the possibility of success has lower odds. That's a very hard decision, especially with the time and heart already invested. 

But maybe you do have that other ability within you that needs to be explored. We are annoyingly (and maybe overly-) complex creatures, and many times, like in our writing, we need to head west-by-southwest to crank out those six pages that lead us to that One Glorious True North Beat.

Only fellow artists will truly understand your existential pit of despair. In that, at least, you are not alone.

My own plan is simple: have my somewhat voluble yet momentary pity party, then take up my shovel and continue scraping away at the stony Earth, and to completely mix up metaphors, gallop full speed with head down, ears back, heading straight for Masterpiece Barn.


Sunday, February 23, 2020

They Talk Lots Funnier in Comedies





One of the critical elements of both farce and satire is the use of pseudo-naturalistic dialogue--dialogue that sounds completely apropos for the specific world in which the play is created, but specifically designed to remind the audience that the action on stage is in the realm of the absurd. A classic example of this is Ben Elton’s comedic dark tragedy Gasping. Gasping uses this device extensively to bring hilarity to what is essentially a morality tale about the end of the world.

Gasping’s story follows a supreme corporate toady, Philip, as he slimes his way up the corporate ladder. Much like corporate sycophants everywhere who only look at the next quarterly earnings, Philip never stops to consider the ramifications of his brilliant new idea: selling recycled/ processed oxygen. His “designer air” campaign takes off like a moon shot and soon everyone who can afford it is buying into the idea of breathing air that has been sucked from exotic locations. 

Designer air (not "cleaned" air) is of course an absurd concept, but something that is totally believable because someone is always coming out with some bit of psychotic nonsense, selling it to an unsuspecting, uninformed, and distracted public. But what starts out as a silly idea quickly turns into a disaster of global proportions.
Elton’s way of keeping this terra-ble death spiral comedic is to load the dialogue with absurdist speeches, mainly between Philip and his boss, the Chief. At first it is a fairly benign element, coaxing the audience into the tone of the play:
Philip: Our corporate hemline is showing plenty of thigh. If this keeps up we’re going to have to move into a very much bigger pair of corporate trousers. Possibly Switzerland.
As the play progresses, becoming more and more alarmist, Elton keeps the dialogue coming swiftly, loaded with scathing social commentary:
Philip: Wine glasses the size of buckets…portions so small you think you’ve got a dirty plate and it turns out to be your main course…the very best in executive dining....His muesli is so coarse it could prize open the buttocks of a concrete elephant.

Philip’s love interest, Kirsten, is another character who has no concept of social responsibility. Her interest is purely what other people see in her; she rails against a dinner guest who she claims has over-breathed her specially obtained air one night:
Kirsten: I’m sure he could discipline himself to take smaller breaths, I mean it’s just rude, it’s not as if the stuff just grows on trees. I was blowing some really terrific stuff tonight, Sicilian sucked on the north face of Mount Etna, completely wasted on him, of course.

The company has managed to buy the rights for local and foreign areas of oxygen farming, claiming rights to the gas, then selling it back to the local residents, forcing everyone to buy in. (Exactly like what some actual companies are doing with our water supplies as we speak.) In both the Chief and Kirsten’s minds it’s just good business; in fact they are Elton’s (and society’s) worst nightmare, people who have no social conscience whatsoever and are only interested in profits and prestige.

What eventually happens is that competition arises from other firms and everyone is forced to harvest all the oxygen they can. Soon all of the Earth’s oxygen has been appropriated and millions begin to suffocate, unable to pay the price to breathe. On the corporate level, only Philip seems to be aware of it. The Chief explains the situation and Elton’s thrust of the play in one speech:
Chief: Have you any idea how much grain was destroyed in the eighties? While people starved, how much milk was poured away while babies screamed with want? Nobody likes it Philip, but you can’t just give the stuff away; that way lies financial anarchy.

This speech is so exactly where Elton wants the play to be: deep within the horribly absurd (for those with a social conscience, of course) and thereby darkly comedic because of the unthinkable concept of such a situation. Elton makes use of a real event, the destruction of surplus milk and grain by mega-companies in the 1980s, directly in the face of hunger and starvation, merely for the all-consuming sake of monetary profit. In the end when everyone faces death and the world is entirely without oxygen, Philip decides his only move left is to kill the Chief. Just before they both suffocate:
Chief: …you’re going to realize what a hugely detrimental career decision it is to try and kill your employer.
Philip: It wasn’t made lightly, Chief, and I was so unsure I nearly rang my accountant.

Both men are acutely aware of the colossal destruction, the irreversible tragedy that is claiming all oxygen-breathing life on Earth, and they still cannot think outside their corporate box. It is only Elton's use of absurdist humor is that makes this nightmarish play palatable.