Theater of One

January 29, 2011

Winnie is speaking. Ah yes, she says, if only I could bear to be alone, I mean prattle away without a soul to hear…Is that not so, Willie? Is that not so, Willie, that even words fail, at times?…Oh no doubt the time will come when before I can utter a word I must make sure you heard the one that went before and then no doubt another time will come another time when I must learn to talk to myself a thing I could never bear to do in such wilderness…Is gravity what it was, Willie, I fancy not…I do hope you caught something of that, Willie, I should be sorry to think you caught nothing of all that, it is not every day that I rise to such heights.

Have you seen Happy Days? I took the kids to see it the other night at the Far Cry Community Theater. Winnie is buried up to her belly button in act one. When the curtain opens for act two, she’ll be in it up to her neck. That happens to people, you know. I had a cousin who was buried up to his pituitary gland.  One time at the beach, I fell asleep and the kids covered me with sand and sculpted an enormous monkey over me. At least they said it was a monkey. Guy took a picture and put it in the Dune Reporter. To me, this was no monkey. More like a marmoset.

You know that old joke about the woman who went to see the Shakespeare play and was less than impressed because it was all made up from quotes? When I told the kids we were going to see a play called Happy Days…okay, I could have told them that The Fonze was not in this production, I could have told them this was the Samuel Beckett play, but then they wouldn’t have come. And they did like it. We had a pretty good discussion coming home in the car.

Guy (from the back seat): Is Willie supposed to be Shakespeare?

Doll (next to me in the front.  Again, I have to remind her about the seat belt): Are we really supposed to be listening? I felt like I was eavesdropping.

A parent should be both preceptor and pedagogue.  Doll’s thought is by far the more interesting, but  Guy may be on to something too. A good conversation brings everybody in.

Me: ‘William’ is a common name, Guy, and ‘Winnie’ and ‘Willie’ are sort of empty names, like variables in math, X and Y. You are supposed to attribute value to them, like they are Everyman and Everywoman.

Guy: So I could fill in ‘Shakespeare’, right?

Me: You could. Shakespeare is the great poet of the soliloquy and a soliloquy is…well, go ahead guys, use your smart phones. Who can tell me what soliloquy means?

We sort it out. A soliloquy is different than a monologue. And it’s not quite the same as talking to your self. A little bit of both. We decide it’s like listening to someone talking on a cell phone in the diner. He knows you’re listening, but…

Me: You know, Guy, Willie could be Shakespeare. It could be Beckett’s way telling us how to listen.

Doll: Or Willie could be, like, you know, the audience. A theater of one. It could be Winnie who’s Shakespeare.

A theater of one? Okay, let’s see.  If Winnie is soliloquizing, then she is in the process of revealing her thoughts to us without actually knowing that she is doing so. If she is performing a monologue she is consciously performing something that she wants the audience to understand. But if Willie is the audience, then she is performing a monologue for him and soliloquizing for us.

Guy and Doll (as if struck by the same thought): She and Willie, Dad, they actually are talking to each other.

Me (to my progeny): Sure, sure, guys and dolls, a dialogue. It seems like they are talking to each other. When you talk to someone, you listen, right? Does Winnie really listen to Willie? I don’t think so. Here’s my theory about poetry. (A low groan from the back seat.) I have this theory about poetry, I say. (I study my son in the back seat for a moment. It’s a good thing there is almost no traffic out on the interstate.) I think it applies here, Guy.  It’s this, I say: While there are many good reasons to write poetry, there are precious few reasons to read it. The equation is not balanced. X does not equal Y. The value is in the writing, not the reading. It’s in the making.  You’re talking to yourself. The only reason to read poetry is to help you learn to write poetry. (Vast silence in the car.) It’s what you said, Doll. We’re meant to be overhearing what Winnie is saying. She’s not talking to us directly. She’s not talking to us the way I am talking to you right now. (Okay, perhaps the silence is half vast.) It’s why we have to bring a different kind of attention to poetry. And, you know, I just don’t mean poetry, per se. What Winnie is doing…no, let me change that. What Samuel Beckett is doing is poetry. (Looking around, challenging the audience.) Poetic, anyway. A type of poetry. Dramatizing poetry…

Doll: Really, it’s just rambling. Boring. Why should you want to listen?

Me: Yeah, but you do. That guy with the cell phone. You’re trying to figure out who he’s talking to. And he’s showing off, really, that’s why he’s talking so loud. Performing.

Doll: So poetry is just talking loud, right?

Hum. There is that aspect of it. I say: Poetry may be figuring out who you’re talking to. Who is it that’s in the theater.

Me: Doll, think of it this way. When you say you understand a poem. What are you saying? Like in school, I mean.

Doll: It means, I can write a 500 word essay explaining what it means. The symbols, all that shit.

Me: Watch your tongue, young lady.

Glancing in the back, I notice Guy has fallen asleep. Glancing in the back, I notice a car is tailgating us. There’s room for him to pass if he wants. I speed up a little.

Me (to Doll): But suppose a poem is intended to frustrate our understanding? To try to understand it is to misunderstand it, right?

Now, I’m expecting Doll to say something like: Why would you write something that you didn’t want somebody to understand? I’m ready for that question. Instead she says, “Like in that story by Flannery O’Connor. They’re stopped on the side of the road. He kills them all for no reason. How could you understand that?”

The guy behind me, he’s flashing his brights on and off. I’m not going that slow.

Doll: Like in that poem we read. I Know a Man.

As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking, — John, I

sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what

can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,

drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.

And I do too. The maniac behind comes along side us. Kids. Guaranteed drunk. He swerves, cutting us off. I rumble over onto the shoulder, skid, start to slide, slow down, keep control of the car.Phew. Same thing happened to my cousin, except he hit a tree. He was in a body cast for two months. Shattered his spine. Then he died. Thank God Doll saw him coming.

I stop the car. We sit there a few minutes. Guy is still asleep. Amazing. The kid can sleep through anything.

Doll: You okay Dad?

Yeah, I say. I’m okay. That was scary. I say, it’s a good thing you warned me, Doll, that was close. How did you know he was going to swerve like that?

Doll: We had to memorize it for school. Mr. Robbins made everybody pick a poem. I took it because it’s short. For Christ’s sake look out where you’re going. That’s how the poem ends.

Me: That’s the poem?

Doll: Yeah. For Christ’s sake…

It was very dark out on the interstate. Is gravity what it was, Willie, I fancy not.

Doll: Shall we go?

Me: Yes, let’s go.

They do not move.

For Christ sakes.

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5 Responses to “Theater of One”

  1. John Stevens Says:

    So, the poet is like Winnie, hoping that there’s a Willie out there but not counting on him listening. I fear that holds true rather often for much 20th century poetry – but didn’t poets do a hell of lot better in earlier centuries? May we assume listeners gathered around the camp fire, the medieval table, the Victorian hearth? If so, perhaps the 21st century could get back to that. Or am I being too sentimental?!

  2. extrasimile Says:

    Yes, you are being too sentimental. To be sitting around the campfire reciting poems of yore…no, John…I don’t think so. That quote of Einstein’s—I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones—seems appropriate to mention here. A cataclysmic collapse of civilization may happen, and we may be huddled for warmth some where some day, but I don’t think poetry will find a role in this collapse. I think I was concerned here more with the voice of the narrator—heavily borrowed from the voice that Raymond Carver/ Gordon Lish perfected in such stories as What we Talk about when we talk about Love—a smaller collapse, but still an important one—and butting it up against Beckett’s theater piece (another collapse) and Creeley’s poem (still another?)…but perhaps I am being too sentimental as well?
    By the way, you might want to look at http://bebrowed.wordpress.com/ We share concerns.
    Take care.

  3. John Stevens Says:

    Thanks for the suggestion. I followed the link and have been reading a discussion of the place of rhyme, which interests me particularly at the moment.

  4. missmagdalene Says:

    I saw a great production of Happy Days last year, but this is by far the most interesting discussion of the play that I’ve read! Beckett and Carver, what a great marriage. I imagine they could find a kind of – well maybe not happiness exactly – but they might share a lovely kind of wry, fast-talking silence together.

  5. extrasimile Says:

    Happy Days has always been one of my favorite Beckett plays. And Beckett continues to grow in my mind. I do think, though, that Beckett is at his best in his novels and non-theatrical work. Have you read Molloy? It’s really an extraordinary work. That’s for checking out my blog. I’ll look in on yours once in a while. Jim.


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