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Uncovering Illusion in the Work of Bruce Norris

by Marti Lyons, Literary Apprentice

A Parallelogram is something of a departure for playwright Bruce Norris. For audience members encountering his work for the first time, a comparison with two earlier plays may help to illuminate this one; for audiences who saw Steppenwolf’s productions of The Pain and the Itch (2005) and The Unmentionables (2006), this article provides a useful recollection. It’s almost as if Norris’s earlier plays are a call and A Parallelogram is the response. The questions in this play might even be read as counter-points to those of The Pain and the Itch and The Unmentionables. Here, Norris seems to ask: what do we do after we know the truth about ourselves? If we rid ourselves of all self-deception, how well can we function in the world? Is some self-protective illusion useful? The Pain and the Itch and The Unmentionables, by contrast, involve characters who are involved with the struggle to find the truth in the first place - about themselves and their lives. If you saw either production, you probably wouldn’t associate Norris’s devastating satire with the popular 1970s TV series Columbo, starring Peter Falk clad in a dingy raincoat, or any other serial TV detective show. Yet, in an interview given for this program, Norris counts the detective drama among his artistic influences: “My father was a big fan of the TV show Columbo. He liked it because they paid attention to what the audience was watching. There were clues scattered about and if you could add up the clues you could figure out what was going on with Columbo.” Indeed, when you take a second look, the comparison between the TV series and Norris’s work is apt. Although the acerbic tone of The Pain and the Itch and The Unmentionables bears little in common with the adventures of Columbo’s detective, both of Norris’s earlier plays contain mysteries at their core, and each is propelled by that genre’s inexorable drive to uncover the truth. In classic mystery style, riddles multiply over the course of both plays. In The Pain and the Itch, these include: has four year-old Kayla been the victim of sexual abuse? Is the family’s maid trustworthy or a thief? What creature has been secretly gnawing on the family’s food? The Unmentionables also contains mysteries: who is responsible for the recent fire-bombing of a missionary school? Is the actress-turned-school teacher Jane genuinely ill? What happened to Dave, the missionary in charge of the school? Was his disappearance the result of foul play? Anxiety over these unanswered questions builds throughout both plays, and we know our evening will not end until the truth is uncovered. While detectives like Columbo are motivated by a passionate desire to uncover the truth about others, Norris’s characters hunt for culprits to avoid facing painful truths about themselves. In The Pain and the Itch, Clay accuses the family’s innocent maid of abusing his daughter; we later realize this comes from his own desperate need to deny the failure of his marriage. In The Unmentionables, Dave interrogates Jane relentlessly about the legitimacy of her illness—later we realize his aggressiveness is born out of fear about the truth of his own sexuality. Despite the search for scapegoats, Norris’s “detectives” are ultimately forced to acknowledge their own hypocrisies. As their self-deceptions are shattered, these characters must acknowledge that their justifications for their behaviors are just that—justifications. They are forced to abandon their romantic self-images and recognize the truth, as related succinctly by one character: “See, they feel bad because what they practice doesn’t square with what they preach. Which makes them every bit as bad as the materialistic barbarians they despise! And you want to say to these people: 'Hey, you don’t have to change what you practice. That’s way too hard. Just change what you fucking preach.'” (Cash, from The Pain and the Itch) The way these characters view themselves is disconnected from the way in which they live their lives. In the search for a scapegoat, Norris’s characters first try to condemn other people and finally come to painful self-knowledge. Despite the associated pain that comes with self-knowledge, we are left with the strong sense that coming out of self-deception offers the characters the opportunity to begin more authentic lives. A Parallelogram represents for Norris a departure from the satiric indictments of these earlier works. In a way, this play picks up where the others left off: Bee’s depressed lethargy at the beginning of A Parallelogram mirrors Clay and Jane’s exhaustion. Before the play begins, Bee has discovered that some of her life’s aspirations are no longer possible and has yet to find a self-narrative to replace them. To make matters worse, the character of Bee 2 quickly shoots down any attempt to create an optimistic vision of her future. At the beginning of the play, we have at least a partial version of the understanding that only emerges at the end of the earlier plays and the result seems to be paralysis. In The Unmentionables and The Pain and the Itch, we learn the dangers of self-protective illusions. A Parallelogram seems to explore the dangers of life without them.