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Overthinking the Play

by Polly Carl, Director of Artistic Development

Theater is a series of ongoing interpretations. The playwright, director, dramaturg, designers and actors come together in a collaborative process seeking a multitude of possibilities for the presentation of a play. At some point, in order to bring in the audience, the play freezes - the script is finalized, the set is built, the sound and lights are programmed and the actors find their rhythm. But the possible meanings of the play go on in post-show discussions, drinks after the play and late night pillow talk. My hope is to provide some heat to your conversations when you leave the theater - to thaw what we’ve temporarily frozen and invite you to collaborate in making meaning and theater with us. In the dead zone between the NFL playoffs and college basketball’s March Madness, I try to catch up on all of the popular culture I’ve missed or overlooked. So recently I watched three seasons of the AMC television series Mad Men in just over two weeks. Mad Men begins in 1960, just three years after the premiere of Beckett’s Endgame. One of the best parts of Mad Men is how it reminds us of some of the very first television ad campaign - airlines, underwear and the Kodak Carousel Slide Projector. The confluence of television and the rise of the ad offices on Madison Avenue is a powerful reminder of a point of origin where we see projected multiple incentives to materialism. The ad campaigns capture the momentum of of a new technological age, and the sense that time is moving faster and life is getting more exciting - an excitement we can buy. Post-World War II philosophy, however, is filled with a sense of the meaninglessness of the capitalist engine. In the face of the reality of the Atomic Bomb and possibility of the end of time, meaning is elusive. In Mad Men, with its alluring portrayal of smoking and drinking and buying, we are presented with an alternative to the rising nihilistic impulse of the era. Or are we? I argue that in some strange way Endgame and the Mad Men of Madison Avenue as depicted in 2010 are the flip side of the same coin. The nothingness in Endgame is juxtaposed with the excesses of Mad Men and in both cases the notion that meaning exists is up for grabs. One of my favorite philosophers, Theodor Adorno, says of Endgame: “Beckett, as educated as anyone presents the bill: philosophy or spirit itself, proclaims its bankruptcy as the dreamlike dross of the experiential world, and the poetic process shows itself as worn out.” For Adorno, that poetic process is what drama depends upon - the ability to create a beginning, a middle and an end - and to create characters who go on journeys and find meaning along the way. Endgame, according to Adorno, recognizes that “after the Second War, everything is destroyed, even resurrected culture without knowing it; humanity vegetates along, crawling, after events that even the survivors cannot survive, on a pile of ruins which renders futile self-reflection of one’s own battered state.” In Endgame, Hamm demands that Clov wheel him around the room and back to the Center and then keeps insisting, “I feel a little far to the left. I feel a little far to the right.” We recognize that his journey back to the Center of this cramped dilapidated space is no journey at all. Hamm never goes anywhere in the play physically or metaphorically. As Adorno says, this is a place where self-reflection is impossible - to look back we would have to be able to look ahead. When Mad Men creative director Don Draper pitches the ad campaign for the Kodak Carousel Slide Projector we travel through Don’s life. He shows intimate pictures of his family to the account executives as he deters the men at Kodak from their notion that using the word “wheel” is the way to sell this thing. Rather as we see the pictures of Don and his wife Betty spread out on a picnic blanket sharing a hot dog, a photo of his two children in a little red wagon and Don kissing the stomach of his pregnant wife - Don tells us that “technology is a glittering lure” but that he wants to take the product further to build a “deeper bond with the project - nostalgia.” “It’s not called a wheel,” he says, “it’s called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels, round and round and back home again, to a place we know we are loved.” But like Hamm, Don has no access to self-reflection on his carousel. His numerous affairs with women will make it impossible for him to go home again. His conspicuous consumption “proclaims its bankruptcy like the dreamlike dross.” His actions leave his wife Betty alienated and alone. Just moments before we ride Don’s carousel, we see Betty on her psychiatrist’s couch proclaiming, “Don has no idea what family is.” His successful ad campaigns may move him a little left, and a little right, but ultimately his carousel of family will go nowhere. We see in this amazing scene a different kind of wasteland that exposes what appear as moments of abundance to be void of the intended meaning. Mad Men lays bare the façade of the idea that time moves us forward. Adorno says, “like time the temporal itself is damaged.” And as Hamm observes, “And the horizon? Nothing on the horizon?”