Color It Orange

The Innocent Party

by John Hawkes
New Directions, 239 pp., $5.00

The rage for expressing everything in terms of something else is a disease traceable to college-catalogue English. From 1900 on a college course was hardly respectable if it did not offer to present literature in terms of its social effects, an author in terms of his influence on the development of this or that form, history in terms of underlying economic forces, geography in terms of transportation and commerce, and so on. It was not long before academic writers found themselves unable to finish a paragraph without using in terms of.”

This complaint is taken from the late Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage. It was intended only as a grumble against sloppy usage of a particular phrase, but it takes on a broader and most interesting aspect when it is applied not only to usage but to an artist’s point of view about the nature of his art.

The painter has long ceased to paint anything as it is; his answer to the accurate camera is the presentation of everything “in terms of something else.” Musical composition is done entirely “in terms of” interrelated sounds, dodging the traditional responses of the listener’s ear as sternly as the painter dodges the camera. In fiction, such experimenting never stops at all; everything that stirs up any intellectual interest is a presenting of reality “in terms of something else.” The theater, which was the last to respond to this unrepresentative tendency, has now caught up so well that dramatists like Beckett and Ionesco give the impression of having played much too safe and to have used “terms” that were mere symbols of reality, or thin disguises of it. Finally, we have our intellectual critics to keep us moving with the times and explain, if we are dumbfounded, the significance of the something else that a particular author is writing in terms of.

John Hawkes, who has just written four short plays for the Actor’s Workshop in San Francisco, has a critic named Herbert Blau (one of the Workshop leaders) to introduce him and explain his “terms.” But as it is never fair to discuss an author simply in terms of the person who is writing about him, Mr. Blau can be shown the door for the time being and telephoned for later, if Mr. Hawkes’s condition becomes incomprehensible.

Play No. 1, The Innocent Party, will be discussed at length, in order to give an idea of the amount of terminology with which Mr. Hawkes works. We have in it an adolescent named Janie, who is described as “part-tomboy and part-Aphrodite-as-a-young girl, and as such approaches a mythic force.” This description should not be taken too seriously, because it is only an attempt by Mr. Hawkes to present adolescence in terms of something other than adolescence. All that matters is that Janie, who has not yet been to bed with anyone, has a lesbian aunt named Phoebe, who wants to have first go with Janie and spends the play …

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Letters

Up the Drainpipe September 14, 1967