The themes of Jack Gelber’s third play concern death and marriage. Significantly, in Square in the Eye, they go together like Scylla and Charybdis. We have characters who cannot act, and action without character. No one’s in touch: neither with each other nor themselves. Within a rackety mis-enscène, an arena of fallen idols, we hear of the death of domesticity and of the daily death of belief. Social identity is a mess, religious identity a scream. I’m laughing but don’t ask me why, announces someone. No doubt it is Gelber’s intention to allegorize America as a schizoid society, a sort of split-level consciousness. Certainly his style serves. On the one hand, pop art epic theater with vaudeville fantasy; on the other, old school psycho-drama. Further, at the Theatre de Lys the whole production is staged like a house afire, and the play is a false alarm.
Ed Stone, its aging hero, is a school teacher and a failed painter. His students are more or less juvenile delinquents, his intimates are squalid and slick. A ballsy, panicky little guy, a quasi-bohemian malcontent, Ed has the manners of a stand-up comic: acrid gaze across the footlights, cigarette in mouth. He comes on heartless as a cigar store Indian, but he’s really full of mush. He’s also full of echoes. Ah the battle of the sexes, there’s nothing like it! he twitters. Ah the old questions, there’s nothing like them! (Beckett in Endgame.) Like Camus’s Meursault, Ed cannot make the appropriate response. With his wife, there’s nothing but contretemps. He loves Sandy, but love’s a drag. When Sandy dies, he trades jokes, not because he wants to, but because what’s left? Unlike Meursault, when alone, he cries.
At the hospital, Sandy performs a sociological parody. St. Joan of the Stockyards, perhaps. She is for Civil Rights, Nuclear Disarmament, Marchers for Peace. And over the loudspeaker, the crowd cheers. (The winking that goes on in Square in the Eye could put a burlesque routine to shame.) At the funeral, one kid says: Ugh, Sandy, she wasn’t even a good cook! The woman who wasn’t a good cook has undergone the martyrdom of middle-class parents whose dream is Miami Beach. There’s a Mama Dumpling (Oy, Sandy, how can you shame us, living in such a dump!), and a Papa Bear. He calls Ed a no-goodnik, he mawkishly remembers an immigrant past, he flutters greenbacks over his daughter’s bed. Jewish self-hatred runs riot throughout, but it’s merely authorial indulgence, or caricatured self-love.
Gelber is callous and he is coy. He’s always unabashedly flirting. He wants to subvert like Mephisto (pronounced Brecht) and tickle like Puck (pronounced Murray Schisgal). To a degree, he succeeds. A whiff of sulphur hangs in the air, and Gelber the gagster is as persistent as a census taker. When the doctor garbles Sandy’s medical report, a Chopin étude tinkles in the background. When the undertaker extols walnut caskets, Saint-Saens fiddles in the distance. As Ed remarries, with Sandy hardly in her grave, Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things” grinds on the hi-fi. Do we need dialogue? I had to do it, Ed tells us. “I couldn’t make it alone.”
The actor who plays the doctor turns into the undertaker who turns into the rabbi who turns into the ballroom owner who becomes an off-the-street scavenger arriving to collect Sandy’s clothes which Ed sells to pay his bills. The actor signifies the reductio ad absurdum of public rot, just as Ed and Sandy symbolize inner collapse. Gelber’s pendulum really swings. The rabbi, for instance, solemnly blabbers in Hebrew; then, in English, he has a mock-Auschwitz harangue. The sheer effrontery jolts. And it is “funny.” Still, what’s the point? What, above all, is the point of Sandy’s death? Why are the time sequences upside down? In the first act she’s dead, in the second she’s dying. Apparently, a random universe muddied with mendacity deserves an arbitrary chronology—not to mention other clichés.
It seems to me Gelber is a message-writer, an honorable calling; only his messages are always fragments from the latest Kulturkampf. “Be a secret hipster, slowly insinuating your own values into the hearts of millions.” So goes the singing telegram of On Ice. In The Apple, the Negro says: You gotta want. Don’t let your instincts dry up. Even with The Connection, Gelber’s one authentic achievement, we have modish non sequitur relativism. Everyone’s an addict. And the few who shoot-up on “horse” are no worse (actually, they’re probably wiser, than the many who drug themselves with Beautiful Homes and Gardens. These messages may or may not be relevant. The point is that Gelber’s characters simply (in both senses) embody bits and pieces of whatever message is on the boards.
Superficially, Ed and Sandy are dime-store bright; au fond, they are incredibly dim. Neither villains nor heroes nor “just folks,” they are the indeterminate non-types, those collagist figurines of contemporary art—dramatic or otherwise. Haphazardly frustrated, perpetually baffled, these people sigh the roof down or balloon themselves up with inconsolable laughter. Sandy “desires” a life of dedication, of significance. Ed “wants” to relate. Each stifles the other. Why? We never know or else we know only too well.
In the old days, people would say: Ah, it’s human nature, human cussedness. Now we say: It’s only human not to know what being human means. Don’t leave me, Ed, whispers Sandy in the elegiac finale. But the hero must leave. After all, she’s going to die. And Ed must assume another mask, another marriage, only he will try not to assume the mask, try not to foul up the marriage. One must face up to sham, counsels Gelber, and the facing-up will set you free. To be sure, in the fading moments, one of Gelber’s innumerable pinpricks of poignancy actually draws blood. Ironically, in parting, Ed and Sandy come alive. But the irony is accidental.
Gelber has provided an “evening’s entertainment” for the downtown crowd, just as Schisgal provides one for the expense-account crew. The drama critics hailed the cabaret claptrap of Luv; they dismissed Square, It’s understandable. Luv, cleaned up, could make it on Channel 2. Gelber’s play is essentially Beatnik TV.
Lionel Abel’s Metatheatre is a brilliant theoretical treatise. With The Wives he has not only put his theories to work (hybris enough, surely), but he has also chosen to revamp the Trachiniae, the most intractable of Sophocles’ plays. “Metatheatre makes us forget the opposition between optimism and pessimism by forcing us to wonder.” While watching The Wives, one is inescapably agog. Why, one wonders, are the women of Trachis, the autumnal chorus, now nothing but a bunch of Long Island chatterboxes? Why is the princess Iole a kewpie doll Cassandra? Why is the son of Daneira and Herakles, the youthful Hyllos, Sophocles’ blighted romantic, presented as a summer replacement for Soupy Sales? Historical contrast? The abject present against a golden past? Possibly. More likely it is because metatheatre is merely the middle distance between the tragic and the comic, and there, as any schoolboy knows, lies farce and melodrama. Ergo The Wives. The original Daneira was a somewhat shabby genteel matron, yet passionate, plucky, full of “terrible knowledge.” Abel’s Daneira is a kind of frazzled ingenue. The original Herakles was a vanquished lion, roaring maledictions. Abel’s Herakles is a moody wash-out. It is said that Ezra Pound came to grief with the Trachiniae; Abel, I’m afraid, has gone straight to the grave.
Still, he has affected one important transformation, both blatantly pagan and modern. Likhas, Herakles’ herald (a mere time-server under Sophocles), arrives in the courtyard of Daneira’s home to lecture the lady on the ambiguities of the Id. He interestingly suggests that her long wandering spouse has undergone his labors simply because he has been unable to make it in the sack. Passion is an illusory flame, and marriage, it seems, but a bed of ashes. “When does a man know he’s really married?” asks Likhas. “When he wants another man to make love to his wife.” Likhas is Herakles’ buddy. Herakles “needs to need” Daneira. He wants Herakles to seduce his wife, so that he will then have to overcome the seduction. “I have an impossible aim,” Likhas confides. “What I want is to introduce you to the life of equivocation, which, I claim, can be as pleasurable as, and truer maybe, than any other. I want to introduce you to that truth which dares never to say its name.” Likhas is the existentialist dandy, the evangelist of the polymorphous-perverse. Daneira’s a prude, but “aware.” “Even when you kissed me,” she says, “you were thinking of Herakles.” “Say rather,” replies the imperturbable gallant, “that thinking of Herakles led me to think of you…Once I had known Herakles there was no one I could have been in love with except his wife…I believe everything real begins with disillusionment.”
These Deux Magots hors d’oeuvres are appealing, especially considering what follows. What follows is disaster. Herakles: “I don’t glory in my strength as I once did. In fact, my great strength bores me…Of all my labors which do you think I liked best? I believe it was when I cleaned Omphale’s kitchen and did her dishes with her apron around my waist.” Lured on by the spurned Daneira, Herakles sports the shirt of Nessus. It cracks his ribs. Daneira: “You’re a dying man, Herakles. It’s the blood of the centaur, the blood of Nessus, who wanted me, killing you!” Likhas is killed. Herakles is dying. Daneira is dying. The women are bug-eyed. Zeus descends. A campy country parson, peevishly picking at grapes, gingerly sitting down to rub his feet, Zeus delivers the sermon of Mount Olympus. “Men are good in their first excitement, while women want to go on loving…Every married man must at some time put on the shirt of Nessus.” Finally, Hyllos is told to stop acting like a boob and start housekeeping with Iole, the same Hyllos who with bitter eloquence concluded the Trachiniae:
Women of Trachis, you have leave to go.
You have seen strange things,
The awful hand of death, new shapes of woe,
And all that you have seen
“Metatheatre assumes there is no world except that created by human striving, human imagination…For metatheatre, order is something continually improvised by men.” Obviously, Sartre is in Abel’s head, and Cocteau is in his heart. Unfortunately, too often there’s nothing but sawdust on his tongue. Absalom, Abel’s best play, was a ziggurat of inverted conceits. It had a certain dash, a certain resonance: the idea of the Bible, the book of truth, being falsified for the sake of man. “I must now write David’s lament for his son,” said Abishai the scribe, “the lament God did not let him make.” In The Wives, however, Abel for the most part resembles the fellow who surrounded his goldfish bowl with picture postcards in the pious hope the goldfish would think they were going somewhere. Abel was going somewhere with Likhas, then he fumbled.
Whatever its faults, The Wives, I must add, deserved something better than director Herbert Machiz’s artsycraftsy melange. Jan Miner, the leader of the chorus, might well have been doing her Goodman Noodles commercial. Anne Meacham’s Daneira was all waxen elegance, dulcet despair, and Joan Greenwood throatiness, along with one understandably off-key double entendre: “I could tell you how I feel if I could scream.” As for Jon Cypher, to describe that performance, it’s best to pronounce Herakles backwards. Kazimer Garas’s Likhas alone had some spark, some glamor.
July 1, 1965