“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 trying to make Janie’s latent lust overcome her natural propriety. In the background hover Janie’s parents, who have a funny feeling that something funny is going on, though they are too respectable to guess what.
In short, a natural, straightforward matter: Janie’s half-longing to be laid; Auntie’s wholly longing to do the laying; Pa and Ma have qualms. Not a story, really, that exists in terms of anything except sexual seduction and everyday parental alarms. Why, then, does it not read as such?
It is not allowed to do so because Mr. Hawkes feels the need to strive toward more impressive things—to talk in terms of, as it were. Here are some of the problems from which some of the characters are suffering:
1) Father. He has spent his life selling box cameras, but is now very poor. He is unable to buy a new razor-blade, so must shave forever with an old one. Every morning, while he is dragging at the blunt steel, a centipede comes out of the plughole of the washbasin and scares the living Jesus out of him.
2) Mother. She has been barren ever since bearing Janie—the consequence, Mr. Hawkes seems to hint, of keeping a too-stiff upper lip. Day after day, she stands by Father at the washbasin and loyally faces up to the centipede’s emergence. But poverty has embittered Mother and she looks coldly and critically on—
3) Phoebe, who is extremely rich and has slept around on luxury liners and with sun-tanned lifeguards. She once had a warmed swimming pool in which—assuming she is telling Janie the truth and not inventing a cock-and-bull story—there was an acid which caused the water to turn orange whenever a visiting bather peed in it. Other swimmers were thus warned to leave the pool without delay. “No one ever peed twice in your auntie’s pool,” Phoebe proudly assures—
4) Janie, who retorts: “I guess I would have peed in it….”
In terms of what, exactly, is one meant to regard these complications? The box cameras, the emergent centipede, the swimming pool with its artful response to submarine misconduct—what have these to do with Aunt Phoebe’s all-too-natural desire to lay her niece? Are they symbolic elements intended to illustrate the situation in terms of something else—e.g., is the box camera intended to show how old-fashioned Father is, much as his perennial razor-blade shows how pushed for cash he is? If we called in Dr. Blau, to diagnose, could he explain the bearing of the malfunctioning bladders on the theme? Or should all these elements be regarded merely as notions that passed through Mr. Hawkes’s head at the time of writing—notions that vaguely suggested symbols or seemed likely to supply what is called “atmosphere”?
HERE ARE short accounts of the other three plays in the book. The Wax Museum is about the lady attendant in a waxworks who pretends to be sexually involved with the waxen image of a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Her ardent caressing of the dummy is intended to provoke the passions of a young Canadian girl, who is a visitor to the museum. Obviously, much the same theme as The Innocent Party, but presented in terms of something wax.
We break new ground with the third play, The Undertaker. The curtain rises to reveal an elderly undertaker sitting on a toilet seat and holding a silverplated pistol to his temple. Nobody has ever started a play like this before, and Mr. Hawkes is to be congratulated for having had a brain wave that will not fail to startle his audiences. The only trouble with getting a play off to such a brilliant start is, how the hell do you go on from there? Is there any more to say? Is there any room for what is called “development”? What price must be paid for putting at the beginning a scene that really belongs at the end?
Mr. Hawkes manages these problems much better than one would imagine. Despite the fact that once the curtain has gone up, the whole of the play is an anticlimax, Mr. Hawkes makes it a funny anticlimax. True, he introduces a serious note by pretending that the color problem is in some way involved, but this intrusion of good intentions does little to spoil the farce. Even the questions: Are we seeing a suicidal undertaker on a toilet seat in terms of racial prejudice, or are we seeing racial prejudice in terms of a suicidal undertaker on a toilet seat, need not be regarded as either here or there.
There is no need to say much about the fourth play, The Questions. Under the title Suddenly, Last Summer, Tennessee Williams did such a wonderful job on the basic idea that nobody need ever try to do it again. Simply by means of questions and answers within the confines of one set, Williams obliged his audiences to envisage a whole world off-stage and to follow the life of a hero who never appeared in the flesh. Suddenly, Last Summer belongs to the vintage that provided Waiting for Godot and The Chairs; in comparison with these three, The Questions is quite without vision and merit. All that can be said for it is that Mr. Hawkes appears to know what he is trying to do—a state of mind that is always easier to reach when earlier dramatists have told you where it is and how to get there.
Dr. Blau may now be allowed to enter the sickroom and discuss Mr. Hawkes’s peculiar syndrome. He comes dashing in, bag in hand, with a huge grin on his face, and declares immediately that whatever Mr. Hawkes is suffering in terms of is something for which we should all be thankful. Innocence and humility, he tells us, were immediately evident when Mr. Hawkes entered the Workshop to attend rehearsals. “Crouched over his notes, scenting, he bristled enthusiasm, bridled at error. [He] was the ubiquitous dog that’s friend to men, with his nails he dug it up again…. The innocence took a reflective gape and let fly, wondering.”
But what was it that the dog dug up again? Mr. Blau continues:
In Hawkes’ plays, as in his novels, there is an inscape of wonder in a landscape of mutilations. Innocence is on the limb, ripe for perversion. Brute ignorance encroaches. We see deadness descending upon the gift of play. Whether he knows it or not, the new form in which Hawkes is working does double duty for his theme. There is a time-serving brutality in the theater, which confounds playing with acting. In the theater you must play, but play before your time is up.
Whatever does this mean? Is Mr. Blau really trying, or is he just making the pool more orange? And can we fathom his analysis of Janie?
Jane, the nymphet, is a cellular growth. With her, we are at the bare moral midriff of the kandy-colored tangerine-flaked streamlined ethos, which others celebrate and Hawkes sees coming up the drain-pipe like a centipede.
If Mr. Blau is right, we must now face up to certain inescapable inscapes. The first of these is that neither Mr. Hawkes nor Mr. Blau is concerned with the meaning of words. In the world in which they work, the test of a word is not what it means but how it sounds, for which reason Mr. Blau is only too happy to take a “streamlined ethos,” slap a “midriff” on it, give the midriff a “bare moral” tone and shove it up a drain-pipe; while Mr. Hawkes gives us a lady out hunting with “wrists cocked like little tawny angels.” These phantom words go into the creating of a phantom world which has room for whatever the dramatist is moved to shovel into it—wax dummies, centipedes, old razor-blades, box cameras, “mythic force,” color prejudice, and toilet seats.
AS IS SO OFTEN the case with new plays, the more ridiculous and incomprehensible the author becomes and the less he understands the terms in which he is writing, the more convinced his director is that something wonderful must be going on. The director is particularly vulnerable to this sort of hocus pocus, because even when whole chunks of text and entire scenes have no meaning whatever, capable actors with good voices can suggest that meaning is present. Often, in fact, they like it better that way, because there is often something ominous about a meaning that cannot be grasped; and what is ominous is usually dramatic.
Much of the best fiction has always been everyday life “expressed in terms of something else”: Lilliput and its tiny people, for instance, were the terms chosen by Swift in which to express the court of Queen Anne. But what is required when terms are used is a firm grasp of why they are being used and of what they mean. The theater of the present day has learned its lessons from Beckett, Ionesco, and Genet, all of whom grasped their terms with a certain degree of firmness. When they got into difficulties—when they “ran out of road,” as racing drivers put it—they filled up the void with a make-believe of meaningless words and stage “business.” This has now become the approved way, with the difference that as the tradition grows more and more decadent, the firmness of grasp becomes feebler and feebler and the accumulation of meaninglessness greater and greater. That is the way things always go in the arts—reasonably clear water in the new pool for some time, and then, increasingly and threateningly, that telltale orange bilge.
July 13, 1967