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October 18, 2010 / scherstuhl

Something to Remember, Just Before You Die: Will Eno Meets Thom Pain, Charlie Brown, and Samuel Beckett

This is an illustration that accompanies a blog post.

In the hour or so that he demands of your life, Thom Pain — the wry, distractible and unfailingly sincere monologist whose existential crises shape Will Eno’s 2005 play Thom Pain: (based on nothing) – tells you two jokes, one dream, one lie, one moment from his childhood, and something of the edges of a failed romantic relationship.

He will crumple a handkerchief and marvel at its resemblance to a human brain folding grayly in on itself. He will attempt a magic trick. He will solicit a volunteer from the audience. He will be forever on the cusp of sharing the huge concerns that crowd inside him – huge concerns that he can’t ever quite find words for. He will show his heart and then make a joke to cover it up.

A sort of existential stand-up act, Eno’s one-man show is either a put-on masquerading as urgent truth or urgent truth masquerading as a put-on — or both. It’s funny and terrifying in a way that’s specific to contemplation of humanity in the cosmos. “There’s a lot of zeroes out there,” marvels Thom Pain, our shabby Everyman, as he considers infinity. “What can one man do? Nothing, really. Or I don’t know. I’ve been taking vitamin supplements.”

The laughs come when you don’t expect them, and the truths hit when you’re braced for jokes. That bit about vitamins and our meager attempts at self-improvement is hardly Eno’s best line, but it illustrates Eno’s fidelity to the way we actually speak. No other playwight has ever written the words “I don’t know” so often. That uncertainty — the fear that neither this play nor anything else means anything — envelops Pain like the night pressing in on a candle. Halfway through, after a particularly daft aside about a raffle that doesn’t exist, Pain says, “Someday, some minute, you’ll have thirty seconds to live. Think of me, my little comic bit about the raffle. Think of me, fucking around with your life, and try to smile.”

Comic, alienating, non-linear, and boundlessly inventive, Eno’s plays demonstrate that our language, our philosophy, and our psychology often fail to provide us meaningful structures in which to live out our lives. His characters find themselves stranded in something like the theatrical neverwheres of Beckett, Ionesco, or Sartre, but Eno’s are specific: Thom Pain is on a stage, and he shows us he knows it by wandering into the audience, by wondering why we haven’t left yet, by informing a man in the crowd that Pain himself owns the same shirt, by speaking directly to the booth to request lighting cues. (Like prayer, these entreaties to the heavens yield few results.)  In this way, Thom Pain is a more realistic nightmare than No Exit: Americans fear nothing more than public speaking, and here poor Pain has to keep an audience going for an hour with nothing but all the things he’s not quite sure about.

Throughout his work, Eno turns again and again to isolated figures asked to account for themselves in public situations. There’s the seemingly sane mental patients in The Flu Season, answering the questions of nurses and doctors. Then there’s the horrifying press-conferences, one from an airline PR person after a crash (“Enter the Spokeswoman, Gently”) and another from a sports coach after another losing season (“Behold the Coach, in a Blazer, Uninsured”). There’s the man and woman in “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rain,” who must sell the best of themselves on videos for dating web-sites; there’s the in-the-field TV reporter in Tragedy: A Tragedy, who is tasked with talking us through some vague tragedy live on the air. The best he can do: “You can see in my background the dogs and animal life. Can what they are doing be called ‘enduring,’ when they would not call it that, when they don’t even know it’s what they’re doing?”

Eno combines the interruptions and aimlessness of true conversation with bursts of inspired poetry and insight. People incapable of saying what they mean suddenly gush with articulate words, saying precisely what they mean – and this, for the most part, is probably more embarrassing than all the hemming and hawing. Thom Pain asks us what we would do if we only had one day left to live, and celebrates the abandon we would bring to that day; then he asks, “What if you only had forty years? What would you do? If you’re like me, and – no offense, but – you probably are, you wouldn’t do anything. It’s sad, isn’t it? This dead horse of a life we beat, all the wilder, all the harder, the deader it gets.” Pain pauses, look abashed, and jokes, “On the other hand, there are some nice shops in the area.”

Usually, following a truthful burst, an Eno character apologizes, or looks sheepish, or jokes, gathering that this is not what people are meant to be feeling or thinking. But it is in the capacity for such insight and poetry that Eno himself seems to find hope for his characters as they shovel themselves into their voids. Adrift in the cosmos, alone on this rock, we can at least marvel at the scale of it all.

Early in his “Middletown,” his latest (still unpublished but excerpted in Madison’s Literary Review in 2007), a smalltown tour guide explains the following to a pair of vacationers: “Hundreds of years ago, someone was digging a hole here, for this very monument, and he rested on his shovel and sighed. You just inhaled a molecule of the air that that shoveler exhaled, in that quiet sigh long ago.”

A fine joke, one that echoes Ozymandias, and the tendency of monoliths to exist for their own sake’s, and upends a rather philosophical Peanuts comic strip that Charles Schulz and company worked into the script of the perennial holiday TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas. In one famous sequence, Charlie Brown, hapless yet decent, sticks up for pal Pig-Pen, the kid who is forever fogged over in a cloud of dust. “Think of it as maybe the soil of some great past civilization,” Charlie Brown says. “Maybe the soil of ancient Babylon. It staggers the imagination!”

Eno’s characters don’t have such grand claims in them. Instead, the tour guide imagines the dust of someone much like her, some average worker removed by centuries, and then imagines that maybe that person inhaled the dust of a kingly age: “And he, hundreds of years ago, had just inhaled a molecule of air from Caesar’s dying breath. Which dying breath might have also contained one Caesar had exhaled in his first screaming breath when he was born.”

This vault into poetry is characteristic of Eno’s characters, as is the limited expectation of life’s wonders: instead of a personal connection to some golden past, the tour guide can only imagine a connection to some other regular joe’s connection. Eno being Eno, this is followed by a couple sputtery non-statements, the kind of thing people come up with when they’ve finished saying what they’re going to say but still find themselves talking. “You never know,” the tour guide adds. “Molecules. Not the prettiest word.”

Eno’s characters, like Schulz’s, often find themselves on the verge of profundities, of large truths they feel with the full force of themselves. But Eno’s characters exist in time: they feel the brush of something larger than themselves, attempt to grab it, to hug it, and then are left standing around uncomfortably when it slips away. Sometimes they even chase it away.

Again and again, Thom Paine tears himself open, showing us the anger and hurt that fuels him, and again and again he shakes it off, embarrassed. Eno makes this explicit in his stage directions. One of Paine’s flights begins with “When did your childhood end?” and then builds, in six sentences of pique that for all their anguish, recall Bugs Bunny or Groucho Marx psyching themselves up for war, to “Who can stand the most, the most life, and still smile, still grin into the coming night saying more, more, encore, encore, you fuckers, you fates, just give me more of the bloody same.”

These directions immediately follow: Brief pause. He has shown too much emotion and must undercut himself, must undercut his show of emotion. Paine adds, offhandedly, in much the manner of an undergraduate who worries that he or she has expressed too much interest in class material, “Or, I don’t know, what do I know?”

Moments of dudgeon and epiphany both get undercut by the characters feeling them. This elevates the self to the role that traditionally has been society’s: that of judge, censor, dream-crusher. Allow me, again, to turn to Schulz and Pig-Pen and to that mean little Freida, the curly headed girl who picks on Pig-Pen’s filthiness. After Charlie Brown’s inspired speech linking Pig-Pen to the dust of Solomon “or even Nebuchudnezzar,” a speech Charlie Brown revels in, Freida regards the boys poisonously. She says, “You’re an absolute mess. Just look at yourself.”

This is Schulz’s standard operating procedure: Charlie Brown feels something pure or true or beautiful light up inside him, and then Lucy or Freida or the Kite-Eating tree snuffs it out. In Eno’s work, the Kite-Eating trees never get a chance. Pain and the Tour Guide and the mental patients in The Flue Season snuff their own epiphanies before they’ve even hit the air. (If epiphanies were blood, these would die without turning red.) Hell, for Eno, is no longer other people. It is our worries of what other people might think if they ever heard us unguarded, which means it is in ourselves. This exemplifies and satirizes the human condition in a self-help society: if our problems can be solved with positive thinking, as we are browbeaten into believing, than those stubborn problems that linger must be the fault of our failure to be positive – our failure to master our own minds. Eno documents a society wherein it is the individual believes it is the individual – not  society – that is the source of all success or sadness.

His happier characters believe in imposing their own minds on the world. The doctor in The Flu Season recalls a peaceful afternoon outdoors: “I was thinking of the shape of a horse and trying to picture the cloud that might best represent it.” Thom Paine, on the other hand toys with our helplessness. “Don’t imagine a pink elephant,” he demands. At another point, he insists that we can’t even imagine a square without it sliding all out of shape. Sadly, in my case he was right. As I sat through two bracing performances of Thom Paine, my brain refused not to see the elephant or to hold the square steadily. These gags illustrate the great fear that has perhaps led so many Eno characters to undercut their every spoken epiphany: the control that others wield over their very brains.

Perhaps it’s concentrate-along games like these that inspired Eno to list “The Audience” on Thom Paine’s dramatis personae. (The show is at times a sharp and brainy party game, what Albee’s George and Martha might call “Get the Audience.”) Still, however much they might challenge or alienate, however much it might suggest Beckett or Sartre or Zoo Story, however much it might overwhelm with gag-lines and non-sequiturs, Eno’s plays always glow with a warmth and humanity. Thom Paine, who is never ironic, leaves us with the question, “Isn’t it great to be alive?” Eno’s short play “Oh, the Humanity” closes with a man and woman too bound up in their heads to apprehend the majesty of creation right before them, but that majesty just happens to have a speaking part, and it’s kind enough to let us know it exists. Even that tour guide who can’t bring herself to imagine her own direct connection to Caesar is intended by Eno as much more than just another minor epiphany for the lancing. In a note appended to an excerpt of ”Middletown” in Literary Review, he writes of that shoveler’s breath, “Ideally, it would cause in the audience a feeling of endless and mysterious connectedness, a sense of the sacredness and strangeness of simple times and places.”

Charlie Brown had the same goals.

In Eno, then, we have the comic and the existentialist, which is not a new combination, but also the humanist and the parodist and the avant-gardeist and the one-liner joke factory. In 2007 Eno wrote several tender paragraphs about Beckett for the journal PAJ, and he seemed to be addressing his own artistic goals: “It would be good for the theatre and for the world at large if there were more signs of his influence—his humaneness, invention, and humility. (It’s not easy being humane and inventive, at the same time.)”

Then, Eno being Eno, he opens his next sentence with “This will sound crazy and I can’t really explain what I mean . . .”

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