What’s the “common sense” definition of gifted playwright, a definition that would be accepted by those without highly specialized (“scientific”) knowledge of theatre? I’d say it might go something like this: a person who writes compelling scenes of drama that feature convincing human action and dialogue.
A theatre specialist might argue, rightly, that that definition is too limited. She might also, again rightly, point to the scarcity of Canadian artists whom that definition fits. In Toronto, for instance, we have a number of skilled monologists, able Lecoq- or Gaulier-trained physical performance-devisers, talented etchers of sketch comedy so-labeled or not, writers of vivid poetry and prose inserted willy-nilly into onstage characters’ mouths, but few dramatists who can write a credible, active, witty, high-stakes dramatic scene.
Infinity, your new play at Tarragon Theatre in a Tarragon-Volcano Theatre co-production directed by Ross Manson, is in large part about the tension between the “common sense” understanding of things — time, for example, or love — and the technical or specialist understanding of those things. A family drama that’s ostensibly about physics in general and the concept of time in particular, your play calls to mind Augustine’s famous quip about time, a profundity that’d be at home in a Groucho Marx routine: “What therefore is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I’m asked and wish to explain it, I don’t know.”
What therefore, I wonder, is a play about time? When no one asks me, I know; when I’m asked (albeit by myself) and wish to explain it, I’m stumped.
I’m stumped because to speak of time is inevitably to speak of events in time, and in a drama those events are very likely to be human events. A “drama about time” would seem to indicate extra attention paid to the time-bound character of those events. But that still tells me nothing about what the events are. It tells me almost nothing about content. In a pretty fundamental way, it seems to me that “time” can never be the real content of a work of dramatic art, because what happens in time will always compete for pride of place, will always declare: “I, I am the subject matter! Look at me!”
What happens in time, in your play Infinity? A young couple, brilliant high-achievers both, she a violinist and he a doctoral candidate in physics, proceed through (spoiler alert?) courtship, marriage, pregnancy, marital strife, trouble with their precocious young daughter, his cancer, his death, and the daughter’s trauma and grief and ways of coping, not only but largely through sex. We see some of those events out of order, out of time.
This narrative is related with wit and verbal precision. It’s well acted, even if the three performers in Ross’s production seem to be in different stylistic worlds: Paul Braunstein, for instance, wears the slightly heightened naturalism of your language like a tailored suit, while Haley McGee is unleashed! She unearths the poetry that lurks beneath your naturalism and inflates it to an outsize style that’s bizarre, fully committed, theatrical, and mesmerizing. I loved it, but it’s not what Paul’s doing, to say the least, and I’m not sure what’s gained by that lack of stylistic consistency. Nor by the violinist who adds a beauty that’s, well, beautiful but also uniform and verging on sentimental. (Didn’t Natasha Mytnowych put a violinist in at least one other of your plays? Am I remembering right? Is this now a signature thing?)
Anyway: I think the production is quite good, with clarity and moments of high-ish theatricality, like the movement sequence before Paul’s character gives a truncated lecture on physics, a movement sequence that doesn’t seem to signify anything in particular but is nice to look at and nicely breaks up the naturalism of the physical staging. It brings into focus the actors’ bodies, which seems like an important and interesting thing to do in a play that’s at least in part about the conflicting demands of the mind (which wants to “work,” to challenge itself, to pursue legacy in a conceptual sense) and the body (which wants to procreate, whose eros leads to the family or legacy in the corporeal sense).
I think the first half of the play is also really good. It treats of intimate relationships with intelligence and a light touch. I don’t know and won’t speculate about how “personal” the play is, but those early scenes of romantic courtship feel fully imagined, wittily realized, with plenty of insight and charm. It had been a while since I’d seen a play in Toronto that gave me as clear an impression of a very sharp, active, engaged authorial mind behind it, and I watched yours with pleasure and a kind of deep relief.
I found myself a lot less interested in the play’s second half, after the story’s “tragic” turn. As soon as Paul’s character is diagnosed with cancer, the play seems to lose its sense of humour and veer into melodrama. It no longer surprised me. And I think the ending-ending (spoiler alert for sure) — where a character comes to the realization that time and, by implication, love really exist, aren’t just constructs — is a false move. It purports to be a discovery, but for it to be revealing or surprising, the audience has to hold the physicist’s or the postmodern’s opinion that time and love are constructs. And the audience, insofar as it isn’t comprised of physicists and humanities grad students (not how I’d peg Tarragon’s subscribers), likely doesn’t hold that opinion. It holds, I think it’s pretty safe to say, the “common sense” notion: time is real and now it’s time for drinks, love is real and isn’t it great. So to point out that time and love really exist is just to affirm what the audience already thinks it knows. Which is sentimental, and okay, I guess — lord knows it’s a common move in our theatre — but to the extent that it’s trumped up as a revelation, I find it a bit misjudged.
But those are quibbles. Okay, they’re more than quibbles. But they’re not criticisms that interest me enough to more than clock them, and of course they don’t change the fact that I think you’re one of our community’s best writers, whose plays I’m always eager to see, and whom I hope TV writers’ rooms (exciting places though they seem to be) don’t kidnap altogether. They’re also not the reason I felt compelled to write you this letter.
I felt compelled to write you this letter because I’m interested in another ambiguous move your play seems to make, a move I make in my own writing all the time, one I worry about.
Your play purports to be about a Big Idea: the nature of time, understood as physics understands it, and its effect on or intersection with intimate relationships. I believe with full confidence that this particular Big Idea did indeed spur you to write the play, that the Big Idea, which I capitalize without irony (if that’s possible), guided and prodded you all along the way. But I don’t find your play really to be a sustained engagement with, or even very much about, that Big Idea. I find it to be about love and sex and family and work, and one of its characters happens to be a physicist and, because you’re a conscientious researcher and have a good ear, he talks likes one. But his problems that give rise to the play’s conflict — social dysfunction, an obsessive focus on work at the expense of his spouse and family, mortal illness — don’t seem to me to be tied in an essential way to his work in physics. The physics stuff is an attractive poetic gloss on those problems, but he could just as well be a socially awkward novelist obsessively at work on a novel, say, and the play’s action, as far as I can tell, would unfold exactly the same way that it does now.
Contrast this with Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, an obvious comparison piece for your Infinity. I’m not all that convinced by Frayn’s play as a play, don’t find it very dramatic, but it’s clear that Frayn’s theatrical speculation about Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr’s controversial mid-WW2 meeting depends absolutely on the fact that those men were physicists. It depends on physics, ideas, for its action. Whereas I can think of very little action in your play that relies on science or ideas, strictly speaking, for its motive force. The play seems first of all to be about intimate and family relationships, full stop.
I should add right away: I worry that all my own plays suffer from the same defect, if it is a defect. Often I’ll start a play with the intention to explore a thorny political problem, say, and then a lot of people will tell me it’s half nonsense and the only bits that are any good are those that are “deeply felt,” i.e. typically those that are in some way about love. North American dramaturgy, applied to plays by both men and women, seems so often to be a reductio ad amor. This dramaturgy seems to say: most plays, most artworks of value are finally about love. The hot air of ideas must serve and give way to the reality of love. What the audience wants is to be moved, and what moves them is the love.
Maybe this is true. Maybe it’s true in an intrinsic sense — the core of art is the expression of the human capacity for love, the transformative and redemptive power of the erotic — or maybe it’s true in an instrumental, not to say cynical sense, one that has to do with producers’ perhaps correct assumptions about what “the audience” wants.
Or maybe it’s not true. Maybe there’s an art that’s about human questions that include but also transcend the question of love, that are also about power and politics and virtue, for example, in a way that isn’t just ornamental in the fashion of, let’s say, some of Tom Stoppard’s plays. The real intellectual crisis of the contemporary theatre isn’t that nobody’s writing “intellectual” plays. It’s that most of the plays that announce themselves as “intellectual” aren’t finally about ideas, that they dress themselves in ideas but don’t engage with them in an ultimate way, that they offer no deep critique of political realities — and if anything is the mark of the intellectual, it’s the desire to create a radical change in consciousness that inevitably has consequences for, or is explicitly about, political consciousness.
I don’t think all theatre has to raise ultimate questions and attempt to answer them. I think there are plenty of working playwrights who have little interest in, and still less capacity for, this sort of project. But you’re a whole lot fucking smarter than they are. If anybody in this country has the intellect and dramatic chops to ask radical questions in her theatre and give them compelling form, it’s you. Along with Michael Healey and Jason Sherman and some other people. But they’re not writing for the theatre much these days.
I think I’m writing you this letter partly because I see you following the excellent Mr. Sherman to the white-sand shores of TV, for obvious and good reasons, and I want to say to you, for whatever it’s worth: great, go, make fine work within the limits of that form, but please don’t, if you can help it, internalize the logic of TV. Yes, the cliché is true, most contemporary cable TV is more complex and interesting than most contemporary theatre, but that’s only because North American theatre has forgotten itself, lost nearly all sense of its civic and spiritual function. Please, if you can and want to, keep writing for the theatre and maybe use the theatre as almost nobody in this country does, but you could: as a way to interrogate big problems of the highest and broadest importance for human life, which include love but as part of a constellation of realities in which love has competition for ultimacy — and feel free to make people laugh and cry while you do it, because that’s nice too and probably needed to sell tickets, and you’re good at it.
Or, again, maybe that ideal isn’t possible. Maybe all art, whatever its political and philosophical aspirations, is about the erotic and the erotic’s social consequences like the family. My own work, much of it, would support that theory. My play that opens this week at The Theatre Centre (sorry, I gotta) is pretty focused on the erotic. Maybe that’s a flaw, a limitation. Or maybe that limitation is acceptable if it’s part of my larger project as a writer, which includes but isn’t limited to the erotic. Maybe Infinity, as I read it, is vindicated on those grounds too.
For sure it is. Your project is already clearly bigger than it. Your earlier plays are far from fixated on love and sex. Yet I think I actually prefer Infinity, at least the first half of it, to those plays. In spite of my reservations, Infinity feels to me like perhaps your most inhabited, exploratory work. I sense in it — and the death-of-the-author folk may now feel free to pile on — a quality of authorial care, an authorial urgency, that isn’t legible to me (subjectively, subjectively) in a piece like The Russian Play. The human problems in Infinity‘s first half seem to animate your imagination in rich, surprising ways. The result is drama with an ease, a complexity, a depth that’s really striking.
So I’m not cheerleading here for a return to the high topicality or occasional high genre style of those earlier plays, though I admire many of them. But I wonder what’ll happen if and when the greater intensity of engagement that, I find, Infinity reveals — a real peak in your work, in my opinion — is brought to bear on different subject matter.
Thanks for the play. And, as always, for the inspiration.