bad, clown, bad Jeffrey M. Jones and his nasty circus
Playwrights Sheila Callaghan and Jason Grote recently saw the Undermain Theater’s production of Jeffrey M. Jones’s play A Man’s Best Friend, and they discussed the play in Sheila’s Brooklyn kitchen. Let it suffice to say, the play hinges on the plight of Sluggo, the prototypical Bad Clown.
Jason Grote: There are these playwrights that I always associate in my head—Jeff Jones, Len Jenkin, Eric Overmeyer, Mac Wellman. They take old-fashioned detritus of popular American culture—like the snake-oil salesman, the traveling circus, vaudeville—and they deconstruct it, or they all have their own individual takes on it, but they love this vernacular.
Sheila Callaghan: It feels like they grew up in the circus. Though none of them did. I don’t know any of their backgrounds, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t grow up in the circus. [Laughs.]
Grote: I think actually, uh, Neil LaBute grew up in the circus. [Laughs.]
Callaghan: That makes sense. [Laughs.]
Grote: It was the Mormon circus. [Laughs.]
So here’s my sad story, folks—and I’m stickin’ to it:
I was born in oh, 1965, ’66, ’67—who knows—Mom did a lot of bad acid back then so the dates all kinda ran together in what she laughingly called her “mind”—
Fact is, Mom’s record-keeping left a lot to be desired, as did the quality of her affection.
Not that I blame her: I was a stinky kid.
No metaphor there—I just smelled bad:
Doctors even made her sign some kinda rider on the birth certificate they called a product-liability disclaimer…
So naturally, I started hitting the whiteface at an early age,
Which pretty much took care of the career options.
Blew a few job interviews, sank into hell for a decade, finally ran off to join the circus, only to discover that the circus was dead. Hey, it was Morning in America! The Reagan White House, everybody and their dog looting the American economy hand over fist, who had time for Flying Bulgarians?
Briefly considered a career in tax law—very briefly I might add…
Blew a few more job interviews and gave it all up to be a floorwalker at Plato’s Retreat.
Now, for those of you too young to remember, Plato’s Retreat was this sex club up on the, uh.…(wait a minute, sex was the ’70s, wasn’t it…?)
(I’m actually making a lot of this up, but the fact remains that I’m hung like a horse—and there are people, not many, but some, who kinda get off being reamed by a stinky old clown…)
(Which is all you’re gonna get from me on that subject.)
(Although I do still get Christmas cards from this really weird couple named Torvald and Jan—had this monkey, sat around the living room all day, playing with itself…)
Anyhoo, by now we’re up to—what?—1987? ’88? somewhere in there—market tanked—went from millionaire to pauper in an hour, fuckin’ worst day of my life, knock on wood.
And…then a buncha stuff happened I don’t frankly wanna share with you tonight,
I was in and out of a number of institutions, let’s say things got a little desperate…
Grote: One thing that I think was a lot more evident from watching it than from reading it was that what it was doing was taking a lot from “Punch and Judy,” these pratfalls and clown violence, and making it real in this way that was——
Callaghan: Like heartbreakingly real?
Callaghan: I was caught off-guard by not knowing when I was supposed to be emotionally connected to the characters and when I was supposed to be seeing them as caricatures of themselves. Like the wacky cop who suddenly has this really dramatic arc where she wants to be loved, and I’m caught up in her story. But she’s still bopping people on the head with this fake nightstick. I felt really uncomfortable about the fact that I didn’t ever know what land we were living in. It really threw me off-balance. And that’s something that I half appreciated and half was disturbed by. Well, mostly appreciated.
Grote: Sluggo is really violent. When the play starts off, he’s kicking this obviously fake dog, it’s really ridiculous and really funny, he kicks it and hurts his foot, and there’s this “funny clown moment.” And there’s this baby, which is actually a squid. And it’s like “ha-ha,” it’s obviously this non-baby, but then it becomes—
Callaghan: But somebody cares about the baby, so does that mean we should care about the baby?
Callaghan: But this baby is eating people in tiny bites, and killing people. Is that a metaphor for cancer? Are we supposed to think that children are cancerous?
Grote: I felt like a lot of what was happening in the play was subconscious, almost like Jeff was writing from the id, automatic writing, and I think themes are going to emerge when that happens.
Callaghan: Half writing from the id and half writing in deliberate metaphors, parallels to real life. Squid is a pretty interesting—you know, he didn’t pick a skunk, or a boll weevil, he picked a squid. What is significant about equating a squid to a child and a cancer? Cancer makes sense. But a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes kind of thing? It’s pretty powerful.
Grote: Well it is, it’s also this metaphor—like Rosemary’s Baby or Alien. There’s a lot of horror imagery—
Callaghan: Like that character you and Jeff were talking about outside the theater.
Grote: Chthulu, the villain from H.P. Lovecraft stories who had the head of a squid.
Callaghan: There was definitely a horror aspect to the play. When the vaudeville trickled away, and you were left with weird lights and insinuating music, and freakish wigs [laughs], then you suddenly started to feel: “Ah, I’m scared for these people.”
Grote: I think that both humor and fear or horror obey dream logic. There’s this Freud thing called the Broken Kettle, that he uses to illustrate dream logic. You borrow a kettle from your friend, and you break it, and you say, number one, I never borrowed the kettle, number two, it was broken when you lent it to me, and I forget what number three is [note: it’s “I returned it to you unbroken”]. Three things that are obviously contradictory, but they coexist. And I feel like that was much of the logic of the play. Each character was really two characters smooshed together.
Callaghan: I felt that. But it didn’t feel like—the Swami and Andy Warhol weren’t like that.
Grote: No, well, that was a case of theatrical doubling. It was less a dreamlike transformation than it was theatrical—“I-am-on-stage-I-am-an-actor-changing-a-costume-and-switching-characters.”
Callaghan: So you think it was more about the theatricality, rather than the thematic significance of it.
Grote: Yeah, I think so. I think it added to the circus aspect. I’ll slap on this beard and I’m this swami guy. I think that with these writers who are into the whole vaudeville circus con man thing, there’s a lot of fakery in it, especially if you look at Len Jenkin’s plays—he loves characters that are con men.
Callaghan: Len Jenkin was a name that popped into my head when I watched this, because I know a lot of Jeff Jones’s plays, and this was especially Len Jenkian for a Jeff Jones play. It was less about the male-female dilemma that you find in Jeff’s work and more about the fun of exploring characters through this circus-like apparatus.
Grote: At the same time, though, I feel like the male-female dynamic is definitely still there.
Callaghan: I think so, yeah.
Grote: And that was a lot of what was so frightening about it. That was the part that was really disturbing, in a very profound way, because there was this, you could say it’s stereotypical or you can say it’s archetypal, but this male fear of commitment, and alienation from your kids—
Callaghan: Totally, because the kids are squids! And he’s ready for it, but he can’t take it. His females all had pixie haircuts, and Jane, Sluggo’s wife, had these little barrettes, and this sweet little dress, and she was in love with this squid baby, even though Sluggo was hitting and killing people with it. There was so much I thought was so odd and incongruous about the whole squid-baby thing, it came out of nowhere. Basically all you had to do to kill people was smack them with this squid-baby. So what does that mean?
Grote: I think that’s the dream reality. I remember this dream I had when I was four of this monstrous character who killed my mother, basically by shoving her. And I think that’s a lot of this, this emotional violence of dreams.
JANE: Don’t throw my baby
JANE: Don’t you ever throw my baby…
SLUGGO: Put the baby down Jane.
JANE: Not until you say you’re sorry.
SLUGGO: Drop the frickin’ baby, Jane…
JANE: You didn’t say you’re sorry.
SLUGGO: OK, I’m [sorry…]
JANE: Sluggo, say it like you mean it…
SLUGGO: I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry! (Jesus)
JANE: Now give her a little kiss…
SLUGGO: Can I just have the baby, Jane…
JANE: Just one little kiss, that’s not so much to ask…
SLUGGO: Just gimme the baby, Jane.
Sluggo takes the baby from her.
And leave us alone, we need to bond…
JANE: Oh, that’s so cute…
SLUGGO: We’re bonding now—we need some privacy…
Jane exits. Sluggo holds the baby awkwardly.
(And you quit biting me you little…!)
He turns to Andy.
I’m gonna kill you for this!
ANDY: Yeah, but Sluggo, I’m already dead.
SLUGGO: I know—it shouldn’t hurt at all!
Sluggo takes the baby & beats Andy to death with it. When he’s done, he throws it on the ground next to him.
Callaghan: So did these characters love the squid-baby?
Grote: I think Jane did.
Callaghan: No one acknowledged that it was a squid except Sluggo.
Grote: Exactly. Everyone else thought it was a baby. The really horrifying thing about the play, about the climax, is that the clown cartoon violence becomes very real. And in a really problematic way. It’s not like the violence of a Hollywood movie, where you feel like the people getting the violence directed at them somehow deserve it. This was the opposite of that, where the person doing the violence was more or less totally unsympathetic, and the people that were the victims of the violence…it was totally undeserved.
Callaghan: Like the Steve character?
Grote: Yeah, but I’m talking about that moment at the end, where Sluggo kills everybody on stage. He kills his wife, he kills the baby.
Callaghan: But I didn’t really buy that as violence. Because they all turn into zombies anyway [laughs].
Grote: Well, it keeps veering back and forth between the cartoon violence that you feel comfortable laughing at, and the violence that makes you squirm in your seat. Theater of Cruelty violence.
A Man’s Best Friend by Jeffrey M. Jones, directed by Katherine Owens, runs from February 25 – March 19, Wednesday – Saturday @ 7:30 p.m. The Walker Space, 46 Walker Street, NYC. Tickets: $15. Theatermania at 212- 352-2101 or www.theatermania.com.
IN DIALOGUE is a column written by playwrights about playwrights, with a focus on showcasing new texts. If you are a playwright, and would like to write a column, please contact Emily DeVoti at: email@example.com.
Jason Grote is the author of 1001, Maria/Stuart, and Hamilton Township. He is writing the screenplay for What We Got: DJ Spooky's Quest For The Commons, and co-hosting the Acousmatic Theater Hour on WFMU.Sheila Callaghan
Sheila Callaghan is a playwright living in Brooklyn. Several of her short pieces will be seen as part of UNCLE SAM'S SATIRIC SPECTACULAR at this year's Humana Festival, and DEAD CITY, her loose adaptation of Joyce's ULYSSES, will be read on April 4 as part of the Public's New Works Now series. Visit her at sheilacallaghan.com