At Wrest in the Middle of Time with Will Eno
“So, there’s birth and death, but, really, another way to say that is that there’s this one event we probably don’t remember, and this other one we may not really experience. Described like that you sort of wonder why we put so much emphasis on those two points.”
I had asked the playwright Will Eno about the middle. Despite my having delighted in his 2010 play Middletown’s pronounced protracted middle of double intermission—one for the players to play the audience, one for the audience to go to the bathroom and talk about the players playing the audience—I still wasn’t entirely convinced he believed such a thing existed. I asked him what it’s like to start? To end? Since my first reading of Thom Pain (based on nothing) (the monologue that propelled his New York career forward in 2004), Eno’s work has always reminded me that the end begins right before the beginning. So much beginning and ending. And yet Eno continues:
“I sometimes think it’s all middle, you know? I once read a very dense and mathematical article that proposed we are usually, statistically, almost always in the middle of something…somehow or other the numbers were crunched so as to show that, in terms of events like the lifespan of the sun, we are, and will be for a long time, somewhere in the middle of that lifespan.”
[Note: Tragedy: a tragedy, Eno’s 2001 play, has a news team reporting on a final setting of the sun.]
Wherever the sun is in its lifespan, Will Eno is in the middle of a whole lot. At the moment he is up in New Haven with the director Sam Gold, in final rehearsals for The Realistic Joneses opening in late Aprilat Yale Rep. And less than three weeks into that run, his newest monologue for the theater, Title And Deed, opens at the Signature Theatre in midtown. Title and Deed will be the first production of Eno’s five-year residency there (a novel and exciting thing in its own right), and his first full collaboration with the Gare St. Lazare Players of Ireland.
Speaking of his collaboration with Gare St. Lazare and the wife (director) and husband (actor) team of Judy Hegarty-Lovett and Conor Lovett, Eno explains: “I think I’m a fairly American person, and I think those guys are fairly Irish, but we all get together and it just seems like we’re all some third nationality.”
Eno has been in touch with the Lovetts since seeing a production of Beckett’s Molloy—Conor performing, Judy directing—years ago at the Irish Arts Center. “I remember it rained and you could hear the rain on the roof and I just thought it was great. I got in touch with those guys and we stayed in touch and sometime around the year 2000 I went over to France and we did a workshop of a play of mine. They are really lovely people and we’ve been trying to figure out a way to work together for a long time.”
With Title and Deed, wherein a “fairly” foreign person arrives in a “fairly” American place, they have finally found a collaborative project perfectly suited to their “third nationality.” As with all of Eno’s plays, love, lifespan, death, the durability of language, and the biodegradability of desire figure prominently. But in Eno’s own way, he has also written an immigration play. Almost all Eno’s characters are torn between here and there in some way, but Mr. Lovett will embody a man whose split is not just metaphysical but explicitly geographical, a man constantly negotiating not just the performance of his public self and the machinations of his mind, but the psychic residue of straddling national constructions. From Title and Deed:
But don’t get the wrong idea. We weren’t all muddy skies and weeping and fornicating in the gravel. We were good at sports. Or, not sports, exactly. But, we had a national bird and special days when everything was closed. I think every country has a Memorial Day, has War Dead to honor, or some bright moment when the nation was born. Ours fell in September, and the custom was to make bread for anyone who asked. We were a good people, us.
And then the slide from universality to singularity is fast:
I like to think I’m a good person. I mean, not deep down.
Going to see a Will Eno play is like going to an amusement park of everyday malaise. Not the roller-coaster section. The quieter corners of the amusement park. Log flume. Haunted house. Your existential dread is aroused, is dropped onto a haunted log flume and aurally accelerated by events on stage, mostly by the stringing together of words, by events in language. But somehow in the acceleration you are calmed, you get to leave a little lighter. Or more convinced that you are not alone. Even though you are, you absolutely are. More, that your loneliness is not alone. Your inability to be understood is not unique. Your loneliness has fantastic company. Everyone is having a really hard time, too. We are all just waiting for our cells to metastasize as the Mechanic (and town ne’er-do-well) reminds us in Middletown:
…Whhhshhhhhh. Whhhshhhhhh. That’s my impression of a cell dividing—or, I don’t know, metastasizing. Same thing, probably, for a while—until it isn’t. I learned that word through relatives. (Brief Pause). By the way, I started drinking again. I don’t know if people know that I’d stopped for a while? I did.
We are all just waiting for cellular insurrection, for our organs to destroy each other, but this is no reason not to briefly buck up like the Mechanic, and try.
Trying is a big Eno motif.
What makes a Will Eno hero is that he can get up in the morning. Will Eno writes heroes for our time.
There is this moment in Middletown, where the Mechanic, who also dresses up for sick children at the hospital, is behind the hospital. It’s his birthday, he’s jonesin’. A doctor spends a few minutes with him. Decides to give him a fix. She has pills in her pocket. She is licensed to dispense. He is needy. The pills can help him.
We all have something. Religion. Xanax. Market greens. Something. And we all need something. Religion. OxyContin. Market greens. Something. So, the best we can do is share generously from our mismatched bounties to fill our mismatched holes. And that’s what the doctor does: leans down from the loading dock, accidentally drops a vial, and gives the birthday boy some pills.
Her action is more Hippocratic, to assuage pain, than hypocritical.
Compulsive, kid-like, Eno reaches into the language jar and sculpts people like us out of malleable spirited words, people with our problems, with our propensities to wither in commitment, to not understand, to grasp at meaning and come away with crumbs, to eventually succumb to a cancer of one kind or another. Yet they live their failures with a poetry we often can’t muster. And somehow he manages from a distance to give them all together a unity that we don’t have, or maybe can’t see. All of Middletown together—the townspeople unknowingly, the play itself with a great deal more self-awareness—is engaged in a Sisyphean striving for equanimity.
Will Eno’s characters are not always being kind. His people can be mean to each other, can be mean to us, their audience, but the meanness almost always comes from exhaustion, despair. There is no real villainy. As in Wilder’s Our Town, only time is feloniously capable. Eno’s characters, like us out in the seats, are, despite our best efforts, just a string of misdemeanors. Capable of petty upset on our best days.
Yet, true to his characters, and to his best hopes for us, Eno keeps trying.
And what we get are shipwrecked Greeks, sometimes a town full of them, sometimes a lone ranger, steeped in stand-up and sarcasm, but with rigorous thought intact, exploring first world problems, and mystically gut-renovating words. The balance of pathos and humor, the balance of If____, Then____ and Fuck You, never stops being exciting.
I think the words take a toll. They sort of wear you down, certain sounds, as they move past. “Past.” But I wouldn’t trade them for anything, words. No, actually, I would. I would, but, for what, and with whom?
Such is realized and rationalized by the Man who visits us in Title and Deed. It is a quandary that both Eno and the Man return to:
People give them a hard time, but, words, are fine, as said earlier, they do the trick. ‘My horse is sick.’ ‘Hand me that lamp.’ I make these sounds and someone understands, someone comprehends, and they hand me a lamp or destroy my horse. Which is a miracle, sense and meaning, feeling, that we get across even a tenth of it.
Even if life is a series of turns down ever-foggier alleys—take a sharp right at parents are not infallible, and there you are at the intersection of doctors are just guessing and the gods are dead—even if in the end we are impotent, alone, misunderstood, failing each other terribly; that we have created structures, exchanges, rituals of interaction, and most importantly sounds that attempt to mean and get part of the way there, however disappointingly, these are all miracles. Amazing. Given our origins. Hunting, gathering. Conquering. Brutalizing.
Yes, of course we still do all these things. But as with well-conditioned children, now there are time-delays, there is more restraint, there is air-brushing, public relations. With restraint, though, comes cancer, stomach-upset. This is our world, and Eno’s plays, at turns plaintively earnest and defensively dismissive, are the epic poems of this world.
Back to old Thom Pain. Shuttling between telling stories and gently taunting us, he asks:
When did your childhood end? How badly did you get hurt, when you did, when you were this wee little hurtable thing, nothing but big eyes, a heart, a few hundred words? Isn’t it wonderful how we never recover? Injuries and wounds, ladies and gents. Slights and abuses, oh, what a paradise. Living in fear, suiting the hurt to our need. I’m serious.
And he is, I think. Eno is, at least, if not Thom Pain himself, suiting the hurt to his needs…and ours.
Howling in the caverns of our language, treading in the unknowing, grabbing at the driftwood of joke, generally trying, Will Eno is waging a passive-aggressive battle in words against time. Or maybe he’s making a peace offering.
Title and Deed, by Will Eno, directed by Judy Hegarty Lovett, with Conor Lovett, runs May 8 – June 17 at Signature Theatre (480 West 42nd Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues, New York, NY) in association with Gare St. Lazare Players Ireland. For tickets and further info, visit www.signaturetheatre.org.
The Realistic Joneses, by Will Eno, directed by Sam Gold, runs April 20 – May 12 at Yale Repertory Theatre (1120 Chapel Street, New Haven, CT). For tickets and further info, visit www.yalerep.org.
BEN GASSMAN is a playwright from Queens.