A New American Master

BY LLOYD ROSE

To CREATE A masterpiece and have it go unrecognized is the artist’s nightmare. John Guare has been living that nightmare for nearly two years, ever since Gardenia and Lydie Breeze opened in New York, almost back to back, in early 1982, met with mixed reviews and small audiences, and closed after four weeks. These two plays of his as-yet-unfinished Lydie Breeze cycle (a third, Women and Water, will open next autumn at the Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre) can be taken together, as two parts of one great theatrical whole. As such, they are an extraordinary memory-drama of our country’s past, as personally and luminously vivid as any autobiographical play, part farce, part tragedy, part parody, part dream. Gardenia and Lydie Breeze are not only the finest and most sophisticated response to the dashed ideals of the sixties by any American filmmaker or dramatist but also a majestic fulfillment of the themes and obsessions that Guare has been spinning across the stage for the past eighteen years.

Of the three major American dramatists of the seventies—the other two are generally acknowledged to be Lanford Wilson and Sam Shepard—Guare is the odd man out. Where Wilson is sentimental and lyrical and Shepard visceral and mythic, Guare is cerebral, a little abstract. He writes music (he did the songs for his most popular play, The House of Blue Leaves), and his plays feel like librettos set to some manic melody he can’t get out of his head. Certainly they give the sense, as John Stuart Mill wrote of poetry, of having been overheard. Guare is in love with language, and the American dreamers of his plays revel in talk. They tell long, marvelous stories. They give long, impassioned monologues. And they never really listen to one another. As a playwright, Guare is the heir of Chekhov, whose comedy lies in his characters’ self-involvement.

Guare’s people are not paying any attention to one another because they’re focused on their dreams, wherever those may lie: in the future, in the past, inside their heads. They have had images of what they would become, the lives they would lead, but somehow none of it is working out and they can’t understand why. In his foreword to The House of Blue Leaves, Guare equates this situation with living in Queens (where the play is set and where Guare was born, in 1938, and spent his Irish Catholic boyhood). Each is a temporary stopover until things get better and one can move on and up, “the pay-off that [is] the birthright of every American.” But no one moves on and up. Chekhov’s three sisters never got to Moscow; Guare’s characters never get to Manhattan. In their collective voice, he writes:

Why don’t I get the breaks? What happened? I’m hip. I’m hep. I’m a New Yorker. The heart of the action. Just a subway ride to the heart of the action. I want to be part of that skyline. I want to blend into those lights. Hey dreams, I dreamed you. I’m not something you curb a dog for. New York is where it all is. So why aren’t I here?

Guare’s characters are desperate to avoid reality, so it falls on them and smashes their heads. In the course of their farcical, selfish scrambling they meet terrible fates: a boy is decapitated; two analysands stab each other; a man strangles his crazy wife; lovers are shot; suicides are committed; nuns explode. “Why shouldn’t Strindberg and Feydeau get married, at least live together .. . ?” Guare writes in the foreword to The House of Blue Leaves.

The majority of Guare’s protagonists, in their single-minded fixation on what they think will make them happy, are in the mainstream tradition of farce. But most of Guare’s plays aren’t structured as farce. His comedy isn’t generated primarily by plot but through words. Guare has the ear of a poet-vaudevillian. In this respect, he is like Beckett, but he’s less self-consciously poetic and more fun-loving. He hears the underlying patterns of speech and understands the comic surprises to be had from putting a spin on the expectations that a sentence’s form arouses in a listener. What is probably Guare’s most famous line (owing to its being in a movie, Atlantic City, rather than a play) is a perfect example of his comic sense of language at work: Lou, an aging, second-rate mobster, what few days of glory he has had long gone, gazes at the sea and tells a young punk, “The Atlantic Ocean used to be something. You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days.”

GUARE APPEARS TO love language not just because it can render his ideas but for its own sake. Words arouse his curiosity: he bats them around to see what will happen. A hint of this objective fascination shows up in the opening lines of his early one-act play, The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year. A young woman feeding pigeons in Central Park is confronted by a frantic young man:

HE. (Terror-stricken.) I don’t want you feeding pigeons because I just saw pigeons at the Seventy Ninth Street Entrance and the covey of them—the whole bunch of them—whatever you call a bunch of pigeons—a gaggle—all those pigeons had foam— (She stops rummagingthrough her purse.) Were foaming at the mouths.

SHE. (Simply.) I’ll scream.

HE. At the beaks? Pigeons were foaming at the beaks—all of them.

Bunch. Covey. Gaggle. Mouths. Beaks. In the very act of warning, he is searching for the exact word to convey the odd reality of pigeons foaming like mad dogs.

Rabid pigeons are tame stuff for Guare; his plays are full of much stranger happenings. A man has a sex-change operation and then, through artificial insemination, fathers his/her own child. A woman stuffs her cancerous wound with Kotex and, to cure herself, stands by a window in the night air, waving a statue of Saint Jude. One of the lions outside the New York Public Library comes alive and eats a member of the staff . . .

But the action of the plays is not as wild as these events, which the audience is told about rather than shown. It’s the extraordinary, language-drunk monologues that burst with craziness. The static, nonconnecting predicaments of Guare’s people translate directly into his dramatic style. Large portions of his plays are taken up with discussions of what has happened or what will happen; the present of the drama is the characters’ relating to the past and the future. One can crudely describe the structure of a Guare play as a series of monologues thrown together by a more-or-less arbitrary plot: the monologues bounce against one another until something cracks. This is a peculiar method of constructing plays. But although Guare may break all the rules of dramatic structure, he still commands the only talent a playwright really needs: he makes an audience ask “What next?”

They may often have asked more in vexation than in eagerness. Guare has written his share of plays that simply don’t work. Marco Polo Sings a Solo, which is set in the Arctic Circle, is chock full of one nutty thing after another— not only the transsexual who fathers his/ her own child but also gestation-shortening rays and plants that sprout out of a character’s hands. Bosoms and Neglect attempts to connect neglected lives with neglected authors and to juggle this conceit with cancer. But Guare is frequently most brilliant when he is most off the wall. His mad, glittering failures, whatever their faults as plays, are always unmistakably the work of a great writer.

Guare jams the plays with adultery, murder, madness, theft, injury, mistaken identity, blackmail. These are the same melodramatic cliches from which Ibsen built his dramas. But whereas Ibsen transcended them through superb craftsmanship and the force of his moral sensibility, Guare merrily piles them one atop the other until they tumble over, a satiric abundance of misfortunes that explodes the conventions of nineteenth-century melodrama through overcrowding.

And each horror is dramatized with a deft and startling eccentricity. Just after we have heard a terrible and graphic account of Lydie’s suicide (she hanged herself), Guare gives us that dawn seance, in which young Lydie is instructed to tell her mother’s spirit what she has learned. She recites a recipe, getting most of the quantities wrong and leaving out the salt and the nutmeg.

This tonal shift is so abrupt it’s disorienting; it’s as sudden and frightening (yet mysteriously right) as the dislocations we experience in dreams. We’re watching peoples’ lives and hopes, and our country’s idealism, collapse. We have every reason to expect sober austerity. What we get is jokes, looniness, images that seem to have been thrown in from the wings. It’s as if Ibsen had been translated by Lewis Carroll.

Not that Guare can’t be straightforward enough when he pleases. The center of the plays lies in a simple conversation Lydie and Joshua have when she visits him in prison. “We wanted perfection,” she says. “So we thought we were perfection.” He confesses to her that he murdered Dan not from fierce, romantic passion but for small reasons, ending ruefully, “Oh Christ—in all our dreaming, we never allowed for the squalid, petty furies. We lived on a beach in a vast landscape. We mistook the size of the ocean, the size of the sky, for the size of our souls.”

But Guare prefers to work elliptically, skidding past the dangers of pretension and dullness. Toward the end of Lydie Breeze, he puts forward the idea that perhaps the only possible connection between people is forgiveness. Where a lesser playwright might have given us a long and boringly message-ridden soliloquy, Guare uses a Ouija board. Gussie, Joshua and Lydie’s daughter, is playing with it, and it keeps spelling out FORG. Joshua tells her it means she should “Forget here. Forget your father. Forget Nantucket.” Gussie retorts that it means “forge ahead. For Gussie. Forget me not. Forgo any bad thoughts.” Neither of them figures out what the letters are actually spelling, but during this scene they forgive each other. And by the play’s end, Joshua has forgiven young Lydie, whom he has brought up as his own but never truly accepted, for being Dan’s child.

IT’S THIS TENSION between Guare’s bizarre sense of invention and the dramatic and social conventions of the nineteenth century that sets the plays spinning like a top: the core may sleep on an axis of loss and dreams, but the surface is whirling. Guare’s refusal to tell his story straight, his commitment to the unexpected and the berserk, gives Gardenia and Lydie Breeze a giddy exhilaration. They’re a screwball epic.

Yet for all their whirligig plotting and crazy humor, they’re graceful where his other plays were frenetic, sustained in their power rather than explosive. Their American past is as much Guare’s invention as his Queens or Arctic Circle, but whereas those settings seemed like nutty dreams, his Nantucket colony has the glow and the distortion of memory. The plays roll through lives and years from the Civil War to the edge of the twentieth century, from hope to ruin to hope again, held and enclosed by that visionary fragment from Whitman.

But Guare has reached further back than Whitman for his underlying literary structure. It is late Shakespearean comedy, with its vision of healing and continuance in the reconciliation of fathers and daughters (Lydie Breeze, in particular, has its roots in The Tempest) that accounts for the mysterious serenity of Guare’s plays. By their final scene, all scores have been settled, all lovers have found each other, the father and his daughters have made peace. Young Lydie, waiting on her first suitor and her approaching menstruation, sits beside Joshua, and he teaches her to read: “All spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large. . . .”

At the beginning of Gardenia, Guare has Howells write to Joshua, “Let the brisk air of America blow through your vigorous imagination.” Guare has taken his own advice. That air blows through Gardenia and Lydie Breeze—the bracing air we breathe only rarely, and then only on the heights.