A play by Don De Lillo
Reviewed by Bonny Finberg
As Aristotle stated that a man doesn’t know his life until he dies, Don De Lillo asks: what is a life and whose are we living?
Love-Lies-Bleeding, his third and latest play, also the name of an ornate plant with hanging clusters of red flowers, is written in the compressed poetics of speech between intimates. DeLillo paints a compact miniature of the injured relationships that cluster around a life at its end. As Bachelard illuminated the poetics of space, DeLillo demonstrates the poetics of mind with exquisite force. People speak to each other as one would to oneself, speaking to themselves as if speaking to another.
DeLillo constructs his play by containing the present action between a past moment split into the opening and closing scenes.
In the opening scene, Alex, a 70-year-old painter, living in self-exile in the Arizona desert, is seated in a wheelchair after a stroke. He speaks, with great difficulty, about the first dead body he ever saw. He was an 11-year-old boy riding a NYC subway train with his father next to him obliviously reading the race results. He watched the dirty grey figure, its mouth wide open, bobbing to the rhythm of the moving train, unnoticed by the other passengers, absorbed in the languid routines that presumably gave their lives meaning. He was unafraid, except that the body might fall out of its seat and tumble to the floor.
In the following scene, a year later, Alex is seated in the wheelchair, after a massive, second stroke which has left him in a hanging-jaw-coma. Gathered around are three characters: Lia, his devoted, much younger wife; Toinette, the once younger second wife; and Sean, Alex’s grown son, born after Alex abandoned his mother for Toinette. All three present arguments as to whether Alex is aware of them—or even himself—or not.
DeLillo is a master of portraying how the personal intersects with the universal. In this way, his main character, Alex, kaleidoscopically revealed through a complex of relationships and time shifts, reminds us of the cautious attempts we make in trying to forge relationships without disappearing. Memories are brought out of the darkness through the prismatic recollections of Alex’s son and two wives.
Toinette tells Lia about Alex’s indifference to Sean’s birth. When Sean later speaks to his father, now in a vegetative state, he describes feeling ignored, but in awe, obsessed with this still inaccessible father. He makes a case for easing his father into death with increased doses of morphine, ultimately convincing Toinette. They try to convince Lia, who wonders if they are pleading for Alex’s release, or their own. She insists that the dying have a right to suffer, that endurance is the last effort before there is nothing at all.
Alex’s first act revelations resume in the last scene, suggesting that the past is the only present that matters, existing as it does in a timeless presence, even in our absence. Alex grasps that his early confrontation with a dead man was the defining moment of his life with a clarity that perhaps can only arise from a living mind inside a dying body:
“What good is a life that doesn’t experience some trace of all possible lives…I mean, shouldn’t the man on the subway train, the man on a park bench who has no shoes, who’s too beaten down even to beg, sitting there, so frail and soiled-shouldn’t I be able to be in his life, be who he is, even for half a minute?”
Here, DeLillo proposes that empathy is all—we are doomed as strangers if we recoil from understanding. Our unspoken thoughts and observations become part of our fabric and silently die with us. The only evidence of who we truly were remains in the memories of those left behind, where there is still some pulse of the details. And the details are in our recognitions of each other.
“Loves-Lies-Bleeding” was published in January 2006. It will open in Chicago in May 2006. Don De Lillo’s two other plays are “The Day Room,” first performed in April, 1986 and published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.1987, and “Valparaiso,” first performed January 1999 and published by Scribner, 2003.
The premier performance, by the Steppenwolfe Theater Company , will take place in Chicago April 27-May 28th, 2006, Amy Morton directing; then as part of the Kennedy Center Theater Series in Washington, D.C from Jun 17 - 25, 2006.
©Bonny Finberg, May, 2006, NYC