In the Cage of Our Own Making:
The Two-Character Play by Tenessee Williams
At 292 Theater
(292 E. Third, NYC, April 2014)
With Regina Bartkoff and Charles Schick. Directed by Romy Ashby.
The Two-Character Play (originally entitled Out Cry, 1971/1973) is a late play by Williams; it is also what we might call a meta-play, in contrast to his more famous tragi/romantic works. It is William’s version of a post-modern psycho drama—a play within a play within a life in which the characters are aware both of being in a play that seems to repeat itself, but also that the play is their life, and therefore they cannot escape it. They interact both as if they are on stage and as if they are not. They know the audience is there, or rather that the audience is possibly, perpetually arriving, but they are unsure if they should be concerned about it or not. (Sound familiar?) Despite being a departure from his normal style, The Two-Character Play is considered to be one of Williams’ most personal plays, with the characters Felice and Clare being somewhat based on Williams himself and his sister Rose, both of whom were at some time in their lives comitted to mental facilities. Therefore madness and confinement are part of the dramatic equation here.
The plot, such as it is, revolves round a brother and sister, Clare and Felice (played respectively by Regina Bartkoff and Charles Schick) living a reclusive life in their old family home, which is also “a decrepit state theater in an unknown state.” They are, of course, actors and believe themselves to be “on tour,” even though they never leave the house/theater. Felice and Clare can indeed seem “mad” as they argue constantly over their “confinement”—should they should leave the building? can they? and, more importantly, what has happened there that keeps them from leaving? This “what” is the murder/suicide of their parents, of which we never get a complete explanation. The brother’s and sister’s witness to, and possible participation in, this traumatic event serves as the elusive backdrop to their dilemma. Who is technically guilty in these deaths and/or why they happened, however, becomes less important than who feels the shame and guilt, and in this sense the idea of original sin makes its entrance, along with a whole slew of possible Oedipal concerns.
The play may well be the thing here but the play is a mystery constructed around layers of theatricality and purposeful confusion. There is a performance scheduled, but it seems the producers have pulled out, so it is unclear whether the play is actually supposed to go on. The “two characters” seem to be unsure if they are performing the play or rehearsing it as we watch it. Or are they merely talking about it? In any case, they edit as they go, cutting parts and disagreeing about what parts they should cut or whether they indeed have cut anything (kind of like editing one’s memory). They argue about the props and what use they are and what they might signify. They argue about the audience. Is the audience merely the outside world, i.e. the world outside their enclosure, which is the house/theater they live in, or is it us? The Two-Character Play provides plenty of metaphysical and psychological grist for the analyst’s mill, with both Existential and Freudian overtones, as well as some philosophical commentary on “theater” itself—what is its purpose is and how it can be distorted? All of this keeps the viewer intrigued as they try to figure it out.
Back to the core of the story, which is the crime that took place once upon a time. The audience is led at first to believe that the father murdered the mother (for reasons unknown). But the children think they should spin the story so that the mother has murdered the father and they would therefore be eligible for an insurance payout (I missed the logic behind this figuring, but it doesn’t really matter). As the play progresses, who killed who grows more ambiguous, and it is also becomes possible that the children have something to do with the murder. They have the gun (stowed in the piano, under a print of the Holbein Christ). and it is sometimes used as a threat between them—an end to their misery.
The narrative tension of the play comes from the character’s need to get through the day/week/year, while planning their “production” and carrying this incredible burden of guilt that is never resolved. In any case, it is this increasingly complicated psychological web that keeps them trapped in the house. Consequently, the two characters have little to do but spin their wheels in an endless cycle of repetition. In fact, repetition itself could be considered a theme, or at least a source of therapy, grounding the characters in a comforting routine. I’ll return to this idea presently, but for now it is worthwhile to consider a couple of ways to look at this murder/suicide as the center of their paralyzing vortex.
1) The murder/suicide may be the product of incest or abuse, between the parents or between the parents and the children. These types of hidden family secrets are common undercurrents in Williams’ work. The audience wonders what exactly was the dynamic between the parents leading up to the event? Were the children involved? Was it self-defense, retaliation? We will never know, and may well be misguided in thinking along these lines. But the aura of incest is there and seems to color the brother/sister relationship. (I am reminded here of the movie Shame, 2011). Returning to the theme of repetition, it is worth noting here that trauma often has the psychological result of trapping its victims in repetitive cycles of either reliving the traumatic event or repeating an imagined “alternative” scenario—both of which can be considered forms of theater perhaps.
2) Another way to interpret the murder/suicide (which does not preclude the first) is in the realm of metaphysics—a metaphor for the death of God perhaps (or some form of ritual sacrifice). In a pious Southern context, such a loss of authority would leave the pair spinning meaninglessly through their repetitive lives. It may seem a stretch to go all cosmic on the plot like this but there are precedents to do so, and we will address those precedents soon. For now I wish to reiterate that we cannot escape the importance of the role of theater, and we can even think of its ritual re-enactments, and the double life it provides, as an answer to our existential dilemma. Theater establishes repeatable patterns for reality and in doing so it tames the obliterating nature of time, providing a semblance of mean ing in an absurd and meaningless void.
It helps to remember that The Two-Character Play arises out of the Post War Era, and a traumatized Western culture which has also recently gone through significant social upheaval. As a way of contextualizing the above-stated issues, and perhaps providing a framework by which to analyze The Two-Character Play (1973), I will now briefly examine some works that preceded Williams’ play and which treat similar themes: Sartre’s No Exit (1944), Becketts Waiting for Godot (1953), and Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel (1961). While I will not claim that there is a direct influence, these works all deal with issues (guilt, the possibility of murder, suicide, the impotence of religion, existential entrapment) that recur in The Two-Character Play. Indeed, Williams could hardly not know about these works; he even admits to an influence by Beckett in his later career.
No Exit dates from 1944, and this is the play about which Sartre famously said, “Hell is other people.” No Exit might easily be called “The Three-Character Play.” Three characters, Joseph, Inès, and Estelle, who are dead, are introduced to a nicely appointed room in the afterlife where they expect to be punished for their previous sins but are in truth only confronted with each other. The play centers on the eventual confession each one makes as to their moral failings, all of which have to do with infidelity and the damage it causes. Joseph’s infidelity causes his wife to die of grief; Estelle’s infidelity leads to the murder of her child and the suicide of her husband; Inès’s infidelity causes her lover to murder her husband. When the three characters discover the door to the room is open and that they are free to leave, they cannot, as they still feel bound to justify themselves to the others. Not only are suicide and murder part of the characters’ past, but they become issues in the present. However, death is turned into a joke when Estelle stabs Inès and there is no result (as they are already dead). Then, in a parody of suicide, Inès even stabs herself producing fits of laughter amongst all three of them. They could kill themselves over and over again; it amounts to nothing but talk—there is indeed No Exit. We can easily see some of the themes we saw in The Two-Character Play as being prominent here: the hidden crime, the impotence of suicide, the inability to escape due to the need to justify one’s existence. Might as well pass the time arguing, as Joseph says: “Oh well, let’s continue . . .”
The second and perhaps more obvious possible influence on The Two-Character Play would be Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953), wherein two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, live the same day over and over again waiting for someone named Godot to show up. If you believe, as most do, that Vladimir and Estragon are in fact waiting for an ineffectual God, or authority figure, we can see how this waiting is similar to Clare and Felice’s anticipation of an audience which would justify their existence as actors. And just as Felice and Clare confront the dilemma of to be or not to be in the play, the Godot characters are also aware of the theatricality of their plight. This is reflected in Pozzo’s and Lucky’s stagey “performances,” but also in Didi and Gogo’s subtle “awareness” of an audience (often more prominent in actual staged performances). Argument as an attempt to fill the endless time, is also a theme in Godot, as when Gogo says “That’s it, let’s abuse each other,” entreating Did to join him in a dialogue of insults which eventually peters out. Even the idea of some past unspeakable crime such as murder and suicide, is part of the Godot discussion, albeit on a fairly abstract level. The idea of murder comes into play when, early in the second half, Estragon accuses Vladimir of murdering “the other,” which quickly becomes the “others,” or all the others, the murder of humans in general. In Godot this could be a reference to the recent catastrophic World War, but it doubles as a reference to original sin, and not the sexual sin of Judeo Christian theology but the “sin” integral to all life—that it depends on death.
Albert Camus once claimed that suicide is the only real important question that an individual faces in life. In other words, faced with the meaninglessness of life, does one continue to live or not; it’s a choice each of us has to make. In Godot, Didi and Gogo challenge each other to end their misery by hanging themselves. In The Two-Character Play, the siblings challenge each other to end their misery with a gun.
In both cases the suicide does not happen. In Beckett, the characters use the flimsy excuse that they just don’t have the right equipment—no appropriate rope. Williams’ characters simply can’t do it. It’s worth noting that there is another similarity between these possible suicides. Clare and Felice would use the same gun that was used in the murder of their parents, therefore re-enacting the annihilation of authority/comfort that once structured their lives. In Godot, the two hobos would hang themselves from a tree, thus re-enacting the death of their God (Christ), a god who should have provided structure and comfort for their lives, and whom they have replaced with the ineffectual Godot. Beckett puts this Christianity front and center, but in Williams, if it is there, it is obscured.
Lastly I would briefly address Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, which came out in 1961, roughly corresponding to the time that Williams began to work on The Two-Character Play. The plot of the film is a group of people who find they are unable to leave a dinner party at the lavish manor of their host, Señor Edmundo Nobile. There is no reason they can’t leave except that they seem to be trapped by their interactions with each other. Over time the party degenerates and more animal instincts come into play. The guests become hungry and hostile, even murderous. One young couple, Béatriz and Eduardo, commit suicide in despair. It finally occurs to one of the guests, La Valkiria, that if they analyze their conversations and actions from when they first arrived, they may be able to free themselves. In other words, the trap is to be found in the development of their relationships, their need somehow to justify their existence to the others. The web that keeps them in bondage is their conversation and once these ties are exposed and unraveled they are able to leave and, in fact, they do leave. However, the fate accompli of repetition expresses itself when, in a similar situation, some of guests go to seek repentance for their sins in a local cathedral. Suddenly all the people in the cathedral realize, for some reason, that they are unable to leave. In effect, the situation at the Nobile manor is repeating itself; they might have left one enclosure but they are then trapped in another. Just like the endlessly repeating day of Vladimir and Estragon or Joseph, Inezs and Estelle; just like the repeating play of Clare and Felice—all the drama we produce is not only a trap, but it may well be a welcome one. Do we really want to escape? Is there even an existence outside of these traps?
While the other works discussed above share similar themes to Williams’ play, we can feel that they they may not be nearly as personal. They tend to be abstract meditations on the modern problems of human existence. What makes The Two-Character Play unique is the way Williams brings those psychological and existential issues close to the heart. He combines the cerebral with the personal, the architypal with the quotidian. The viewer cannot remain at a distance, as he or she is in the living room of the dilemma, feeling the anguish. So while The Two Character Play may have been negatively received as too great a departure from the Williams’ ouevre, it is in fact of a piece with his other works, only with a different focus, a different perspective, something that all great artists strive for, if only in trying to understand themselves.
Bartkoff and Schick are obvious fans of Williams, especially little-know Williams, as evidenced by their 2012 production of In the Bar of A Tokyo Hotel, and they bring great passion and detail to the production. The Two-Character Play is seldom produced and Bartkoff and Schick are to be commended for bringing it to life. Thanks to Romy Ashby, Brandon Lim and Michael Aguirre, the excellent set design is appropriately surreal and claustrophobic—a perfect match for the play’s psychological landscape—and the audience sits so close they are implicated in the actor’s emotions. The walls are papered with magazine and newspaper clippings of the era, which gives the room an aura of psychotic nostalgia as well as lingering OCD. (Incidentally, the paintings on the wall are the works of the actors themselves.)
I would be remiss here not to mention the comic elements in the play, a kind of self-aware absurdity, that the actors bring to life, fluidly switching between comedy, tragedy and psycho-drama. In this sense it is, like Godot, a tragi-comedy. Williams himself used the term “slapstick-tragedy” to refer to some of his later works. Both Bartkoff and Schick are comfortable and accomplished with comedy and so managing the shift between comedy and drama here is a feat they pull off effortlessly. My only comment on the acting (at least when I saw it) would be this: it could afford to slow down just a tad to draw out the weirdness and dreamlike qualities. I felt sometimes they were too caught up in a rapid fire dialogue. This was something the troupe was aware of and as the play ripened over the course of its run, the dialogue did slow down to a more natural pace
That said, Charles Schick as Felice, channels various southern smarmy psycho cliches but he does it with a sense of self-aware, even self-mocking irony that makes Felice seem a thousand years old, while at the same time a child, and justifiably disengaged from this absurd situation he finds himself in.
Regina Bartkoff plays the traditional Williams role of the very breakable but potentially violent female albeit with a slightly manic energy balanced by a comic self-regard. She too has a kind of worldly been-though-this-a-few-times-before knowing smirk to her character. They both bring their characters a contemporary edge without sacrificing the Williams’ aura. It should also be mentioned that Bartkoff and Schick are a real life couple augmenting the aura of intimacy to this very intimate play.
The 292 Theater is everything the East Village used to be: scrappy, visionary, experimental and intimate. It is run by dedicated artists who love the work and do it “for art’s sake.” All in all, this is a truly exciting presentation of a play that is unustly obscure and we can only hope that this production leads to others