In December of 1989, I was home from college, having just finished the fall semester of my freshman year. (Guess you now know how old I am. Oh well.) During that semester, I made my theatrical debut in the Student Theatre production of Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy – barring the occasional elementary school pageant, the very first time I had ever acted on stage. Bitten by the proverbial bug, I knew I wanted to commit my energies to the theater – but aside from the classic titles I’d read in high school, I had no familiarity with anything that had been written for the theater. I’m not sure I’d read any play written since after I was born. And so, figuring that it would be helpful to actually know something about the path I was starting down, I set about trying to educate myself about contemporary theatrical literature.
Since this was, as I mentioned, December of 1989, there were a host of “Best of the Decade” lists being published. It may seem a little obvious in retrospect (a little “basic,” as the kids say), but those lists were as good a place as any. And indeed, my interest was piqued by one title in particular – or, more accurately, the description by Newsday writer Linda Winer (if memory serves) of that title. “Long Day’s Journey Into Night done as a Far Side cartoon,” it read, and a better means of hooking angry, still-teenaged me could not have been devised.
This was a descriptive blurb for Christopher Durang’s The Marriage of Bette and Boo, and it served as my introduction to the man and his work. When I tracked down that play – my local library was somehow with-it enough to have it in their stacks, in December of 1989 – it far, far surpassed even that glorious description. Indeed, it resonated with me in ways that few playscripts have ever done. It’s a dysfunctional family saga, of course, unsparing in its portrayal of alcoholism and frustrated desires and how they manifest as generational trauma. And it smartly points out how religious conservatism (it’s Durang, so it’s specifically Catholic conservatism here) and Eisenhower-era social conformity only serves to make the situation worse. But any number of plays could – and have – tackle this sort of subject matter, and it’s Durang’s style that makes the piece so memorable. Lightning fast, laden with non sequiturs, and with moments of horrifying surrealism breaking into what seem to be naturalistic scenes – with the characters blithely accepting the horror – it seemed to me, on some fundamental level, to ring true.
I’ve binged plenty of Durang, through the many decades since. Not all of his plays are as large as Bette and Boo, though the ones that are wrestle – modern classics like Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All, fiery recent work like Why Torture Is Wrong and the People Who Love Them – wrestle with equally weighty themes. Many of them are slight, parodies, almost skits. But all of them ring true, to me, at that fundamental level. The non-sequitur logic, the whiplash shifts from the mundane to the monstrous and back, all seem to reflect something essential about reality. I’ve spent the past several decades eagerly awaiting my next fix, Durang’s latest insights, his next play.
Sadly, it seems that there won’t be any further plays. Christopher Durang’s family and colleagues announced this past week that the playwright is suffering from logopenic primary progressive aphasia. As a result, his language faculties are significantly impaired, and he can no longer communicate through the written or spoken word. It’s awful – and frankly, it’s exactly the sort of grotesque irony you’d expect to find in one of his plays.
That being the case, I fully expect (and strongly encourage) folks to reread and revisit his works in the coming weeks. I’m sure that major revivals will be on the horizon over the next few seasons, as well as community and college productions aplenty. And to all of the theatre artists about to embark on this retrospection, I have one personal plea to make:
Get it right, dammit.
I haven’t had a chance to perform in Durang, outside of a single scene from Beyond Therapy in a long-ago acting class. I likewise never had the occasion to see the original productions of any of his works. But I’ve seen innumerable revivals, of all manner of his works; I’ve seen two of my beloved Bette and Boo alone. And somehow, every single time, something has been…off. The material has either been played too heavy, or as purely frivolous and silly. Too many moments come off as labored, or overly broad or mannered, or simply don’t land. It’s possible that, like a favorite Shakespeare play, I’m too attached to these scripts – no production is going to come close to the ideal version in my head. But it seems to me, in production after production, that too much energy is spent trying to perfect the balance of the piece. To solve the mystery of that specifically Durang tone.
And what I can’t stress enough, the whole reason fell in love with his plays in the first place, is that there’s no mystery to solve. The whole secret of Durang’s cartoon style is that we actually are trapped in an ongoing cartoon apocalypse. I mean, dear lord, look around you – we’re in the middle of a years-long plague that won’t end because people would rather die than put a piece of cloth across their nose and mouth, and while that’s going on Congress is investigating a coup attempt launched by a failed game show host who happened to be President of the United States at the time. If you have the presence of mind to look around you and see that’s what’s going on, then you understand Durang’s satire. It’s just simple reporting. He did what all artists are supposed to do – he told the damn truth. That’s it.
And thankfully, the truth has a habit of lingering. Even after the words have faded.