Absurdity of Life in Modernist Drama Essay

Absurdity of Life in Modernist Drama

Although not prolific, the contemporary American playwright Peter Morris demonstrates very readily the way in which the absurdist strain in modernist drama has carried through into the early twenty-first century. What is most interesting about Morris’s work in this light is the way that earlier theatrical movements — most particularly the theater of the absurd — are being incorporated and effectively used as one rhetorical tactic among others in the playwright’s repertoire. I hope through an examination of four plays by Morris — the verse play “The Death of Tintagel,” the two politically-themed monologue plays The Age of Consent and Guardians, and the satirical comedy Gaudeamus — to demonstrate that the central tenets of the earlier absurdist drama, the notion that life is meaningless and yet the human instinct to search for meaning in life is unending, are still being kept alive in the contemporary theater. The chief difference in Morris’s work — from the works of those who were styled practitioners of mid-twentieth-century “theater of the absurd” such as Ionesco or Beckett — is that the absurdism is chiefly rhetorical and intellectualized. In three of the four plays under consideration, we witness nothing more than actors speaking directly to an audience. Instead of sober bourgeois folk turning into rhinoceroses onstage or desperate tramps squabbling over carrots and turnips, absurdism in the work of Morris is treated more or less philosophically: the plays exhibit the intellectual habits of absurdist drama, while adhering to a relatively conservative (if not downright undramatic) form of stagecraft.

I would like to begin this examination of Morris’s work with an examination of the least characteristic play of the four under consideration, which might also be considered the one that is most fully oriented toward the absurdist strain in modern drama. This is Morris’s 2003 play “The Death of Tintagel,” published that year in the Paris Review then later staged in London in late 2010. Although “The Death of Tintagel” is described, in a prefaratory note by the author, as a “version” of a symbolist drama by Maurice Maeterlinck, a quick glance at the original drama by Maeterlinck reveals very little similarity: Morris’s play is written mostly in jingling rhymed verse, with interpolated songs, while Maeterlinck’s 1894 original Le Mort de Tintagiles is written in long blocks of late nineteenth century prose. Critic Alex Burghart describes Morris’s text as “wrapping the text in a creepy-funny rhyme scheme” (Burghart 2010). What we are witnessing is an early twenty-first-century playwright looking back at a late nineteenth-century playwright — one who has largely fallen out of the performance canon — and finding aspects of the drama which would appear to be distinct premonitions of the modern absurdist impulse. In Maeterlinck’s original play — which was intended to be performed by marionettes — three figures (two sisters and a knight) stay up all night to protect a young child from being kidnapped by the queen of the throne to which the boy is heir. They stave off one attempt by the queen’s minions to kidnap the boy, but then eventually fall asleep, leaving the child to be kidnapped. And Maeterlinck’s play ends with a strange scene: the older of the two sisters, Ygraine, follows the trail down to the bowels of the castle, where the child can be heard from behind a wall with a large locked door. Ygraine speaks to the child through the door, until he stops responding, then Maeterlinck’s play concludes with an exceptionally lengthy prose soliloquy by Ygraine delivered to the unopenable door. The original drama is eerie and morbid, although the fact that Maeterlinck believed it necessary to be performed by puppets seems slightly odd: there is nothing humorous about the original play. The version by Morris, however, is intended to be performed by actual humans, but is quite obviously funny in the absurdist fashion. This is perhaps most noteworthy when the restive child Tintagel demands that someone sing him a lullaby. The younger of the two sisters watching him, Bellangere, responds with the following:

Little Boy Blue

He blew his horn

From late at night

To early morn

Futility, Tillity, O.

Little Boy Blue,

My little brother,

He blew so hard

He started to smother

Futility, Tillity, O.

He turned so blue

For want of breath

That Little Boy Blue

He blew to death.

Futility, Tillity, O. (“Tintagel” 94)

Needless to say, this text appears nowhere in the original play that Morris is riffing off of. But of course what this “lullaby” suggests is the basic tenets of absurdism — the repeated chorus of the song uses the word “futility” but turns it into a sort of nonsense word (like “hey nonny”). It is worth noting that the actual children’s song that this is recollecting, “Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn” does not make a tremendous amount of sense either, although it seems to involve farm preparations. Here, the boy blowing is horn is a purely pointless, indeed suicidal, act. But to add to the absurdism, Morris turns the song into an extended riff on the underlying pun that seems to be lurking in the ancient nursery rhyme, where “come blow your horn” is put into the past tense as “he blew his horn,” but also awakens the pun on “blew” and “blue.” However, the real point of the lullaby in the overall context of Morris’s “The Death of Tintagel” is even more obviously absurdist. Shortly before requesting the lullaby, Tintagel has requested a bedtime story. At this point Aglovale — the only adult male present, and represented as an aged knight in Maeterlinck’s original drama but as an effete fin-de-siecle dandy in Morris’s play — responds with a refusal to offer the child a bedtime story, explaining:

AGLOVALE: A story like that might leave you perplexed.

If it’s overexplicit, or oversexed,

If it’s violent, shocking, ghoulish, gory

That is such a predictable sort of story.

You can tell what happens just by hearing the title.

In those tales, the details are never vital.

TINTAGEL: Well, what will be my story tonight?

AGLOVALE: Tonight is untitled. That page is white. (“Tintagel” 93)

The joke here is that, in some works of literature, “you can tell what happens just by hearing the title” — which is particularly relevant when the work is entitled Le Mort de Tintagiles or “The Death of Tintagel.” In Maeterlinck’s original drama, all the adults are aware that the queen has designs to kill the child (who might ultimately have a rival claim to her throne). In Morris’s play, all the adults seem aware that they are acting in a play entitled “The Death of Tintagel” but have to keep this fact from the inquisitive child, Tintagel, who is aware that something is happening but is not clear what it is. However this is emphasized in the opening lines of Morris’s play, in an addition that is not present in the original Maeterlinck drama — the Queen’s handmaidens, who seize the child at the play’s climax, actually open the play with a precise explanation of what will happen in the drama:

ONE: To whet your jaded appetite

We kill a little boy tonight.

TWO: At the end of the play we will rejoice

To see if your eyes, or seats, get moist.

THREE: But if you’re too jaded for that, okay.

We’re going to kill him anyway.

ONE: The slaughter will be overseen

TWO: By his Grandmother, a jealous Queen

THREE: As elderly as she is mean.

ONE: She is so old that she can’t be nice.

TWO: She is so old her vagina has mice.

THREE: And she has commanded the sacrifice.

The absurdism of the situation is pretty textbook. The title of the play, and this ritualistic opening chorus, indicate exactly what is going to happen — the boy is going to be sacrificed. As a result, the remainder of the drama is conducted under this knowledge (which is crucially withheld from the boy, but seemingly known to all the other characters). Thus the classically absurdist sentiment of behaving as though there were such a thing as meaningful action — in a context where any action seen without illusions is demonstrated to be utterly meaningless — basically provides the frame for Morris’s spooky one-act drama. In some sense, what Morris’s “The Death of Tintagel” represents is an attempt to write a classic “theater of the absurd” style drama for an early twenty-first-century audience.

I have dwelled at such length on what is probably the most obscure published play by this writer because I think it illuminates a certain aspect of his better known works, particularly The Age of Consent (familiar as a source of student monologues to anyone who has taken an introductory acting class). Morris’s more customary mode is the monologue play, in which characters speak directly to the audience, and in his two best-known plays the drama is indeed based on actual events (the mid-1990s murder of the child James Bulger in the UK, the American photographs from Abu Ghraib prison in the Iraq War). But even these more straightforwardly realist dramas employ the philosophical underpinnings of absurdism. This is notable in The Age of Consent, published in 2002, which presents a nineteen-year-old boy, Timmy, who has been convicted of murdering a two-year-old when he himself was only nine or ten. While in a prison facility for young offenders, Timmy has received an education, so in his second speech we witness him working on “the final project for my A level in design and technology. The assignment was: to make something beautiful. I don’t know what they expected us to make. I’m making a fucking teddy bear.” (Age of Consent, 14). The notion of a stuffed toy being manufactured by a child who was convicted for murdering another child is already somewhat macabre, but the end of this monologue indicates that the sense of “futility” which pervades “The Death of Tintagel” is being recapitulated here in a somewhat more realistic setting: at the end, Timmy reveals that his prison counselor “Janet asked me ‘Who’s he for?’ I said, he’s not for anyone, he’s useless. That’s what makes him beautiful” (Age of Consent 17). The point here, of course, is that the prison counselor assumes that the creation of the teddy bear is intended as an act of restitution for having killed a child, or perhaps as an emblem for Timmy’s own childhood, cut short by his own incarceration at the age of ten. But Timmy’s answer instead indicates a certain level of aesthetic nihilism which might be characterized as absurd: the insistence on the meaninglessness of the bear is the only thing that can be guaranteed to make it “beautiful” (and presumably the beauty is its only meaning, even if it is apparent to no-one else). However the same dynamic is replayed in Timmy’s next speech, which is arguably the emotional climax of the drama, where he attempts to recollect the murder he committed (which is clearly based on the murder of the child James Bulger by two other children, still capable of drawing headlines in the UK).

I don’t really know what to say to myself. I mean, I know what I’m supposed to say. It’s like…surprise! Here’s the moment. Timmy comes in and he says what we all want him to say. It all makes sense. Like playing Cluedo. Mrs. Peacock did it in the conservatory with the lead piping. The nice thing about that game, of course, is that it makes it all seem logical. You go through and figure it out, by process of elimination, but the one thing you don’t get in Cluedo is a motive. Why? And that’s what I don’t have. They made me act it out, they made me think how he felt, what it was like, what I did, how she felt when she couldn’t find him…what she screamed like… If I’ve got an imagination at least they made me use it till I sweat and use it for the right things now. But actually…doing it… It was just…nothing really. (Age of Consent 22-23).

This seems to be both straightforward realism — it is difficult to imagine when two ten-year-old children murder a two-year-old that they have anything resembling “motive” for the crime — but also an application of the methods of absurdism. Timmy’s murder of the unnamed two-year-old in the play resembles the sort of murderous acte gratuit that is familiar from the great philosopher of the absurd, Camus. The act itself has no more intrinsic meaning than an actual human death does — and the fact that a children’s game (more familiar in the U.S.A. under the name “Clue”) can be brought into the discussion to demonstrate the difference between an artificial representation of murder where “it all makes sense” and a real experience where “it was just…nothing really” seems to encapsulate the fundamental tenets of absurdist philosophy, even within the more conventional dramaturgy of the playwriting here.

The same general tendency to see meaning as ultimately socially constructed and easily dismantled is found in Morris’s other published monologue plays. In Guardians, which is loosely based on the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib during the Iraq War, Morris’s “American Girl” character, based on Lynndie England, defends herself largely by denying that she had any particular agency or even intelligence to know any larger meaning to the acts that she committed:

But when I get shipped back here, everybody’s sayin: “That, uh, even if there were orders from above — which we got no evidence that there was, of course — it is no defense to say she was just following orders.” And what can I say back to that? ‘Cept: Hey dumbass, listen up, I’m in the Army, I work ‘longside these people, I am one a them, and trust me: They’re good people but they ain’t smart enough to organize a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. I love ’em but man, these people could fuck up a baked potato. And now, Senator, you want ’em making their own decisions about, about — what’s Right and what’s Wrong? Which, I might note, is not a rule those boys lay down on themselves. Fuck up when you’re me, they sell you down the river, baby. But fuck up when you’re the Preznit? Two weeks later and who remembers? (Guardians 43-44)

If ultimately the Iraq war that began in 2003 is considered as an “absurdist” phenomenon — a war conducted under false pretenses, with no real clear goal, and with an exaggerated time frame that ultimately indicated a fundamental meaninglessness that is unaccustomed with something as large and seemingly purposeful as a war — then it makes sense that the female soldier here, convicted of abusing prisoners, considers herself and her fellow soldiers as “people [who] could fuck up a baked potato” and not capable of “making their own decisions about, about — what’s Right and what’s Wrong.” The chief difference here, though, is that a war is a real event with real consequences — if there is someone to blame for the mendacious meaninglessness of it, the character indicates, then that person should be found higher up among those with real power.

The same logic of removing meaning from activities widely thought to have meaning — and thus rendering them absurd — is also found in the premise of Morris’s later comedy Gaudeamus. This play utilizes the structure of an earlier comedy by Aristophanes, much as Morris’s “Tintagel” makes use of Maeterlinck, although of course it bears little resemblance other than conceptually to the ancient Greek comedian. The basic premise, though, is of a college campus where the student body — in an attempt to outlaw “discrimination” — legislates that everyone must be sexually undiscriminating, and hook up with whoever asks. This leads to a student center hanging a giant banner that reads “WE FIND THE PROMISE IN PROMISCUITY” (Gaudeamus 41). However, the basic premise is one that suggests a basic idea widely considered to be meaningful — the effort to eradicate all forms of prejudice (racial discrimination, homophobia) on college campuses might as well begin with the one area in which people routinely exercise complete discrimination (regarding sexual partners). The ultimate result, however, is that the act itself loses all meaning. As Brad, the frat boy who is one of the play’s chief characters, expresses at the end of the drama: “if you’re a guy like me…you think about sex every five minutes. But what would happen if you got it every five minutes? Whoever, whatever you want…it’s like you’re God. Except — wouldn’t you get bored? Cause you’re not God. You’re just — you. Like, compared to God, my interests are pretty limited. I got limitations. I’m boring. And even fun isn’t fun. So after a while — maybe the only thing I would want is…not to want anything” (Gaudeamus 66). As a result, the attempt to infuse an extra political meaning in undergraduate hookups results in the complete eradication of the intended meaning — instead, desire turns its object to finding cessation of desire.

These plays by Peter Morris — which are mostly familiar to drama students who are looking for monologues — do not put their absurdism into their dramaturgy. Featuring mainly just characters on a bare stage speaking to the audience, there is very little here that seems outrageous or even visually striking. The drama is contained in the language and the ideas. But the fundamental underpinning of those ideas seems to derive from the main current of twentieth century absurdist theater: the notion of meaningfulness as something that people construct, within an inherently meaningless world, is applied here to the basic existential scenario in “The Death of Tintagel,” to legal and political matters in The Age of Consent and Guardians, and even to undergraduate hook-ups in Gaudeamus. As a result, the tone of intellectual comedy — even when these plays become very serious — recalls the mainstream of absurdist tragicomedy in twentieth century drama. The chief difference here is that this mode is being adapted by Morris for a twenty-first century audience.

Works Cited

Burghart, Alex. “Maurice Maeterlinck, The Death of Tintagel, in a new version by Peter Morris.” The Times Literary Supplement. 5 November, 2010.

Morris, Peter. The Age of Consent. London: Methuen, 2002. Print.

Morris, Peter. Gaudeamus. London: Oberon, 2006. Print.

Morris, Peter. Guardians. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 2007. Print.

Morris, Peter. “The Death of Tintagel.” The Paris Review 168 (Winter 2003). Print.

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