Continued from here (performance description) or here (previous editorial interjection — be aware of commentary on my use the term “abusive laughter” there).
It’s a huge generalization, of course, but many spectators who saw this production of this play whose reactions I’ve heard or read (apart from those of theater critics) indicated that Acts One and Two were more successful than Act Three. I share this reaction. I also think it’s an important problem because it might contribute to an answer to the question of whether this play will go to Broadway and how successful it might be there. Here, by way of a general commentary on the play, I want to talk about some reasons why I felt Act Three was less successful than the other two. In the course of that I want to consider the implications of my previous discussion of the way the play tries to balance and compare its parody of problems and perspectives from each generation. I’m also interested in the thesis expressed by Richard Armitage, following Mike Bartlett, that this is a play about love as well as about generational conflicts (as it seems to be customarily understood).
It might make sense to start by asking what the genre of the play is. I’ve suggested that it’s a (black) comedy or satire of manners and that as such, depth of characterization and sympathy for characters fall behind plot and particularly, dialogue. Satire is supposed to be funny, but it also involves social criticism; the sort of verbal irony with which this play is permeated is one of its primary tools. Typically, every character is liable to lampoon. At the same time, social commentary always has targets; there are always winners and losers; yet, we’ve been told by the actors that Bartlett doesn’t want to take sides.
Generated by IJG JPEG Library Richard Armitage, Alex Hurt, Zoe Kazan, Amy Ryan, Ben Rosenfield, Love Love Love
In the end, after seeing it five times, and as I felt different ways about the outcome on different evenings, I agreed that it didn’t clearly take a side. While it certainly was critical of Kenneth and Sandra, it did not seem obvious to me that this play was solely an indictment of the baby boomers, as I read often in reviews of its earlier productions, and in the reactions of the obviously conservative theater critics who have written about the play in the Wall Street Journal (Terry Teachout) and in the New Criterion (Kyle Smith). Neither does it valorize Generation X, which, as embodied in Jamie and Rose, fulfills every negative stereotype articulated about us. The fellow American Xers with whom I saw the play were — to a woman — sympathetic to Rose in Act Two and, while they recognized and to some extent shared her difficulties, nonetheless flabbergasted by her outrageous idea of the proper resolution to her problems in Act Three, and this result (that we should find Rose’s request off-putting) seemed to me to be intentional. (Although I would save room for the possibility that a cultural misunderstanding may be at work — I had several discussions after the play that revolved around the question, “Why did she ask for a house rather than for help with a down payment?” The former would be unusual in the U.S. except in very wealthy families, whereas the latter has become relatively common in the middle classes here, particularly in situations where the parents haven’t paid for a wedding. These problem-solving conversations foundered on the problem that none of us know anything about the mechanics of UK real estate purchases). I’m as annoyed by boomers as any Xer I know, and yet I certainly did not return to the hotel thinking, “excellent — Bartlett finally put paid to those aging hippie egos,” particularly in light of Rose’s ridiculous demands and irresponsible narration of her own life story.
However — if a reconsideration of the generational conflict is all we take away from this play, that “both sides have good points,” the play is undoubtedly facile and not doing the work either of comedy of manners or of good drama. A number of reviewers who didn’t like the play noted this problem in one way or another — the characters have no development, the issues involved aren’t examined in any depth, and so on. As any university instructor will tell you, “the message of the play could be A or B” as a thesis statement is a good recipe for a grade of C- on your essay. And if the student is pursuing that thesis because the play really is that way, the work has problems. In this case, it would mean the play made no real contribution to assessing either the nature of the conflict nor did it take any position on its own outcome, thus failing to accomplish central tasks of satire. Comedy doesn’t always get people to change their minds about something, but it should at least get them to look at something from another perspective for half an hour. Indeed, the ultimate aimlessness of a play such a binary construction was a concrete worry I developed about the play as I started to watch people’s reactions to it on social media; a significant proportion of tweeted or posted comments in the Armitage fandom suggested that reading or seeing the play reinforced the allegiances with which fans entered the theater. (“Self-centered boomers pulled the ladder up behind them”; “Xers are lazy whiners” — I’ve read variations on these comments at least three dozen times in various places since mid-September.) We sympathize with our like; we laugh at the jokes about the other.
Formulating the debate in binary terms without coming to a conclusion is likely to lead to nothing else. I’m watching a similar debate (millennials vs. boomers, with Xers not clearly aligned) rage in the local newspaper as we speak. Neither side has any sympathy for the other, and indeed, the discussions are remarkably like the dramatic structure of the play, with millennials describing their circumstances in heartbreaking terms and boomers rejecting responsibility and responding with accusations. This “he said” / “she said” style is a general problem in U.S. cultural and political discourse at the moment; for a discussion of how it works in journalism, check out the work of Jay Rosen, who’s been talking about it for eons. One possibility: that our “he said” / “she said” cultural moment is what Bartlett is asking us to laugh at — but no one I’ve talked to seems to take this mood away from the play, and the end seems to militate against that point. In any case, this play seems likely to lead only to further hardening of positions already in play — in that sense, it does take a side: with whoever it is that profits from that conflict.
[Incidentally: the play itself is missold as speaking to the situation of millennials, at least in the U.S. Few of them are old enough to have Rose’s problems yet (although arguably their own problems will be much worse), and while I very much recognized the parent-child conflicts in Act Two from my own life, U.S. millennials tend to have a much friendlier relationship with their parents than Xers did. The comments that I overheard from a group of young women at the stage door suggested that they didn’t really find Act Two credible or even intelligible.]
I wrote earlier about balance as the essential prerequisite for seeing Act Two as funny; the problem with Act Three if seen as satire or comedy of manners that lampoons all equally is that the end of Act Two makes it hard to maintain the comedic balance in Act Three. Absurdity is the order of the day in Acts One and Two, where everyone is crazy (and, one might add, the 60s and the 90s are far enough in the past that it’s easy for us to laugh at their more extreme moments). All that becomes impossible in Act Three, as a horrible problem hangs in the air. We don’t know its name; we don’t learn immediately that Rose has attempted suicide, but we do know something has gone horribly wrong. The reason we don’t find out exactly what happened until the middle of Act Three, when Sandra finally says it — Rose euphemistically calls it ‘what happened to me’ — is that knowing exactly what happened would tip the comedic balance from the beginning and we would no longer be able to laugh at Sandra and Kenneth’s horrible behavior in the way we laughed at their horrible parenting only fifteen minutes earlier. Damaged Jamie, flying under the radar with his subtly devastating “failure to launch” (just as he did in Act Two) can’t balance out the callous extravagance of the Sandra & Kenneth show all by himself, so Rose’s character is almost forced, rhetorically, to make her demands and her behavior increasingly extreme. I did not ever find the character as inherently unlikable as I found her mother (maybe because there’s one act fewer of exposure) but it was hard to see how someone who’d worked this hard in her life, no matter how perturbed she’d become in her life, would really offer those kind of justifications for her requests of her parents.
In thinking about how the problem of the suicide affects the end of Act Two (too rushed, in my opinion, with no time for the audience to assimilate what was happening) and Act Three, I found myself wondering why exactly it’s even in the play. If it’s supposed to be comic, it’s in really questionable taste, although anyone who’d write a character like Sandra probably isn’t hugely troubled by matters of taste. I can see a potentially Jackie Gleasonesque element in it: “My parents are horrible!” “How horrible are they?” “So horrible I slit my wrists!” In any case, the buzzkill atmosphere that hangs over the theater afterwards intensifies the difficulty of seeing the events and claims of Act Three in an absurd light; if the absurdity of the play isn’t entirely killed, it certainly loses momentum as a consequence.
What does it accomplish? The suicide attempt illustrates that Kenneth and Sandra have apparently missed that Rose is troubled, but it’s easy to forget as the second act ends so abruptly. It’s only referred to twice in the third. The first time, Rose speaks of ‘what happened to me’; it again illustrates that Kenneth and Sandra are poor parents but it doesn’t appreciably increase our sympathy for Rose, since we don’t know exactly what happened, we consider everything she says in light of her previous accusation to her parents that ‘it’s all your fault,’ and she has plenty of ammunition, even without that. The second time, it illustrates that Kenneth has completely erased (if he ever had any) all memory of any negativity in his children’s childhoods — and it seems to me that this is supposed to be a significant point of absurdity in this act (I called it the “unacknowledged punchline”): that after all of this, including Rose’s recital of her woes, he can still paint such a rosy picture of her past. Except, of course, that as much as we’re willing to laugh at Kenneth and Sandra’s horrible parenting, we can’t laugh at this. If we’re really paying attention (and I would argue most of the audience is so overwhelmed by the speed of the dialogue that the moment goes by too quickly most nights for us to notice), the best we can do is gasp. Four out of five times I saw it, the audience was simply silent. Note even the outraged “oh” that Rose gets when Jamie tells her her boyfriend has betrayed her in Act Two. Even absurdity has its limits. If the whole notion of a constantly escalating satire that equally lampoons all were working in Act Three, that line should be hilarious. But it’s not. We may not take sides at the end of the play but even so, Act Three’s funny moments (“it’s all your fault” / “we never listened to our parents” / “buy me a house”) aren’t even comparably funny, because the suicide attempt does not leave us ethically free to laugh equally at the various belligerents. These punchlines are more extreme than they are funny. Similarly, the very real problems of the children in Act Three, roughly in our contemporary present, are too close to us to laugh at in the way that we can joke about things that happened forty-eight and twenty-five years ago. But their very extremity, their incredible quality, forecloses the possibility that we would consider Act Three a tragedy, either.
In short: I think the only reason to include the suicide attempt in the play is to escalate its absurdity. But the very inclusion of the suicide attempt makes it extremely difficult, even impossible, for Act Three to function successfully in the same way that the previous acts have worked. Having trained us in how to view the characters in the first two acts, the play prevents us from doing so in the third, even as it continues to escalate Rose’s absurdity to try to compensate for that problem. The parody unbalances and although we continue to keep laughing, the mechanism of satire falls apart. Act Three doesn’t exemplify the tightly-organized social mocking of its predecessors; it dissolves into an amalgam of disconnected funny moments, extreme claims, open manipulation, and a derisively syrupy ending.
I do think there’s a second generic perspective from which to consider the play, however; we could take seriously (as most of us, including me have not, to this point) the assertion that it is a play about love. One compelling reason to do so would be the impression that, in contrast to its less than clear position on either generation, the play seems to be trying extremely hard not to be political. It puts its only really explicit political statement in Rose’s mouth in Act Three, where Kenneth and Sandra read it as just so much whining, and the brief political references it makes in Acts One and Two are not intelligible to the U.S. audience. Kenneth’s obliviousness to the poll tax riots might seem a much more political diagnosis of his nature to a British audience than it does to us. Seen from the perspective of comedy of manners, that is a mistake, and indeed, I am not sure it’s even credibly possible with this subject matter, which seems to me to be inherently political as it concerns the varying allotment of social resources. Moreover, it’s certainly an inherently conservative move to suggest — as this play clearly does, since it allows no sympathy to Rose’s political statement — that “the problem with the younger generation” is personality or character rather than policy. But if we accept that position — that Kenneth and Sandra are right that the solution to Sandra’s problems is personal, not political, but that they were horrible parents who did not really equip their children for the challenges of real life — and that is the most credible non-political reading of the play, insofar as those are the arguments that most people I watched it with tended to accept — then the boomer / Xer conflict is really only a cover issue for a tragicomedy about a relationship and its consequences.
Seen from this perspective, the play is less an indictment or either an examination of either generation and more a description of the trajectory of a particular relationship that is conditioned by the circumstances of the period in which it took place. On that view, we’d see Kenneth and Sandra in Act One as two individuals involved in a sort of mildly fatal attraction that leaves Henry as collateral damage. Their creed — walls are collapsing, who cares about politics, carpe diem, screw social rules and customs, what we like and want is the only rule — carries them into a marriage where they benefit from the easy economic circumstances of the period and relatively easy upward mobility. They do not think politically, so we do not think about them politically. They label this experience and their feelings, “love.” They acquire a great deal, not least two children. But in Act Two, they realize their gradual accretion of the trappings of bourgeois life (without the bohemian component, comfortable but not luxurious, with the normal worries of humans, where everything is, in Armitage’s words, “just nice”) has become troublesome. In particular, their children, who should function as accessories that add to their self-consciousness, are somewhat out of order, as Jamie and Rose fail (either by avoidance or attempts at self-destruction) to conform fully to their idea of what children should be. Additionally, their respective infidelities follow the rule of “what we want is our only rule,” but also point up how dissatisfying the rest of their life is. They have a sort of stereotypical, sitcomish family “love,” here, but they are also apparently pursuing it outside the marriage. They’re stuck and the only way to get unstuck is to divorce, which they do without regard for the consequences to their children. Finally, in Act Three, they are retired, looking toward the end of their lives, again re-addressing the question of how to get what they want as they leave work. They both want to drink and engage in leisure pursuits; they want to maintain their youth, especially Sandra does; they don’t want to be tied down to fat or ailing partners; they still don’t really want to be responsible for their children although they are willing to be so if the aggravation level is low (Jamie). In essence, they are united in egotism with their children, as their self-centered behavior and self-centered parenting has produced self-centered children who either can’t function on their own (Jamie) or don’t see why, if their parents are doing all right, they shouldn’t also get what they want (Rose). In that sense, although Kenneth and Sandra are disturbed by Rose’s demands, she behaves exactly as they have themselves, and exactly as they have raised her to do. They still want “love,” and they end the play seeking it in each other as they muse about abandoning Sandra’s husband and their children entirely.
This reading: Love, Love, Love as a twentieth-century love story, is potentially less obvious. However, it’s a much better play. This is the age in which the continuity of the family unit stops being concerned with the material preservation of the family unit and its preservation and becomes focused on the mutual desire of the partners for each other. I think the play takes a more meaningful position on that question than it does on the problem of generational conflict. It gives us something meaningful to participate in and sink our teeth into, as it’s not open-ended; on that view, we can’t leave the theater without an opinion of Kenneth and Sandra’s relationship and productiveness or destructiveness of their notion of love. (Which I would argue is the main thing we should be thinking about; the history and politics of the play are largely vestigial and Rose is really an instrumentalized character against the span of their relationship rather than an independent being.) Rather than being asked to take sides on the question “who is right, boomers or Xers?” the viewer is being asked to consider the significance of the cultural and social attitudes of the late twentieth century on personal choice and family relationships. (Note that the play could still be a critique of the boomers on that view, but not one that sets up as a generational conflict.) It also has the advantage of making both the inclusion of the suicide attempt and Kenneth and Sandra’s non-reaction to it much more intelligible. The whole point of “giving Rose everything she wants” and encouraging her (as Rose says, again and again) to pursue her passion was not to have a happy child, but rather to be the kind of people who have a child who pursues her passion. In that sense, Rose is an accessory to their lifestyle vision and that’s why neither her refusal to fulfill that role (trying to kill herself) nor her acquiescence in pursuing a musical career, nor her protests when she finally realizes she was never a meaningfully independent being, have much impact on her parents.
Note that reading the play in this way makes Act Three as is easier to understand; I don’t think it makes it better. In particular, Sandra’s final speech (which sits uneasily in the “generational conflict” reading anyway) would need to change to make fully explicit the self-centered way that Sandra sees her daughter specifically. (Right now it supports the position that the boomers gave the Xers everything and got no return on investment.) It would also be helpful if the third act foregrounded more obviously Rose’s expectation or desire that her family function something like a family as opposed to her resignation and last-ditch attempt to get something out of it for herself. In short, probably the biggest problem with this reading is that the only “love” we really see in this act is Kenneth’s self-interested come-on to Sandra in its closing minutes. I suppose we can say it’s another case of a mildly fatal attraction with his children’s financial future as the collateral damage — the story of a couple united in dysfunction. He feeds her desire for admiration and she feeds his desire for beauty?
I don’t mean to suggest that there is only one reading of a play available, or that a play can’t be saying more than one thing at a time. I am saying, however, that the frequent disappointment of spectators in Act Three makes really clear that the play doesn’t seem to know what it wants, opening the play up to charges that it is facile, formulaic, or superficial. (Perhaps both readings need to be strengthened somehow.) In particular, the final act should be the strongest, and at least as I saw it played, it was not that. To me, the week ending to the play is one reason to suspect that this play would not be a huge success on Broadway if it were to go there. This post was an attempt to consider two theories that might explain why.