Will Eno is to theater as Steven Wright is to stand-up comedy. His deadpan, non sequitur one-liners throw both the audience and the medium into awkward mirth. Like Wright, Eno is more deeply a poet than anything else. He interrogates language and being and neatly dissects our assumptions, rationalizations and sentimentality, while yearning on our collective behalf for the very simple yet deep contentment that he tells us we're foolish to want. (There is a character who calls himself "The Beauty of Things" and "The Majesty of Life," smirking the whole time.)
Eno's writing contains a dramatic tension between the beautiful and the lacerating, the soothing and the snide—much as there is in another recently performed work, Alex Chilton's Big Star masterpiece of 1978, Third/Sister Lovers. (See the Indy's preview and Lisa Sorg's superb report from the show.)
Oh, the Humanity has lines that wonder at one point whether men in a photograph (which the audience is kept, tantalizingly, from seeing) have just done something heroic or are about to do something violent. Are the characters in the final scene going to a funeral or a christening? Should we feel devastated by a plane crash that kills everyone on board, or perhaps cheered that the jet managed to stay in the air as long as it did—even that it could fly at all? Which side of your life are you living on? In describing your likes and dislikes, do you find that they just cancel one another out?
Eno's is not so much the comedy of half-full/ half-empty—he's a flag-waving pessimist, albeit a very, very funny one—as of whether you can nudge your consciousness into seeing its pitiful little lot from the right side of the glass, if you can even decide what side that is. There is a satisfying laugh-line early in the play, in which an embattled (i.e. losing) sports coach says: "I found myself standing in the unforgivable light of a grocery store, staring at my reflection in a freezer, and realizing: ‘You’re not having a bad day—this is just what you look like.’”
(The moment echoes the most memorable line from 2007's The Cornucopia of Me, the occasionally Eno-like one-woman show by Katja Hill, who also performs in Oh, the Humanity: "You're not depressed. Your life just sucks.")
Well, how does he think the bags of corn niblets feel on the other side, freezing to death in their little plastic baggies, hoping desperately to be plucked from a pile of other corn niblets? The monologues following the coach's, aptly, are given by people making video personal ads of themselves.
Eno unsparingly harries not only his characters but his audience, as he did in Thom Pain (based on nothing), a highlight of local theater in 2006, also a Manbites Dog production and also directed by Storer. When was the last time a stranger described your expression for you? (How hard it is not to immediately assume it!) How often, recognizing your own feeling in an onstage character are you filled not with sympathy and identification but embarrassment?
You walk out of Oh, the Humanity on edge, maybe even put off by Eno's presumptuousness. "Be more mortal," one of his characters exhorts you—while asking you and your fellow audience members to pose for a photograph, that most immortalizing and self-conscious of moments.
Not an easy thing to be charged with, since a) you're already doing that, with animal inevitability, and couldn't possibly do it more unless you were to drop dead in the theater; and b) being mortal is the one thing above all you'd probably rather not think about doing. Doesn't God promise us immortality—if, that is, as Eno interrupts himself to add at one point, if there is a God?
After the play I felt scoured clean. Oh, the Humanity scrubs off not just the simple syrup of sentimentality, but its more insidious relative, what Vladimir Nabokov called poshlust: a Russian term that encompasses "corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic and dishonest pseudo-literature."
(A fuller elucidation appears in Nabokov's 1967 interview with the Paris Review.)
What's dangerous about poshlust is that it lurks even in well-made art and uprightly lived lives. Eno battles it many ways—and in the Manbites Dog production, he has to wage further war against the comforting, pretty and prettily sung John Prine tunes with which Storer has interlarded Eno's scenes (the production's only significant misstep, I thought).
But Eno's drying, acidifying, truth-seeking strategy is perhaps best exemplified by the poor, pathetic football coach, who builds up to a big explanation for his team's failure but finally just says: "I don't know."
And it was in that state—uncertain, in-between, both-sides-of-the-glass—that I walked out of Manbites Dog Theater into a world uncertain and in-between. Into a world transformed, or transforming.
Outside after the show, the rain had stopped. Sweeps and stacks and runnels of clouds now half-filled the sky, which had regained its blue. The weather was moving out of the area. (Eno might point out that the weather was moving into it, too: nondescript, partly cloudy days are also weather.)
In the late afternoon, in late autumn, low sunlight glowed gold off the buildings downtown, glowed too through the trees to which clung the season's last leaves, translucent and radiant and doomed. Streets I've trudged, jogged and driven hundreds (thousands!) of times looked entirely new, transfigured by the rain and now the sun. Pavement gleamed.
The Durham Athletic Park's outfield was greener than ever. For the first time, I saw the contours in the topography. The way Trinity Park rises proudly from the basin of the Durham School of the Arts, the whaleback of Corporation Street as it climbs over Morris toward Foster. By some uncommon whorl of the departing clouds and the play of light upon them, the sunset's first tinges of pink were painted on the east horizon rather than the west. A humble yellow railroad crossing sign reflected in a puddle was beautiful. A torn, soggy photo I found on the ground, of a man giving himself a haircut, was beautiful. The flame on the SunTrust building was beautiful. Everything was so beautiful I could scarcely decide which way to walk. The scenery seemed drawn just for me.
But it was not, of course, and I was so very glad to have Oh, the Humanity following me out of the theater. Probably you've had afternoons such as mine, the world all changed for you (my mother talked about a particular tree in a Food Lion parking lot (?!) that she saw on the day she found out her brother died two weeks ago).
Or maybe you have seen the movie American Beauty, whose preposterous, overblown, self-regarding "plastic bag" scene is poshlust gone wild, a sham profundity as empty and trashy as the bag itself. Every two-bit writer since T. S. Eliot or at least Cheever can open up a little canful of a few beautiful lines about the angle of light or the time of the day or season and pass it off as legitimate literary fiction.
One thing my job as a book critic has taught me is that most writing is basically interchangeable, just like—as Will Eno teaches us—our lives are interchangeable. We are not really unique beings. We rarely escape, rarely want to escape, the wallow of clichés in which we roll every day. We seldom question the comforting, mindless but in fact bizarre routines of our mostly unvarying days. I have been reading Lydia Davis' new translation of Madame Bovary, Flaubert's unblinking indictment of, among other things, what Davis describes as "a blind adherence to conventional—and often questionable—taste," and was delighted by Davis' report that Flaubert "could not shave, for instance, without laughing at the stupidity of it."
Or, as the songwriter and novelist Joe Pernice puts it in his great tune "How Can I Compare?": "There's just too little time"—and then he adds, mordantly, after a languorous drum and violin fill: "And now there's even less."
So you want, in this post-theater, achingly-beautiful-afternoon sitchy-ation, to try to admire its beauty without falling for it, without thinking it is there just for you or is somehow unrepeatable. (When you control your desire, as the Buddhists have tried to teach us, so many things go so much better for us!)
Cars zipped by me as I looped around and headed west on Chapel Hill Street, past one church where I used to do extracurricular high school theater, aged 17 (the beginning of the end of my "acting career"—I knew it even then although I persisted for a few more fruitless years) and then past another into which streamed Latino Catholics for Sunday evening services. Did any of these hurrying drivers and churchgoers see the godly thing now exploding above them? In full glory now was a proper, westerly, sky-on-fire sunset; a breathtaking, searing, eye-filling, consciousness-filling, "towering ruddled visionary skyscape, tinged with dread" as Don DeLillo called the phenomenon in his novel White Noise—also noting that it was probably caused by a lethal chemical, catastrophically released into the atmosphere by an industrial accident.
Well, I don't know, of course, whether anyone admired the sunset as I did. Sunsets are corny anyway and short, little pieces of perfunctory poshlust like the National Anthem before a baseball game. And Mother Nature, which Eno says is destroying things all the time, also creates things, too, even stunning sunsets, without any more effort than she requires to make maggots or slate.
I've seen beautiful sunsets on four continents. Big deal. Once Sunday's light show faded, the sky went gray, slate gray. I saw stacks of roof slates in a parking lot on Buchanan Avenue. Slate roofs are a thing of the past, but Duke still uses them for its campus buildings. Slates confer some sense of history, some collegiate importance—also a sham notion, but there it is, that adherence to convention, dubious though it may be.
As it happens, the roof of my 105-year-old house is also slate, and I was momentarily delighted to see these stacks, the way you would perhaps be delighted to discover a relative you didn't know you had. I bought my house partially because I love its slate roof, an increasingly rare thing around Durham. But then, on the other hand, I was just in Pittsburgh—a slate-gray city to be sure, a city made for the jaundiced jesting of Eno—and it seemed that every fourth roof there was slate. My uncle's roof there is slate. It's just slate. Slate-gray slate. Pittsburgh-gray slate.
Even if my roof were rare, who cares? Under it, in the attic, live a couple of squirrels who refuse to relocate, live on the pecans that fall from the tree in the back yard and are probably tearing up the insulation, damage which may cost me a profound, profane amount of money to repair. The heat bills in our house are stratospheric. I worry about money. I itch in unmentionable places. It has started to rain again. I stop, a few blocks from home, at the Durham Farmers’ Market pavilion to cut rosemary—"for memory," as a character notes in Oh, the Humanity, perhaps referring to Ophelia's speech in Hamlet—but I am just cutting it for dinner.
As I cross the yard toward the porch, I see framed in the little window by the door my very beautiful girlfriend, working late into a Sunday evening on a mammoth, overwhelming, multiyear project. I stop to admire her—I feel a little like a voyeur, a little inappropriate—for a long moment. I see she is actually talking on the phone, not working. A little distraction—who can blame her? Isn't that what theater is, after all? That supposedly profound production I just saw at Manbites Dog Theater: isn't it a trifle, a bunch of noodling and doodling, a $17 distraction from serious, productive things I should be doing instead?
The rosemary goes into a dish of chicken and turnips. We drink a nice Volnay with it and are content. We get under the covers and root for a convicted felon who has overseen the organized slaughter of dogs for sport as he leads his football team to victory. We wash dishes. We brush and floss. We are looking toward the next day: the work we will do; the cold and wind that will come after the last of the rain has gone and taken its beautiful final act with it; the bills we will try to pay and the things we will not quite accomplish. Oh, the humanity! It's like a cheer at a football game.
Theater is an old, old art form. It persists though it should not. I decide about once a year to stop writing plays but I write about one play a year anyway. Why this business of theater? I think it's there because we need, 98 percent of the time, to maintain our sanity by fending off change, avoiding examination, shoving our round unwieldy lives—or at least we like to think they're round and unwieldy—into square-peg cliches. It's just easier that way; it allows us to go on. But every now and then, that other 2 percent of life, we need to be transformed, need the day transformed. That's what theater—maybe two percent of it—is capable of doing for us sometimes. Sometimes it needs the support of the weather outside. Thank you for the transformation, Will Eno and Manbites Dog Theater. Thank you, weather outside.