Science Fiction Studies

#61 = Volume 20, Part 3 = November 1993


Ben Indick

Fantasy in the Theatre

Patrick D. Murphy, ed. Staging the Impossible: The Fantastic Mode in Modern Drama. Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy 53. Greenwood Press, 1992. ix+245. $49.95. Credit-card orders 800-225-5800.

Fantasy in the theatre is as old as theatre itself. There have, however, been few attempts in the literature of theatre to collate its many aspects. In offering such a book, Patrick D. Murphy rather colorfully labels the genre by the word "impossible"; his subtitle, "The Fantastic Mode in Modern Drama," more accurately describes the goal of this volume of essays by fifteen academic contributors. The results are mixed, but it is a beginning.

A major problem is one of definition. Murphy's response is twofold: "the fantastic (is) an umbrella term for all that is not mainstream realism" and "works that resist closure, question consensual reality...and call for reassessment of perception, conception and communication." His criteria are understandable, but so broad as to remove restraints altogether. In consequence, several of his contributors have chosen to discuss non-fantasy theatre simply on the basis that it is anti-realism. An essay on Oscar Wilde wilfully mistakes irony for fantasy. Another, on Spaulding Gray's monologue Swimming to Cambodia, finds in it "the fantastic but nevertheless true and tragic history of Cambodia," a gratuitous use of the word as applied to fantasy theatre. There is nothing fantastic about aggression and covert use of power. Finally, an essay on Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead ignores others of his oeuvre for what is at best a facile phantasia on Shakespearean characters. Enough truly fantastic theatre has been created in the 19th and 20th centuries to have merited the consideration here awarded to special interests. The balance of the contributors, even when dealing with minor themes, look at some of them.

Ethnic backgrounds have produced a wealth of theatrical fantasy and are seen here in the works of William Butler Yeats, Halper Leivick, and Derek Walcott. Yeats' plays draw on Gaelic mythology, but, unlike his poetry, were not successful in his own time or indeed with later audiences. Possibly, as Frederick S. Lapisardi notes, his success in getting realistic dramatists on the stage of the early Abbey Theatre in Dublin set a pattern which made his own more imaginative work less popular. Lapisardi was literary advisor/ dramaturge for a revival in 1989-90 of a group of Yeats' plays at the Abbey and he offers a diary of the event rather than an examination into Yeats mythic drama per se, although he recognizes the "theatrical importance of the fantastic and the supernatural to Yeats' plays."

Carl Schaefer traces the derivation of Leivick's classic Yiddish verse drama, The Golem, to the playwright's boyhood experiences of racism, which "defined for him forever the lot of the Jew and of the human condition," which is "the role of the golem in his drama." The golem is a creature brought to life from mud and sticks by a wonder-working Rabbi to save a beleagured people. The discussion of the meaning and relevance of the play is excellent and comprehensive.

Derek Walcott, like Leivick, found inspiration for his fantasy drama, Dream On Monkey Mountain, writes Robert J. Willis, in a childhood incident involving racism. Walcott's hero, Makak, is a common man, whose name, like others in the play, has an animal meaning. His is "monkey." Its message is that violence and racism, sometimes toward one's own people, are not viable answers for a world needing change. The play has dream characters and apparitions, satire and wit. Makak, for a time a successful revolutionary, is bribed with many awards, including the Nobel, in this dream play written two decades before Walcott received his own.

In northern Europe a playwright distinguished for unflinching psychological realism, August Strindberg, was no stranger to the fantastic, albeit as a proto-expressionist. Audiences were no less alienated than those of Yeats by his frankly experimental dramas, although his Ghost Sonata influenced Eugene O'Neill. Peter Malekin offers excellent analytic approaches to this play and to A Dream Play, sometimes scene by scene. For Strindberg, Malekin writes, "the physical was never far away," but he "was also aware of the physical as limiting consciousness and fullness of sensory perception." His characters in his fantasy plays are "not quite of this world, (they) have another world of death and the dead beyond them." Discussing The Ghost Sonata, Malekin ably defines the uses of fantasy in a quasi-realistic theatre: "It exposes those aspects of experience that do not fit, that have to be suppressed to make any conventional frame of reference--material, spiritual, or religious--appear adequate."

A minor play but an example of early expressionistic theatre is Yellow Sound, the sole play by the painter Wassily Kandinsky. Kent W. Hopper finds that Kandinsky was objecting to the naturalistic and sentimental drama of the nineteenth century, and his play has no plot, no human characters, and, aside from sounds, no dialogue. No precis of the play is offered by Hopper, if indeed the play is capable of summary. It remains a footnote in the history of theatre.

"Absurdism" has fascinated numerous dramatists of the mid-20th century, and, two major Absurdists are discussed. Ian M. Hesson and the late Elizabeth C. Hesson offer an excellent summary of the life work of Eugne Ionesco, from the hilariously banal The Bald Soprano (everyone is named "Bobby Watson," which is the only fantastic element) to his late and less successful "inward-turning" work. His best work was characterized by "a change both in the perception of reality and in the nature of the fantastic." His greatest popular success was Rhinoceros, in which the inhabitants of a small town willingly become rhinoceroses. The Hessons point out that the playwright is presenting here the nightmare of Fascism's rise which he had witnessed in his native Rumania. (American audiences viewed it as an attack on conformity.)

Samuel Beckett, certainly the greatest writer of the movement, and possibly of our time, is analyzed ably in an essay by Lance Olson, who asserts that Beckett is at heart "horrific." He quotes H.P. Lovecraft that the "strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown," the essence of the situation of Beckett's characters. His plays are postmodern extensions of the darker, bleaker side of existence "that transforms physical into metaphysical horror." Of his characters, Olsen writes that they "find themselves eternally in the perilous and mysterious zones of being." He discusses a number of Beckett's plays, an excellent summation of his theatre and his philosophy.

Theodore Shank discusses theatrical illusion and confusion. "A theatre performance typically creates an illusory reality of characters, time, place and action." However, the experimental work which has so preoccupied theatre in the latter half of this century has "framed actuality in various ways that cause us to perceive it as fantastic," as in Chris Burden's Shoot, a 1971 performance which consisted of Burden being shot in the arm. An audience expecting illusion may be confused, Shank writes, by multiple layers of illusion such as are found in Pirandello's Six Characters In Search of An Author, in which characters in a play are wandering disconsolately without a play, or Brecht's Threepenny Opera, in which the rakish hero is most illogically saved from hanging at the end, reminding the audience they are confronting theatricality and not reality. He offers an excellent discussion of theatre which creates "the fantastic by putting focus on actuality," from the highly theatrical Dadaism of Duchamp to the "happenings" of the 1950s, the art of "performing tasks with no intention of creating a fiction," a loose scenario and improvisation. It is often theatre only in that actors are participants in weird or outrageous behavior before audiences who may be in a theatre, an open space, or even before a shop window. It is an excellent beginning summary of such fantastic theatre but could form the subject of an entire volume.

The final two essays in the collection face the possibilities and difficulties of science fiction as a feasible theatrical form. Veronica Hollinger terms her discussion "Postmodern Theater" which helps distinguish the conventions of traditional theatre from new approaches. The San Francisco "Survival Research Laboratories," a theatrical performance group, predated and influenced the SF subgenre Cyberpunk. Turning away from realism results in experiments with the fantastic, and she believes science fiction has a role to play here, not "in opposition to reality" but rather as "the mise-en-scene of that reality." Samuel Beckett is the first true "postmodernist," a term applicable as well to the Philip Glass/Robert Wilson opera Einstein on the Beach, "moving away from conventional character, dialogue and narrative."

It is left to Joseph Krupnick to discuss and offer a checklist of available science fiction on the stage, Prof. Krupnick is perhaps correct in stating that aside from Karel Capek's RUR and Philip Glass/David Henry Hwang's 1000 Airplanes on the Roof (a tedious 90 minute monologue with music and slides, hardly as well known as Capek) most readers of SF "would be hard pressed to name a work of science fiction written in the form of a stage play." He first discusses, very pointedly and usefully, misconceptions about SF on the stage, in particular that it demands the dazzling special effects the cinema offers. However, the "favorite themes" of SF, often "psychological and social implications of scientific and technological developments rather than the scientific systems themselves" can readily be done on a stage. Belying some dubious critics, Krupnick writes of discovering at least 100 SF plays, some for children, some never staged at all, and of these he offers and describes forty. These annotations are good, and include plays in the genre by such unexpected writers as Gore Vidal, John Guare, and Alan Ayckbourn.

The successful essays in the book merely highlight the omissions. Initially, insofar as definition is concerned, a chapter might well have dealt with borderline fantasy. There is no problem defining such obvious fantasy as Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream or Tennessee Williams' Camino Real, but how is one to categorize plays with dream scenes in otherwise realistic frameworks, such as James M. Barrie's Dear Brutus, or Elmer Rice's Dream Girl? Or imaginary countries, such as Ruritania in Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda? And, is a philosophic view of life, expressed through characters in a compressed world, such as Jean Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot or Jean Anouilh's Legend of Lovers, a reworking of Orpheus and Eurydice in a railroad depot, fantasy? Other viable subjects include fantasy in the musical theatre, including opera and ballet; horror/fantasy plays; at least a cursory look at fantasy by great playwrights aside from Strindberg: Ibsen, O'Neill, Williams, Arthur Miller, Priestley, etc. The entire fantastic theatre of a writer is discussed in only a few instances. Correlative writers are omitted altogether, such as Dunsany and other Irish fantastists, S. Ansky and other Yiddish writers, and the entire Black theatre aside from Walcott.

In addition, inasmuch as the local library is hardly stocked with books about Science Fiction in the Theatre, even a mere unannotated list of the sixty titles mentioned but unlisted by Krupnick would have been welcome. As it is, the chosen forty are an odd lot. Some are the real thing. Others are marginal SF at best. A ten-minute sketch by actress Candice Bergen, while indeed SF, would appear to be here because of curiosity and Star Power. Five of the forty are by Ray Bradbury alone. Of many others, neither play nor writer has achieved attention, and appear to have been discovered on checklists from such play-publishing services as Samuel French.

I cannot resist the opportunity to suggest some additional titles, all of which were known on stage or in print well before the deadlines of this volume.

As early as 1823, five years after its publication, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein was pirated for the stage, with innumerable other unauthorised productions of it following. Its cinematic sequel has even appeared on stage, as a 1986 musical based on the film The Bride of Frankenstein and retitled Have I Got A Girl For You! The Bradbury plays listed by Krupnick are all one-acts. No mention at all is made of his full-length Martian Chronicles, staged on the West Coast, or Fahrenheit 451, staged at the Eugene O'Neill Center in Conneticut, or Dandelion Wine, which has had a midwest showing. Perhaps the most spectacular SF play ever staged, Time, a musical with serious intent and an awful book by Dave Clark, appeared in London a decade ago, in which the entire theatre, thanks to vibration, sound, stroboscopic lighting, plus ingenious stage machinery and $7 million, was converted at the opening and close into a colossal spacecraft. Plus Thornton Wilder's brilliant The Skin of Our Teeth, merely a history of the world, from dinosaurs to nuclear holocaust (but we'll get by).

Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine, W.A. Dwiggens' Millenium 1, Arthur Koestler's Twilight Bar, David Mamet's The Water Engine, N.F. Simpson's One Way Pendulum: each uses SF to serve other causes of the playwright, but, nevertheless, each qualifies. The most astonishing omission, a sequence of plays, reaching forward to 3000 A.D., genuine if windy science fiction, is Back to Methusaleh by George Bernard Shaw, in which human beings have, among other things, learned how to attain two hundred years of age. Shaw himself got halfway there.


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