Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Plays of the 00s: Goodnight Children Everywhere

I happen to have read Richard Nelson's Goodnight Children Everywhere while re-perusing Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's seminal theoretical opus Anti-Oedipus, in which the authors maintain that post-Freudian culture insists upon incest as its founding prohibition in order to privatize our contexts for thinking about law, taboo, and possible anarchy within the framework of the individual and the family, instead of framing these notions more lucidly in the social terms of power, capital, production, and domination. Furthermore, by positing incest—something very few people desire—as that which must be avoided at all costs, we overcompensate with discourse about scapegoated desires we may never have harbored, displacing coherent attention away from more foundational threats to modern culture that might actually rally an angry crowd of insurrectionists: social revolution, radicalized sexual desire, and demolitions of false ideas of "personal" identity, individual fantasy, discrete subjectivity.

Goodnight Children Everywhere, though it's tense, moody, and delicate enough to prompt an involving production, is the kind of art that, in exploring the "dangerous" idea of incest, may actually avoid exploring what's more deeply at issue in the stories of four siblings, now ages 21 to 17, who have spent five years apart after three of them were evacuated to different sites to escape London during the Blitz of World War II. Now it's 1945, the war is over, their parents are dead, and the most distantly deported of their brood—young Peter, shipped off to Canada—is returning to live in the old family flat with his three sisters, and with the husband of the middle sister, Ann. Ann's husband, Mike, is 30 years older than she is, a doctor, and a friend-provider to all three sisters, including 21-year-old Betty, who works as one of his nurses in surgery, and 19-year-old Viv, an attractive would-be actress. You can hardly fault the sisters for not quite knowing how to pick up the threads of their former life, or whom to recognize as an adult and whom to indulge or instruct as a child. You can see that Nelson has worked out from the idea that, in the wake of a national trauma, the naturalized relationships of parent/child, elder/youth, brother/sister, and father/employer are badly scrambled, and the dynamics of family and sexuality stop feeling like shared, stabled geometries, diffusing instead into a spooky, unsettling, unbounded question.

Still, I have to agree with the Village Voice reviewer that Goodnight Children Everywhere "feels like a conceptual working-out of this question, rather than a play drawn from actual life." When Ann makes her first erotic advance toward Peter, in a scene that might work better as heightened ritual than as spontaneous reality, the script seems on the cusp of a stage direction like, Audience gasps, in the way some films and performances pause for a few self-satisfied beats after a punchline that seems sure to score. Much of what follows in Goodnight Children Everywhere is so handed over, subliminally but hardly subtly, to the frissons around the Peter-Ann relationship and to the riddle of how this pairing will affect the rest of their close, tiny circle that almost no other relationship in the script breathes or fills out as much as it could. It's not a question of missteps but of steps not taken, and perhaps of Nelson investing more in broadly conventional figures of Abandonment, Transgression, and Confusion than in the particulars of his own imagination. In a way, Nelson's success in writing four complexly playable and basically plausible youths—a welcome rarity on any stage—makes us crave comparable specificity and detail in story development, historical context, or thematic and psychological undertones. He has contrived some artful dialogue and some interesting palimpsets of overlayed emotion, but he hasn't followed through on any of these needful frameworks. The play has fewer emotional ramifications than it might (the finale doesn't help) and even fewer intellectual implications. What creative "give" there is in the script would fall mostly to directing careful, exacting turns from young performers, to fixing on the proper pace and range of moods, and to the overall atmosphere of the stage: portentous, I would imagine, but not obviously or overbearingly so. A cracking production might well have the audience leaving with an insinuating vibration under their skins; it's harder to imagine a production good enough to get the audience gripped in the who's, what's, and why's of these particular people and this particular scenario.

Its limitations notwithstanding, Goodnight Children Everywhere impressed enough people to win the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play in 2000—basically London's equivalent of the Tony, and as narrowly West End-focused as the Tony is Broadway-restrictive, which means that Children, like many a Tony champ and nominee, reached this apogee of critical awardage years after several audiences had already experienced it. Because they are awarded in March, the Olivier Award in a given year, like the Oscar, also tends to celebrate work that really made its impact the year before; the production that earned Nelson his gong opened at the Barbican Theatre in February of 1999. Consequently, by most counts the most esteemed new play on English stages in 2000 wouldn't qualify for the Olivier Award until 2001. It won, and it constitutes the subject of my next write-up.

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At May 26, 2012 at 9:49 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

Beautiful writing - very well written.
I look forward to reading more of your reviews of scripts.
Thank-you for sharing.


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