An Irrealist Reading of Three Plays by D. Harlan Wilson

Three Plays by D. Harlan Wilson

D. Harlan Wilson has been a regular at The Cafe Irreal for a very long time. We published his story “Circus” in Issue #3 (which went online nineteen years ago, in February of 2000), and his work has appeared on our site five additional times since then. Wilson’s story “Giraffe” was included in our print anthology, The Irreal Reader — Fiction and Essays from The Cafe Irreal (Guide Dog Books 2013), and in May of 2016, one of his plays, “Primacy,” appeared in Issue #58. I first read Wilson’s collection of Three Plays when we published “Primacy,” and I decided to re-read the plays during Our Year of Reading at the Irreal Cafe.

Wilson is the author of biographies, fiction collections, novels, and criticism, including Modern Masters of Science Fiction: J.G. Ballard, and he is a professor of English at Wright State University. According to his bio, he is also one of the co-founders of bizarro fiction. David Vichnar, in an essay about Wilson published at 3:AM Magazine, has this to say about bizarro fiction and Wilson’s writing in general: “[s]ome critics have been cited as calling him ‘a genre in himself.’ That’s lazy, though, for in the best spirit of the avant-garde business, Wilson has helped to cofound and shape the movement & aesthetics of ‘bizarro fiction,’ a mélange of elements of absurdism, satire, and the grotesque, along with genre fiction staples (sci-fi, fantasy, horror) aiming to create subversive, weird, and above all entertaining works, and defined as ‘literature’s equivalent to the cult section at the video store.’ In Wilson’s hands, bizarro is a sometimes extreme, sometimes (hyper-)exaggerated, sometimes flippant, almost always blackly humorous critique of what our lives have become.” Vichnar considers Wilson’s anti-literary avant-gardist approach to writing to be a purposeful effort to undermine the fetishized nature of literature and literary writers in this stage of late capitalism. I propose to add something to this portrait of Wilson as I talk about his plays because I find in them a search for meaning and insight into the ways the means can revolt against the ends that add to my view of Wilson as a genuinely irreal writer.

“Primacy” is the most accessible and in some ways the least irreal of the three plays. In fact, it calls to mind the work of absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett who in 1945, after a considerable period of living in James Joyce’s shadow, realized that his work should focus on “poverty, failure, exile and loss,” and acknowledged to himself that he was interested in ignorance and impotence, in impoverishment and in man as a “non-knower.” There is something of Beckett’s focus on impotence and loss in the line often-repeated by “Primacy”’s only two characters, Man and Woman: “If you die, I’ll kill you.” Also like Beckett, Wilson infuses this play with a bleak humor that results in lines like these: “Nobody likes you sober. You and sobriety are a bad mix. Like water and dirt. That makes mud.”

Despite their generic names, the two characters have a relationship that is semi-realistically portrayed at times. But Wilson undermines our expectations of how a domestic drama about a couple should unfold as the two end up, hapless and disoriented, in the front yard, in the backyard, on the roof, and in the dark offstage, all the while continuing their somewhat hectoring, somewhat affectionate dialog. Until the end, that is, when Man’s ongoing insistence that Woman transcribe the obituary he is dictating meets an absurdist conclusion. An absurd and Beckettian bleakness can be found in Man’s line: “The best obituaries are composed in the darkest silences.” Note that “Primacy” was staged as part of the Rutgers University-Camden Student-Directed One-Act Play Festival.

The other two plays in this volume, “The Triangulated Diner” and “The Dark Hypotenuse,” might more accurately be called bizarro, according to the description given in Vichnar’s essay, but they undermine our expectations of the conventions of drama and they also engage in a search for meaning that makes them irreal. The diner in “The Triangular Diner,” according to the stage directions, “occupies the basement floor of an evacuated industrial elevator shaft,” and we are told that it is “a kind of culinary museum distinguished by appliances, wallpaper, décor and bric-a-brac from another era or dimension. The geometry of the diner belongs somewhere else, too, ceiling and walls forming a deranged rhombus.” But it is the superscreens that add the most non-realist elements to the stage setting. The three superscreens in “The Triangulated Diner” are supposedly there to show us what is happening in the mall where the diner is located, but in fact the superscreens’ offerings sound more like surrealist films – for example, on the one on the right wall: “Colorful amoebas of light flow across it in slowtime. When the amoebas collide, one assimilates the other, like protoplasm. Sometimes they ricochet, lobes groping for stability.” This description calls to mind Man Ray’s short films and the images on the superscreens do sound somewhat surreal. Yet Wilson’s work doesn’t read like the automatic writing championed by Breton. Instead the play is made up of dialog and quotations that contribute to an overall irreal effect.

Roarke, the hungover man at the center of this drama, keeps asking for a Mimosa that he never receives. What he does get, among other things, is a chance to hear an offstage psychologist quote Darwin on male sexual attractants, an extravagant bill of $875.24 for a hotel room he didn’t stay in, the sight of a gunman firing an Uzi and killing mall-goers and hotel guests alike, a chance to hear a waitress quote Jacques Lacan on “the sexual relationship,” and an unsatisfactory grilled cheese sandwich. After re-reading the play I went back and read the quote from Freud’s Civilizations and Its Discontents that appears as one of the epigrams (the other is a quote from Jimmy Carter about aggression). Yes, this play is bizarro in its overall intent, but it also gives us insight into why, as Freud would have it, “Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks,” leaving us with no alternative but to seek various “palliative measures.” In the play’s final scene, as Roarke tries to get the waitress to lie down and have sex with him, she says, “The metaphor of love is that thing we think we point at inside of somebody else, but in fact it is only that which we point at inside ourselves. And our insides are defined by lack.” Though Wilson frequently invokes Freud, this play does not give us the sense of harsh determinism often favored by writers who take a psychoanalytic approach to human nature, but instead has a more questioning and open-ended quality.

In the third play in this volume, “The Dark Hypotenuse,” another middle-aged man with a hangover, Starke, finds himself in “what may or may not be the Lacanian Real.” We are also told that “The Dark Hypotenuse” is another name for the Lacanian Real. The stage directions here are unsettling: “The stage is a thick black rhombus that hovers in the middle of the theater. The floor is a maze of trap doors through which actors may enter or exit. Some of the trap doors swing open whereas others slide or fall open. Giant mechanical arms extend from underneath of the stage. At the end of each arm is a gondola that sits up to ten spectators. Throughout the performance, the arms are in constant motion and move the audience all over the theater so that each gondola achieves a fluid multiperspectivalism as it glides east to west, north to south, accomplishing close-ups and bird’s-eye views and everything in between.” Even the alternative stage setting given involves stage and audience constantly rotating, but since such stagings are unlikely, it is mainly the reader’s imagination that is sent spinning.

In addition to its unsettling stage directions, “The Dark Hypotenuse” is a one-act play with no fewer than twenty-seven scenes and a cast of hundreds if we include the pigs, apes, mannequins and deconstructionists. As I describe this, I realize that it sounds completely chaotic, but Wilson has a surprising amount of control over this material. The play sometimes reminds me of the work of Dadaist Tristan Tzara, whose plays use language to a similar world-building effect. And its manic energy reminds me of the work of Alfred Jarry, creator of King Ubu, because Wilson’s play also shames and fascinates us at the same time. But though there are times when “The Dark Hypotenuse” reads very much like these avant-garde plays, I always find within it a return to irrealism as our expectations of theater are undermined in a way that invokes the revolt of the means against the ends.

At one point, just before Starke – who is increasingly distressed by what he is doing – participates in the execution of an elephant that killed a human being, Wilson gives the following stage directions:

Starke’s cinematic unconscious flits across a movie screen that looms over the western edge of the stage. The torrent of imagery is dominated by still shots and stock footage of war, pornography and Red Carpet bacchanalia. There are also clips from home movies, commercials, sitcoms, satellite recordings of deep space, and Hitchcock films. No soundtrack accompanies the cerebral carnival. It is aggressive and uninterrupted and silent.

And in the end, when all the chaos and violent imagery is over and done, the stage and the audience grind to a halt and a trap door falls open on an empty stage that we are told is somewhere in eternity. “The Dark Hypotenuse,” too, deals in a shocking but meaningful way with the “pains, disappointments and impossible tasks” of the lives we have been thrown into.

Though I read these plays when we published “Primacy,” Wilson’s Three Plays rewarded this second reading. I was especially struck this time around by the humor – deconstructionists “doppler[ing] into the abyss,” stern grammar policing at the dentist, and the mysterious conjunctions between the first two plays – a sly wink at readers to see if we are paying careful attention. Both plays begin with the same one-word line of dialogue: “Siparium,” a word that might refer to a tapestry used as a curtain in ancient theaters. There’s also the role of geometry: a triangulated diner, a dark hypotenuse, a rhomboid stage, etc. I enjoyed these small and mysterious conjuctions, which made the plays more irreal for me.

Wilson’s plays contain elements that could be described as bizarro, and they also have an avant-garde sensibility that I found energizing. He builds worlds from words in a robust and sometimes frenetic way that is surprisingly humorous and often quite humane, though his splatterschtick sensibilities don’t always ensure that. But while it’s true that there are a few scenes in the plays that distressed me, I know I live in a world filled with intensely disturbing events and images that don’t give me trigger warnings before presenting themselves. Overall, I found that this re-reading made me laugh and gave me imaginative enjoyment that made up for the occasional discomforts.

The effective black-and-white cover by Norman Conquest shows off the designer’s surrealist, dadaist, and irreal influences, among others, and features a photograph by Lodiza LePore. She describes her own work as “‘surreal,’ ‘edgy’ or an ‘absurd view of the status quo,” and the photo features a mysterious figure in an ambiguous costume on a textured, somber background. At the front of the book there is also an intense “Illustration of Screaming Pope” by Goodloe Byron, which foreshadows one of the scenes in “The Dark Hypotenuse” with its screaming live-action version of Francis Bacon’s “Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X.” Publisher Black Scat Books is dedicated to bringing us art and literature, notably “absurdism, pataphysics, erotic fiction and works in translation” that might serve to “disrupt, disorient, and smash boundaries — academic, cultural, literary, and philosophical.” Wilson’s volume of plays is a good fit.

Note that, coincidentally, a short dramatic monologue by B E Turner (“His Exegamination of Poelemtics as Addressed to the Audience“), whose plays we commented on earlier in this Year of Reading at the Irreal Cafe, also appeared in Issue #3, which means that we’ve known both these prolific writers for almost as long as The Cafe Irreal has been around.

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