Eating at an Irreal Café: the Plays of B E Turner

Still from Timbuktu
A still from the video of “Timbuktu” by B E Turner, posted by Mark Perry

At The Café Irreal we are most interested in publishing work that plunges us into the Kafkan fantastic and which also seems to be engaged in a search for meaning. Because, over time, we have often found these tendencies in the work of New Zealand author B E Turner, he is one of our most-published authors. His work has made ten appearances in our webzine, and four of these have involved his short plays. Most recently, we published “Timbuktu,” a one-act play set in an irreal cafe. Here are the first four lines of “Timbuktu”:

 DINER: It’s irreal is it?

WAITER: Indeed so.

DINER: Is that Theatre of the Absurd?

WAITER: Worse.

I’ll talk more later about how Turner’s work compares with Theatre of the Absurd, but as part of this Year of Reading at the Irreal Café, I wanted to comment on his plays because, in addition to the presence of a search for meaning and philosophical depth, they are also very witty and engaging. But first, a little about how they exemplify a Kafkan sort of fantastic literature.

When GS Evans and I were putting together The Cafe Irreal, we came upon a quote from Jean-Paul Sartre that would eventually grace our home page. This same quote also inspired the name of our publication because this is where Sartre described the café topsy-turvy – a concept that is for us the essence of the irreal. In such a cafe the means, such as coffee cups and doors and even waiters, evade the human ends we assume they were designed for, or to give one of Sartre’s examples, something as utilitarian as a door might work very differently than expected: “It is there before us, with its hinges, latch and lock. It is carefully bolted, as if protecting some treasure. I manage, after several attempts, to procure a key; I open it, only to find that behind it is a wall.” But what is there about this particular door that makes it irreal and not simply an absurd obstacle?

Answers can be found in an article by Jo Bogaerts called “Challenging the Absurd? Sartre’s Article on Kafka and the Fantastic,” (which is available behind a paywall at https://www.berghahnjournals.com/abstract/journals/sartre-studies/24/1/ssi240103.xml). In it Bogaerts shows that Sartre was determined to distinguish his own brand of existentialism from the absurdism of Albert Camus, and Franz Kafka was the “figurative ‘prism’” that allowed Sartre to challenge other versions of existentialism.

In Kafka’s work Sartre found what he called “le fantastique,” and though this was later misinterpreted as an attempt to link Kafka with writers of fantasy literature, Sartre actually dismissed the fantastic elements in the work of writers such as Edgar Alan Poe and Lewis Carroll as “mere trickery.” Instead, Sartre believed that the work of Poe and Carroll represented an attempt to escape the human condition, whereas Kafka’s work, rather than being escapist fantasy, represented a search for meaning.

Bogaerts elaborates on this Sartrean notion of the fantastic: “In our normal dealings with the world, matter is endowed with human signification and serves human purposes… In the fantastic universe, on the other hand, objects refuse to answer to this rigorous utilitarian logic and man can no longer project his proper possibilities in the world.” The relation between means and ends is thereby reversed, and as Sartre concluded in the quote we now know so well: “… if we have been able to give [the reader] the impression that we are talking about a world in which these absurd manifestations appear as normal behaviour, then he will find himself plunged all at once into the heart of the fantastic.”

The Three Short Plays by Brian E Turner (now B E Turner) that appeared in Issue 9 in 2004 all take place in a café setting and all show a keen understanding of the revolt of the means against the ends.

In “Get On with the Play” two actors, X and Y, ask their waiter, Francisco, for mixed drinks and Turkish Delight. They receive what the waiter assures them is appropriate fare for actors in a play: water, flat ginger ale, and an empty plate. Yet they can’t seem to resign themselves to the fact that they are simply means serving the ends of the audience’s enjoyment, rather than being ends in themselves.

In “Furtive Love” a young man, who changes his name frequently, shares a restaurant table with Captain Nemo. These characters also have ideas of their own about how the meal is supposed to transpire, yet they can’t order anything because the author has decided not to include a waiter in the cast of characters. This play also touches on our (admittedly often violated) dictum that irreal writers shouldn’t try to make us care about the characters they create. The young man says, “The problem is neither of us have characters, we don’t have a past, I don’t even know my own name. It can’t be a realistic play.” And in fact, it isn’t.

And finally in “A Cup of Tea” Hank asks Francisco the waiter about the tea that’s available. He learns that there’s also art on the premises — two mirrors covered by curtains. When Hank asks Francisco what he will see when he looks in the mirror, the waiter says, ” I do not know what you see. Certain philosophers will say that what we call reality is merely an illusion. Perhaps you should inspect the exhibits and make your own decision.” And, of course, the play offers itself up for the same kind of inspection.

Turner’s “The Comedy of Art” appeared in Issue #11, as well as in The Irreal Reader.  This short play draws its characters from the Commedia dell ‘Arte tradition. Again we find lots of wordplay, and there’s some commentary on the nature of art and realism from Magnifico, “[p]laywright, philosopher and master of illusion.”

In a short monologue, Magnifico says: “All who enter here be warned that the safe square of reality is to be clucked away by a poor chook. What you think of the play realistic may be extolled or may not according to the moderator’s whim whether or not he or she (as the case may be) is of unsound mind or otherwise inclined to be interpretative of games, play and other pastimes, whether cyclic or palliative. And what you may think of the play unrealistic is left to the opine of the adjudicator.” Here he is rephrasing, in an enjoyably euphuistic way, Francisco’s advice that “you should inspect the exhibits and make your own decision.”

Most recently, in Issue 68, we published “Timbuktu,” a short play that’s also set in a café which is of course topsy-turvy.  Turner seems to reflect Sartre’s description of what might happen in such a place.

DINER: … Have you written my order down exactly?

WAITER: Indeed sir.

DINER: I hear that this establishment sometimes fails to make correct notes and that on these occasions the diner fails to receive the correct menu.

WAITER: That is if the diner does not order the correct menu. I shall request the Chef to confirm. [Exit]

The wordplay in “Timbuktu” is gentle but lively, a regular feature of Turner’s work. Just a note, by the way, about the importance of wordplay and nonsense in the irreal: For one thing, you can find wordplay in a number of works that we consider to be irreal, especially Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, in which reality is undermined partly through the use of language. (Here I should also say that we disagree with Sartre’s assessment of Lewis Carroll’s work and do consider it to be irreal. And for an interesting perspective on Carroll, see “Slaying the Snark: what nonsense verse tells us about reality.”) In addition, we sometimes describe irreal works as evoking the dream state, and it’s important to remember that puns and nonsense can occur in our dreams.

And as always in Turner’s work, there is that subtle search for meaning as in the following short monologue :

CHEF: Within the psyche is the mind and within the mind are the two moieties, the real and the irreal, the left and the right. In the real we cling to the wreckage of safe certainty but in the irreal we enter the unsafe world of dreams, absurdities, impossibilities, the place where the accepted laws of nature and logic are broken. And why should we enter this realm which we are so reluctant to experience? Because it is the centre. It is the source of creation and the next step on the way we should all have the courage to follow. Enough. He has said his piece.

In Issue #61 we published a play by Turner that I would say is more absurdist than irreal. “Knitting” reminds me of Edward Albee plays such as The Sandbox or Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. In it we find the dark humor that is a feature of Albee’s and Beckett’s plays and the same disturbing conflict among people who seem to depend on one another. Jo Bogaerts notes that Sartre had the following to say about this literary approach: “But absurdity means the complete absence of ends. The absurd is the object of clear and distinct thought. It belongs to the right-side-up world, as the actual limit of human powers.” In an absurd universe everything, ultimately, is meaningless.

In “Knitting,” the repetitive dialog of invalid Bertha (“Knit two. Purl two.”) at first gives us the impression that this is a homey and easy-going situation. But Rose, despite her assertions that she takes care of Bertha, seems only to taunt her and offer her meals of cooked rodents. There is bleak humor here, and Bertha’s visitor Mr. Pottz also tends to repeat himself in a scattered sort of way (“…what he says he cannot tell. And what he tells he can’t always remember.”). Bogaerts says, “The complete absence of a goal in the absurd novel led to a picture of human activity as tedious and undifferentiated,” and in fact the repetitive dialog in “Knitting” contributes to a similar effect.

Despite the bleak humor in this play, we get the distinct impression that Bertha, Rose, and Mr. Pottz have given up on trying to understand their world. More importantly, unlike what happens in the irreal universe of Kafka, there is no transcendence in “Knitting” – means are not associated with ends, so there is no meaningful activity. Instead, we find an outcome as distressing as anything Nell and Nag experience in Endgame or the fate that comes to Grandma in The Sandbox – all are trapped in a hopeless stasis, waiting for the inevitable.

B E Turner has been active in community theatre as playwright, actor, and director for many years. Reading his plays is enjoyable and worthwhile, but they are of course meant to be performed onstage. You can see a video of one production of “Knitting” (in it Mr. Pottz is Mrs. Pottz). Note especially the knitting Bertha has been working on for five months, which looks like a misshapen multicolored patch of despair. You can also watch a dress rehearsal of “Timbuktu” and see for yourself what it’s like to be a patron at The Café Irreal.