Twenty-First Century Absurdist Drama Case of Peter Morris Essay

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Absurdity of Life in Modernist Drama

Although not prolific, the contemporary American playwright Peter Morris demonstrates very readily the way in which the absurdist strain in modernist drama has carried through into the early twenty-first century. What is most interesting about Morris's work in this light is the way that earlier theatrical movements -- most particularly the theater of the absurd -- are being incorporated and effectively used as one rhetorical tactic among others in the playwright's repertoire. I hope through an examination of four plays by Morris -- the verse play "The Death of Tintagel," the two politically-themed monologue plays The Age of Consent and Guardians, and the satirical comedy Gaudeamus -- to demonstrate that the central tenets of the earlier absurdist drama, the notion that life is meaningless and yet the human instinct to search for meaning in life is unending, are still being kept alive in the contemporary theater. The chief difference in Morris's work -- from the works of those who were styled practitioners of mid-twentieth-century "theater of the absurd" such as Ionesco or Beckett -- is that the absurdism is chiefly rhetorical and intellectualized. In three of the four plays under consideration, we witness nothing more than actors speaking directly to an audience. Instead of sober bourgeois folk turning into rhinoceroses onstage or desperate tramps squabbling over carrots and turnips, absurdism in the work of Morris is treated more or less philosophically: the plays exhibit the intellectual habits of absurdist drama, while adhering to a relatively conservative (if not downright undramatic) form of stagecraft.

I would like to begin this examination of Morris's work with an examination of the least characteristic play of the four under consideration, which might also be considered the one that is most fully oriented toward the absurdist strain in modern drama. This is Morris's 2003 play "The Death of Tintagel," published that year in the Paris Review then later staged in London in late 2010. Although "The Death of Tintagel" is described, in a prefaratory note by the author, as a "version" of a symbolist drama by Maurice Maeterlinck, a quick glance at the original drama by Maeterlinck reveals very little similarity: Morris's play is written mostly in jingling rhymed verse, with interpolated songs, while Maeterlinck's 1894 original Le Mort de Tintagiles is written in long blocks of late nineteenth century prose. Critic Alex Burghart describes Morris's text as "wrapping the text in a creepy-funny rhyme scheme" (Burghart 2010). What we are witnessing is an early twenty-first-century playwright looking back at a late nineteenth-century playwright -- one who has largely fallen out of the performance canon -- and finding aspects of the drama which would appear to be distinct premonitions of the modern absurdist impulse. In Maeterlinck's original play -- which was intended to be performed by marionettes -- three figures (two sisters and a knight) stay up all night to protect a young child from being kidnapped by the queen of the throne to which the boy is heir. They stave off one attempt by the queen's minions to kidnap the boy, but then eventually fall asleep, leaving the child to be kidnapped. And Maeterlinck's play ends with a strange scene: the older of the two sisters, Ygraine, follows the trail down to the bowels of the castle, where the child can be heard from behind a wall with a large locked door. Ygraine speaks to the child through the door, until he stops responding, then Maeterlinck's play concludes with an exceptionally lengthy prose soliloquy by Ygraine delivered to the unopenable door. The original drama is eerie and morbid, although the fact that Maeterlinck believed it necessary to be performed by puppets seems slightly odd: there is nothing humorous about the original play. The version by Morris, however, is intended to be performed by actual humans, but is quite obviously funny in the absurdist fashion. This is perhaps most noteworthy when the restive child Tintagel demands that someone sing him a lullaby. The younger of the two sisters watching him, Bellangere, responds with the following:

Little Boy Blue

He blew his horn

From late at night

To early morn

Futility, Tillity, O.

Little Boy Blue,

My little brother,

He blew so hard

He started to smother

Futility, Tillity, O.

He turned so blue

For want of breath

That Little Boy Blue

He blew to death.

Futility, Tillity, O. ("Tintagel" 94)

Needless to say, this text appears nowhere in the original play that Morris is riffing off of. But of course what this "lullaby" suggests is the basic tenets of absurdism -- the repeated chorus of the song uses the word "futility" but turns it into a sort of nonsense word (like "hey nonny"). It is worth noting that the actual children's song that this is recollecting, "Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn" does not make a tremendous amount of sense either, although it seems to involve farm preparations. Here, the boy blowing is horn is a purely pointless, indeed suicidal, act. But to add to the absurdism, Morris turns the song into an extended riff on the underlying pun that seems to be lurking in the ancient nursery rhyme, where "come blow your horn" is put into the past tense as "he blew his horn," but also awakens the pun on "blew" and "blue." However, the real point of the lullaby in the overall context of Morris's "The Death of Tintagel" is even more obviously absurdist. Shortly before requesting the lullaby, Tintagel has requested a bedtime story. At this point Aglovale -- the only adult male present, and represented as an aged knight in Maeterlinck's original drama but as an effete fin-de-siecle dandy in Morris's play -- responds with a refusal to offer the child a bedtime story, explaining:

AGLOVALE: A story like that might leave you perplexed.

If it's overexplicit, or oversexed,

If it's violent, shocking, ghoulish, gory

That is such a predictable sort of story.

You can tell what happens just by hearing the title.

In those tales, the details are never vital.

TINTAGEL: Well, what will be my story tonight?

AGLOVALE: Tonight is untitled. That page is white. ("Tintagel" 93)

The joke here is that, in some works of literature, "you can tell what happens just by hearing the title" -- which is particularly relevant when the work is entitled Le Mort de Tintagiles or "The Death of Tintagel." In Maeterlinck's original drama, all the adults are aware that the queen has designs to kill the child (who might ultimately have a rival claim to her throne). In Morris's play, all the adults seem aware that they are acting in a play entitled "The Death of Tintagel" but have to keep this fact from the inquisitive child, Tintagel, who is aware that something is happening but is not clear what it is. However this is emphasized in the opening lines of Morris's play, in an addition that is not present in the original Maeterlinck drama -- the Queen's handmaidens, who seize the child at the play's climax, actually open the play with a precise explanation of what will happen in the drama:

ONE: To whet your jaded appetite

We kill a little boy tonight.

TWO: At the end of the play we will rejoice

To see if your eyes, or seats, get moist.

THREE: But if you're too jaded for that, okay.

We're going to kill him anyway.

ONE: The slaughter will be overseen

TWO: By his Grandmother, a jealous Queen

THREE: As elderly as she is mean.

ONE: She is so old that she can't be nice.

TWO: She is so old her vagina has mice.

THREE: And she has commanded the sacrifice.

The absurdism of the situation is pretty textbook. The title of the play, and this ritualistic opening chorus, indicate exactly what is going to happen -- the boy is going to be sacrificed. As a result, the remainder of the drama is conducted under this knowledge (which is crucially withheld from the boy, but seemingly known to all the other characters). Thus the classically absurdist sentiment of behaving as though there were such a thing as meaningful action -- in a context where any action seen without illusions is demonstrated to be utterly meaningless -- basically provides the frame for Morris's spooky one-act drama. In some sense, what Morris's "The Death of Tintagel" represents is an attempt to write a classic "theater of the absurd" style drama for an early twenty-first-century audience.

I have dwelled at such length on what is probably the most obscure published play by this writer because I think it illuminates a certain aspect of his better known works, particularly The Age of Consent (familiar as a source of student monologues to anyone who has taken an introductory acting class). Morris's more customary mode is the monologue play, in which characters speak directly to the audience, and in his two best-known plays the drama is indeed based on actual events (the mid-1990s murder of the child James…[continue]

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