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Getting rid of the park benches and getting back to them.
By ROBERT BETHUNE
In 1958 Edward Albee wrote a one-act play about two men who meet at a park bench and wind with one of them killing the other one. The gentleman who dies very much wants to do so, and is willing to be ungentlemanly enough to break the other man down to the point where he’s willing to allow himself to be made to do the job, so in a very twisted way it’s a success story. The play was very successful and, as John Guare put it, “Theatre for years became littered with park benches. To show you were avant-garde, you needed no more than a dark room and a park bench.” Of course, an actor or two helped, and maybe some lights so that the dark room was light enough to see that it was a dark room. Oh, and some words. Always a good thing when you’re doing a play — some words.
John Guare was right, of course. If nothing succeeds like success, then why not imitate what is successful? So yes, let’s do a play in which these two people meet at a park bench and do whatever they do. And lots of people came to that conclusion and tried to do just that, and I’m not aware of a single park-bench play that is still being done except A Walk in the Woods by Lee Blessing — a park bench play that came out a cool 30 years to the year after The Zoo Story.
The park bench is an example of what I call “stealable stuff.” When somebody has something that works, you try to steal it. Now, there’s a difference between being a thief and being an honest thief. A thief steals the thing itself, like getting somebody to write some plays for you and then telling, after the fact, that he did them as work for hire and you now own them. An honest thief notices the way the work is done and figures out how to do it that way himself, and goes out and writes her own plays and does them well, having figured out by example what works and what doesn’t. Likewise, a thief goes out and puts a park bench on a stage because Albee put a park bench on a stage; an honest thief figures out why putting a park bench on a stage was a good thing and takes advantage of the same approach to his own work.
So what gives here? What’s a poor playwright to do? You go and try to do what’s working and it doesn’t work until so long after it quit working that nobody thought it would ever work again and then it works. Is the frustration level getting a little high, the temperature under the collar a little warm, the redness of the face a bit closer to beet purple? What’s wrong with trying to get some of that good old fairy dust to rub off on you?
Yes, fairy dust is the answer, and that’s the problem. All that glitters is not gold. It’s the fairy dust you can’t see that counts, not the stuff you can. It’s not the park bench; it’s what goes on over, under, around, beside and atop the park bench. Albee achieved such a crystalline intensity of relationship and such a terrifyingly inevitable course of action that it wouldn’t matter if he had set the play around a ’57 Chevrolet complete with hideously phallic tailfins. Likewise Blessing achieved such a riveting dance of thoughts and ideas combined with such a fascinating interplay of personalities that he could just as well have staged it on an old fishing boat and it would have worked just as well.
The key point is, it’s not the park bench — it’s the compression that happens when a strictly limited environment is all there is. Sartre did it in No Exit. Ibsen does it in A Doll House. Strindberg did it in many of his plays; Miss Julie certainly comes to mind. Phedre is a play squeezed into a palace; Hamlet is a play squeezed into a castle; Oedipus is a play squeezed into an acropolis. The park bench play works when it is a play, of whatever kind, squeezed onto a park bench so that nobody can get off. That’s what two park bench plays that work, separated by thirty years of park bench plays that didn’t work, has to tell any playwright who wants some fairy dust to rub off on him. Fairy dust only looks like it sprinkles. It actually has to be squeezed.