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Bitten on the Bum by the Absurd Drama Bug
by Celia Jones

My first experience with absurdist theatre was as a Drama student at UC, Berkeley in a play called "Uncle Sam", which was a kind of a modern-day "Antigone" written by a student.  Being Berkeley in the 60's, it was an anti-war, anti-authority play that didn't make much sense to me, but I thought that is was probably deeply metaphoric.  As a naive freshman, I felt it was an honour to be cast in the leading role of a young rebellious woman who risked her life by defying her uncle, the king.

The writer/director of this alternative-style play was a graduate student Rosemary, a tall, elegantly thin wraith with curly, flowing blond hair and floral, hippie dress that gave her an ethereal demeanour.  My recollection of performing this play is rather fuzzy except for one scene with 'my uncle', where the script called for me to slap him.   Since I had never before slapped someone in the face, I was reluctant to do it on cue, and my initial attempts in rehearsal were rather feeble, not wanting to hurt the other actor.

After watching  a couple of  my limp-wristed efforts, the ethereal Rosemary suddenly transformed into a fury spitting out, "You call that a slap!?"  In a flash, she was on me like an oversized Valkyre, demonstrating on my face how to do a proper stage slap. "This is how you do it.  Just cup your hand and hit on the jaw line so it makes a loud noise but doesn't hurt," giving my mush an almighty crack."Bullshit," I cried, "that hurt like hell!"

"That's because you flinched.  If you didn't flinch, it wouldn't have hurt," the harpy growled.  "Let's try it again, and don't flinch," she said as she slapped my flinching face several times in quick succession.  I'd
heard that you had to suffer for your art, but this was ridiculous as I struggled to hold back my tears.

We eventually got the slap right; at least it didn't hurt me a bit when I performed the slap myself.  A few years later while watching a scene from the offbeat TV series "Monty Python's Flying Circus", I felt a strong deja-vu feeling. John Cleese and Michael Palin are standing on a pier, each with a large fish in hand.  They proceed to slap each other with their fishes in a ballet of military precision until one falls in the water.  My slapping scene made as much sense.

Nevertheless, the Absurdist Theatre Movement was becoming rather popular, and I felt I should learn more about it.  Since my father was always interested in what I was studying,  I arranged for him and my mother to see a performance with me in San Francisco of a play, or mime, by Beckett called "Act Without Words".  I felt it was my mission to broaden my parents' theatrical experiences from the usual Neil Simon comedies they attended at their local theatre group.

The curtain opened on an empty stage, no scenery, nothing except for two large burlap sacks. A big stick, a goad, prodded one of the sacks and a scruffy character "A" reluctantly came out of the sack, brooded and unenthusiastically put on the clothes that had neatly been placed next to his sack.  He ate a carrot and spit it out, then carried his sack to the middle of the stage.  He brooded again and took off his clothes, dropping them in an untidy heap onstage, and went back to sleep in his sack.

The goad returned, this time poking the second sack.  Immediately, character "B" woke up and left the sack.  He did everything vigorously, consulting his watch several times. He dressed rapidly and carefully and ate his carrot  with appetite. After performing his own duty by carrying the sacks to the further side of the stage, he removed the same clothes character "A" had left in an untidy pile and folded them neatly once again, winded his watch and crawled back into his sack.

All this 'action' took about an hour.  I was fascinated by all the symbolism; here were two types, two different approaches to the absurdity of existence.  When combined, they presented a composite picture of man. What a revelation!

Just as the goad was about to wake character "A" again, a rather loud snore echoed in the dark of the theatre.  At first, I thought it was character "A", sleeping soundly, but the snores continued even after that character re-emerged from the sack.

Fearing the worst, I reluctantly turned to catch my mother sitting on the other side of my father, eyes closed, mouth agape, emitting the loudest buzz-saw sounds I'd ever heard.  My father 'prodded' my mother awake, "Katie, Katie, wake up and watch the play."

Moaning awake, my mother said in a clearly audible voice that echoed in the silent theatre, "Oh, it's sooo boring!"    Cringing as a hundred pairs of eyes suddenly fixed on us, I knew we had to leave immediately.  My father helped my mother gather her things, including her large, opened handbag filled with all the usual snacks, apples and boiled candies which came cascading out, as we hastily made our exit.  I prayed that people would think this was part of the show, part of man's struggle with the 'absurdity and fruitlessness of existence.

However, there was more angst outside the theatre; as we walked towards the car, we saw a large empty 'existential' space where our car should have been.  Apparently, my father had unintentionally parked in a tow-away zone, and we finished our theatrical experience with an 'absurdly' expensive recovery of our impounded car from the city garage across the city.

Many years later near the end of my teaching career, there was to be one more significant and final experience with absurdist theatre.  Years of directing the school plays provided me with a great deal of satisfaction, that is, until I attempted the absurdist play "The Rhinoceros" by Eugene Ionesco.

For the lead actor, I was going to opt for a reliable, competent student Jonah who had acted in other plays until Adam appeared at the audition, having memorized an entire monologue from the play.  Adam was a homeless kid, shunted from pillar to post, and I saw this as a chance to be one of those legendary teachers who effect a life-changing experience on a disadvantaged student.  Also, Adam seemed to personify the leading character Beringer, who is the non-conformist standing alone against the transformation of the whole village into rhinoceros.

Unfortunately, the lines in that audition monologue were the only lines in the whole play that he ever did learn.  Despite weeks of coaxing and threatening, he didn't learn one more line.  His excuses seemed plausible, and his promises to learn the lines were earnest.  One week before production, it became clear that it wasn't going to work with Adam in the lead role.  I was angry, not only with Adam for thwarting my teacher-of-the-year aspirations,  but also with my stupidity in letting the situation go on so long.

After much grovelling and promising that he could use the script onstage, I persuaded Jonah to do the part, and demoted Adam to a walk-on role as a fireman.  I assured the students and myself that it would be 'all right on the night', as my plays usually were despite the hitches that always plagued my productions beforehand.

Opening night began with an argument with the members of a student band over their wanting to play the song "Cocaine" for the audience at interval.  There was a mix-up with the tickets, and many seats had been double-booked, causing heated altercations.  Some of the costumes had gone missing, the coloured make-up sticks had been ground into the dressing room floor, and the rhinoceros masks were falling apart from their rough treatment during rehearsals. The motorized device controlling the curtains was acting up, and it looked for a while like we wouldn't get the curtains open at all. This didn't bode well for the rest of the evening as I announced to the audience the cast changes.

Following the painful squeal of the curtains opening, I  tried to get comfortable in the cramped lighting box  with my crew of four students crunching away on potato chips and expelling pungent gaseous emissions.  The production was technically complex with slides of rhinoceros, as well as the strange rhino grunting, musical, sound and lighting effects all based on script cues.  Unease set in as I watched Jonah take larger and larger strides across the stage before dramatically closing the script and launching into a total adlib of the play's absurdist dialogue.   As he ranted on, enjoying being the centre of attention and re-writing the play, my technicians kept asking me where he was in the script.   The other actors didn't have a clue where they should jump in with their lines, and I felt like I was in a nightmare loop, where everything was careering out of control.

The worst was yet to come as Adam, animated in his new role of fireman, decided to enhance his entrance from the audience by carrying on a heavy, six-foot wooden ladder he'd found backstage.  The scene seemed to unfold in slow motion; Adam's wiry body jaunted down the aisle,  shoulder-length hair
flying under his red helmet,  and swung the huge ladder around towards the stage.  A sickening thud then echoed through the theatre as the moving end of the ladder struck an elderly member of the audience in the front row, knocking her unconscious.

 I watched the school administrators gather around the stricken woman, praying that she would be all right and wouldn't sue me and the school into oblivion.

That marked the end of the performance, and the excited cast members crowded around me.  There had been so many laughs from the audience at all the things that went wrong that they felt it was a success and awaited my response. Unfortunately, I was unable to speak as I was having an out-of-body experience, watching a character in an absurd play who looked just like me, sitting there in a box, rigid with eyes glazed.