Arts Listings

The Theater: ‘Tragedy: A Tragedy’ at Berkeley Rep

By Ken Bullock, Special to The Planet
Tuesday March 25, 2008

“Tonight’s forecast: Dark. Increasing darkness, with widely scattered daylight in the morning.” So George Carlin’s stoned weatherman predicted the nocturnal trend in his ’60s stand-up comedy act.  

Will Eno’s Tragedy: A Tragedy, on the Thrust Stage at Berkeley Rep, begins where Carlin’s glib (and succinct) forecaster left off, riffing on a given in broadcasting that’s become a staple of American comedy routines—when there’s nothing to say over the mic or see on camera, just keep talking, all that dead air has to be filled. 

And a lot of mileage has been got from it, ever since Bob & Ray began to milk the laughter implicit in the solipsistic spiel of anchormen, special guests, men in the field and talking heads more than 50 years ago on the radio. 

But Eno’s opus isn’t a brief Saturday Night Live comedy sketch. It’s a 70-minute play by a playwright who’s been nominated for a Pulitzer for his piece Thom Pain (based on nothing). Thomas Jay Ryan plays an actor known for the title role in a noted film, flanked by two journeymen actors (girlish Marguerite Stimpson, laconic Max Gordon Moore) as other correspondents, with yet another as anchor (warm, avuncular David Cromwell) at his desk behind. They all face out over the audience, as if gazing at the horizon or encroaching destiny, as did Carl Dreyer’s characters in his final film masterpiece, Gertrud. 

The newsmen talk. They talk to the invisible eye of the camera, to the presumed viewers beyond it, to each other, to themselves. Trying to come to grips with—or at least articulate—some vast catastrophe that everybody feels, is aware of, but which leaves no visible or audible trace (unless the absence of commotion, of activity, is such a trace), they can only mouth big, vague words like “night,” “darkness,” “world,” while going on about what they see, what they feel, how they’re breaking down ... all equally vague, spectacularly banal. In fact, they are the spectacle, like proverbial actors reciting from the phone book, albeit with an underpinning of chagrin. 

Is it an apocalypse strictly from Zeno’s Paradox? Is it the long-awaited triumph of entropy, ushered in by the langueurs of media professionals? Or is it just the media itself, without content, with whatever event jerked off-camera, while the talent fidgets and twitches like marionettes whose strings are being snipped? 

Rep Artistic Director Tony Taccone warns, “to say that Tragedy: A Tragedy is a satire on the self-satirizing media is like saying that Waiting for Godot is about life on the road. It doesn’t even begin to capture what’s really going on ...” 

Eno has been compared to Beckett, of whom he says, “I really think he is great. One of my favorite nights of the last couple of thousand was reading Krapp’s Last Tape to [my friend] Shevaun in bed, while she was knitting. Later, I think we smoked a couple of those Gitanes cigarettes ... one of the most existential cigarette brands, unless they still sell Old Golds.” He’s also been called Existentialist. 

But such comparisons seem misnomers, like the current use of “irony” for a type of sarcasm or flippancy over one thing displacing another. Eno plays with redundancy, oxymoron, tautology, but Tragedy: A Tragedy still comes off as a one-trick pony, cantering around and around the track.  

The cosmic punch line which supposedly goes beyond the obviousness of the set-up of the joke seems to be what Ford Madox Ford averred was the ruination of the arts in Anglo-Saxon societies: the author winking at the audience, like a puppeteer showing his face, so everyone knows it’s all under control, that they’re in on something amusing.  

“Absurdist” drama and the historical avant-garde it drew from didn’t present static tableaux, passive images. Even Found Objects were made artful through montage, mounting dissimilar things together or in dissimilar contexts. That transformative activity was what counted, not an attitude or pose. 

Norman Mailer once satirized another well-known novelist, saying, “A lot of writers go to cocktail parties, and get an idea they talk up after a few drinks, but he’s the only one who goes home and writes it.” There’s an uneasy similarity between Eno’s idea and plays by writers unfamiliar with theater, naively fooling around with conventions new to them, eager to show off a new toy. 

As the newscasters break down, become surrogate family to each other and are praised by a sympathetic bystander, they jump (or decay, in the musical sense) from newstalk to what sounds like academic samples of different narrative styles, cut and pasted in. Another rather naive rendition of a fiction device, a little like William Burrough’s Cut-Up Technique. The overall effect of the play recalls a line from one of Burroughs’ jaded characters: “Why, he’d stand still for Joe Gould’s seagull impression!” 



Through April 13 at Berkeley Repertory  

Theater, 2025 Addison St. 647-2949.