Bernard Slade Essay - Critical Essays

Bernard Slade Newbound


One might best approach Bernard Slade’s major works—Same Time, Next Year, Tribute, Romantic Comedy, and Special Occasions—by first surveying their common ground. All Slade’s plays are comedies for the most part, although Tribute and Special Occasions contain more frequent departures into the pathetic than do Same Time, Next Year and Romantic Comedy. (Tribute is, at its simplest level, a story about a man who knows when and how he is going to die, while the “special occasions” in the play of that title include divorce, disfiguring automobile accidents, and alcoholic blackouts.) The time frame of a typical Slade play is usually quite broad: Special Occasions covers one night of Amy and Michael Ruskin’s marriage and ten years of their divorce; Romantic Comedy spans thirteen years of an on-again, off-again professional writing relationship; and Same Time, Next Year begins in 1951 and ends in 1975, with every indication that its adulterous affair will continue into a fourth decade.

Time is always significant in Slade’s works. All four major productions plot the maturation of one or two principal characters over a period of years or months. Quite often the chief protagonist is a male, between thirty and fifty years of age, who makes his living as a writer of one sort or another (Michael Ruskin in Special Occasions and Jason Carmichael in Romantic Comedy are playwrights). The liberal time frame allows for a wide variety of situations that culminate in self-recognition on the part of the protagonists and a happy ending for the audience. Slade’s characters typically experience an illicit affair (not always at center stage), a divorce, a career crisis, and problems with their children and their own maturation. The crowd onstage is always sparse. Two plays—Special Occasions and Same Time, Next Year—have only two characters each; Romantic Comedy and Tribute have six and seven characters, respectively. Children rarely appear onstage (Tribute is again the exception), yet despite their absence they are often crucial to the plot. Amy and Michael Ruskin’s children in Special Occasions never appear in the spotlight, but all three younger Ruskins have highly individual personalities, and all are so carefully drawn that the audience is convinced of their existence even in their absence. Stephen is at a stage that everyone is hoping he will grow out of, Jennifer is a musical genius (her piano playing is audible), and Kelly is dull. One might assess other characters’ personalities with similar ease, even though they are never seen. Indeed, whole scenes in Same Time, Next Year are devoted to the unsuspecting husband and the more astute wife (both absent) of the lovers, and most of Special Occasions concerns people who are not formally in the play. Thus, just as the extended time frame convinces the audience members that they are not simply spectators at a play but observers of continuous human history, so do Slade’s offstage personalities convince them that the principal characters are real people with lives beyond the spotlights.

If there is an all-encompassing thesis that one might extract from Slade’s major productions, it is this: Life does not distill itself into isolated instances of time but is instead an evolving process that touches other people who may or may not be present in the flesh but whose influence is felt from moment to moment. The isolated moment can say much (as is the case in Special Occasions), but every moment has its context in things outside. While Slade’s focus is always on center stage, one senses from the very beginning the presence of a background—historical and densely populated—that gradually comes to life and establishes itself as the source of what one sees and hears onstage. Like his earlier plays for television, Slade’s Broadway productions offer little slices of life, complete with triumphs and tragedies, while the whole from which the slice is taken remains conspicuously and deliberately close at hand. Finally, though they sometimes place a strain on credulity, the triumphs win out over the tragedies with remarkable consistency. When Slade’s world becomes dark—and it does so almost rhythmically—the darkness lasts only for its appointed duration. There is always a character ready with a joke, however nervously he may tell it, or a stagehand ready with a curtain, to bring one back to the realization that everything will be all right—in time.

Same Time, Next Year

In no other play does Slade use time more conspicuously than in Same Time, Next Year, his most successful Broadway production. The plot is simple enough: George and Doris leave their spouses at home with the children and meet at the same country inn near San Francisco for one weekend every year from 1951 to 1975. They make love 113 times (George, an accountant, uses his calculator to arrive at the figure), taking a brief but unexpected respite in 1961 because of Doris’s pregnancy (and early labor) and George’s impotence. (The timing is not always so perfect: In 1965, Doris refuses to have sex with him because he voted for Barry Goldwater.) Yet despite the play’s dependence on the affair for its plot, Same Time, Next Year is only superficially about adultery. Its real focus is on growing up and on the 364 or so days a year that make George and Doris appear different each time the audience sees them.

The play opens on the morning following the pair’s initial encounter. There are awkward moments at first, and George has grave misgivings about the whole situation. He tells lies, he calls Doris by a wrong name, and he is sure that his wife knows all about his infidelity. Doris, despite her Roman Catholic upbringing, is much more relaxed. She even eats George’s breakfast for him. George’s appetite, when it returns, is for sex: “The Russians have the bomb!” he exclaims, using world events and the threat of annihilation to justify sexual license. Having become familiar with each other sexually, the two decide to tell stories about the good and the bad sides of their spouses as a means of getting to know each other better. George already has his stories prepared, so he begins what later will become part of the ritual celebrated every February in the small country inn that never changes.

Despite the static quality of the setting and the fact that each of the five-year intervals follows closely the formula established in the first encounter, Same Time, Next Year is a story about the profound change in the lives of the principal characters and in the larger world outside. The year 1961, for example, matches George’s impotence against Doris’s pregnancy (both conditions say a good deal about what 1960 must have been like for them). In 1965, Doris is liberated both in her dress and in her philosophical and sociological outlook, while George is on Librium, and by 1970, Doris has bought into the new “chic” establishment and opened an exclusive and highly successful French catering business, while George has exchanged his conservative lifestyle for denim and sandals. His conversation summarizes up the age of analysis with accuracy and charm: “When you first walked into the room I picked up your high tension level. Then after we made love I sensed a certain anxiety reduction but now I’m getting a definite negative feedback.”

The source of the high tension level lies in the people and events in the world and outside the inn. George’s impotence is only aggravated by his mother calling long distance to discuss possible cures, and his flirtation with Librium dependency is a direct result of his son’s death in Vietnam. Although his psychoananalytic jargon is amusing, there are, nevertheless, serious reasons behind his decision to seek psychiatric help. The decision comes not a moment too soon, for, in 1975, George, now a widower, tells his last story about his wife with a degree of equanimity that comes only after years of dealing with life-altering experiences. The years have been kinder to Doris, whose only crisis comes in 1970 when her husband, Harry, leaves her. Significantly, it is George, in the guise of a Father Michael O’Herlihy, who brings about the couple’s reconciliation. Once again, analysis has its real-life rewards.

In spite of its occasional crossovers into the realm of domestic tragedy, Same Time, Next Year is first and foremost a comedy in the tradition of the 1970’s vintage Broadway. With a few notable exceptions, every situation has its comic moments, and the humor always has something to say about character growth. Doris’s discussion of what it is like to have grown from a high school dropout to a wealthy businesswoman is a typical example. Fulfillment, she tells George, is going into Gucci’s and buying five suede suits at seven hundred dollars each for her bowling team—simply to spite the unpleasant salesgirl. George, too, has come a long way in twenty years. The same man whose guilt sends him into paroxysms of despair in the 1950’s and 1960’s is able to confront Doris’s husband with amazing composure in 1970. Confessing that honesty is everything, George shamelessly tells Harry about the very intimate relationship he has had with Doris for twenty years. That his first and only conversation with Harry takes place over the telephone makes things a little easier for George and provides one of the play’s most humorous moments: “My name? My name is Father Michael O’Herlihy. No, she’s out saying a novena right now—Yes, my son, I’ll tell her to call you.”

One might easily point out any number of similar instances in the play, but the two above will serve to illustrate one final point about the humor in Same Time, Next Year. Doris is, from 1956 on, a woman motivated by one outstanding quality—spontaneity. She welcomes every moment as it comes, and she perfectly fits George’s definition of life (saying “yes”). So accustomed is the audience to her love of the moment that the episode in the Gucci store comes as no surprise; her reaction represents in every way the classic Doris. George’s long-distance triumph is equally revealing. His composure represents an achievement of great proportions, and he revels in it. He knows he is being clever, and so he stretches the moment for as long as he can make it last. Rarely is his self-perception at such a high point; his comic lines come at his own expense for three-quarters of the play. By 1970, a little of Doris has rubbed off on him, and the change is welcome....

(The entire section is 4384 words.)