David Ives Essay - Critical Essays

David Roszkowski


Often considered a Tom Stoppard for audiences with a short attention span, Ives writes plays that are characterized by his smart use of language, as well as his tendency to delve into issues of time and chance. Because his plays—especially All in the Timing—have been so widely produced, Ives enjoys a singular popularity unusual for someone with so few full-length plays. Ives’s short comedies—variations on the themes of language, communication, and misinterpretation—have done much to validate the ten-minute play as a valid and vibrant form of writing for the stage.

Ives’s work, never guilty of being overly serious, has typically relied on some sort of overlying gimmick in form or structure to define the plays’ action. The use of a bell to reset the action of a scene, the use of two sets of actors playing the same characters, a play that re-creates language in the form of a Philip Glass composition—these are typical devices in Ives’s uvre. His short plays are usually around just long enough to present their premise, deliver a condensed theme, and not wear out their welcome. His longer works, such as Don Juan in Chicago, often lose focus, and the formula is less successful.

For themes, the plays tend to recirculate a few key ideas. Ives often touches on love and human relationships—mostly on their unpredictability and instability—as well as on the mutability and absurdity of language. Ives’s characters exist in worlds of strange uncertainty, in which language is the only key to human communication but is flimsy at best and at worst downright incomprehensible. Also central to his body of work has been the exploration of time. In his mind, time is not necessarily experienced as a linear progression but rather as a fugue of repeated sequences and unexpected turns.

Ancient History

Ancient History was one of Ives’s first works to be produced in New York, staged in 1989 while the playwright was still writing in obscurity. As a full-length play, Ancient History is an anomaly amidst Ives’s other works and is also one of the darkest. A pessimistic cautionary exploration into the burdens of the past on human relationships, it is one of very few Ives plays to end on a down note.

Ancient History, like many of his works, features a central male-female couple trying to work out their relationship’s place in a larger and crueler world. Self-described as being perfectly matched, exactly alike, Jack and Ruth open the play by extolling the many wonders of their perfect relationship. As the play progresses, as the two are ostensibly planning for a party, they slowly reveal the flimsy foundations of their stated bliss. Though the pair share an absolutely perfect present life together, they are burdened by the lack of shared traditions, and more important, by the lack of a shared future.

As always, Ives is concerned with time—most notably the connection between the transgressions of the past and the possibilities for the future. Though...

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