E. L. Doctorow Essay - Doctorow, E(dgar) L(aurence) (Vol. 15)

Doctorow, E(dgar) L(aurence) (Vol. 15)


Doctorow, E(dgar) L(aurence) 1931–

Doctorow is an American novelist, editor, and playwright best known for the widely popular novel Ragtime. Major fictive concerns with Doctorow are the cyclical nature of history and ways of knowing. His four novels have been progressively deeper experiments with history and fiction, culminating with Ragtime, which has been controversial for the fictions it presents about historical figures. Doctorow has recently turned his talents to a different genre, drama, in Drinks Before Dinner. (See also CLC, Vols. 6, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48.)

John Gardner

E. L. Doctorow, in Ragtime, urges social justice in a more or less moving and persuasive way, but he is not concerned with true morality. After talk of policemen, evil capitalists, and strikebreakers, there is a scene in which the anarchist Emma Goldman gives a massage to the now naked, famous beauty Evelyn Nesbit, while a character known only as Mother's Younger Brother peeks from a closet. It's a scene filled, naturally, with prurient interest and filled, also, with a strong and convincing tirade on women's rights. Though Doctorow can speak feelingly of women's rights, taking a stand that is moral, he is not deeply involved in his characters' lives. Things do not happen in the world as Doctorow claims they do. Put off by fraudulence, the reader may incline to be suspicious of all the writer says, including what he says about women. (p. 29)

John Gardner, "Moral Fiction," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1978 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 5, No. 13, April 1, 1978, pp. 29-30, 32-3.∗

Michael Feingold

Let us be fair to E. L. Doctorow. In Drinks Before Dinner, he has tried to do something incomparably more ambitious than any new American play has done in years—he has tried to put the whole case against civilization in a nutshell. That is impressive by definition: while our cleverer young playwrights have been agonizing over the harmful effects of the media, or how secrets corrupt the nuclear family, Doctorow has looked at the map of our moral world, and unerringly pointed one fat finger at its capital city, the heart of the problem: We don't like how we live, and the better we live, the less we like it.

Knowing the right question to ask, of course, is not the same as being able to phrase it correctly, and in Doctorow's play the great question of civilization is phrased with surprising badness; his map of the terrain he claims is both messy and of dubious accuracy.

The nutshell into which Doctorow wants to force all of civilization, for purposes of his indictment, is a dinner party in an expensive East Side apartment. The civilized elite, rich and glamorous, have gathered to meet, informally, an Important Person—a Secretary of something (probably State) who has won the Nobel Prize for Peace. One of the elite, Edgar, is unhappy—about everything, it seems. Arbitrarily, he removes a gun from his jacket pocket. He holds the assembled elite at a kind of puzzled and accidental gunpoint. ("You appear," someone says, in one of the play's four jokes, "to have hijacked a living room.") When the Secretary arrives, during the intermission, he is tied to a chair, and made to listen to Edgar's grievances, which by now have acquired a premise: Industrial Civilization is causing the end of the world. The...

(The entire section is 716 words.)


[Drinks Before Dinner] originated not in an idea or a character or a story but in a sense of heightened language, a way of talking. It was not until I had the sound of it in my ear that I thought about saying something. The language preceded the intention. It's possible that the voice the writer discovers may only be the hallucination of his own force of will; nevertheless, the process of making something up is best experienced as fortuitous, unplanned, exploratory. You write to find out what it is you're writing….

I didn't analyze this language but merely set out to see if I could do it. It is a frankly rhetorical mode that loves repetition, the rhythm of repetition, and at its best finds the unit of sense not in the clause or the sentence but in the discursion. I have since detected a similar sound in the recorded lectures of Zen masters and in sections of the Old Testament. Once you hear it, it is all around. It's a spoken language, a flexible language with possibilities of irony and paradox that are as extended as any modernist could wish, but a simplicity to satisfy the most primitive narrative impulse. I quickly and easily wrote 4,000 or 5,000 words and took the opportunity to deliver them aloud several times in public readings in different parts of the country. I gradually understood I had composed a monologue, that someone was speaking and that he had a lot on his mind….

How, what this account says about my dramaturgy may seem to betray a serious flaw...

(The entire section is 621 words.)

John Coleby

Come back, Dorothy Parker, nothing is forgiven. Not by Mr. Doctorow anyway, and he himself seems badly in need of shriving if not of absolution, himself. When intellectual New Yorkers set out to beat their breasts they give themselves, and us, the full treatment, a real work-out. And so it is in Drinks Before Dinner…. This one will shrivel the ice cubes in that li'l ole highball before your hostess can recall herself to her social obligations and offer to freshen it up for you. The trouble was that Edgar took his gun to the party but no one asked him to shoot. Just as well, as it turns out, because he hasn't loaded it…. Mr. Doctorow takes aim at a lot of contemporary targets but he has no bullets in his gun either…. [A] play which 'originated not in an idea or a character or a story, but in a sense of heightened language, a way of talking' hasn't got too much going for it.

John Coleby, "Plays in Performance: 'Drinks Before Dinner'," in Drama, No. 135, January, 1980, p. 74.