Jon Robin Baitz Essay - Critical Essays


Very emphatically a social critic, Jon Robin Baitz, however, stops short of the extremity to which Mamet carries his concern with moral corruption. In Mamet’s world, corruption is a given, and his characters—producers in Speed-the-Plow (pr., pb. 1988) and salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross (pr. 1983, pb. 1984)—accept that milieu as one in which they must live. Mamet, a stylistic minimalist and the American counterpart of the English Harold Pinter, is existentially absurdist in his view of life. Baitz, on the other hand, is highly articulate, melodramatic, sometimes flamboyant in his style, and belongs to the tradition of social criticism of dramatists such as Henrik Ibsen and Arthur Miller. His characters attempt to change the total corruption of their situations but, overpowered, only sink more deeply into the system or are defeated by it. That system may be the South African English school in The Film Society, the publishing business in The Substance of Fire, or the international megacorporate world of The End of the Day. Social and private moralities clash, as expressed during the reunion in The End of the Day of two medical-school friends (now expatriate Britons living in Southern California) in their erratic recital of Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach,” ending with the lines: “And here we are as on a dark’ning plain/ Swept with confused armies of struggle and flight/ Where ignorant armies clash by night.” One of the Britons, recently returned to California from London, describes London as genuinely sad, “so gussied up. Dolled up. Tarted up. Painted faces. But underneath,” London, he continues, is like a certain type in Beverly Hills, old, rich, with stretched skin and impossibly blond hair.

Baitz’s plays are searing portraits of contemporary civilization in decay. Three professions—education, publishing, and medicine—provide the context for Baitz’s major plays: The Film Society, The Substance of Fire, and The End of the Day, respectively. The business world, diplomacy, and the art establishment are critically viewed in plays such as Three Hotels, A Fair Country, and Ten Unknowns.

The Film Society

With the production of The Film Society at the Second Stage on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Baitz was declared with near-critical unanimity as the new talent to watch. In the play, two teachers, Jonathan and Terry, find themselves beset on all sides by the run-down conditions in a South African English school named Blenheim, very much like the one that Baitz had attended. The decaying school, with its faded Edwardian old-boy traditions of fingernail inspections, cricket, and the discipline of caning, is obviously still a training ground for the children of those dedicated to preserving the power structure of the Afrikaners of South Africa. Jonathan dreams of changes in the financially strapped school, but in the end he opts for the comforts of the status quo. Terry, on the other hand, refusing to compromise either with his affluent family or with the school administration, is fired. His wife, Nan, also a dedicated teacher in the school, after her husband’s departure gives “some sort of madwoman speech in social bloody history class,” and as a result, she, too, is fired. Her firing seems doubly monstrous because it is the decision of Jonathan, who, as a result of his mother’s generous gift to the school, has been appointed assistant headmaster.

All three teachers are from affluent colonial families whose political ideologies are as decayed as the school’s buildings. All three are sensitive, idealistic, and intelligent, in strong contrast to the older members of the staff. Jonathan, Terry, and Nan represent different degrees of change. Terry, although doubting even his radicalism, is still the radical. Nan can work within the system but on her own terms, and Jonathan eventually capitulates to the terms of the system. Although the story is fairly simple, the relationships among the three teachers are drawn in painfully complex terms as the play works its way to the departures of Terry and Nan and to Jonathan’s acceptance of his mother’s verdict on his life as passivity, comfort, and loneliness. One sees him destined for the kind of human isolation found in the many schoolteachers in Simon Gray’s plays.

The motif of darkness in The Film Society is introduced early in the allusion to the showing, at the weekly meeting of the school’s Film Society, of Orson Welles’s film Touch of Evil (1958), which was sent to the school as a result of confusion with the film that had been ordered, That Touch of Mink (1962). Shortly thereafter, Terry, already regarded as a leftist, angers the hierarchy with his bringing an African speaker to the school, resulting in the speaker’s arrest and Terry’s freeing him from prison. His wife, who at first tried to moderate Terry’s radicalism, reaches her own breaking point when she lectures to her social history class on the necessity of retaining one’s humanness.

The moral darkness, hotly debated in the play, is as visual as it is intellectual, as image after image of decay is evoked. According to Jonathan, herds of bats living in the mango trees attack the schoolboys; termites the size of Land Rovers scurry about the school; the swimming pool looks like a science experiment; the floor of the junior toilets is flooded, with bits of offal floating toward the showers—like the seventh circle of hell. The burning of local sugarcane fields by natives is counterpointed by the race hatred in statements about the Pakistanis and Arabs taking over London or stories of African Americans from Harlem coming en masse to South Africa. The burning of the dead by the Hindus, the funeral of an administrator, and talk of past funerals add to the dark ambience of the play.

In its straightforward movement, the action of The Film Society progresses rapidly in short scenes, and the characters speak with a literacy and articulateness rarely found on the contemporary American stage. Its weakness is the lack of progression necessary to make the characters convincing. They give away their positions too early and too strongly, leaving little to be proved. The two women, Jonathan’s mother and Terry’s wife, who are the supports, respectively, to son and husband, are a bit too obviously only that—supports—as they spell out for the audience the positions of the two men.

The Substance of Fire

Baitz’s second play produced in New York, The Substance of Fire, continues his attacks on contemporary life, this time pitting a financially troubled publisher, Isaac Geldhart, against two sons and a daughter, who are summoned by him to discuss the fate of the family publishing firm. The daughter, Sarah, is an actress in children’s television; the older son, Martin, a teacher of landscape architecture at Vassar College; and the younger son, Aaron, a partner in the family publishing business. At stake is a decision regarding the publishing of a money-losing six-volume work on Nazi medical experiments (Isaac’s choice) as opposed to a money-making novel (Aaron’s choice). Isaac’s children own shares in the firm, Martin and eventually Sarah giving their votes to Aaron. In the second of the play’s two acts, Isaac is alone, clinically depressed, in his now shabby and increasingly bare, cold apartment, where he is visited by a social worker and Martin.

As in The Film Society, the story and the issues of The Substance of...

(The entire section is 3131 words.)