Mark Medoff Essay - Critical Essays


Because of his practice of carefully rewriting every detail of his work and testing it in readings and workshops and because his academic duties limit his writing time to the mornings, Mark Medoff has only a modest number of plays to his credit. Although some theatrical stylization is also present (as in his early The War on Tatem, in which a narrator helps the audience through several years of a young man’s experiences, or in Children of a Lesser God, in which time is condensed by eliminating blackouts and other theatrical devices, allowing characters to move in and out of the stage frame at will), Medoff stays with realistic plots and psychologically believable characters. Although on the surface Medoff deals with a variety of topics, placing his plays in quite different locales and social settings (a college dormitory room, a restaurant, a home for the deaf, a rehearsal stage, and the like), certain themes gradually emerge in Medoff’s work as concerns that are central to the playwright’s artistic vision and as recurring motifs important to understanding the larger ideas of his plays. Three major concerns can be discerned: the journey to self-realization, violence as an event that precipitates that journey, and the relation of language to meaning, in its ability to obfuscate as well as its limitations for full communication.

Deafness is a built-in metaphor for all Medoff’s themes, in that the deaf person must suffer not only the handicap but also the prejudices of the hearing public, who perceive deaf persons as somehow less than whole, as if the inability to speak the oral language somehow precludes their experiencing the same emotions and having the same thoughts as the hearing. This violence done to the deaf makes them highly sensitive to the limitations of all communication.

In Medoff’s plays, he often expresses a concern with the manipulation of language to achieve his characters’ ends. In every play, the dialogue hinges on wordplay: vague references, subtle and obscure distinctions in the language, and a preciseness on the part of one character in order to intimidate another, less verbally accomplished person. Some of the battles are entirely verbal for a large part of the play. In The War on Tatem, for example, Louis does everything that he can, verbally, to avoid and then to ameliorate the actual fight, and he succeeds until his brother, less verbal and less cowardly, gets Louis to act on his principles with something besides words. The entire conflict of The Wager centers on Ward’s ignorance of the subtleties of the (often unspoken) dialogue between Leeds and Honor. A typical line, showing how Leeds can manage the language to suit his ends, is: “You think I’m cleverer than you think I am, when in fact you think I’m cleverer than I am. And that’s one of the reasons why I’m king and you clean the stables.” Leeds, too, is possibly hiding something from himself. Hints of homosexuality or impotence are sprinkled through the play, and his ultimate discovery may be that his attraction to Honor may finally bring his sexual preferences to the surface. In Children of a Lesser God, the entire action revolves around the question of whether Sarah is somehow obligated to learn to read lips or whether she has a right to stay within her own range of expression and expect others to enter into it. The mode of communication becomes the arena of conflict not only for Sarah and James but also for Sarah and the “real” world of the hearing.

The single most important aspect of Medoff’s plays is the discovery by the protagonist of his or her own identity, a discovery often precipitated by the introduction of the possibility of violence. All of his plays are really moments when the search for self is intensified by circumstances. Children of a Lesser God is not merely James’s play, in which he discovers that deaf people are whole people; it is, most important, a journey taken by Sarah into articulating a truth for herself, one that has lain embedded in her anger and defensive attitudes. When she tells James about the “joining” that they can never have, she is telling herself for the first time as well. The whole “speech” to the panel is in fact her manifesto for her future, and she comes to it only after her relationship with deafness is replaced by her relationship with James. It is no coincidence that James’s last name is Leeds, the name of the character in The Wager, because in both cases a man hurries to assumptions about a woman, who must during the course of the action set him straight about those assumptions. Honor and Sarah are alike, too, in that they both are clearheaded about their defense systems against humanity but must discover who they are during the play itself. They both become more satisfied with themselves after the male (in both cases Leeds, a name that takes on significance in the abstract) helps them through the complexities of self-argument.

The War on Tatem

Thematically, there seems to be an underlying sense of incipient violence in many of Medoff’s plays. The early one-act play titled The War on Tatem, far from a fully mature work, begins the exploration of a theme that seems to follow Medoff from play to play in steadily more sophisticated form. The “war” is a gang war in Miami Beach, between adolescents who do not even know the function of a gang but know only that they must “fight it out” for some sort of vague control over an even vaguer territory. Here is the primeval impulse toward winning and keeping a territory; the young boys make a comedy of an inclination that becomes deadly serious a few years later in urban areas and that carries with it the seeds of nationalism and war. Tough-guy King Myron sends his challenge to Louis Dunbar via messenger. Louis, the leader of a sorry group of youngsters known as the Tatem Perch, knows that a showdown is inevitable, but he avoids it as long as he can, with glibness and clever talk. When, however, Myron picks on Louis’s little brother, Louis sees that it is time for action. He gets a bloody nose for his trouble, but the lesson is learned and a reputation is saved. Most important, Louis comes to know things about himself that he carries with him into adult life and, as twenty-year-old narrator, explains in retrospect to the audience.

The Wager

From this modest beginning, Medoff continued to explore the basic human trait of avoidance of violence. His notion is clearest in the two early full-length works that made their way to New York: The Wager and When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? In The Wager, for example, two college men, Ward and Leeds, lounge in their dormitory room discussing the possibility of seducing Honor, the wife of a neighbor, Ron. Very early, and for no immediately explainable purpose, Leeds carries a revolver, an image that shadows the play as it moves toward its climax, exaggerated in a second-act scene in which Honor’s husband brandishes a machine gun. The play moves within the possibilities of violence; Leeds is described in a stage direction: “A dangerous explosiveness rages beneath his very cool exterior.” The sense is that underneath the complex patina of social conventions lies the ever-present possibility of physical violence, which exposes all the hypocrisy behind which normal personalities hide from raw forces. The “dance” of word games, double entendres, subtle reverse psychological ploys, and the like is interrupted by the unequivocal burst of energy implied in the violent act.

The Kramer

The Kramer is an allegory of power relationships reminiscent of the work of Harold Pinter. It reveals Medoff as not simply a social realist but also someone concerned with the clash of principles on a suprapersonal level. Art Malin, a hapless, ordinary man, is manipulated by...

(The entire section is 3241 words.)