The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The curtain rises on Jerry lying on his back staring at the night sky through binoculars. Two people in sunglasses enter and unroll a large star map. One points to a spot on the map and tells the audience “You are here.” These three characters exit, leaving the stage empty except for a kitchen table and chair. A disembodied voice begins describing the chair as though it were an ancient and mysterious object, while one of the people in sunglasses enters and points to various parts of the chair. Thus, with a minimum of explanation, Congdon telegraphs the play’s general structure: It is a documentary about contemporary Earth civilization presented by aliens from far into the future.

Throughout the play the aliens continue to deliver a running commentary on the human action. This commentary is a source of comic irony, since the aliens often misinterpret human activities yet also offer off-kilter insight into human nature. In general, the human action, the play-within-a-play, is presented in an impressionistic manner, with many abrupt changes in time and place and very little exposition.

Cathy, the central character in the human story, is recently divorced and has just moved, with her teenage son Eric, to live with her parents, Evelyn and Jim. Moving from New York to a suburban neighborhood in the Midwest has angered Eric and, during the first act, he vents his frustration in a variety of ways. Moreover, Cathy discovers that things are not all well with her parents. Jim has become forgetful, and Evelyn is worried that he may be seriously ill. Adding to Cathy’s feelings of displacement are the changes that have overtaken the...

(The entire section is 678 words.)

Tales of the Lost Formicans Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Structuring the play as though it were an alien documentary about humans is a bold dramatic move, and one through which Congdon achieves many narrative and thematic ends. The aliens’ voice-overs, and the way they halt and reverse the action when they feel it is necessary, give the play an air of detached irony. This emotional distance allows Congdon to present the essentially tragic material of the human characters’ lives in a comic manner. The mock-documentary framework also enhances the way the characters’ plights work metaphorically. The aliens’ commentary regularly reminds the audience that Cathy and her circle of family and friends are representative examples of humanity. Thus, while the audience is emotionally affected by the story of Cathy and her family, it is also always aware that their struggles are symbolic of larger truths.

The mock-documentary framework also allows Congdon great freedom in the way she arranges the play’s scenes. Since, in essence, the pacing of the play is in alien hands, there is no need for a strictly chronological approach. Indeed, time is drastically telescoped in the play, and events that logically must have played out over months or weeks can transpire quickly without Congdon having to continually reestablish proper time. Likewise, Congdon can liberally use abrupt cuts in the action and montagelike sequences without worrying about disrupting the logical continuity of the play. She can, for instance, take Jim...

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Tales of the Lost Formicans Bibliography

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Hussey, Susan. “Constance Congdon: A Playwright Whose Time Has Come.” Organica, Winter, 1990.

Kushner, Tony. Introduction to Tales of the Lost Formicans and Other Plays. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1994.

Seller, Tom. “Acquisitive Minds.” Theater 26 (1995): 106-117.

Solomon, Alisa. “Formicans, Call Home.” Village Voice 35 (May 1, 1990): 116.

Wilde, Lisa. “Trying to Find a Culture: An Interview with Connie Congdon.” Yale Theater 22, no. 1 (Winter, 1990).

Willingham, Ralph. Science Fiction and the Theatre: Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.