Christopher Durang belongs to the postmodernist wave of American playwrights who emerged during the 1970’s, including A. R. Gurney, Jr., Tina Howe, and Sam Shepard. These writers fused the experimental techniques of the structuralist theater experiments of the 1960’s with the “traditional” domestic drama of the early twentieth century American realists, creating a new form of theater that is simultaneously naturalistic and self-consciously theatrical. Evolving as it did from collegiate travesties and comedy sketches, Durang’s drama violates many of the established principles of the well-made play. However sloppily constructed and politically unsophisticated his plays may be, Durang’s genius is to create comedies out of existential anger and to infuse them with energy, thought, and an unbounded sense of liberty.
Durang’s plays are remarkable for their absurdist approach to the important questions of modern philosophy, for their hilarious disregard for social conventions and traditional sexual roles, and for their uncompromisingly bleak assessment of human politics and society. As early as the satirical travesties he produced in college, Durang’s abiding themes have been suffering and paternalism. The cutting edge of his humor is his insistence on the commonplaceness of suffering in the world. His plays are populated by archetypal sadists and victims, and the comedy is usually cruel (as the audience is made to laugh at the exaggerated and grotesque misery of the characters) and nearly always violent; death, suicide, disaster, and murder are never too far away in typical Durang slapstick. In a note accompanying the publication of The Nature and Purpose of the Universe, the writer explains that the violence of the play must appear simultaneously vicious and funny, demanding that performers make the audience sympathize with the victim and yet feel sufficiently “alienated” (in the sense of Bertolt Brecht’s “alienation effect”) from the theatrical action to be able to laugh at it. Presiding over the sufferers is a figure of authority, always coldly detached and frequently insane, who “explains” the suffering with banal truisms taken from philosophy, religion, and pop psychology, while in fact he or she acts as the instrument of the oppression and mindless malice.
Fear and insecurity are the principal components of Durang’s comedy of paranoia. While his plays are repeatedly criticized for not being positive and for not suggesting any remedy to the problem of human evil, they are in fact relentlessly moral, fueled by a profound sense of outrage at the crimes against human dignity. Like Eugène Ionesco, Joe Orton, and Lenny Bruce, Durang attempts to shock the audience out of its complacency through the use of vulgarity, blasphemy, violence, and other forms of extremism. If his endings seem less than perfectly conclusive, and if his characters seem to be no more than cartoons, still, underneath all the madcap and sophomoric nonsense is a serious and humane plea for tolerance, diversity, and individual liberty. The object of the writer’s most satirical attacks is the incompetent guardian, a sometimes well-intentioned but always destructive figure of patriarchal authority who appears in many different guises: parent, husband, teacher, analyst, hero, nanny, doctor, author, and even deity. This figure embodies for Durang all the evil elements of human nature and social hierarchy.
The Idiots Karamazov
Durang’s drama of the mid-1970’s, the plays that grew out of his college exercises at Yale, is chiefly parodic and yet contains kernels of the preoccupation with suffering characteristic of his later works. The Idiots Karamazov, which he wrote with Innaurato, is a musical-comedy travesty of the great Russian novelists of suffering, Fyodor Dostoevski and Leo Tolstoy. The principal character, Constance Garnett, is the translator, an older woman who uses a wheelchair and is attended by a suicidal manservant, Ernest. In Durang and Innaurato’s version of Dostoevski’s The Brothers Karamazov, the holy innocent and idiot savant Alyosha becomes a pop music star, and the “Great Books,” along with other academic pretensions to cultural importance, are thus trivialized as commodities in a money-and-glitter-oriented enterprise.
A History of the American Film
Durang ridiculed Hollywood and motion pictures in A History of the American Film, a 1976 musical that opened on Broadway in 1978. The five principal characters are caricatures based on familiar Hollywood types. Loretta (as in Loretta Young) is the long-suffering and lovingly innocent heroine. Jimmy (as in James Cagney) is the tough guy, part hoodlum and part romantic hero. Bette (as in Bette Davis) is the vamp, a vindictive but seductive figure who enjoys nothing more than making Loretta suffer. Hank (as in Henry Fonda) is the strong and silent all-American good guy, who eventually turns psychotic. Eve (as in Eve Arden) is the ever-present true friend, who covers up her own sexual frustration with dry witticisms and hard-boiled mottoes. True to its title, the play satirizes the gamut of Hollywood kitsch, including jabs at Birth of a Nation (1915), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Psycho (1960), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), and Earthquake (1974). On a deeper level, the play exposes the American film industry as a manufacturer of glamorous façades for real-life misery and fear.
The Vietnamization of New Jersey
In The Vietnamization of New Jersey, Durang takes on the legitimate theater itself. Using David Rabe’s controversial Vietnam-era satire...
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