Like Mac Wellman and Timberlake Wertenbaker, Eric Overmyer writes “language plays,” and his plays are more concerned with language and ideas than they are with action or plot. He has much in common with British playwright Tom Stoppard in that both delight in linguistic virtuosity and cloak their social criticism in puns, metaphors, and language that is stretched, pulled apart, and then reassembled. In his later plays, Overmyer has reduced the amount of wordplay and turned to the world of crime, a world he has successfully written about for television.
Native Speech, Overmyer’s first play, established him as a wordsmith, a writer of language plays, for it includes language that is at once foreign and understandable to audiences, and it is language that is spoken by the natives of a futuristic urban world in which violence and drugs are the norm. Hungry Mother, the protagonist, is a deejay who operates his underground (unlicensed) radio station from a cramped studio “constructed from the detritus of Western Civ” under the city streets. Like the host on Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio (pr. 1984, pb. 1988) or Robin Williams’s role in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Hungry Mother is hip and fast talking, but his banter is harder, edgier, and more “on the verge.”
The allusion of Hungry Mother, who defines himself as the “argot argonaut” and “the vandal of the vernacular,” to William Shakespeare suggests that he, like Macduff, is powerful because both are “not of woman born,” but he is reminded that “Mistah Kurtz, Mothah, he dead.” The reference to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899 serial; 1902) reminds audiences of human mortality and the darkness of the human heart. Hungry Mother not only supplies his listeners with “dope” about drug prices and availability but also with unusual weather reports such as “weather outlook for continued existential dread” and “intermittent bouts of apocalyptic epiphany.” He even touts what he believes are nonexistent musical groups such as Hoover and the Navajos. Unfortunately, what Hungry Mother fabricates becomes real: Hoover and the Navajos visit his studio, provide parodies of contemporary rock groups, and destroy his studio; and his fictitious drug reports are taken seriously by addicts and law officials. Overmyer thereby illustrates the awesome power of the media. According to Hungry Mother, a “fictional fact, a metaphor,” “comes back on me.”
At play’s end, all of Hungry Mother’s attempts, through language, to belong to what is essentially a nonwhite culture fail. Some street hoodlums turn on him and beat him; the Mook, a drug-dealing pimp, informs on him to the police; and Janis, who looked to him for assistance, commits suicide. In a long soliloquy, Hungry Mother vacillates between “native language” and formal English, and it is in the latter that he faces the truth about his situation.
On the Verge
In On the Verge, his second play, Overmyer continues his verbal acrobatics as he presents three nineteenth century American women traveling through terra incognita, an interior suggestive of a psychic terrain like the unconscious. The three women journey through space and time, 1888 to 1955, as they encounter an abominable snowman, a cannibal who takes on the appearance and speech of his latest repast (a German aviator), and a troll toll taker before they reach Nicky’s Havana Paradise, a rock-and-roll haven.
Overmyer uses Alexandra, a malaprop character, to display his wit. She is responsible for confusing “refurbished” with “refreshed,” exploring the composition of “imagination” (“image” plus “native”), and supplying the alliterative rhyme “A troll’s toll. How droll.” As in Native Speech, there are numerous allusions, but...
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