Summary

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First produced: 1955

First published: 1955

Type of work: Drama

Time of work: The present

Locale: Ostensibly Paris

Principal Characters:

Arthur

Victor

Mrs. Duranty

Sutter

Mr. Roger

Annette

The Old Man

Analysis

With the exception of the final scene, the action of PING-PONG gravitates around an object which seems to possess quasi-mystical power over the characters: the pinball machine. Utilized by the playwright as his central image, the machine evokes in a diffused fashion the aspirations, obsessions, and activities of contemporary society. The game of pinball is analogous to the juvenile ways in which man distracts himself and to his futile efforts to shape the course of his life. The game is both seductive and infuriating: it seduces because it offers the intriguing uncertainty of a gamble; it infuriates because the odds against the player's winning are overwhelming. Lights flash on, bells ring, and the thought of higher scores and a free game prods the player to pour more and more money into the slot. However, the number of balls in the game is limited and the flippers afford very little control over the direction in which they roll. In short, the machine is an effective symbol to convey the multiple aspects of man's endeavors to find diversion and fulfillment in a world which foils him as incessantly as does the pinball machine.

The fact that the action of the play apparently takes place in Paris is of slight importance; Adamov's universe is a closed universe in which the irrationality and ludicrousness of man's preoccupation with a capricious mechanism can be placed in sharp focus. Conventional plot and characterization are absent. The characters define themselves, in large measure, through their attitude toward pinball machines. They reveal individual particularities in their reactions but, at the same time, they all share the common fate of being fascinated, enslaved, and invariably vanquished by the mechanized demon. They often discuss with deadly seriousness their obsession with the machine, and it is this disproportionate importance which the game assumes in their lives, along with the apparent universality of the compulsion to succeed, which lend to the play a nightmarish atmosphere.

Possible modification and perfection of the pinball machine appears as a means of success, and it is this dream which motivates Arthur, the principal character of PING-PONG. His role, the most clearly delineated in the drama, provides the most significant expression of Adamov's major themes. The temporal span of the play covers practically the entire lifetime of Arthur and his friend Victor, who are first encountered as university students playing a pinball game in Mrs. Duranty's cafe, and who are last seen at the age of seventy engaged in their own grotesque version of ping-pong. Victor, less intrigued by the machines than Arthur, is still weak enough to remain under their spell when he eventually finishes his medical studies. He follows with acute curiosity the attempts of Arthur to find a place in the Corporation and even suggests to Annette, a young friend of Mrs. Duranty, that she solicit patients for his medical practice in pinball arcades. Thus, even the domain of medicine becomes closely associated with the world of pinball machines.

Arthur is violently bent upon succeeding as an inventor of gadgets to embellish the pinball game. At the outset he is exasperated by the frequent breakdown of the machine when it is shaken. Prompted by the remarks of Sutter, who describes himself as a sampler of public opinion for the Corporation and a childhood friend of "the Old Man" who heads the organization, Arthur decides to present his idea for improvement of...

(This entire section contains 1398 words.)

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the game directly to the president. According to Sutter, any player can contribute to the perfection of the machine and become rich. Despite the fact that "the Big Boss," a greedy hypocrite who professes concern for the players and distributors of his machine, tells Arthur that his idea to add a "Tilt" mechanism to the game has already been adopted, Arthur becomes more determined than ever to find the innovation which will bring him wealth and prestige.

It is significant that the word "Tilt" is in English (the play was written in French). English is mentioned sarcastically as the language of the pinball machine and America is presented as the epitome of a society dazzled by mechanized novelties and driven by the thirst for material gain. In this more limited and concrete sense, the image of the machine reflects the domination of contemporary society by predatory business enterprises. In addition, English as a foreign tongue has the capacity to mystify the players, and, much like the obscure rituals of a religion which the devout worship blindly, the language of the machine plays a part in captivating the public. Mr. Roger, the obsequious private secretary of "the Old Man," knows nothing about the operation of the business but is considered an asset to the Corporation because he speaks English; he has compromised all his ideals in order to stay in the service of the high priest of the pinball machines. The theme of religious mystification is amplified by "the Old Man" when he jokes about the "Tilt" mechanism as offering death and resurrection for only ten francs.

After Arthur's initial rejection, he is encouraged by Annette, who has become equally anxious to break into the organization, to submit another invention to the president: the visual motif of a rocket heading toward a moon would enable the player to follow the progress of the game much better than the sight of numbers lighting up. This invention reveals a frame of mind which Sutter recognizes as dangerous: men tend to waste their time aspiring to grandiose and vague goals rather than living and acting in face of the realities of the present.

However, Sutter himself does not adhere to this moral precept. He tries to escape the grip of the organization by accepting a position as head of an orphan home far from the frenzied life of the city. This dream to live surrounded by the innocence of children and the calm of nature does not materialize and Sutter eventually finds himself poverty-stricken and obliged to write tracts against the Corporation in order to survive. He is a solitary being whose son was drowned at the age of fourteen and who strives futilely to find again the mutual affection and understanding which he experienced with his son. As an embodiment of the theme of human solitude Sutter is not at all convincing; he is not enough of a stereotype to become comical, and his sorrow is too gratuitous to be tragic. By the same token, Mr. Roger is clumsily and incoherently sketched as the Intellectual who is guilty of prostitution of values.

"The Old Man" turns down the idea proposed by Annette and Arthur on the grounds that the players will not accept anything as simple as one visual motif; they want dozens of complex gadgets to distract and disconcert them. Arthur grows more and more irrational in his behavior, while, at the same time, his reasoning becomes more closely attuned to the insane world of the machine. He finally joins the Corporation and suggests the elimination of one set of flippers from the game. As in the game of life, Adamov seems to be implying, the players not only desire to be bewildered but also to feel a perverse joy in finding themselves powerless to direct the course of the ball.

The world of the pinball machine begins to collapse around Arthur as the play nears its end. Annette has become the manicurist of "the Old Man" and evolved into a callous and hysterical opportunist. She dies the victim of an accident which symbolically occurs in front of a pinball arcade. The Corporation is threatened by nationalization, is plagued by mechanical failures in the machines, and its president dies raving madly about the need for production of myriad models of the game without regard for quality.

The last scene of the play presents a final vivid image portraying the absurdity of men's endeavors on earth. Arthur and Victor, now old men, are playing ping-pong. They fight over the rules—an echo of their quarrels concerning the validity of Arthur's inventions—and they ultimately discard both net and paddles. The volleys become wilder and wilder until Victor leaps for one of Arthur's throws and falls dead. Arthur is left alone and panic-stricken on stage.

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