(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1378 words.)