Steve Tesich’s plays are divided into two groups by a ten-year, self-imposed exile from the theater. The early plays, beginning with The Carpenters and ending with Division Street, share the personal viewpoint of “immigrant optimism,” an America where anything is possible, where a Yugoslavian teenager who does not speak English can win an Academy Award before his fortieth birthday. The later plays, beginning with The Speed of Darkness, are based on a social viewpoint that mourns for an America that has not lived up to its promise. The early plays are noted for their bizarre portraits of family life full of eccentric characters, outrageous comedy, wordplay, and individualized dialogue, as well as for their extensive, often burdensome symbolism. The later plays demonstrate the unique comic perspective and symbolism together with the vivid characterization, dialogue, and extreme situation of the early plays, while charting new dramatic territory dealing with moral issues. As he is an intensely personal writer, the plays are a commentary on Tesich’s life.
The Carpenters and Lake of the Woods
Tesich always experimented with dramatic forms, most prevalently the absurdist worldview. The Carpenters depicts a dysfunctional American family living in a house that is breaking down around them, just as their family relationships are breaking down. The father tries but is unable to understand his existence. Lake of the Woods shows another family, on vacation in America’s wonderlands. When they reach their scenic destination, however, they find only a desolate wasteland. Their intentions are hobbled, their mobile home and car are vandalized, and it seems as though their hardships will kill them. Instead of giving up, however, the father rallies his family and sets out on an optimistic trek, away from the lapidation of modern urbanism toward a wilderness of happy people. Both plays have moments of brilliance, with clever dialogue and surprise comic twists, but they are often self-conscious and deteriorate into heavy-handed symbolism that becomes preachy and banal.
The absurdist comedy Baba Goya is Tesich’s most successful early play. Often called a 1970’s You Can’t Take It with You (pr. 1936, pb. 1937, by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart), it depicts another outlandish family, this time headed by a raunchy mother who is intent on making every screwball who darkens her door a member of her family. In the mistaken belief that he is dying, her fourth husband, Mario, takes out a newspaper advertisement to find his replacement. Baba interviews applicants as she tries to help her depressed son and disparaged daughter develop enough strength to leave her nest. Baba can forgive her daughter for divorcing her liberal husband who talked her into getting pregnant just so an abortion law could be tested. She can forgive her daughter’s starring in a pornographic film, selling drugs, and becoming a thief, but never her voting for Richard M. Nixon. Detractors of Baba Goya condemn it as a silly and pointless contrivance of sight gags and clever one-liners. They are, however, blind to this play’s subtler symbolism. Baba Goya is Tesich’s America, taking in all no matter what their idiosyncrasies or problems and helping them to stand on their own two feet, becoming productive members of the family.
Tesich’s next effort was a musical, Gorky, based on the life of the Russian writer Maxim Gorky. In what has become a recurring pattern, the play was resoundingly criticized by some but highly praised by others. Tesich had become an acknowledged voice in the theater but one that struck either a nerve or a chord. Gorky is one of his least successful efforts, with not enough facts to be a biography and hardly enough opinion to be a political commentary. What remains is a conversation between three actors depicting Gorky as an innocent youth, a passionate revolutionary, and a disillusioned victim of a Stalin purge.
Passing Game and Touching Bottom
Tesich returned to his absurdist viewpoint in Passing Game and Touching Bottom, the latter containing three one-act plays in the tradition of Samuel Beckett. Both plays return to the skewed lives that have become the hallmark of his plays. He also returned, however, to his heavy-handed symbolism.
Division Street, the last of Tesich’s early plays, combines all of his most successful elements into a political farce that emphasizes character and plot over symbolism. A metaphor borrowed from Studs Terkel, Division Street is the story of Chris, an aging radical from the...
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