John Dos Passos opened his U.S.A. trilogy of novels with a freewheeling inventory of what made up the United States (“a publiclibrary full of old newspapers and dogeared historybooks with protests scrawled on the margins, a lot of men buried in their uniforms in Arlington Cemetery”) and what it meant to be an American during the early 20th century. His populist litany of affirmation and accusation precipitously ends with the startling epiphany “But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.” Having recently seen Mike Leigh’s Ecstasy and Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, I realize that no Briton would dare say such a thing about the United Kingdom, because, mostly, the U.K. is the speech of its classes — an economic pyramid whose gradations are defined as much by vowels and diphthongs as they are by income.
Britain’s traditions of social segregation extend to its stage, which is why, in most West End imports, we only find members of one class speaking to each other; when the occasional character outside this group strays into a scene, he or she is pretty much there for the laughs. Toffs, twits and yobs — aristocrats, professionals and workers — these, then, are the dangerous corners of British theater’s eternal triangle.
In Leigh’s 1979 Ecstasy, now running at the Odyssey Theater, the emphasis is decidedly on the yobs, and its first thoughts aren’t expressed with words, but by body language as a young London couple slouches stark naked in post-coital silence. Bony Jean (Rachel Singer) reclines on her back while the bearish Roy (Nick Offerman) stares into space smoking, neither making what could remotely be termed eye contact. When Roy leaves after a few well-chosen grunts of bonhomie (“Good, that, wa’n’ it?” he says about the lay), we realize this is Jean’s play, and throughout the evening we’ll watch her try to bring order to her squalid flat, try to make conversation with people, try to hide her personal warehouse of gin bottles.
As Americans guided by a different cultural radar, we may be tempted to jump to all the wrong conclusions about Ecstasy’s meaning. Since we know early on that Jean is the protagonist, we might believe it’s a “woman’s play”; or, since she clearly enjoys knocking back a few, we could surmise the “issue” will be alcoholism, and so on. For the British, however, class is everything. Jean is neither victim nor redeemer. She is a drip, pure and simple, and her story is all about her social milieu.
If not earlier, we certainly catch the drift by Act 2, which has Jean and her mates sitting around smoking, drinking and pretending to talk. Well, they utter words, but so much of it — all the “All right then”s and “Ta, love”s — seems to be merely rhetorical backslapping. Ecstasy is the realization of an unwritten playwriting rule that says when it comes to the yobs, it’s sufficient — indeed, advisable — to just turn them loose on some cheap furniture and let them ramble. And, sure enough, to our horror or amusement, we find ourselves laughing at Leigh’s char acters’ inability to formulate ideas or emotions, because it’s not what they say that’s important, but how they don’t say it.
On the other hand, we expect nothing less than black-belt verbal judo in plays by Tom Stoppard, plays about Jean’s “betters.” In The Real Thing, at the Pasa dena Playhouse, a playwright breaks up his and another marriage to be with the woman he feels he truly loves. Infidelity, of course, knows no tax bracket, but Stoppard’s educated, effete characters have considerably more to say about sex besides “Good, that, wa’n’ it?” Similarly, while both plays share a moment when characters utter the essentially meaningless phrase “Are you all right?” it somehow assumes a literary thunder when rolling off the polished tongues of Stoppard’s London sophisticates.
Written in 1982, The Real Thing isn’t Stoppard’s best play, though perhaps he’s simply become the prisoner of his own reputation and talent. We expect more from Stoppard than an overlong examination of marriage in which such cultural targets as musical snobbery and politically correct playwriting are wittily but too conspicuously demolished; we demand more of him than to give his alter ego character (Jeff Allin) not only the best comeback lines, but the writ to set up those rejoinders as well.
The Real Thing’s shortcomings are a result of its occasionally being too self-consciously clever, a paradoxical flaw of modern British theater since Oscar Wilde. This tradition of conversational elegance connects Noel Coward and Terrence Rattigan’s minty drawing rooms to the cold walkups of Harold Pinter and David Hare. (Pinter, incidentally, is a great admirer of Rattigan.) So it’s no surprise that when a Scottish yob appears briefly at the end of The Real Thing, he appears, to use Ingre’s phrase, like a Chinese lost in the streets of Athens, a clueless buffoon whose mouth Stoppard stuffs with coarse boasts.
The people in Ecstasy — a play completely devoid of mint or punch lines — while away a night singing old bawdy songs and repeating, in “common” accents hailing from the Midlands to London, words and phrases that have become meaningless mantras to them. (Jean’s favored “yyyyeeaahhh” devolves into a sheep’s bleat before the end of Act 1.) Watching them, one is reminded of the Top 10 hit that swept Britain in 1980, a Splodgeness Abounds “song” whose sole, repetitious line was “Two pints of lager and a packet of crisps please.” But unlike in his send-up of the middle classes, Abigail’s Party, here Leigh isn’t inviting us to laugh at his characters, just to understand the bleak night to which they must return after the party’s over, and for which they prepare with the gathering of cigarettes and cheap coats, not the narcotizing balm of badinage. All right then?