WHEN SAMUEL BECKETT jolted the theatrical world several decades ago with Waiting for Godot, he unleashed a whole new dimension in existential dramas dealing with death. Instead of being represented by the conventional dagger and funeral scenes to which audiences had become so comfortably accustomed, death became something less frightening, more abstract, and almost comically absurd. Perhaps, Beckett suggested, death was nothing more than a means of alleviating the boredom of an essentially mundane earthly existence. Or alternatively, perhaps it was simply a version of "not being."
Whatever the case, since the origins of the existentialists, theatre of the absurd has blossomed as a dramatic genre. And if plays about death continue to make audiences feel somewhat awkward, they still haven't lost their appeal. Rather, the characters speak with such striking candor about the limitations of their lives that such conversation has actually become fashionable among artistic circles.
Such a sense of frankness is the heart of Elias Canetti's latest play, The Deadlined, a drama which, as the title none-too-subtly implies, explores the limits imposed by man's mortality. And not surprisingly, this very candor is responsible for both the successes and the shortcomings of the play.
To say that Canetti's play revolves around death is an understatement. From the characters' names--or more aptly, their numerals--to the dated capsules they wear around their neck as reminders of their limited lifespans, the play focuses relentlessly on the passage of time. And if these tangible elements aren't enough to remind the audience that death is just a footstep away, the characters' conversations--which, at least in the first half, transpire in brief vignettes--are ample evidence of Canetti's preoccupation with his own mortality.
In one sense, the play's message is straightforward. The protagonist, a man named Fifty (indicating his lifespan), is rebelling against a his society, a futuristic world in which people's lives are based on their anticipation of death. Each character learns at birth how long he will have to live, but is forbidden from revealing his moment of death to anyone else. Everyone's age is public knowledge, but only an individual knows when his "moment" will occur.
Although the characters in Canetti's imaginary society are obsessed with the knowledge of their fates, they nevertheless demonstrate an ironically casual attitude towards death itself. Though each of the characters talks incessantly about "the moment" or the merits of marrying "a twenty" as opposed to "a forty," no one fears or attempts to delay the inevitable. No one, of course, except Fifty.
As the play progresses, Fifty becomes increasingly rebellious, clashing with fellow citizens, particularly the man in charge, The Capsulon. The play climaxes with Fifty challenging the Capsulon by calling his omniscience--and the whole social structure--into question.
The play's power consists primarily in the political statements implied by the struggle between Fifty and the Capsulon. Fifty (John Lawrence Chatty) plays the individual battling the system with the proper mixture of defiance and control, never allowing his frustration to erupt into histrionics. Similarly, Fifty's friend (Michael Preston) offers a solid, if at times overly affected, picture of the archetypal blind follower.
Canetti's treatment of the issue of death itself, by contrast, is less artistically solid. While Canetti unquestionably leaves the audience both pensive and frustrated--even Fifty cannot escape his own mortality--his cumbersome handling of the subject reduces the impact of his message. Most of the early vignettes are repetitious and clumsily crafted, lacking either substantive dramatic power or much-needed comic relief.
Moreover, because the director seems to have reserved the actors' energy for the latter half of the play, many of the early performances are restrained. With the exception of one mildly emotive scene between Fifty and a widow burying her child, and one comic interlude between two age-obsessed gossips, the early scenes fail to win the audience's sympathy.
IN THE LATTER part of the play, however, Canetti abandons the random vignettes to scrutinize Fifty's plight, bringing the drama into sharper focus. Fifty's rebellion provides the play with some much-needed action, but more important, it provides several of the minor characters a chance to do more than merely narrate. Whereas Fifty's friend spends the first half of the play telling us how his sister died, in the second half he is able to express how he felt about it.
As with most existential dramas, the costuming and special effects are critical in establishing the play's message and mood. The spartan, if somewhat bizarre, backdrop of black plastic effectively sets the tone, while the often colorful costumes relieve the heavily symbolic drama. Some of the subtler special effects, however, detract from the atmosphere: the use of wet wine glasses as musical instruments, for example, is both superfluous and affected.
Had the director and the playwright been more inventive with the first half of the production, The Deadlined might have engaged the audience earlier. Because the actors appear initially too restrained, and the early script is so heavyhanded, the early vignettes tend to fall flat.
Nevertheless, the play provides some sobering thoughts about the era of Big Brother, and if nothing else, offers a brief opportunity to ponder the meaning of existence and mortality.