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Essay

The American Voice: Hard Laughs

By Adam Greenfield, Associate Artistic Director
January 17, 2019

Betty Gilpin by Sara Krulwich

In the summer of 1942, Samuel Beckett fled his apartment in German-occupied Paris, on the run from the Gestapo when his friends — fellow members of the Resistance — were being arrested. He slept in parks and hid in trees, eventually landing in Roussillon d’Apt, a remote town in the rugged southeast, where he waited for the war to end: an excruciating two years, and Beckett, already prone to anxiety, suffered a mental breakdown. In the midst of this trauma, he managed to finish the novel Watt, in which his character Arsene describes three types of laughter in a passage that seems to reflect Beckett’s fight to stay sane:

“The bitter, the hollow and — Haw! Haw! — the mirthless. The bitter laugh laughs at that which is good, it is the ethical laugh. The hollow laugh laughs at that which is not true, it is the intellectual laugh. Not good! Not true! Well, well. But the mirthless laugh is the dianoetic laugh, down the snout — Haw! — so. It is the laugh of laughs, the risus purus, the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, the saluting of the highest joke, in a word the laugh that laughs — silence please — at that which is unhappy.”

True to form, Watt is bleak, casting its characters into a world governed by powers indifferent to suffering, pushing them to desperate behavior they hardly understand. But for all of Beckett’s despair, his writing’s nothing if not funny. The deeper the anxiety, the pain, the more necessary the laugh. It makes the pain bearable. And this, if Arsene can be said to reflect Beckett’s own beliefs, is the purest use of humor.

The function of laughter as anodyne is primal; it’s biological; we share this with the other apes. It’s well documented that the physical action of laughing triggers the release of endorphins in the central nervous system that, through their analgesic properties, actually raise our threshold for pain. According to a study from The Royal Society, one endorphin in particular, the β-endorphin, appears to play “a critical role in buffering the organism against the effects of psychological stress.”  Flipping through theater history texts, it seems clear the bleakest, most brutal writers intuit the biological link between laughter and pain management as they engage with an audience: Beckett, Churchill, Orton, Chekov, Lucas, Durang, Albee. 

Halley Feiffer belongs on this list of great brutalists. Her plays are merciless, high-speed thrill-rides that leave us breathless in anticipation of the cruelty her characters will inflict — not physical cruelty (though, well actually, sometimes), but emotional cruelty, pushed to act at the extreme poles of human need. Like most of us, I first knew Halley as an actor who, in every role, elevates the hyper-nuances of a text, crafting a performance as ultra-alert and dynamic as her writing. It’s as though she’s acting in 28 frames per second, instead of the standard 24. In a recent New York Times interview, actor Betty Gilpin articulated the challenges of acting in Halley’s work: “The Halleyness of the writing,” she said, keeps you “going as high in orgasmic ecstasy as you can go and then plummeting to the bottom of depression in this deep, dark well — and then you’re up again.” Her characters are highly intelligent, but barely able to conceal or even understand their impulses. They’re a fabric of shabby defenses that can so easily unravel if one just pulls the right thread; and Halley, in writing them, slowly and steadily pulls that thread until we’re left with just the essence, the bundle of exposed nerves, that these characters really are. “With almost everything I write,” she told The New Yorker’s Michael Schulman, I’m inspired by an event or some part of myself that disgusts me, and I try to take that kernel and blow it up times ten billion.” 

Halley Feiffer belongs on this list of great brutalists. Her plays are merciless, high-speed thrill-rides that leave us breathless in anticipation of the cruelty her characters will inflict.”

It’s a discomfiting experience, to say the least. But as white-knuckle as Halley’s work can be, she somehow manages to keep the ride screamingly fun. My first introduction to her work was Sidney and Laura (2010), a depraved domestic psycho-comedy in which Sidney, a young man, hires an actor to play his mother so that he can smash her to death repeatedly with a fake rock: a ritual they repeat daily, made possible, it turns out, because of funds provided by his real mother, Lorraine, who has been pretending to be their kindly neighbor all along. When Sidney’s enabling wife Laura intervenes, the play races toward a hilarious, horrific climax in which mother and daughter-in-law bludgeon each other with rocks. “Oh Laura,” Lorraine says, “you’re so beautiful when you bleed from the head.” Her next play, How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them (2013), follows three childhood friends, two of them sisters, into adulthood, playing out a particularly grotesque pattern of obsessive rivalry and codependence. Each of them craves love above all else, but love is something none of them can tolerate; all these women can do is compete and manipulate. But, my god, the struggle is such warped fun:

DORRIE: I used to fantasize I would get shot in the head by a sniper on the escalator at the mall…!

 

SAM: I used to fantasize I would get raped and tortured by all my favorite cartoon characters at a banquet…!


DORRIE: I used to lick my lips and then put ice cubes on them and then rip them off so my lips would bleed…!


SAM: I used to peel all the skin off my lips until they bled and bled and then I would stick pieces of paper to my lips and then rip them off so they would bleed even more and then I would SAVE THEM!!!


SAM and DORRIE: HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

And as the action zigzags forward, smacking us with one hand and tickling us with the other, I think of Beckett’s Arsene: what is the kind of laugh I’m laughing? Is this the laugh laughing at the laugh, the risus purus, the “pure laugh,” the laugh of laughs? All I can say is that, as I take in comedy this confrontational, this terrifying, it’s not a laugh of joy or delight so much as a psychic need, my “ha ha ha” seeming more like a breathless panting, a biological response that’s necessary to stomach the harsh reality of the world as she sees it. The unhappy lot who inhabits these earlier works of Halley’s are stuck in a destructive cosmology, within a system that’s (in a word) fucked and totally indifferent to their suffering. There will be no redemption for Sidney, who’s doomed to live with violent irrational impulses toward his mother, just as Sam and Dorrie will forever be stuck in a warped effort to connect. The fix is in. It was in before the play started; it was in before they got here. 

Then in 2015, Halley debuted I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard, an indelible portrait of narcissistic artists and the destructive relationship between Ella, an actor, and her father David, a famous playwright. It’s opening night of The Seagull, and as these two wait for reviews of Ella’s performance as Masha, David releases an assault of vitriolic, manipulative oratory upon his daughter who, desperate for his approval, masochistically laps it up. The second scene, five years later, shows Ella having become famous herself, an even more monstrous version of her father, him now on the receiving end of her venom, a cycle complete. She followed this up, in 2016, with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City which, as the title might suggest, dares to find humor in a context mostly associated with senseless pain. As her mother is zonked out on drugs, recovering from surgery for endometrial cancer, Karla, an aspiring stand-up comedian, perfects her routine. (“I’ve been single for so long,” she starts, “I’ve started having wet dreams about my vibrator.”) Meanwhile, on the other side of the curtain sits Don, his mother dying of ovarian cancer, appalled. And somehow Halley turns this set-up into a romantic comedy, linking our instinctual delight in a nice meet-cute with the immense, harrowing presence of disease. And a year later, she delivered Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow (2017), a lunatic adaptation of Three Sisters which finds a parallel for the iconic Prozorov family in the revved-up despair of millennial culture. 

Just as in her earlier works, the poor souls who inhabit these more recent plays are stuck repeating patterns within a damaging cosmology. Matricidal young men, vindictive young women, fame-hungry artists, ruthless Pulitzer-winning fathers, hapless romantics in a cancer ward, sisters pining for Moscow. The difference, though, is that in these latter plays this cosmology is one of their own making. It’s not some chilly omnipotent being who’s created this hell, but the choices these characters have made in response to the world they’re dealt. And intrinsic to the idea of choice is the possibility of an alternative choice. In I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard, Ella has placed herself on the dartboard of her father’s cruelty, and she’s chosen to ascribe to his values. But in the end, as the lights black out on the story, she kneels to pray for help, and we see a glimmer of redemption, (a faraway glimmer, but a glimmer nonetheless). Just as the three Prozorov sisters in Halley’s version, even though happiness eludes them, choose to go to Moscow. 

In The Pain of My Belligerence, the love between Cat and Guy is toxic, as is the patriarchal structure of the world they live in, as is the American political narrative that unfolds over the course of their relationship. But every level of toxicity at work in the play is only playing out because of the choice to buy into it, their choice and ours. The bad news for Cat and Guy is that the alternate choice is hardly apparent. The good news — for us if not for them — is that this aching world is penned by a writer who’s a connoisseur of the purest laugh, the highest joke, the laugh that can laugh at that which is unhappy. It makes the medicine go down.