The American Voice: A Math Somewhere
Q: Tell me a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer.
A: I have a lot of vivid earthquake memories...
– from an interview with Anne Washburn
In the classic parlor game Balderdash, players compose fake definitions for a real word—the more obscure, the better—and then mix these imagined definitions with the actual definition. “The Dasher” reads them all aloud, and everyone casts votes on what they think is the truth. If you guess correctly, you score. But you also score when another player votes for the lie you invented.
About a year ago, my boyfriend and I jokingly imagined a similar game based on the plays of Anne Washburn. Stumbling home from some party, we were marveling at the sheer number of times that week we had heard a sentence begin with, “Have you heard about the new Anne Washburn play that’s [insert premise of play here]?” And in every case, the rest of the sentence was so unexpected that, precisely as happens when playing Balderdash, the truth was far more awesome than anything we could make up.
Let’s play the game now. I’ll be the Dasher. Identify which of the following sentences my boyfriend and I didn’t hear. “Have you heard about the new Washburn play that’s a) “…written in an invented Slavic language that its protagonist doesn’t speak?” b) “…told from inside an acid trip that Philip K. Dick is taking?” c) “…a contemporary musical adaptation of ‘Little Bunny Foo Foo’ with an anti-war message?” d) “…a pageant that chronicles the rise and fall of Ceausescu’s reign, featuring Vlad the Impaler?” e) “…about survivors who try and reconstruct a Simpsons episode at the end of the world?”
Naturally, it’s a trick question, and the answer is, f) all of the above. The plays, which are only a sampling of Washburn’s beguiling and totally unpredictable body of work: a) The Internationalist (2004) takes us inside the mind of an American businessman abroad in an unnamed country, where he’s awakened to his own uselessness; b) A Devil At Noon (2011) weaves a multi-dimensional tale around a science fiction writer’s struggles with reality; c) Little Bunny Foo Foo (2007) shows us a rabbit who, well, just won’t stop bopping field mice on the head; d) The Communist Dracula Pageant: by Americans, for Americans, with hallucinations, phosphorescence, and bears (2008) is a wildly theatrical satire that scrutinizes how history gets written; and e) Mr. Burns, a post-electric play opens our new season.
The best strategy in Balderdash, when composing one’s false word definition, is to erase oneself from the writing of it. (If, for example, I were to posit that the true definition of “tortiloquoy” has something to do with bicycles or taco trucks, any opponent who knows me a little would quickly trace this back to me.) The goal is to immerse yourself in the word, to let yourself be subsumed by it, to try and imagine your definition from within the word.
Having just finished re-reading Anne Washburn’s anthology up to this point, an experience that’s as intellectually rigorous as it is giddy, I’ve been struck by the ineffectuality of my usual approach to writing about a writer; which starts with finding commonalities of content, narrative, writing styles, characters or structure. Because Anne’s work somehow keeps her more elusive. In a way, what her plays seem to have in common is that they have so little in common. It’s as though—and I promise this ends my extended Balderdash metaphor—each of her plays is a striking, rare word she plucked from the Arcanum, inhabited completely, and then exploded open for us, allowing us to marvel at the strangeness of its mere being. Her plays often (not always) incorporate found text or transcriptions of recorded interviews: Mr. Burns, Dreamerwake (2013), The Ladies (2004). They also often (not typically) offer an expressionistic vision of the world, from the point of view of a central character: The Internationalist, A Devil at Noon. And they often (never predictably) carry us from one reality into another, smashing two dissimilar play-worlds together: Apparition (2005), The Communist Dracula Pageant. The effect is that the nature of each richly conceived and spellbinding play has a way of diffusing evidence of Anne’s own handiwork. It’s only in looking at her plays as a collection that this effect starts to emerge as the commonality between each play. She’s a shape-shifter. Sly and lithe. And what we know about shape-shifters is that their elusiveness allows them to do the most audacious things.
“As long as someone, somewhere, is thinking about the ending of the world, it won’t,” the character Duncan offers in her play The Small (2007). “There’s a scientific explanation, having to do with very complicated physics, about the importance, even the necessity of being unexpected. I know it’s a math somewhere; I’ve observed it in my life: what you anticipate and rely on, will not occur.” This strikes me as a slightly uncharacteristic moment in Anne’s plays, only in that it’s possibly a fleeting glimpse into the thoughts of the playwright herself. Her plays are anything but expected, constantly defying our laws of probability, opening up new possibilities through her inventive use of language, subjects, imagery. But beyond a belief in the unanticipated, do we pick up in Duncan’s words an almost romantic curiosity towards the mysteries of the cosmos, the secrets of the universe? Though he doesn’t understand the physics, and though the math isn’t within reach, he knows there’s a pattern far out there, up there, in there somewhere that will reveal to us how or why things happen or don’t happen. Anne Washburn’s plays reflect a writer in love with the mysteries themselves, pursuing a pattern behind them vigorously, but perfectly content with the fact that the end of each pursuit only reveals more mystery.
In The Small, Duncan continues, imagining the splendor that will be revealed when the end does come: “We’ll see crazy colors. Colors will break open and there will be new colors inside of them. We will see animals from other planets. And new music. For a moment everything will be so new that we’ll understand how limited our palate—of color, sound, form—was before this moment. In that moment, we’ll understand that everything that used to be miles apart (holds his hands out, a solid foot and a half apart) is actually this (forefinger and middle only a few centimeters apart) close to each other, in relation to all of this—(he spreads out his arms as far as they can go). Our minds are gonna boggle, and then they’ll end.”
Director of New Play Development