Waging Waugh

Playwrights’ Center

at Loyola University Chicago

The Infernal Machine

Eclipse Theatre Company

By Albert Williams

“The film community are a people apart….Their sacred text is publicity, their pulpit the gossip column….They live for a world judged by quantitative standards. ‘No movie of ours is ever a failure,’ an executive told me. ‘We always get our money back.’ And so behold the succession of films, the slick second-rateness of the best, the blank fatuity of the worst.”

The words could be those of a contemporary critic lambasting this year’s crop of overhyped flicks written by committee. In fact they were uttered by a man who died 32 years ago: English novelist and journalist Evelyn Waugh, brought back to life by playwright Joseph Roccasalvo in a world premiere from the Playwrights’ Center, Loyola University’s resident professional theater. Waging Waugh is essentially a literary entertainment in the style of The Belle of Amherst and Mark Twain Tonight!, a genteel but by no means gentle portrait of one of modern literature’s most complex figures. Waugh was a scathing satirist of upper-class amorality who was infatuated with aristocracy, a heavy-drinking homosexual who turned into a staunchly Roman Catholic husband and father, a writer whose ironic, detached style masked a maelstrom of repressed emotion, a devoutly religious man who bemoaned his own lack of empathy for his fellow humans–and in so doing displayed the self-absorption behind his absence of compassion. “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I were not a Catholic,” he says during the show. “Without supernatural aid I would hardly be human.”

Most Americans know Waugh superficially, if at all. Some will have seen screen versions of his novels–among them The Loved One, his 1948 satire of the American funeral industry (greatly distorted in the raunchy, outrageous 1965 movie, directed by Tony Richardson and written by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood); A Handful of Dust, his sardonic 1934 portrait of a failing upper-class marriage (faithfully filmed in 1988); and the 1945 Brideshead Revisited, his serious if somewhat self-important story of a dysfunctional family of Catholic aristocrats (scripted by John Mortimer for a brilliant TV miniseries in the early 1980s). Some audience members will have actually read his books; far fewer will know much about the author’s life, despite several biographies and the publication of Waugh’s own diaries, correspondence, and memoirs.

The autobiographical texts were particularly valuable to Roccasalvo, a Catholic priest (and teacher of comparative religion at Loyola) who’s written several novels but is making his playwriting debut with this work. While Waugh’s fiction isn’t easily boiled down to stinging epigrams the way that Oscar Wilde’s plays and stories are, his nonfiction scribblings are peppered with beautifully phrased bitcheries; Roccasalvo, aided by director James Finnipot and dramaturge Nicholas Patricca, has stitched these musings into an impressively seamless conversational tapestry.

The setting is Waugh’s library at his Gloucestershire mansion Piers Court. (Luke Cantarella’s set features an ill-advised miniature of the pillared 18th-century building, which looks distractingly like an oversize dollhouse sitting behind Waugh’s armchair and tea table.) It’s 1947, the year Waugh visited Hollywood to consult on a film version (eventually aborted) of Brideshead Revisited–the novel that transformed him from Anglophile cult figure to international celebrity. In the first act, Waugh is preparing for his upcoming transatlantic journey. Or rather his wife is; he converses with his “guests” while she’s offstage packing. Act two finds Waugh back from his U.S. sojourn, full of venomous commentary about American manners and mores as he prepares to write The Loved One, the pitch-black comedy inspired by Forest Lawn cemetery (“the only thing in California not a copy of something else”).

Over the course of the evening, Waugh lives up to his self-description–“three parts misanthropic, one part gregarious”–as he waxes dyspeptically eloquent on a variety of subjects. Sex: “The pleasure is momentary, the posture ridiculous, the expense damnable.” His children: “I now dislike them all equally, [but] the more I see of other people’s offspring the less I dislike my own.” His own short stature: “The Waugh men shrank in height because it suited their bossiness to choose small wives.”

His greatest concern is the alarming deterioration of English literature and language. The culprits include “magazine-educated critics with their jargon and narrow tastes,” celebrity authors “who cannot write, but travel from one congress to another discussing the predicament of the writer in the modern world,” politicians like Winston Churchill (“the triteness of his speech was happily enlivened by blunders”), Hollywood hacks and their hackneyed products (“It is not that they aim to destroy bourgeois morality. It is simply that they cannot follow a plain story”), and the elimination of classical literature from educational curricula. One fictional vignette evokes contemporary academic controversy: when a headmaster criticizes a teacher as “shortsighted” for preferring classics over modern texts, the Waugh-like instructor replies, “I think it is the most long-sighted view it is possible to take.”

Interspersed are reflections on Waugh’s relationships with lions of a bygone age–Somerset Maugham and Nancy Mitford, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day, Oxford aesthete Harold Acton and Winston Churchill’s son Randolph–as well as such lesser-known figures as Richard Pares and Alastair Graham, Waugh’s lovers at Oxford. Underlying all his talk is disdain for the general sad state of “the Century of the Common Man” in “a world made uninhabitable by scientists and politicians”–as well as Waugh’s nagging sense of his own unworthiness, suggested in frequent self-deprecating comments and a slightly morose demeanor. While this Waugh clearly relishes amusing us with his witticisms, he finds it hard to enjoy them–or himself. His pent-up pain finally bursts forth near the evening’s end, when he abruptly kneels in penitential prayer.

This climactic outpouring of emotion supplies some dramatic conflict, though Waging Waugh needs much more if it’s to have a life beyond this premiere production. While Roccasalvo’s reluctance to compromise his subject with any editorial comment is laudable, his decision to rely entirely on the walled-up Waugh’s writing for his text poses a major challenge. Roccasalvo needs to bring out the tension between what Waugh declared to the public and what he could not acknowledge to himself, building more convincingly to the climactic prayer.

Further, the downplaying or outright omission of some aspects of Waugh’s life and work is surprising. His male lovers at Oxford are mentioned only in passing toward the evening’s end, and his conflicted feelings about homosexuality are not explored in any convincing way. There’s not a word about his failed first marriage–to a woman also named Evelyn, whose cousin became Waugh’s second wife. There’s much too little of Waugh’s fiction, and almost no examination of the links between his work and his life: “She-Evelyn’s” adultery is reflected in the wife’s infidelity in A Handful of Dust, for example, and Waugh’s affair with Alastair Graham inspired the idyllic but ill-fated romance between Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited.

Most conspicuous by its absence is serious discussion of Waugh’s conversion to Roman Catholicism after a period of youthful agnosticism and dissipation. Roccasalvo takes Waugh’s devoutness for granted–on faith, as it were–failing to illuminate the road that led to his spiritual rebirth. (Waugh here plausibly denies charges that he was drawn to the Roman church by its pomp and ceremony–but Roccasalvo never probes Waugh’s need for the dogmatic absolutism of Catholicism.)

Despite these shortcomings, though, Waging Waugh is a big step in the right direction. Roccasalvo may be a newcomer to playwriting, but his choice of Waugh as a subject is dead-on; the production is also a welcome step toward revitalization for the Playwrights’ Center, a venerable off-Loop organization that seemed moribund three years ago when board president Jonathan Wilson brought it under the auspices of Loyola (whose theater department he heads). The center’s affiliation with the university gives it stable institutional support as well as an attractive studio theater in the basement of the school’s Centennial Forum.

The show is also an impressive vehicle for actor Charles Bernstein, who looks very little like the short, chubby Waugh but conveys a credibly understated combination of donnish eccentricity and manic-depressive moodiness. Bernstein’s mix of impeccable articulation and hangdog guilt seems just right. He certainly doesn’t need a supporting cast, but he has one: Susan A. Miller and Grahame Rush, competently playing various people who pop up in Waugh’s anecdotes. Nothing against these actors, but they’re not needed. Waging Waugh started out as a one-man play, and it should remain one. The other actors’ brief, abrupt appearances give the show a choppy feel; letting Waugh impersonate the people he describes would make for a more fluid performance while giving the actor playing him a wider dramatic range.

And if Waging Waugh is to have a future, this could be an important selling point: since Waugh himself isn’t a big enough name to draw wide audiences, the script will need to attract a star seeking a vehicle if it’s to have a long life. But for now, Waging Waugh is an interesting, well-played visit with one of literature’s crustiest curmudgeons.

In 1934, the same year that Waugh published A Handful of Dust, French producer Louis Jouvet premiered Jean Cocteau’s La machine infernale, one of a string of Cocteau works inspired by myth and legend. This reworking of the tale of Oedipus was a natural for the poet: the story’s themes of patricide, suicide, and mother-son incest recur throughout Cocteau’s work, reflecting his childhood–the secrecy-shrouded suicide of his father and his love/hate relationship with his doting, dominating mother. (Four years after this avant-garde work, Cocteau broke through to mainstream success with a melodrama on similar subjects: Les parents terribles, recently revitalized with a new English translation titled Indiscretions.) The Infernal Machine, in a translation by Carl Wildman, had its New York premiere in 1937; this fringe production included in its cast of no-names up-and-coming young Lloyd Bridges as Oedipus.

The Infernal Machine is never produced nowadays. Well, hardly ever. But the youthful Eclipse Theatre Company has chosen to cap its season of obscure Cocteau plays with this work, revealing it to be an alternately tedious and compelling variation on the ancient tale of the Theban prince whose parents ordered him killed after an oracle declared he would grow up to murder his father and wed his mother. He survives to fulfill the prophecy, of course, learning after years of marriage that he was guilty of incest. Seeking to control his fate leads to his mother’s suicide and his own self-mutilation. Central to the story is the Sphinx, a mysterious monster who challenges young men with a perplexing riddle only Oedipus can answer: “What creature walks on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three at night?”

This story of a man doomed by what Cocteau calls his “dangerous habit of seeking to know and understand” probes the question of fate versus free will: Oedipus concludes he’s escaped the curse of incest only to find that the gods have trapped him in an “infernal machine” of doom. But Cocteau’s climax adds little to Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, and his attempt to scale tragic heights seems more than a little pretentious.

The Infernal Machine does succeed in its earlier scenes, with their quirkily original interpretations of Oedipus’ relationships with Jocasta and the Sphinx. Here that creature is all too human, infatuated with the callow, cocky adventurer whom she questions. She even feeds Oedipus the answer to her riddle, as if she were a crooked quiz-show producer helping a contestant, hoping to win his love–then conspires with her jackal-headed companion, the Egyptian god Anubis, to destroy Oedipus for spurning her. When Oedipus arrives in Thebes, he’s welcomed as “a man” and an “iron fist”–like the playwright’s contemporaries Mussolini and Hitler, who claimed to bring order to politically unstable societies. Since Oedipus’ heroism is false–he didn’t really solve the Sphinx’s riddle–Cocteau seems to be predicting fascism’s eventual failure. Oedipus’ relationship with his mother, meanwhile, is more filial than sexual. Jocasta–whose death is foreshadowed in a running bit about being choked by her long scarf (was Cocteau thinking of Isadora Duncan’s death a few years earlier?)–calls Oedipus her big baby, and he seems to prefer cuddling to sex.

Director Sarah Gabel’s production makes inventive use of Eclipse’s tiny space, suggesting simultaneously earthly and ethereal planes with set designer Luis Salces’s translucent crisscrossed drapes and Nathaniel Swift’s impressively varied lighting. Sound designer Oscar Groves reinforces the combination of ancient and modern in Cocteau’s script with a recorded score ranging from Egyptian instrumentals to Edith Piaf vocals. Less successful are the faux-classical costumes (modern dress probably would have suited the company better) and Gabel’s decision to assign the portentous narration (intended to be spoken offstage) to a masked chorus whose artsy arm waving requires more athletically graceful movement than these actors are capable of.

Otherwise the ensemble performs with conviction and clarity. Sean Bradley is effective as the boyish Oedipus; and though Jenny McKnight lacks the maturity to play Jocasta, Janet Hayatshahi exhibits superb dynamic range as the Sphinx, a role that combines classically heightened language with a distinctly up-to-date neuroticism.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Waging Waugh theater still uncredited; The Infernal Machine photo by Steve Smith.