Theater Oobleck

at Footsteps Theatre

By Justin Hayford

When it comes to tackling historical figures, Theater Oobleck doesn’t play fair. Whether they set their sights on Sam Shepard or Sigmund Freud, they twist facts and distort reality with shameless glee. Oobleck has no interest in helping us get to know the “real” person behind the public figure–a trick usually accomplished by gazing voyeuristically into the psychological realm. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that Oobleck has no use for psychology–or for “the truth.”

Oobleck rewrites history in order to grind their political axes. Then again, so do most biographers and mythmakers. But usually their politics are so in line with traditional American ideology that no one notices. Consider the Thomas Edison story, superficially the focus of Oobleck’s wonderfully unfair Necessity. In our collective imagination, the “Wizard of Menlo Park” isn’t much different from the figure Mickey Rooney played in MGM’s 1940 Young Tom Edison: an intrepid tinkerer who rises from poverty to champion industrial progress, doggedly overcoming all obstacles to bless the world with his technological creations. He’s the exemplar of the self-made man–an American archetype that rose to prominence during Victorian times, just as Edison was making his mark–and proof of Horatio Alger’s credo, “Poverty is no bar to a man’s advancement.”

This version of Edison’s life is true but strategically incomplete. Missing are the man’s absurd flops: trying to move objects through sheer will power using rubber tubes attached to his forehead, asserting that hydrogen atoms couldn’t possibly combine to form higher elements unless they had intelligence, and insisting that the future of consumer electricity lay in direct current. Missing too is Edison’s calculated self-promotion, a la Bill Gates. At the 1881 International Electrical Exhibition in Paris, where some 50 versions of newfangled arc and electric lighting were on display, Edison’s goons–I mean, associates–persuaded organizers to give him the highest-profile exhibition space, dominated by an enormous electric “E” topped with a two-ton crown. They also hired a journalist, at $1,000 a week, to sing Edison’s praises. A few years later, when the exhibition moved to Philadelphia, he unveiled the Edison Electrical Darky, described in Scientific American as “an illuminated colored gentleman who wore a helmet crowned with a suddenly flashing electric lamp and politely distributed cards to astonished visitors.”

Of course, in some circles creative hucksterism merely enhances the appeal of the self-made man. But Edison’s manic self-promotion often took a decidedly nasty turn. Convinced that George Westinghouse’s plan to wire homes and businesses with alternating current was dangerous (not to mention threatening to his own direct-current scheme), Edison staged a media event, electrocuting a dog with AC. When the press grumbled that a dog is much smaller than a man, he zapped calves and horses. In an even more vicious plan, Edison’s lawyers tried to replace the verb “electrocute” with “westinghouse.” But above all Edison demanded undeserved credit, insisting that nearly everything that came out of his “invention factory” was his, even if all he did was hand an associate a sketch of a contraption captioned “Build this.” As William Orton, president of Western Union, said, “That young man has a vacuum where his conscience ought to be.”

It’s no trick tarnishing Edison’s halo, as Neil Baldwin did in his enlightening book Edison: Inventing the Century. But the wily Oobleck would never set its sights so low. Written by Danny Thompson with the company, Necessity is outrageously unfair to Edison because in Oobleck’s eyes he’s a tiny fish to fry. Their Edison isn’t even Edison: he begins the play as a member of a chain gang, commits multiple murders once he escapes, and ends up sentenced to death by “westinghouse” at age 34. Oobleck turns Edison into the John Gotti of Menlo Park, a towering icon of the American entrepreneurial spirit in all its bloodthirsty glory. And that is a target worthy of these lefty provocateurs.

The script is pure creative recklessness. Thompson includes Albert Schweitzer on Edison’s chain gang, even stuffing the secular saint into a “hot box,” where he’s beaten to death by a prison guard. He transforms Alexander Graham Bell into a blustering Scot with no more depth than the school groundskeeper on The Simpsons and saddles him with a wild, deaf-and-dumb daughter named Helen Keller Bell. And he creates an Edison so ferociously ambitious (especially as played with hair-trigger explosiveness by the extraordinary Ben Schneider) that he has no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Most ingenious, Thompson pairs Edison with a character named O.T., described in press materials as “a creamy and delicious blend of Forrest Gump, the Sling Blade guy, and other ‘magical idiots’ of recent pop culture.” As played to perfection by Thompson, O.T. is the stupidest, purest character you’ll ever encounter–so long as you overlook the arson and multiple murders in his past. O.T. is the sagacious country bumpkin, wiser than all the city folks with their book learning–an American icon that predates the self-made man by a good century yet still captivates our culture today. Thompson literally links these two archetypes–Edison and O.T. begin as members of the same gang and stay chained together long after they’ve escaped–and pits them against each other in a metaphorical struggle for survival.

Necessity, then, exorcises the American spirit, though in an outrageous and satirical way. Both men struggle to be given a “fresh start,” but both endure disastrous and unenlightened journeys: the exorcism is unsuccessful. Edison perversely imagines that he’ll achieve a second innocence when he receives full credit for every idea that ever existed, giving him complete dominion over the intellectual world. (This wish echoes the real Edison’s dream to achieve dominion over the natural world; gazing upon the Atlantic, he commented, “Look at all that power going to waste. But we’ll chain it up one of these days along with Niagara Falls and the wind.”) O.T. believes he’ll attain innocence when his past no longer counts–when memory fails. Taken together, the two characters embody America’s undying faith in its own purity and hope for redemption without penance. But their final murderous meeting dooms any chance of redemption straight to hell.

Somehow Thompson and his fellow Oobleckians (including Dave Baxter-Birney, David Isaacson, Martha Schoenberg, and Paul Tamney) make this heady dissection of American cultural politics one of the most entertaining Oobleck shows to date. If you didn’t know better, you might think this was just a silly romp, so slyly has Oobleck couched its arguments amid the foolishness. Despite a sluggish opening scene and some structural clunkiness in the second act, Necessity sails along at a breakneck pace. Moreover, this infamously director-free company has produced some stunning stage imagery. For two electrifying hours they make us think–without ever telling us what to think.

At the same time, the Oobleckians take their own achievements with a grain of salt, ridiculing the show’s overdone melodrama when they’re not deriding their roles as Great Artists; the gratuitous slide into Waiting for Godot in the first act is particularly inspired. And they let us know that their success is the result of praxis: the actors work the box office before the show, mill about during intermission, and clean up afterward. During the performance they’re just actors doing their jobs, refusing to cover their mistakes, emphasizing that we needn’t be unduly impressed by anything we see.

Necessity doesn’t belong in some vaulted space; nothing here is calculated to overwhelm. A community setting like Footsteps Theatre, where performance is a natural extension of our daily lives, is the perfect spot for this work. Oobleck may be “unfair” to Edison, but to the many theater artists who try to squeeze greatness out of capital expenditures, the ultimate unfairness may be the impoverished Oobleck’s seemingly effortless brilliance.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Mathew Brady.