To the editors:
I am writing to review the performance of your critic Justin Hayford. In the past few weeks I have seen two plays that Mr. Hayford reviewed, Theater Oobleck’s When Will the Rats Come to Chew Through Your Anus? [February 2] and Mosaic Theatre’s Door Number One [January 19]. I am not affiliated with either of these plays, but I was so surprised by the critic’s failure to understand the most basic themes in both of them that I was moved to write.
Let me start with the more recent review of When Will the Rats Come to Chew Through Your Anus? This play is not, as Mr. Hayford says, about “the ethical nature of man,” but about a person’s attempt to create something that is better than he is and to justify his own existence through his creations. Not only does all of the action take place in a world that Willard, the main character, invented, but two of the other characters, Ben and the mechanical reproduction of Joan, are creations of Willard’s. Willard wants them to be better than he is and to judge for him whether he is worthy of living, but because he created them, they share not only his self-doubt and self-loathing, but also his indecisiveness. They are both incapable of either assuring him or destroying him.
The forces of self-doubt and self-loathing, along with hatred of others, are central to the play, and the playwright examines them carefully. He looks at their root in society when Willard tells the story about the omelette experiment in which people are forced to consume increasing amounts of excrement and then forced to live together in their shame. Lucy’s homophobia, which is so confusing to Mr. Hayford that he calls it “arbitrary,” is caused by the same self-loathing that drives Willard to create.
Mr. Hayford seems to have missed this point entirely. He says that “Lucy and Peter, though delightful in and of themselves, don’t seem to fit. Why, for instance, is Lucy so one-dimensionally antigay? Her homophobia seems arbitrary, and it’s not exploited thematically–indeed it seems to disappear late in the show, when she falls in love with Ben, who admittedly has had several boyfriends.” Mr. Hayford should think about the story of Lucy’s uncle, who molested everybody in his house. They all put up with it because, they said, the uncle was the man, he had the money and the power. They could only complain among themselves. Like one of the omelette-eaters, Lucy despises herself and her partners in shame. She calls them and the uncle homosexuals. It is evident from her words that Lucy does not really know what homosexuality is. She equates it with a signal involving the fingers and the nose. Thus she fell in love with Peter who had no nose, and she falls in love with Ben because he has no fingers. The point is that, because of her fear and self-loathing, she can love people only for their weaknesses and must therefore try to prevent them from overcoming these weaknesses. This is why she is so horrified at the idea of Peter’s plastic surgery.
For his part, Peter hates Lucy because she loves him for his weakness. This brings us to Peter’s thematic relationship to Willard and his purpose in the play. If Willard is driven to creation by self-doubt and self-hatred, Peter’s muse is his hatred of Lucy. And it is this hatred of Lucy that has united Peter with Joan, who was being smothered by Willard. It is actually a very neat picture for such an expansive play, not the “unmanageable” play full of “tangential action” described by the critic.
Mr. Hayford uses words like “tangential” and “arbitrary” to describe action whose meaning eludes him. Similarly, when he fails to understand the structure of Door Number One, he simply calls the play “loosely structured.” Mr. Hayford’s comprehension problems seem to have begun in the first minutes of the play. He says that “Tom . . . and Celia . . . await news of Rebecca . . . , who has been attacked and is currently in surgery.” It was perfectly clear to me and the people I sat with that Rebecca was in fact dead when her corpse was wheeled across the stage on a hospital bed and Tom moaned, “Poor Rebecca.” Celia enters after the body is gone.
The fact that Rebecca is dead and Tom knows it is very important, since the play is a metaphor for the manipulation of knowledge (and values and rewards) by men in order to control the behavior of women. What Mr. Hayford sees as Tom’s effort to “patronize” Celia is really Tom’s strategy to maintain his monopoly on information. If Mr. Hayford had understood this central point, he might not have been so baffled when Tom began, “curiously, to assume other characters,” and he might have appreciated the “consistency,” which he claims the play loses at this point.
It is evident from Mr. Hayford’s belabored if inaccurate account of the action that his mind is not flexible enough to accommodate the play’s many shifts between different levels of reality and metaphor. I can only guess that it was this inability to see beyond the literal that led Mr. Hayford to fabricate, in an effort to dispel his own confusion, a rather surprising explanation of the play’s ending.
Fortunately, despite his inability to understand these plays, Mr. Hayford liked them both. At least his reviews did not do too much damage. It would have been very sad if his poor interpretation skills had led him to condemn a good show.