Wednesday, April 29, 2015

e.e. cummings, playwright

Edward Estlin Cummings, who famously signed his poetry e.e. cummings, did indeed write plays, and while I'm not a big fan of his poetry, I have to say, his plays aren't half bad.

In 1927, Cummings published his three-act play Him, which prefigured the coming of Absurdism (particularly Ionesco) decades later. The Provincetown Players premiered it the following year in New York, though few critics seemed to understand the piece.

The play opens with the Three Fates having a hilariously ridiculous conversation. ("Your husband is a vegetarian?" "On the contrary, my husband is a burglar.") In the second scene, we meet the title character, Him, who appears to be a stand-in for the playwright. Him speaks with a woman named Me. And who is she? The audience? The playwright's true self? Someone else entirely? Cummings is never entirely clear.

Throughout its three acts, Him alternates between potential scenes which the author, Him, is trying to write, and scenes between Me and Him discussing those scenes. The next-to-last-scene involves a side-show barker trying to draw in an audience. A woman in white appears, who is then revealed to be Me, mixing together the two worlds of the play. The three Weird Sisters explain the break from the play's established rules, claiming, "It's all done with mirrors."

Such humor also pervades Cummings' one-act play Anthropos, or the Future of Art. A group of cavemen in the play seem to discover evolution while another man paints a picture of a mammoth on the wall. At the end, the painter tries to go outside to take another look at the mammoth. Instead of finding a furry beast, he sees that the mammoth has been transformed into a steam shovel.

Though Anthropos seems almost impossible to stage, Cummings' later one-act play, Santa Claus, has been produced a number of times since he wrote it in the 1940s. Described by Cummings as "A Morality," the play pairs Santa Claus, a figure who supposedly does not exist, with Death, a figure who eggs him on to the impossible. Under Death's tutelage, Santa Claus stops trying to give things away and begins selling shares in a wheel mine.

The fact that wheel mines don't exist does not stop the mine from collapsing and killing workers. A mob is then out for Santa's blood. Naturally, he is only saved by the faith of a child. While I've never particularly liked Cummings' poems, I have to say, his plays can be quite witty, and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.