Monday, July 28, 2008

Eric Bogosian's Notes from Underground: my first experience with the blog

Around the time I started working at drama school back in January 1996 I was keen to read and to explore a wide variety of playscripts. Though because I’ve been surrounded by the things for so long I tend to take them for granted these days, but in ’96 I was eager for some new reading material. Eric Bogosian was one such playwright I took to wholeheartedly. He writes in a quasi-existential style and is hip to life in modern-day America and mentally I jibed with his stuff and took great pleasure in reading it. Half of his plays tend to be series of long monologues, such as ‘Sex Drugs & Rock’n’Roll’.

‘Notes from Underground’ is possibly my favourite work of Bogosian’s. Originally I wasn’t quite sure if it was a playscript or not because it’s written in diary format – I’ve recently discovered the play gets performed as a one-man show with Bogosian himself acting out the first performance of the play back in 1993.

Years before the word ‘blog’ was invented (or perhaps it’s been around for centuries who knows??) this play portends to be the perfect, hypothetic blog. The play centres around one man’s diary from 21 March – 21 June so that really it’s merely a fictional 3-month diary, or blog. Admittedly I got a lot more from this piece when I was 26 than I do now. Like many people in their twenties, I was a lot rawer in those days and some of this stuff resonated fairly palpably with me. I’ve since grown out of any such proclivities and nowadays I find this piece to be something of an oddity, utterly unrelated to my current experience, though nonetheless a splendid piece of writing that continues to bemuse and wryly intrigue me.

The protagonist is a loner with a series of odd character-traits. Sometimes he tries to be good and sometimes he gets himself into rather bizarre and frankly disturbing situations. Like the narrator of Camus’ The Outsider he doesn’t seem to react to his own strangeness or oddness. Yet sometimes he can be very normal albeit in a quirky-alone kind of way. The reader (or viewer) is left wondering if this guy is in any way a decent fellow, or a genuine oddball.

He is a man at odds with the world – how’s this for an opening line:

MARCH 23
Today I ate a meal at a fancy restaurant. I like to do that sometimes. It makes me feel like I’m part of the world. Makes me realise nothing is impossible.

Sometimes the man’s torpor and disinterest in people around him is counterbalanced by earnest intentions:

…I will make a resolution today to be improve my life. I will learn people’s names. I will be more disciplined. I will care about other people. I won’t think negative thoughts. I won’t have bad fantasies. I won’t want things. I will be good.

but for the most part he has built a carapace around him, he lives within his own self-made shell and maintains a bleak outlook on his immediate surroundings and the world at large:

APRIL 5
I was feeling better today so I went for a walk. I saw these college students walking arm in arm. They think they are so unusual. They are so arrogant. Arm in arm watching the flowers blooming and they think they’re the only people who ever lived. They know they are young and they will make love and think thoughts and be very concerned about the world. Maybe they will protest something. But in the end it doesn’t matter. But in the end it doesn’t make any difference. They will marry or not marry, they will have children or not have children. Certainly they will eat and they will shit. And one day, they will die.
In a hundred years or so they will be nothing. They will not be remembered by anyone, not even their grandchildren. Maybe their grandchildren. Probably they will be remembered by their grandchildren.
But they did spend some time on earth helping to destroy it with their pissing and shitting and car driving and house building…


The man spends a lot of time in his Manhattan apartment. He eats too many cheese crackers, stares at girlie magazines, smokes too much, likes Dan Rather and attempts to live up to Shirley Maclaine’s example via her new-age books. His moods swing from resolute hopefulness & optimism to deep depression.

Here’s a full day’s entry:

APRIL 14
I really feel great today. I feel like I'm breaking through something. I took a bus out to the suburbs. Somewhere in New Jersey. And then I walked through these lovely neighboUrhoods with sidewalks and bicycles in the front yards and shiny Mercedeses. People cutting their grass. Lots of mowed grass.
I found this split-level house. White. It had a picnic table and a swing set in the backyard.
So I went into the backyard and sat at the picnic table. It was quite lovely. I had my portable radio with me and I listened to the news.
The people came home and you should have seen the look on their faces when they saw me sitting at their picnic table.
They kept looking out the window at me.
Then the man came home. The Dad.
He opened the back door and he said in this really gruff voice: ''Can I help you with something?''
I said: ''No, I'm fine.''
He said: ''Well, if you don't mind, you're in my backyard.''
I said: ''I don't mind.''
He said: ''If I can't do anything for you, you better get going.''
I said: ''Can I use your bathroom?''
He thought about that one for a few minutes. I could see him asking his wife.
Of course I was wearing my suit and tie. So the man had to give me the benefit of the doubt.
Then he said: ''You can use the bathroom. But make it quick and then you have to get going.''
I walked into his house and I looked him in the eye and I could see that he was scared.
I went into the bathroom.
He didn't say what I could do in his bathroom. So I thought, this would be a good time to take a bath.
The man came pounding on the door after 15 minutes went by. He unlocked the door and I was in the bathtub. He saw me naked and ran out again, I guess to call the police. He said he was going to.
I sang my song in the bathtub. I got out, dried myself off. Then I took an aspirin and brushed my teeth with the man's toothbrush. The biggest one, of course. I cleaned my hair out of the drain.
The police didn't come. The police are only people. They don't have any real power to change anything. What can they do?
I splashed some of the man's cologne on me. I got dressed and left.
When I came out of the bathroom, the whole family ran into another room and I could hear the door lock. That was funny.
I found some car keys on the kitchen table and borrowed their Volvo station wagon. I drove around, then I found a shopping mall. I left the car in the parking lot with the keys in the ignition. Let some car thief get it.
I went shopping. I bought a very sharp carbon steel kitchen knife. They are sharp, those things. And expensive. Fifteen seventy-five.
I went to a movie in the mall. I think Julia Roberts was in it. I'm not sure because I fell asleep and woke up and the movie was over and I was all covered with popcorn bits.
I called a cab and went back to the bus station.
A great day. Exciting, invigorating. It's nice to do something constructive for a change.


More stuff happens, of course. By the end of the piece he’s looking after children at the playground and longs for the child's innocence, wishing he could be a baby again. He buys a street bum a sandwich. He briefly visits a psychiatrist for treatment brought on by self-inflicted wounds. The question remains, is the protagonist merely some sick twit or a man trying his best to do good in the world? One thing remains certain, Bogosian has invented a character who sticks pin-pricks into the emotional and personal expectancies of the people he encounters, average American citizens with their expectations, their needs, their desires and their sheepish acquiescence to the common city-herd. Bogosian’s skill as a writer is to fill his piece with creepy, wry, absurdist black humour and to filter this successfully into a very readable and flatly straight-ahead script in the form of a day-to-day journal.

Perhaps he’s a reflection of the modern condition, I don’t know...

MARCH 31

Sometimes I will wake up in the morning and I will remember a dream I had where I went to a place I remember from long ago. A field with small hills and some large old trees. And after I wake up, I really miss the place. I feel sad that I haven't gone there for a long time. I think, "When I used to go there, things were easier for me." But when I try to remember exactly when I went to the place, I can't. I'm not sure I ever went there, but I miss it so much...

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