The one thing contemporary first world artists have in common is overwhelming self-consciousness. It can be the self-awareness that turns knowingness into illumination, or it can be the stultifying egotism that so completely mines its own personal history that it misses every imaginative byway.
If Will Eno's Tragedy: A Tragedy (in its American premiere at Berkeley Rep) has one extended moment of insight, it is that our public consciousness is ruled by the latter. The play is all-night television news coverage from the long dark night of the soul: Eno's or anyone's. An anchorman, three field reporters, and a witness take turns describing what they call the capital-N "Night," a night that has fallen like any other, but then taken on extra weight, leaving observers wondering if it will ever end.
A very literal set defines and entraps each character in a limited space. The aging anchorman sits in the television studio, his half-sphere of movement circumscribed by the half-circle of the desk; the legal expert stands in front of neo-classical courthouse columns or ducks purposefully between them; the experienced reporter stands upstage, facing an imaginary camera, or defies the camera by sitting down on the grass; the female human-interest reporter stands behind an empty house on a small mound of grass, or paces a few steps back to apply lipstick and talk on her cell phone.
Each character, fixed in space, monologues in turn, lyrically describing nothing, passing the word to the next character or back to the anchor in complicated figures. The effect is soporific; I had never appreciated before how important onstage movement is, keeping the eye tracking and the conscious brain working. I dozed off several times and only jerked completely awake when the previously speechless witness got up to deliver the final monologue.
Happily, I didn't miss much in the details I slept through. The play is a temporal and spatial spiral, following the downward movement of the clichéd "night," in which one's soul is laid bare to oneself and one caves to the bleakness or beauty of reality. Or something. Each character succumbs to despair: the downward spiral is inevitable, immediately discernable, and overwhelms the details that decorate its path. As a formal exercise, it's direct; as a joke, it's a one-liner; as a play, it's not.
Eno is often compared to Beckett, but in Tragedy he owes more to the regressive, memoirish strain of contemporary literary fiction. Where Beckett amuses and stultifies with rapid and repetitive action and dialogue, Eno sticks to aggressively poetic monologues that keep each character physically constrained. Tragedy stubbornly refuses to use the stage as a traffic pattern, opting instead for a static canvas ... or a television screen.
I thought at first the piece was a piss-take on American letters, in its obsession with false lyricism and seemingly meaningful, but actually pointless detail. Watching the characters standing in fixed positions giving into train-of-thought blow-by-blows that would make D.H. Lawrence look like a minimalist, reminded me of nothing so much as a student fiction reading. But since the playwright never broke out of this voice, in the end I couldn't tell if he was intentionally parodying or unintentionally self-parodying.
The performances, like the set and lighting, were technically on target, but the play left little scope for imaginative rendering. Relatively brief at seventy minutes, Tragedy: A Tragedy delivered precisely what it promised, on time, with humor, and with no surprises.
Tragedy: A Tragedy runs through April 13, 2008 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. For tickets and information visit berkeleyrep.org.