On the surface, Anne Marie Healy's What Once We Felt
(through November 21) is a sci-fi fantasy about the last fiction novel that will ever be printed, and the author's frantic, risky decision to get it published. But, burried a couple of levels deeper into the metaphoric sediment of the script, there's also some important commentary on the death of the culture associated with the publishing industry and the nostalgia (real or imagined) that goes along with it. Though some critics argue, rather densely, that the play says nothing at all
, Healy is asking a very important question: Besides the physical book in our hands, what other elements of literature are we in danger of losing as print becomes obsolete? (And what evil monstrosity is going to replace it?)
The play's aging literary agent, Astrid (played by a perfectly boozy and stereotypical yet totally refined Ellen Parker), acts like an arbitrator in the fight between the multi-media experience and traditional print. Along with Laura the editor (a champion of the former played by Marsha Stephanie Blake) and Claire the publishing maven (proponent of profit, played by Opal Alladin), these characters give the audience anecdotal glimpses into the way things used to be, what the industry has become, and where it might be headed. I enjoyed this aspect of the play, offering a different way of thinking about the other things that will disappear as print does. I wish the whole play had been about this.
Astrid's declaration late in the play that in her day, "Publishing was a two martini lunch, witty alcoholic writers, books that actually created conversations and a damn good time," (the audience clapped!) was a welcome break from the overwrought science fiction staples (barcodes on bodies, Big Brother checkpoints to get into a Manhattan-esque island) and the whiny, oblivious author, Macy O. Blonsky (played by a wonderfully volatile Mia Barron), who throws tantrums left and right about how nobody has actually read her book. This play is multi-faceted to say the least, and although ideas about social divisions, overbearing government agencies known only by their three-letter acronyms, and the sad fact that people in the future will stop having sex (or at least offspring-producing sex, as men have become extinct
), were all touched upon broadly, it might have been better had these tropes taken a backseat to the "death of the publishing industry" plot, or perhaps not have been taken along for the ride at all.
Macy O'Blonsky has written the next great American novel, titled "Terror's Peon," and despite its obvious merits she is having a really tough time getting it published. This is a situation that every author finds themselves in at one point or another right? (Healy herself had the premiere of the play in Chicago pushed back
almost a whole year and then subsequently moved to New York.) What is interesting is that the world Healy creates gives the impression that everything and anything gets published (at least for download) and we are left to surmise that Macy's book is having trouble because it is actually good literature. Cue the knowing audience nods and chuckles because everyone agrees that true art can never go mainstream. Whether or not this is the case is left up in the air, however, as it turns out that the only way she can get it published is to lend her identity to the publisher (so that the publisher can 'download' a baby) and in doing so corrupt her good moral name and endanger her public image, possibly go to jail, etc, etc.
The play initially feels like it might be about the decision itself, examining all the (supposed) moral implications of lending one's "scan card" to another so they can have your baby credit (you only get one, like in China), but it isn't—Macy says yes quite quickly over lunch then orders a drink. Instead of a moral investigation into the desire of an author to bring her opus into the light, and the illegal acts she must commit to do so (which could have been amazingly tense), there is merely a slightly exotic story about getting a book published in the future and the fact that editors want authors to do line edits. Did I mention that it's the last book ever to be published in print?
The manuscript in question deals with the fact that humans have been systematically divided into blue-collar and white-collar classes by the evil RSS (feed?). Or, in the world created by Healy and "the Transition," Keepers and Tradepacks—try and guess which is which. The novel-in-the-play follows the life and death of a Tradepack (trade paperback?), even though (gasp!) Macy has never even met a Tradepack. This small detail provides a little food for thought as Healy questions how an author becomes qualified to write about her subjects (is imagination enough?), but it doesn't justify the parallel story of the Tradepack who kills her ailing mother with a knitting needle, thereby sparking a revolution.
The scenes between Laura the line editor and Macy are the most fun to watch, and perhaps say the most about the craft of writing and the publishing industry, as the two sit locked in editorial deathmatches at the office over a Makers Mark bottle (I guess whiskey will stand the test of time) and a giant laptop (I thought things were supposed to get smaller in the future?). Laura sees Macy's book as a treatise on oppression and just what the revolution needed to goad the Tradepacks into revolt and overthrow the evil RSS regime. But Macy feels that she has merely told a story, albeit a really good one, and although it's obvious to the audience, will not admit that she hasn't done any research or even talked to one of those other people living across the river
. Is Macy legit?
Laura then throws in the suggestion that in order for the story to really work it needs to be changed and perhaps integrated into a full body three-dimensional immersion download format, to which Macy (like any good writer) responds by getting drunk and falling asleep. The artist's intentions are questioned and then change is suggested, and we are left asking ourselves which would be better, to reach the entire public with a multi-media bombardment (the one what will start a revolution) or stay true to form and function and put out a lame old book. Even though this will be the last book ever published, the editors have already moved on and as Laura commandeers Macy's talk show appearance—explaining the"'experience" of the novel to the host—we realize that in this jaded world, not unlike our own, you will most assuredly reach more people if you expand past the printed page.
The set of What Once We Felt
is minimal and reminds of the inside of a ships hull, done in vinyl siding that runs down into a backyard deck. The lighting is all purples, blues, and black lights, with the occasional spot here and there, as well as a cheap projection screen up high and stage right. Director Ken Rus Schmoll
seems fond of switching scenes without removing the previous actors from the stage, like leaving Macy and Astrid in shadow at the fancy restaurant as the lights come up on the Tradepack cradling her dying mother, an exercise in juxtaposition that only heightens the sense that Schmoll is trying to hold our hands as we watch, which is annoying given the relatively accessible material.
And although some of the futuristic aspects of the play are blatant, it's hard to get into it because some things don't seem to ever change. (Like, its quite simple to "download" a baby, but the food at the restaurant doesn't come in pill form, as it totally will in the future.) The overall effect of the set design and costumes gives the impression that both Healy and Schmoll haven't fully bought into the future they're creating, as only some things have evolved while others remain in their present forms. Formally, this could be taken to represent the two positions on print: how much needs to change to make it better, and how much can we leave the same? Laura expounds eloquently on the full body experience that she will create with multi-media books, books that make you feel like you're there, but the set of What Once We Felt
leaves more to the imagination and is no worse off.
The argument within the performance in regards to this coming extinction—is the multimedia world we're moving towards an evolution of the words on the page or a denial of what matters most, the page itself?—is very evenly positioned. Healy even takes into account a literature vs. entertainment dualism (can the same literature be appealing to blue- and white-collar readers?) and the question of who the authors are writing for and why. It all works very well, even if there isn't enough of it, but it's hard to tell where or how the futuristic District 9
-like apartheid story fits into this vision. Why the play couldn't be set right now, when this sort of battle actually rages everyday as newspapers are shut down and literature is already delivered straight to your iPhone
, is a total mystery. Despite my best efforts to try and find the reason this play needs to be set in a future we've all seen before, I could not, save perhaps for the fact that you can't YouTube a child into your arms yet, but that alone doesn't justify all the sci-fi. And although one assumes that the death of print is in fact looming, I truly wonder if it will take as long to finally occur as it takes our bioengineering geniuses to figure out how to "download" a baby.
Perhaps this is just the skeptical sci-fi buff in me, but I can't even begin to imagine the technology it will take to stream an infant, whereas the technology to kill print is already tucked into our back pockets and purses. Couple all that futuristic mumbo jumbo with the issues about publishing and writing, and one is left with a great play about literature set in a very distant and very dark future just for the hell of it. This play has all the notes necessary to be a very astute lesson on the most important parts of the publishing industry, and just plain old quality novel writing, and why they can (should) never be replaced by the multi-media experience output of fiction mills (like this
). But the unnecessary and tired portrayal of a future—à la Farenheight 451
, A Brave New World
, etc.—where nobody feels anything about anything anymore (whether we once felt it or not) detracts from the comments on literature. The resulting experience divides our attentions, and leaves viewers feeling a little unfulfilled on both accounts.
(photo credit: Gregory Costanzo)