Nouns and Verbs
Notes on the work of Melissa James Gibson By Adam Greenfield
Being a dork, I recently sat down to spend some quality time with The Elements of Style, William Strunk and E.B. White’s seminal book on language and composition. (First published in 1919, this book found its most beautiful incarnation in a 2005 illustrated hardcover edition.) A masterpiece of pithiness, it’s an ardent cry for simplicity and vigor in the craft of writing, beseeching anyone setting pen to paper to adhere to its principle tenet, Rule #16: “Be clear.”
It’s remarkably effective as an illustration of its own ideology, crisply and assuredly insisting on mindful, acute language. And yet, I couldn’t help but giggle at the stringency of some of its section headings, from the sensible (“Write with nouns and verbs”) to the downright stiff-necked (“Prefer the standard to the offbeat”).
Perhaps re-visiting Strunk and White was so delightful because I was also in the midst of re-reading the plays of Melissa James Gibson, a writer whose evident obsession with language would rival, and quite possibly vex, these legendary rule-mongers.
It’s a daunting task to describe what exactly makes the plays of Melissa James Gibson so singular, so incomparable. I can only begin by pointing excitedly at the words, the near-gymnastic verbal dexterity that, with each new play I encounter, cast such a spell. Language in her plays is a sort of musical score, spinning as quickly as the thoughts in her hyper-articulate characters’ heads. But as much as she has mastered the precepts so passionately advocated by the grammar gurus, Gibson seems a lot less in love with the ways language behaves than she is with the giddy ways it can misbehave. Rhymes seem to bubble up and then submerge, as carefully observed speech patterns stumble upon a kind of poetry.
And yet, as dynamic as language is in her plays, its textures and sounds as well as its shifty imperfections, the true thrill lies in the way her compulsively self-analytical characters use language to navigate the messy continuum of adulthood.
Gibson made an auspicious debut with the aptly-titled play [sic], which takes place amidst the hallways and doorways of three tragically over-educated urbanites who live in neighboring, oppressively tiny New York apartments. In their early thirties, just past any hope of being recognized as latent geniuses, this trio is comprised of Theo, a composer struggling to write the perfect roller-coaster theme song; Frank, an aspiring auctioneer; and Babette, a cash-starved historian.
“Lack of success in one’s 30’s is definitely different from the same thing in one’s 20’s,” Gibson told the New York Times in an interview surrounding the 2001 Soho Rep premiere of this play. “In your 20’s, you still have that faith that something good might eventually happen. In your 30’s, there’s something terminal about it."
Whether they’re bickering over an unrequited love or what Chinese take-out to order, these three brandish words in order to keep this vulnerability and self-doubt at bay. In [sic], language, the rock of human communication, only manages to keep clarity at arm’s length. Her characters go to great measures to avoid inhabiting their own lives and, as the title suggests, show how language can be obstacle as well as a tool.
Similarly, in Suitcase (2004), two restless doctoral candidates, Sallie and Jen, find hilariously elaborate means to distract themselves from dead-end dissertations and unsatisfying relationships. But Suitcase places a more melancholy spin on the restlessness of being in one’s thirties. Sallie grows obsessed with some grainy home movies that are being screened in an apartment next door, nostalgically fascinated by the happy suburban families she’s spying through her binoculars. And Jen listens endlessly to a collection of tape recordings she’s found which document the life of an excited young girl who grows into a world-weary adult. “Do you ever wonder,” Sallie asks, “what happens to all those little girls at weddings who slide across the floor in their stocking feet?”
Like in [sic], Gibson taps into the state of mind, the limbo, of uncertainty, as Jen and Sallie long for the simplicity and promise of being young. Of course, youth isn’t always so simple, as we see in Brooklyn Bridge (2005), a commission from the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, which centers on ten-year-old Sasha, a habitual procrastinator haunted by a fifth grade research paper she hasn’t even begun to write.
And careers don’t always breed contentment, as we see in Current Nobody (2007), a riff on The Odyssey, which captures with great wit and sensitivity the loneliness of a family separated by war.)
In each of these plays, the misfires, mistakes and constant self-revisions take center stage. “We are porous and susceptible beings,” Gibson said in a 2004 interview with The Brooklyn Rail, “and even when our intentions are definite we ineluctably veer. The veering is what interests me… I just feel such great affection for the evidence of our tragic, silly, smart and stupid selves.”
The baffled, thirty-somethings we met in [sic] and Suitcase struggle against thwarted ambitions, hanging on the hopes of Amounting To Something; so, too does the tack-sharp gang of reluctant forty-somethings we meet in Gibson’s newest comedy This, commissioned and premiered by Playwrights Horizons. Spouses, kids and jobs don’t seem to make life any easier to swallow; in fact, if anything their veering trajectories are even harder to reroute.
I suppose it’s possible that this terrifically neurotic set could adhere more closely to the rules set forth by old Strunk and White, that they could simply stick with mere Nouns and Verbs; perhaps then they could find the clarity they’re after. But, though it may seem selfish, I’m grateful they haven’t mastered Rule #16 just yet.
Written in conjunction with the premiere of This in December 2009 at Playwrights Horizons (New York City). Adam Greenfield is currently Director of New Play Development at Playwrights Horizons. Until 2006, he was Literary Manager and Associate Artistic Director of The Empty Space Theater in Seattle.