How to Succeed in Assistance, An Essay by Walter Bilderback - Part Two
In the 1950s, this office-based knowledge worker was “The Organization Man” or “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit,” as two best sellers of the period named him. In the 1960s, the next generation became the ubiquitous “junior executive,” whether with Bob Newhart’s “buttoned-down mind,” the reluctant conscience of Jack Lemmon’s “Buddy Boy” Baxter in The Apartment, or the amoral charm and WASP chutzpah of Bobby Morse’s J. Pierpont Finch in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. These men (for they were almost all men outside the steno pool) diligently filled their cubicle every day, briefcase in hand, performing tasks that were nebulous but apparently essential to the functioning of firms such as How To Succeed’s Worldwide Wicket Company. The really skillful, including the Finches of the world, could rise to the top of their enterprise. In the sort of large corporations Drucker emphasized, the price of mediocrity was plateauing somewhere in the limbo/purgatory of “middle management,” but with job security, a nice house in the suburbs, and a guaranteed pension.
How to Succeed in Assistance, An Essay by Walter Bilderback - Part One
The Wilma’s artistic staff was pleasantly surprised to realize that the center two plays of our season both took place in workplaces. While most of us spend a large portion of our waking lives at work, most plays give the workplace short shrift. And the two workplaces represented in Assistance and Under the Whaleback demonstrate, in vibrant verbal and theatrical form, the sea change that work has gone through in many of our lifetimes. Under the Whaleback shows the end of the 20th century industrial model. Assistance is very much of the 21st century.
In a remarkable 1995 article titled “The Age of Social Transformation,” the management guru Peter F. Drucker wrote:
No century in recorded history has experienced so many social transformations and such radical ones as the twentieth century.…In the developed free-market countries…work and work force, society and polity, are all…qualitatively and quantitatively different not only from what they were in the first years of this century but also from what has existed at any other time in history…
“Because the soul is progressive, it never quite repeats itself, but in every act attempts the production of a new and fairer whole.”
Tony Kushner uses this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson as the epigraph for Perestroika. The title of the second half of Kushner’s “Gay Fantasia on National Themes” refers to Mikhail Gorbachev’s “restructuring” (the meaning of “perestroika”) of the now-defunct Soviet Union. We get glimpses of the Soviet Union in its dotage in Perestroika, but the relationships of all the characters undergo restructuring as well. As Tony Kushner writes about the two halves: “Millennium Approaches is a play about security and certainty being blown apart, while Perestroika is about danger and possibility following the explosion. The events in Perestroika proceed from the wreckage made by the Angel’s traumatic entry at the end of Millennium. A membrane has broken.”
The idea of “membrane” is important. Skin, and the body (both individual and politic), echo through Millennium Approaches as emblems of identity, along with the related themes of movement and stasis. Here they come to the fore. How do people and societies change? Especially in the midst of the “mad swirling planetary disorganization” that has seemed to characterize our world for the past quarter-century?
Watching with Winnie
by David Gardner
Alan Ayckbourn refuses to write or direct a play unless he’s shifting our expectations of what theater can do. Whether it’s moving the focus of a Christmas party to the kitchen—where the real action takes place (Absurd Person Singular)—or it’s staging two interlocking plays on two stages in the same theater at the same time (House & Garden), Ayckbourn constantly pulls the rug out from under tried-and-true theatrical conventions. And My Wonderful Day is no exception.
Rather than present a straightforward comedy of deceit and discovery, My Wonderful Day tells its story through the eyes of one little girl. Originally announced as Winnie’s Wonderful Day, the title of Ayckbourn’s 73rd play was later changed to My Wonderful Day—a change that signals the play’s truly innovative focus on Winnie’s first-person perspective. Such subjective point of view is difficult to pull off in drama, but throughout the entire play, what Winnie sees and hears, we see and hear.
“It’s a children’s viewpoint of an adult world,” writes Ayckbourn. “My theory being that children from a very early age - if they’re the listening sort, which I was - sit and listen and record what they hear and play back what they hear later in life. They are small recording machines, video and audio. I want to tell the story through Winnie’s eyes. It’s rather selective what she sees, adults drift away and you hear them talking in [a] corner but you stay with her.”
It's okay to laugh at Kafka.
Kafka: Laughter Lost in Translation
In The Understudy, two young actors and a stage manager rehearse a newly discovered play by literary giant Franz Kafka. As in any great comedy, things go awry, and we laugh with the characters as they try to sort it all out. But what sets The Understudy apart from other comedies is the way Theresa Rebeck allows our laughter to make us more receptive to the deeper truths of her play—truths about the need to be recognized, the fear of being unknown, and the terror of feeling out of control. This is where Kafka comes in, for these are truths about which he wrote at length. By combining Kafka’s dark truths with her own knack for comedy, Rebeck creates a theatrical world where fear and laughter coexist. But much more than that, Rebeck teaches us how to read Kafka, for while this juxtaposition of horror and hilarity would seem out of synch with Kafka, whose work is generally considered to be all gloom and no mirth, Rebeck’s combination of Kafka and comedy turns out to be spot on. Reading Kafka as uniformly dreary is a misreading, due largely to decades of mistranslation.