Review: “A Play on Words”

“A Play on Words” is currently playing with a collection of other American plays, off Broadway at 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY.

They who well consider the history of similar divisions and confederacies will find abundant reason to apprehend that those in contemplation would in no other sense be neighbors than as they would be borderers; that they would neither love nor trust one another, but on the contrary would be a prey to discord, jealousy, and mutual injuries; in short, that they would place us exactly in the situations in which some nations doubtless wish to see us, viz., formidable only to each other. (Federalist 5)

What do you call it when two friends, only neighbors, really “borderers,” meet together in a backyard to argue for hours about whether semantic arguments are futile, despite the obvious fact that by way of their arguing, an argument about semantics is what they’ve had? And if semantic arguments are useful, if Rusty (Mark Boyett) is right, what does either of these “friends” stand to gain? Some rhetoric from Max (Brian Dykstra, the playwright) who accuses Rusty of over philosophizing, goes something like: you would argue to the death—to the death […] I don’t know how you even get out of your own way in the morning long enough to have breakfast! Indeed, beneath the quick firing and hilarious debate a question persists: why so passionate about words?

The scene itself is not so foreign to us. Rusty and Max could be any two know-it-alls in any suburban backyard insisting on any number of ridiculous counterfactuals and factoids which evoke in us questions such as, “did the Nazi’s really have a stealth fighter jet?”, “is Walt Disney’s head really frozen?”, “how many continents are there really?”,“are hot dogs made from horses?” (no, no, seven, still, and perhaps, but I still wouldn’t eat them either way because they are full to the bun (debatably) with carcinogens and (not so debatably) with fat). Similarly, Max and Rusty spar about whether interjections like “what’s the story” transmit more meaning than more obvious interjections like “hey.” Rusty, at one point, constructs the amusing “entomology” of the word “hang” as it appears in the phrase “I don’t give a hang,” a possible reference, he claims, to the long ago lost practice of hanging moose heads and similar wall hangings on the walls of friends and acquaintances. Actually, the OED traces this particular usage of “hang” to the mid to late 19th century, approximately 1861 when it became a synonym for “damn.” To “not give a hang” is essentially to “not give a damn,” though the evolution from damn to hang is still not entirely clear. Perhaps the particular syntactic use of “hang” as “damn” evolved from semantically similar expressions which grew up in the 16th century and used “hanged” in anger or impatience to mean cursed or damned as in, “I’ll be hanged,” or, “Hangyd be he that this toun yelde, To Crystene men, whyl he may leve!” (Coer de L. 4414 in OED).

When internet browsing is not convenient, a rarefying situation these days, we know the feeling of heated debate over seemingly pointless subjects. But why do we go so far when internet browsers are out of reach? All that is at stake, after all, is the meaning of a word. Isn’t it?

A tribute to the importance of words, Max has undertaken the project of brainstorming and inscribing two diametrically and politically offensive slogans onto either side of a piece of cardboard. Enlisting Rusty in his project, he explains that the cardboard slogans are supposed to antagonize to anger, or violence, the two bordering rallies of democrats and republicans. Rusty agrees with Max on the sign’s violent effect, though on the meaning of the violence the two activists diverge.

Though Rusty and Max seem to have no problem with language as they compose two perfectly provocative political phrases for the sign, one gem being “abort Christian fetuses,” neither can seem to agree with the other on the sign’s actual function. Is the sign an unapparent symbol for unity and for the dissolution of political differences? Could it be a nihilistic tribute to the epistemic failure of language and human understanding, a single sign that literally signifies a contradiction between two opposing messages? With this in mind, Rusty applauds Max for the “extreme neutral position” that his sign represents. Max frowns on Rusty’s reading and insists instead that the sign may literally be a sign to which both crowds will be violently drawn for the purpose of beating its holder and everyone else in the bordering rally to a red and blue pulp. Max suggests that in some sense the meaning will follow in the aftermath of the extremist political gesture.

There is sovereignty to lose in an argument about words. But such arguments are not always as simple as those over the meaning of all “men”, or “natural rights.” In an absolute monarchy, the power to make decisions was owned by one person, the monarch. Decision and sovereignty are, in such a situation, inseparable. However, in a constitutional democracy the monarch, in this case the elected executive, is beholden to a set of constitutional tenets. Some theorists think of this document to be kind of like a key, ground away by the opinions of the people until it fits. When a situation arises that over reaches the language of the document, this is called the exception. In a constitutional democracy with a congress installed, discussion becomes the decider. To iterate, when discussion is synonymous with decision, interpretation then becomes a sovereign act.

Some political theorists have argued that, despite our American belief to the contrary, the interpretation and the creation of law is not a reflection of the will of the people.

Our belief is one that evokes in us the image of the Jeffersonian republic, of churning crowds all coalescing into multifarious interests for the ultimate purpose of influencing the decision through the numbers and majority of their opinions. But the true nature of American politics is increasingly positivist, that is, based upon empirical kinds of observation and independent of metaphysics. The new liberal conditions of interpretation demand in this way a separation of politics from decision, a heavier reliance on empirical evidence and the arbitration of science to corroborate in the decisions of the state. The enlightenment myth which predicates the infallibility of empirical science, in this account, supplants the traditional political gesturing of politicians and the political conscience of the people.

The notion that science slowly assumes the role of the decider is only one view of American politics, though it seems to work very well with this play. When Max and Rusty’s seemingly endless argument is finally decided by the admission of a newspaper, it is not only the present but all debates seem to end.

Max leaving the stage, in a nihilistic huff after having based one of his assumptions on an editorial mistake, marks the passing of the day of the political rally. “Fuck it,” Max says. Literally, the day of direct action is passed and the new liberal democracy is proven the victor. “Hey,” Rusty interjects and waits as Max disappears from the stage. His interjection is pregnant with meaning, with the lonliness of the discussionless silence. It is a moment reminiscent of Beckett’s Hamm beckoning after his Clov—uncertain.

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