Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking.”
David Mamet, in his new volume of polemical mischief, “Bambi vs. Godzilla,” coins the term “affliction drama” for the genre of entertainment that “enlists the human capacity for sympathy and asks the sympathetic to weep.” Mamet calls this a “hijacking of the dramatic transaction,” the theatrical equivalent of “bringing a gun to a knife fight.” In such scenarios, human suffering trumps both dramaturgy and discourse. The intellectual blackmail implicit in these plays, Mamet argues, is: Do you appreciate this play, or do you hate blacks, the bereaved, the autistic? The latest example of this sort of theatrical buttonholing is “The Year of Magical Thinking” (directed by David Hare, at the Booth), Joan Didion’s stage adaptation of her brilliant, best-selling memoir, a chronicle of the year following the unmooring loss of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, in 2003, which she has updated for Broadway with the additional unbearable news of her daughter Quintana’s death, two years later, at the age of thirty-nine. As tales of woe go, the Ancient Mariner has nothing on Ms. Didion, whose combination of lapidary prose and emotional control makes her a riveting, complex messenger of heartbreak and survival.
Taking a version of one’s self on the road is an old, even venerable theatrical tradition. Buffalo Bill, Sitting Bull, Jack Johnson, and Muhammad Ali, for instance, have all broadcast their legends across the footlights; Didion, however, may be the first literary figure to put her recent and grievous personal losses onstage. As a playwright creating a one-woman show, her first obligation is to explain to herself and to us why she feels compelled to reiterate onstage a tragic tale that is already well known on the page. For a writer who takes pride in her emotional and literary punctilio (“There’s a certain kind of personality—my own, maybe yours—that sets great store on seeing it straight,” she says), Didion provides a strangely disingenuous answer, one that gets the evening off to a defensive, even false, start. “This happened on December 30, 2003,” she begins. “That may seem a while ago but it won’t when it happens to you. And it will happen to you. The details will be different, but it will happen to you. That’s what I’m here to tell you. You see me on this stage, you sit next to me on a plane, you run into me at dinner. You know what happened to me. You don’t think it could happen to you. That’s why I’m here.”
In this first breath, Didion establishes her stage character (played here by Vanessa Redgrave) as a sort of self-dramatizing doyenne of desolation. This whiff of condescension subverts the fetching frailty of Didion’s literary persona. What felt like curiosity in the book becomes grandiosity on the stage; her grief must be attended to. “Nobody gets out of life alive,” Tennessee Williams said. But Didion, in this misguided act of exhibitionism, seems to imply that she’s got a lock on loss. More important, by telling the viewers how to identify with her story, she robs them of their work of discovery. Didion is not an unreliable narrator; on the contrary, she is a scrupulous, obsessive observer of the delirium that sometimes makes her act unreliably. As a result, there is no dramatic irony or tension in the theatrical exchange; there is only narration. Despite its billing, the show is not, in any meaningful sense of the word, a “play”; it’s an exercise in eloquence, a sort of audiobook with backdrops—albeit a series of gorgeous bleached-gray-and-white seascapes, designed by the masterly Bob Crowley, which serve to punctuate the bleak and shifting emotional terrain of Didion’s story.
Although the opening skews the monologue, it doesn’t entirely spoil it. Once the narrative properly begins, it more or less follows the tracks and tropes of the book. (At one point, Redgrave even produces the book and reads from one of its best pages: “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.”) Pain almost always renders us inarticulate; it wrecks thought and makes words impossible. Didion’s achievement is to find those words. Her prose style—as she describes it, “a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish”—is crystalline and always captivating. She is expert at playing her nervy persona against the sinew of her prose. The music of her simple sentences, her staccato rhythms, and her repetitions work the magic of both control and collapse. For instance, “I hear my own voice. What I hear it saying is this: ‘He’s dead, isn’t he?’ The doctor looks at the social worker. ‘It’s okay,’ the social worker says. ‘She’s a pretty cool customer.’ ” The list of Didion’s acute observations includes the clear bead she has on herself. Always an astute social observer, she sees her own foibles under pressure. “What was in my mind when I bought the blue cotton scrubs at the U.C.L.A. Medical Center bookstore?” she says, when she visits her daughter in the hospital after a brain hemorrhage. “Did it never occur to me that for the mother of a patient to show up at the hospital wearing blue cotton scrubs could only be construed as a suspicious violation of boundaries. Has my isolation become this profound?”
In the midst of her deracinating loss, Didion knows that her husband is dead and yet, at the same time, tries to keep him alive. This is the magical thinking she takes as her subject. Of her obsession with managing her husband’s bicoastal obituaries, for instance, she writes:
An obituary means he is dead.
I am seized by the need not to let anyone at the Los Angeles Times read this in the New York Times. I call a friend at the Los Angeles Times. As he picks up I realize that I have made a mistake. It’s still early in Los Angeles, is John even dead there? What time was it here when they said he was dead? Is it that time yet in Los Angeles? If there’s time left on the West Coast, does it even need to happen there? Should I be taking him there right now? If I hang up and fly out can we have a different ending on Pacific time?
Reading Didion’s subtle account of the dark tunnel she entered when Dunne died in his chair as she was preparing dinner is rather like watching a master surgeon stitch up her own heart.
In the translation from the page to the stage, however, there is an essential change of chemistry, as well as a new vulgarity. The reading experience, which is private, is about reflection; the theatrical experience, which is public, is about capitulation. Onstage, the words may be Didion’s but the metabolism isn’t. Watching the strapping, hot-blooded Redgrave try to embody Didion’s birdlike, chilly character is rather like seeing a falcon impersonate a sparrow. Positioned center stage on a wooden chair, her silver hair pulled tightly back on her handsome head, Redgrave speaks to the audience pitched forward, with her arms mostly folded in front of her, her elbows neatly balanced on the armrests. She brings a physical charisma to the show that matches Didion’s verbal one, pronouncing her lines at a manic clip not so much to avoid boredom as to avoid bathos, a triumph of pronunciation over revelation. Redgrave’s long fingers grasp at the air; they cover her mouth; they even occasionally sweep across her large almond eyes to wipe away tears. Her American accent is wayward, but her compassion isn’t. She is never more powerful than when delivering Didion’s retrospective questions to her dead daughter. “Did I lie to you?” she says. “Did I lie to you all my life? When I said, You’re safe, I’m here, was that a lie or did you believe it? Is a lie only a story that the hearer disbelieves? Is that the only definition of a lie? Or did you believe it?” Still, in Redgrave’s attack, which is instinctively melodramatic, Didion’s persona loses much of its tact and its camouflage, and a certain pretentiousness shows through. “You think I’m crazy,” her voice hectors. “You think I’m crazy because otherwise I’m dangerous. Radioactive. If I’m sane, what happened to me could happen to you. You don’t want to hear what I have to tell you.”
Mourning is about achieving separation; writing down your sorrow, of course, can play a part in the long process of letting go. “We all know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a time when we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead,” Didion says in the play, adding, “I knew that as the second year began and the days passed, my sense of John and Quintana, John and Quintana alive, would become more remote, softened, transmuted into whatever best served my life without them. In fact this is already happening.” But is this true? By the end of the play, the statement seems almost delusional. The purpose of “The Year of Magical Thinking” is not to let go of Didion’s lost loved ones—those faces that we see in a family portrait on the last backdrop at the finale—but to keep them alive, by planting them forcibly in the imagination of the audience. Like Kafka’s Hunger Artist, who buys the spectators breakfast and watches them eat, Didion takes strength from retelling the story of her own deprivation. Far from signalling the end of her year of magical thinking, the play turns out to be an extension of it.