Review: ‘Brief Interviews with Hideous Men’

In 1997, David Foster Wallace wrote a scathingly piercing review of John Updike’s Midpoint for The New York Observer. Entitled, in characteristically unapologetic style, ‘John Updike, Champion Literary Phallocrat, Drops One; Is This Finally the End for Magnificent Narcissists?’, Wallace attacked the “Great Male Narcissists” of post-war fiction. The characters written into existence by Updike, Mailer, and Roth, he argued, are ‘always incorrigibly narcissistic, philandering, self-contemptuous, self-pitying and deeply alone, alone the way only a solipsist can be alone. They never belong to any sort of larger unit or community or cause. Though usually family men, they never really love anybody — and, though always heterosexual to the point of satyriasis, they especially don’t love women. The very world around them … seems to exist for them only insofar as it evokes impressions and associations and emotions inside the self.’

There could not be a better description of the characters who provide the subjects of his 1999 collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. In a tour de force of postmodernist metafiction with a moralising attitude, Brief Interviews is a critique of self-obsession and misogyny through a series of (sort-of) vignettes taking the form of interviews. In some senses, the vividness of Wallace’s language and the short-story form providing neatly delineated monologues means that Brief Interviews immediately lends itself to stage versions. Indeed, Josh Dolphin and Penny Cartwright’s adaptation (currently running at the Burton Taylor Studio) follows in the footsteps of Dylan McCullough, Andy Holden and David Raymond Conroy, and David McGuff, all of whom placed Brief Interviews on the stage. In other ways, however, there is much about the novel that does not translate well to another medium, losing much of its acute literary analysis when dramatised. Consequently Dolphin and Cartwright’s production is variable in its success: there are exceptional performances from many cast members and much of the stage direction is superbly handled, but these are accompanied by moments where, stripped of its original context, the script flounders.

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In some cases, taking Wallace’s characters from page to stage was remarkably successful, particularly Kieran Ahern’s performance as the love coach, teaching his eager students what makes a good lover. Indeed, the S&M enthusiast (Tom Dowling) benefitted spectacularly from being embodied, although this lengthy scene could be improved by a few judicious edits. His interactions with the audience were deliciously invasive, the blatant disregard for the emotions of his unfortunate audience victims accentuating his treatment of the women in his monologue. The staging added an immediacy to the various misogynies displayed by the men: having the ability to physically isolate a female audience member and tell her “Imagine not being there until a man needs you” forced the audience to confront the attitudes of the “Great Male Narcissists” directly and without apology. Although Wallace’s contempt is not only constrained to men (the ‘Adult World’ scenes are told from a woman’s perspective and, in the novel, ‘The Depressed Person’) proving that self-absorption is not entirely gender-dependent, the majority of his bile is saved for the males of the species. This emphasis on critiquing misogyny was channelled by the chapters selected for performance in this adaptation – ‘Church Not Made With Hands’ (about a father trying to cope with the loss of his child), for example, was notably absent.

Scenes that were less successful included the story of the toilet attendant. The language that Wallace deploys here, describing the sounds, sights, and smells of a high-class hotel toilet, is so visceral and and repugnant that on stage it seems hyperbolic and loses some of its effect. The sound production for this episode (and, indeed, for most of the play) was spot on, and including one story that was not explicitly about sex brought to the fore that these monologues are really about power. The interviewees’ self-serving, deluded narcissism is predominantly about maintaining a feeling of control, and their sexual interactions are just one manifestation of this. However, this moralising chapter, exposing the hypocrisy of supposed philanthropists for their treatment of serving staff, seemed overtly didactic and patronizing when spoken – or, sometimes, shouted. While Wallace is parodying the idea of the hyper-masculine (and one could hardly call it a subtle critique), the testosterone-fuelled roaring that was chosen for a large number of the characters sometimes became a little repetitive. While this was appropriate for Ahern’s love coach, what makes Wallace’s men so hideous are their uniquely despicable natures. This is perhaps why Dowling’s S&M enthusiast and Tom Pease’s ‘Johnny One-Arm’ were some of the most compelling and disquieting chapters: the pace slowed, and both Dowling and Pease allowed for the sinister and manipulative aspects of their characters to shine through.

Playwright Chris Goode has remarked that writing a play is a completely different venture to writing a novel or a film-script. Each medium has different demands, new challenges, and unique possibilities. In this case, Brief Interviews’ original concerns with how to write fiction are, predictably, lost when transferred to stage – how does one dramatise his note in ‘Adult World II’, about a chronic masturbator, that says “MastAnon? Co-Jack? (Nb avoid easy gags)”? By projecting it on to the backdrop, or giving the line to a narrator? Is it productive to include it at all? However, adaptation provides new opportunities for expressing Wallace’s critique of self-obsession and misogyny that are, for the most part, successfully explored by Dolphin and Cartwright’s production. The physical potential of the vignettes is exploited throughout, and the enclosed space of the Burton Taylor Studio enforced the repugnant biliousness of Wallace’s men upon the audience in an inescapable way. While some elements could benefit from some fine-tuning, this is by all accounts an impressive and thought-provoking production.

Leah Broad

For upcoming shows at the Burton Taylor Studio, please visit their website.

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