The South Atlantic Quarterly 99.2/3 (2000) 605-607
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Aristotle and/or DeLillo
The Mystery at the Middle of Ordinary Life is not an episode, or scene, that might have been part of a larger—I will not say “full-length”—dramatic work, because Don DeLillo’s work is a full-length play, though not, obviously, of the standard full-length sort that Aristotle had in mind when, twenty-three hundred years ago, he wrote his benchmark meditation on the nature of dramatic action.
Aristotle thought “plot” (a rigorous “arrangement of the incidents”) the central structural agency, the means of representing an overarching “action,” by which he meant not a physical act, or even a series of physical acts, but (in the words of Francis Fergusson) “a movement of the spirit,” the entire organic process of change that takes place from beginning to end. A “beautiful” action would be “serious,” “complete,” and of a “magnitude” apparently far in excess of what DeLillo could permit himself to try for, in the one-minute format demanded by the festival for which his play was commissioned and performed.
DeLillo’s small mystery play (let the medieval allusion stand) has an action in the Aristotelian [End Page 605] sense, though two people “do” little but sit and talk about the puzzlement presented by their long-term being together. (The incidents of plot, in DeLillo’s plays, tend to be verbal ones, of poetic intensity.) How is it possible, a man and a woman living together, day in and day out? The action is furthermore “complete,” satisfyingly worked through from the first line of dialogue to the last, without the aid of exposition to tell us what came before they began to speak, and without teasing us into thinking about what might go on after the lights go down. The concentrated action of this one-minute play is, in fact, all about what goes on now, what went on before, and what will go on afterward in “ordinary life,” till death do they part; precisely the sort of life that Aristotle, with his focus on the tragic action of an aristocratic hero of high renown, could not have been interested in, and believed to lie outside the proper domain of tragedy. Of course, the action in this (very American) play could not be tragic in the Aristotelian sense; it is not tragic in any sense. It is, rather, genially comic, featuring a wedding of spirits at the close.
As usual, DeLillo’s tone is mixed. The line that sits at the play’s virtual center—“They make love. They make salads.”—encapsulates both the play’s mystery and the writer’s seamless blend of tone. I would guess that the temptation for an actor to play this line for laughs would be great. But to ironically debunk the love-making, by ruthless reduction to the banal, is wrong for this play, which is a leap beyond modernist irony; wrong because it would drain precisely from the play its allure of mystery. Salad-making and love-making are better thought of as analogical equivalents, not in the classical vertical form of analogy (low to high, material to spiritual), but horizontally, as would befit ordinary people living in a postaristocratic society. Love-making and salad-making: at once banal and mysterious, mundanely physical and transcendent. Much is asked of the actor.
As for Aristotle’s prescription of “magnitude”: in DeLillo’s social context, it would appear irrelevant. The overarching action of the ordinary life of cohabitation lies in the small, repetitive banalities of its domain. They have to talk! How do they get through all the talking without being “gradually shattered”? This is how:
“I’m still not over this cold of mine.”
“Take those things you take.”
“The caplets.” [End Page 606]
Do I imply that this play, in one minute, lacks magnitude of action? We begin in puzzlement, with talk about the mystery. Then a pause. Talk about the mystery has ended. Then the talk about the common cold: the chatter of...