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Drinks Before Dinner by E. L. Doctorow

Drinks Before Dinner

by E. L. Doctorow

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633294,104 (3.42)4
The long-unavailable work by one of America's most eminent writers.



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This was a straightforward philosophical play by Doctorow. He presents an interesting dialogue and does not let the reader down in any way. It is an intellectual as it is revealing of the characters who are speaking it- as if they are saying what they do as exemplars of the way that people feel in society. Overall, it was a great read and I'm very impressed with what Doctorow managed to do- as I read him in fiction before this.

4 stars- well worth it! ( )
  DanielSTJ | Jul 14, 2019 |
Perhaps it was an attempt at doing Noel Coward, but this play has had no resonance with me. Rich people talk about their lives. This play was copyright 1979. ( )
  DinadansFriend | May 28, 2014 |
E.L. Doctorow needs no introduction. But I'd like to give him one anyway. Because I love him, as my online pal, the one-of-a-kind, "slickdpdx," recently remarked about me, "in a beer commercial way". So, skip the first five paragraphs of arguably gushing bloviation if you'd rather commence straight to whatever drama I've got to relate about Drinks Before Dinner, E. L. Doctorow's first and, so far, only, staged play.

For the last half century, Doctorow has crafted one iconic novel after another. He's won and/or been nominated for every award worth mentioning, except the Pulitzer, and thank heavens he's never been undeservedly cursed by that awful accolade and seen the ensuing quality of his output, post-Pulitzer, shrivel up like a frozen scrotum. He's been dissected and discussed in universities worldwide. More impressively, he's actually been read worldwide, and not just by members in society of the academic intelligentsia variety (persnickety professor-types, if you'll humour the bespectacled stereotype, with their oft-scholarly snobbery), which is a rare combo-coup for writers of award-winning literary fiction. Had his sole novel been 1975s Ragtime, he'd be as revered as Harper Lee. Well, maybe. Thankfully, he's been more prolific than Lee: Eleven highly regarded novels; three short story collections; three essay/literary biography and criticism collections; and one ... uh ... one ... um ... hold that thought! ...

His first novel, Welcome to Hard Times (1960), was a bloody (and bloody good!) western; his second, Big As Life (1966) --wonderfully weird science fiction; the aforementioned Ragtime -- embellished historical/biographical wizardry; his turn-of-the-millennium offering, City of God -- deft fusion of Catholicism and philosophy disguised as a novel (Doctorow's done it all, he has!); as well as penning novellas (1984s Lives of the Poets, but one) and slews of stories and articles over the decades that flesh out his inimitably diverse, half-century's worth oeuvre.

Recently turned eighty, the writer, if not as adventurous as he was back in The Book of Daniel (1971), World's Fair (1985), and Billy Bathgate (1989) days, still creates compelling narratives, (read 2009s Homer and Langley and try telling me otherwise), enjoying late artistic success much as his U.S. compatriots, Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy, have enjoyed theirs when most writers their age are long past their prime and well removed from relevancy.

E. L. Doctorow's last name, if you'll pardon my inordinate and geeky dweebishness, is even indicative of his expertise. The once western writer and science-fiction dabbler; the prominent postmodernist; the astute critic, biographer, philosopher, theologian and historian compacted into one brilliant mind; but also (and did you not know it for the longest time like I didn't know it?), the literally one time ... playwright? Yup. And not just, it's important to note, an ego-driven, rock-star-prima-donna-actor-type-out-to-prove-he-can-sing-and-dance-too ... incontrovertibly not a wannabe-playwright foisting his play on the public because he had the power and influence to do so. Nope. We're talking the one the only, E. L. Doctorow, the bona fide playwright of Drinks Before Dinner, a play as much an artistic accomplishment as his novels.

So what's the play about? Finally. The play.

Wait. I'm not yet finished with my lengthy "introduction". Patience please. I swear I'm not attempting a hold up, or trying to hold you hostage. When I directed the literally single-digits of my dedicated readership at this "review's" outset to, quote, "jump five paragraphs ahead to the play," what I really meant to say, and now only realize in the glaring lucidity of hindsight, was "jump seven paragraphs ahead"; or, since I may now have lost track of the play altogether, "jump however many paragraphs ahead it actually is to whatever it is -- no doubt inconsequential anyway, right? -- I have to say about the play. Is it another two paragraphs ahead? three? four? I don't know". So please do bear with me. I'm excited. Overly excited. Amped. Because I never knew for the longest time that Doctorow's play, Drinks Before Dinner, even existed! What kind of a non-completist (but-thinking-I-was-OH-such-a-completist) supposed fan of his, was I, not to have known he'd once had a successful short term gig as a playwright?

I became a fan of Doctorow's a few pages into one of his masterpieces, The March, in, I think, '04 or '05, and being so enamored by it, quickly hunted for and gobbled up his exquisite back-catalog (excepting 1980s Loon Lake and 1993s Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution: Selected Essays, 1977-1992, the sole books of his I've yet acquired or read, and also not counting, pardon me, his most recent story collection that I have read is pretty good and hope to read myself soon, All the Time in the World).

Never mind that Drinks Before Dinner is clearly listed under "Also by E. L. Doctorow" in the frontispieces of the majority of his post-1980 novels. I'd never noticed it, and couldn't believe my eyes when ... there it was ... that glorious moment I first saw Drinks Before Dinner:

I was crouched on the concrete floor in the disheveled bookshop like a baseball catcher, bent over and leaning to my right as if ready to backhand an errant pitch in the dirt, squinting, disheveled myself, scrounging through stacks and shelves of The Dollar Bookstore in downtown Long Beach California, a favorite and frequent bookshop haunt of mine, searching their dimly lit, unalphabetized "Literature" section that inevitably elicits more sneezes than book acquisitions, when Doctorow's drama -- the no-more-than-an-eighth-of-an-inch-thick-spine of Drinks Before Dinner: A Play -- materialized like manna out of the monotony of spine-cracked Norton anthologies and defunct poetry journals from the '90s.

The copy was flimsily bound through many uses looked like. Damn theatre or college students who don't understand how to treat a script right. Underlinings. Highlightings. Dogeared corners. Crusted boogers. At least it wasn't too too terribly creased, or torn, an edition published by Theatre Communications Group.

I remained crouched and opened it on the spot, enrapt by this completely unexpected find. Moments like this are why I rarely order books online. Reading the introduction to Drinks Before Dinner, I soon learned that Doctorow's play premiered at the prestigious New York Shakespeare Festival on Nov. 22, 1978, where it was directed by, oh, some nobody named Mike Nichols, and starred The Sound of Music's Christopher Plummer, as the unhinged, but mild-mannered, Edgar -- the indignant eccentric Edgar -- one rationally irrational contradiction of a character so recognizable he scared the shit out of me once I'd met him, and listened to his monologue-rants as misanthropic and potentially murderous as Dostoyevski's Underground Man.

Oh, Edgar Edgar Edgar! What a mad, but never muddled, hatter of a bad man you were! Interesting that our mostly pleasant, if, admittedly, antagonistic anti-hero of the drama (would his back story involve being opium-fueled too?) would possess the same first name as Doctorow (successful, reasonable man, for sure), yet also the same first name of the sanely deranged author, Edgar Allan Poe. You'll see the allusions should you read it or see it performed yourself.

The two acts of Drinks Before Dinner must have been a wonder to witness, considering its spartan setting --mere dinner table, dining chairs, painting on the wall -- contrasted with the maximally elaborate language of the play, powerful and poetic monologues arriving in waves, barely staved off by intense rejoinders, must have given that small claustrophic stage, that place "suggestive of the modern, well-appointed sitting room of a New York City apartment. Big window upstage with the view of skyline at night" -- a sense of suffocation and yet simultaneous escape existing between the impromptu-prison at the table and the freedom, just out of reach, above it through the window -- invoked by the spirited language of Doctorow.

Minimal stage directions enhanced the starkness of the experience. Doctorow explained, belying a surprisingly nuanced knowledge of the stage -- and stage actors -- for one so rarely involved in theatre production, in his introduction, a work of art in its own right:

"I must warn future directors and actors of the play that with a language frankly rhetorical and sometimes incantatory, with a playwright who prefers a hundred words to one gesture, with a text that neglects the ordinary benefits of characterization and the interaction of ordinarily characterized persons, in which the spectacle is static and the words tumultuous and relentless (in fact, that is the first image I had of a production -- a storm of language contained by a minimum of gesture and movement), this play does not solicit conventional theatrical sentiment from its audience. It should not be hammered and twisted in order to do so. The actors should be discouraged from imagining histories for their characters or inventing relationships not indicated in the text. They should put on words, as their costumes and see what happens." (boldness mine)

And what a Baroque -- and yes, "incantatory," or brooding -- conflict of words the actors of Drinks Before Dinner put on, seated 'round the dining table with their Lenox highballs and fine china, as Edgar takes his upper class fellow dinner guests on a nightmare excursion they won't soon forget, a journey in which the dinner guests never leave their seats, held hostage as they are at gun point -- and at gun point on a whim!, on a theory that flip-flopping Edgar wanted to personally test out, as if he were some real-life Raskolnikov. Doctorow did aim, after all (read his introduction), for a "theatre of ideas" in Drinks Before Dinner, so it's no coincidence that the swiftly developing drama would pivot around some of what sounded similar to Dostoyevski's critiques, in Crime and Punishment, regarding the reckless and inhumane philosophies of the day . Drinks Before Dinner, in fact, might as easily have been set in nineteenth century St. Petersburg as it was in 1970s Manhattan.

The consequences of Raskolnikov's fate are well known. But not Edgar's. Or the fates of his fine dining, highrise hostages. But I'm not telling. ( )
14 vote absurdeist | Apr 16, 2011 |
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