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What We Talk About When We Talk About Our Endless Obsession With Love -- A Review of Mike Bartlett's Play, Cock

Posted: 07/11/2012 5:39 pm

When you go see a play entitled Cock you expect some groundbreaking transgressive content, perhaps sexual elements that push the boundaries of comfort. However, Mike Bartlett's brilliant play, transported from England to New York after an award winning run in The Royal Court Theater, never panders to any need for sensationalism. Instead he crafts a terrific contemporary play that puts much of other theater to shame.

Cock tells the story of a gay couple who, when on a short break, one of the partners, John, falls in love with a woman. Bartlett appropriates one of the oldest storylines in literature, the love triangle, and provides a both hilarious and tender portrait of its contemporary relevance. Through this simple plot, Bartlett manages, deftly, to explore many exigent questions of identity, sexuality, our obsession with certainty, and our visceral discomfort with ambiguity. (The play centers on the vexing question of, to what extent should sexuality play a role in our identity, and can we even speak of anything but a fluid identity in today's world?) Often, in these more philosophical efforts, the writer focuses on his ideas, sacrificing his characters to make a point, but Bartlett, a precocious young playwright, succeeds because he only focuses on his characters. In fact, we see nothing else but endless entertaining and wrenching dialogue.

Playing at the small Duke theater, the set consists of wooden, round stadium seating, and a simple green circle where all of the dialogue takes place. The set, or lack thereof, contributes to minimalist, immersive experience of the play. In a sense the play feels more voyeuristic because the lack of scenery or setting allows the audience to feel as if they are actually in the living room of this couple. The content, not necessarily new or unique in its exploration of the dynamics of relationships, or even modern sexuality, gains an urgent sense of intimacy because of the small, round theater. I imagine that many can surmise as to the purpose of certain details: the investigative type light over their heads, the ringing of a bell as if for a fight, but I choose to understand that Bartlett attempts to peel away all the accumulated dust on plays to leave us simply with the interactions, the dialogue, the actors. In undermining the formality of theater, Bartlett makes a compelling case for its relevance amongst TV and movies.

The play begins with the couple, John and an unnamed man solely referred to as M, flirting with each other, but a flirtation that as it often happens today turns from playful into painful jabs at each others vulnerabilities. The really just flay each other down to their most basic fears and insecurities. They know exactly what to say so as to cause the most damage. Connoisseurs of pain, they know the exact pressure point to push on. The viewer gets the feeling that they do this so as to infuse some drama into an otherwise, boring, but healthy relationship. From there, the couple endlessly discuss their relationship, the meaning of happiness, the possibility of love, until, the woman, simply dubbed W enters the stage. There's something truly modern about this type of relationship dynamic. We tend to assume today that true intimacy stems from unveiled honesty. We tell each other our most sensitive secrets, our pains, our worries, ambitions, our insecurities, forgetting that at the same time that we create a connection through this type of honesty, we also provide our closest relationship with the heaviest of artillery to use in a battle. You almost feel shocked that people could say that to someone, and with such precision. You might think this smacks of some overwriting, some mix of Gilmore Girls and the West Wing on steroids, but you can hear these conversations everywhere in real life. In this, lies Bartlett's most astute and important contribution to our contemporary cultural conversation.

In Cock, perhaps in a mimicry of a certain segment of society, an intimate, loving relationship now almost inherently entails an exploration of the idea of love. Perhaps, as a trickle down from implicit post-modern assumptions in society, we spend so much of our relationship gauging, self-probing; we obsess over self-awareness, over proper communication that it tends to stifle the more experiential aspects of the relationship.

Could it be that this exact type of slicing up of the emotion/concept of love, of connection, of intimacy, this constant questioning, the need to understand before you can embrace it, stems from the culture we live in? A culture that raises love to the highest value, and makes it the object of our utmost curiosity. Certain ideas define a generation. We call this a zeitgeist, and Love, perhaps more than in any other decade or century has come under our analytic microscope. Most of our culture turns on a love story, a break-up, or an attempt to find the right one. The other prominent theme is one of self-discovery, but more self discovery so we can finally find the one. Perhaps marriage no longer stands as the pinnacle of happiness, but a relationship still does, and so we endlessly analyze this path towards happiness. There's an absurdity in the fact, on that Bartlett points out, that we live in a time of war, of numerous crises and we never discuss these in our cultural conversation.

Regardless, when did we take the simplicity, not naivete, but the simplicity out of love? Just because something can be endlessly analyzed doesn't dictate that we should, endlessly. One of our biggest generational worries in regards to relationships consists of our worries around commitment. We constantly want to know, can we actually do this, will it last, is it worth it, which sound like smart questions, but we discuss it so much that it often hinders us from acting in a less frightened manner. With overanalysis, like psychoanalysis, every small action, of facial tic or nod turns into a clue, a clue to something unresolved, something that demands discussion. We forget that shared experiences can serve as a strong enough mode of communication without a requisite dissertation on love. The play, at every turn copies and satirizes this obsession of ours.

Even during the very non-graphic sex scene (clothes on, foreheads touching as they dance around each other, a novel and tender portrayal of sex as a dance,) a confused John describes the experience as it happens. He live tweets the experience to himself, as if afraid of silence. It feels as if the characters enjoy the knowledge of the experience more than the experience itself, which seems maladjusted on some basic level. We used to only doom ourselves through neurotic self-consciousness, but now we vocalize all of it, all the time. Some things in life, apparently, are actually best left not completely explored.

The apotheosis of this obsession comes out in the climax of the play. M, desperately desiring the cheating John cannot fathom life without him. Consequently, in a misguided but perfectly apt form they decide to talk it out, to sit, or at least attempt to sit like civilized people, the three of them and discuss the issues, try to get to know each other, understand each other and hopefully stumble upon some easy answer to an impossible situation. Again, we see so much faith in dialogue, in conversation, when all we end up seeing are the ruins of numerous relationships scattered like debris on the floor.

In the end of the play, in a supremely powerful and moving ending, we finally encounter silence. John, down on his knees with his hands on his head, tucked into a ball, cries and cries and cries at the mess of his life as he resigns himself to stay with M. M, after a pyrrhic victory asks over and over again if John can just help out by bringing in the cushions and putting out the fires. A simple request, but absurd in the moment. We understand it though. M, after all the exploration, after all the elaborate conversations simply wants to return to a routine of mundane activities. He just wants to know if John will still help him clean up from hosting people, an act that when repeated for 30 years signifies one of the greatest acts of love. John remains silent as the play comes to a stirring close. Bartlett handles the immensity of this all with a subtle slightly satirical hand, the sign of a genius just getting started.

 

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