Your Humble Blogger read (or rather skimmed) an early Caryl Churchill radio play called Not Not Not Not Not Enough Oxygen, a radio play from 1971. And it is making me revisit the thing I wrote about a year and a half ago, that is, why there aren’t more speculative fiction plays.
I am not actually a huge fan of Caryl Churchill, for a variety of reasons, but clearly amongst the enormous output are a number of specfic plays, largely set in the near-ish future (some of them have dates that have since passed), largely without much difficulty either staging the plays or explaining the specfic elements. The idea that (as in Oxygen) the pollution is so bad people purchase oxygen in canisters, or that (as in A Number) (did you get my little pun up there? Hee Hee) powerful people will clone their offspring, these are not difficult ideas to stage, nor is it necessarily difficult to make a play that uses those ideas, except of course that it’s difficult to make a play at all.
Anyway, amongst my ideas for a play is one with the working title Station; I doubt if I’ll ever write it, so I’ll throw the thing out here for discussion. The setting is one of those small gas station and tchotchke stores on state roads a good long way from anywhere. Specifically, of course, I’m thinking of Western Connecticut, and all the places that I’ve passed again and again, but they exist in other parts of the world as well. The stage set (in my mind) is the interior of the station, with the cashier counter with computer on Stage Right, the main entrance up center with one of those auto-sliding doors, an exit to the house where the owner and his wife live, and the various displays of chazerai, anti-freeze, souvenirs and local-grown delicacies. The characters are the owner of the place, a middle-aged fellow of more than usual craziness; his wife, who is rather more sensible without (I hope) being that stereotype; the assistant (who is the main reason I can’t write the thing, as he should really be foreign-born, South Asian or Eastern European, and I can’t hear his voice at all or get him as a character, and my attempts so far have been unpleasant for me); and a variety of regular customers.
Running through the play are depictions of the ways people deal with changes in their lives, their makeshift attempts to prop up the façade of normality, and the poignancy of letting go even those things that need to be gone. So. The play opens with the assistant (let’s call him, oh, Walter) pulling the morning newspaper off the printer for one of the regular customers and reading off the headline that Peak Oil has at last occurred. The owner (Barry, I suppose, for now) scoffs at the idea that people will really change their driving habits. People don’t change like that, he insists. They like their cars, and they are going to stick to them. Like the customer who sticks to buying a printed newspaper with his coffee rather than reading it on-line like everyone else.
Over the first act, then, Barry, Walter and (hum, um, let me think for a minute) Mary (that’s very wrong, but we’ll keep going) prepare for and serve a half-dozen customers. It becomes clear that Barry has made a niche for himself providing particular services to regular customers: the printed newspaper, a thermos of soup, a particular coffee, advice on music, whatever. Barry’s customers stop here on their way to work in the city, despite there being equally convenient gas stations much cheaper, because of the personal connection and extra service, but also because it has become part of the routine. Barry entertains them and himself with running gags, goofy voices, gossip and an endless stream of preposterous ideas for money-making inventions. Walter finds the whole shtick amusing in spite of himself; he is a serious young fellow with practical dreams and a pessimistic outlook, but Barry appeals to him anyway, and Mary mothers him just the right amount, and between them they keep the place running. I suspect the first act ends with Walter going out to change the price on the big sign out in front.
The second act takes place a year later. The station is mostly the same, but a little rundown, with some empty spaces on the shelves and the posters and displays a bit faded. We see the same preparations, but some of the customers we met in Act One aren’t coming in any more. As we go through the day, Barry, Walter, Mary and the remaining customers gossip about the other customers. Some have started taking the train, some work from home, some have moved into the City. The older woman who used to buy the thermos of soup is dying, and no longer drives into the city for her weekly shopping trips. One of the fellows comes in and tells Walter that he got one of those new cars, and he won’t be needing to buy gas. It’s clear that they can’t keep the thing going much longer, and then Mary comes in with the news that their supplier has gone out of business and nobody else will take them on. The cost of delivering the gas, the dwindling supply, the lifestyle changes and the wave of bankrupt stations all wind up cutting off places like Barry’s. He refuses to fire Walter, but Walter (it turns out) has made plans and will be fine. He is insufficiently romantic to go down with that particular ship. But what about Mary?
Two things come out during the second act. First is that Barry can’t bear to leave the place, and in the stress he clings to his routine. He continues to print out the newspaper for the guy who hasn’t come in to buy it in months. He puts on his silly voices and has conversations with imaginary customers. He gossips about them. He cajoles Walter and Mary into joining him in the charade, and they each, in their way, coming to the end of it. Which is the other big question of the second act, whether Mary will stay with him in his increasingly untenable station or go somewhere else without him.
The third act starts a year after that. Barry is by himself in the station, which is back to how it looked at the beginning, fully stocked and with new-looking posters and displays, and perhaps even a new stack of motor oil cans or something. The printer is going, and Barry is making the usual preparations, talking to himself, or possibly to Mary in the back room. After a few minutes, the doors open by themselves, and Barry has a conversation with an imaginary customer, who we can hear respond although (and ideally we’re not initially sure of this) it’s Barry’s voice impersonating the customer who we saw in Act One. Their conversation is almost identical to the first act conversation; we see a series of these, with Barry providing all the services he had a couple of years ago, but all by himself and to nobody. The doors open and close, the cash register opens and closes, the coffee machine runs. At one point, the invisible customer goes into the bathroom, the door opening and closing, the sound of flushing, the door opening and closing again. Ideally the audience is not absolutely sure, at first, whether this is all in his imagination or whether (as it turns out) he has rigged the doors, speakers and all to go through the paces. Perhaps he has to go over to the computer on the cashier’s counter and hit a button, now and then. This whole bit lasts ten minutes or so; just the one actor and some tape.
At the end of it, Mary calls. Barry hits a button on the computer and her image is projected on a wall; they have a video conversation with far too much exposition: Mary has turned one of Barry’s preposterous money-making ideas into actual money. She has moved to the City, as lots of other people have, and she is supporting Barry in his delusional hobby. She tries to convince him to leave the place and join her; he is clearly tempted. He is nearly at the end of his prodigious stubbornness. His hollow world is becoming harder to sustain. He can’t quite commit to leaving, though. And Mary won’t cut off the money to force him out, and of course won’t return, as she likes her new life managing the whatever-it-is business.
After the phone call, Barry has a quiet moment looking around and tidying the place, and then goes to the computer to record more gossip for himself in the customer’s voices. The door opens again, and Walter comes looking in. It’s his first time back in a year, and he looks good, successful and healthy. It turns out that he is looking to buy a house in the area and was surprised to find the place still running. Barry has to explain that it isn’t, really. He is just keeping it going so that that whole world wouldn’t be lost. All those people, in their bedroom communities, going back and forth on those winding roads before hitting the interstate. The little rituals, the stopping places, the repeated complaints and jokes. It’s all gone, Barry tells him, and he’s like the last Aztec. Walter points out that the Aztecs were particularly horrible, and that nobody really misses them; Barry admits that the world is, maybe, better off without the Aztecs, but that somebody should miss them, just because they’re gone. Still, he admits, it’s not much use being the last one. And somebody does miss him.
Barry gets the idea to sell Walter the station; he can live in the house and keep the station part going. Walter, at first, thinks that Barry just means not knocking down the building, but Barry means going through the charade of serving the imaginary customers every day. He shows Walter the program, starts it going and goes through the thing again, showing him how it works. Walter is baffled at first, but then joins in; they agree to the deal, and the play ends with Barry leaving to join Mary in the City and Walter printing off the newspaper for the imaginary customer.
So, that’s the outline. I think it’s a terrific play, or could be if it were well-written. I’m not actually writing it, largely because (a) Walter is so far a total failure as a character, and (2) as the thing would be very expensive to stage, I wouldn’t be able to see it. And, I suppose, in the year and a half that I’ve been musing on the idea, it has already gone a bit past its sell-by date; even if were to write it instantaneously and, oh, send it into one of those competitions, and it won the competition and its prize of a full production, by the time it was produced the moment would likely have passed. The disappearance of those places and that lifestyle is still speculative fiction at this time; in another year or two it will not be an interesting speculation, one way or the other. You know?
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,