You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.

The Tapes as Theater

With only a ravaged script of the original performance at our disposal, it is. premature to offer any sound literary assessment of the new find immensely popular drama of Watergate, Tapes. It is safe to say, however, that the work, treating a theme of political intrigue in modified Elizabethan fashion, and brilliantly improvised by an all-male cast, is extraordinary in scope, power and originality. We can only hope that when the "inaudible" and "unintelligible" passages are restored by electronic equipment, the full beauty and coherence of the play—its quidditas or "what- ness," as Joyce would say—will be revealed.

Drawing on a variety of rich sources, the drama is admittedly eclectic. Pirandello, naturally, comes first to mind. But Tapes goes daringly beyond Pirandello’s innovations. Here are no mere six characters in domestic anguish seeking an author, but nearly a dozen powerful figures together creating a "scenario" in which each will play himself. Indeed each is simultaneously author and actor; each struggles with the painful knowledge that his script and performance will be limited by those of his fellow actors. We have, thus, a rare opportunity to observe the creative act in progress; the play within a play, so crucial in Hamlet, is no less effective in Tapes.

"I would like a scenario with regard to the presidential role," the character called the President, or P., states early on. Another, Dean, is no less assertive about his role: "I am a conduit." P. is concerned with staging: 

P: Now we got a plan

On how we stage this damn thing
in the first

Stages. Ron’s got it all worked out.

And W., a minor character, advises, somewhat belatedly, "This thing, Mr. President, in my judgment has to be played in steps."

The audience is spared none of the indecision so often endemic to the early phases of artistic conception. It seems that the team once projected the play within a play as a musical comedy. "P: And, he’s [Dean’s] going to give me some song and dance." Later P. says, "Let me ask you this, fellas, you want me on the television?" Questions of genre abound: "P; What is his [Wil- son’s] reaction to the whole damned thing? Comic tragedy of errors? H: He didn’t characterize it." Uncertainty even over the cast of characters is expressed:

P: I’m going to see him in the E.O.B.
He said he had been up most of the

With Titus. Who is Titus?
E: U. S.
In the District.

P: And what’s the other fellow’s
E: Silbert.
P: No, not Silbert.
E: Glanzer.
P: Petersen.

Mutual esthetic judgments are readily voiced. "£: He [Dean] brought in a lot of silly garbage." But Dean claims:

I don’t think

I have lost my objectivity
At all in this. Do you know why?

Ideas are developed cooperatively in antiphonal manner, reminiscent of operatic recitativo:

P: Yeah. He says (unintelligible) take
care of your kids.
E: And I think Chuck’s natural
proclivities will
P: Do everything

E: Do anything we can possibly do.

An economy of style is apparent, often
in stark words of one syllable:

P: Magruder just caved, but it had
to come.
It had to come. Bob. It was going to
H: Yes, I think so. I think it had to and

And over the entire scenario looms the enigmatic figure of one Sirica who, like Godot, never appears but against whose judgment all acts are measured. Even the powerful P. shows awe and despair at the prospect of confronting Sirica:

 Now Sirica’s
Got to see the point of this. My
Because the point is Sirica’s got
To realize he’s getting bigger fish.

Imagery, as always, is the vital key to the panic that, just as in Pinter’s works, shivers below the drab surface of the action. The images of suppression have been widely noted—"putting your fingers in the leaks," "button it up as well as you can"—but one audacious reference has been overlooked. A protagonist’s warning, "we have to keep the cap on the bottle," is an echo from the "Story of the Fisherman", in the Arabian Nights. When the fisherman pried open the cap of the yellow jug that came up in his net

such thick smoke came out that he had to step back a pace or two When all the smoke was out of the jar it gathered itself together, and be- came a thick mass ... a terrible-looking monster.

Images of food recall Shakespeare and the gourmand Elizabethans: Dean is the "hors d’oeuvre," Mitchell "the big enchilada," H. and E. "the big fish." H. comments, "We’re in the soup," and E. refers to one character’s coming up "with egg on his face." If P. fired every- one tainted by ugly Rumor, "the place would look like a piece of Swiss cheese." The "big enchilada," in a dubious metaphorical ragout, will be "thrown to the wolves," with far less ceremony than Brutus served up Caesar: "Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods."

P. is far more concerned about his close colleagues, H. and E.: "the problem of you and John sort of being nibbled to death over a period of time," and he often expresses his gratitude to these noble men without whose aid the scenario would lose its savor. One thinks of Claudius and Gertrude:

Thanks, Haldeman and gentle
Thanks, Ehrlichman and gentle

But beyond bottles, "cans of worms" and food, the metaphor of water predominates, taking on Jungian breadth and drawing upon the unconscious shared heritage of the race. There are "undercurrents"; presidential aides will "get splashed with this"; "E: We are at kind of an ebb tide right now," but, P . observes, "Yeah, they’ll get a
full tide when they get to the Grand
Jury." Nevertheless t h e original bug
was "a dry hole," recalling Eliot’s,
"Here is no water but only rock. . . . If
there were the sound of water only.’"’ At
last with a relief of tension corhparable
to Kurtz’s "The horror! The horror!"
P. brings out in all their claritas the fatal
words: "Yelling. Watergate. Watergate.
 Tell us about Watergate." Later in a calmer mood P. restores the ironic tone of the play in’ a stunning deflation of this tempest in a teapot: "What was Watergate? A little bugging!"

A minor point that need only be mentioned in passing is the enhancement of the modem idiom by new and evocative verbs. A drama that extends the imaginative horizon, as Tapes does, is hardly required t o d o linguistic pioneering as well, but one must applaud the happy concurrence of thematic and technical novelty. "Deep six" and "stonewall" are verbs for which we had no previous equivalent./’It’ll knock true," P. observes. And, "Now Ron, brainstorm that for us — " An illustra- tion of "brainstorming" follows: "Z: First of all, the way to do this, and I think we should do this, but the way to do this—the feeling that something is happening in town and you (inaudible)."

In last summer’s justly hailed courtroom drama o n the Watergate theme. Sen. Sam Ervin, t h e principal actor, brought about illumination and catharsis by apt quotes from the Bible and folk legend, thus yoking the tale into the humanist tradition. This season’s play, this "comic tragedy of errors," does the same, though to a lesser degree and, one might add, in a far less morally pretentious idiom.

E. I thought you were going to go with the Biblical conclusion that the guy who serves two masters but a-P . Yeah. E. He will hate one and love the other, but a (laughter). P. Yeah, (unintelligible) turn around and (unintelligible).

Allusion is made as well to the legend of Sherman Adams, with its Old Testa- ment overtones. "P:. . . The poor guy— he sort of got—W; And he served him well. P; For seven years and that damned vicuna coat. Unfortunate thing."

All groundbreaking works receive their share o f scorn from literary hatchet-men, and Tapes is no exception. The point especially chosen for vicious criticism in this case is an alleged lack of moral sense, a grossness of judgment by the actors in the meticulous preparation of their scenario. This line of reasoning ignores the very subtlety of the Pirandellian structure. The conscientious reader will surely discover those places where an unchallengeable morality erupts from the teasing ambiguities.

P: So believe me, don’t ever lie.
D: The truth always emerges. It always
P: Whether it is right and whether it is 
Wrong. Perhaps there are some gray
But you are right to get it out now.

Moreover, P.’s loyalty to his aides, almost to the point of self-sacrifice, is stressed:

S [trickler]: But they are wonderful
P: They are. They’re great, fine Americans. And
They tell the truth, too.
W: Yes.
P: I
Can tell you one thing about your
They’ll tell you the truth. They don’t
W: Yes.

Tapes is a drama, then, rich in innu
endo, fully partaking in those qualities which, after Henry James, Joyce, Eliot and Beckett, we have come to recognize a s distinctively modem. The Jamesian legacy, in particular, is one which the production cadre of Tapes has studied well. Witness the pregnant dialogue:

P: A motive was
Involved there huh?
K: About the money?
P: Yeah.
K: You know
P: If the money was raised
K: If you plead guilty and he’s guilty
No crime committed.
P: What’s that?
K: That’s—I
Don’t know.

Occasionally the mask of subtlety slips and a more poignant note is heard, hinting at the angst of the creative act: "P: I —I’m so sick of this thing —I want to get it done with and over, and I don’t want to near about it again." 

For all their sometimes frivolous obscurity, however, their playful use of cliche, their bold deleted expletives, the authorial team of Tapes is keenly aware of political reality. Like Orwell before them, they have grasped t h e salient tone o f political discourse, a "mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence. . . . In our time," Orwell goes on, "political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible."

Yet just as Tapes outdid Pirandello in structural ingenuity, it surpasses Or- well in moral vision. A new mode of personal relationships is depicted, in which the dominant motif is intentional deceit—self-concealment rather than self-revelation. The discovery of identity, for both the characters and the reader, is frustrated at every tum, until finally the protagonists are distinguish- able only by their modes of lying. This is a development all serious future dramatists will have to grapple with.

In the end Tapes evolves into a drama not of "people whose zeal exceeded their judgment," but whose corruption exceeded their awareness. Eliot’s prophetic lines come to mind: "We are the hollow men/ We are the stuffed men/ Leaning together/Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!... Paralyzed force, gesture without motion." The multiple ironies of this uncommon work are best expressed in P.’s own words, uttered as he slyly forecasts public reaction: " ’Ho, ho, ho, here is something pretty bad.’"

This article appeared in the June 1, 1974 issue of the magazine.