Chicago-born David Ives attended college at Northwestern University and then studied at the Yale School of Drama. He began his playwriting career in the early 1970’s, and has produced a varied body of work, including screen plays, full-length dramas, and short comic sketches. Many of the latter have been produced at Manhattan Punch Line Theater, Lincoln Center, the Williamstown Theater Festival, and Ensemble Studio Theater. More about David Ives here.
Because All in the Timing is a collection of six short plays, there is no single setting for the action. Four of the six plays, however, do share a common milieu: contemporary New York City as experienced by mostly young and generally insecure people struggling to survive in the urban environment.
Even the two exceptions exhibit many of these features. In “Words, Words, Words,” for example, the characters are young and insecure New Yorkers, but they happen to be monkeys living in a psychology lab at Columbia University. And in “Variations on the Death of Trotsky,” the famous revolutionary who was assassinated in 1940 becomes extremely insecure when he reads of his murder in a 1995 encyclopedia that mysteriously manages to visit him from the future on the day of his death.
The setting of each play, then, is a small corner of a larger world marked by a consistent set of characters and experiences. Perhaps the most prominent feature of this world is the odd way language behaves.
The first short play, “Sure Thing,” takes place in a New York cafe where Bill tries to pick up Betty. Inexplicably, each time Bill puts his foot in his mouth a bell rings, and the conversation backs up to the moment where his misstep began. Some nameless force is giving Bill endless second chances. The second play takes place in the Columbia psychology lab. There three monkeys with three typewriters are testing a proverbial assertion about the randomness of the universe: will they accidentally produce Hamlet? These monkeys, however, are burdened with human consciousness and are driven to despair at the hopelessness of their task -- which is made all the more difficult by the fact that none of them has ever heard of Shakespeare.
“The Universal Language,” the third of the six plays, takes place in a seedy office temporarily set up as a classroom. There Don, a con-man, is trying to sell the world lessons in Unamunda, his so-called Universal Language. The only buyer is Dawn, a shy girl with a stutter.
“Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread” unfolds in a bakery as imagined by an avant-garde artist. There Philip Glass, the famous modernist composer, attempts to buy some bread, but is seriously delayed when he encounters a world that operates with the glacial pace and repetitive rhythms of his own music.
“The Philadelphia,” notwithstanding its title, is set in a restaurant in New York where Mark discovers that he has fallen into a metaphysical black hole named after the City of Brotherly Love. Inhabitants of a Philadelphia encounter a deeply disturbing pattern in the world: the most readily-available objects of desire -- a cup of coffee at a diner, for example -- will be unavailable to them. Only by asking for the opposite of their wishes will they get what they really want.
And finally, “Variations on the Death of Trotsky” takes us out of New York to the old radical's study in Mexico, where, as we have seen, New York style absurdities pursue him.
PLOT AND THEMES.
As we saw above, ”Sure Thing” explores the comic possibilities of a world in which the ringing of a bell allows the characters to take back any words that obstruct their intentions. For example, in attempting to pick up Betty, Bill tries to impress her with his democratic belief that each of us is an individual, not to be judged by irrelevant social criteria: "I mean what does it matter if I had a two-point at - (Bell) -- three-point at -- (Bell) -- four-point at college? Or if I did come from Pittsburgh -- (Bell) -- Cleveland -- (Bell) -- Westchester County?" Each time the bell rings, Bill amends his biography, raising his college grades and selecting more prestigious hometowns, until he arrives at the self-portrait that will most favorably impress Betty.
Ives has said that this play was inspired by his own experience of having "stairway thoughts," which he defines as "what you think of on the stairs going down and realize you should have said."
But “Sure Thing” explores a phenomenon that goes far beyond this common experience. Having the opportunity to change what you said--to take back an insult, or to substitute a brilliant quip for a dull remark--would appear to be vastly different from being able to revise your life to suit the needs of the moment. And it is the power to transform his identity, to invent a different life for himself, that Bill apparently achieves with each ringing of the bell.
But what if Bill were merely telling a different lie each time he is reprieved? Ives leaves this possibility wide open, and in doing so he presents us with a startling image of the power of language. Each lie, each change of words, actually allows Bill to create the succeeding moment that brings him closest to the desired pick-up. In effect words create, and re-create, his future as he goes along. Thus, language itself takes on the power to determine the lives of Bill and Betty.
In its focus on the mysterious relationships between language and experience, the plot of “Sure Thing” is representative of the other five plays in All in the Timing.
In “Words, Words, Words” the typing monkeys -- named Swift, Milton, and Kafka -- are utterly baffled by their task. As Swift says ”But what'll happen if one of us does write Hamlet? Here we are, set down to prove the inadvertent virtues of randomness, and to produce something that we wouldn't even recognize if it passed right through our hands. . . ."
Nonetheless, they type away, accidentally producing bits and snatches of famous literary works, including the opening lines of Paradise Lost. Gradually, more and more lines from Hamlet begin to enter into their conversation, until finally Kafka sits down and types, “‘Act one, scene one. Elsinore Castle, Denmark. . .’” Shakespeare's play begins emerging from the monkey's fingers.
This raises in comic form a question that is taken seriously in contemporary literary theory: do works of literature have authors who intentionally shape language to express their own ideas and emotions, or does language somehow compose itself, using the "author" as its unwitting vehicle? In other words, is everyone who seems to be using language really being used by it, like the Columbia monkeys?
At first sight this theory might seem ridiculous, but when we consider the formulaic nature of much speech and writing, it begins to make more sense. When we thoughtlessly say, "Hi, how are you? Hot enough for you?," are we really the authors of those remarks, or are we merely allowing clichés to speak themselves through us?
While this theory about the independence of language from the individual intention of the author might adequately characterize speech or writing at the level of cliché, it seems less convincing as a description of language which actually breaks away from the commonplace -- such as the plays of Shakespeare, or the utterances of any speaker or poet who has a distinctive voice. Nonetheless, there are many contemporary theorists who assert that great literature actually does occur without an author. Perhaps this play is Ives's comment on such views.
If language can alter our sense of time, it can also transform our sense of self as Ives shows us in “The Universal Language.” When Dawn enters con-man Don's classroom to learn Unamunda, she is a shy, self-doubting young woman. "It's always been hard for me to talk to people," she says. "In fact most of my life has been a very l-l-long . . . (Pause) . . . pause."
But underneath her shy and speechless exterior there hides a beautiful soul longing to express itself. "I mean a tuning fork is silent until you touch it. But then it gives off a perfect 'A,'" she says, describing herself in this metaphor of potentiality. However, the perfect A of her soul can't sound out until she overcomes her stutter. By learning Unamunda she feels she will find a fresh vehicle of self-expression, one in which she will make a new start, unburdened by the handicaps that beset her in English.
She also embraces the ideal of Unamunda as the Universal Language: "I don't think language is just music. I believe that language is the opposite of loneliness. And if everybody in the world spoke the same language, who would ever be lonely?"
Dawn throws herself into the study of this strange new tongue, and by the end of the first lesson seems to have mastered it. Even more significantly, she has freed herself from the stutter that was keeping her soul mute.
Unfortunately, as a conscience-stricken Don confesses, Unamunda is a fraud, "a parla trick" as he calls it, which has managed to deceive only Dawn. But despite this discovery, she is undaunted in her enthusiasm for Unamunda. The process of learning to speak a new language, even a phony one, has been liberating, bringing about her spiritual rebirth: "This isn't just any language. This isn't just a room! This is the Garden of Eden. And you and I are finding names for a whole new world." Through language, Dawn discovers not just a new self but a new world, one which she has the power to name and control.
The drama of language takes a different turn in “Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread.” The title describes virtually everything that happens during the course of this play: a trivial event which, were it to be performed at a conventional pace, would last for only a few seconds. Yet the play is many times longer than that because the phrases and sentences in which the action is carried out are repeated over and over again -- like the notes and measures in Glass's music.
In this play, language is not treated instrumentally, as a tool for accomplishing clear purposes such as asking for a loaf of bread or requesting change for a dollar. Instead, the words and phrases seem to be ends in themselves, spoken for their own sakes in innumerable variations, at different tempos, and in different tones of voice.
What happens on stage when language becomes non-instrumental? For one thing, there is a disruption of the ordinary development of dramatic time, which we usually experience as forward progress through a rapid succession of events. Instead, the repetitions and variations of this play prolong a single moment. Here again Ives demonstrates the power of words to shape our experience. Language can propel us along the track of linear advancement, or it can hold us in an extended encounter with the unmoving present. And In Ives's hands, as this play shows, it can also create a hilariously funny parody of avant-garde art.
“The Philadelphia,” as we saw above, takes us to a world in which people fall into "metaphysical black holes" named after unfashionable American cities. Mark is in just such a problem zone, a place where, as his experienced friend Al explains, ”no matter what you ask for, you can't get it. You ask for something, they're not gonna have it. You want to do something, it ain't gonna get done. You want to go somewhere, you can't get there from here.” The unavailable options include newspapers at newsstands, pastrami at delicatessens, and cab rides from cabbies. The only way to cope with this condition, Al informs his friend, is by asking for the opposite of what one wants. Thus, when Mark decides to get the waitress to take his order, he doesn't call her to the table. Instead, he declares loudly and obscenely that she is absolutely not needed. Naturally, she comes at once. Getting her to bring the well-done hamburger, fries, and Bud he wants involves a complicated set of false requests.
Waitress: Anything to eat?
So adept does Mark become at this topsy-turvy use of words that he manages to strike up a highly promising relationship with the waitress, the kind of social success that consistently eluded him when he was using language straightforwardly.
Besides the “Philadelphia”, other metaphysical warps in this universe include the “Los Angeles,” where life seems beautiful in spite of all evidence to the contrary, and the “Cleveland,” which is "like death without the advantages."
As in “Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread,” this play also explores what happens when the instrumental function of language is disrupted. In a “Philadelphia,” words turn on their user and produce the opposite of their intended purposes. Imagine what it would be like, Ives suggests, if we could survive only by saying the opposite of what we mean. As Mark notes, "I could've saved myself a lot of trouble if I'd screwed up on purpose all those years. Maybe I was in a Philadelphia all along and never knew it!" Ultimately, as the play shows, we are such adept users of language that we can adjust our words to any situation.
Finally, “Variations on the Death of Trotsky” explores with both comedy and pathos the paradox of foreknowledge that arrives a day too late.
Leon Trotsky was one of the leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Despite his enormous contributions to the establishment of the Soviet Union, he was declared an enemy of the state after Stalin took power. He spent much of his life thereafter in exile, pursued by agents of Stalin, until, in 1940 he was assassinated in his house in a suburb of Mexico City.
In this play we see eight versions of his death. In each, Trotsky learns from an encyclopedia published in 1995 (or whatever happens to be the date of the performance) that a gardener named Ramon Mercader smashed a mountain-climber's axe into his skull on August 20, 1940. Unfortunately, he doesn't acquire this information until it is too late to be useful: August 21, the day on which he actually dies from his wound, and the day on which each variation occurs.
In the first two or three variations, Trotsky seems in perfectly good health, going about his revolutionary activities as if nothing unusual had happened to him. The only sign of trouble is an axe buried in his head; but it is not until his wife reads him the fatal encyclopedia entry that he notices the axe and dies.
As the variations pile up, Trotsky begins trying -- pointlessly -- to elude the fate prescribed for him in the encyclopedia. Finally, he seems to accept the inevitably of the events described in the book, and in the last moments of the last variation he reflects: “Sometime, for everyone, there's a room that you go into, and it's the room that you never leave. Or else you go out of a room and it's the last room that you'll ever leave. (He looks around.) This is my last room.”
As the variations begin, it seems as if death can reach Trotsky only through the vehicle of words. Thus, even though the axe is buried in his head, he remains busily alive until the words of the encyclopedia tell him that he dies. No encyclopedia entry, no historic death.
Then, as he begins trying to elude the destiny embodied in the book, we begin to wonder what would have happened had the encyclopedia been read to him a day earlier. Presumably he would have taken steps to prevent his death. But if he hadn't died, there would have been no encyclopedia entry describing his assassination, so he would not have been able to read the warning that enabled him to avoid it. No historic death, no encyclopedia entry.
Which conclusion is true? Does language create history, or vice versa? Ives's mind-boggling variations leave the question unanswered.
Because these plays are so short, and so sharply focused on the rapid realization of a single dramatic idea, they leave little room for the detailed development of character. Aristotle tells us that plot is the soul of drama, with character as a secondary element, interesting only insofar as the choices through which characters reveal themselves also contribute to the development of the action.
Each of these brief plays illustrates that idea, giving us a clear, vivid, and simple sense of one or two people based firmly on their functions in the plot. Thus, the revisions Bill makes each time the bell rings in “Sure Thing” reveal something about him, while also moving the plot in the direction of the pick-up. What we learn about Bill from what he chooses to tell Betty is that he has a fairly sophisticated sense of what will impress a well-educated young woman from an upper-middle class background who is looking for a matching mate.
Other characters who stand out are Dawn, whose search for self-fulfillment propels the plot in “The Universal Language;” Mark, who masters the inside-out use of words in “The Philadelphia;” and Trotsky, the revolutionary who becomes sadly reconciled to destiny -- which he initially rejects as "the capitalist explanation for the status quo."
"Seeing all of these plays together surprised me," Ives told an interviewer. “The one thing I learned was how weirdly optimistic they are. Something that audiences must find so appealing about them is that people overcome the most insuperable difficulties in these plays: Trying to write Hamlet when you don't know what Hamlet is . . . or living with a mountain-climber's axe in you head for 36 hours.” Overcoming difficulties is, in a sense, the definition of what all characters do—or try to do—in all plays. Ives's characters are unique in that the bizarre difficulties they face are consistently produced by the mysterious powers of language.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.
1. Which of these plays seems to portray a situation that could really happen? Why do you think so?
2. Which seems to portray a situation least likely to happen in the real world? Why do you think so?
3. Can you think of experiences in your own life that are similar to what Bill and Betty go through in Sure Thing?
4. Do you think it is possible that some number of monkeys typing randomly could accidentally produce Shakespeare's Hamlet? Why?
5. Do you understand why Dawn wants to learn a new language? Are there other ways to achieve the freedom she is seeking besides language?
6. Have you ever repeated a familiar word to yourself over and over, so that it begins to seem strange or meaningless? Or have you ever stared at your face in a mirror so long that you begin to look unfamiliar to yourself? Does something similar occur in Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread. How and why?
7. Why does Ives name the predicament in which Mark finds himself "a Philadelphia?" What does Philadelphia have to do with it?
8. Have you ever had to say something you didn't mean to get what you wanted? Describe and discuss.
9. Trotsky believed that revolutionary action could change the course of history. Yet he finds he can do nothing to change what the encyclopedia tells him history will be. Discuss this paradox.
10. Do you think language has as much power over life as Ives suggests in some of these plays?