Richard Greenberg was born in 1958 in East Meadow, New York--a Long Island suburb of New York City. Although, according to John Istel, Greenberg writes almost exclusively about “what it is to be young, semi-gifted, white, and wealthy,” his home-town displays none of those characteristics, except whiteness. Instead, East Meadow is a byword for suburban banality, its inhabitants not notably gifted, and certainly not conspicuously wealthy. Greenberg, therefore, is writing about a world quite different from the one in which he grew up, a world he probably first encountered during his college years.
Greenberg graduated from Princeton University with a B.A. in English in 1980. He then spent a year studying at Harvard, followed by three years at Yale, where he earned an M.F.A. in drama. It was undoubtedly at these elite institutions, and not in East Meadow, that Greenberg encountered the kinds of characters he examines in his plays.
This point is relevant because it helps to explain Greenberg’s perspective on the dramatic worlds he creates. His characters, for example, exhibit a fabulous virtuosity with language that marks them off as almost a different species from the rest of us. According to Istel they “are articulate to a fault,” and the dramatist displays a “fixation with the power of language . . . and literacy,” “an obsession with wielding knowledge and wit as a way to power.” In other words, Greenberg’s people push to their outer limits the kinds of skills often on display in the elite university environment. Rare human specimens who live emotionally complex lives while swimming in a river of brilliant speech, they are exotics whom Greenberg, the boy from East Meadow, portrays with the fascination of an anthropologist examining a newfound culture.
From this position Greenberg looks with dramatic irony on his characters, a perspective that is particularly apparent in Three Days of Rain. According to the New Oxford Dictionary, dramatic irony is a technique “by which the full significance of a character’s words or actions are clear to the audience . . . although unknown to the character.” The observer sees the disparity between what a character believes and what really is, and in that contradiction lies the ironic effect. “In Theater” magazine calls Three Days of Rain “a kind of textbook work on irony. . . .Almost all of the characters’ assumptions in the first act turn out to be wrong when we go back 35 years to look at the lives of their parents in the second act.” Dramatic irony allows the spectator—and of course the playwright—to know more, and therefore understand more, than the characters. We see the errors in their judgments and the foolishness of their choices while they do not. Dramatic irony places the author and spectator in the position of knowing parents who watch their children making predictable mistakes, or even of the gods themselves who look down in pity on deluded humanity—a position of superiority.
First produced in 1997, this play is a reworking of a much earlier effort dating from Greenberg’s days at Yale Drama School. Between the first version of Three Days of Rain in the mid 80s and its first professional staging, Greenberg saw some dozen of his dramatic works produced in New York. The best known of these is Eastern Standard, which appeared in 1988.
Richard Greenberg won the Oppenheimer award in 1985 and the Dramalogue award in 1991.
The two acts of Three Days of Rain take place 35 years apart in the same New York City apartment. Act One is set in 1995, while Act Two moves back in time to 1960. During the first act the setting is described as “a somewhat dilapidated, spartanly furnished apartment located on a winding street in downtown Manhattan.” In the second act, 35 years earlier, the playwright tells us that the scene is “enhanced, filled with color now, and . . . furniture.”
Thus Greenberg makes expressive use of his setting. Were we to see only the appearance of the stage in the first and second acts, we would know that the play is about a movement from a dreary and uncomfortable world to one of cheer and amenity, perhaps symbolically from desolation to hope. To learn that the first act is later in time than the second would suggest that the play charts this movement in reverse order, showing how the unhappiness of the present is rooted in a happy and promising past. Here again dramatic irony is evident. For bright expectations to produce lackluster results is surely a contradiction between what characters expect and what reality provides.
The location of the apartment on a “winding street in downtown Manhattan” is also significant. It tells us that the characters are denizens of the bohemian worlds of Greenwich Village and its environs. To live “downtown” is to reject the commercial and bourgeois values of midtown and the Upper East Side. “Downtown” in 1960 would have been the territory of poets, artists, actors, and bongo-drumming beatniks, members of the “counterculture” of the day. This serves to remind us that the inhabitants of that apartment, Ned Janeway and Theo Wexler, later rich and famous architects, began their careers, not with commercial goals in mind, but as self-conscious artists. Again irony comes into play. Ned’s son, Walker, is convinced that his father was a man of mediocre talent, lacking imagination or passion; whereas, in fact, the apartment and the neighborhood he chose to live in contradict that judgment.
As indicated above, the plot of Three Days of Rain involves a contrapuntal journey through time: within each act events move forward chronologically, while the acts themselves are in reverse temporal order, the first occurring in 1995, and the second in 1960.
Each act includes three characters, two men and a woman. In Act One, we see Walker Janeway, his sister, Nan, and Pip Wexler. Pip is the son of Theo Wexler who was the business partner of Ned Janeway, father of Walker and Nan. Together, Theo and Ned founded one of New York’s most successful architecture firms before Theo’s early death in 1966. Walker and Nan have been close friends with Pip since childhood.
In the second act, we see the previous generation: Ned, his wife-to-be Lina, and Theo—played by the same actors who took the roles of their children in the first half of the play.
As Act One begins, Walker introduces himself directly to the audience as the “son of Edmund Janeway, whose slightly premature death caused such a stir last year, I’m told.” That final clause reveals a depth of alienation between father and son that Walker and the other characters will explore throughout the act. Walker, it turns out, disappeared on the day of his father’s funeral, dropping out of sight for a year. Despite desperate attempts to find him by his sister Nan, he has remained invisible until this day, the day on which his father’s will is to be read, the day “we receive our legacy.”
And that legacy will be considerable. As Walker informs us, his father’s firm “designed all—yes, all—of the most famous buildings of the last thirty years.” Chief among these is “Janeway House. . . . Now deemed, by those who matter, to be one of the great private residences of the last half-century.” This house, designed for Ned Janeway’s parents, has remained in the family, and thus will be one of the items disposed of in the will.
So there is a great deal at stake for Ned’s children: not just the enormous amount of money their father earned during his lifetime, but also, in Janeway House, the supreme achievement of their father’s firm, one of the most admired works of modern architecture, and the identifying icon of the family itself.
Walker delivers this information to the audience from the apartment his father shared with his partner, Theo Wexler, at the very beginning of their careers in 1960. After his year of hiding in Italy, Walker has come to this place in search of insight into his father’s life—an understanding he never achieved while his father was still living. Ned Janeway, it seems, was a man of disturbing silence, a mystery to his son, who eventually came to despise his father. When Walker describes how his grandparents invested all their money in the building of Janeway House as an act of affection toward their son, he adds scathingly, “Apparently, there was something there for a parent to love. Hard to imagine how they could tell, though, since he seldom actually spoke.”
Walker wants finally to penetrate this wall of silence, to understand the void that yawned between him and his father. This long-abandoned apartment is the starting point of his search. Here he waits for his sister, Nan, who is to rendezvous with him before going to the lawyer’s office for the reading of the will. Nan has no idea that this was her father’s apartment in his youth. When Walker tells her, she is astonished. When he goes on to say that there is only a single mattress and wonders whether his father and Theo were sexual partners as well, Nan is struck by the absurdity of the thought: “Not everyone is as sexually fluent as you, Walker.” Thus, we assume that Walker is gay, perhaps bisexual.
Having raised questions about his father’s sexual inclinations, Walker goes on to tell Nan the history of the apartment and his reasons for wanting to meet with her there. For thirty-five years, Walker explains, their father has held on to this place, eventually buying the building. This fact mystifies Walker who tells Nan he, “couldn’t imagine why he’d kept it. I paced the floor for two days, screaming at the walls: ‘Speak! Speak!’” But eventually Walker begins to piece together an explanation.
First he realizes that this apartment must be where Janeway House was actually designed, a fact that gives the place, shabby though it is, a sacred aura. Next he reveals that he has found their father’s journal under the mattress in the apartment’s only bed. “I think that’s why he kept this place,” he concludes, “it’s The House of the Journal.” He declares that they will read this document—which he has already been poring over—together, on this day: “We’re going to read this and then we’re going to the lawyer’s and receive what’s been left us. . . . This is the day, Nan.”
On this portentous note, he begins to reveal the journal’s strange contents. What is most striking for Walker is not what his father wrote in these pages, but what he left out. The entries are, to Walker’s mind, shockingly laconic. Concerning the evening when his mother--who went mad some time after her marriage--ran out of their apartment building through a plate-glass window in the lobby, his father writes: “May 12, 1972: A terrible night.” About the untimely illness and death of his partner, Theo, Ned writes: “January 3—Theo is dying. January 5—Theo is dying. January 18—Theo dead.”
For Walker, these meager notations are irrefutable evidence of his father’s emptiness of spirit. And given such emptiness, he concludes, he bears no responsibility for the failure of their relationship. Rather it is silent Ned who is solely to blame. “You know,” says the ever- loquacious Walker, “the thing is with people who never talk, the thing is you always suppose they’re harboring some enormous secret. But, just possibly, the secret is, they have absolutely nothing to say.” The clincher for this reading of his father’s personality, thinks Walker, is to be found in the journal’s very first entry: “1960, April 3rd to April 5th—Three days of rain.” How, he wonders, could an ambitious young man “bursting with feeling, ” a young man who needs a special book in which to express his “most secret . . . deepest and illicit passions,” begin this process of self-revelation with something as trivial as “A weather report. A f***ing weather report.” Case against Dad: closed.
Having lodged this indictment against his father, Walker next tells Nan that he wants sole possession of Janeway House. Nan is surprised, given the gulf between her brother and father. “You hated him,” she says. “Why do you want his house?” The answer, Walker tells her, is because “I don’t live anywhere. . . . And the house is very beautiful. I think it could only have been designed by someone who was happy. . . . I want to be sane. I want a place that belongs to me.” In other words, though he “hated” his father, he feels he can maintain his grasp on life only through the healing power of the dead man’s genius. Thus he will be both alienated from his father and deeply beholden to him.
Nan agrees to Walker’s request on one condition: that he put Ned’s journal away and “never take it out again.” Unlike Walker who has relished the evidence of his father’s emotional poverty, Nan is embarrassed by the violation of Ned’s privacy. Walker seems to agree to her demand, though when Nan steps out of the room, he immediately seizes the book and puts it in his pocket. With this broken promise, Walker joins his sister for their trip to the lawyer’s office.
There is now a transition in the action as Pip enters and, like Walker at the start of the play, introduces himself directly to the audience. Pip, as we have seen, is the son of Ned Janeway’s late partner, Theo Wexler. Like Walker, he identifies himself through his connections to his father. He, too, is the son of a famous architect, but unlike Walker, he has virtually no memories of his father who died when he was three. Which means that he also harbors none of the bitterness that characterizes Walker’s relationship with Ned.
Instead of memories, Pip has stories about his father told to him by his mother, Maureen O’Malley--most notably the story of his parents’ meeting on a rainy day in Washington Square Park. As his mother sat on a park bench sunk in dejection about the failure of her career thus far in Manhattan, Theo Wexler appeared out of the rain, in tears, even more desperately unhappy than she. “Despair,” she tells her son, “can be attractive in a young person. Despair in a young person can be seductive.” When Pip asks his mother why his father was crying that day in the park, she answers simply that she “never knew.” Instead of talking to him about his unhappiness, the two went off together to breakfast, “and the worst day of her life had become the best day of her life.”
Pip’s vicarious memories of his father, then, are enveloped in a romantic and nostalgic haze. This warmth of feeling has helped to make Pip a different person from the embittered Walker. Instead of running away from the crises of life, Pip faces the world with self-confidence, balance, and a generally optimistic temperament. He is currently working as an actor in a t.v. soap-opera playing, in Walker’s mocking words, “someone named Butte who never wears a shirt.” Pip is mildly embarrassed by this, but on balance, thanks to his genial outlook on life, he is happy to accept the money and fame his job provides, even though it does not involve serious artistic work.
Following Pip’s self-introduction, the action resumes, time having jumped forward to the aftermath of the reading of the will. To everyone’s astonishment, Ned has left Janeway House not to his children, but to Pip. This creates a huge crisis among the three friends. At the lawyer’s, we learn, Walker created an ugly scene when his father’s bequest was revealed. Says Pip, he feels like the victim of a “Shakespearean tirade,” having been accused of insinuating himself into the aging Ned’s affections so as to cheat his children of their due.
Walker eventually apologizes for these charges, but feelings remain strained between him and Pip. This worsens when Pip tries to explain the nature of his relationship with the elderly Ned: “I’d just drop by occasionally in the afternoons. . . . It wasn’t any big deal. . . . I was just somebody he found it easy to talk to. (Sudden frigid silence.)” In that silence lurks the unspoken resentment of Walker against Pip for having been able to communicate with his father infinitely more effectively than he ever could. Walker no doubt hates hearing Pip drop this offhand observation because it undermines his conviction that Ned was silent because he was empty. Perhaps Ned was silent with Walker because Walker was absorbed with himself and failed to listen.
Shaken by this new perspective on his father, and by what it implies about his shortcomings as a son, Walker ratchets up the tension with Pip. Long-standing resentments between the two friends pour out. When Pip announces that he doesn’t want Janeway House, or even like it, Walker attacks his taste, his judgment, and his intellect with venomous sarcasm: “I never before realized you were a cultural critic of such extreme scope. . . . It’s such a privilege to hear what a TV actor who plays a character named after a geological formation has to say about the really important events in world culture.” Here Walker returns to one of the constant themes in his feelings about Pip: that he is an intellectual lightweight, too well-adjusted to life to realize its deeper problems, too shallow in his tastes and judgments, too stupidly happy.
This in turn provokes Pip to defend himself and to retaliate against Walker. “Why do you get to be the one who judges things when you’re having the stupidest life of anybody?” He cites the condition of the apartment Walker fled from a year earlier at the time of Ned’s death as evidence of Walker’s deranged existence: “I mean, really: interior decoration by Jeffrey Dahmer. . . . It was horrible, it was crazy, I thought it was your mom all over again.” How, he demands to know, can a person with such a disordered personal life criticize his tastes or achievements? Why has Walker always denigrated Pip, despite the fact that Pip was academically successful, while Walker stumbled through his school years? Why has he always had to “bear the brunt of [Walker’s] meanness?”
The answer, concludes Pip, is that Walker has “always been . . . in love” with him. This unacknowledged fact has “f***ed up everything for such a long time. . . . the stupid gothic secrets—the tiptoeing around. . . . I mean, like all that time when Nan and I were sleeping together and in love . . . and we couldn’t tell you because we were so afraid of how jealous you’d be. . . .”
Embarrassed by Pip’s speculation about his unrequited love, and shocked by learning about Pip’s affair with his sister, Walker storms out of the apartment, leading to the second transition of the act. When he returns several hours later, Pip is gone, and Nan is still in the apartment waiting for her brother. Walker is oddly elated after his long odyssey through the streets of the city. He tells his sister that he took his father’s journal with him, and that in the course of reading through it yet again, he discovered an entry that he had previously overlooked. It occurs just after the notation “Theo dead,” and it seems to be a confession of absolute dependence on his late partner: “Theo dead. Everything I’ve taken from him.”
By “everything” Walker assumes his father meant that it was Theo Wexler who designed all the other first-rate buildings of the firm, while silent Ned, the empty vessel, merely fed-off of his partner’s superior brilliance, taking the credit for what was none of his doing. And after Theo’s death, the firm produced nothing more that was truly superior. “He just coasted for thirty years,” Walker asserts. Everything embodied in the name “Wexler Janeway” belongs in fact to Wexler, including most importantly Janeway House. Thus, reasons Walker, his father couldn’t have left the house to them, because it wasn’t really his to give. And so he bequeathed it to Pip, the heir of its true creator. “It’s so obvious now. That we never figured this out before! I like to think that was kind of us.” Walker here congratulates himself for the purity of mind that prevented him from deducing his father’s artistic emptiness from his incomprehensible silence.
Not only does he rise in his own self esteem; better still, his father falls further down the ladder of virtue and accomplishment. His sparely-written journal, Walker decides, is couched in “that language I think they must use in hell,” which makes Ned one of the damned. When Nan objects that none of this is conclusive, Walker declares, “I want it to be.” Now that he has convinced himself the house was not designed by his father, he no longer wants it. Instead of settling down to live in its atmosphere of beauty and happiness, he will continue living in this abandoned apartment because, “It’s sort of random; I like that.”
To signal the end of his preoccupation with his father, Walker stages a ritual, a substitute for the real funeral he missed a year ago. He sticks a cigar in his mouth, lights a match, ignites the cigar, and then, with a swift movement, sets fire to his father’s journal.
NAN. O God—this is crazy--
With his reference to Ibsen’s destructive heroine, Hedda Gabler, Walker reminds us of his superior level of culture and of his readiness with clever words and apt comparisons, so unlike his father. But he also reminds us, inadvertently perhaps, or perhaps with guilty self-consciousness, that the manuscript Hedda burned was the brilliant work of a misunderstood genius, destroyed by her out of sheer malice and selfishness. With this final silencing of Ned, the first act ends.
Act Two, as we have seen, takes us back in time to 1960. As it begins we see the young Ned busily sketching at his desk in the apartment, while on the street outside Theo and Lina are having a lovers’ quarrel. This is the first indication we have had that before marrying Ned, Lina, the mother of Walker and Nan, was engaged to Theo. She upbraids him for his shallow ambitiousness as an architect, telling him, “you’re a young man on the make as surely as if you were working for the House of Morgan [a famous banking firm] and your architecture is just a vehicle for your rise.” She is impatient with his lack of seriousness, and irritated by his failure to make their engagement known to his family and friends. When Theo, exasperated by her nagging runs off for a pizza, Lina strikes up a conversation with Ned. She wants to know if he is “honing [his] legend, too, the way Theo does. All charismatic poses and strategic suppressions?” We soon learn that the reason he speaks so little has nothing to do with romantic posing. Rather he is silent because he stutters.
Eventually they confess to each other their desperate need of Theo. Ned says that Theo took him up in architecture school, and hints that without him they would never have been able to handle the commission for what would become Janeway House. They both declare that without him they would die.
The action then shifts forward a few days, as Theo shows his designs for the house to Ned. Theo is full of enthusiasm for his drawings, carrying on at length about his false starts, his rough sketches, his developing ideas as Ned sits silently looking at the plans. Finally Ned punctures Theo’s balloon, pointing out that his design is entirely derivative, a virtual copy of a famous modern house built years before.
This exchange, it turns out, is representative of what they take to be the fundamental nature of their creative partnership: Theo supplies the genius, Ned the taste. Theo comes up with the original ideas, Ned analyzes and critiques them. Obviously in such an arrangement, the genius has the more prestigious role, while the critic merely serves to tidy up the loose ends overlooked during the creative spasm. But Theo has grown to resent this relationship, feeling it imposes an insuperable burden on him, while allowing Ned to hide inside the safety of his role as commentator. Theo grows cruel as he berates Ned for creating this unequal alliance:
THEO. I just want to know why it is I’m the one who has to pay. . . .
Trapped in the prison of his stuttering speechlessness, Ned is totally helpless. Theo, the designated genius in their partnership, runs rings around Ned, who is incapable of self-defense. In an instant, however, Theo’s cruelty turns to remorse as he begs Ned to forgive him. He declares that he will go off to his parents’ “shack” out of town to concentrate on the design for the house, and he and Ned part having ended their momentary quarrel.
Now the act moves forward a day or two, and we see Ned and Lina entering the apartment after having been caught in a sudden downpour. Their meeting was purely accidental, she having wandered unthinkingly into the neighborhood, he wandering about aimlessly. As she changes out of her wet clothes and he fixes dinner, they begin a conversation that will last through the night and into the next three days. Strikingly, Ned the stutterer finds his voice and opens up his private thoughts to Lina. He tells her how lighthearted he has been all day, how he felt like a “flaneur,” which, he explains is, “a wanderer through the city. Someone who . . . idles through the streets without a purpose . . . except to idle through the streets.” A flaneur, he says, is a person whose life has “no pattern . . . just traffic . . . and no hope.” Which, far from being sad, he confides to Lina, is instead liberating, and not lonely but solitary. “I think it would be the best thing! To be this . . . vagabond prince. . . . A wanderer through the city. A Walker.”
Immediately we recognize that Ned has tried to pass on this vision of happiness and freedom to his son, whose name is the name of his father’s ideal joy.
Lina, in turn, tells Ned, “I smother the day in speech because I know nothing and I want someone to speak back to me and tell me—what? What is it that some people in cities seem to know? What is this secret that is constantly eluding me?”
As they exchange ever more intimate confidences, it becomes apparent that they are deeply attracted to each other at a level beyond friendship. Finally, Ned blurts out his passionate feelings for Lina: “I’m always watching you. . . . You’re so fantastic.” With this averral, both realize that Lina’s relationship with Theo is effectively at an end. As the lights dim on this scene, the downpour begins again, as their accidental meeting in a rainstorm ends in a night of love.
Two days later the rain is still falling, and Lina and Ned are fantasizing about their future lives together. Lina says she would want to have children, to which Ned answers, “I don’t like them much. Ch-children. . . . I just never know what to say to them. . . . they scare me. . . . Whenever I’m with one I’m afraid it’s going to point at me and say something humiliating. . . . But if you want a child, we can have one.” Again, we see into the future with these remarks and those of their first evening of intimacy. Just as Ned’s love of walking will be translated into the name of his son, so his fear of children, his speechlessness before them, will become the foundation of his empty relationship with Walker. And in the contrast between Ned’s love of the solitary life of a flaneur and Lina’s need to have someone always speaking to her, we see the outlines of an irreconcilable conflict. In other words, it is in these moments of happiness that Ned and Lina are planting the seeds of their future sorrows.
As they are imagining the future, Lina discovers a sketch that Ned has done. It is his idea for the house Theo and he are trying to build, and Lina declares it “beautiful . . . . remarkable.” She also finds the journal that Ned has just begun to keep, something he has started because he is happy. In it are those first words that Walker will read with contempt 35 years later: “April 3rd to April 5th: Three days of rain.” Lina, as her son will be in the future, is taken aback by Ned’s understated tone: “That’s all?” she asks. “Sufficient,” says Ned, “I’ll know what it means.” And of course the three days referred to by the journal are the days during which Ned and Lina have fallen in love, and laid the groundwork for everything that follows, including the existence of their children.
Shortly after this moment, Theo returns to the apartment, a day ahead of schedule. Ned and Lina are certain that he will take in the situation, and understand that his friend and his fiancée have betrayed him in his absence. However Theo is far too agitated to notice anything amiss. Instead he is in despair at having failed to produce a design for the house. He must now come face to face with the fact that his allegedly superior talent is an illusion, and this realization drives him out into the rain—where, we remember, he will meet his future wife and forget about his artistic misery. We now know why he was crying that day in Washington Square Park.
Alone again with Ned, Lina insists that he resume work on the design of what will become Janeway House. Ned buckles down to the task as Lina begs him to “Make a home.” Ned complies but with a strange foreboding: “Things . . . are so much better . . . before they actually start. . . . (He turns around, picks up a pencil, finds a fresh sheet of paper. He makes a first mark.) The beginning . . . of error.”
And with this pessimistic insight, the play ends.
Three Days of Rain is built around a complex set of contrasts among its characters both within and between the acts.
In Act One, Walker and Pip embody diametrically opposite personality types, the former self-consciously intellectual and almost intentionally unhappy, the latter optimistically inclined and casual about matters of art and philosophy. Walker, Pip declares, has been a tyrant of feeling, oppressing everyone around him by being “in so much pain.” While Nan, a seemingly well-adjusted suburban wife and mother, provides a sane foil for her perversely difficult brother. Their relationships have never managed to achieve a state of equilibrium. Walker’s frequent disappearances, the sexual confusion between Walker and Pip, the impossible divergences in character and temperament that divide all three, have led them to lead their lives largely apart from each other.
Act Two contains its own set of contrasts. Theo is glamorous, articulate, and full of confidence in his talent in contrast to his silent, self-effacing partner, Ned. Lina, on the other hand, provides a moral goad for Theo’s somewhat self-indulgent artistic conscience, while stirring unexpected depths of feeling in the hitherto impassive Ned through her energy and passion.
The contrasts are also strong between characters across the acts. The difference between Walker in Act One and Ned in Act Two—both played by the same actor—are profound. The former lives a life of drifting and disorder in filthy apartments while nursing a poisonous grudge against his father; the latter is engaged in designing one of the era’s most beautiful houses while falling in love and quietly planning a family. Walker is all talk, a skein of words wrapped around an empty life while taciturn Ned is filled with soon-to-be-expressed genius.
Likewise striking is the contrast between Nan and her Mother, Lina, also played by the same performer. Nan is the responsible child, the one who keeps her appointments, arrives on time, and does her daughterly and sisterly duties toward the members of her family. On the other hand, Lina, when we first hear of her in Act One, has been insane for years, institutionalized for her hopeless illness. And when we come to meet her younger self in the second act, we begin to see the roots of her madness. Unlike her daughter, Lina is drawn to adventure, danger, mystery. She wants to know the “secret” of happiness that others seem to have grasped, but which constantly eludes her. She says she wants “to be something . . . a painter . . . or a writer . . . Or a Negro blues singer or just a very intriguing alcoholic.” This confused, impossible, and self-destructive set of ambitions mirrors the fractured nature of her personality, and hints at the dissolution to come. Even more of an ill omen is her funny, but ultimately disturbing, declaration that she wants “one child, at least. One beautiful little girl. Someone precious I can drink with.” It is clear that level-headed Nan, herself the mother of two thriving boys, did not turn out to be that precious drinking companion.
Perhaps not so stark is the contrast between Pip and his father, Theo. Both seem to have been born for happiness, and both project an aura of giftedness that is mostly illusion. Pip is content to be playing the shirtless Butte on television, just as his father, his supposed genius exposed as a sham, seemed content to play the role of a creative architect for the short balance of his career with Wexler Janeway. They are both amiable and ultimately quite ordinary human beings, unlike the genuinely talented Ned, and the ever-pained Walker.
The fundamental theme of Three Days of Rain is the sad gap between human intentions and their outcomes, the ironic spectacle of unintended consequences. In some ways, this is the master trope of western drama. When Oedipus runs from Corinth to Thebes, he thinks he is fleeing his fate; instead, he is rushing directly towards it. When Laertes dips his sword in the fatal unction, planning to kill Hamlet, he never imagines that the poisoned tip will wind up stabbing him. And when Hedda Gabler tells Lovborg to kill himself “beautifully” she never expects him to shoot himself accidentally in the bowels during a brawl in a whorehouse, thus turning her romantic dream into squalor.
There is an echo of these classical ironies in Ned’s description of his most pessimistic thoughts: “In my . . . darkest midnight hours, I . . . have this theory that . . . (With one hand he describes a column.) Here are . . . our intentions . . . and here . . . (With the other hand, a parallel column.) is what actually happens . . . and the only thing spanning them (He connects the two columns on top with an arc.) is Guilt. . . . The . . . preposterous instinct that we are . . . wholly responsible for events . . . completely out of our control.”
In this speech, Ned virtually describes the structure of the play. The “column” of our intentions corresponds to the second act; that of “what actually happens,” to the first. And in envisioning life’s irony as a work of heartbreaking architecture, its divergent parts linked by guilt, he reinforces the central importance of Janeway House in the symbolic economy of the play. It is the nexus in the relations between the two generations. Intended as a blissful setting for a life of happiness, it becomes in the first act a bone of contention between Walker and Pip. And of course Walker views his father as the guilty party in their abortive relationship.
The ultimate irony lies in the conflicting meanings different characters find in Ned’s journal--especially the meaning of the phrase that gives the play its title. Like the other entries in Ned’s journal, these spare words carry a world of significance for their author, but communicate none of it to the reader who comes after him, his son.
In fact his son misreads everything his father wrote, finding in his laconic entries about Theo’s death not a strangling grief, but the jottings of an emotional idiot. And he pounces on the enigmatic entry, “Theo dead. Everything I’ve taken from him . . .,” seeing in it confirmation of his worst suspicions about his empty, untalented father. What he doesn’t realize is that these two sentences refer not to Ned’s failure, but to Theo’s. Not only did Ned take Lina from his friend, but he also, with the design of Janeway house, usurped his role as the creative partner, the genius of the firm.
And finally, in “Three days of rain” Walker sees merely the first of all his father’s vacuous journal entries. What Walker doesn’t understand is that those four words are a compressed poem about the happiest days of his father’s life, and about the genesis of his own being.
And so we see that the bridge between the present and the past is built not only out of guilt, as Ned imagines, but also out of irony.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.
1. Why does the author make a point of informing us that Walker’s apartment is dirty and disordered?
2. What is the significance of Walker’s burning of his father’s journal? Why does he do it?
3. Why did Walker flee the country rather than attend his father’s funeral?
4. What is the significance of Walker’s reference to Nan’s children as “twins?”
5. Why did Walker’s parents name him as they did?
6. Were Ned and Lina destined to be unhappy?
7. Why did Ned decide that Theo was the more creative?
8. Why doesn’t Theo notice that Lina is in the apartment when he arrives unexpectedly?
9. Do you think children always misunderstand their parents? Do you think this could be the case in your family?
10. Is Walker at all like his father? His mother? What about Nan? What about Pip? Are you like your parents, or completely different?