by Liana Jordan
Theatre is an art form that not only entertains but also serves as a social critique that expresses meaning and provokes thought. Theatre is such a valuable human experience because it fosters a community where creators can express themselves and audiences can feel seen. The reason theatre is so impactful is due to its ability to transform everyday occurrences or societal patterns and present them in a way that is both enjoyable and introspective. This play comments on the universal human experience of sleep and society’s often volatile relationship with it. The theatricality of the play lies in its personification of sleep as a human woman who is in a rocky relationship with the main protagonist. The characters’ behaviors and interactions are purposely irrational to mirror the dynamics of an unhealthy relationship in order to highlight common negative sleep patterns that many humans experience. The play’s genre can be categorized as absurdist comedy with its characteristically nonsensical elements that portray a futile human existence in a meaningless universe. Unresolved endings and infinite loops are often seen in theatre of the absurd as a commentary on conventional human experiences that are commonly accepted but arguably illogical. While sleep is an everyday necessity, its cyclical nature has innate comical qualities, making it both relatable and entertaining in a way that is effective for storytelling within the medium of theatre.
theatre, sleep, absurdism, comedy
After a series of seemingly nonsensical plays became popular in the mid 1900s, the term “theatre of the absurd” was coined by Martin Esslin in his 1960 essay “The Theatre of the Absurd.” In this essay, Esslin equates absurdity with something that has no purpose or goal. Within the theatre of the absurd is the genre of absurdist comedy, which formulaically consists of an intense progression that reaches a “point of paroxysm, when psychological tension reaches the unbearable…followed by a release that relieves the tension. This liberation takes the form of laughter” (Esslin 133). In other words, despite its surface-level appearance of utter nonsense, absurdist comedy is an effective means of entertainment because it builds tension rooted in recognizable societal patterns then breaks that tension with a comical revelation about the pattern’s very existence. Historically, absurdist comedy has roots in existentialism and the concept of reality vs. illusion. The humor of absurdist comedy exists in the divulgence of everyday events as cyclical, meaningless tasks. My play, Catching Z, also highlights an everyday task by poking fun at the notion of trying to fall asleep.. Similar to absurdist comedies The Bald Soprano (1950) by Eugène Ionesco and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962) by Edward Albee, the center of the action is a quarreling couple who lack effective communication skills.
Ionesco comments on the futility of meaningful communication in The Bald Soprano with his consistent use of non sequiturs. The play as a whole exists as an endless loop where the final lines of dialogue mirror the dialogue spoken in the first scene. Similarly, much of the dialogue in Catching Z also shows a clear lack of communication with the titular character “Z” incorrectly interpreting most of the dialogue as an insult. For example, the slow dance sequence on page 2 is starkly interrupted with Z’s exclamation, “Ugh you’re so gross. You think you’re so smooth, but I see what you’re doing. You’re just trying to get me in bed!” The majority of the play’s conflict is rooted in misunderstanding and miscommunication. Catching Z also contains a cyclical element similar to the loop in The Bald Soprano. The final image of the play is the protagonist, William, finally falling asleep only to hear the sound of an alarm clock, signifying his nightly quest will never end. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962) by Edward Albee, the protagonists, Martha and George, spend most of the play arguing about their son. The question of reality vs. illusion is introduced when Albee reveals to the audience that the couple’s son never existed and was created as a coping mechanism for the pair’s infertility. In Catching Z, the character “Z” is first presented as a human woman but over time revealed to be a fantastical personification of sleep. Similar to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the breaking of that illusion allows for the protagonist to undergo self-examination and that revelation creates an introspective and comedic effect.
Martin Esslin summarizes that the purpose of theatre of the absurd is to express “modern man’s endeavor to come to terms with the world in which he lives. It attempts to make him face up to the human condition as it really is, to free him from the illusions that are bound to cause constant maladjustment and disappointment” (316). The genre of absurdist comedy presents the opportunity to bring light and humor to the unreasonable and illogical moments of everyday life. Catching Z undertakes this goal by highlighting the absurd human dance of falling asleep.
Albee, Edward. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Directed by Alan Schneider, Theater 1963, 13 Oct. 1962, Billy Rose Theatre, New York City.
Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. Rev. updated ed., Anchor Books, 1969.
Ionesco, Eugène. The Bald Soprano. Directed by Nicolas Bataille, 11 May 1950, Théâtre des Noctambules, Paris.
William: male, between ages 20-40, tired and desperate
Z: female, between ages 20-40, the personification of sleep
William’s bedroom, night
Notes on the set
Any mention of colors in the script can be represented with lighting. The bears, race car, and any strange dream element in the opening scene can be represented with a projector.
William struggles to convince his mysterious companion to come back to bed as he encounters the many nightly annoyances that emerge when one is trying to fall asleep.
(LIGHTS UP. Colors flood our view, overwhelming our senses from every direction. Sounds of drug-induced dreams. Words that almost resemble English. Bears in tutus dance. A race car silhouette speeds back and forth. In the center of all this chaos is a bed. WILLIAM tosses and turns as he struggles to hold onto a woman with the letter Z written on her shirt. He loses his grip. She runs and hides. He falls out of bed.)
WILLIAM OW! What time is it? (WILLIAM checks his phone then searches for Z.) Z?! Where did you go? (Z pops out from under a pile of laundry on the opposite side of the stage.) AGH! You scared me! C’mon, it’s time to go back to bed. We have a big day tomorrow.
Z No! I won’t.
WILLIAM Please don’t be like that.
Z You don’t appreciate me. You take me for granted.
WILLIAM No I don’t! I love you!
Z Oh yeah?! Then how come you always look at your stupid phone instead of spending time with me?
WILLIAM It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a bad habit. I’m sorry.
Z Oh bullshit! Yeah you will be sorry! (Z sticks out her tongue and runs off the stage. The lights dim.)
WILLIAM Z wait! Come back! What am I supposed to do?! You know I’m scared of the dark. (A reluctant WILLIAM chases after Z.) Ugh fine, you’re so needy. (BLACKOUT.)
(A relaxing instrumental song. LIGHTS UP on WILLIAM in a tux.)
WILLIAM Hey Z, care to dance? (Z appears and slowly inches toward WILLIAM.)
Z Maybe… I like this song.
WILLIAM I know you do. See, I care. (WILLIAM and Z slow dance around the stage. They dance closer and closer to the bed but just as WILLIAM dips Z over the mattress…)
Z Ugh you’re so gross. You think you’re so smooth, but I see what you’re doing. You’re just trying to get me in bed.
WILLIAM Aww what’s wrong? Is it the position? You don’t have to be on your back this time, we can do it from the side!
Z I am not in the mood! (Z storms off. BLACKOUT.)
(LIGHTS UP on WILLIAM stretching on a yoga mat. Purple everywhere. Z appears and starts coughing.)
Z What are you doing? And what’s that smell?
WILLIAM Just a little yoga. Yeah, I meditate now. No big deal. And that, my dear, is the sweet smell of lavender.
Z Did you bathe in it?! How many times do I have to tell you? A little goes a long way. Did you never use glue as a kid?
WILLIAM I was just trying to smell nice for you!
Z I can barely breathe.
WILLIAM Is it the scent? I can try something else! Would you prefer lemon? Orange? Peppermint?
WILLIAM Damask rose?
Z I don’t even know what that is.
WILLIAM Me neither, but I read it will fix you.
Z Fix me? FIX ME?!
WILLIAM That came out wrong. I didn’t mean it like that! Please don’t leave.
Z Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t.
WILLIAM Just lay down on the mat. It’ll help you relax. (Beat.) I’ll give you a massage.
Z Ok! (WILLIAM reluctantly rubs Z’s neck.)
WILLIAM You’re really tense. Why don’t you breathe with me? Inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 7, exhale 8.
Z That seems dumb.
WILLIAM Just do it! Um, please?
Z Fine. (WILLIAM and Z breathe together. Z yawns.)
WILLIAM See, it’s working. Now let’s stretch. Get into downward dog.
Z Get into what?!
WILLIAM No no, it’s a yoga position! See? (WILLIAM demonstrates.)
Z You want me to stick my ass in the air? Yeah right.
WILLIAM It’s not like that, I swear! (WILLIAM chases after Z. BLACKOUT.)
(LIGHTS UP on WILLIAM sitting in a sea of pillows and blankets. Now everything is blue. Z appears, shivering.)
Z It’s freezing in here!
WILLIAM But you always complain about being too hot.
Z Well, now I’m too cold.
WILLIAM Woman, what do you want from me?
Z I want my body to be warm and toasty but my pillow should be ice cold so my neck doesn’t get sweaty but my right leg sometimes feels trapped so it needs to be over the covers but not too close to the edge because what if there’s a monster under there?! Is that too much to ask?
WILLIAM WAIT! I got all these different pillows, maybe you can find one you like. (WILLIAM throws pillows at Z.) Feather pillow!
Z Too pokey.
Z Too lumpy.
Z Too hot.
WILLIAM Down pillow!
Z Is this ethically sourced?
WILLIAM Memory foam!
Z I don’t know, I just don’t like it.
WILLIAM You’re impossible.
Z Oh, I’m impossible? I ask for one thing!
WILLIAM Here we go again!
Z You know what you did.
WILLIAM Will you please let it go?
Z You threw away my perfect pillow and now it will never be the same.
WILLIAM You had it since you were 5!
Z Exactly! It was sentimental.
WILLIAM It was stained yellow with your drool.
Z It was loved!
WILLIAM I’m sorry! Do you want me to serenade you? I will! (WILLIAM pulls out a notebook and writes out loud.) I am very tired. I had a hard day. Does coffee even work anymore? I go to work and every day I feel like I’m about to get fired. I come home and I eat ice cream to feel better. I feel worse. Why does eveything suck? (Z peers over William’s shoulder.)
Z You spelled “everything” wrong.
WILLIAM What does it matter?
Z Just saying. Stupid.
WILLIAM You know what?! I’m sick of this. I know exactly what to do with you. (WILLIAM whips out a pill bottle and shakes it.) Z, I’d like you to meet my good friend, Melatonin. (Z smacks the bottle out of WILLIAM’s hand.)
Z You’re going to drug me?!
WILLIAM You’ve given me no choice.
Z But what if I take so much that eventually it stops working?
WILLIAM That’s a risk I’m willing to take.
Z But it’s too late! If I take it now I’ll be groggy in the morning.
WILLIAM AGGGHHH! (WILLIAM stomps over to the bed and throws a tantrum. His body suddenly goes still. Calculated and robotic, he sits up with perfect posture.) Fine. I give up. I don’t even want you anyway.
Z …Wait. You don’t?
Z I thought you loved me.
WILLIAM Not anymore.
Z But why?! Love me! (Z runs over and jumps on the bed. She clutches onto WILLIAM.)
WILLIAM Get off me!
Z No! (WILLIAM and Z wrestle in bed. Z gets the upper hand and lays on top of WILLIAM. They settle. We hear WILLIAM snore. They sleep. A beat. An alarm clock rings. BLACKOUT. END OF PLAY.)
Citation Style: MLA