The anguish of reality

John Peter, The Sunday Times, 28th June 1987

Tragicomedy is a phrase like ‘bitter-sweet’, or ‘SDP-Liberal Alliance’: we use it when we mean neither one thing nor the other. What is actually means is both at the same time, which is disconcerting as it is rare.

Simon Gray’s new play, Melon (Haymarket), is a tragicomedy: of sexual anguish; of faithful infidelity; of insane cerebration. Mark Melon (Alan Bates), publisher, intellectual, showman, charming and efficient casual lecher, has reached the stage at which adultery seems an adult thing to do: not out of lust but out of a compulsion to keep his life up to scratch as a piece of performance art. He also likes watching himself have experiences: quizzing his wife about her lover with arch detachment gives him a frisson of sophistication which is a proof of adulthood and maturity. Like a lot of under-achieving men, Melon almost relishes the thought of sexual rivals because he hopes (and fears) that he can effortlessly surpass them. It is almost as if he were sexually involved with himself.

Melon’s problem is that he cannot bear too much reality, but, like most such people, he thinks he can. This is a deeply adult play about a man ho has never quite made it to adulthood. Publishing, for Melon, is a matter of preening with the feathers of others: once ambitious to be a writer, he has purposefully orientated himself to be merely successful. This is not simply buy 2mg xanax selfish: it is self-oriented. Melon has become the object of his own undivided attention: a prancing host with a whiplash wit, a star performer with all the virtuoso thoughtlessness of star performers. This is why his breakdown is tragicomic in the true sense of the word. Someone inherently valuable goes to pieces under the pressure of his own weakness: this is as tragic as it is possible to be in modern theatre and in modern life. Meanwhile he is writhing in the coils of sexual humiliation, which is always comical in others, even when we have suffered in ourselves. Humankind can bear a lot of reality as long as it happens to other people.

Alan Bates is the perfect interpreter of this self-inflicted anguish. He suggests an agile intellect trying to keep at arm’s length the realization that intellectual life is a sham. Like an earlier Simon Gray hero, only far more compassionately and robustly drawn, he is semi-detached. He clearly sees himself as both noble victim and sophisticated winner. Bates flings out his sentences as if each one contained some cunning irony but not quite certain at whose expense. The whiplash wit keeps turning into whiplash whingeing: words become pregnant with pain and have to be got through with shameful speed. This is a large, brooding, moving and darkly brilliant performance, utterly free of superficialities and tackling the satanic forces of self-torment head-on: one of the most mature portrayals of immaturity I’ve ever seen.