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Aging

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Modern Western culture has a disturbing tendency to idolize the young and reject the elderly, and a number of modern dramas have turned their attention to the issue of aging, both positively and negatively. Many comedies produced in the first half of the twentieth century featured stereotypes, such as the absent-minded or mean-spirited elderly person, as comic relief or as foil to a main character, but these representations rarely considered the actual condition of aging, and its social and psychological effect on people. Some modern playwrights, like Tennessee Williams, display a vivid fascination with youth that underscores their own fear of aging. Others approach the idea of age more optimistically, pointing out how valuable older people can be, while acknowledging the ways in which Western society sadly tends to ignore and marginalize the elderly.


Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth explores ways in which people try to resist aging and the tremendous importance they place on youth. It introduces us to a group of desperate people who hope to conquer time, and so be able to maintain their youthful looks, hopes, and ambitions. By and large, all fail. Williams relates their failure in a series of sexual and religious metaphors, poetically reinforced by an innovative series of cyclorama images—pictures projected onto the backdrop of the stage—and snatches of music complementary to the action, as well as the use of special lighting and costumes to highlight characters’ dreams and evasions. The central characters, Heavenly and Chance, are beaten by time into shadows of their former selves. The Princess may find her film career revitalized, but her youth is gone and she remains fearful of her future. Boss Finley has the Heckler who tells the truth at his rally severely beaten and he is silenced, but Heavenly’s collapse and the public ridicule by his mistress, Miss Lucy, saying he “is too old to cut the mustard” (60), imply that his day is also past.


I’m Not Rappaport by Herb Gardner considers many of the problems of aging—issues of health and safety; the fear of losing one’s independence, sight, and mind; and the inevitable loss through death of those nearest to you. Gardner asks his audience to view the inherent condition of old age in all of its challenges, difficulties, and possible triumphs through the comic interaction of two octogenarians, Nat and Midge, who pass the time on a bench in Central Park. Beneath the humor, we see a serious demand that the elderly be treated with respect and dignity, and be valued as social assets rather than ignored or shut away out of sight. These men are not saints, but they try to be good citizens and maintain an involvement in the life that surrounds them, but that constantly threatens to pass them by. Nat suggests that people ignore the aged because they fear getting old themselves, but he insists that old people are worthwhile; they are survivors of life, with immense knowledge, and should be treasured rather than told that they are unnecessary.


Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring, written during the privations of World War II, is intentionally escapist. Its production caused a controversy regarding whether or not insanity and murder were appropriate topics for comedy. Kesselring had intended it as a melodrama, but in rehearsal the play took on life as a farce. Melodrama and farce are closely connected, since both place situation over character; use fast, physical action and exaggeration; and tend not to ask an audience to think too deeply. While melodrama is played for thrills, farce goes for laughs. Thus, aging takes on an even more humorous bent as two spinster sisters do away with old gentlemen who answer their advertisement for lodgers. Yet beneath the comedy is the serious issue of what becomes of the elderly when they find themselves alone and unable to look after themselves, which should make us question whether the sisters’ actions might be considered in some ways defensible.


In Sweet Bird of Youth , Chance, a failed actor turned gigolo for older women, has returned to his hometown, with aging actress Alexandra Del Largo, hiding from her public under the alias of Princess Kosmonopolis. He has come to try to reconnect with his true love, Heavenly, whose father, Boss Finley, had stood in the way of their marriage. Since Chance’s absence Heavenly was discovered to have venereal disease and forced to have a hysterectomy, and Boss has vowed to get even by castrating Chance. Meanwhile, Boss has been trying to revitalize his political career, backed by an ultraconservative youth movement he has created. We watch as all of Chance’s plans fail: his attempt to blackmail Princess into getting him a movie contract, his attempt to win back Heavenly, and his attempt to beat back the clock. As the play closes, Princess discovers that her comeback film has been a success and returns alone to Hollywood, while Boss’s henchmen close in on Chance.


 

For all of his desire to stay young, ironically, Chance’s youth was a time of frustration, without the money or fame he desired. His only advantage was his looks, but he felt past his prime even by twenty-three when he left the Navy on a medical discharge. He recently put his watch in hock, but cannot escape the passage of time. He is fearful of his thinning hair, and ravages what looks he retains with excessive drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes, which he consumes to calm his panic and escape from reality. Princess warns him about his bleak future, and Aunt Nonnie warns him that he must forget about trying to turn the clock back—he is caught in the middle of an unhappy life with no way out. He blames time, but it is really his own weakness that has brought him to this juncture. His expectation that he could make it on looks alone was wrong, just as his tendency to set impossible goals he could never attain must always leave him defeated.


Chance talks of loving Heavenly, but one wonders how much this love is a figment of his youthful fantasy. That he had not known of her illness and operation, and because neither speak nor touch on their one brief meeting during the play, suggest that his regard is more a creation of his own need to idealize love rather than honest affection. Prior to being driven away, he had slept around, and was in and out of Heavenly’s life. By the close he sees the truth of what he has become and realizes that he has lost his race with time. In defeat, he waits for Boss’s men to castrate him and speaks directly to the audience, not asking for pity but a recognition “of me in you, and the enemy, time, in us all” (111). He asks that we recognize our own secret desire for immortality and youth, as well as the impossibility of ever recovering that youth, which Williams sees as a troubling contradiction of human existence.


Heavenly is no less defeated, for all the possibility her name suggests and the way Boss has her dress in white to project an image of youthful innocence and virginity. She began sleeping with Chance at fifteen, and a nude picture he took of her has been all around town. She sees the doctor as having “cut the youth out of my body, made me an old childless woman” (65), an act akin to castration, and since then has viewed herself as tantamount to dead. An empty shell, she has little of the vitality Chance recalls, and can only swoon at the hypocrisy of which she has become a part, distressed at the truth the Heckler tries to force her father to admit. She is as much a victim of her father’s brutality as the Heckler, and has no strength with which to fight back.


Princess seems the stronger, at least on the surface. She insists on preserving the appearance of youth, especially since she sees it as integral to her success as an actress. But her image on screen is a fantasy, and not the desperate woman we see drinking, smoking hash, and sleeping with Chance in an effort to regain some semblance of youth by association. Like Chance, she abuses alcohol and drugs to escape the truth of her advancing age, and hysterically refuses to allow anyone to mention death in her presence. She asks Chance to make her believe “that we’re young lovers without any shame” (42), but they are neither young, in love, nor guilt free. She declares herself triumphant as she hears of her   movie’s success, but cannot hide the fact that she is ultimately as doomed as Chance, and as incapable of love.


A central image of the first act is the double bed that dominates the stage, and this indicates the way these characters use sex as a means to holding on to youth. Chance, Princess, Heavenly, and Boss all associate sex with youth, and the fact that each is (or soon will be) physically or psychologically castrated, implies that youth has been lost to each of them. The significance of the play taking place on Easter Sunday sets up the hope of resurrection most of these characters maintain—be it for a film career, political office, or love—but this is a fallen world, imbued with original sin. These people have long since lost their innocence, and the chance of resurrection for such sinners is negligible. Instead of rising, we only see them fall deeper into shame, despair, or deceit. It is only through their destruction that they may finally atone for the social ills of which they are the product.


In I’m Not Rappaport , Nat Moyer and Midge, both in their eighties, sit and chat on a bench in Central Park. Nat enjoys fabricating stories to see how long he can string his audience along. While each sympathizes with the other for being old, both struggle to maintain dignity as age reduces their lives physically, socially, and economically. Having worked past retirement age as a building supervisor, Midge is about to lose his job and apartment, so Nat impersonates a union lawyer to keep him there. Nat faces up to a young thug, Gilley, who asks for daily protection money from the elderly. He gets hurt, but feels happy he fought back. However, his daughter is worried about him and insists that he be more closely supervised. To dissuade her from this plan he invents a love-child he plans to live with in Israel. Both men watch a drug dealer, the Cowboy, threaten a young woman, Laura, who owes him money, and the two elderly men try to help the young woman. Nat pretends to be a mafioso to get the Cowboy to back down, but the Cowboy is not fooled and attacks Midge, who tries to defend Nat, sending him to the hospital. Midge gets out to find a broken-spirited Nat whose stories have all backfired, but Midge encourages him to start a new fabrication to raise both their spirits, and to pass the time.


The two main characters tell us a lot about what it is like to be old—about glaucoma and cataracts in the eyes, weakening hearts, and when falling down carries the risk of broken bones as the body wears out. They paint a picture of the elderly kept hidden away in retirement homes as if they were criminals. They scrape to get by on a social security check, living limited lives, with poor food, high doctor bills, and, worst of all, people not wanting to listen to them. We see this when the head of Midge’s building’s tenant committee, Mr. Dan-forth, jogs by and speaks to Midge. Danforth talks about himself, ignoring what Midge tries to tell him, even though he ironically teaches “Communication Arts.” He is unconcerned about whether Midge can do the job; he just sees him as old and unnecessary. Nat is right to mock him for taking pleasure   in collecting antiques, yet viewing old people as “bad souvenirs, they talk too much. Even quiet, they tell you too much; they look like the future and you don’t want to know” (47). The battered bench beside the isolated path on which the two men sit acts as an effective metaphor for the aged: so often left beaten and alone. What Gardner does is invest Nat and Midge with such spirit that the audience cannot help but see the wrongness in this.


The play’s title, recalling an old Vaudeville routine Nat enjoys, attests to both Nat’s vitality and the question of identity raised in the play, in terms of the limited identity society tends to allow the aged. It is this homogenization of the elderly against which these two rebel. The Jewish Nat seems more outgoing, and since his bypass surgery has developed the tendency to fictionalize his life to spice it up. He finds it encourages people to notice him, and invigorates his life. An activist in spirit, it has been a long time since his days as a union organizer, having waited tables for most of his life, and finally being forced into retirement for talking too much. Good-hearted, he helps where he can without a thought, refusing to accept what he sees as unfair situations. Yet for all of Nat’s apparent vibrancy contrasted with Midge’s reticence, Midge has lived the fuller life, with his five wives and variety of jobs. Nat has lived quietly, never having approached the girl he loved, but settling for a long and comfortable marriage with someone else, now dead.


Yet against this simple background Nat weaves wonderful stories of his life as an undercover agent, a tempestuous lover with an illegitimate child, and a movie star, throwing in his impersonations of a union lawyer and a mafia boss along the way. These engaging stories are told partly as a diversion to pass the time and partly as an attempt to escape a mundane reality, but also in the hopes of helping others. His attempts to keep Midge his job, to stop Gilley from shaking them down, to prevent his daughter from restricting him, and to help Laura get rid of her drug pusher all fail. Indeed, Nat’s interference tends to make most matters worse, but we should understand that his stories remain a necessity, for without them he is nothing but a sad, old man, stripped of spirit. The stories are his means of escape. His friend Midge realizes this, which is why he insists that Nat keep telling his tales. They also help Midge lead a more interesting life.


Midge is a near-blind, African American building superintendent, who constantly worries about getting into trouble. He hides from his tenants in hopes that no one will recall that he still works there and decide to fire him, taking away his chance to earn a living. He is fiercely proud of the independence his job affords him, but he only maintains it because he has not asked for a raise in fifteen years, and he does the night shifts no one else wants. Both he and Nat have regrets from past things they did or did not do, but while it irks Nat to live in the past and be pushed to the social periphery, Midge seems satisfied to accept whatever society demands, preferring not to make a fuss and so draw attention to himself. But eventually, both men gain spiritual strength from   their attempts to stand up for themselves and others, even if they are physically damaged in the process.


Nat demonizes his daughter, Clara, as insensitive to his needs, but she has suffered from her father’s beliefs, and offers alternative insight into the child who does not wish to limit the parent’s liberty but who genuinely fears for his safety. For all of Nat’s criticism, Clara turns out to be caring and sensitive to her father’s need for independence, pointing out the reality that sometimes the aged need greater supervision. She offers him options to live with her, go to a senior residence, or stay home but visit the senior center and allow her to keep an eye on him. This is not to shut him away or ignore him, but to ensure that he is safe. That he finally accedes to her demands is only fair given the anguish he has put her through by pretending to have another daughter with whom he intends to live.


In Arsenic and Old Lace , Abby and Martha Brewster live in an old house in Brooklyn, New York, and have been poisoning elderly lodgers to send them to peaceful rest and then burying them in the cellar. Their nephew, Teddy, who lives with them, thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt. His brother, Mortimer, a theater critic, seems relatively sane, and he proposes to Elaine, the Reverend’s daughter whom he has been dating. Finding their latest victim while looking for a manuscript, Mortimer is horrified to discover his aunts’ secret, and decides to blame Teddy for the corpses and prevent them from killing anyone else. He goes to review a play and another brother, Jonathan, arrives with his plastic surgeon, Dr. Einstein, and plans to set up criminal operations in his aunts’ house. He, too, is a murderer and has a corpse, which gets muddled with the sisters’ latest murder until everyone realizes the truth. Jonathan tries to kill Mortimer, but is prevented from doing so by the arrival of Policeman O’Hara, who has come to talk to Mortimer about a play O’Hara has written. Other officers arrive in search of O’Hara, and Jonathan is caught. The police refuse to believe anything they are told about corpses, but Teddy is committed to a mental institution and the sisters choose to accompany him there and leave the house to Mortimer. Before they leave they appear to claim one last victim in Mr. Witherspoon, to top their nephew Jonathan’s total of murders.


Insanity obviously runs in the Brewster family. Mortimer is so fearful of this that he calls off his marriage to Elaine, until the sisters tell him he is not a blood relative, but the son of a servant they took pity on. Martha and Abby’s father had been something of a crazy scientist, making a fortune with his medicines, but often killing people as he tested them out, and we suspect, burying his corpses in the cellar, too. Teddy thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt, and Jonathan is a psychotic who attacks people for suggesting that he looks like Boris Karloff, and has twelve murders to his credit. Martha and Abby seem pleasant enough, but surely they must be crazy to do what they do.


The ladies’ project began after a lodger, a lonely old man with no family left, died of a heart attack, and they noticed how peaceful he looked. They decided to bring that same peace to others in the same position, and give each a Christian burial in their cellar, with services appropriate to each victim’s faith. If Mr. Gibbs, whom Mortimer prevents them from killing, is any indication of the type they have “helped,” it becomes hard to criticize what they do. He is miserable, distrusting, and bitter, and hates his life, living alone in a hotel. The sisters, too, clearly have no ethical qualms or doubts, not viewing themselves as criminals, but seeing what they do as a form of charity. In contrast to Jonathan, whose spree of indiscriminate murders also numbers twelve and who is thoroughly unpleasant, the sisters have good reasons for killing, treat their corpses with the utmost respect, and seem like pleasant, sweet old ladies.


In their late sixties, Abby and Martha are the epitome of what society views as the ideal elderly. They are churchgoing, friendly, generous, and discreet. They bother no one; perform numerous good works, giving toys to children and tending the sick and needy; and seem to be on good terms with everyone in the community. Friendly with judge and police, they doubt they would be charged even if their acts were discovered, and the determination of the police to not even investigate accusations against them seems to support this. Determinedly anachronistic, they keep their house as a relic from the Victorian age. Teddy’s belief that he is President Roosevelt, in office at the start of the century, contributes to this anachronistic atmosphere, as does the sisters’ reluctance to use electricity. Reverend Harper loves to visit their home, seeing it as a refuge from the harsher modern life outside and the sisters as full of old-fashioned virtue and good manners. The irony, of course, is that these old ladies are, in fact, serial killers: they could never tell a lie, but they have killed eleven people, and are about to kill another as the curtain goes down, just to show their nephew, Jonathan, that they have a higher score of corpses. What is even more ironic is the way the audience is led to applaud their efforts.


Aside from the suggestion that what they do could be seen as a mercy to those they “help,” Kesselring’s presentation of two determined old ladies, who for all their pleasantries are apparently not as toothless as they might seem, must surely make audiences reconsider their often dismissive assessment of old people in general.




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