Thom Pain (based on nothing) plays at the Old Fitzroy Hotel from May 5 – 10. By Will Eno, directed by Julie Baz
NB: I saw a preview of this show.
It’s hard to know what to say about Thom Pain (based on nothing) that isn’t just, “…um, what?” It’s one of those things which seems to be an exercise in pointlessness – the “based on nothing” in the title is not false advertising. It’s a long, rambling monologue (complete with interval) about nothing.
This play was a critical darling when it was first performed in 2004, but to be honest, it’s not a type of theatre I have a great deal of patience with. Its self-conscious performativity – the title character (played here by David Jeffrey) is very, very aware that he’s telling a long, confusing, pointless story to an audience – is frustrating. While there are some great lines in it (I especially enjoyed, “I disappeared into her, and she, not knowing where I went, left”), it’s very self-indulgent… and dull, to be honest. A big chunk of the audience in the preview I saw left at interval, and it was hard to fault them.
Afterwards, I spent a lot of time thinking about why: what was the point? why should we be interested in listening to Thom Pain ramble about his life? why should this man’s confused ramblings be considered worthy of our time? (“There’s going to be a moment when you only have thirty seconds to live,” Thom says at one point. “You’ll think of me then.” And I probably will, still trying to work out what exactly I was doing with the hour and a half of my life I spent watching this play.) I found it interesting that Eno has imbued Thom Pain with a name – and a resonant name at that. It’s hard to miss the allusion to Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason. So why this name? why this allusion? Because Paine was a revolutionary and this Pain is… painful.
I don’t really have an answer to this question, but it did make me start thinking about another revolutionary pamphleteer from the same period: Mary Wollstonecraft. (The fact that I was thinking about this during the show is probably testament to the fact that I wasn’t really engaged by what was going on onstage.) And that made me wonder what would happen if the central character was a woman. Would this play be nominated for a Pulitzer if it was about a woman narrating confusing, rambling episodes from her life? Would listening to her talk be considered literature, a worthy demand on our time?
Obviously I can’t prove this, but I don’t think it would be. I read an interesting piece the other day by Katie Heaney where she talks about the three types of hate mail she and other female writers receive. One is a type she has called, “Announcement of My Male Existence.” And that’s what this felt like – an announcement of Thom Pain’s male existence, to an audience that is expected to listen to him, to want to listen to him, even though he really has nothing to say. Which made me wonder if this was a deliberate exercise in dullness, but either way, it’s dull, you know?
Others may feel differently, but I find this kind of self-conscious theatre very frustrating. I’m just not that interested in hearing a man self-indulgently talk about nothing and expect me to listen. David Jeffrey does his best as the titular character, but for me, there was no saving this play. If someone’s going to talk about themselves for an hour and a half, I’d like it if they were saying something worth listening to (or even something interesting).