When writing about The Unnameable, some critics prefer to use the term “interlocutor” rather than the “narrator,” since narrator implies a subjective position that is difficult to locate in Beckett’s novel. Indeed, while reading, it sometimes feels like the words are not being spoken so much as they are foaming out of some unknown source.
I had a similar feeling when listening to the opening moments of Thom Pain (based on nothing), Will Eno’s play, which is currently being revived at the Signature Theatre. It opens in darkness. We hear, “How wonderful to see you all,” but we cannot see anything. Neither, I assume, can Thom Pain (Michael C. Hall), and this first joke plays to Eno’s concern throughout the entire play: how do we make connections with one another when relying on this broken language, this language that employs outdated metaphors, metaphors whose connections to lived experience have long been severed? Literally, Thom cannot see us; and since we are strangers, he cannot do so figuratively, either. And yet, “How wonderful to see you.” The name, of course, is another of these jokes about meaning and non-meaning: Thom Pain is, as far as I can tell, divorced from any relationship to his founding father namesake.
A flame flickers, then goes out. “I should quit.” The line refers to smoking, but considering the darkened room and Hall’s voice—which has the tone of a continuous exhale—he could be talking about life, too. Eventually, the lights go up, though not when Thom expects them to: “I guess some things are really not ours to decide,” he shrugs. He stands on a bare stage, filled only with the guts of some abandoned construction project: an overturned ladder, half-empty cans, tarps. The remainder of this play is a sort of anti-TED talk, a rambling lecture that embarks on a series of digressions but never reaches anything like a point. Thom keeps beginning a story about a boy and a dog, another about a past love, but tends to peter out just as he may be approaching something significant. Incidentally, his lines appear on the screen of a little gadget on the floor, much like the subtitles on live television or the news tickers on sides of buildings. This somehow makes the words paltry, naked, inadequate, all the while denying Thom any agency—as audience members, we can always make sure he’s sticking to the script.
There is a sense, however, that the act of speaking itself creates Thom, that it is not in action but in communicating that one begins to construct something like a self. In other words, despite the broken language, despite unfinished stories and jokes without punchlines, something meaningful is happening here because Thom is talking and we are listening. In fact, we, the audience, are included as characters in the script, which describes us as “female, male, various ages.” Without us, there is no Thom. I am reminded of that final, despairing moment in Godot, when Vladimir pleads with the boy: “Tell him … tell him you saw us. You did see us, right?” Eno, not quite as grim as his predecessor, is more optimistic. We saw him. We saw Thom.