Existentialism and the Limitations of Language in the Works of Will Eno
By Jason Chinn
“What’s the deal with everything on earth?”
~Tweet by Will Eno
Acclaimed playwright Will Eno was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1965 and currently resides in Brooklyn, New York. He is best known for his play, Thom Pain (based on nothing), a
finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. In his review of the 2005 Off-Broadway production, New York Times theatre critic, Charles Isherwood, calls Eno “a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation,” noting the playwright’s deftness at blending “standup-style comic riffs and deadpan hipster banter” with “a corrosively bleak narrative” (Isherwood). This bold comparison to Beckett is not entirely unfounded as Eno cites the absurdist Irish playwright as one of his biggest inspirations.
Speaking about Beckett’s relevance today, Eno states that “as long as people still die” Beckett will “be important” (Sola 39). As in Beckett’s work, death is a reoccurring theme in Eno’s plays. Eno’s characters often find themselves confronting the futility of life, struggling to discover (and possibly manufacture) meaning from the ordinary and banal occurrences of daily life.
This is the middle-ness of Middletown; the big, huge space bookended by birth and death. Judging by Eno’s tweet at the top of these notes, he continues to ponder this grand in-between beyond
the 2010 premiere of Middletown. And much like the tweet, there is a succinct, straight-to-the- point quality to the language in Eno’s plays. More often than not his characters tell it like it is.
However, this straightforwardness often fails to produce satisfying answers to the questions surrounding the in-between. Perhaps this is his way of signalling to us that big, sweeping questions concerning the meaning of life are unanswerable by the limitations of language.
As theatre scholar Marc Silverstein writes, “Eno’s characters attempt to articulate their existential reality only to discover in the very act of utterance the “limit” to language’s ability to capture and re-present the essence of their subjectivity” (68). Silverstein further asserts that the limitation of language in Eno’s plays extends beyond subjectivity to death; that “the threat death poses to language and the failure of language to capture the phenomenological immediacy of death” further prevents us from gleaning meaning from our existence (87).
Essentially, the more Eno’s characters attempt to articulate the nature of death, the farther away they get from truly understanding it.
It stands to reason that these existential questions concerning life and death would naturally lead to feelings of loneliness, another theme prevalent in Eno’s work. Eno admits that his attraction to theatre was “probably borne out of loneliness;” that he likes “seeing people suffer under bright lighting” and “hearing people in pain in rooms with good acoustics” (Mulgraw).
The Cop in Middletown succinctly and plainly articulates the feeling of modern day loneliness with the matter-of-fact-ness that Eno’s characters are known for. While on a stroll he wonders aloud:
“Looking in people’s windows at night makes you feel lonely. Lonely, but, lonely along with the people in the windows. Along with the whole world, the whole lonely billions. It
feels sort of holy, in some screwy way. Fact. (Brief pause.) Fact” (Subias 70).
This articulation of a contradictory emotion, feeling “lonely, but, lonely along with people,” is both profound and utterly simplistic; something that each of us has felt at one time or another. Yet if prompted to describe the feeling, would we fare much better than the Cop? His contemplation of loneliness begins with a truism; the trope of the outsider looking in, an Ebenezer Scrooge character viewing merriment or misery from the street. He then enters the territory of the profound by describing the universality of loneliness, the interconnectedness of it all.
Upon further examination, however, he reaches the limitations of language. He is left convincing himself that his attempt to find meaning has been, well, meaningful. Chances are most of us would similarly rely on ill conceived analogies and metaphors to string together some kind of attempt at understanding these emotion, stumble over ourselves before ultimately giving up. The limitations of language are seen once again with the character of John Dodge:
“I never thought I’d have a lonely life. I do, it turns out. Like, medically lonely. Like I’ve
got sad genes. Like, what’s that word? (Very brief pause.) I don’t know. I’m sure there is
one” (Subias 89).
Dodge is not concerned by the limitations of language in this instance because he is able to assure himself that the words exists, he just doesn’t happen to know what they are. Likewise, he is resigned to loneliness in this moment because it is beyond his control. Sad genes are unchoosable and unchangeable, and trying to do anything otherwise is ultimately futile.
Despite the futility of loneliness, or perhaps in spite of it, the characters in Middletown still try to form connections with those around them, no matter how fleeting, no matter how temporary. And they continue attempting to answer questions, no matter how unanswerable. The juxtaposition of isolation and togetherness is also represented in contrasting settings that span from a quiet, intimate library to the endless void of outer space. When looking at the larger picture one can’t help but feel lost at times.
Whether feeling lonely among a sea of people, or hurtling helplessly through the universe; we can’t help but ask ourselves: where are we going? And what are we doing here? Seriously though, what the hell are we doing?
Select Awards and Honours:
Residency Five Fellow at the Signature Theatre in New York; Marian Seldes/Garson Kanin fellowship, Theatre Hall of Fame, 2004; Helen Merrill Playwriting fellow; Guggenheim fellow; Edward F. Albee Foundation fellow; PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation Award; and the Alfred Hodder Fellowship at Princeton.
The Realistic Joneses: Drama Desk Award, USA Today’s “Best Play on Broadway,” and topped The Guardian’s 2014 list of American plays.
The Open House: 2014 Obie Award, the Lortel Award for Outstanding Play, Drama Desk Award, included in both the Time Out New York and Time Magazine Top 10 Plays of the Year.
Title and Deed: The N.Y. Times and The New Yorker magazine’s Top Ten Plays of 2012
Middletown: Horton Foote Award, 2001.
Flu Season: George Oppenheimer Award, Newsday, 2004.
Middletown received its world premiere Off-Broadway at The Vineyard Theatre in New York City
in 2010, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll. The Canadian premiere of Middletown was directed by Meg Roe at the Shaw Festival in 2017.
Isherwood, Charles. “Life’s a Gift? Quick. Exchange It.” New York Times, 2 Feb 2005.
Mulgraw, Patricia. “An Interview With Will Eno.” The Believer. 1 Oct 2008.
Silverstein, Marc. "“There Is a Limit to the Magic Powers of Language”: Will Eno and the
Dispossession of Being.” no. 1, 2018, p. 67.
Joe Sola, and Will Eno. “Will Eno.” BOMB, no. 104, 2008, p. 36-42.
Subias, Mark, et al. The Oberon Anthology of Contemporary American Plays: Volume One.
Oberon Modern Playwrights, 2012.