I’m not sure where I was. To be honest, I’m never quite sure where I am these days. So many of the places I inhabit tend to blend together in the darkness. Lit only by second hand lamps, I am led among frayed extension cords, one eyed orphans, and hastily arranged curtains. The villagers, I am told, are taking me to their local “théâtre”. According to an obscure local tradition, I am blindfolded and addressed only in the pluperfect tense. After the third bridge and fourth turn, this becomes confusing, as I am required to answer my driver in the conditional perfect tense. I distinctly remember telling the driver, “I would have baked a cake had I known I was being kidnapped and taken to see one of my plays.” No cake. He didn’t want cake.
The play we are about to see is something I authored over a decade ago. There were no actors, no plot, or scenery. Inspired by the work of Samuel Beckett and Jerome Seinfeld, I wrote a play where nothing happened. The curtain remained closed for two hours. Behind the curtain, the audience could hear the occasional sound, light, or gestational groan. Depending on my available resources, I might use a clashing symbol or a recorded explosion. But here is my point. Nothing happened.
One person (in the early days, it was usually me) sat behind the curtain making noise. Later on, once a few of the trendier theater journals reviewed my descent into nothingness, I was able to bring on a few stage hands to bang wooden spoons against my kitchen pots. Eventually they wanted to be called actors so I fired them and hired the one-eyed orphans. This was a play without a plot, actors, or any of the conventions of modern drama. I was going to ask my audience to stare at a closed curtain and listen to random sounds for two hours; all in the name of culture. What might a play about nothing say to a culture searching for something? This is the question I asked myself, printed on the programs, and hoped willing audiences would choose to answer.
While the New York critics were tough, we were huge in France. The French ate this up. The best negative review I ever received came from Le Figaro. “Could less have occurred on stage?” It was a good question. Could I do nothing at all and still call it drama? Would people pay good Euros to stare at a closed curtain with no sound or any physical interaction at all? Yes, I thought they would. I would go for all and nothing. Nihilism was still profitable in France. My nothing was as lucrative as any French nothing, wasn’t it? It was until I had nothing. Nothing goes fast in France. The only thing which runs out quicker than nothing is the beer, the bread, the meat, and the women. Nothing’s just another word for no beer in the cooler or meat on your table, not to mention the absence of actors on the stage.
Why the people of the capital city of Burkina Faso cobbled together enough central African francs to buy the rights to produce a 10 year old American play about nothing was beyond me. I had a theory. I once wrote a book on Dom Deluise as a recurring Christ figure in the Burt Reynolds’ Cannonball Run Story Saga. (I sold 12 copies, 4 of which were to Reynolds himself). In the text, there were a few un-translated French footnotes, referring both to my play and Dom Deluise’s inspiration in forming the core narrative of my drama about nothing. Deluise’s comedy was widely revered throughout French-speaking West Africa, with his work featured in film festivals in Guinea, Ivory Coast, Togo, and Burkina Faso in alternating years.
So let me clear things up. I didn’t know where I was beyond a dank basement and hastily assembled theater somewhere on the northeast side of Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou. And even when I’m in Ouagadougou, sober, and watching a play I wrote, I couldn’t find myself on a map with a GPS if I had to. As of now, that wasn’t in the cards but I wasn’t ruling it out for later.
One question still vexed me. Had they seen any of my work? Did they know what they were getting into? How would they respond to spending their hard earned money to get nothing in return? That’s all fine and dandy for first world theater goers with disposable incomes.
I can hear it now, “Où est le dialogue, homme blanc?” Were they expecting a DeLuise to be a character? “Quand le gros homme drôle arriver?” When does the funny fat man arrive? Oh, he’s here, sitting with his back to the wall waiting for a one-eyed orphan to bang rhythmically on a pot while the orphan missing the other eye (alternate) plays with a flashlight to a soundtrack to air blown over bottles. That’s the funny white man, sitting in the corner, a piece of paper in his hand, furiously writing a part for a man named Santa Claus in a play about nothing.