Audiences were immediately outraged by D. Harlan Wilson’s first play, "The Dark Hypotenuse," when it opened in Copenhagen in 2012. Not only did it bear the weird, estranging aesthetic that distinguishes his novels and short fiction, the play contained scenes in which viewers were attacked by actors as well as a variety of endangered animals, among them an African elephant that was euthanized onstage. "The Dark Hypotenuse" appeared in Wilson’s first collection of dramatic entertainments. This second collection includes his latest work in the field. In "Jackanape," a murderous dinner jacket wreaks havoc on a community of innocent narcissists who struggle to stay alive while negotiating the rigors of the School of Life. "The Fingermen" focuses on a support group whose members have each lost an index finger; their stories reveal their insecurities and anxieties as much as the nonsense that typifies contemporary existence. In both cases, Wilson satirizes with a hammer, oscillating between hilarity and solemnity as he invites us to think about the relatinship between self-delusion and (in)sanity.
Once again Wilson opens the curtains and tosses insane dramatics across the stage.
Imagine a murderous dinner jacket with the power of a boa constrictor and a chicken dinner critiqued by a narcissistic, so-called family man.
Picture losing your index finger and finding a support group that shares your loss. The madness is trying to point out who suffered the worse in the loss of their index fingers. This play is straight out bonkers.
D. Harlan Wilson is one of my favorite writers working now, and this book enforces it. The two plays in here are hilarious and thoughtful. Even as I laughed through both of them, I came out going over the concepts he presented in them in my head. I would love the chance to be able to see them staged someday. I also hope Wilson will keep writing in theater. He's suited very well for it.
A master of transgressive and “experimental” fiction, Wilson shows us an unreal mirror that gives us a glimpse of cold reality in his pair of plays, Jackanape and the Fingermen. Jackanape is subtitled with “An off-color Distraction”, and in this satirical reflection, there is not so much as a plot as there is intentionality. A coat hanging on a coatrack kills anyone who comes near, and clever dialogue and character reactions ensue.
Put simply, what is the point? Why would anyone want to read this? Many readers are turned off by intellectualism, but Wilson is going to take risks with his dreams and offer his readers a chance to analyze and consider, or simply accept and enjoy. Jackanape is a dreamlike piece that highlights interactions between seemingly naïve or clueless people, and the absurdity of their discussions is perhaps solidified by the presence of the killer coat, and some of the ideas are rather jarring microcosms of class struggle and ignorance. Jackanape’s entertainment lies in the very natural character dialogue that is often interrupted (as a distraction?) by the unreal coat. Wilson’s ability to construct strange images with an economy of words can allow a reader to enjoy Jackanape in a short amount of time with an “I don’t know what I just read” reaction, or ���That was incredibly interesting and fun.”
The Fingermen, the “Savage Disruption” in this collection, reads as if Wilson employed the cast of Monty Python and recorded their ad-libbed dialogue based on a singular idea. The dialogue truly seems to follow stream-of-consciousness language plucked straight from Wilson’s brain, and one can imagine a comedic cast getting the timing down correctly on every line. I felt as if each line of dialogue was extracted from my mind, as if all language followed a natural course, and each response was pre-determined and correct. Fingermen allows for Wilson to play with witticisms and just have fun with the work, though the entire dynamic between the characters, all of whom have lost a finger and are in a support group, seems to hinge on one particular thought: “There is only one group, and nothing else. Beyond the margins of the group lies chaos.” Within the context of the piece, this resonates powerfully, though I’m sure there are other tidbits that will appeal to readers in the same vein.
It won’t take you long to finish the collection, and like a fun movie, it can easily be returned to. Jackanape and the Fingermen offers new ideas every time you open it, as any reader’s mental state differs from the first time they read it. It would be like watching a film that you’ve seen ritualistically over the years, and each time you watch it, you think to yourself that you discovered something new and interesting in the same film. Fans of surrealism or transgressive literature need to give Jackanape and the Fingermen a shot.
D. Harlan Wilson is one of my favorite authors and every I get a new book to read it is exciting. Doesn’t matter what it is. Could be he is writing non-fiction like his book on They Live, Kubrick, or Alfred Bester. Could be genre-defying novels like Dr.Identity or Outre, so odd he and his imprint of Raw Dog Screaming Anti-Oedipus press invented one with Scihz-flow. And now it will be two tales he wrote for the stage.
His first play "The Dark Hypotenuse," was staged in Copenhagen in 2012. That was in an earlier book of stage plays. This book of two plays is his second collection in the form. While I knew DHW had written plays this was my first experience with his work in this medium.
It is not unique to Wilson, there are plenty of surrealists that write fiction that would seem impossible to translate to screen or stage. The thing about Wilson’s absurdist and surreal satires of the form itself is they often translation from page to brain. The process of the DHW book is kind of like this. Wilson’s weird thoughts, he types then, they are edited, readers think what the fuck? and often laugh, all the while trying to get a mental image of something impossible to nail down.
A play has to have a little more solid direction but don’t think for a second the weird has been lost. The first play Jackanape is about a Coatrack and murderous dinner jacket. The second The Fingermen is mostly dialogue centered around a group of characters all missing fingers.
The first play has a few hilarious stage directions but much of the humor comes from subtle but hilarious pokes at murder stories. The sheer number of victims the jacket has is funny enough but each of the victims makes a bit of a statement. Scene 5 with Detective Johnson and Cork was the first laugh-out-loud moment.
“Thirty-nine murders in forty-eight hours. And all of them in this room. It doesn’t add up.[Reflects.] Goddamn it, it doesn’t add up.[Pause.] It doesn’t add up I say.” Or “If you can’t laugh at the dark, you shouldn’t grin like the Sphinx. Understand?
Jackanape is a funny and weird play that has some seasons with long monologues and others that are nothing more than sound effects.
The Fingermen is a more dialogue-heavy satire that uses the concept, set-up, and dialogue to satirize many modern insecurities and self-delusions. There are lots of scenes with whip-sharp dialogue that will have you reading, re-reading passages. It also has characters asking for intermissions, talking to the and breakdowns set to Land of Confusion by Genesis.
My favorite thing was “Don’t mind that. That’s just people burning in Hell…I was just kidding about Hell. There’s no goddamn hell. Nobody’s dead either.”
Both of these plays would awesomely uncomfortable audience experiences and challenging for the best of stage actors. I say this as a positive. Like all things by Wilson these plays are delightfully journey to What-the-fuck-a-stan, entry at the border doesn’t take a passport, all you need is a D.Harlan Wilson book in hand.