On the Novels of E. L. Doctorow, and On Finding His Little Known Play Drinks Before Dinner

E.L. Doctorow doesn't need an introduction.  But I'd like to give him one anyway.  Because I love him, as my LibraryThing pal, slickdpdx, recently remarked of me, "in a beer commercial way".  So, skip the first five paragraphs if you'd rather commence straight to what little I've got to say about the play if you're not interested in E. L. Doctorow's novels.

For the last half century, E. L. Doctorow has crafted iconic novel after iconic novel.  He's won and/or been nominated for every award worth mentioning, except the Pulitzer, and thank heavens he's never been undeservedly cursed by that awful accolade and seen the ensuing quality of his output, post-Pulitzer, shrivel up like a frozen scrotum.  He's been dissected and discussed in universities worldwide.  More impressively, he's actually been read worldwide, and not just by members in society of the academic intelligentsia variety (persnickety professor-types, if you'll humour the stereotype, with their oft-scholarly snobbery), which is a rare combo-coup for writers of award-winning literary fiction.  Had his sole novel been 1975s Ragtime, he'd be as revered as Harper Lee.  Thankfully, he's been prolific:  Eleven highly regarded novels; three short story collections; three essay/literary biography and criticism collections; and one ... uh ...  one ... um ... hold that thought! ...

His first novel, Welcome to Hard Times (1960), was a bloody (and bloody good!) western; his second, Big As Life (1966), wonderfully weird science fiction; the aforementioned Ragtime, postmodern confabulated historical/biographical wizardry; his turn-of-the-millennium offering, City of God, deft fusion of Catholicism and philosophy disguised as a novel (Doctorow's done it all, he has!); as well as penning novellas (1984s Lives of the Poets, to name one) and slews of stories and articles over the decades that flesh out his inimitably diverse, half-century's worth oeuvre.

Recently turned eighty, the writer, if not as adventurous as he was back in The Book of Daniel (1971), World's Fair (1985), and Billy Bathgate (1989) days, still creates compelling narratives, (read 2009s Homer and Langley and try telling me otherwise), enjoying late artistic success much as his American contemporaries, Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy, have enjoyed theirs when most writers their age are long removed from relevancy.

E. L. Doctorow's last name, if you'll pardon my inordinate and geeky gush, is even indicative of his expertise. The once western writer and science-fiction dabbler; the prominent postmodernist; the astute critic, biographer, philosopher, theologian and historian all rolled into one brilliant mind; but also (and did you not know it for the longest like I didn't know it?), the literally one time ... playwright?  Yup.  And not just, it's important to note, an ego-driven, rock-star-prima-donna-type-out-to-prove-he-can-"act"-too, type of wannabe-playwright foisting his play on the public because he had the power and influence to do so.  No, we're talking E. L. Doctorow, the bona fide playwright, his play, Drinks Before Dinner, as credible an accomplishment as any novel he'd ever written, whether one-time dramatist or not.

So what's the play about?

Hold on.  I'm not finished with my lengthy "introduction".  Patience please.  When I directed the literally single-digits of my dedicated readership at the "review's" outset to "jump five paragraphs ahead to the play," what I really meant, and now only recognize in the glaring lucidity hindsight provides, was "jump seven paragraphs ahead; or, since I may now have lost track of the play altogether, jump however many paragraphs ahead it actually is to the play; another two paragraphs? three? four? I honestly don't know".  But, bear with me, nevertheless.  Please.  I'm excited.  Excited because I never knew for the longest time that Doctorow's play, Drinks Before Dinner, even existed!  What kind of a non-completist (but-thinking-I-was-oh-such-a-completist) fan of his, not to have known he'd once had a successful gig as a playwright?

I became a fan of Doctorow's a few short pages into one of his masterpieces, The March, in, I think, 2005, and being so enamored by the novel's caliber, quickly hunted for and gobbled up his exquisite back-catalog (excepting 1980s Loon Lake and 1993s Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution: Selected Essays, 1977-1992, the sole books of his I've yet acquired or read, and also not counting, pardon me, his brand new story collection that I hear is really really good and hope to get to soon, All the Time in the World).

Never mind that Drinks Before Dinner is clearly listed under "Also by E. L. Doctorow" in the frontispieces of the majority of his post-1980 works.  I'd never noticed it, and couldn't believe my eyes when, lo and behold, there it was, that glorious moment of my Drinks Before Dinner acquisition:

I was crouched on the concrete floor in the disheveled bookshop like a baseball catcher, bent over and leaning to my right side as if ready to backhand an errant pitch in the dirt, squinting, bespectacled, disheveled myself, scrounging through stacks and shelves of The One Dollar Bookstore in downtown Long Beach California, a favorite and frequent haunt of mine, searching their dimly lit, cluttered and dusty "Literature" section that inevitably elicits more sneezes than book finds out of me, when Doctorow's drama -- the no-more-than-an-eighth-of-an-inch-thick-spine of Drinks Before Dinner: A Play -- materialized like heavenly manna out of the tedious ubiquity of spine-cracked monotonous anthologies and esoteric literary criticism from prehistoric journals dating from the early 1990s, no doubt by now, the journals, gone under --  like the wind.

The copy was flimsily bound through many uses, looked like.  Damn theatre or college students who don't understand how to treat a script right.  But it wasn't too too terribly creased or torn, published by Theatre Communications Group.

I remained crouched and opened it on the spot, mesmerized by the completely unexpected find.  Reading it, I soon learned that Doctorow's play premiered at the prestigious New York Shakespeare Festival on Nov. 22, 1978, where it was directed by, oh, some nobody named Mike Nichols, starring The Sound of Music's Christopher Plummer, as the unhinged, but mild-mannered, Edgar; the awesome quandary and paradox of a character I'd soon meet and contemplate and return to in the pages of Drinks Before Dinner, reading the lines of his divinely decadent "wisdom" like he were Rimbaud or Baudelaire or Wilde or, better yet, Nietzsche, again and again.

Oh, Edgar Edgar Edgar!  What a mad, but never muddled hatter of a man you are/were!  Interesting that our mostly pleasant, if, admittedly, antagonistic anti-hero of the drama (would his back story involve being opium-fueled too?) would possess the same first name as Doctorow (successful, reasonable man, for sure), yet also the same first name of the sanely deranged author, Poe.  You'll certainly see the allusions, should you read it or watch it performed.

The two acts of Drinks Before Dinner must have been a minimalist wonder to witness, even despite its spartan setting: Mere dinner table; dining chairs; as the elaborate language of the play, powerful and poetic monologue after powerful and poetic monologue-rejoinders, must have given that small stage --  the place "suggestive of the modern, well-appointed sitting room of a New York City apartment.  Big window upstage with the view of skyline at night" -- a much larger-than-life stage in the limitless imaginations of the audience, invoked by the spirited language of Doctorow.

There were minimal stage directions too.  Doctorow explained, belying a surprisingly nuanced knowledge of the stage -- and stage actors -- for one so rarely involved in theatre production, in his introduction, a work of art in its own right:

"I must warn future directors and actors of the play that with a language frankly rhetorical and sometimes incantatory, with a playwright who prefers a hundred words to one gesture, with a text that neglects the ordinary benefits of characterization and the interaction of ordinarily characterized persons, in which the spectacle is static and the words tumultuous and relentless (in fact, that is the first image I had of a production -- a storm of language contained by a minimum of gesture and movement), this play does not solicit conventional theatrical sentiment from its audience.  It should not be hammered and twisted in order to do so.  The actors should be discouraged from imagining histories for their characters or inventing relationships not indicated in the text.  They should put on words, as their costumes and see what happens." [boldness mine]

And what an elaborate -- and yes, "incantatory," or brooding or ruminative -- conflict of words the actors of Drinks Before Dinner put on, seated 'round the dining table with their Lenox highballs and china, as Edgar takes his upper class fellow dinner guests on a static nightmare journey they won't soon forget: Held hostage at gun point on a whim!, taking captives because of a set of ideas he'd formulated by degrees, an ideology and dark philosophy that amounted to, at its core ...  boredom, ennui, of all things.

Edgar's reasoning is eerily reminiscent of his literary forebear, Raskolnikov, of Crime and Punishment infamy.  Keeping in mind Doctorow's introduction in which he revealed that he was most interested in a "theatre of ideas," it's no coincidence then that he'd pivot the swiftly developing plot of his drama around the existentialism of Dostoyevski.  Drinks Before Dinner, in fact, might as easily have been set in 19th century St. Petersburg, as a Manhattan highrise of the late 1970s.  An adaptation of such, replete with Russian patronymics and shots of vodka, gulped, rather than mixed drinks, sipped, I'm sure, would work fine.

Most of us already know the details and consequences of Raskolnikov's sad life and fate.  His pathetic crime and apropos punishment.  Here's hoping more fans of E. L. Doctorow -- or fans of intense psychological and philosophical drama to boot -- take the time to discover Edgar's crime and "punishment".  I'm unhappily happy (or vice versa) to have been fortunate enough to have found the play -- and the time -- myself.

Cym Lowell's Book-Review-Party-Wednesday 


  1. Well, hey, you're quite welcome, that's a pretty wonderful, fantastic, and awesome comment you left there! Wow! That's so nice to hear & I appreciate your taking the time to say so.

    Do read you some Doctorow. You won't be disappointed. I'll be curious to hear when you do which book of his you began with.

  2. I really need to get over here more often. Reading one of your posts always feels like reading an entertaining very short story! Love this!

  3. I just love your header....where is that bookstore? I am guessing it is a bookstore. :)

    Love your wit in your reviews. First-time visitor.

    Stopping by from Cym Lowell's book review giveaway.



    New follower.

  4. Thank you Julie! Always love hearing from you!

    Hi Elizabeth!

    That bookstore is the world renowned Shakespeare & Co. of Paris, France.

    Thank you so much for your great words!


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