Making it "real": money and mimesis in Suzan-Lori Parks's Topdog/Underdog.
Looming large on the horizon of the brothers' own shared past are two almost identical financial transactions. One day during the boys' adolescence their mother gave five hundred dollars to Booth and left forever. Two years later, the boys' father gave five hundred dollars to Lincoln and was never seen by his sons again. A marker of the dismemberment of the family, money also paradoxically holds the promise of reunification: first, through the brothers' attempt to create a kind of simulacrum of the traditional American nuclear family with Lincoln as the sole "bread-winner," and second, through the younger brother Booth's desperate attempts to convince Lincoln to go into "business" with him as a three-card monte hustler--a life Lincoln once lived and now desperately tries to resist. As a play that investigates, among other subjects, the intersection of "business" and "family" values, Topdog/Underdog stands with at least one foot in the naturalist tradition of works by playwrights like Miller and Mamet. The naturalist obsession with the paradox of human freedom that drives the work of these writers appears again at the heart of Parks's play, and once again money and the confidence game are at the center of that obsession. Throughout the play's often hauntingly repetitive action, money repeatedly emerges as the site of familiar naturalist conflicts between free will and determinism, present and past, the authentic and the mimetic. Through her depiction of the brothers' various attempts to "escape" the money economy and to become money themselves, Parks elaborates her own vision of the dialectical interdependence of these seeming opposites.
In the struggle for power at the center of Topdog/Underdog, Booth needs to believe that his skill with the confidence game of three-card monte equals or even exceeds that of his older brother Lincoln, a one-time master of the con who has given up the game after the violent death of one of his "crew." Yet evidence suggests Booth lacks Lincoln's innate skill. Where the older brother seems to possess a natural talent for the game, Booth's moves with the cards are "studied and awkward"; he throws the cards, Parks's stage directions tell us, "in an awkward imitation of his brother" (1) (11, 83). Booth similarly tries to imitate what Lincoln calls his "patter," or the rapid-fire speech meant to both entice and confuse the confidence artist's "mark"; yet Booth, as Lincoln tries to tell him, is attempting to master the superficial or "outward" signs of a game that requires a much deeper understanding. "Theres 2 parts to throwing thuh cards," explains Lincoln. "Both parts are fairly complicated. Thuh moves and the grooves, thuh talk and thuh walk, the patter and the pitter pat, thuh rap and thuh flap: what yr doing with yr mouth and what yr doing with yr hands" (79).
Thus Lincoln brings up the paradoxical distinction that haunts plays like Miller's Death of a Salesman and Mamet's American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, and that represents one way of inscribing what Walter Benn Michaels, in his well-known essay, calls the "logic of naturalism": that distinction between saying and doing, word and action, "talk" and "walk." Booth, in keeping with other aspects of his character (as we'll see), seems to believe that mastering one of these aspects of the game is enough. "I got thuh words down pretty good," he tells Lincoln, who futilely repeats his point: "You need to work on both" (79). For Parks as for her character Lincoln, the very distinction between word and action is the beginning of an error. Of the lack of stage directions in her drama she has written that the "action goes in the line of dialogue instead of always in a pissy set of parentheses. How the line should be delivered is contained in the line itself" ("Elements of Style" 15-16). Booth never understands this interdependence of language and action--the heart of the lesson Lincoln would teach him--and persists in the false distinction to the very end of the play.
In fact, Booth's approach to three-card monte is of a piece with a general approach to life he evinces throughout the play, one that values word over action, symbol over referent, appearance over essence. Something as instrumental as a telephone is valued by Booth not for its use-value (as one would normally think of it) but for its importance as a symbol in the dating market (2) Similarly, Booth places great value on clothing as symbol. Having given Lincoln a suit he stole, he advises his brother that wearing it will "make you feel good and when you feel good yll meet someone nice" (34). In each of these examples Booth's apparent view is that the symbol (the "talk") creates (rather than also reflecting) the Real (the "walk"). In this attitude Booth resembles Miller's Willy Loman, who teaches his sons that a smile and the right "appearance" will bring great success, as well as the young Biff Loman, who needs reminding by Bernard that writing the name of the college he wishes to attend on his athletic shoes will not make up for his poor academic performance (Miller 29).
Two further elements in Booth's life demonstrate his apparent belief that changing signifiers will change reality. One is his attempt to change his name. Early in the play he orders Lincoln to call him by a new moniker: "3 Card" (23). Despite Lincoln's repeated attempts to teach Booth that becoming a three-card monte hustler takes much practice and understanding, Booth seems to believe that once he calls himself one, he will be one. He even threatens that anyone who will not call him by this new name "gets a bullet," demonstrating a desperate attempt to control the real by controlling signifiers (23). (3)
Finally Booth's emphasis on signs is evident in his relationship--or lack of one--with the never-seen Grace. All the failed strategies Booth employs to win Grace involve style over substance, including attention to clothes and to the look of his apartment as well as a ring that is "diamond-esque" but "looks just as good as the real thing" (14). Grace herself, in fact, is apparently dealing in outward signs, as she studies "cosmetology" (47). Even in the sexual act--one, we learn, that probably never occurred the visual sign is emphasized; Booth insists on having sex with Grace in front of a mirror--as Lincoln says, "So you could see her" (46). Booth's obsessive need to control signs is the result of the character's intimate knowledge and deep fear of the often arbitrary and deceptive relationship between signs and the real. Booth's constant suspicions regarding Grace and other men are symbolic of his anxiety regarding the tendency of signs to deceive.
In fact Booth's sex life is even more strictly visual than his (probably imagined) encounter with Grace would suggest; a recurring theme in the play is Booth's interest in pornographic magazines and masturbation. In Scene Three, after accusing Booth of lying about having sex with Grace that evening, Lincoln reveals that he found "like 100" such magazines, along with more biological evidence of Booth's proclivity for masturbation, under the younger brother's bed (49). Booth's interest in pornography is crucial to understanding the character's symbolic importance in the play, since it not only relates to his general preference for the sign over the real but also underscores the relation of this tendency to an attitude toward money.
In his important work Symbolic Economies, Jean-Joseph Goux relates the fetishization of the penis as "general equivalent" of sexual desire to the fetishization of money as general equivalent in economic life. Summarizing Marx's genealogy of money in Capital, Goux remarks that in a money economy, the commodity chosen to function as money is "excluded from immediate consumption (and, as Marx emphasizes, gold and silver, as money, are in reality completely barred from use in immediate production)" (36). The commodity chosen to become money is excluded from the universe of other commodities, even as it makes all else into a commodity. In the same way, writes Goux, "the choice of the penis as the general equivalent is the means of excluding it from immediate use. The phallus's function as general equivalent forbids its immediate use. It can and must function only in a relationship of exchange or circulation" (37). "Thus," writes Goux, "promoting the phallus to the rank of general equivalent prohibits, first of all, immediate use (masturbation), and second, immediate exchange (incest)" (37-8).
Before one would argue that Goux makes too much of the symbolic relationship between the penis and money as general equivalents in systems of exchange, it must be remembered that Parks herself makes this connection clear through the speech of Booth. Booth explains, for instance, that he masturbates because he cannot afford to enter into a real sexual relationship. "If I wasnt taking care of myself by myself," he explains, "I would be out there running around on thuh town which costs cash that I dont have so I would be doing worse: I'd be out there doing who knows what, shooting people and shit. Out of a need for unresolved sexual release" (49). Earlier in the play, Booth muses that if Lincoln would go back to hustling cards, he "could afford to get laid" and "Grace would be all over [Booth] again" (24-5). Yet again near the play's end, Booth speaks of sex with Grace as an economic transaction: "She gonna walk in here looking all hot and shit trying to see how much she can get me to sweat, how much she can get me to give her before she gives me mines" (72). If, as Goux writes, economic and sexual exchange prohibit "immediate use" of the penis/money, Booth's preference for masturbation over sexual intercourse becomes highly symbolic of the character's repression of money.
In addition to the "immediate use" of masturbation, Goux names incest as a taboo involving "immediate exchange" of the penis. In fact the only sexual exchange we think Booth likely engaged in occurred before the action of the play, when he slept with his brother's wife, Cookie--an action that does not technically fit the definition of incest but is close enough to be symbolically significant. Even more interesting, Booth's memories of his mother involve him in a kind of symbolically incestuous relationship with her. In Scene Six, Booth confesses to knowing of his mother's adulterous relationship before she abandoned her sons. In a scene foreshadowing his own fascination with pornography, Booth remembers "watching them" have sex without being seen himself, and somehow both sharing and not sharing this secret with his mother. At dinner later "she would look at me," recalls Booth paradoxically, "like she didn't know that I knew but she was asking me not to tell nohow. She was asking me to--oh who knows" (104). Unsurprisingly for a character deeply suspicious of signs he cannot control, this imagined moment of understanding between himself and his mother occurs without words.
Booth's role as unseen spectator coupled with the unspoken secret he imagines he and his mother shared involves him in a kind of symbolically incestuous relationship with his mother. What's more, money is at the heart of Booth's memories of his mother. Booth twice repeats that his mother's paramour was fond of saying "I aint made of money," and he recalls a scene in which his mother becomes pregnant and the man refuses to pay for an abortion (104-5). Two months later, Booth recalls, his mother, having somehow terminated the unwanted pregnancy, gives Booth money and leaves him forever: "she had my payoff- my inheritance--she had it all ready for me. 500 dollars in a nylon stocking" (105). The "payoff" Booth's mother made to him before abandoning him certainly gives Booth reason to have an uneasy relationship with money. The personal--even sexual--nature of the object his mother uses to wrap the money--an object that itself calls to mind the stocking as emblem of sexual exchange in Miller's masterpiece--further underscores the close relation between money and sexuality for Booth.
Here it is important that just as Booth fails (or refuses) to enter into sexual "exchange," opting instead for masturbation, neither does he enter into economic exchange. While Lincoln earns and (as we'll see) spends money continuously, Booth does neither. Booth refuses to work, apparently associating holding a "steady job" with his parents' breaking up and leaving their children:
Like neither of them couldnt handle it no more. She split than he split. Like thuh whole family mortgage bills going to work thing was just too much. And I dont blame them. You dont see me holding down a steady job. Cause its bullshit and I know it. I seen how it cracked them up and I aint going there. (72)
Though Booth is given more than a fair share of Lincoln's income every payday, he somehow avoids spending it. In the course of the play, Booth steals clothing, magazines, food, and fancy tableware. We neither see nor hear of his purchasing anything. Like the junkshop owner Don Dubrow in Mamet's American Buffalo, who spends the entire play scheming to get back a coin that was legitimately purchased from him, Booth appears here as a species of the miser; his fortune cookie, early in the play (part of a meal his brother Lincoln pays for), reads "Waste not want not" (22). As with Don Dubrow, Booth's aversion to spending is symptomatic of the character's repression of money and the ontological and epistemological uncertainty money symbolizes.
The great symbol of Booth's attempt to "escape" the money economy is that five hundred dollars in a stocking given him by his mother as she left him. Unlike Lincoln (who received the same amount from his father and who spent his), Booth has never spent his money. In fact he has never even taken it out of the stocking and counted it. When, early in the play, Booth refers to the fact that he still has his inheritance, Lincoln points out that, in effect, his inheritance is not money as long as he refuses to do anything with it: "Thats like saying you dont got no money cause you aint never gonna do nothing with it so its like you dont got it" (21-22). It is, of course, Lincoln's attempt to cut open the stocking and verify the existence of the five hundred dollars that propels Booth toward his last violent act at play's end. Thus Booth exists in a kind of sexual and economic limbo, represented by that uncounted five hundred dollars wrapped in his mother's stocking. Booth spends neither his sexual nor his economic power, but denies both; his money is wrapped and uncounted just as his semen lies fallow on the magazines Lincoln finds underneath his bed. Money is brought into the small apartment that is the play's sole setting through Lincoln's work, but no money, if Booth has anything to do with it, flows out. In fact, nothing at a/! flows out. Lincoln points out twice that the apartment has no running water, and at one point we witness the older brother urinate in a cup, which he then places in a corner of the apartment (59). Not even bodily emissions may be "spent."
Given the play's association between these bodily emissions and money, it is significant that Lincoln--not Booth--is the character who urinates on stage in this play. Where Booth is loath to spend any money, Lincoln represents the opposite extreme and greatly enjoys spending. He has not, like Booth, saved his five hundred dollars "inheritance" but has long since spent it. When he first appears in the play Lincoln announces that he has just "[b]ought drinks at Luckys. A round for everybody" (16). When he is finally fired from his job at the arcade near the end of the play, Lincoln takes a severance package of a week's pay and "blew it. Spent it all" (70). When Booth asks "On what?" Lincoln responds, "--Just spent it" (70). It is unimportant on what he spent it; the act of spending itself is where Lincoln finds power. "It felt good," he explains, "spending it. Felt really good. Like back in thuh day when I was really making money" (70).
With regard to Lincoln's spending, the similarities and differences between Lincoln's and Booth's reception of their "inheritance" are interesting. Where the boys' mother gives Booth "5 hundred-dollar bills rolled up and tied up tight in one of her nylon stockings," the father gives Lincoln "10 fifties in a clean handkerchief" (73). While both parents warn their children not to spend the money (essentially denying its function as money), Lincoln's money is not "rolled up and tied up tight" but only "in a clean handkerchief." Even the father's way of warning Lincoln not to spend the money is highly ironic. The cash is in a handkerchief, and he asks the boy not to "go blowing it" (a phrase that continues the play's association of money with bodily emissions) (73).
Lincoln not only spends money but also, in an important sense, is money. A recurring motif in the play associates Lincoln with the five dollar bill (the American paper currency denomination that bears the image of President Lincoln) or at least with the number five. After divvying up Lincoln's pay (in his own favor), Booth asks Lincoln for a "5-spot" (41). Earlier, Lincoln tells how, dressed as the President, he asked a child on the bus for ten dollars in exchange for the autograph the boy asks for, and explains "I was gonna say 5, cause of the Lincoln connection" (15). During a practice game of monte Lincoln asks Booth to "slap" him "3" (82). Booth once refers to his brother in his Abe Lincoln costume as dressed up "like some dead president," "dead president" being a well-known term in American hip-hop culture for money (27). (4) A closer look at the character of Lincoln shows he represents several of the qualities typically associated with money. Marc Shell's analysis of the increasingly arbitrary relationship between the "face value" of money and the material out of which that money is made shows that this historical trend has "precipitated awareness of quandaries about the relationship between face value (intellectual currency) and substantial value (material currency)" (1). In Topdog/Underdog, Lincoln is the uncanny embodiment of this quandary. Always and everywhere in this play, Lincoln's words, actions, and mere appearance foreground the discrepancies between surface and meaning, nature and mimesis, intellectual and material value that so traumatize his younger brother Booth. To look at the issue of "essential" versus "surface" identity as embodied in Lincoln is to experience the vertigo of stripping away layer upon seemingly endless layer of meaning. On the surface Lincoln is dressed like the nation's sixteenth President, which includes (in addition to the familiar coat, stovepipe hat, and beard) whiteface make-up. The role Lincoln plays at his job also bleeds into his life outside work as we learn when he tells Booth that on his way home from the arcade, a child on the bus asked him for his autograph (15). "Underneath" this outward layer is a man trying to escape his past (as a three-card-monte hustler), an act his brother Booth tries to convince him is untrue to who he really is. Then of course, "Lincoln" happens to be the character's "real" name, but one, his father tells him, which was given him as "a joke" (29). (5) In the character of Lincoln, Parks sets up a situation in which simple distinctions between depth and surface, reality and performance refuse to hold.
Lincoln similarly problematizes distinctions between two ways of thinking about identity and about race: as "essential" or as "performed." Dressed as the President and wearing whiteface, Lincoln is an uncanny reminder of the performativity of identity. At the same time, the Abe Lincoln "get-up" makes us (and apparently would make Lincoln) intensely aware of Lincoln's (and the actor's) "blackness." The very effectiveness of Lincoln onstage dressed as Abe Lincoln relies on his blackness as an "essential" quality. In an essay she calls "Elements of Style," Parks uses the following example to illustrate her belief that "content determines form and form determines content; that form and content are interdependent": "I am an African American woman--this is the form I take, my content predicates this form, and this form is inseparable from my content. No way could I be me otherwise." (7, 8). Parks's statement shows her resisting the naturalist logic that recognizes everything as ontologically either content or form, nature or mimesis. Through her own chosen example and through the character of Lincoln in Topdog/Underdog, Parks demonstrates how this narrow naturalist logic has limited the ways we may think about who we are.
Clothing again becomes an important symbol of the paradoxical idea of identity Lincoln embodies. When Lincoln tries on a suit that Booth has stolen for him, the younger brother (unsurprisingly, given that character's notion that controlling signs allows one to control the real) tells Lincoln that the suit makes him "look like the real you" (34). For Booth, this "real" Lincoln that reappears via the stolen suit is the one who looks like Lincoln "used to look" before he stopped hustling and took a legitimate job (34).
Lincoln's ideas about clothes and identity, however, are more complicated. Although "[t]hey say the clothes make the man," he tells Booth, "[a]ll day long I wear that getup. But that dont make me who I am" (33). Here Lincoln tries to clearly differentiate between his "real" identity and the one he takes on to earn a living. Lincoln similarly corrects Booth, whose statements repeatedly seem to confuse Lincoln with the role he plays. "He shoot you?" Booth asks of one of Lincoln's "customers." Lincoln corrects him: "He shot Honest Abe, yeah" (38). Yet at other moments Lincoln's statements and actions regarding clothing seem to indicate doubt as to the seemingly hard line he would draw between surface and reality. We learn, for instance, that after his father left him and Booth, Lincoln burned his father's clothes. He tells Booth that he "got tired of looking at em without him in era, " but the need to utterly destroy the clothes is at odds with his statements downgrading the importance of clothes to the making of identity (33).
The importance of clothes--or the inextricable link between surface and "essential" identity--is also revealed in Lincoln's disturbed reaction to waking up in his "getup" in Scene Four. Before Lincoln states that he "[h]ate[s] falling asleep in this damn shit," Parks' stage directions tell us Lincoln "claws at his Lincoln getup, removing it and tearing it in the process" (59). Despite Lincoln's professed attitude when he first took this unusual job-"I would make a living at it," he says, "[b]ut it dont make me" (34)--he is clearly ill at ease regarding the difficulty of&awing a line between who he is and who he appears to be, and a confusion between his role and his "'real" self repeatedly breaks through to the surface. At one point he refers to the "[d]ust from the cap guns on the left shoulder where they shoot him, where they shoot me I should say but I never feel like they shooting me" (33).
This tangle of self and role is stated in brilliantly uncanny fashion in the words of a mysterious man Lincoln refers to as his "Best Customer" (38). This man accompanies his simulated shooting of Lincoln with statements like the following: "Does thuh show stop when no ones watching or does thuh show go on?" and "Yr only yrself [ ... ] when no ones watching" (39). The Best Customer is himself of murky identity. Lincoln says he "think[s]" the man is "a brother" but can't be sure; nor can he tell if the man knows that Lincoln is black. Booth, with unconscious irony, comments that the Best Customer is "a deep black brother"--this about a figure who taunts Lincoln with the notion that all is surface or that the distinction between depth and surface is ultimately an elusive one (39). The first statement of this avatar of the brothers' deepest anxieties questions the very existence of an "essential" self that does not involve some kind of performance. The second statement opens the door just a crack for the possibility of an essential self but limits its existence to very rare moments; in the world of the play as in life, someone is almost always "watching." In fact the "patter" Lincoln rattles off as he throws the cards in the confidence game of three-card monte includes the much-repeated phrase "watch me": "One good pick--11 get you in, 2 good picks and you gone win. Watch me come on watch me now" (62). The extent to which Lincoln has internalized a view of himself as something to be displayed may inform how he announces his own entrance (repeatedly) with a familiar magician's phrase for presenting the key effect of a trick: "Taaaaadaaaaaaaa!" (30, 86).
The enigmatic statements of the Best Customer, the paradoxical role of clothing (and, more specifically, of costume) as both concealer and creator of identity, the arbitrarily given yet ominously portentous historical names of the characters, and Lincoln's unusual job: all no doubt create a highly metatheatrical experience for an audience watching Topdog/Underdog performed on a stage. We may add to this list two additional metatheatrical elements that more explicitly tie the play's blurring of the distinction between surface and depth, or what Shell calls "intellectual" and "material currency," to money. The first of these elements is that of the family.
We are presented in the play with two brothers who are, in a sense, play-acting the traditional, nuclear-family roles of mother and father, each brother's role coinciding with the role of the parent who paid him his "inheritance." Booth, who received his money from his mother, acts what has been until recently the traditional role of the woman in the American nuclear family. He does not earn money, and he chooses clothes for both himself and Link. Booth even redecorates the apartment at one point, turning the crates he uses to practice monte into a table setting with "two nice chairs," "a lovely tablecloth," and "nice plates, sik,eru,are, champagne glasses and candles," as well as hanging new curtains and even placing "a doily-like object on the recliner" in anticipation of Grace's arrival (which of course never happens) (62-3).
Lincoln, who received his five hundred dollars from his father, plays the traditional role of the husband and father. He leaves the house to work every day and spends his time in the apartment on a recliner--that great symbol of masculine domestic leisure. These roles seem to be adopted by the brothers largely unconsciously; however, in the second scene of the play, the two engage in a very self-conscious, highly metatheatrical performance in which they play-act a stereotype of a Southern black family, even calling themselves "Ma" and "Pa" (30). Significantly, this scene centers on Lincoln's bringing home his week's pay. "Lordamighty, Pa, I smells money!" exclaims Booth as his brother enters. Answers Lincoln, "Sho nuff, Ma. Poppa done brung home thuh bacon" (30). The self-conscious minstrelsy continues as Lincoln brings the money to Booth with "a series of very elaborate moves" (30). Finally, Booth asks Lincoln to "[p]ut it in my hands." Lincoln insists "I want ya tuh smells it first, Ma!" and "Take yrself a good long whiff of them greenbacks" (30).
This highly ironic scene is crucial to understanding the symbolic role of money in the play. In their play-acting, Lincoln and Booth celebrate not the spending power of money--not the possibilities that having this money opens up--but the money as physical substance. As the work of Simmel and Shell points out, to emphasize this concrete, physical dimension of money is to emphasize what is at odds with the very nature of money, which is always undergoing what Simmel calls a continual process of "spiritualization," moving, in Shell's phrase, from "the electrum money of ancient Lydia" to "the electric money of contemporary America" (Poggi 161, Shell 1). As Michaels notes, it is precisely this need to see money as concrete essence that informed the rhetoric of the goldbugs and silver advocates in the American goldstandard controversies of the late nineteenth century, both of whom wanted to posit a "natural" money--a money that is what it represents--that is essentially a denial of money (147-8). By fetishizing the money as an object available to the senses, the brothers transform--if only for a moment--those threatening "greenbacks" (they even use that antiquated and physicalizing term from the gold-standard debates) into a concrete substance, reversing money's trend toward "spiritualization" and essentially denying its function as money. We should also remember that the boys' real family life was essentially replaced by money when the mother and father paid each brother and left. This fantasy of a return to the traditional American family then necessitates the repression of money.
A final metatheatrical element of Topdog/Underdog explicitly associated with the brothers' fear/repression of money is the confidence game of three-card monte that is at the very heart of the play. The "game" itself, like most confidence games, is highly theatrical, combining carefully orchestrated speech and movement designed to create a specific effect in the audience. The monte dealer is part of a "crew" that includes the "Sideman" (who pretends to play and win, thus luring unsuspecting marks to the game), a "Stickman" (here, an unspecified role with violent implications), and a "Lookout" (76). As Lincoln repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) tries to teach Booth, the various elements of the hustle - the talk (the "patter"), the moves, the eye contact--are all essential parts of the game. The game's great lesson is, ironically, just what Booth fears: the difficulty of reading signs, and the impossibility of the "mark's" discerning, in Lincoln's words, "what is" from "what aint" (77).
The great irony of Booth's desperation to acquire his brother's skill as a three-card monte master is that despite the street-tough attitude of his speech and actions, Booth persists in a kind of relentless idealism when it comes to the game. As Lincoln well knows, a good monte dealer never loses money to a customer; the dealer allows the player to gain a false confidence by winning a couple of rounds for small or no stakes, then fleeces him. The game, of course, is crooked. Yet Booth believes the player has a fair chance of winning, seeing the winning of the game as a combination of skill and luck. "Sure thered be some cats out there with fast eyes, some brothers and sisters who would watch real close and pick the right card, and so thered be some days when we would lose money," he tells his brother (24). Just a moment later, when Lincoln argues that his current job playing Abe Lincoln is not a "hustle" because his customers "know the real deal," Booth argues, "We do the card game people will know the real deal. Sometimes we will win sometimes they will win. They fast they win, we faster we win" (27). A little while later Booth says Lincoln "was lucky with the cards," and Lincoln again tries to show him the truth: "Cards aint luck. Cards is skill. Aint never nothing lucky about the cards" (40).
A more powerful instance of Booth's failure to see the essential nature of the game occurs in Scene Five. When Booth refers to the monte dealer's "customer," Lincoln sees an opportunity to correct his younger brother's misperception. "Thuh customer," Lincoln tells him, "is actually called the 'Mark,'" and then asks, "You know why?" Booth answers, "Cause hes thuh one you got yr eye on. You mark him with yr eye" (75). Booth utterly fails to see the violent implications in the terminology of the game, "mark" meaning not just that the player is marked by the dealer's eye but that he is a target. Along with older definitions of"mark" including "the quarry of a hawk," the Oxford English Dictionary lists meanings very close to Lincoln's: "[a]mong criminals: a person, property, etc., targeted for robbery or burglary; (also) an item to be stolen" and a "person who is easily persuaded, deceived, or taken advantage of; a victim targeted by a swindler, cheat, etc."
Booth's naivete about the game of monte is of a piece with his refusal to recognize any distinction between "business" relationships and "family" relationships--a trait that is, ironically, both the cause of Booth's tragedy and the only thing that may save him. Booth's desperate plans to "team up" with Lincoln are of course thinly veiled attempts to re-establish some kind of intimate connection with his brother. When, in the first scene, Booth proposes that he become Lincoln's "Stickman," Booth says he'd be "The one in the crowd who looks just like an innocent passerby, who looks just like another player, like just another customer, but who gots intimate connections with you" (24). These lines capture Booth's fear of the distanced, anonymous world of economic exchange and his desperate need to replace that with intimacy. He does not want to be "just another customer" but to have "intimate connections" with his brother (to whom he now refers not as "Lincoln" but, tellingly, as "link"--i.e. the link he needs to form with another human being) (24). Working the con with Lincoln is the only way Booth knows to try to re-establish the familial bond that was shattered when his parents left. "I didnt mind them leaving," says Booth, "cause you was there. Thats why Im hooked on us working together. If we could work together it would be like old times. [....] It was you and me against thuh world, Link. It could be like that again" (74). The extent of Booth's Lomanesque entangling of love with economic life may be measured by his apparent belief that his parents' paying him and his brother five hundred dollars each and abandoning them was an act of romantic love--evidence, reasons Booth, that the couple "had some agreement between them." "Somewhere in there when it looked like all they had was hate they sat down and did thuh 'split' budget," Booth reasons. "Theyd been scheming together all along. They left separately but they was in agreement. Maybe they arrived at the same time, maybe they renewed their wedding vows, maybe they got another family" (73).
If, in regard to the entangling of economic relationships with family relationships, Booth plays the naif, Lincoln assumes the role of disillusioning teacher. In Scene Five, during one of his attempts to teach Booth what he is not capable of learning about the life of the confidence artist, Lincoln stares at Booth in a manner that seems to unnerve his younger brother. The older brother explains, "Im sizing you up" (77). Booth's explosion only demonstrates his naivete "Oh yeah?! [...] Im on yr Side, Link, Im on yr team, you dont go sizing up yr own team. You save looks like that for yr Mark" (77). Lincoln is of course trying to teach Booth the tremendous price paid by the confidence artist: that, in this way of life, everyone is a potential "mark," and there is no "team" in the way Booth uses that term. "Dealer always sizes up the crowd," explains Lincoln. "Everybody out there is part of the crowd. His crew is part of the crowd, he himself is part of the crowd. Dealer always sizes up thuh crowd" (78). The level of alienation and distrust of all other people--and alienation and distrust even of himself("he himself," says Lincoln, "is part of the crowd" to be sized up)--is precisely what terrifies the younger Booth. (6) Thus Lincoln puts his own disillusioning spin on Booth's romantic notion of their parents' escape together. "Maybe they got 2 new kids," posits Lincoln. "2 boys. Different than us, though. Better" (73-4). Lincoln's brief statement replaces Booth's romantic fantasy with another vision, one in which money (in the form of those five hundred dollars "inheritance[s]") symbolizes the complete loss of the boys' individuality and their reduction to an easily replaceable commodity; if the parents don't like them, they can simply pay them off and find two "better" boys.
The apparent attitudes of Lincoln and Booth toward three-card monte--Booth's desperately idealistic vision and Lincoln's disillusioned, "realist" one--are part of what emerges in the play as a complex meditation on the nature of the real. An uncanny manifestation of money and its seeming ability to make the real unreal and the unreal real, Lincoln is unsurprisingly at the heart of this meditation. While Lincoln has in one sense given up the life of the confidence man, his "legitimate" occupation as a pretend Abraham Lincoln is, as Booth tells him, still a kind of "hustle," though Lincoln insists on the distinction that his current customers "know the real deal"--that is, the customers know that this is all make-believe. "When people know the real deal," insists Lincoln, "it aint a hustle" (26-7). Yet the words of the mysterious man Lincoln calls his "Best Customer" undermine Lincoln's tidy distinction. "Does thuh show stop when no ones watching or does thuh show go on?" and "Yr only yrself [...] when no ones watching" (38, 39).
When Lincoln tells Booth that there has been talk at the arcade of replacing him with a wax figure (unsurprising since Lincoln, as money incarnate, represents money's tendency to reduce all to a least common denominator, to make all ultimately replaceable), the younger brother suggests Lincoln "jazz up" his "act" by making his death scenes at the arcade more realistic (40). In Scene Three Parks stages another highly metatheatrical episode where Booth repeatedly pretends to shoot Lincoln and the older brother holds his head, moans, and generally goes (as the stage directions tell us) "all out" (56-7). The result is that Lincoln's acting makes the scene look "too real"--an unacceptable result, as Lincoln explains: "They don't want it looking too real. I'd scare the customers. [....] People are funny about they Lincoln shit. Its historical. People like they historical shit in a certain way. They like it to unfold the way they folded it up. Neatly like a book. Not raggedy and bloody and screaming" (57). The lines contradict Lincoln's earlier statement that his current customers know the "real deal"; they are certainly, it seems, fooling themselves with Lincoln's help, transforming the "raggedy and bloody and screaming" reality of history into a clean, bloodless affair. While the arcade obscures one kind of reality by giving people their history the way they'd prefer to see it, Lincoln, in his role as the President, does gain momentary access to the real in an interesting way. At his job, he explains, he is not able to look directly at the people who shoot him, since he is "supposed to be staring straight ahead. Watching a play, like Abe was" (53-4). The "assassins," whom Lincoln describes as groups of schoolchildren, businessmen, "[t]ourists in they theme park t-shirts trying to catch it all on film," and "[h]ousewives with they mouths closed tight, shooting more than once," walk up behind Lincoln and "shoot" him from a spot marked on the carpet (54-5). While his back is to his shooter, Lincoln explains that he can see the shooter's upside-down reflection in a dented metal fusebox. He describes the encounter:
And when the gun touches me he can feel that Im warm and he knows Im alive. And if Im alive then he can shoot me dead. And for a minute, with him hanging back there behind me, its real. Me looking at him upside down and him looking at me looking like Lincoln. Then he shoots. (54)
Here, any simple distinction between real and unreal is shattered. The encounter is in one sense marked by several levels of artificiality. First, all of this is happening, of course, on a stage before an audience. Within the play, Lincoln is of course playing the role of President Lincoln. The schoolchildren are costumed in their "uniforms." The tourists' "theme park t-shirts" and their attempts to "catch it all on film" denote the artificiality of their encounter (54-5). Yet in the midst of this highly artificial encounter, the upside-down reflection of the dented fusebox seems to play a kind of defamiliarizing role that permits the participants access to reality, if only for a moment.
Significantly, Lincoln describes the reflective box that gives him access to the real as "Silver metal" (54). Michaels describes the "logic of naturalism" (a logic born of the fear and repression of money) as one that divides the world into two categories: those things that are, simply and essentially, "real," and those things that pretend to be something else entirely. Michaels locates this bifurcated view in the gold-standard debates of the late nineteenth century, where gold or silver (depending on which side of the argument you were on) was seen as "real" and the paper money that would become these precious metals' equivalent as deceptively imitative. The aesthetic analog to this logic, according to Michaels, is a view that sees all aesthetic objects as either natural beauty or "mimesis." A sunset, notes Michaels, is (according to this logic) either just a sunset or, in the familiar phrase, "pretty as a postcard." "It is as if we can love the sunset either as a sunset or as the representation of a painting," but not as both simultaneously (157). What this logic is incapable of conceiving is that, just as the mimetic properties of gold are an essential part of its "reality" (and its assumed reality an essential part of its mimetic role), "natural" beauty and mimesis are dialectically involved in one another.
In his analysis of Norris's novel McTeague, Michaels locates one character who does seem able to think outside this logic. The miser (and junk-shop owner) Zerkow, notes Michaels, loves Maria's stories about her lost gold tea service (mimetic representations of gold) as much as he loves gold itself. Writes Michaels, the "distinction between his desire for gold and his desire for the description gets lost" because "the representation is here understood to be an essential part of the gold itself":
If Zerkow's fancy is a mirror that reflects the gold, and if Maria's language is a mirror that reproduces it in simile, then the gold itself is also a mirror, so that in taking the representation for the thing itself, Zerkow is not making some quixotic mistake about fictions and the real but is instead rightly recognizing the representation as an ontological piece of the thing. (158-9)
In Topdog/Underdog, Lincoln's meditation on the highly artificial, theme-park encounter with his make-believe "assassin" becoming momentarily "real" as the event is reflected in the "Silver metal" of the dented fusebox is, like Zerkow's refusal to distinguish between actual gold and stories about gold, not evidence of the character's failure to distinguish real from imitation but rather evidence of the imitative's inextricable link to the real, and vice versa. Escaping the narrow logic of naturalism, Lincoln's experience is both mimetic and real.
Parks's placing the character of Lincoln--that "dead president" or money embodied--at the center of this scene involving the dialectical relation of reality and mimesis thematically associates that dialectic with money. As the play reaches its climax, that association is deepened through Booth's final lessons in three-card monte. As a good confidence artist would, Lincoln apparently allows Booth to win two rounds of the game. The younger brother still, of course, does not understand the fundamentally misleading character of the game and struts around after each success. Then something about the game bothers him. "You gotta do it for real, man," he tells his brother. "It didnt feel real" (101). Lincoln, who understands the game as a type of theatre (and understands that the seemingly superficial or theatrical elements of the game are simultaneously irreplaceable parts of the game's "reality") explains that several of the "essential elements"--"[t]he crowd, the street, thuh traffic sounds, all that"--are "missing," but Booth is focused on what is, to his mind, the one element that can make the game "real." "We missing something else too, thuh thing thatll really make it real [...] Thuh cash. Its just bullshit without thuh money. Put some money down on thuh table then itd be real, then youd do it for real, then I'd win it for real" (101). Lincoln obliges: "I put my money down," he says, "[m]oney makes it real" (103). Booth, obliged now to match Lincoln's five hundred dollars bet, puts down that nylon stocking containing (he assumes) five hundred dollars: his "inheritance." "Now its real," he declares, having placed his bet (105). Of course, in the third round of the game, Lincoln wins Booth's money.
In these last moments of the play, money takes on the full complement of its complex associations. In The Philosophy of Money, Simmel writes that money, by placing a specific, "concrete," measurable value on what is subjectively desired, "transforms subjective feelings into objective valuation" (Simmel 90). In this sense money does, as Booth says, make things "real." At the same time, notes Simmel, money "as abstract value expresses nothing but the relativity of things that constitute value" (Simmel 121). Money, in Simmel's formulation, offers a kind of "reality" at the cost of making all else, in a sense, less real. Remember that Booth repeatedly demonstrates a preference for symbols over reality. Just as Willy Loman prefers the idea of his son Biff (or the romantic memory of Biff) to the actual, concrete Biff, (7) Booth exists inside the relative safety of imagined sex, the lies he tells himself about Grace's love, and his grandiose plans for the future; he is always "scheming and dreaming," to use a phrase repeatedly associated with Booth throughout the play (92). The money wrapped in his mother's nylon stocking is a powerful symbol of Booth's preference for symbol over the real. He has neither spent this money nor even untied the stocking to verify the money's existence. As long as the package remains unopened, Booth can believe what he wants to believe. As Lincoln says, not realizing that this is exactly why Booth never untied the stocking, "There could be millions in here! There could be nothing!" (110). Lincoln, as the incarnation of money in this play, relentlessly taunts Booth with doubts concerning the reality Booth desperately needs to believe in but suspects does not exist. Lincoln wonders aloud if he and Booth are even brothers; Booth answers "I think we're brothers" (107). Lincoln says of their mother, "she handed you this stocking and she said there was money in it and then she split and you say you didn't open it. Howd you know she was for real?" (110). Booth simply answers "She was for real," but Lincoln persists in disillusioning his younger brother, culminating in his final lesson on the game of monte. It is "thuh first move," he tells Booth, "that separates thuh Player from thuh Played":
And thuh first move is to know that there aint no winning. [....] It may look like you got a chance but the only time you pick right is when thuh man lets you. And when its thuh real deal, when its the real fucking deal, bro, and thuh moneys on the line, thats when thuh man wont want you picking right. He will want you picking wrong so he will make you pick wrong. (111)
Booth wanted to make things "real" by playing for money, but the real is exactly what he most fears. So we may not be surprised to learn, in the closing moments of the play, that Booth has killed Grace, thus removing the possibility of replacing his symbolic sex life with an actual one. Grace apparently paid with her life for trying to force Booth to face reality. "Who the luck she think she is," asks Booth, "[t]elling me I don't got nothing going on" (112). Lincoln's threatening to cut open the nylon stocking to expose the reality (the existence or the non-existence) of Booth's "inheritence" is similarly something Booth cannot let happen. "We know whats in it," insists Booth, "Don't open it" (110). When Lincoln learns that Booth has shot and killed Grace, the older brother seems to grasp the extent of Booth's fear of the actual and reverses course, trying to give the stocking back to Booth. Now it is Booth who orders Lincoln to "OPEN IT!!!" (113). As Lincoln brings the knife down, Booth shoots and kills him. Now Booth can remain inside the imaginary world he has created. He is, he announces, now no longer Booth but "3 Card," a name he insists will "be in everybodys head and in everybodys mouth like Link was" (114). Booth's intense need to control symbols (and thus, he thinks, control the real) ultimately leaves him alone in his own hell: a small room where nothing enters or exits--what Una Chaudhuri describes in a performance review as "a room with a vengeance" (289).
Parks has written about what she calls "the special strange relationship between theatre and real-life" ("Possession" 4). Since a play is not simply a text but a specific event that, as Parks writes, "actually happens," each of her plays functions as "an incubator to create 'new' historical events." 'Tin re-membering and staging historical events which," writes Parks, "through their happening on stage, are ripe for inclusion in the canon of history. Theatre is an incubator for the creation of historical events--and, as in the case of artificial insemination, the baby is no less human" (4-5). Katy Ryan correctly points out that this statement implies "an understanding that history is always mediated knowledge" (Ryan 83). Haike Frank adds that Parks's view of theatre as "actually happen[ing]" "seem[s] to suggest that reality is based on subjective representation and that an objective version of reality, including historical reality, can only be achieved by a multiplicity of perspectives" (Frank 5). The (deceptively) simple distinction between the real and the mimetic that Michaels locates as the obsession of naturalism is thus undermined by Parks' dramaturgy. As Parks undermines a simple distinction between the real and the mimetic, so does she explode the dichotomy of text/performance. As W.B. Worthen points out, Parks's plays tend to be at once self-consciously performative in their use of repetition and metatheatre, and highly textual in their focus on the "mediating role of print in our understanding of history" (Worthen 4-5). Unlike a playwright such as Mamet who, despite his plays' forays into the postmodern, insists on the written text's ability to contain the play's "meaning," (8) Parks recognizes a dialectical relationship between text and performance.
The complex model of perception that is ultimately endorsed by the play finds its metaphor in the game of monte as described by Lincoln. As he tries to teach Booth, the truth lies not in words alone (the "patter"), nor in the lightening-fast movements of the dealer. Word and body, "talk" and action, are both necessary, as are what Lincoln refers to as the other "essential elements"--"[t]he crowd, the street, thuh traffic sounds, all that" (103). This is ultimately a highly theatrical model of perception and one that clearly informs Suzan-Lori Parks' stagecraft.
In Topdog/Underdog, as in other plays she has written, Parks employs what she calls her own "slightly unconventional theatrical elements" ("Author's Note" 5). The first she calls a "(Rest)" and represents a place where the actor should "Take a little time, a pause, a breather; make a transition." The second and more significant one for our focus here Parks calls a "Spell." Denoted in the text by the character's name in all capital letters with no dialogue attached, Parks describes the Spell as "a place where the characters experience their pure true simple state." "While no action or stage business is necessary," explains Parks, "directors should fill this moment as they best see fit." Parks writes that the "feeling" of a Spell is that of a daguerreotype, or the "music of [the] spheres." A Spell is "a place of great (unspoken) emotion" and also "a place for an emotional transition" ("From 'Elements of Style'" 16-17). At first glance Parks's apparently essentialist notion of a character's "pure true simple state" seems itself an instance of the fear/repression of language at the heart of what Michaels calls the "logic of naturalism" and which is often associated in literature with money. However, Parks only employs the Spell as one element among others, including (of course) the word. (9) Thus Parks demonstrates how the drama is uniquely placed to escape the narrow logic of naturalism. Michaels proposes that for naturalist writers like Norris, "The attraction of writing is that it escapes this logic." Unlike other media such as painting, writing is "In]either a formal entity in itself nor an illusionistic image of something else," and so "it marks the potential discrepancy between material and identity, the discrepancy that makes money, painting, and, ultimately, persons possible" (Michaels 169-70). Yet as various formalist critical schools have shown, writing still does lend itself to a reduction to "formal entity." In theatre, on the other hand, the written text of the play is only one part of the play's totality. Writers like Parks who consciously employ the actors' and the director's non-verbal contributions to the creation of character and of drama on stage go perhaps further than the writer of fiction can go in creating works that explore the dialectical relation of material to identity, action to talk, material value to face value--a dialectic embodied in money.
(1.) Here and throughout the paper, the italics are in the original (usually as stage directions).
(2.) Being able to give your phone number to a woman, according to Booth, tells her "3 things: 1) you got a home [...] 2) that you is in possession of a telephone and a working telephone number" which in turn sends the signal that "you together enough to pay yr bills" (3). Finally, the phone number offered to a woman is "telling her that its cool to call if she should so please, that is, that you aint got no wife or wife approximation on the premises" (36-7).
(3.) Here it is interesting to compare Booth's need to control language with the similar need in Mamet's characters. For an analysis of this aspect of American Buffalo see Dietrick.
(4.) There is also a five-year difference in the ages of the brothers.
(5.) Even on a purely literary level, Lincoln simultaneously opens and closes a space between the authentic and the mimetic. He is preceded by another character who portrays Abraham Lincoln for a living in Parks' The America Play, though the playwright insists Lincoln (of Topdog/Underdog) is "unrelated to the first guy" ("Introduction" 4).
(6.) The roles of Lincoln and Booth, in this regard, are very similar to the roles of Teach and Don in Mamet's American Buffalo; in each pair, the former emerges as the perfectly uncanny manifestation of the latter's deepest anxieties regarding economic life.
(7.) Linda explains to Biff near the close of the first act: "When you write you're coming, he's all smiles, and talks about the future, and--he's just wonderful. And then the closer you seem to come, the more shaky he gets, and then, by the time you get here, he's arguing, and he seems angry at you" (351). Biff's concrete presence refuses to jibe with Willy's idealistic vision of his son.
(8.) "I don't want to hear some actor's good ideas," Mamet once said in interview. "I and you and everyone [...] has the capacity to go to a library and understand what the author meant" (Kane 202).
(9.) As Jennifer Johung points out in her discussion of this device in the excerpt "Scene of Love(?)" from Parks's play Venus, the Spell is also another way Parks explodes a simple distinction between text and performance: "it "necessitates an adjustment in the way that readers and producers of Parks's work think about the intersections between the activities of writing and performing, as well as the interactions between the interpretation of the written marks on the page and the embodiment of the corporeal markings of performers onstage" (41).
Chaudhuri, Una. Rev. of Topdog/Underdog, by Suzan-Lori Parks. Theatre Journal 54.2 (2002): 289-291.
Dietrick, Jon. "Real Classical Money: Naturalism and David Mamet's American Buffalo." Twentieth-Century Literature. Forthcoming.
Frank, Haike. "The Instability of Meaning in Suzan-Lori Parks's The America Play." American Drama 11.2 (2002): 4-20.
Goux, Jean-Joseph. Symbolic Economies: After Marx and Freud. Trans. Jennifer Curtiss Gage. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1990.
Johung, Jennifer. "Figuring the 'Spells'/Spelling the Figures: Suzan-Lori Parks's 'Scene of Love (?)." Theatre Journal 58.1 (2006): 39-52.
Kane, Leslie. David Mamet in Conversation. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2001.
Mamet, David. American Buffalo. New York: Grove Press, 1996.
Michaels, Walter Benn. "The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism." The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism: American Literature at the Turn of the Century. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Penguin, 1977. Oxford English Dictionary Online. 1989. 19 July 2006. http://dictionary.oed.com>.
Parks, Suzan-Lori. "From Elements of Style." The America Play and Other Works. New York: TCG, 1995. 6-18.
--Topdog/Underdog. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 2002.
Poggi, Gianfranco. Money and the Modern Mind: Georg Simmel's Philosophy of Money. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.
Ryan, Katy. "'No Less Human': Making History in Suzan-Lori Parks's The America Play."Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 13.2 (1999): 81-84.
Shell, Marc. Money, Language, and Thought: Literary and Philosophical Economies from the Medieval to the Modern Era. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993.
Simmel, Georg. The Philosophy of Money. Ed. David Frisby. Trans. Tom Bottomore and David Frisby. London: Routledge, 1990.
Worthen, W.B. "Citing History: Textuality and Performativity in the Plays of Suzan-Lori Parks." Essays in Theatre/Etudes Theatrales 18.1 (1999): 3-22.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2007|
|Previous Article:||At war with John Wayne: masculinity, violence, and the Vietnam war in Emily Mann's Still Life.|
|Next Article:||Nurturing and murderous mothers in Suzan-Lori Parks's In the Blood and Fucking A.|
|Awards spotlight. (News).|
|Getting Mother's Body.|
|`Topdog/Underdog' is electric.|
|Nurturing and murderous mothers in Suzan-Lori Parks's In the Blood and Fucking A.|