As Bees in Honey Drown
As Bees in Honey Drown
DOUGLAS CARTER BEANE
As Bees in Honey Drown is a comedy about the pitfalls of the unquenchable hunger for fame. Eager almost-famous painters, singers, musicians, business managers, and, of course, authors—the occupation of the protagonist of this play—are displayed as easily trapped victims of con artists who promise big, but empty, dreams.
The play opened in New York City at the Drama Department (where playwright Douglas Carter Beane is the cofounder and artistic director) on June 19, 1997. But four weeks later, the play moved to the Lucille Lortel Theatre in the West Village, where it played for a year and earned Beane the prestigious Outer Critics Circle John Gassner playwriting award (1998) and a nomination for the Drama Desk Best Play. Most critics concur that As Bees in Honey Drown is Beane's best play to date. Audiences seem to agree, as the play continues to travel around the United States, playing in most major cities as well as on many college campuses.
According to Stefan Kanfer, for the New Leader, much has been written in literature about con artists. But most of the con artists previously depicted have been men. Beane, however, has concocted a female version, which Kanfer describes as a "postmodern lady no better than she has to be, in a world considerably worse than it ought to be." Her name is Alexa Vere de Vere. And although Evan Wyler, an author and the alter ego of the playwright, is the protagonist of this play, Alexa is the focal point. She is pretty, intelligent, and creative. But she is also very crooked. However, she would not be as successful as she is if so many people were not so willing to take the shortcut to fame and fortune that she offers them. And that is the hub around which this play revolves.
Douglas Carter Beane has stated that his first and foremost passion is theatre. He has written and directed numerous plays and is the co-founder and artistic director of an avant-guard theatre group in New York called the Drama Department. But, Beane has not limited his writing experiences to live performance plays. He is also a screenwriter, having written his first movie script while he was babysitting for some friends. Beane is also working on a script for a television series.
Beane has won many awards, but his As Bees in Honey Drown (1997) gathered the most praise. It was an off-Broadway hit that won the 1998 Outer Critics Circle John Gassner playwriting award and garnered a nomination for the Drama Desk Best Play. Most critics refer to As Bees in Honey Drown as Beane's best work.
Some of Beane's other plays include The Country Club (1999); Advice from a Caterpillar (1999), which was made into a movie the same year and won an award for the best film at the Aspen Comedy Festival; Music from a Sparkling Planet (2001); Mondo Drama (2003); and the musical comedies The Big Time (2004) and soon to be produced Lysistrata Jones.
In 1995, Beane took a break from theatre and wrote the screenplay To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, which starred Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes, who play drag queens. In the works is another movie written by Beane called How Life Is and a 2005 release called Bewitched.
Act 1, Life
Beane's play As Bees in Honey Drown opens with the main character, Evan Wyler, in a photographer's studio, having his picture taken for a magazine promotion of his first novel. The photographer convinces Evan that the way to sell his novel is for Evan to remove his shirt. Although Evan hesitates, in the end, it is this half-nude photograph that is published. It is also this photograph that attracts the attention of Alexa Vere de Vere, who appears in the next scene, wining and dining Evan.
Alexa is not only beautiful to look at, she is also very flashy. She throws high profile names around almost as readily as she spends cash. She flatters Evan as they eat lunch and cajoles him into working with her, writing the story of her life. She also carefully choreographs an image of herself as being well endowed financially but in great need of assistance with almost every other aspect of her life. She also makes huge promises, which catches Evan, who dreams of money and fame. He is also taken in by her neediness.
Scene 3 opens inside the dressing room of a swanky department store. Evan is being assisted by a clerk named Ronald. Alexa whisks in and out of the room, bringing new accessories with her and stopping briefly to admire how good Evan looks in his new suit. As Evan is distracted, Alexa also shops for herself. When it comes time to pay, she asks Evan, as she had previously asked him in the restaurant, to pay for everything with his credit card. She will, she promises, repay him in cash, as she did in the restaurant. Only this time, in the confusion she has intentionally caused, she starts to hand Evan the money, then, while he is not looking, Alexa stuffs the money back into her own pocket. She does this, however, only after giving Ronald some of the loose bills. Ronald is part of Alexa's con. He promotes her while Evan is dressing, dropping tidbits of information about how much Alexa has helped other almost-famous personalities become bright and successful stars. Then, Alexa rushes Evan out of the department store before he has time to think or remember that he has not yet been reimbursed for the credit card charges that he just signed for.
In the next scene, Alexa tells Evan, while they drive in a limousine, that she has lived an extraordinary life that needs to be recorded. She believes that her life will make a great movie. She is too busy to write it because she is so involved in living it. So she asks Evan to write it for her. As she begins relating details, Evan struggles to make sense of it all. He even, at one point, questions the veracity of her story. She mentions events that could only have happened before she was born. Alexa slips away from this confrontation by stating that she is only adding dramatic effect.
The scene becomes very distracting again as more people enter. Swen, a male model, Skunk, a rock star, and his backup singers join the couple in the limousine as they head for a very hip nightclub. Alexa dominates the conversation and continually drops the names of famous people. She consciously builds her image until she is seen as bigger than life. As they are sitting in the nightclub, a so-called friend of Alexa's, Carla, makes a brief appearance. Carla collaborates and reinforces Alexa's make-believe role as maker of rising stars. Carla pretends to be interested in promoting Evan herself. Alexa insists that Evan is her find, and she will take care of his future.
Scene 5 takes place on the Staten Island Ferry. Alexa and Evan are alone. Alexa further enhances the fantasy of Evan's future. "You're not the person you were born," Alexa tells Evan. "Who wonderful is? You're the person you were meant to be." Alexa asks about Evan's background in this scene and after he tells her about it, she has him throw his old clothes into the water, as he says good-bye to his old self.
Evan and Alexa are in a bedroom at the Hotel Royalton in scene 6. Evan is unsuccessfully attempting to write the story of Alexa's life. He tells her that he is not the kind of writer who can easily see into other people's heads and understand the motivations behind their actions. He asks Alexa more probing questions to help him understand her past. Alexa gives in and tells him about how her husband committed suicide. This draws Evan even closer to her, especially when Alexa states that she is nothing and is unworthy of love. Shortly after this, Evan, a homosexual, makes love to Alexa and tells her that he loves her.
Evan gets beaten up in scene 7 by Skunk, the rock star. Skunk has discovered that Alexa is not going to pay him money she has promised him. Skunk believes that Evan is in on the swindle and punches him mercilessly. He calls Evan a grifter, which is another word for a con man. In the following scene, Evan is on the phone. He is bleeding and confused and trying to get a hold of Morris Kaden, an executive at Delta Records, where Alexa has told Evan she is a manager. When Kaden's secretary hangs up on him, stating that she has never heard of Alexa, Evan calls the hotel where he was last with her. The hotel clerk tells Evan that Alexa has checked out. The clerk also informs Evan that there is an outstanding bill that Alexa has said Evan will pay. Act 1 ends with Evan crying out: "It isn't true. It isn't true, isn't true!"
Act 2, Art
Scene 1 is very brief. The audience watches Alexa begin her con with yet another victim. Then scene 2 quickly takes over, in which Evan, still bleeding, enters Morris Kaden's office. When Evan mentions Alexa's name, Kaden takes Evan into his private office, where he tells Evan everything he knows about her. Morris was once a victim of Alexa's too. He tells Evan to forget about the incident, to accept it as a very serious lesson. As Morris talks, a vision of Alexa from the past seeps through. She is using the same lines on Evan that she has used on everyone else, and Evan realizes how badly he has been taken by her.
"Doesn't anyone ever get her back?" Evan asks Morris. "Most people have lives," Morris answers. But Evan wants revenge. Morris provides a few leads as Evan hopes to track down Alexa.
In scene 3, Evan is on the phone talking to a dancer named Illya Mannon, who confesses she too was conned by Alexa. Illya gives Evan a few more names of victims, including Michael Stabinsky, whom Evan contacts and makes arrangements to meet.
The next scene takes place in Michael's studio/loft. The two men, in the course of their discussion about Alexa, discover they are both homosexual, and there is a bit of sexual tension displayed between them. As they talk, Michael fills out the true background of Alexa, including her real name, which is Brenda Gelb, and how she started her con game when she helped Michael, who is a painter, sell some of his work. The one piece that did not sell, Michael confides, is the one he calls As Bees in Honey Drown.
As Evan is about to leave Michael's loft, scene 5 bleeds into the present, and the audience watches a young violinist, Ginny Cameron, who is being persuaded by a photographer to pose half-naked for a shot that will be used in a magazine to promote her. Ginny is then seen talking to Alexa, who wants to meet with her. Next, Ginny is on the phone with Evan, who finds out that Ginny is scheduled to meet Alexa at the Four Seasons restaurant. Evan then plans his revenge. Evan calls Morris, Skunk, Illya, and several others, all of them Alexa's victims. He tells them to gather at the Four Seasons where he hopes Alexa will appear.
In scene 6, Evan returns to his apartment and listens to his telephone messages. He hears the voices of some of the people who plan to meet at the restaurant. The last voice he hears is that of Ginny, who tells Evan that she made a mistake and told Alexa about Evan's plan of revenge. As he turns, Evan sees that Alexa is standing in his apartment. She tells Evan that he is very much like her and he should join her in her escapades. They would make a great team. She tries to convince him that the life of a writer is really very boring. She kisses Evan. He tells her that he has talked to Michael and tells Alexa to leave. She says he is not a good writer. He tells her that he does not need her.
The revenge party at the Four Seasons went on even though Alexa was missing. In scene 7, Illya and Morris give an accounting of how great the get-together was.
Scene 8 takes place in Michael's loft. They talk about art. Evan feels lost. He has lost his muse. Michael is still very much involved in painting. Michael gives Evan the notebook Evan left at Michael's place the last time he visited. The book is filled with notes that Evan took throughout his encounters with Alexa.
Scene 9 begins with a dialog between unnamed muses. They mimic bits of conversation that took place between Evan and Alexa. Michael appears briefly, suggesting that Evan and he have developed a relationship and are living together. Evan is writing. As he continues to write, Alexa appears in Morris's office. She is angry about having just seen Evan's new book, in which Evan has recounted their affair. Alexa wants to sue Evan. Illya appears, reading Evan's book. She reads some of the lines out loud. Then, Evan joins her and so does Morris.
A young violinist, Ginny is first seen in a photographer's studio, similar to the first scene of the play in which Evan is being photographed. Ginny is naked from the waist up (also similar to Evan's scene), and the photographer convinces her that her photograph in a magazine will bring her recognition. Shortly afterwards, Alexa calls Ginny because she has seen her picture. Evan uses Ginny to help set up his revenge, but Ginny warns Alexa before the damage is done.
Carla makes a very brief appearance in act 1, while Alexa and Evan visit a posh nightclub. Carla comes across as an old friend of Alexa's and substantiates Alexa's contrived background, making Evan believe Alexa's story more fully. Obviously, Carla is in cahoots with Alexa's scheme.
See Alexa Vere de Vere
Alexa claims to work for Morris Kaden, an executive at Delta Records. But later, when Evan goes to Kaden to see if he can help track down Alexa, Evan learns that Morris too has been one of Alexa's victims. Morris tells Evan to let go of the experience. He suggests that Evan consider the money he has lost as tuition in the school of life.
A dancer and also a victim of Alexa's, Illya provides Evan with yet another possible lead in how to find Alexa.
Ronald is a clerk in a department store. He helps Evan try on a suit, as Alexa picks out ties, shoes, and perfume for Evan. Ronald is in on Alexa's con job. He promotes her, offering an authentic-sounding background for Alexa in which he alludes to other up-and-coming stars whom she has helped.
Skunk is a rock singer from London. Like Evan, Skunk is duped by Alexa. Unfortunately for Evan, Skunk believes that Evan is Alexa's accomplice and beats him up.
Michael is a painter and the only person in the play who knew Alexa Vere de Vere when she was still Brenda Gelb. Although Michael benefited from an artist showing that Brenda/Alexa put together for his benefit, Michael did not appreciate how she conned everyone into coming to the show and buying his paintings. When Evan hunts down Michael in order to find out about Alexa, Michael flirts with Evan and suggests that they try out a relationship between themselves. The character of Michael is used to clear up the mystery of Alexa as well as to provide the antithesis of Alexa for Evan's sake. As Evan wonders about his sexuality, he is presented with the choice of a heterosexual relationship with Alexa or a homosexual one with Michael. Michael also contrasts with Alexa in his open-faced honesty and sincerity.
While Alexa dictates the story of her life to Evan in a limousine, they stop and pick up Swen, a male model who barely speaks English.
Alexa refers to Bethany as an alleged actress who was also a masochist. Alexa uses the story of Bethany to suggest that love is painful. Bethany was also conned by Alexa, and she provides Evan with some background information that helps his investigation of Alexa.
Alexa Vere de Vere
Alexa is a beautiful con artist (here real name is Brenda Gelb) and is the antagonist of this play. She appears in the beginning of the drama as a well-to-do promoter of artists. She throws a lot of money around and claims that money has no hold on her. She promises great things to people who want to believe in her vision. Unfortunately, except for her ability to inspire, Alexa is a fraud. She is like an angler who baits her hook and tempts a hungry fish with a free meal only to snatch the eager creature out of the water and leave it gasping for oxygen. Her first successful con involves her friend Michael Stabinsky, a painter. And from there, she cons several musical artists and eventually the protagonist Evan Wyler. One positive thing that can be said of Alexa is that she is good at what she does. Her visions are filled with grandeur and passion, and it is through these gifts that she inspires the people around her. She provides the dream but not the means to the dream. And the cost of her vision for her victims is fairly steep. Part of her scheme to entrance her targeted victims is that she pretends to be helpless about many things in her life, a victim herself.
See Evan Wyler
Evan (who changed his name from Eric Wollenstein) is a novelist who acts as the protagonist in this drama. He is looking for fame and fortune at the time he meets Alexa Vere de Vere. Evan enjoys the lavish attention and convincing hype that Alexa pours on him. Eventually, although homosexual, Evan makes love to Alexa and surprises himself when his heart opens up to her. But Alexa is not sincere, and Evan falls hard when he discovers that Alexa is a fraud. He loses a lot of money because he believes in Alexa and her dreams. But he is especially affected by his emotional connection to her. The second part of the play deals with Evan's attempts at finding the truth about Alexa, if there is any. Although it appears that Evan seeks to avenge the wrath that Alexa has caused, Evan's real motive is to fit together all the pieces of the puzzle in order to figure out not only the enigma of Alexa but also to discover the truth about himself. Is he an artist? Is he homosexual? Can he love? In the end he discovers that no matter what happens to him, he can turn it into something creative and worthwhile.
The topic of art is discussed rather obliquely and on many different levels in this play. Evan mentions his need to create his art when Alexa tries to lure him into joining her in her con game. Evan also describes the challenges he faces in his specific art form when he is with Michael. Because of what Alexa has done to him, Evan says he has lost the "arrogance" he needs to write. This arrogance is what he needs to believe that he could write something that someone else would be interested in reading. This is a possible allusion, readers can assume, to the playwright's own challenges. Beane might be implying that unless an artist is creating only to satisfy some inner need to express himself or herself, that level of arrogance has to be rather high. It takes a lot of arrogance, or confidence, to expose the inner workings of one's mind (as represented by a book, a painting, a play, or a musical performance) to a critical audience made up of mostly strangers.
Art looked at through the eyes of the character Alexa, however, takes on a different image. Alexa sees the production of art as drudgery, with little excitement and a lot of work involved in it. The thrill lasts for but a brief time—at the very beginning of the work and at the ending. And every time artists produce new works, they put their previously earned reputation on the line. They have to prove themselves and their skills over and over again.
Art, through Evan's eyes, is difficult. He produces his art in an attempt to connect with other people. But he knows that there are people out there who want to criticize what he has written or want to take advantage of his skills, but he does it anyway. Michael, in another version of the artist, wants to be left alone to paint. He works diligently to perfect the small details of his work, e.g., his intense focus on creating an image of a human ear. These men are driven by their art. They would like to be able to make a living from it, but that is not why they do it.
- There are many movies that have been made about con artists, such as The Flim Flan Man (1967), The Sting (1973), The Paper Moon (1973), The Grifters (1991), and the Matchstick Men (2003). Watch two or more of these movies and then write a report on the different techniques that the con artists used. What were their goals? Did they succeed or were they caught? How did they dupe their victims?
- Research the energy company Enron. Would you call what they did a con game? Layout the details of the company's crime as vividly as you can. Then present an argument either for or against the company executives and their actions.
- Victor Lustig has been called one of the greatest con artists of all times. Research this man's history. How did he con people? Do you think he would get away with his tricks today? Why or why not?
- Highlight the few times in this play that the phrase "as bees in honey drown" is mentioned. Study the context in which they are stated. Then write a paper discussing your interpretation of this phrase in terms of art, culture, and entertainment in the United States.
And then, in contrast but also in some comparison, there is the con artist, as represented by Alexa. This is a totally different form of art. It is illegitimate and sometimes illegal. But conning takes special skills and a great deal of arrogance, as does any musical or dramatic performance. And it is a performance. The con artist is an actor whose stage is the public arena. His or her audience is the victim. One would think it was not as fulfilling as creating a work of art, but the con artist might not agree. Alexa believes that art is boring; whereas her con games are thrilling and charged with the pizzazz that every artist craves.
Fame and Fortune
Fame like honey, according to Beane's play, can give one a rush of sweet pleasure or it can drown one. It is as alluring as a Greek siren, promising allusive treasures. But like the sirens, the voice of fame also can cause disaster. Con artists like Alexa would not exist if people were not so vulnerable to the lure of fame and fortune. How quickly Alexa is able to turn heads in her direction by floating a few loose dollar bills. How easily she is able to blind people with their own desires to be important. And how painfully her victims are burned when they are finally able to see through their own folly. Fame and fortune, Beane seems to be saying, must be earned with hard work and a honing of one's skills. There are no fairy godmothers out there with magic wands, waiting to grant wishes. One must be focused and be willing to sacrifice. The painter Michael appears to be Beane's example of the perfected artist. He allows Alexa to promote him somewhat insincerely, but he is the least affected by her claims of fame. Michael works hard at his art. He works alone. His name is not splashed all over the magazines. He is content to work out the details of his art, earn a modest wage, suffer through the disappointments, and celebrate when he is able to express his creativity fully. In contrast, Evan falls for Alexa's promise of fame. He wants it before he earns it. He pays a heavy price when he discovers how foolish he has been. The price is not just monetary. He nearly sacrifices his art in the ordeal, as he is unable to write for a long time. Beane's message seems to be that fame and fortune either should be ignored or, in the least, kept in their place. They are not the gods of the arts but rather they are the devils.
Love threads its way through Beane's play in a number of ways. There is the love of art. There is the love of money. There is the love of fame. But there is also an underlying theme of the love found in a relationship. Evan is at the center of this theme of love. He retells the story of unrequited love with a man in his youth, a love that left him feeling very vulnerable. In the aftermath of that experience, Evan decided not to love again. He had occasional affairs but would not open his heart fully to anyone. But then he falls in love with Alexa, who turns him on his head. He never thought he would love again and surely not a woman. And yet, there he is professing love to her. He is confused by it. And so might be the audience. Does he really love Alexa or does he love what she represents? He wants to be like her in some ways, but is that love? He loves her lifestyle, albeit a phony façade. He loves the way she makes him feel important and special. But that love is short-lived. It is superficial and does not stand the test of time or reality.
In the end, Beane seems to suggest, there might still be a love for Evan. It might come in the person of Michael, a fellow artist, an honest man, someone who understands the challenges that Evan faces. Michael is someone who could be a true friend. It is from this sincere relationship, Beane implies, that true love has a chance of blooming.
Beane portrays some not-too-attractive pictures of pop culture. For instance, in the scene in Michael's apartment, Evan admires a painting. It is the painting Michael calls As Bees in Honey Drown. It was the only painting that did not sell when Alexa arranged Michael's first showing. It was also, according to Michael, the only painting that was finished. In other words, the other paintings he had rushed through and had not completely finished his thoughts on those pieces. They were surface sketches. And yet because of the hype that Alexa created around them, people bought them. Alexa also makes references to a similar misunderstanding of paintings by the general public. She says that there are great works of art being bought by people who live in Hollywood. But the people who buy them have no understanding of them. The inference is that pop culture is very shallow. Alexa says that people want to be entertained; and the leading artists of one moment die quickly only to be replaced by the next hot artist. People want the flash, but they do not take the time to sit down and allow a work of art to penetrate them.
Flashbacks are a construction that is often used in movies, novels, and short stories. It is a technique that allows the author to fill in the background of the characters, which ultimately makes the present moment more complex and more detailed. This gives the audience information they had not been previously aware of. In a play, this construction of flashbacks is a lot more difficult to pull off as the players are in the same present moment as is the audience. So how does a playwright provide background information? Often this is offered in the dialog of the characters, but supplying these details can considerably slow down the pace of the play, which can, in turn, bore the audience. So in As Bees in Honey Drown, Beane employs a different technique to fill in the gaps, to provide clues in order that the audience might solve the mysteries, and to make the audience privilege to some of the characters' inner thoughts. The technique he uses is flashbacks.
The first time Beane uses flashback is in act 2, scene 2, while Evan is talking to Morris, the executive from Delta Records. Morris begins exposing to Evan the way Alexa cons people, and, rather than having Morris recite these lines, Beane brings Alexa into the scene. Although all three actors are present on the stage at the same time, Evan and Morris are in Morris's office and Alexa is at the Hotel Paramount. As Morris relates his knowledge of Alexa to Evan, Alexa is playing out a scene she and Evan had previously shared. And some of the lines that Alexa voices are also being stated by Morris, simultaneously. The effect is that of Morris telling Evan about Alexa as Evan recalls those same lines being said to him by Alexa. Since the audience has already heard these lines, it would not be as dramatic if Morris reiterated them to Evan. But with Alexa reading them at the same time as Morris (but off to the side), the words have a more profound emotional impact because the audience can relate to what Evan is going through as he realizes how ignorant he was to have fallen for those lines.
The double reading of the lines not only exposes to Evan the fact that he has been duped but also how he has been conned by Alexa. As Morris and Alexa re-act the various situations that Alexa and Evan had recently shared, Evan (and thus the audience) more explicitly understands how Alexa worked her con. For instance, in flashing back to the scene in the department dressing room, the one in which Alexa is supposedly buying Evan a suit, Evan sees more clearly that the so-called accidental spraying of perfume in his face was actually a ploy to distract him from the fact that Alexa had not given him money to reimburse him for the credit card charges he had placed. The flashbacks are seen in the present, a time when Evan's mind is clearer. He hears Alexa say things that he had not heard before. Evan had been so involved in the presumed gift giving that he does not pay attention to what Alexa is buying for herself. Only through flashback does he see everything clearly.
Beane uses this technique throughout the play. Another time is in act 2, scene 3, when Evan is searching through the notes he has taken while he was with Alexa. He is looking for clues. But instead of rereading to the audience what he has written in his book, Beane has Evan on the telephone talking to people whom Alexa has mentioned. The audience knows this because there is another flashback of Alexa rereading part of the dialog that she and Evan had previously shared.
There is also an extended flashback, which occurs in act 2, scene 4, when Evan goes to Michael's loft to talk to him about Alexa. Instead of using a dialog between Michael and Evan to disclose what Michael knows about Alexa, Beane has the actress who plays Alexa play out the scene with Michael. Alexa is made to look like a younger version of herself, a woman who was then going by the name of Brenda Gelb. Michael and Brenda/Alexa act out scenes for Evan and the audience's benefit, again filling in background material so everyone understands how Brenda became Alexa.
Point of Attack
The point of attack is the place in the play where the real action begins, the action surrounding the conflict. In Beane's As Bees in Honey Drown, this point is very visible because it occurs at the time when Evan is punched in the face by Skunk. It is, in other words, a physical point of attack, with dramatic flair. Up until the moment when Skunk delivers his punch, the audience is not fully aware that Alexa is a fraud who is duping Evan. The audience is privy to a few hints but is not told in an obvious way that she is conning Evan. When Skunk hits Evan in the face and demands his money, accusing Evan of being in cahoots with Alexa, then the audience's eyes are opened to the truth.
Most plays begin in a neutral position. In As Bees in Honey Drown, the audience is shown that Evan is eager to find the fame and fortune that he expected would follow the publication of his first novel. Alexa arrives on the scene to help Evan find what he is looking for, or at least that is what Evan and the audience first believe: Evan is a legitimate writer and Alexa is a legitimate maker of dreams. The play from the opening scene until Skunk's punch is fairly well balanced. Alexa appears to have more power in the realm of the financial world, but Evan has the creative talent that Alexa needs to promote. Each character brings something to each scene in equal measure. But at the point of attack in the play, that balance changes. The tension rises as Evan hunts down Alexa, determined to find out the truth about her life, to expose her faults, to avenge himself, and to return to his art. The point of attack is the beginning of the tension; and the climax is the peak of it. Between these two elements lies the gist of the action of the play.
Down the middle of the section of New York City where most of the major theatre productions are made runs the street called Broadway. This street is so filled with major theatres that the name Broadway has become synonymous with theatre productions. But Broadway is not the only street in New York where theater-goers enjoy plays and musicals.
In the first half of the twentieth century, small budget plays and musicals could not afford the high costs of these big Broadway theatres, and so the producers looked for smaller, lower-cost places that were located off Broadway. Soon, the theaters in the so-called off-Broadway sections of New York City became home for plays that were considered experimental and therefore not potential big moneymakers. In the 1950s, many avant-garde playwrights like Edward Albee and Sam Shepard had their plays produced off Broadway, as did Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, and Harold Pinter. By the 1990s, when Beane's production of As Bees in Honey Drown was put on stage, many producers were investing in the off-Broadway districts, and a construction boom of small theaters that held under 500 seats was the result. Today, the difference in cost can be drastic, with an off-Broadway musical costing under $500,000, while a similar musical produced on Broadway might cost more than $1.5 million. Off-Broadway productions even have their own awards. The most significant are the Obies, sponsored by the Village Voice. Today, with the growth and popularity of off-Broadway theater, smaller, cheaper, and more experimental plays have been pushed even further away, with productions housed in districts referred to as off-off-Broadway.
In Beane's play As Bees in Honey Drown, the con artist Alexa constantly drops names of cultural icons. She does this to impress the people around her. In order to understand some of the allusions she makes, the reader needs to know what these names stand for.
David Bowie is a name that Alexa mentions often. Bowie is one of the most influential pop music writers of his time. He struggled through the 1960s with occasional hits, and then in the 1970s enjoyed success not only in his homeland of England but in the United States as well. One of his biggest hits was Fame, a favorite theme of Alexa's and a topic discussed throughout Beane's play. Bowie also starred in movies with some success and is presently married to Iman, a supermodel and another name that Alexa mentions.
Theodore Geisel is another name that Alexa refers to. This author of many popular books for children is better known as Dr. Seuss. Most American children from the 1960s onward grew up reading Dr. Seuss's enjoyable and silly rhymes. His fame and fortune are a dream come true for many authors. Another author that Alexa refers to is Gore Vidal, who has written novels, screenplays, and dramatic pieces for the stage. He has gained some respect in the literary world but was hurt by some scathing reviews when he wrote openly about homosexuality in the 1950s. Christopher Isherwood was also an author and homosexual. He wrote a collection of stories about life in Berlin, which was later turned into the stage production of Cabaret (1966); its main character, Sally Bowles, is another name that Alexa drops. Sally Bowles personified the decadence that was occurring in Berlin while Isherwood lived there. In a similar allusion, Alexa mentions Holly Golightly, the main character in Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's, a novel published in 1958. The novel was later turned into a movie starring Audrey Hepburn. An interesting point to note is that like Vidal and Isherwood, Capote was also homosexual.
Since it was first produced, As Bees in Honey Drown has enjoyed almost continuous production in small theatres and on college campuses across the nation from New England to Hawaii and Las Vegas to New Orleans. Most critics believe this play is Beane's best, and audiences tend to agree as they watch the two acts of this modern satire.
Jay Reiner, writing for the Hollywood Reporter, finds Beane's play only "mildly amusing," but he knows why the theme of Bean's play works. "A society," Reiner writes, "that makes a fetish of fame and celebrity is made to order for a con man to exploit." The fact that Beane uses a woman as the exploiter amuses Reiner even more. Reiner says of the fact that Beane's con artist is a woman, "so much the better."
Beane's play began in New York City in a small theatre off Broadway where it played for a little over a year. Since then, the play has been produced numerous times by different production companies all over the states. Joel Hirschhorn reviews the play for Variety after seeing it performed on the West Coast in Pasadena. Hirschhorn writes, "Beane's indictment of the 15-minute fame and hunger for applause has resonance, and the enterprise is worth watching."
Often, in reviewing some of Beane's more recent plays, critics refer back to Beane's As Bees in Honey Drown, commenting on the brilliance of this earlier work. For example, Ben Brantley of the New York Times in a review of Beane's Mondo Drama refers to As Bees in Honey Drown as "one of the liveliest satiric romps of the last decade." In this same article, Brantley also mentions Beane's theatrical group, the Drama Department, who first produced As Bees in Honey Drown as "the inventive, star-studded troupe that has become the last word in downtown theatrical savvy."
Hart is a freelance writer and author of several books. In this essay, Hart explores the complexities of protagonist Alexa Vere de Vere, finding personality traits in Alexa that mirror those of her so-called victims.
Beane's play As Bees in Honey Drown has a female villain who could almost outrank Cruella DeVil from the classic 101 Dalmatians. Although similarly coldhearted, Alexa Vere de Vere, however, is not quite as flat a character as Cruella. The 101 Dalmatians villain is a stereotypical character who represents evil personified. She has, in other words, no saving graces. Beane's Alexa Vere de Vere, in contrast, is more real, more complex, or to put it more simply, she is more human. And when looked at even more closely, she is not very different from her fellow characters in the play, her so-called victims.
One of the first things about Alexa that stands out is that she is hungry for money and fame. She waves cash in front of her victims' faces and drops names of the rich and famous as if she knew all of them on an intimate basis. This illusion is just that—a fantasy—but it is an image that her victims want to see. They want to believe in her because they are, after all, just as hungry for money and fame as she is. How else could they be so easily duped? They all either want to be her closest friend and best ally or they dream of being just like her. They desire the life she portrays. They want to have so much money they can be as careless as she is with it. They would like to go to ridiculously fancy department stores and buy clothes that make them look better; clothes that shout out: this person has made it to the top; this person is "in"; this person is someone everyone else wants to know. And in this way, Alexa's victims are not so different from her. Their dreams mirror one another. They are all fascinated with the same superficial image.
But then, one could counter this statement by demonstrating that Alexa's victims are not like her at all. They are imaginative artists who dig down deep into themselves in order to create something new and marvelous. They are managers of corporations who stay at the office until late at night, sorting through complex negotiations. They are hardworking business people who sweat over their books and struggle to make a decent profit. They are musicians who practice their instruments until their bodies ache. Alexa's life, on the other hand, is easy. But is it? Is it so easy to pull off the image that Alexa has created? Isn't she playing a role like any actress on stage? And isn't she doing such a good job of it that she convinces her victims that she is sweet and innocent and in need of help and protection? She is, by looking at her in a completely objective and nonjudgmental way, doing so well at her art, she should be awarded a prize. And in many ways she is. Her victims' give her money. But that is dishonest, right? That makes her a liar and a fake, which is in stark contrast to her victims, who practice complete honesty.
Honesty? What honesty? Is it honest to try to sell books by attracting readers through a photograph of your half-naked body as Evan did? And in an attempt to sell her CDs, Ginny, the violinist, also bared her chest. Alexa changed her name from Brenda Gelb to the more exotic Alexa Vere de Vere. And therefore, this name, in some ways, is fraudulent, right? But Evan changed his name too. He wanted to mask his Jewish heritage by changing his last name from Wollenstein to Wyler. Then, for some whimsical linguistic reason, he changed his first name too. And in another bit of dishonesty, Michael Stabinsky, Alexa's former live-in friend, allowed Alexa to create a grand illusion around him that persuaded potential customers that he was a soon-to-be famous artist. He permitted this illusion in order to sell his paintings. One could say that Alexa duped Michael's customers. But don't forget that Michael agreed to let her to do so; and he reaped the benefits. So who is really being honest? Or, at least, who is more honest than Alexa? Does honesty come in degrees? Granted, Alexa goes overboard in her debauchery. She has no sense of remorse. And there is little social worth in the art she creates. But she is not the only dishonest character in this play.
There are other traits of Alexa's that reverberate in some of the other characters, especially Evan. Take Alexa's neediness. In act 1, scene 4, while Alexa, Evan, Skunk, and Swen are in the restaurant, Alexa claims she is about to have a nervous breakdown. She becomes distracted and jittery. Granted, her so-called breakdown is an overstatement that is precipitated by Alexa's need to feign helplessness. Part of her ploy is to appear needy so that her victims want to come to her rescue and do whatever she asks of them—like pay for her dinners, clothes, rooms, etc. But her need is nonetheless real. She, like her victims, feels needy. She needs the people she cons in order for her work to exist; and later an even deeper need is demonstrated when she exposes her feelings to Evan. For instance, in act 2, scene 6, she confronts Evan with the statement: "You know that I am not a mirage, I am an oasis." With this, Alexa faces her deepest need. She wants to claim legitimacy, weight, and meaning. She is all but crying out for it. In the midst of all her deceitfulness, she desires to be real.
In a similar way, Evan demonstrates his own sense of neediness at the end of act 1 when he shows up all bloody in Morris's office. Evan has been physically beaten up by Skunk. In this fight between the two men, the only one who throws the punches is Skunk. Evan never defends himself. After this encounter, Evan walks into Morris's office with all the marks of the fight still on his face. Without saying a word, Evan cries out for help. Just by looking at him, Morris knows this young man is in trouble. Morris comes to Evan's aid, just as Evan had previously come to Alexa's when he told her to calm down and that everything would be all right. Similarly, Morris tries to calm Evan, telling him to let go of the feelings of pain and revenge that are building up inside of him. But Evan is unwilling to do this. He needs to seek out Alexa. He craves to avenge his hurt pride. He cannot accept his experience with Alexa as a lesson, as Morris suggests. Evan has an emptiness inside of him, and he wants to fill it up. He feels that Alexa has depleted him. He cannot think. He cannot write. He cannot focus on anything but getting something either from Alexa or at Alexa's expense.
DO I READ
- One of two other Beane plays that have gained the attention of critics is his The Country Club (2000), a comedy about a group of partygoers in a small country town and their small-town prejudices and undying promises to cling to the status quo for as long as they possibly can. The other play is Beane's Music from a Sparkling Planet (2002), also a comedy. This one focuses on three men and their search for hope, which they seem to have lost as they edge toward their thirties.
- David Lindsay-Abaire's name is often linked to Beane's in that they both are contemporary playwrights who like comedy. Lindsay-Abaire has won many awards for his work, which includes A Devil Inside (2000), a comedy of revenge, and Fuddy Meers (1999), a funny but harrowing tale of an amnesia victim.
- Kenneth Lonergan is an award-winning playwright with such hits as This Is Our Youth (1999) and The Waverly Gallery (2000). In his play Lobby Hero (2002), Lonergan has written a humorous account of a young security guard who tries to hide from the world after being thrown out of the navy. The young man unfortunately discovers that the lobby of a busy hotel is the last place he should have tried. Life drags him into some very bizarre stories in which he must deal with people he never would have dreamed he would ever know.
- A Tony Award–winning playwright, Richard Greenberg has written the play Take Me Out, which was produced in 2002 to critical acclaim. Through humor, the play looks at the serious topic of homophobia, as portrayed in one baseball team when one of the players makes it known that he is gay and then must deal with the consequences.
Beane brings these two characters together in another way too. At one point, Alexa asks Evan about his background, specifically whether or not he was ever in love. Evans tells her his story, a sad one, which Alexa relates to. Evan once fell in love with someone who did not return his love. Alexa, upon hearing this story, tells Evan that she had an acquaintance who was a masochist—someone who seemed to love pain. This friend stated that the line between pleasure and pain was a thin one. Alexa takes that a step further. She tells Evan, after having heard his tale of unrequited love, that the line between love and pain is also a thin one. At the moment they share this information, the two characters discover they are commiserating with one another. This moment in the play feels especially real because Beane, in his stage directions, intensifies this exchange by having the two of them, instead of looking at one another, look away at the city skyline. They are feeling too self-conscious, the playwright suggests, to look into one another's eyes. This action promotes the idea of raw emotion, of a moment of honest feelings between Evan and Alexa. Perhaps this is meant to suggest that they have both been hurt in the past. And as tough as Alexa pretends to be, it is during this exchange between her and Evan that she is at her most vulnerable. "But we're not like that, are we?" she asks Evan.
"We're not the ones people hurt," she continues. She is not sure, but she is hoping this is true. Or at least she is hoping that Evan will think this is true. And thus, Beane binds these two characters together through their emotions, these characters who appear, on the surface, to be so dissimilar.
Possibly even more purposefully, Beane draws other comparisons between Alexa and Evan. In scene 5 in the first act, while Alexa and Evan are on the Staten Island Ferry, Evan tells Alexa that the story of her life that she is offering him sounds fictitious. Alexa responds that she adds flair to fact for dramatic effect. Since Evan is a writer of fiction, in his art he does the same. The retelling of life's events in exactly the same way and with exactly the same timing as they occurred—spread out and unfocused as life unfolds—does not necessarily make a good novel. So Evan, like Alexa, gathers information, then sorts it according to his central theme to create a dramatic affect. The difference is that Evan portrays his art for what it is—a work of fiction—while Alexa offers it as the truths of her life. They are both gifted storytellers who see the drama in life and have a need to offer their versions of reality not as a collection of facts but as a linkage of ideas. Despite the fact that Evan's art is considered legitimate, his and Alexa's means of making a living are really not that far apart. They both try to sell fiction. "We are the creative people," Alexa tells him at the end of the play, suggesting that she and Evan are alike. The context around this statement implies this shared art of theirs will protect them from the challenges of life. It is with this buffer of fictitious lives, she believes, that she and Evan will survive life unhurt.
At the end of the play, Alexa is so convinced that she and Evan are alike that she asks him to join her in her art of swindling. "The hum, the buzz, the hype, the flash, the fame," she tells him as she tries to persuade him. "This is the only thing that matters." What she does not understand is that although they share similar personality traits, certain needs, and particular gifts of creating fiction, they travel down different roads. Alexa and Evan may both be artists, but their definitions of art are as different as night and day. It is Alexa who craves the constant buzz of excitement, the stimulation of living on the edge. Evan may have craved it, but it was a passing hunger. "What if I have the desire to express myself artistically?" Evan wants to know. Alexa responds: "Suppress it." And Evan almost does. He almost falls into her pot of honey. But Alexa lies to him one time too many. And Evan catches himself before he drowns. He and Alexa may be alike, but he has his limits. So he throws Alexa out of his life and then makes his fortune by selling his fictional interpretation of hers.
Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on As Bees in Honey Drown, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
Catherine Dybiec Holm
Holm is a fiction and nonfiction writer and editor. In this essay, Holm looks at how this play gives a glimpse into the dark side of being an artist.
A person without the craving, drive, or compulsion to work in the creative arts might well have difficulty understanding the challenges that creative artists face as they try to mesh their visions into the commercial marketplace. As Bees in Honey Drown gives the reader an experiential taste of the ramifications of being a modern-day artist or writer in the United States. Many of the reviews of this play focus on the charisma of Alexa, the amazing con artist who robs hopeful artists of their hard-earned dollars. In a larger sense, this is the story of the artist's role in this society and the factors that can either cripple these artists or propel them to success.
Artists long to bring their unique message to the world through their media. Alexa understands this need in an artist. While convincing Wyler to get rid of his agent (thus making it easier for her to begin conning him), Alexa taps into the strange dichotomy that artists deal with when they bring their art to the marketplace.
Alexa: And agents, though I don't believe in agents, do you?
Wyler: Mine is—
Alexa: Let's not deal with them. I find that agents have no imagination. No taste for … possibilities.
Wyler: Actually, I agree.
Ironically, Alexa will intentionally put herself in the agent-like role, taking a far greater cut of Wyler's cash than an agent ever would. She zeros in on the thing that speaks to Wyler's heart. Agents have no imagination or taste for possibilities. How can they possibly understand the artist's creative endeavors?
The starving artist becomes more real for the reader, early in the play. Wyler talks of scrounging for subway fare. He lives in a dump while peers his age own cars and homes. He is forced to do temp work to pay the rent. He is stuck in the "little breather period between critical success and financial success." Alexa plays upon the imbalance of power that exists between the marketplace for art and the creators of art. This imbalance is one big reason why many artists give up or lead difficult lives. In view of Wyler's living conditions and this power struggle, readers can see why Wyler falls for Alexa's con. Alexa's offerings seem to Wyler like a rare gift from heaven and an unimaginable stroke of luck.
Alexa knows about that important moment in time when the artist first stands at the "brink of success." Alexa understands the psyche of an artist as if she is one herself. In an amazing back-and-forth dialog with Kaden, she defines the crucial "brink of success" moment, that time when victims such as Wyler are lured into her con.
Alexa: All of us creative people—
Kaden: Brink of success, they call it.
Alexa: Tearing about trying—
Kaden: The artist wants to be—
Alexa: To feed a nation's insatiable appetite for entertainment.
Kaden: Ready to abandon all morals and logic.
Alexa: So that we can discover something new and vivid—
Kaden: Ready to be famous and, so it would follow, fulfilled.
Alexa: All holding on for dear life as we create fresher and fresher possibilities.
Kaden: Anything not to have to be you, anymore.
Alexa: As bees in honey drown.
Playbill cover of As Bees in Honey Drown
Kaden clearly stresses the desire to do anything not to have to live in poverty and obscurity anymore. The artist may be running from himself or herself. She or he may be sick of the struggle. Alexa understands the artist though she creates nothing except the adventure of each new con. Her creativity is fed by outmaneuvering each unlucky artist who is at that brink of success. Kaden cynically admits that there may actually be some value to getting conned by Alexa. Assuming that the artist will only run into more difficulties in the future, Kaden says that Alexa's work is "the screw that toughens the skin for all the future screw attempts." It is a fatalistic statement about the world that aspiring artists face in this culture.
Kaden's dialog carries a more ominous suggestion. As artists reach for success, they may be required to lose themselves. Kaden explains why none of Alexa's victims have ever gone after her for revenge.
We all let her go on because in an odd way, she reminds us what we were foolish enough to think of giving up. To have her life. Her sad, empty life. We all actually considered giving up ourselves.
The last sentence in Kaden's speech is crucial. If a creative artist "gives up" their self, they will be unable to create and have nothing to draw upon. Wyler reaches this point. He is no longer able to write. He gave himself to Alexa and gave her his "arrogance" too.
Mike: Why don't you go off and write something. Forget about Alexa.
Wyler: I can't write.
Mike: Yeah yeah, you can't write.
Wyler: I mean I can't write.
Mike: Are you serious?
Wyler: It isn't just the money that Alexa stole from me. She stole my arrogance. The arrogance it takes to just shamelessly write something and assume someone, anyone might read it. The gall to think I might be a success. I'm blocked. I can not write.
Undoubtedly, Alexa understands that artists have their own oddly functioning internal dichotomy. To produce powerful and compelling work, the artist must know himself or herself well, even if this means mining their unique insecurities and vision of the world. The artist must also, as Wyler points out, be able to draw on a reserve of audacity. The artist must be able to call forth enough ego to produce the work and take the risk of bringing it into the world and withstand the potential criticism and rejection that the world will offer. The artist's dichotomy is precarious, and necessary, and the artist cannot function without both extremes.
Mike's art is also affected by his relationship with Alexa. After Alexa manages to con influential people into attending Mike's art opening, Mike wonders if he has not prostituted himself.
Mike: These people, the ones coming tonight are all—they're the people I hope to one day impress with my real work. And they're here because we've … conned them.
Mike creates "fake art"—paintings that are meaningless compared to what he is truly capable of. His real work remains unfinished. Ironically, the paintings that mean the least to Mike—the paintings that he creates in a hurry and without passion—are the ones that sell at the mocked up art opening. Alexa leaves Mike because she is angry, freeing him up to create art that comes to him truly, regardless of market distractions or temptations. When Wyler departs from his conversation with Mike, Mike sounds as if he has achieved real clarity about his artistic vision.
Mike: I want a place to go and paint. To be left alone for a while. And when I'm done painting, I want to get together with some friends, have a beer and talk about stuff. And we'll commiserate if my painting went poorly. And celebrate if my painting went well.
Mike goes on to create art that means something to him. This foreshadows what might be possible for Wyler.
Still, Wyler is tempted one more time during his last long encounter with Alexa. Here, the choices that the artist faces are never more obvious. The artist can remain true to his or her artistic vision and take with this choice the risks found in the precarious world of art and entertainment. Or, Wyler can opt for what Alexa offers. She states what may be Wyler's deepest fears if he falls for her persuasion. Alexa stands for "the hum, the buzz, the hype, the flash, the flame." Writers do not last long in American society, according to Alexa. The attention span of the populace will not allow for it. "Stay with me and always be popular. Fame without achievement, it is the safest bet I know."
The question of fame without achievement is a turning point for Wyler. Many creative artists face a similar crucial choice. Should one remain true to one's own internal vision even if the marketplace does not call for it? It is a difficult question and one that is at the heart of this play.
Alexa tries to convince Wyler that writing is drudgery, that the only good thing about writing a piece of work is beginning it and ending it. It is in the following dialog that Wyler's crucial choice is so apparent:
Wyler: And what if I have the desire to express myself artistically?
Alexa: Suppress it. It is every time you create that you run the risk of proving or chiseling at your reputation. Come with me.… Never, ever be hungry, or thirsty, or doubt yourself. Or wait in line. Or talk to bores.
Presented this way, it becomes clear just why artists need such internal fortitude to stay true to their vision. Alexa is about appearances. Wyler chooses internal truth and his own artistic vision. It is not necessarily an easy choice. Wyler still struggles with it, even after he leaves Alexa. Wyler is "kind of lost, at sea." Wyler almost gives up writing for good.
Wyler: It's just so incredibly difficult, you know? You try to create something. And to know there are so many people waiting to criticize or capitalize and all you want to do is make something that will connect with other people so that we all won't feel so profoundly alone. And we are all so profoundly alone. Why does it have to be so hard to try to cure that in some way. It … is … so … difficult.
Ultimately, Wyler makes the difficult choice, turns his back on the buzz, and returns to writing. Creative artists will recognize themselves in this play, as well as the decisions that get made about remaining true to or not remaining true to artistic vision.
Catherine Dybiec Holm, Critical Essay on As Bees in Honey Drown, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
Brantley, Ben, Review of Mondo Drama, in New York Times, May 23, 2003, p. E-1.
Hirschhorn, Joel, Review of As Bees in Honey Drown, in Variety, September 8, 2003, p. 42.
Kanfer, Stefan, Review of As Bees in Honey Drown, in New Leader, September 8, 1997.
Reiner, Jay, Review of As Bees in Honey Drown, in Hollywood Reporter, August 26, 2003.
Bigsby, Christopher, Contemporary American Playwrights, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Bigsby has put together an interesting study of some of the most controversial plays and the award-winning playwrights who have enjoyed success on the American stage.
Crespy, David A., Off-Off-Broadway Explosion: How Provocative Playwrights of the 1960s Ignited a New American Theater, Backstage Books, 2003.
For an in-depth look into the history of the American theater through the production of innovative plays by beat playwrights of the 1960s, Crespy's book is the place to go. Crespy's account is filled with interviews and anecdotes about such profound thinkers and artists as Edward Albee, Sam Shephard, and Amiri Baraka, playwrights who altered the course of American theater.
Hischak, Thomas S., American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama, 1969–2000, Oxford University Press, 2000.
This book provides a comprehensive history of the last half of twentieth-century theater in New York. As Bees in Honey Drown is briefly mentioned.
Maurer, David W., The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man, Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1999.
Maurer was a professor of linguistics who became fascinated with the rash of con artists that traveled along America's highways, conning people out of their cash. Maurer has studied these people and the tricks of their trade, providing an interesting read on how the con artist's mind works.
Sinfield, Alan, Out on Stage: Lesbian and Gay Theatre in the Twentieth Century, Yale University Press, 1999.
This book chronicles the history of gay and lesbian characters as portrayed on the stage from Oscar Wilde's writing to the plays produced at the end of the twentieth century. Sinfield contends that whereas gay culture was only obliquely alluded to in the past, in the last quarter of the twentieth century there has been a clearer and more honest depiction of homosexual life in theater.