A Walk in the Woods
A Walk in the Woods
A Walk in the Woods is set in what turned out to be the last years of the cold war, although Lee Blessing could not have known that when he first presented the play as a staged reading in 1986. At this time, the nuclear arsenals of both the United States and the Soviet Union were bursting with weaponry of massive and incalculable destructive capacity, a circumstance that caused widespread and international anxiety.
A Walk in the Woods was originally produced by the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1987, and was later produced on Broadway in New York, New York, in 1988. It is a two-character play composed in the form of a dialogue between United States and Soviet negotiators in a serene wooded area in Switzerland. A country known historically for its order, social peace, and neutrality in international conflicts, Switzerland, consequently, is an ideal venue for negotiations between hostile powers. Despite its political themes and geopolitical context, however, A Walk in the Woods is less concerned with particular political issues than with the climate of alienation generated by the cold war. The encounter between the negotiators becomes a study of how two personalities deal with the frustration and hopelessness that the arms race generated in people of conscience. The two must go through the motions of attempting to negotiate an agreement that, ultimately, neither of their governments will authorize. Although A Walk in the Woods is entirely fictional, Blessing derived the idea for the situation of his play from an actual event. Formal arms control negotiations took place in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1982, and U.S. negotiator Paul Nitze and Soviet negotiator Yuli Kvitsinsky met in a wooded area to approach the issue privately. In this peaceful environment, they drafted a proposal for arms reduction that was later rejected by both the U.S. and the Soviet governments.
A Walk in the Woods was published in 1988 by Dramatic Play Service and reprinted in 1998.
Lee Blessing was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on October 4, 1949. He received a B.A. from Reed College in 1971, and after graduation, he traveled to the Soviet Union. Upon his return, Blessing enrolled in the University of Iowa and earned a master of fine arts degree in English in 1976, and another in speech and theater in 1979. From 1977 to 1979, Blessing taught playwriting at the University of Iowa. From 1986 to 1988, he taught playwriting at the Playwright's Center in Minneapolis. Since then, he has been the head of the Mason Gross School of the Arts graduate playwriting program at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and in 1986, he married Jeanne Blake. Although Blessing has sometimes seen Broadway productions, his plays have enjoyed the kind of popularity that makes them regularly produced in regional and amateur theaters.
Besides A Walk in the Woods, first produced in 1987 and published in 1988, Blessing has written many other plays, including The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, Eleemosynary, Cobb, Fortinbras, Going to St. Ives, Black Sheep, and Flag Day. Like A Walk in the Woods, most of Blessing's works draw upon social and political issues but focus on human struggles, especially efforts to forge meaningful interpersonal relations under socially and politically hostile circumstances. Blessing has won a number of awards; A Walk in the Woods earned an American Theater Critics Association Award and nominations for a Pulitzer Prize and an Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award in 1987. Blessing has also received the American College Theater Festival Award, 1979; a Jerome Foundation grant, 1981, 1982; a McKnight Foundation grant, 1983, 1989; the Great American Play Award, 1984; a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant, 1985, 1988; a Bush Foundation fellowship, 1987; the Marton Award, 1988; the Dramalogue Award, 1988; and a Guggenheim fellowship, 1989.
Little action occurs in A Walk in the Woods; most of the play consists of conversation. Although the ostensible purpose of the meeting between the diplomats is to negotiate a treaty, the men discuss a wide variety of topics. Their conversation reveals their personalities and reflects the growth of their relationship.
In A Walk in the Woods, Andrey Botvinnik, a diplomat for the Soviet Union, and John Honeyman, a negotiator for the United States, are walking through a forest outside Geneva, Switzerland. They have been sent by their respective governments to try to negotiate a nuclear weapons nonproliferation treaty, which would limit the production of weapons of mass destruction. Botvinnik tells Honeyman how he jokingly told an American television reporter that the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, when he was in power, would begin meetings of the Politburo (political bureau) by saying that Soviet survival depended upon the "total annihilation of America." The reporter believed that Botvinnik was serious and filed the report. When the reporter's chief discovered where the information originated from, he canceled the story, knowing that Botvinnik was inclined to joke.
Botvinnik's story, in addition to demonstrating his personality, sets the tone and rhythm for the rest of the play. Honeyman is relatively new to his position, replacing the previous U.S. negotiator, Mr. McIntyre. Botvinnik is an experienced diplomat who has worked with many U.S. negotiators. The walk in the woods is his idea, and Honeyman understands their walk to be an extension of their concurrent formal negotiation sessions in an atmosphere more favorable to reaching an agreement than the traditional meeting setting. It is not clear, however, that this is Botvinnik's intention. He seems prone to make small talk and avoid serious negotiation. When Honeyman asks Botvinnik if they are taking a walk to discuss the American proposal, Botvinnik, while assuring him that the American proposal is a good one, explains that they have come to the woods not to negotiate but to relax, to "talk about trees, lakes, whatever." Honeyman responds that the reporters waiting at the edge of the woods will be disappointed, because they are expecting the two to get some "real work done." In response, Botvinnik turns the conversation to what constitutes real work and suggests that it is important for them to become friends. Honeyman counters, "But is that, strictly speaking, our job?" Characteristically, Botvinnik responds to Honeyman not by addressing his objections but by discussing seemingly trivial matters unrelated to their current situation. Botvinnik leads Honeyman through this pas des deux, or well-staged dance for two, and several others, frustrating him with feints, generalities, digressions, and irrelevancies. Honeyman makes a heartfelt and impassioned plea for a "mutual commitment to the hard work of negotiating a treaty," yet Botvinnik continues to change the subject. He points out that Honeyman has a string on his suit. Immediately Honeyman corrects him: he means a thread, not a string. Botvinnik agrees, and Honeyman picks the thread off his suit, mentioning that he has heard Botvinnik is fond of changing the subject. Botvinnik apologizes and then talks about changing the subject before asking if Honeyman's suit is Italian. Finally, Honeyman steers him back to the subject, which is not about nuclear disarmament proposals but whether or not the two should be friends. In response, Botvinnik talks in circles and continually contradicts himself. He says he agrees that the two of them should not be friends and then says he wants to agree because they are friends. Honeyman attempts to clarify Botvinnik's statements and points out the contradictions inherent in his speech. Botvinnik admits to Honeyman's claim and offers as an excuse that he "will go to any length to keep a friend." Before the discussion can proceed, Botvinnik uses eye drops, which leads the men into a conversation about Botvinnik's dry eyes.
- In 1988, Kirk Browning directed a made-for-television film of A Walk in the Woods, featuring the original Broadway cast, Robert Prosky and Sam Waterston.
Once the exchange is finished, Honeyman suggests it is time for them to leave the woods. Botvinnik, though, wonders why they should do so, asking if Honeyman does not like where they are. Honeyman responds that he "need[s] some seriousness," that they owe it to their governments. Botvinnik responds by asking Honeyman if he likes him. Entirely frazzled, Honeyman states that he is leaving. Botvinnik, in response, points out that the reporters waiting for them will question his behavior and asks him if he is embarrassed to be an American. When Honeyman states that he is not ashamed, Botvinnik says he is embarrassed to be Russian, because year after year both governments engage in negotiations to end the nuclear threat and never really accomplish anything. The blame, Botvinnik explains, lies not with either party but with Switzerland. Switzerland is so lovely and peaceful that the negotiators do not feel a sense of urgency to come to an agreement. He adds that negotiations should be held at the bottom of a missile silo instead of Switzerland. Honeyman can only respond by asking Botvinnik why he has not been replaced as the Soviet diplomat. He then answers his own question by acknowledging that Botvinnik is charming and cultured and, most importantly, he is an expert at saying "no" graciously. Honeyman also notes that his predecessor, Mr. McIntyre, was not sure whether Botvinnik's digressions were a deliberate ploy or a character flaw he could not control. Honeyman asserts that Botvinnik is fully in control of what he does, and Botvinnik gently taunts Honeyman for his lack of long-term experience as a negotiator. Honeyman counters by describing his effectiveness and expressing his belief that they will ultimately come to an agreement. Botvinnik responds with a tangent comparing the air in Leningrad, Russia, with the air in Geneva. Both parties say they are about to leave the woods but begin to argue again. Honeyman tries to convince Botvinnik that they are beginning to understand each other. Botvinnik says they agree because they are friends, once more frustrating Honeyman, who is looking for a counterpart to work with, not a friend. On another tangent, Botvinnik turns his attention to Honeyman's shoes. When Honeyman asks if Botvinnik will work with him, Botvinnik responds by asking him where he purchases his ties. When he asks Honeyman when they should take their next walk, Honeyman declares, "Never." Botvinnik, responding with the same tortuous charm he has employed throughout the first act of the play, states, "Very well…. After all, we are here to agree."
Two months have passed. Botvinnik is sitting on a bench in the woods, and Honeyman is pacing and expressing his impatience with Botvinnik, who has been stalling by arguing about details of a proposal from Washington, D.C. Botvinnik remains calm and disarming, taking nothing Honeyman says seriously and offering no satisfactory explanation for his objections. He also cities the Russian people's suffering forty years earlier during World War II as a reason for Moscow's reluctance. Heatedly, Honeyman rejects this argument, and Botvinnik expresses pleasure at the degree of Honeyman's passion. Just as Honeyman attempts to make a point about Moscow's position, Botvinnik holds up a leaf and asks him what kind it is. Honeyman identifies it as a linden leaf, and Botvinnik asks him if there are such leaves in Wisconsin, where Honeyman comes from. With growing frustration, Honeyman answers, and Botvinnik continues to sidetrack the conversation, repeatedly mispronouncing the name of Honeyman's hometown. Honeyman asks Botvinnik if he is trying to frustrate him in order to gain "the upper hand" and reminds him that if they fail to come to an agreement, they will both be perceived negatively by their countries' media and governments. Botvinnik is unfazed and says he has failed before. Honeyman retorts, however, that he has not.
Honeyman asks when Botvinnik believes his government will be able to make a decision about the American proposal. With Botvinnik's answer of "five weeks," Honeyman threatens him, asking, "What if we [the United States] force the matter?" Botvinnik answers quite seriously that by doing so, Honeyman will "lose the proposal." When Honeyman asks him to be quiet, Botvinnik offers to leave. Honeyman, though, notes that if they go back too soon, the reporters will think they are having trouble coming to an agreement. Botvinnik taunts him, saying they are in trouble, and asks if he does not believe in freedom of the press. As the two continue to argue, Botvinnik asks what they should talk about. Honeyman says they do not have to talk about anything; they just need to stay in the woods for a reasonable interval of time. After a period of silence, Honeyman asks Botvinnik what the U.S. government can do to get him to advocate for the U.S. proposal, an action which Botvinnik says will put his job at risk. Botvinnik replies that there is nothing it can do, but that Honeyman can do something which might make him act—stop being serious and be "frivolous." He explains that the jargon of his profession, including phrases like "test ban" and "Star Wars," profoundly alienate him from a sense of contact with the earth, and he feels like an astronaut floating away from it. He wants to discuss cartoon characters and country music—"anything that is not serious." Honeyman tries but is not good at making frivolous conversation. He can only say that he hates brown suits. He is, Botvinnik remarks, only boring, not frivolous.
Since Honeyman cannot be frivolous, Botvinnik decides to be serious and asks him if he believes there is a difference between Russians and Americans. Honeyman answers that a difference does exist, and Botvinnik proceeds to demonstrate the contrary. He asks Honeyman what would have happened if the Russians had settled in the New World, rather than the English, and answers himself with, "They would have killed all the Indians and taken all the land." He then draws a distinction between Russians and Americans based on the geography of each country. Bounded by oceans that keep enemies at a distance, the Americans were able to engage in "conquest without competition." As Russia is a country of "flat, broad plains," it is open to invasion. Thus, the country engaged in "conquest because of competition." Botvinnik continues, stating that Americans developed an ideology of individual freedom, calling conquest "settling the West." Russians developed an ideology of control, channeling "the many wills of the people into one will" in order to vanquish neighboring nations. Botvinnik concludes that Americans believe they are "idealists," because they have "never had to confront themselves as conquerors," whereas Russians, who were forced to do so, define themselves as "realists." When Honeyman calls him "profoundly cynical," Botvinnik responds that he is only "clear-eyed." He has come to understand that no one, "not even the man on the street" wants them to succeed. The ordinary citizens of each country, he asserts, do not want to "give up [their] country's power, prestige and predominance in the world," even though they will deny it. In this situation, Botvinnik argues, nuclear weapons are essential—without nuclear weapons, the countries could not be empires. Botvinnik completes his argument by saying, "The most exciting thing in the world is to know we can destroy the world. Like that. In a day." When Honeyman tries to distinguish between governments and people, recognizing that governments pursue war but people prefer peace, Botvinnik retorts that if this idea is true, the people would make themselves heard. Despite Botvinnik's insistence, Honeyman begs for his help in forging an agreement, asking him to talk to his superiors in the Russian government. Honeyman delivers an impassioned speech about the totality of nuclear annihilation and pleads with Botvinnik to realize the fundamental identity of all humanity: "We look across the table, and we see ourselves." Botvinnik remains unmoved by Honeyman's eloquence, but he gives in when Honeyman makes his help the condition of their friendship. He promises to suggest that his superiors consider Honeyman's proposal without delay.
It is a gloomy winter afternoon. The scene opens as Botvinnik tries unsuccessfully to catch a rabbit running past him. He recalls his prowess in catching rabbits as a boy and how later, during the war, he caught rats for food. Having recently returned to Switzerland from Moscow, Botvinnik tells Honeyman that the Russian government rejected not the proposal itself, but "what [the U.S.] President has turned the proposal into." The president has announced the proposal even though an agreement was not forged, which Botvinnik calls "a cynical public relations scheme." Honeyman defends the president, saying he was forced to announce his plan because the Soviets would not agree to it before the U.S. presidential elections; the president needed to look like he had accomplished something. In addition, Honeyman says he tried to stop the president from making the announcement but does not believe it was wrong to publicize the proposal. Botvinnik explains that the announcement makes the Russians look weak by supposedly agreeing to an American plan and that the negotiations are not a "quest for peace" but a "quest for the appearance of the quest for peace." When Honeyman asks what the Kremlin did not like about the proposal, Botvinnik explains that it "was … too good." He adds that the treaty proposed might have actually led to arms reduction, and while his government wants that, they are also afraid of it. Honeyman does not understand this reasoning and notes that the Soviets have made previous treaties with the United States. Botvinnik objects—they were not really treaties. Rather, they were agreements about which weapons each superpower was going to scrap and which ones they were going to permit each other to build: "We trade obsolete technology for state-of-the-art, we take weapons out of Europe so we can put up new ones in space." By making such agreements, the United States and the Soviet Union appear to exercise restraint while really continuing the arms race. New weapons become "bargaining chips" for the next round of negotiations, and the superpowers look like they are trying to achieve something. However, Botvinnik explains, if the superpowers were to sign a real treaty, they would appear to dishonor the treaty when they created new,more devastating weapons. Without a treaty in place, they could still maintain an appearance of striving for peace. Introducing new weapons after signing a treaty would make the superpowers look like "warmongers who can't keep a treaty."
Still, Honeyman insists, how can they let this small step toward disarmament slip away? Botvinnik responds by assessing the problem of trust. Not only can they not trust each other's governments, they do not even really know what their own governments might secretly be doing. In addition, Botvinnik argues that governments are irrational and are incapable of becoming rational. As he speaks, he reveals his anger about the impasse. When Honeyman points out Botvinnik's anger, he denies it. Botvinnik suggests that it is time for them to speak about things other than their work. Honeyman, however, states that since they are both frustrated, they should discuss their frustration. Botvinnik responds that when two people are dying of cancer, they do not meet to talk about cancer. Honeyman insists that they have a job to do, and Botvinnik passionately responds, "Yes, and now you know what it is," suggesting that their task is precisely not to accomplish anything but only to make a show of attempting to do so. Honeyman cannot accept this answer; he tells Botvinnik of how he visited the nuclear silos in the United States before leaving for Geneva. They are located in the exact center of the North American continent beneath a barren landscape. Honeyman relates that he experienced the emptiness of the place as his own emptiness. He liked the weapons, because they filled the emptiness. Despite the fact that he wanted to see more weapons built, Honeyman realized this very desire had to be stifled, like an addict's desire for drugs. He refuses to surrender to the hopelessness he sees in Botvinnik.
Although his proposal has been defeated, Honeyman takes the actual papers from his pocket and, giving them to Botvinnik to look at, suggests they simply rename it as if it were another proposal and submit it to their governments again. Botvinnik takes the proposal and makes some changes to it, changes Honeyman finds acceptable. They agree to bring the revised proposal to their governments, Botvinnik convinced it will fail, Honeyman determined to fight for its success.
It is early spring, six weeks later. Honeyman sits dejectedly on a bench as Botvinnik picks flowers. The American president has rejected the proposal, telling Honeyman not to "try so hard." Botvinnik explains that the president meant that he should not do anything. He recalls how, many years earlier with one of Honeyman's predecessors, he forged an agreement they were both enthusiastic about; it was rejected. This is a climactic moment in the play, revealing the root cause of Botvinnik's cool cynicism. He is a resigned man, whose ardor has been defeated, continuing in a job he knows to be a mockery.
In distress, Honeyman takes the flowers that Botvinnik picked and tosses them on the ground. Botvinnik picks them up and says, "Control yourself. Switzerland has strict laws about littering." This remark surprisingly leads Honeyman to relate an out-of-character incident that occurred that morning. He threw a gum wrapper on the sidewalk, and when an old Swiss police officer told him to pick it up, he made a scene and even pushed the officer. He avoided arrest only after showing the officer his diplomat's identification papers. He is overwrought by the futility of his position as a negotiator; he realizes that he is attempting to settle an overwhelmingly important arms control agreement that his government does not want him to settle. In exasperation, he asks, "What are we doing here?" Botvinnik tells him he is asking "too large" a question and wishes to ask a "smaller one." Botvinnik asks him what his favorite color is, and they riff on this theme at considerable length, as they have throughout the play on various apparently frivolous subjects. Botvinnik reveals the reason for his questioning—he wants to give Honeyman a tie as a parting gift. He is leaving his position and returning to Leningrad, aware that his work is futile and that intense arms build-ups follow every agreement. Honeyman tries to dissuade him from leaving, but Botvinnik suggests that Honeyman quit too, emphasizing the pointless nature of the negotiator position. Honeyman, though, insists on continuing his role and having hope. The play ends as they decide not to talk anymore. Sitting together silently in the woods, they are aware that their failure to come to an agreement has been successful. They are also conscious that they are two men frustrated by their work; they both have a conscience in a job that has no use for a conscience.
Botvinnik, the Soviet diplomat, is a tired, somewhat rumpled man who has been able to endure his years as a negotiator with his self-deprecating sense of humor and apparent nonchalance. Botvinnik must face his negotiation counterparts and also navigate the perils of being a Soviet diplomat and satisfying his superiors in the Kremlin. Beneath his carefree exterior, he is frustrated with his work, particularly because it demands that he remain in a futile position. He has metaphorically "dried up," as emphasized by his use of eye drops. It is evident that he was once a lively, curious, and adventurous person; he tells Honeyman how he used to chase rabbits, and he has a love of nature. Working for many years as a diplomat who is instructed not to resolve problems, he is disillusioned with the process of negotiation; this notion makes him an effective negotiator for negotiations that are actually intended to remain unresolved. Botvinnik has abandoned any hope that a real arms control treaty between the Soviet Union and the United States can be possible because of the unstated policy of each government to maintain the upper hand militarily and guard against any possible subterfuge from the opposition. Botvinnik's major skill is changing the subject in a discussion. Essentially, he believes that neither the people nor the governments really want to control the destructive powers that guarantee their geopolitical positions as superpowers. Despite his cynicism, or, as he calls it, "clarity," Botvinnik is a pleasant man, as is shown in both his gift of friendly conversation and his appreciation for nature. He desires friendship with his American counterpart and a respite from the impasse created by world-threatening, international, political conflicts. With a wry sense of humor and a seeming delight in teasing people, Botvinnik's first anecdote describes how he misled a television reporter to believe that the stereotypical idea of a fierce Soviet desire to destroy the West is absolutely true. The reader may wonder if, beneath his cynicism and despair, Botvinnik believes the fruitless negotiations in which he is involved are actually useful. One may interpret the scene in which Botvinnik imagines that all the trees in the forest are cut down to make negotiation tables as a suggestion that as long as negotiations continue—even though they are unproductive—both sides will remain nonviolent by talking about weapons, rather than launching them at each other.
Honeyman, theAmerican negotiator, is relatively new in his position as a negotiator. He is a somewhat proud, self-controlled man who apparently needs to prove himself as a competent and strong negotiator. He has a no-nonsense air in his attitude and even in his attire. With a personality far less colorful than that of Botvinnik, Honeyman is loathe to steer off course and lose his focus on the negotiation at hand. Serious and focused, Honeyman is determined to come to an agreement with Botvinnik, despite the two governments' previous difficulties. He seems to be motivated by a sense of pride as well as duty—he does not like to lose. Frustrated by Botvinnik's apparent indifference and resignation, Honeyman believes progress can be made incrementally. Despite the frustration of the discussion, he mainly keeps himself under control—until he ultimately explodes. The underlying cause of his explosion does not lie in his relationship with Botvinnik but with his own government. He experiences unexpected obstacles from U.S. authorities who indirectly convey to him that his mission is not to succeed in obtaining an agreement with the Soviet diplomat. Honeyman cannot concede to the idea of futility as Botvinnik does. Believing that his work is to create peace, particularly because he has experienced and partially overcome his own attraction to the weapons systems, he hopes to dismantle the system and is resolved to overcome his inclination toward violence and domination. He is, however, willful and stubborn when frustrated, as he tells Botvinnik about his encounter with a Swiss police officer over littering. Honeyman states that he tossed a gum wrapper on the sidewalk, which is a civil crime in Geneva. Apprehended by an older police officer for the offense, Honeyman made a scene and drew a crowd of onlookers. Unable to defy the greater authority of his government, Honeyman rebelled against a lesser form of power. Only during the last moments of the play is he able to rest in his sense of futility, and only by sitting silently on a bench with Botvinnik, at peace with him, does Honeyman become at peace with himself.
Citizen versus Bureaucrat
To an observer or a reader of newspapers, Botvinnik and Honeyman would seem to be rather powerful men with high-ranking positions in their respective governments. Yet they are actually powerless functionaries performing a public relations charade to maintain each country's peace-seeking image. They do not have the power to bring about change, and their suggestions do not make an impact on the nuclear arms situation. In fact, the leaders of their respective governments dismiss their suggestions, as Blessing suggests, because their governments do not really want peace. The two are frustrated men who must surrender their roles as citizens when they become bureaucrats, or government public servants. Such a situation was to be expected regarding Botvinnik, given the authoritarian nature of the Soviet regime. But in A Walk in the Woods, Blessing asserts the situation in the United States is the same.
Cynicism about the motives of governments and their actions is an implicit and pervasive theme in A Walk in the Woods. Botvinnik knows that his government does not want him to make progress in his negotiations with Honeyman. Consequently, his diversionary strategies as a negotiator can be seen as the cynical acts of a man who does not believe in what he is doing. His sense of humor, as is evident in his story about how he teased a news reporter about Soviet belligerence, also appears to be driven by cynicism. Honeyman, unlike Botvinnik, is inexperienced and acquires a certain cynicism during the play. He is forced to surrender a naïve idealism when he learns of his government's hypocrisy in negotiations with the Soviet Union. Honeyman must face the reality of his situation; the U.S. government does not appreciate his dedicated efforts to establish a workable plan. Like the Soviet government, the U.S. government wishes to maintain the appearance of ongoing negotiations without any actual accomplishment.
The encounter between Botvinnik and Honeyman is dramatic and powerful, because of the context in which they meet and the world circumstances that shape that context. They are both aware, as is the audience, that the stakes of their negotiations involve the complete and utter destruction of the world in the event of nuclear war. The magnitude of destruction possible is historically of an order never before realized.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- In the course of their discussions, Honeyman and Botvinnik refer to a number of acronyms, such as SALT, START, BMD, ASAT, SDI, CEP, MX, SLBM, and SLCM. Research what the acronyms stand for and choose four of them as the subject of a report. Describe each acronym in detail, including any political or military significance. Prepare both a written report and an oral presentation.
- With a classmate, identify an unresolved issue at your school that has two possible resolutions. Choose opposing sides and negotiate with each other to find a solution that you mutually agree on. Write a proposal and present it to one of your school's governing bodies, such as your student council or a group of school officials. Is your proposal accepted, rejected, or returned for modification? What are the reasons for the governing body's decision? Videotape the entire process for screening in your class.
- Write a two-character scene involving a conversation between a representative of the U.S. government and a representative of a country such as Iran, Iraq, or North Korea. In the play, the two representatives should discuss measures to end current international military, political, and cultural conflicts. Perform the scene in front of your class.
- When the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in negotiating nuclear arms control treaties in the 1980s, a large, citizen-led movement in the United States and other countries advocating a freeze on nuclear weapons acquisition and development was taking place. Research this movement, how it was organized, what its specific objectives were, and what influence it had on nuclear arms controversy. Write a report detailing your findings.
- A. J. Muste, Barbara Demming, Dorothy Day, David Dellinger, Bayard Rustin, Grace Paley, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Judith Malina, David McReynolds, and Julian Beck were some of the leading pacifists (individuals who advocate nonviolence and oppose violent conflict) of the twentieth century. Choose one of the above people as a subject for research and write a biography focusing on the intersection of his or her life and work as a pacifist.
Although the term resignation is not uttered in A Walk in the Woods, the play is very much about the attitude of resigning, or giving in to others. It takes nearly the entire play to realize that Botvinnik's behavior, his deviations and tangents, are actually expressions of resignation to the fact that his task is essentially to make sure that he does not accomplish the task—he must pretend to agree to an arms control agreement. From the start of the play he knows this, unlike Honeyman, since he is an experienced diplomat. Honeyman is new to his job and has high hopes for their discussion. At first, he considers Botvinnik to be cynical. After his best efforts to reach an agreement are thwarted, though, he cracks under the strain of frustration at his inability to move toward his goal. Finally, he surrenders to the facts of his professional life: the play ends as the two negotiators have come to an agreement, not for their governments and not about weaponry, but to sit with each other in a still, silent
center of resignation within the chaos of a discord that has defeated them.
The theme of trust is implicit throughout A Walk in the Woods, which presents negotiators from the United States and the Soviet Union in a delicate battle of wits. Each is attempting to influence the other and secure an agreement to reduce an accumulation of nuclear weapons. The problem of trust is openly discussed. Each man is suspicious of the other, considering him an untrustworthy man who is merely using an agreement on nuclear arms control to gain an advantage in the arms race. In the play, trust is not only intergovernmental; it is also interpersonal, involving the negotiators' ability to trust the integrity of each other. The Soviet negotiator, although an apparently warm, friendly man, can seem cagey and devious. His standard method is to change the subject and prevent them from coming to an agreement. The American negotiator, while appearing more business-like and inflexible, is idealistic in his dedication to his task and is also set on proving his prowess as a negotiator. The negotiators have trouble trusting each other and the opposing government. Also, they are not positive they can trust their own governments to support decisions made in the negotiation.
Although sections of A Walk in the Woods are devoted to the subject of war, weaponry, polemics (passionate argument), and realpolitik (hard-headed practical politics), much of the dialogue in the play does not concern these subjects and can be considered entirely ordinary. These exchanges address favorite colors, French versus Italian shoes, childhood recollections, and bouts of bickering more appropriate to an off-kilter, domestic comedy like Neil Simon's The Odd Couple than to a drama about the fate of the world. Most of these conversations are introduced through the technique of digression, or an apparent change of the subject, which seems to be a unique skill that Botvinnik has cultivated. The drama of much of the dialogue results from the frustration that Honeyman and the audience suffer as apparently trivial conversation replaces what should be life and death discussions. It slowly becomes obvious that Botvinnik's digressions are not really substitutions for other, more serious subjects but the only topics they can really talk about, given the real desire of their governments, as postulated in the play, not to reach an agreement.
A Walk in the Woods involves two men at an impasse and how they cope with each other and with their mandates, which they discover to be futile. However, there are several sections in which each of them makes serious speeches of a polemical nature about the political situation they are in and about the dangers of nuclear annihilation that the world faces because of the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Botvinnik delivers an important lecture on the allure of having the power to cause unlimited destruction. Honeyman delivers a passionate speech about his own attraction to nuclear hardware and on the overwhelming importance of forging agreements that can prevent world-ending catastrophe.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1980s: The United States is engaged in an ongoing nuclear arms race with the competing imperial superpower, the Soviet Union.
Today: After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States is no longer in overt competition with Russia and continues to be a nuclear superpower. In 2003 the United States invades Iraq because the country's leader, Saddam Hussein, is allegedly developing weapons of mass destruction.
- 1980s: The United States holds high-level diplomatic meetings with the Soviet Union; U.S. President Ronald Reagan meets with the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Today: Whether or not leaders of the U.S. government should meet with leaders of countries they designate as adversaries, such as Cuba or Iran, is a hotly debated political issue.
- 1980s: American citizens mobilize in great numbers and join with citizens of other countries to protest the manufacture and stockpiling of nuclear weapons.
Today: American citizens mobilize in great numbers to oppose the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq and are joined in their protests by citizens of other countries around the world.
- 1980s: The possibility of the use of nuclear weapons in a massive attack causes widespread anxiety in the United States. Due to the threat of mutual annihilation between the United States and Russia, though, nuclear weapons are not deployed.
Today: The U.S. military uses weapons powered by depleted uranium ammunition, made with low-level radioactive waste, in Fallujah, Iraq. Unlike the nuclear weapons of the 1980s, these are strategically limited weapons. However, their damage goes beyond human injury and raises the level of radiation in the environment.
The Cold War, the Nuclear Arms Race, and Nuclear Deterrence
During World War II, despite their political and ideological differences, the United States and the Soviet Union formed a military alliance against Nazi Germany. After the war, however, the two
nations became adversaries, competing with each other to secure spheres of influence and extend their political, economic, and social systems around the world. While numerous proxy military confrontations occurred between the two superpowers in smaller countries, including Greece, Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, a direct military confrontation between them did not take place. Thus, their ongoing opposition was called the cold war. Nevertheless, both the United States and the Soviet Union devoted enormous resources to the development of continually more sophisticated and dangerous nuclear weaponry. They reasoned that the only way to prevent all-out war was to be so heavily armed that neither side would dare attack the other for fear of a mutually assured destruction, a theory called deterrence. While "ban the bomb" movements were strong throughout Europe and the United States since the 1950s, in the 1980s the nuclear freeze movement, calling for a halt in the production of nuclear weapons by both superpowers, became widespread throughout the world.
From 1929 to 1953 the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin was an absolute dictatorship with all the machinery of totalitarianism, including secret police; show trials; torture; random, politically motivated incarceration and execution; and government secrecy. At the Twentieth Party Congress in February 1956, Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin's rule. While there was some denial of the most heinous Stalinist tactics, a real change in regard to the loosening of state control of everyday rights to free expression and of government secrecy began in 1985 with Mikhail Gorbachev's accession to power. Gorbachev introduced the policy of glasnost, or openness, and perestroika, a policy of economic restructuring, again reducing the control of the state over citizens' activities. The effects of Gorbachev's policies were startling. What had once been a closed society became open. Western popular culture was permitted to flourish openly, rather than remain underground. Newspapers, radio, and television became far less restricted. The Soviet Union was also opened to foreign capitalist investors, businesspeople, and speculators. Ultimately glasnost led to the end of the cold war and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Meeting between Paul Nitze and Yuli Kvitsinsky
In 1981, U.S. President Ronald Reagan appointed Paul Nitze, a businessman, career diplomat, and arms control negotiator, to head the U.S. delegation to an arms control conference in Geneva, Switzerland. The negotiations, which took place over the course of a year, did not produce an agreement. In desperation, Nitze asked his Soviet counterpart, Yuli Kvitsinsky, to accompany him on a walk through the Jura Mountains. On July 16, 1982, walking in the woods, the two men agreed on a plan to limit the number of intermediate range missiles held by both superpowers. Their governments, though, rejected the plan. In the intervening years, the Soviet Union's leadership went through several changes as one leader after another died, until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in March 1985. In 1986, Nitze accompanied Reagan to Reykjavik, Iceland, to a summit conference with Gorbachev. Nitze almost succeeded in establishing a nuclear treaty with Sergei Akhromeyev, the Soviet negotiator, but that, too, failed to be approved. On December 8, 1987, the two powers finally reached a nuclear arms limitation treaty.
Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, A Walk in the Woods received mostly positive reviews. Writing about a 1987 production of the play staged at the Yale Repertory Theater, New York Times contributor Mel Gussow praises the play for being "neither a polemic nor a cartoon, but an engrossing attempt to humanize a situation of awesome portentousness." One of the play's virtues, he argues, is that "there is no artificial enlargement of the two characters into emblematic figures. Mr. Blessing makes us sympathize with them." However, Frank Rich, reviewing the Broadway production in February 1988 for the New York Times, views the play as a failed polemic against the arms race. Rich argues that A Walk in the Woods "fudges the distinctions of actual international politics and arms negotiations, choosing instead to telescope the messy, life-or-death conflict into a sentimental relationship between two likable envoys." He adds, "Blessing has made a subject as volatile as the bomb seem as pleasantly cool—and as safely remote—as his neutral forest setting." Rich finds the characters "nearly as generic as their vague negotiating positions." In a March 1988 review for Time magazine, William A. Henry, III, calls A Walk in the Woods "a work of passion and power with the ring of political truth." A Walk in the Woods remains a popular play and has been staged repeatedly by small professional and amateur groups.
Heims is a freelance writer living in Paris and the author or editor of over two dozen books on literary subjects. In the following essay, he argues that A Walk in the Woods is a drama about the absurdity that results when a rational need, nuclear disarmament, and an irrational policy, maintaining the status of a superpower, come into conflict.
Despite its manifest subject, A Walk in the Woods is not really about the nuclear arms race or an unorthodox attempt at arms control negotiations. It is a play about how the continuous pursuit of more powerful weapons systems and the resulting transformation of nations into empires renders rationality irrational, life not only precarious but absurd, and men impotent, or powerless. To be absurd means to be involved in a purposeless, irrational, or meaningless pursuit. This is exactly the condition of Botvinnik and Honeyman, and their respective governments, the Soviet Union and the United States. Even though they want to come to an agreement, Botvinnik and Honeyman cannot advance to the rational goal of limiting the production of nuclear weapons, because although their governments' public positions support arms limitation, their actual policies are to continue to develop deadlier weapons. The leaders of both countries are dedicated to the irrational goal of building more and more sophisticated nuclear weapons of massive destructive capability, of such devastating power that, unlike in the past, Honeyman explains,
no matter what stupid, gaping terror [men] created, it was always survivable. But no more. If we fail now [to come to an agreement] history itself will disappear. Time will stop…. There will be no here.
Botvinnik suggests two reasons for this unreasonable quest for limitless power. The first explanation, from the realm of realpolitick, is that neither side is able to trust the other. But Botvinnik, in the course of their dialogue, offers what appears to be a more fundamental reason. "The most exciting thing in the world," he says, "is to know we can destroy the world." With this sentence, Botvinnik removes the problem from the realm of politics or sociology and locates it squarely in the realms of biology and psychology.
The consequence of the awesome weaponry and power of each nation involved in the arms race is that nature is no longer within reach. At best, nature is a lost memory of a past possibility. Botvinnik recalls what it was like, when he was a boy, to be a swift and integral part of nature and, consequently, to be able to catch rabbits with his bare hands. Honeyman, ever an idealist, recalls,
When I was young, I used to think if you ate a lot of wild things—you know if you went to the woods and gathered things: blueberries, mushrooms, asparagus—I thought eating those things would somehow make you … wild. Not wild-behaving, just more a part of that world.
Now they are two men in the woods but not a part of the woods. Rather, they are souls lost in the woods. They are absurd and futile men, highly placed but powerless, involved in a process that is counter to their consciences. Botvinnik knows this from the moment the play opens. Honeyman comes to realize it as the play comes to an end. Absurdity and futility are the results of such an international society as the one presented in A Walk in the Woods.
Both the conversation and the international climate are defined by Botvinnik's opening lines. The audience catches him in the middle of a story he is telling Honeyman. It is a story characteristic of him, showing not only his negotiation technique of ensnaring his participant's interest and keeping him off balance, but also what has become his technique for survival. As a man who has been rendered absurd, who must work for something he knows he must not achieve, Botvinnik has become a master at constructing digressions promising a result that never materializes. He has turned futility into an art and a pastime. In this sense, the world is absurd because its rulers refuse to take what is serious—total destruction—seriously. Since this absurd world has rendered Botvinnik absurd, he has become a master of absurdity. Not just with this opening anecdote but with everything Botvinnik says, it is difficult to know if he is being serious or facetious. If he is being facetious, it is hard to discern whether his lightheartedness points to something deeper.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- The Last Flower by James Thurber, written in 1939, is an illustrated fable about the destructiveness of war and the folly of mankind.
- Making Do, published in 1963, is a novel by Paul Goodman depicting the effect of the cold war and the nuclear arms race on American culture.
- Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, written by Marc Estrin and published in 2002, is a wry epic novel. Gregor Samsa, the hero-victim of Franz Kafka's story "The Metamorphosis," is resurrected and becomes a participant in the creation of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
- Waiting for Godot, written by Samuel Beckett and published in 1949, depicts the conversation of two apparently aimless characters in an absurd world who seem to be waiting fruitlessly for a meaningful conclusion to a meaningless situation.
Botvinnik tells Honeyman that he once told a network news reporter that "when [Leonid] Brezhnev was in power, he always began Politburo meetings by saying, ‘The survival of the Soviet Union depends on the total annihilation of America.’" The reporter believed him and ran with the story until his senior editor, discovering Botvinnik was the source of the story, canceled it, aware of Botvinnik's tendency to joke. In his statement to the reporter, Botvinnik had been playing on the worst fears of the paranoid cold war mentality. His joke succeeded, because it quite possibly, in the common mind, might not have been a joke. Although Botvinnik now, a sophisticate playing the innocent, says, "How was I to know he'd believe it?" He does not actually deny the truth of what he said. Given the intense propaganda of the cold war and the way each side demonized the other in the media, the reporter was not to blame for believing him. Undoubtedly, many Americans, at the time the play was first produced, and some even now, would have no difficulty believing it either. As noted in a 1956 Time magazine article, Soviet Union Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev famously stated at the Polish embassy on November 18, 1956, "We will bury you," addressing the capitalist West. Khrushchev spoke with a coyness similar to Botvinnik. In a speech in Yugoslavia given on August 24, 1963, he seems to have back-tracked. Khrushchev, as quoted in Simpson's Contemporary Quotations: The Most Notable Quotes since 1960, explained, "I once said, ‘We will bury you,’ and I got into trouble with it. Of course we will not bury you with a shovel. Your own working class will bury you." It is in this climate of taunts and maneuvers, and rumors and threats of overwhelming and impenetrable catastrophe, that the conversation between Honeyman and Botvinnik takes place.
The dimensions of the looming disaster are rendered within the conversation. Botvinnik appears to be dedicated to mitigating the scope of the looming threat by refusing to treat it seriously or, sometimes, to acknowledge it at all. Honeyman's passionate intensity, while making him appear to be truly naïve given Botvinnik's sophisticated nonchalance, is really a form of hardheaded outrage. When he is frustrated, that outrage becomes pure rage, which is released in his absurd altercation with an old Swiss police officer who stops him for littering. Refusing to pick up the gum wrapper he dropped in the street, he pushes the police officer and barely avoids being arrested. In this event, something comes full circle. Botvinnik has asked Honeyman to speak of frivolous and trivial things. The anecdote of the chewing gum wrapper meets this requirement. Yet within it, the profound frustration of being an absurd man is revealed. That is why Botvinnik identifies this event as "crucial" when Honeyman tells him about it. Honeyman's rage is the consequence of being in a position in which, as far as his government is concerned, failure to accomplish what he is apparently supposed to accomplish—and what he is actually dedicated to accomplishing—is the measure of success. Baffled, he tells Botvinnik about his conversation with the U.S. president after he showed him the proposed agreement. "He looked me straight in the eye," Honeyman states, "and said, ‘Don't try so hard.’" That, Botvinnik explains, "was only a euphemism" for "don't try at all."
A Walk in the Woods focuses on dialogue and debate, sometimes presenting comments that sound like successful political opinion pieces. Its drama and suspense, if it has either, must come from how its two actors connect with each other and bring their own characters to life. Conversation is the only action of the play, if conversation, especially conversation that leads nowhere, can be called action. The brief interlude in which Botvinnik scampers about the stage trying unsuccessfully to catch a rabbit, can hardly be considered action. Honeyman's aggressive encounter with the Swiss police officer happens offstage and, like an act of violence in a Greek tragedy, is narrated rather than shown to the audience. His confrontation with the U.S. president also happens offstage and is later recounted. Paradoxically, the only action of the play that happens on stage is the action that does not happen. No arms control agreement is achieved, which Botvinnik states, makes their "time together … a very great failure. But—a successful one." They have achieved what their governments wanted them to achieve: nothing. How does a play that involves all talk and no action end? In the case of A Walk in the Woods, it ends in silence. Silence is what the two achieve, and silence is the play's message, because all of its words are meaningless. They are futile, because they do not lead to action. The only action that their words can possibly lead to, given the intransigent world of the nuclear threat in which they are spoken, is silence.
"Shall we go back?" Botvinnik suggests in the last lines of A Walk in the Woods, as they both realize they have nothing else to discuss. They have neither the serious talk of negotiations to pursue, nor the frivolous or "small talk" that has regularly sidetracked or interrupted their conversation, as there is no serious talk to avoid. "Let's stay awhile," however, Honeyman says. "What do you want to talk about?" Botvinnik asks, surprised. "Nothing," Honeyman answers. On this note, they sit in the woods staring out "into the distance" together. Botvinnik puts some drops into his eyes, as he has done throughout the play. Even the act of crying is impossible and can only be rendered by this absurd mechanism. The stage lights fade as they sit in silence, in the heart of nature, two denatured men in a denatured world. They have arrived at an impasse and resolutely acknowledge and yield to it. At this moment, like the Chinese sages in W. B. Yeats's poem "Lapis Lazuli," who sit in a landscape of the mind composed of mountain and sky staring at tragedy, they are no longer absurd. It is a grim comedy.
Source: Neil Heims, Critical Essay on A Walk in the Woods, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
Thomas M. Disch
In the following review, Disch compares A Walk in the Woods to Larry Shue's Wenceslas Square, Len Jenkins's American Notes, and Loren-Paul Caplin's A Subject of Childhood, remarking that the scenes in Blessing's play are "laboriously contrived and unconvincing."
Of the two new plays about East meeting West and the resulting strains, I must confess my preference for the ostensibly less serious, Larry Shue's Wenceslas Square at the Public Theater. That's not to say that Lee Blessing's A Walk in the Woods (at the Booth Theater) fails to engage the attention or command respect, but ultimately these simulated meetings between a U.S. and a Russian arms negotiator seemed as laboriously contrived and unconvincing as Bill Clarke's set, with its lean, limbless tree trunks and recyclable autumn leaves posing in front of the three white walls of an enormous room decorated with a photo of real woods. This unnaturalness was never put to any theatrical use except to remind us, at every moment, that what we were watching was symbolic. Unfortunately, that didn't need underlining.
The problem with A Walk in the Woods inheres in its central merit. It is a calm, lucid, nonpartisan scale model of the frustration generated by decades of disarmament negotiations that both the United States and the Soviet Union use as window dressing for the reality of an unstoppable arms race. Robert Prosky (who was Hill Street Blues's Sgt. Jablonski) plays the Soviet negotiator, a lovably gruff teddy bear whose pleasure in rubbing more disingenuous noses in the dirt of geopolitical reality provides the driving force of the plot, such as it is. As the U.S. negotiator whose nose Prosky abuses, Sam Waterston proves once again that not even James Stewart is more like James Stewart than he. Stiff, laconic, lanky and soon to play the title role in an NBC miniseries of Gore Vidal's Lincoln, Waterston is the quintessential Yankee. He rebuffs Prosky's overtures of friendship, refuses to play trivia games with him and delivers the show's one overt sermon on the horror of the nuclear arms race, a serviceable paraphrase of Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth. However, the play's last word on the subject savors more of Samuel Beckett than of any crusader for disarmament. The negotiators' best efforts prove futile, and they part ways (much as the audience leaves the theater), knowing the nuclear nightmare will go on. Such a muted curse on both superpowers' houses is probably the most commonly used aspirin for frazzled nuclear-age nerves, and A Walk in the Woods has enjoyed a fair success with critics and audiences for saying what is universally thought but almost always repressed: We all live in a nuclear submarine.
Wenceslas Square, though more diffident in trundling out the big guns of the Zeitgeist, has the merits that sort with modesty: It is lifelike and full of warmth. It takes the form of a travelogue through Prague some five years after the brief political thaw of 1968. The protagonist is a drama teacher (played by Jonathan Hadary) from "Cementville College," who is revisiting Prague to research a "Where Are They Now?" epilogue to his book about the Czech theater during the thaw; with him is an undergraduate who acts as his photographer and straight man (Bruce Norris, as pleasantly ingenuous in blue jeans in this role as he was as Demetrius in the Public Theater's recent Midsummer Night's Dream). As the citizens and officials of Prague, Dana Ivey and Victor Garber tend to steal most scenes, and how could they do otherwise with so many plumm character roles to flit about in? As in his much broader farce, The Foreigner, Larry Shue has a lot of fun with the strangeness of language, foreigners' and ours, but unlike that play or his even more frenetic hit (still on Broadway) The Nerd, Shue's aim has not been to create some juggernaut laugh machine but simply to recount his experiences as an innocent abroad. (I assume, from its varied textures, that Shue's Prague is based on personal acquaintance. Blessing's "pleasant woods on the outskirts of Geneva" are as generic as the Forest of Arden.) The effect is not unlike Spalding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia, with the addition of actors, props and a modicum of scenery.
But let me get back to "lifelike and full of warmth," those bromidic evasions (as they must seem) of the critical responsibility to account precisely for one's applause. Actors as good as Waterston and Prosky can do much to invest wooden characters with seeming vitality, and when the wood used in their construction is of the best quality, illusion can go far. Blessing has given his dialogue a smooth veneer of Shavian high gloss ("Formality," harrumphs his Russian, "is simply anger with its hair combed") and he's taken great pains in the engineering of the two characters' interactions so that there is always a varying tension between them. But: These are not men with lives that continue when they leave the stage, and their major interpersonal dilemma (Can we be friends even though our countries are enemies?) is the kind of happy problem that only exists in the theater and in movies, where it is solved in just two hours after an emotional outburst has prepared the ground for Sympathy and Understanding. Blessing's play shows what arms negotiations would be like if they were conducted by you or me or Everyman; arms negotiators in the real world would have solved Blessing's happy problem years before they got to Geneva. For this reason, Blessing's play ends up delivering a feel-good message despite its ostensibly downbeat ending: If Sam Waterston and Robert Prosky can become friends, then maybe someday so can America and the Soviet Union. Who would want to contest this Aquarian wisdom, or fail to be comforted by it?
Wenceslas Square is lifelike much in the manner of those evermore exfoliating designs generated by the Mandelbrot set of complex numbers, crystalline lattices of potentially infinite intricacy. Blessing's characters do change and evolve in the course of A Walk in the Woods, as the drama rulebook requires, but Shue's characters become more complicated as we get to know them. Part of this is the actors' doing; Hadary, for instance, modulates his laughter through a range from sneaky aggression to self-abnegation that is as finely gradated as Sam Waterston's spectrum of smiles. The difference is that Hadary's characterization is generated by a text that is literally lifelike in its potential for provoking any amount of valid embellishment. Waterston's smiles, like a model's, are a professional accouterment.
Of warmth as a dramatic criterion, though our aesthetic antennae respond to it in art as our skin does in nature, I am reduced to mere finger pointing, head nodding and phatic noises. Shue's play has considerable warmth; Blessing's is lukewarm—but Len Jenkin's American Notes (also at the Public Theater) is positively chilly. Its microcosm of ten representative Americans includes: two hookers, a pimp, a U.F.O. fanatic, a carnival pitchman, a zombielike derelict and a mysterious stranger in a trench coat who pays sinister court to the coed night clerk of a seedy motel. These and other lowlifes all speak the argot peculiar to serious theater, a poesy as stereotyped as the lyrics of country and western ballads, and not that different. In Jenkin's America, women are either victims or whores, men are sinister creeps or pathetic wimps, no one works (except the zombie), people survive on fast food and booze, and the TV is always on, rotting minds. No one goes anywhere, no one listens to anyone else, and the program comes with an epigraph from Blake's America: "Tho' obscur'd, this is the form of the Angelic land." This is the mindset of a 16-year-old refugee from Winnetka still wet behind the ears with the blood from his or her first piercing. Jenkin is scarcely the first to confuse the safety pin in his cheek with political savvy, nor even the callowest.
The most distressing thing about American Notes was the wealth of theatrical talent that has been squandered on its production: an elaborate, two-tiered honeycomb of a set designed by John Arnone and the services of ten actors with enough prior credits among them to constitute a brief history of Off Broadway. But had they been the Royal Shakespeare Company they couldn't have kept American Notes afloat, so there's not much point blaming (or naming) them. The nature and degree of producer Joseph Papp's responsibility is a matter of conjecture. My own, based upon a sampling of such recent Papp productions as David Hare's fatal The Knife and Reinaldo Povod's La Puta Vida, is that Papp, being of a bilious disposition, will settle for the near-beer of petulance when genuine wrath or malice isn't on tap. It may also be the case that near-beer is a more marketable commodity, but I doubt it.
A Subject of Childhood at the WPA Theater is a horse so redolently dead that one hesitates to whip its gruesome carcass. Playwright Loren-Paul Caplin writes dialogue that would make even the hastiest soap-opera hack cringe. Like the immortal Florence Foster Jenkins, he possesses a voice that grates throughout its range. Whether he's being gooey about love, or purveying psychobabble, or having people quarrel like toddlers ("No, you're not!" "Yes, I am!" "Not, not, not!" is a fair paraphrase of one big scene), Caplin gets it wrong. As his tired plot plods to its Act I curtain (rarely does a play this bad offer an intermission in which to escape one's seat), the luckless onlooker's wandering mind inevitably begins to speculate on how such a turkey ever came to be served up by a theatrical company with the track record of the WPA Theater, the originator of last season's entirely stageworthy Steel Magnolias. Admittedly, it's got a high-concept story line: parents debating whether their little boy is a genuine Bad Seed, or did his little friend fall to his death by accident? But this viable idea doesn't survive five minutes of Caplin's heavy-handed treatment. Surely a professional, in reading the script, would have known what anyone but Caplin's mother would have to say about A Subject of Childhood—i.e., that it was certain to bomb. But where there's a part, no matter how bad, somewhere there'll be an actor hungry enough to take it. (One of the actresses in Subject is making her Off Broadway debut, and my advice to her is to change her name and start from scratch.) But why would a director ask for this kind of trouble? The answer appears in the program notes, where we're informed that director Bill Castellino co-wrote the book for City Muzik with its composer-lyricist, none other than Loren-Paul Caplin. From that point, what one is seeing on stage begins to make sense.
The reason Subject is worth discussing at all is the set by Edward T. Gianfrancesco, one of Off Broadway's most capable scene designers. It represents the living room, staircase and upstairs hallway of a house said to be in Brooklyn. Gianfrancesco's idea was to universalize his domestic interior by surrounding gray stuffed furniture on a gray carpet with bookshelves, a TV, a child's plastic tricycle and other impedimenta, all spackled gray. Ditto the walls and the pictures on the walls. It was hard not to suppose that this was Gianfrancesco's veiled comment on the character of the text he'd been set to illustrate rather than a sincere aesthetic faux pas. After all, if a dead horse needn't be beaten, neither does it require much in the way of equipage, so why not just paint it gray?
However, this particular style of design has become, with some trivial modifications, a commonplace among Off Broadway theaters, and it cannot represent in all such cases the set designer's cryptic commentary on the text. The Second Stage's recent Loose Ends and several productions at Circle Rep have adopted this generic solution to the problem of low-budget set decoration. It is almost always a false solution, for gray paint, gray carpets and gray sofas do not create a Platonic living room inhabitable by any cast of characters; they represent the negation of the forms over which they cast their pall. A designer would do better to scavenge authentic furniture off the streets than to fob off another such dentist's waiting room as a set design. It's simply an excuse for not thinking.
Loren Sherman, who designed the set for Wenceslas Square, was under (I would guess) budgetary constraints comparable to those at WPA, but Sherman's every prop and stick of furniture was expressive and characterful. Even the piece of steel scaffolding that signified a construction site was individualized by a red-trimmed metal trough for mixing concrete, which had the expressive individuality of a piece of sculpture. A set designer doesn't need a big budget to create great sets, only a live imagination, a good eye and an understanding of the secret language of cloth, wood and papier-mâché.
Source: Thomas M. Disch, Review of A Walk in the Woods, in Nation, April 9, 1988, pp. 510-12.
In the following review, Sauvage provides a generally positive critique of A Walk in the Woods and comments in particular on the play's characterization.
A Walk in the Woods can unambiguously be welcomed to New York's Booth Theater. Whether it lasts for years or, because of its unconventional subject, has a more limited run, it will surely rank among the most interesting plays of many a Broadway season.
Disarmament negotiations tend to be a crabbed and difficult business—hardly an obvious source for show material. There is a certain tediousness, moreover, to the strategics involved: Diplomatic teams are perfectly capable of rejecting a provision they agree with and would have liked to have proposed themselves simply because it has been broached by the other side.
Happily, the American playwright Lee Blessing has kept the technicalities and convolutions inherent in such exchanges to a minimum. He also has supplied enough sharp and shiny lines to give Woods plenty of dramatic drive. The play manages to teach us something without being the least bit didactic. Thanks to Blessing's sure touch, we avidly follow the twisting path through the Geneva landscape, smiling all the while.
That is not to say this production—which came to New York from the La Jolla Playhouse in California via Yale—is perfect in every respect. Indeed, some might be disturbed that Blessing and director Des McAnuff have endowed the Russian official with qualities of subtlety, depth and humor that far surpass those discernible in the American. Andrey Botvinnik (Robert Prosky) is older and more experienced than his interlocutor. He has been hardened by disappointment, and his wryly cynical tone suggests an underlying hopelessness. Paired with the youngish, eager John Honeyman (Sam Waterston), whose impulsive sincerity frequently erupts in fits of righteous shouting, Botvinnik is the one who inevitably fascinates us. It is as though in responding to the challenge of humanizing the unorthodox Soviet diplomat, Blessing and McAnuff got carried away and made his counterpart into a bit of a foil.
Lest this asymmetry in the two characters be taken as a reflection of political bias, it should be added that Botvinik—whose disciplined sarcasm does not adequately mask an absence of illusions about his own country—is finally removed from the negotiations by his suspicious bosses. The ever hopeful Honeyman stays on in Geneva to deal with his successor.
The play was inspired by a well-known incident: In the summer of 1982, Yuli A. Kvitsinsky and Paul H. Nitze stepped away from a deadlocked arms reduction session in Geneva for a stroll in a nearby park, and returned with a break-through compromise (which ultimately proved unacceptable to hardliners on both sides). Yet it was evidently not Blessing's intention merely to give a dramatized account of this: His four half-acts see Botvinnik and Honeyman having four different conversations in the glade—one in each season of the year—and the American character is in many ways the antithesis of Nitze.
A Walk in the Woods marks a promising Broadway debut for Blessing, who has an undeniable flair for stage writing. Rather than getting lost in a jungle of issues and meanings, he uses the Geneva talks as an occasion for scrutinizing the minds and hearts of the opposed parties, drawing out their shared need to convince and be convinced as well as to prevail. McAnuff's direction is admirable, and Robert Prosky turns in one of the most skillful performances of his long career. Bill Clarke's stylish set cleverly extends the almost Chekhovian presence of the trees, paths and bench in the foreground by means of a framed painting of woods upstage.
To avoid giving the impression that I was utterly overcome with pleasure by a Broadway play simply because it was well enough turned out not to require roller skates, let me end by registering a tiny cavil: Why is the winter scene signaled by an unbelievably dense fog that has as little to do with Geneva weather as it does with the clarity of Woods' insight into the minds of the negotiators?
Source: Leo Sauvage, Review of A Walk in the Woods, in New Leader, Vol. 71, No. 5, March 21, 1988, p. 23.
Blessing, Lee, A Walk in the Woods, Dramatists Play Service, 1998.
Gussow, Mel, "Theater: Bilateral Talks in A Walk in the Woods," in the New York Times, March 8, 1987, p. 66.
Henry, William A., III, "To Survive, Just Keep Talking: A Walk in the Woods," in Time, March 14, 1988, p. 91.
"Lee Blessing, Playwright," in the Indiana University Web site, http://www.indiana.edu/~thtr/guests/bio/blessing.html (accessed October 8, 2008).
"Lee (Knowlton) Blessing," in Contemporary Dramatists, 6th ed., St. James Press, 1999.
McCauley, Martin, "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics," in Encyclopaedia Britannica Online.
"Paul Nitze: Master Strategist of the Cold War," in Academy of Achievement,February 25, 2005, http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/nit0bio-1 (accessed August 1, 2008).
"Quote 192," in Simpson's Contemporary Quotations: The Most Notable Quotes since 1950, compiled by James Beasley Simpson, Houghton Mifflin, 1988.
Rich, Frank, "Stage: A Walk in the Woods," in New York Times, February 29, 1988, p. 18.
"We Will Bury You!," in Time, November 26, 1956.
Alinsky, Saul, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, Random House, 1971.
Alinsky, 1909-1972, was a community organizer who pioneered many techniques for disenfranchised people to attain social and economic power in their communities through negotiation.
Kahn, Herman, On Thermonuclear War, Princeton University Press, 1960, Transaction Publishers, 2007.
One of the principle works justifying the building and stockpiling of nuclear weapons, this book also calculates the degree of destruction in a nuclear war that can be considered acceptable.
Knebel, Fletcher, and Charles W. Bailey, II, Seven Days in May, Harper & Row, 1962.
This cold war thriller is about the reaction of a unit of military hawks to a nuclear arms control treaty implemented by the United States and the Soviet Union.
McReynolds, David, We Have Been Invaded by the 21st Century, Praeger, 1970.
McReynolds is a pacifist and a socialist who worked as field secretary for the War Resisters League and has written extensively about the cold war and the nuclear threat.