Countless rebirths lie ahead, both good and bad. The effects of karma (actions) are inevitable, and in previous lifetimes we have accumulated negative karma which will inevitably have its fruition in this or future lives. Just as someone witnessed by police in a criminal act will eventually be caught and punished, so we too must face the consequences of faulty actions we have committed in the past, there is no way to be at ease; those actions are irreversible; we must eventually undergo their effects. — His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Kindness, Clarity and Insight
It’s easy to reduce Duels to being a play about a love triangle, or, if you’re truly vapid, a play about sex. It’s also easy to reduce The Brothers Karamazov to a detective story, and Jackson Pollock’s Number 1, 1948 to “a mindless mess of paint.”
Duels is not a play about sex. It is not even a play about tragic love. Those interpretations strike me as uninteresting and show a touch of the more or less Romantic adolescent. What Duels is, I think, is a play about samsara.
It’s perhaps easy to miss this, or ignore it, because present-day America itself is adolescent. Present-day America is not, like Heaven, a place where nothing ever happens. It is a place where everything happens, and happens in a vacuum. Nothing connects to anything else. No action has any consequence. If you doubt this, go play a few rounds of Halo and log on with a female-identifiable name. You are likely to discover exactly what John Suler, Kasumovic and Kuznekoff, Jenny Arendholz, and dozens of other researchers have found: the allegedly connected world is actually filled with disconnected, self-centered fuckwads who think their actions exist in a void.
So when a morally committed playwright like Mr. Stokes puts to these people a play that is about nothing if not about morality and the consequences of action, it makes perfect sense that it would meet with blank stares and open mouths.
Every review I’ve read so far of Nick Stokes’ play talks about metaphor, metaphor, metaphor. But the problem with metaphor is that metaphors have to be read, not merely identified. Such reading depends on the reader’s ignorance more than her knowledge. Ignorance will convince the reader that she has cleverly identified a “metaphor” and that the metaphor is specifically what she thinks it is.
This is precisely why Buddhists refer to ignorance as one of The Three Poisons.
A survey of the five reviews I have read about the play makes it clear to me that the poison is definitely circulating. In each of the five pieces I read, reviewers are so stuck on the vehicle of metaphor that they are blind to its tenor. And that blindness is toxic to their ability to see what is actually right in front of them, or to engage the play in any way it practically begs to be engaged. Duels is about purgatory, but to make it clearer, it helps to remove it from the Christian realm back to the realm of Asian religion.
In the basic tenets of Hinduism and Buddhism, samsara is wordly existence. It has no beginning and no end, but simply is, and always has been. It is the cycle of birth and death and rebirth and is filled with suffering. This suffering arises from The Three Poisons — Ignorance, Greed, and Hatred — and from human karma (literally “action”) based on these poisons. In the Hindu tradition karma is what human beings do; the Buddhist interpretation is that karma is the intention within the action, and that action and intention are not separable. Whatever version one prefers, the result of karma is vipaka, or consequence. Those consequences determine how the soul will either progress or devolve when it is reborn into samsara yet again until — presumably after several rebirths of pure virtuousness — the soul is removed from samsara entirely into nirvana.
Now this is all very basic Asian philosophy. But what has any of this to do with Duels?
Some of the audience confusion about the play doubtless arises because Mr. Stokes has chosen a fairly unconventional form of storytelling — the reverse chronology. It isn’t that reverse chronology is difficult to understand. Surely more than enough people have seen or read Betrayal, or Merrily We Roll Along, or Memento, or Irreversible or Slaughterhouse Five or Time’s Arrow or…. The device is plenty accessible. The difference, however, between those uses of the device and Duels is that those pieces start at the end of an action and move backward toward that action’s beginning. Duels moves backward toward the beginning, but its action does not begin at the end because there isn’t one. There isn’t one because samsara has no beginning and no end. The play could be told in either direction, but Mr. Stokes has chosen reverse chronology because he is, I think, interested in the root of human morality and the possibility of karma.
At the beginning of the play, the garden on stage is filled with various vegetables that are not props. It’s impossible not to notice both visually and olfactorily. The author himself has written into the play script that “The garden plants may be stylized, but the fruit, vegetables, and soil are real.” Why? Why bother?
There is a trick here, built into the narrative device. Betrayal, Memento, Time’s Arrow et al claim to be told backward. They are not. They are partially backward. The order of scenes is reversed, but actions within the scenes proceed in normal order. Because, as Richard Gombrich notes in his writings on Buddhism, one cannot understand backwards without corrupting the meaning of karma. Just as words spoken backwards have no meaning, one cannot play karma in reverse. One can only play vipaka.
The play opens with consequences of karma, or vipaka. And vipaka means “ripening.” The ripe fruit and vegetables emphasize this quite directly. This isn’t metaphor. It’s hyper-realism. Just as surely as Scene 0 in the play is marked “Afterbirth,” Mr. Stokes is well aware of his aim. I am certain that Mr. Stokes is also aware that The Three Poisons map fairly neatly to the three characters: John as aversion (a better translation of dveṣa than hatred perhaps), Juan as greed (also lust/desire), and Irene as ignorance, though of course all three characters contain all three poisons. The play isn’t a metaphor for sex; it’s an allegory for birth and rebirth, which again is made quite literally the central action of the play. John and Juan begin a cycle of samsara that is completely absurd to behold on the basic level of action, in the Western sense. But if one scratches a bit beneath the patina of absurdism, the roots are dark and the problem is deeply moral.
The play makes several allusions to the animal kingdom as the play moves backward toward its beginning. That animal kingdom in Hinduism and Buddhism are also part of samsara. Specifically, the animal kingdom is viewed as belonging to the same lower realms as ghosts and demonic creatures. While there are no demons cavorting about the stage, it’s far from a stretch to treat John and Juan in Scenes 0-4 as ghostly. They are, after all, dead. The animal references increase as the play moves back toward the original karma that sets everything else in motion — in other words, the play suggests that this particular rebirth starts with John and Juan in the lower realms, but that their actual, linear process of vipaka in time is making them more like ghosts than animals and therefore actually sending them downward to hell and not upward at all. The language reflects this, too. Both characters begin to sound more and more like each other and lose their earthly identities with each rebirth.
Given this, who, or what, is Irene?
A simple reading of the play suggests that Irene remains alive while the two men duel each other into infinity like some variation on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes.” I’m not so sure of this. At one point, Irene screams “Take me with you, you shits!” Furthermore, her own bad karma of pride helps set the cycle into motion right at the end of the play.
JOHN: He and I are rotting vegetables…. Forget about me. Have some mercy and shoot his gun in the air and plant it in his hand. It’ll save our pride…. I wanted everything to get better. It will. It’ll be like this never happened. I’m sorry.
(John shoots himself, bleeds blackberry juice, and dies.)
IRENE: You won’t leave me alone.
(She picks up Juan’s gun. She points it at her temple.)
IRENE: 1 … 2 … 3 … 4 … 5.
I don’t need you. I don’t need love. I can do better than this.
(She shoots at the sky. She puts the gun in Juan’s hand. She stares out vacantly as Juan and John rise, stained by blackberry juice. John hangs Sold sign over For Sale sign. Juan picks up a shovel.)
Throughout the entire piece, Irene has seemed to be the stable one, the one who never does anything wrong while two crazy men keep fighting. This scene at the denoument of the play suggests to me that isn’t the case at all. Instead I read that it’s her vanity that dooms both men. And, I think, it also dooms her. At the beginning of the play she seems to be at peace, tending her garden like Candide. At the end she is seen to be a vainglorious, self-centered egotist who cares more about her reputation and external appearance than in right action. Given the playwright’s morality throughout the rest of the play — bad karma is punished consistently — it is inconceivable to me that Irene can have this bad karma and somehow come out unscathed. In Buddhist scripture karma is said to ripen only where there is delusion. At the beginning of the play, when the vegetables are indeed ripe, Irene’s delusion that she is doing just fine is perhaps the biggest delusion of all. The men at least know on a base level that they are trapped and, like Garcin in Sartre’s No Exit, simply say “Let’s get on with it.” Irene is convinced nothing is wrong — which is the biggest wrong of all. She also continues to be completely selfish, ceasing to care at all about John and Juan and only worrying whether or not their deaths will help her garden grow.
Another dark implication hides in the fact that the end of the play is not, in fact, the end. At the end of the play both men arise once more, reborn, with Juan completely distinct from John by now, even speaking completely in Spanish. Perhaps this is actually the real beginning of the cycle of samsara and bad karma. But the audience cannot know. No one can. It may be. Or it may be merely a continuation of bad karma from the lower realms. For all one knows, Irene originally shot both John and Juan herself and the entire play is all about her vipaka and not theirs.
This movement of the play from what seems to be amoral absurdist comedy to something like a dark tragedy has great potential to make people upset without knowing why. Given so much entertainment hasn’t the slightest interest in asking moral questions, and certainly not spiritual eternal ones its audience, one can hardly be surprised how an audience will balk at being asked to think about it.
Marianna de Fazio, Carter Rodriquez and Daniel Christensen are all accomplished actors. I cannot imagine them giving anything less than their best. Mr. Christensen is exceptionally fine in eliciting sympathy from the audience without ever losing that quality that makes me want to strangle his character. He has an excellent quality in his performance that makes the other performances raise their stakes. Similarly Carter Rodriquez, who often winds up being cast for his comic ability, gets to play physically, as he loves to do, but actually shows himself capable of a wider range.
If I have any qualms, I think they center around Ms. de Fazio’s character. Ms. de Fazio is a precise, technical actress, and I make no secret of having been fond of her work for quite some time. There are, however, times for me when she is quite detached from her two compatriots on stage. With an actress of such incredible skill, this cannot be accidental. I think she believes, as I do, that the play is fundamentally about Irene’s personal hell. A certain amount of detached egocentrism is a sensible approach. But I think she needs more help from her director here. Irene’s journey strikes me as anti-nirvana. Rather than being born and reborn and eventually removed completely from samsara and its suffering, she is never reborn. She is doomed to one existence, one identity, one ego, and ultimately one attachment: this moment and no other. This is where I want the director to step in and say yes by making her backwards journey more obviously detached to passionate, soft to loud. It works for me best in the middle of Scene 4 using the clothing changes (thanks to the fabulous costume design) to externalize the latent sensuality, but I want more of a tell before that — perhaps as early as the end of Scene 2, in the spinach scene.
It seems to me José Amador, himself a Buddhist, is well-suited to this material, and his delineations to me are clear enough in the main. I wish he’d go further with Irene, as I said. There are also moments where I wish the production could accomplish something in the script that it cannot for budgetary reasons, but it is foolish to complain about directors not directing the play in my head. If I want to see that play, I have the script. Mr. Stokes has released it with a Creative Commons license, so it is obviously meant to be read. That isn’t what’s under discussion. What’s under discussion is what actually happened on stage and what is available to any viewer, and to my mind Mr. Amador has done just fine. He has an obvious sympathy with the script. He has a clear interpretation — clear to me, at least, and I am far from a Buddhist. He coaxes strong performances out of his cast. Good enough for me.
Certainly the technical side of things is in perfectly capable hands. Silas James and Tess Malone have created a brilliant visual environment, and Amy LaZerte’s eccentric costume choices feel perfectly complementary. Everyone understands, I think, the play they are in.
The ultimate meaning of that play is up for grabs. But it won’t reveal anything to anyone without a little work. Some people resist this, under the delusion that theater, like all art apparently, is supposed to be cotton candy. Mr. Stokes’ play asks people to flex their moral muscles, and imaginatively. The Buddhist symbol of the auspicious knot is meant to suggest that karma is eternal and complex. It also represents awakened mind and awakened heart. To enter that knot takes some courage, and some work. Duels asks, and rewards the work, as any decent play should.