The Floating Light Bulb, by Woody Allen
One of the things that I have only recently discovered is that Woody Allen is not only an actor, screenwriter, and director, but also a writer in other genres as well. This particular work is a play of his that appeared on Broadway in 1981. In reading this play, one can get a sense of the author’s own struggles and his own knowledge of the upbringing of Jewish kids. This play is not one that has an evident moral perspective, and in looking at it, one can see Allen’s own marital problems in the action of the play itself. Indeed, this is a play that centers on four people, with two peripheral characters included as well that demonstrate the pressures each of the parents as well as their children are under. To say that none of the characters do a good job with the stresses and pressures that they are under would be a great understatement–as this play is definitely a tragic one, albeit the sort of tragedy that other people often laugh at and gain a great deal of amusement in. The author seems to take his tragedy seriously, in the vein of an Arthur Miller or someone like that.
This particular play has two acts, in the manner of much of contemporary drama, and the first act has six scenes and the second act two scenes. In the first act, we are set up with a problem in an apartment in postwar Brooklyn, with a father who doesn’t make much money and tries to earn extra income through gambling, a mother who nags everyone else constantly, and two sons, one of whom is a truant who is involved with a gang of kids who is up to no good, and the other struggles with stuttering and seeks to withdraw into his own private world of magic tricks and fantasy and imagination. By the end of the first act there is at least the potential for something to work out right, but this is snuffed out pretty quickly in the second act as the magic demonstration goes disastrously poorly and the talent scout, who is lacking a lot of talent to represent, spends more time trying to flirt with the mother than working with the nervous and uncomfortable son. Finally, the play ends with the mother driving the father out of the house, leaving him to start again, one supposes with his mistress.
This play definitely qualifies as a domestic tragedy, but it is one that seems to belong more to the time period where the author was writing in the late 70’s and early 80’s than it does to the time the play is set in in the 1940’s. I wonder what it is that led the author to choose the time period he did–perhaps he wished to comment on an aspect of Jewish life in the cabaret circuit that is often neglected or forgotten nowadays, even if the author’s social understanding has been filtered through contemporary corruption and the breakdown of the family rather than a better understanding of the past as it was lived by most people. Beyond that, though, this play suffers a bit from being a domestic tragedy. This play tells a situation that has occurred many times, perhaps even millions of times, with parents hostile to each other, one (or both) of the partners being unfaithful, and children who either strike out in anger or withdraw in isolation given the hostility in their home life. This play does not offer anything except for a view of the unpleasant, with no pointing towards a way forward, and so it lacks the worth of a true dramatic masterpiece of domestic melodrama.