In the lobby after a recent performance of Wakey, Wakey, Will Eno’s luminous new play about a man’s search for truth, an older woman asked if I thought this was the playwright’s darkest work. I wasn’t sure. Most of Eno’s plays are darkly comic fables that place everyman characters face-to-face with the shifting enormity of human suffering. As everymen these characters are also audience surrogates, a position Eno loves to complicate with fourth-wall-breaking direct address, turning many of his plays into conversations between the self and, well, itself. Wakey, Wakey is no exception. Its unnamed, wheelchair-bound, dying protagonist (Michael Emerson) spends the play trying to make sense of life as it slips away from him, to tap into some immutable reservoir of joy and light beyond the inconstant words “joy” and “light” themselves. It’s dark. It’s sad. It will remind you of what you’ve lost. But so will his early ensemble drama Middletown, in which a man narrowly survives a suicide attempt with only an infection, then dies from that infection rather gruesomely; as will his earlier ensemble drama The Flu Season, in which a mentally ill young woman very much does not survive a suicide attempt; and his recent, under-appreciated bildungsroman Gnit, in which a young man watches his mother die; and of course his Broadway debut The Realistic Joneses, whose lights descend just after two terminally ill men and their wives witness a third man, who has the same illness a little further along, fall dead in a restaurant. And that’s to say nothing of the other, non-fatal forms of pain explored in the Eno canon. There’s a lot!
I relayed all this to my new friend and she wondered if perhaps it was her perspective as an old lady—her words!—that left her feeling less than optimistic at the end of Wakey, Wakey. Immediately I flashed back to the time I saw Eno’s first play as a Residency Five playwright at the Signature Theatre, Title and Deed. I was with my then-girlfriend and her grandmother, whose husband had recently passed away. The play is a monologue, its only character a nameless plaintive stranger to our land. He’s hurt himself and hurt others and seems to live in a perpetual state of longing to go home. At one point he says: “I don’t know if you’ve ever followed an ambulance with your mother in it. It’s mainly like driving a car, and you only start to cry when they stop running red lights or turn the siren off. The whole time you’re wondering, ‘Does this have to happen and, since it does, does it have to happen like this?’” I thought it was a moving, elegantly phrased window into grief. The woman to my right gasped sharply and audibly. She had not only seen the window but fallen through it. Back in 2017, I took a sip of punch—there was punch—and said, “Oh yeah, that makes sense.”
I don’t tell this story because I think it’s a particularly unique experience; the beauty of theatre has always been that it gives to some what it withholds from others (also the pretty lights, neat costumes, hip-hop retellings of American history, etc.). But I do think it is particularly germane to Wakey, Wakey, a play deeply concerned with the tenuous relationship between Things, the feelings those Things create in their beholders, and the language that describes those feelings and Things both. What is lost of a Thing when our mortal bodies translate it into feeling? What is lost of a feeling when we translate it into words? Can language ever capture a Thing as it precisely, truly, fully is? These are big questions that would seem to make for dull theatre, but Eno has never shied away from the existential or phenomenological. His greatest skill may well be his ability to dramatize them. More than any of his other plays, Wakey, Wakey accepts that narrative and its constituent parts—character, dialogue, action—are but the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave, flickering projections of a greater truth that shines from somewhere else entirely. They are also imperfect means of reaching that truth, imperiled by the subjective nature of experience. If we are to get to the Thing itself, we’ll need a different set of tools.
So Wakey, Wakey strips away as much artifice as it can. The brunt of the play is meandering direct address in the vein of Thom Pain and Title and Deed. On death’s door, the Guy marvels at his audience, reads from prepared notecards, tries to eat a sandwich. He fiddles with a remote control, sharing slides projected on a deep chestnut wall that hangs before a grey-violet curtain; a brief space separates it from a freestanding doorway that never opens. We appear to be in some office or common area that has fallen into disuse—the floor is strewn with boxes, there’s a calendar on the wall (with dates crossed off) and an iPhone charger plugged into an outlet. The Guy’s slides include photos, videos and animations; a young child, a sunset, a montage of animals screaming, a word jumble game. They seem to serve both as totems anchoring him to this world—last-ditch attempts to hold on—and as varying attempts to uncover what this world’s all about, anyway. Early on he leads a meditation exercise, encouraging each of us to think privately of someone for whom we are grateful. He remarks that the act of feeling gratitude “can physically change the shape of the brain,” which apparently is not all that far from the truth. Soothing music plays, relaxing colors wash over us. I thought about my grandfather, who spent his last years in a wheelchair much like the Guy’s. Moments like this illustrate how breezily Eno distills ungainly philosophical quandaries into grounded theatrical moments. The question is whether language can shape reality, or at least unlock it. The answer appears to be yes. The question then becomes: okay, how high can we set our sights here? The Guy accomplishes all this with ease, simply by asking us to sit still for a few moments, bathed in warm light and sound, thinking happy thoughts. Rarely in theatre do we get such moments to ourselves.
Wakey, Wakey is Eno’s final play as a resident playwright at the Signature and his first as a director. He brings no hint of inexperience in that regard. At 75 minutes, it moves steadily and confidently toward its astonishing climax, managing the script’s lulls and detours with nary a fumble. Emerson, a standout on TV dramas like Lost and Person of Interest, is a wonder here too. His wide eyes and wry tone are a natural match for Eno’s crisp, energetic language, oscillating between calm certainty and sad resignation. In another play starring another actor these might seem indistinguishable, but here they are polar opposites. January LaVoy appears late in the play as a sort of nurse, though her presence is no less affecting. Her soft voice and gentle humor shepherd her patient through his final moments, staving off the panic these circumstances would seem to invite. Beyond that it’s best to stay in the dark; if I say even a little I will have said too much.
And yet—I can’t help myself. One could draw a straight line from moments in this play to moments in Eno’s others—the language games, the rhetorical questioning, the way a character pirouettes from disjointed abstract thoughts to vividly clear storytelling—but Wakey, Wakey is a wholly surprising work. It is also the natural endpoint of every play that preceded it. Almost a hundred years ago T.S. Eliot wrote that art can only evoke feeling through carefully calibrated sets of objects and events: “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” This is old hat by now, and anyways just a long way of saying that storytellers should tell stories. Still, artists and scholars have spent the interim century debating how exactly art might mediate the distance between people, objects, and the metaphysical world we perceive through those objects. In an essay asking whether a play can ever exist “in relation” to an audience—rather than simply as an object for that audience’s attention—Sarah Ruhl quotes Martin Buber: “I consider a tree. I can look on it as a picture… I can perceive it as a movement… I can classify it in a species and study it as a type… It can, however, also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in it. The tree is now no longer It… Let no attempt be made to sap the strength from the meaning of the relation: relation is mutual.” Ruhl suggests that it is possible for an audience to become bound up in a play, but that the bulk of popular theatre is more interested in being an object—“glossy, cinematic, bold”—than a co-subject. They evoke emotion the way a squirrel plies acorns from the soil, as means to an end but not the end itself. If we wish to find our way into a play, then, the play must invite us in too.
Eno has long been interested in closing that distance between play-world and real world, object and emotion. I’m thinking of a scene in Middletown where one character says to another, “I just suddenly tried to picture you not sleeping. Sometimes you get used to the words for things, and then you suddenly remember the things. And so I suddenly saw you, the real Mary, not a word, staring out a window, or crying or reading, whatever you do.” Later that character dies gruesomely. While he dies, the other gives birth. (Curiously, sadly, Eno’s father died a day before his daughter was born.) I suppose one could say his plays are often in search of the minimum viable objective correlative, the precise set of objects and events that shake us with the precise gentle force that we suddenly see the Real in all its temporary glimmering wonder. His strategy is usually to evoke one emotion and then its opposite, to jostle us from one end of the spectrum to another until we can’t tell them apart. A moment ago you felt one thing; now you feel everything. I believe Wakey, Wakey strikes that perfect calibration, though you will have to see for yourself how. As the Guy says, “Certain feelings are not to be answered with thoughts.”
And what, finally, of that woman’s question: could this be Eno’s darkest work? I incline towards thinking it is not because I remember its joys more than its sorrows, but then again I am inclined to remember joy more readily than sorrow, and indeed Wakey, Wakey’s joys would not be so memorable were they not paired with sorrows of equal potency. But still, there is joy in this play, and it is like nothing else.