The Invention of Loneliness: A Few Words on Will Eno

By Simon Hodgson
“A Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation” is how New York Times critic Charles Isherwood described Will Eno back in 2005. Some playwrights wilt under such comparisons. Eno has flourished. Since the premiere of Tragedy: a tragedy in 2001, he has built up a canon of work that includes OBIE Award winner The Open House (2014), 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist Thom Pain (based on nothing), and Broadway hit The Realistic Joneses (2012), which starts its A.C.T. run on March 9 at The Geary Theater.  
Echoes of Beckett
For audiences who love language, the Beckett analogy is a useful way into Eno’s mix of quirky, clever, and compassionate. “I love Beckett’s work,” says Eno. “Beckett’s example has so much to do with finding your own way and forging your own path, so it’s a little funny to talk about influence. I hope that one of the things I’ve learned from him is the necessity of putting yourself out on a limb.”

Eno may be conscious that he and Beckett have trodden similar territory, but he is also wary of the parallel. “We may share similar concerns and some themes, or preoccupations,” he says. “But they tend to be pretty general human concerns. Beckett, for all his invention, didn’t invent sadness or loneliness.

Will Eno in his apartment. Photo by Albertine Eno.
Lives of Quiet Desperation
Eno investigates these “general human concerns” through story lines set squarely in small-town America. From the generically named Middletown (2010) to the suburbs of The Realistic Joneses (2012), Eno’s characters are regular people—doctors, nurses, librarians, mechanics, photographers—struggling with life.

In Eno’s world, ordinary people struggle to connect with each other, to express what they need or what they fear. They struggle with the fear of dying, of getting sick, of getting old. In Title and Deed (2011), the unnamed narrator talks about watching his mother die in a hospital bed: “Her breathing got very raspy, or, some adjective. She died, would be the most economical way to put it. Where do you look, in the room? Where do you stand? No corner is corner enough, in certain rooms.”
Word Play
Eno picks and pecks at the seams of mortality, and he does it through language that is both witty and poignant. When audiences first encounter Eno’s work, they’re surprised and entertained. They laugh. Then they pause, and feel the gravity behind the laughter. In The Realistic Joneses, there’s a scene where Bob and John stand in the yard outside their houses, talking. Though they never refer to it directly, they’re both suffering from the same neurological disorder, and they’re both struggling with how they (and their partners) deal with that condition. “Look at the sky,” says John. When Bob joins him to look up, he says, “No, I’m looking at this part. You look over there.”

Even in these quiet moments where his characters pause to contemplate their own mortality, Eno can’t resist slyly undercutting the gravity of the scene. This dichotomy works over the entire play. From the outside, The Realistic Joneses looks like a chamber piece. It’s about two couples in a small town who share the same name. There are scenes of revelation, scenes of tension, scenes of quirky comedy, and it’s funny. And we’re laughing along with Bob and Jennifer and Pony and John until . . . we’re not. We realize that all four of these characters are grappling with loneliness, dread, and some of our deepest anxieties, even as they forge these uncertain new relationships.

*To learn more about the world of Will Eno, click here to purchase a printed or digital copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. All proceeds go to our ACTsmart education programs, serving teachers and students throughout the Bay Area. 

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