Colossus Shrugged or Donald Wandrei Has Come Unstuck in Time
I don’t know anything about Donald Wandrei. I didn’t before Sandbox Theatre’s Unspeakable Things, now playing at the Red Eye, and I still don’t really feel like I do, which in essence, goes to prove the point of Unspeakable Things. Donald Wandrei, the forgotten madman of 1152 Portland Avenue, Saint Paul, a writer who H.P. Lovecraft called an inferior talent, who wrote about tentacled women, time travel and spacemen with jetpacks. A man with an Oedipal complex directed towards his siblings and haunted by the carnage of World War II. He seems to be Kurt Vonnegut’s fantastic foil Kilgore Trout without the wider view, and that’s why Vonnegut is still on the shelf, as a man who dealt with his carnage in prose, and why Wandrei is barely still in print.
I don’t envy any company that sets about to create work tied to the history and limitations of a single person and to imbue it with an accessible meaning, especially when the person in question is a writer. As any writer can tell you, there is nothing more painful and tedious than a writer not writing, which is partially why so many writers drink; it gives us something to do. John Middleton as Wandrei very elegantly circumscribes his dilemma in the opening monologue of Unspeakable Things, where he tracks time back from an old man by himself in the 1970s, to tensions with his brother Howard in the 50s, to a happy childhood memory with his mother (Wandrei was born in 1908) to then to Europe in 1944, where his gregariousness and purple verbosity fails him. The rest of the play surrounds his failing to articulate the trauma and tragedy of the GI and the stresses of dealing with brother Howard (Joey Ford) who was also a minor writer and his sister Jeannette (Heather Stone) who he describes with depressing élan as a “dirigible.”
All this carries with it a sort of implied causality about the purpose of the writing that Wandrei actually accomplished, that the science- and “weird-“ fiction was an escape from the weird and terrible actuality of life. The repetitive and grating dialogues between the three siblings hammer that idea home continually. Wandrei’s actual body of published work was mostly done in the 1920s and 30s, he was already in contact with Lovecraft at that point and upon Lovecraft’s death in 1937 (a fact I had to look up, as, aside from the opening dates, the show is decidedly non-specific about time) he and another partner (never mentioned in Unspeakable Things) founded the Arkham House press to preserve and publish Lovecraft’s seminal fiction. All this happened before World War II, after which Wandrei’s production dropped off. The implication of the play is that his army experience could have elevated his writing but instead left him crippled, but Unspeakable Things, doesn’t clearly articulate this as a fall from grace, instead, with the collapse of time and the continual carping, it establishes a continual lack of grace. Our Donald hasn’t fallen and can’t get up, he never really got up at all and as we ostensibly see the play through Donald’s lens, that it is the needling fault of others around him that drag him down.
Within those thematic limitations, the paranoia and depression is physically well manifested by the ensemble who, when they are flitting about the stage or working together in close proximity, were quite spellbinding. Sandbox received a $10,000 grant from the Metropolitan Regional Art Council for Unspeakable Things and the set and sound design had obviously benefited, becoming complex and baroque, but in spite of all that, the best bits of the play came from pickle jars, crumpled paper and cardboard boxes. Within the text itself, there were some heartfelt exchanges but also too many lines thudding obviousness (“Your problem is you want to be immortal.” “The best way to kill an idea is to write it down.” “Women are alien and dangerous!”) Scripting like that, with the occasional shoe horn of historical moment or time shift, rung hollow.
What was left is that people who have seen horror have trouble relating to others. People with active imaginations are sometimes insensitive to the needs of family. Brothers and sisters get on each other’s nerves. There is a general air of paranoia and clinical depression. It doesn’t feel new. Wandrei’s writing, as hackneyed as we see it now, was at least fresh and shocking when it was written, but in the end we are presented with a petty life, one with an acknowledgment of meager capacity but no transcendence. There are hints of self-realization and catharsis that are squashed when the play turns back in on itself and reverts to it’s already-played-thin sequences. Unspeakable Things focuses so much on the evil Wandrei did living after him, that any good is squeezed out and left behind. It’s like watching a rocketship crash in slow motion and if you need a fix of sci-fi absurdity and wartime horror, the (admittedly flawed in it’s own way) 1972 film adaptation of Slaughterhouse Five is now on Netflix instant streaming.