November 3, 2003


A marriage dissolves in "The Retreat From Moscow"

by John Lahr

Once upon a time, when my only son was eleven, I leaned over his bed and heard myself say, "Your mother and I are separating." He was silent for a while; then he said, "I don't want your unhappiness." As I left the room, I naively thought, How did he know we were unhappy? This memory, in all its bright breif, came rushing back to me in the middle of "The Retreat from Moscow" (at the Booth), William Nicholson's subtle and powerful evocation of the half-life of a dying marriage.

Resignation—a sort of emotional fog—has settled over the thirty-three year marriage of an English couple, Edward (John Lithgow), a high-school history teacher, and Alice (Eileen Atkins), an editor; their reserved thirty-two-year-old son, Jamie (Ben Chaplin), is strategically positioned between them—at once a beacon and a buffer. The curtain comes up on Edward reading aloud from a text about Napoleon's disastrous Russian Campaign; this historical event, it soon becomes clear, is a metaphor for Edward's own emotional exhaustion, his longing for escape, and the deep regret he feels over the tactical blunders he has made in life. As Lithgow superbly plays him—a big, passive man with a small, dithering voice—Edward refuses to engage; he hides behind his books, his silences, and his vagueness. He is a present absence, a sort of ghost of himself. "It's like somehow you've sneaked away while I wasn't looking," Alice, who animates the family life and always tries to provoke conversation says. "It's as if you've taken the easy way out." She adds, "I want a real marriage." Edward's refusal to fight and to assert his needs signals his nihilism; he doesn't care enough to argue. He will do anything to have an easy life, even disappear.

Alice, on the other hand, does all she can to stay in view. "When a woman reaches middle age she becomes invisible," she says. "I don't quite know how to cope with it, except by getting angry, which I do more or less all the time these days." People, especially her husband, don't seem to take her in. Her perpetual not of sprightly grievance—the drizzle of discontent that is the hysteric's trademark —is coupled with another trope of hysterical behavior: she repeatedly tries to force her inner life into the consciousness of others. Cunningly shaded by Eileen Atkins's keen intelligence and sense of humor, Alice is a scintillating characterization, an appealingly batty woman who is also a kind of emotional terrorist. This element of her personality is foreshadowed in an entertaining yearn she spins for Jamie, at the beginning of the play, about how a faulty printer has prevented her from finishing the poetry anthology she's working on. A snide computer salesman, she says, told her that the problem was not with her printer but with her. "I was so angry I wanted to hit him," she tells Jamie. "I said to him, 'You're the kind of man who doesn't love anybody and nobody loves you. You've got no friends and your wife hates you, and your children never talk to you.' He looked quite surprised for a moment or two. Then he said, 'Do you know me from somewhere?'" The story tells the audience a lot about Alice. She's clever; she's intuitive; she's well defenced; she gets inside people; and she unsettles them, often by making a spectacle of her own state of mind—knocking over tables, threatening suicide, pursuing her husband into the school staff room to berate him, which, as te badgered Edward tells us, sends him out onto the playing field, shere she strips off her skirt and her bra, saying, "There, I've made you look at me at last." (Even Eddie, a dog that Alice acquires for companionship after she and Edward separate, is made to enact her murderous wishes. "Show Uncle Jamie your new trick," she says to the dog. "Sit! Watch this Jamie. Die Edward! Die!")

Alice, of course, wants to talk but she doesn't listen; she wants to be seen but she doesn't see. "It's not at all like me," Jamie says, after she recites a poem about "his beautiful face." "Yes, it is," she counters. "Mother knows best." Her faith in the force of will and of struggle engages the head but evades the heart. She wants Edward to get real, but she herself has taken up residence in a private reality, in which spiritual and poetic thrills replace carnal excitement. When Jamie suggests to her that you don't have to have a family to have a love life, she replies, "Oh, that's just sex. You'll grow out of that."

Jamie, it turns out, is Nicholson's spokesman, the character from whose point of view the story is told. Striking an elegiac note at the close of the play, he tells his parents, "I had hoped to be able to help you, but in the end all I can do is honor you." The play dramatizes that filial love but also shows its reverse: Edward and Alice don't honor their son by keeping their argument—the confessions, the threats, the entreaties, the silences—away from him. Unwittingly, they appropriate him for their own needs, weiging him down with their unconscious baggage. Alternately witness, interlocutor, bulwark, spokesman, emissary, and judge, Jamie is required by his parents to be everything but his own man. "Forgive me for being your child," he says in the play's last line, accepting the burden of guilt that should belong to them, and thereby reinforcing their pattern of denial. Inevitably—and this is the psychological brilliance of the play, which is teased out by Daniel Sullivan's adroit direction—the couple's climate of retreat seeps into Jamie, who is handsome, educated, and capable, but solitary and unable to sustain intimate relationships. He hasn't so much left home as reconstructed the arid but familiar familial solitude in his London flat. The parents are stalled, and, without any model of a nurturing sexual and emotional relationship, so is their son.

Edward's awkwardness with his son is explained toward the middle of the play, after his has finally left Alice for the mother of one of his students. "My father was a reserved man," he tells Jamie. "I don't remember him ever embracing me." He recalls a day, soon after his father died, when for a moment he thought he'd caught sight off him, alive, on a railway platform. Afterward, he sat on the train in tears. When he told the woman sitting across from him in the train compartment why he was crying, she said "You must want to see him again very much." To a man as emotionally impoverished as Edward, this intuition of his feelings struck him as a profound revelation. "I was astounded," he says. "I felt as if I had stepped through a doorway into another world, where the inhabitants could read my heart." He continues, "It was your mother, of course. It was Alice....I made a mistake about Alice, right at the beginning, and she made a mistake about me. We thought we were like each other, and we weren't. I didn't know it." From a moment's caprice, the seeds of a lilfetime's sorrow are sown.

What makes this riveting, toxic lanscape hard to fathom at first, for both Jamie and the audience, is the fundamental decency of the characters involved, the good manners with which provincial British life is lived. They mean well; they just don't do particularly well. Their doom is civilized and quiet, measured out in cups of tea and crossword puzzles and Sunday Mass. John Lee Beatty's abstract set—an elegant filigree of intertwined branches surrounding transparent walls—turns the stage, at any emotional moment, into a tangled web, a cave, a morass. Nicholson's prose, however, is not as didactic as the set. The author of "Shadowlands" and the co-author of "Gladiator," he trusts in the first principle of cinematic dramaturgy: character is action. The seductiveness of what his characters say is often belied by the irony of what they do.

At the finale, which plays, I think, as an expression of deep love and deep disturbance, Jamie moves between the figures of his mother and father, whose backs are now turned to us, as if they were figments of his imagination—as, indeed, they are. (Edward has moved away with his new family; Alice has moved forward too. "I suppose Ill go on," she tells Jamie.) "My beloved explorers," he addresses them. "As you suffer, so I shall suffer. As you endure, so I shall endure. Forgive me for worshipping you." The speech is at once moving and chihlling: idealizaiton is what a child starts out with, not what an adult ends up with. A paean to symbiosis, Jamie's monologue is an attempt to preserve his bond with his parents and to forestall the project of adulthood, which is to separate from them. In the marvellous emotional complexity of "The Retreat from Moscow," this scene is the final shock. We are told that Napoleon took four hundred and fifty thousand men into Russia and that only twenty thousand survived; Jamie, it seems, may not be one of the survivors in the family battle. The play's last retreat belongs to him—a retreat from maturity.