Saturday, January 4, 2014

Identity and Farce in Skios and The Government Inspector

The Government Inspector

Skios is a funny novel by Michael Frayn.

Skios features an opportunistic quasi-con man who arrives on the fictitious island an accidental tourist, undergoes an uncanny transformation the moment he meets his airport greeter’s wistful gaze, and is almost immediately drawn into a circle of ardently infatuated admirers.

Thus does Michael Frayn’s group-enabled confidence man begin his oft-threatened metamorphosis from that disreputable wastrel Oliver Fox into that collective hallucination: brilliant celebrity lecturer Dr. Norman Wilfred. Oliver impersonates Dr. Wilfred, the missing guest lecturer, but only because he is invited to do so.

Though his credibility goes unquestioned by all but a few of the island’s occupants, Oliver’s changeover to Dr. Wilfred proceeds by fits and starts. Especially in the beginning, Oliver often pauses to interrogate the fate, karma or luck that has landed him in the lap of luxury, providing him with coddling and cuisine in exchange for a seemingly small price of admission: at some point, he must deliver a lecture.

Michael Frayn has written Spies, a Bildungsroman of grown-up passion witnessed and misunderstood by boyhood chums in wartime Britain; he has written the farcical art heist novel Headlong; he has written and staged the uproariously funny Noises Off and a philosophical agon debating physics and power: Copenhagen. Frayn has adapted a lesser and less well-known play by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov as Wild Honey. And one may assume, without needing any confirmation, that Frayn is intimately familiar with The Government Inspector, the 19th century comic imbroglio by Russia’s maestro of comedy, Nikolai Gogol.

The Government Inspector

The Government Inspector (also translated as The Inspector General) is a funny play about a traveler of happenstance who is wined and dined, beseeched and bribed, by officials in a remote outpost who believe he holds their futures in his hands.

The traveler, Khlestakov, learns from the explicit fear and greed of the town officials how to impersonate the man for whom he has been mistaken.

In much the same way as Frayn’s Oliver Fox stumbles upon a conference in the Aegean – and a rich opportunity to play his confidence tricks – so Gogol’s Khlestakov, the accidental charlatan in The Government Inspector, visits an outlying Russian village only to find himself adopting the persona of a high-ranking civil servant from Saint Petersburg. Khlestakov’s opportunistic assumption of the high official’s persona happens gradually, from the moment the situation first dawns on him to the comic events that allow it to take shape in his mind. As for the town officials, from the moment they become aware of his presence, they are convinced that Khlestahov is the Government Inspector.

Oliver Fox enacts the role of lecture-circuit celebrity as much by passive acquiescence and Batesian mimicry as he does by actively pursuing the chance Wilfred’s eminence represents.  Especially in the beginning, at various points when it looks like the gig is up, and Oliver is on the verge of confessing his true identity, he is prevented from doing so by recognition of the fact that people want to be fooled. On one occasion, doing a riff on the arbitrary nature of identity before a captivated audience, Oliver tells them: “If I tell you the truth, that I am Oliver Fox, then consequences follow from that. No one sits here listening to me. No one even lets me through the gate.” (p. 130) But of course his audience doesn’t take him literally. As for Batesian mimicry:

BATESIAN MIMICRY:  A form of protective mimicry in which an unprotected species, especially of an insect, closely resembles an unpalatable or harmful species and therefore is similarly avoided by predators.

Oliver, having appropriated Dr. Wilfred’s suitcase, soon appears in Wilfred’s clothing: over large for Oliver, but otherwise comme il faut. Clad in Wilfred’s guest lecturer costume – right down to the scholar’s silk underwear – Oliver is prepared to mingle with the foundation’s donors and resident intellectuals.  Dressed for successs, Oliver Fox is protected against attack by predatory rivals, both by his sartorial resemblance to the expert on scientometrics, and by the confidence that he, the impersonator, derives from the touch of Wilfred’s silk against his skin.

Khlestakov, too, is swept up in a made-for-laughs situation in which his only task is to acquiesce to the role his sycophants have assigned him. Already designated the Government Inspector, Khlestakov has only to play the part, and he doesn’t even have to play his part particularly well. For like Oliver Fox in Wilfred’s fresh white shirt two sizes too large and baggy chinos over silk underpants held up by a paper clip – indeed, like good-looking Oliver at the airport, slim, blond, in no way resembling the passport photo his greeter Nikki uses to spot the guest lecturer – Khlestakov can rest assured that any flaws in his performance, any discrepancies between himself and a high-ranking Saint Petersburg official, will be overridden by the all-too-human projections of those who assigned him the role in the first place.

Khlestakov and Oliver are both youthful. Khlestakov is twenty-three, clearly too young to be a high-ranking official in Russia’s hierarchical civil service, where one must climb the rungs of the ladder one by one, promotion by promotion. Oliver, with his tousled mop of blond hair, is too young, too nonchalant, actually to be the intellectual heavyweight he impersonates.

Alex Witchel, writing for New York Times, complains about just this sort of implausibility in Skios. Referring to the novel’s “dubious premise” he declares Frayn’s deployment of the mistaken identity theme a failure:

Can the hoary trope of mistaken identity still play in the age of Google images? Especially if it’s a young, handsome womanizer with tousled blond hair being mistaken for the middle aged, balding keynote speaker at the meticulously planned conference of a prestigious foundation? Well, no.  (June 15, 2012)

From A Midsummer Night’s Dream to The Return of Martin Guerre, the ‘hoary trope’ of mistaken identity still works because the human situations that inform the trope haven’t changed. Whenever a character, or indeed a person, like Nikki Hook wants to be deceived in the name of Romance, the availability of Google Images isn’t likely to dissuade her.

How, then, does the implausibility of Dr.Wilfred being impersonated by Oliver Fox play out with Frayn’s characters, for example Mrs. Fred Toppler’s PA, the first to be willingly deceived by Oliver Fox, soul thief?

We see Nikki, the discretely attractive PA, fantasizing about a little island romance as she greets Oliver at the airport. Wouldn’t Nikki, discrete Nikki, former head girl – wouldn’t a person like Nikki notice that Oliver Fox in no way resembles the passport picture of Dr. Norman Wilfred, guest lecturer?

Interesting, isn’t it, that Michael Frayn and Nikolai Gogol make exactly the same mistake? Wouldn’t people like the townspeople in Gogol’s play notice that Khlestakov is too young to be a high-ranking civil servant? Indeed, wouldn’t a Mayor notice, when he first meets Khlestakov, that this is no incognito, that Khlestakov is a feckless youth holed up in a second-rate hotel where he cannot pay his bills?

Why did Gogol, why did Frayn, not heed the dubious nature of such comic premises? Was Gogol stupid? Is Frayn? Well, no.

Comedy in a novel, comedy on stage, are premised on human folly. Human folly means wish fulfillment, projection, pretensions, vanity, ambition, greed. Forces so powerful – especially in the hurly burly of a comic avalanche – that they will override the good judgment, the common sense, even of a former head girl. To misunderstand this is to misunderstand the whole splendid game.

Indeed, it is this very fecklessness of the Russian impostor, whom Gogol called ‘the emptiest of men’, which allows the townspeople to project their fear and greed on him. Writing on comic structure in The Government Inspector, Milton Ehre confirms the correspondence between the implausibility of Khlestakov as Government Inspector, and the comic pulse of Gogol’s escapade:

What makes him so comic is the enormous discrepancy between his own inconsequentiality and the importance the terrified town places upon him.

(Ehre, Milton, “Laughing Through the Apocalypse: The Comic Structure of Gogol’s Government Inspector”, Russian Review, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1980, pp. 137-149)

Replace ‘terrified town’ with ‘wealthy donors’, and the same could be said of that more contemporary impostor, Oliver Fox.

What makes these comedic confidence men, albeit accidental, so successful?

Like Khlestakov, Oliver is handsome and charming (Khlestakov charms the Mayor’s wife and daughter; Oliver charms Nikki, his handler, and nearly every man and woman at the conference).

Perhaps most notably though, Oliver masquerading on Skios and Khlestakov masquerading in rural Russia share one more common trait: both young men are mischievous, and disrespectful of authority. And why not? After all, impersonation, and masquerade, partake of Carnival.  

Carnival celebrates disrespect for authority. At the Carnival known as Comedy, Oliver Fox on Skios, and Khlestakov in a small town in Russia, reign supreme as Lords of Misrule.

Personifying the King of Carnival, Oliver and his Gogolian counterpart will reign but briefly, directing the show only until the moment they are unmasked, and the topsy-turvy of Carnival is replaced by traditional order. At least that is the pattern of the Carnival trope.

Does Gogol observe this pattern in his play? Does Frayn, in his novel?

On a practical level, it is precisely this disrespect that lies at the root of the con man’s confidence, enabling him – while playfully disregarding the high-stakes conundrums of civilization building – to pull off his imitation of a paragon – whether a paragon of civic authority or intellectual authority – with a smile and a wink and a pocketful of parlor tricks.

The Comedy of Stolen Identity

Both The Government Inspector and Skios are brilliantly, if contrastingly, plotted. The dark outlines of The Government Inspector convey the ribald inevitability of what is, at its core, a morality play.  Moral turpitude is exposed. Correction – the reinstatement of order, waits in the wings: the actual inspector, who never comes onstage.

More than a century later, the nearly invisible threads connecting actions to other actions, to reactions and non-actions in Skios disclose the infinite variability of human conduct and its consequences in Frayn’s multiverse. Divergent in genre and in plotting though they are, however, these works have one thing in common: the mistaken identity, and the hoax it represents, must spread throughout the community before order can be restored. In Skios the culmination of the stolen identity hoax reveals a larger pattern, a larger theft: a hoax with global implications.

Skios, with its foundation on a privately owned island, is the perfect microcosm.

This eerily pristine utopia, a Disney-like simulacrum of an idealized antiquity, maintains a two-way traffic with the real world, bringing in and dispatching guest lecturers for the edification and delectation of the foundation’s wealthy donors, and  welcoming and bidding farewell to conference attendees. The points of contact between reality and utopia are: 1.) the airport, 2.) Stavros and Spiros, brothers who form a slapstick tag-team of taxi drivers, 3.) Security at the foundation, 4.) the foundation’s switchboard  operator, and, of course, 5.) Mrs.Fred Toppler’s PA, Nikki. In order to be granted legitimate guest lecturer or donor status at the foundation, a new arrival must transition through some or all of these five gateways.

Dobchinsky and Bobchinsky

Of the people who provide access to the foundation’s portals, the operator portrays chaos as a breezy cluelessness; the PA embodies the chaos of love’s labors, and labor’s labors, lost; and Stavros and Spiros embody the chaos of small things through a steady flow of patter and slapstick. Indeed, the indistinguishable Spiros and Stavros provide a laudably modern update of Gogol’s cross-talking pair, the equally indistinguishable Dobchinsky and Bobchinsky, whose symbolic twinship, with its potential for confusion over mistaken identity, parodies the more complex treatment of mistaken identity surrounding Khlestakov and the real Government Inspector.

And what of the geography of Skios? There are, if not parallels, then at least faint echoes, in Skios, of the island in The Tempest, of its virtually contained, autocratically ruled society: its Prospero, its Ariel, and its outlier, Caliban. Colonized extensively by the Fred Toppler Foundation, Skios has yet its shadow-side, its off-the-charts corner, the Villa. The Villa, owned by Valkyrie Annuka Vos, is an alternate reality location where the wrong people turn up, hold themselves hostage, dream of escape, and fail to recognize themselves and one another.

Here, too, at the Villa, obsessions are born. Dr. Wilfred’s recurring, if surreal, fantasy about the two moles on Georgie’s left shoulder blade – a part that stands for the whole sensuous, inaccessible woman – might equally represent all that is missing in Wilfred’s high-powered, disciplined life.

And what of the man whose identity has been stolen? In the novel The Soul Thief, Charles Baxter’s serious treatment of the stolen identity theme, the main character is not Jerome Coolberg, sinister appropriator of all that is most intimate, creative, and cherished in the lives of others, but one of his victims, Nathaniel Mason. While Nathaniel is in no way complicit, his passivity on occasion makes him an easy target.

Dr. Wilfred, the man who would be guest lecturer, is far from passive (though in his case activity, with its tendency to misfire, is often the functional equivalent of inactivity). Yet there is something in his character that seems – in a small way – to invite the misappropriation of his identity.

Disoriented Wilfred awakens to find himself, not at the foundation,  but at the Villa, in bed with a strange woman who begins to seduce him and then, when she sees that she has mistaken him for another, locks herself in the bathroom with a fit of hysterics. The woman, who also turns out to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, is called Georgie.

In an attempt to orient himself, and Georgie, to the present reality, Wilfred explains to her, in short, declarative sentences, who he is and what he has come to Skios to do: “I am giving a lecture. This evening. At the Foundation. The Fred Toppler Foundation.” (p. 110)

When ‘the buggy’ doesn’t arrive to take him to the foundation, however, Wilfred begins to question the reality of his existence:
“Or have they forgotten about me?” he said. “Do I actually exist? Or have I somehow vanished like my suitcase?” (p. 111)

To an extent, then, there is already an existential vacuum in Wilfred’s being. Wilfred is ontologically porous. Not merely the external identifying data of Wilfred’s life, but Wilfred’s very sense of self has been stolen. Stolen because, in some fundamental way, the world expert on the management of science doesn’t fully inhabit his own skin:

I’ll say my prayers…
Even if the gods don’t exist.
I’ve confused them with
Their look-alikes
In suits and ties:
Vendors of sand
Who promise the moon
Without knowing the Earth,
Who are called adults,
But are so earthbound.

Je vais faire mes prières…
Même si les dieux n’existent pas.
J’les ai confondu avec
Leur semblables
Au costard cravatte,
Ces marchands de sable
Qui promettent la lune
Sans connaitre la terre,
Qui s’appellent adultes,
Mais si terre à terre.

      Cheese, Stromae

Comedy and Carnival

In both Gogol’s play and Michael Frayn’s theatrical novel, the Lord of Misrule, identified by critic Mikhail Bakhtin as a manifestation of the archetypal King of Carnival, reigns throughout most of the story. Like Carnival, these tales of identities lost and found, and of society-wide hoax, posit provisional worlds in which everything is topsy-turvy. This chiding of society, this upending of normalcy, has a moral and humanistic aim in Gogol: to expose corruption as well as human folly. Frayn wants to expose human folly and institutional corruption, too, but beyond this he aims to explore the insinuation of chaos: into the human character, into human communication, and into the far corners of the universe.

Comedy and Chaos

Using a storytelling strategy similar to that of author Penelope Lively, who, in How it All Began, plays out the ripple effect of a random event on interconnected lives, thus crafting a plot that reflects her interest in chaos theory, Frayn lets chaos ripple – and rip, in Skios. The chaos in Lively’s elegant novel might be construed as linear, her associated characters bringing one another down almost sequentially, like a row of dominoes. Frayn’s chaos is more like a spiral moving outwards from a central point, infecting an entire community until, with a Big Bang! chaos explodes, presumably so that order may be restored.

Does it matter if the chaos at the heart of these comic works is conceived as science-based chaos theory, or apocalyptic social dissolution?

What separates Gogol’s morality play from the 21st century scientifically conceived chaos and cosmos appearing in the works of Penelope Lively and Michael Frayn?

A Very Russian Chaos

Khlestakov, at the eye of the storm, is a slippery character: part opportunist, part confidence man, part dreamer. In Act III, when he egregiously solicits hush money from one official after the other, he seems happily at one with his role as con artist. Yet it is not until Act IV that he catches onto the particulars of the personage he is imitating: “There are a good many functionaries here. And by the way it strikes me that they take me for an important government official.” (The Inspector, IV, viii, in Russian Drama, Vol. I, George Noyes, Ed.)

How lighthearted is Khlestakov’s imposture? Khlestakov is more clueless than sinister; he is not wicked. In making him, Gogol followed Aristotle’s recipe for comedy: “The ridiculous may be defined as a mistake or deformity not productive of pain or harm to others; the mask, for instance, is something ugly and distorted without causing pain.”  (Aristotle, Poetics, V, 1449. Richard McKeon, Ed.)

Khlestakov obliges his enablers by fleecing them. He causes them, he causes us, no pain. Yet it is likely that, for a pre-Revolutionary Russian audience, even one of the early 19th century, the role of Impostor, of Pretender, cast before it a shadowy reminder of the pretenders of Russian history: the False Dmitris who laid claim to the throne in the Time of Troubles. Distinguished by this circumstance from the peoples of Europe, the Russians had been ruled, however briefly, not merely by an illegitimate claimant to the throne, a rival of a royal bloodline, but by an actual impostor. And the reign of False Dmitri became a defining moment when Russia teetered on the brink of the abyss of social dissolution.

Chaos and Social Dissolution

Gogol’s “Dénouement of The Government Inspector” (1846), written a decade after the play débuted, explains chaos as social dissolution. Often ignored or dismissed as the interpretation of a crackpot, Gogol’s “Dénouement” explains the play in apocalyptic terms. The Government Inspector becomes thereby an allegory for the priming of the soul to meet “the inspector who awaits us at the portals of the grave…our awakening conscience.” (“Dénouement”) The inspector who awaits the soul is “terrible”, as is “our social chaos”. Thus the chaos unleashed in the play by the happenstance of Khlestakov, which is the basis for Gogol’s manic comedy, is also, according to the playwright, the proper object of our terror. This conjoining of comedy and dread is epitomized in the play right after the postman reads everybody Khlestakov’s letter revealing him as a Pretender. Following the unmasking of Khlestakov and a frenzied round of mutual recriminations, the townspeople freeze in a tableau.

Comedy to the Tenth Power

If the comic plot of How it All Began can be described as induced and given impetus by chaos (and indeed, the author so describes it), that same random force, released within the microcosmic world of Skios, becomes chaos to the tenth power.

And with chaos to the tenth power, we get comedy to the tenth power.

Lively’s comedy, which illustrates a world delineated by realism, is comedy contextualized by a populace of round and rounder characters, some with humorous, some with deeply affecting psychological and spiritual dilemmas. Michael Frayn’s comic novel Skios, while featuring some believable characters with affecting dilemmas, is not tethered by realism psychological or social. The author’s bristling wit takes, primarily, a linguistic form, and the world created by Frayn’s self-reflexive language has as much reality as does his character and social psychology.

Moreover, Frayn’s edgy satire, his manic undercutting of delusory hopes and dreams as well as pretensions, takes precedence over the creation of characters with whom we can empathize. It is not that the characters in this novel are one-dimensional. Many are not. It is rather that the credibility of even Frayn’s most realized characters is perpetually under comic assault. Our empathy simply dematerializes on contact with the story’s highly leveraged farce.

How crazy is Frayn’s comic world? How far out?

Frayn stops short of channeling the theater of the absurd. The truly  absurd is alogical, not merely ridiculous. An umbrella on an operating table: absurd; a wind-inverted umbrella: ridiculous. Metamorphoses, when they occur in Fraynlandia, are psychological and figurative. Frayn’s little society on Skios becomes infected with delusion, but the people who inhabit the island do not, as a sign of their illness, literally turn into beasts, as in Eugene Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros.

Comic Endings:  Armageddon or Tous les Mêmes?

Vous les hommes êtes tous les mêmes
Macho mais cheap
Bande de mauviettes infidèles
Si prévisibles.

You men are all the same
Macho but cheap
A band of wimpy cheaters
So predictable.

– Tous les Mêmes, Stromae

Frayn’s comedy is a heady brew of parody, satire and farce. It is also a wild ride in a cosmic amusement park where the rollercoaster’s vertical surges and plunges belie the craft of  intricately plotted storylines.

While much of Skios can be described as topsy-turvy and carnivalesque, the double barreled ending of the novel doesn’t point to the restoration of order. At best, it is ambiguous. For after all, what order is there to restore? Order must be based on reality, and there is nothing real on Skios, except perhaps the unearthed statue of Athena, ludicrously anachronistic goddess of civic virtue.

What kind of order could possibly be represented by the Fred Toppler Foundation, parody of a parody? Its current owner, having reinvented herself as Mrs. Fred Toppler after having reinvented herself as nightclub dancer Bahama LeStarr, after having reinvented herself as Apricot del Rio, is as tacky, as flimflam, as Frayn’s headliner impostor. As the owner’s names make abundantly clear, the novelist, like Oliver Fox, his consummate creation, doesn’t have to try very hard to create the impression of a world built from airy nothing.

Oliver entertains his audience by improvising a trick with empty coffee cups. Frayn entertains his by revealing the scaffolding that supports his storytelling, then deconstructs it and replaces his  demo ending with the chosen one, much as if he had pulled it out of a hat. All of this modernist prestidigitation is far from pointless. Nuclear weapons from Sevastopol don’t belong in this type of comedy. Greek statues do.

The animus behind Michael Frayn’s successful parody of an American think tank on a Greek island is so powerful that once the author has delivered his wallop of an ending, what remains in the rubble is a cliché of an art heist, and girlfriends Nikki and Georgie reunited for the purpose of commiserating over their bad luck with men – men like Oliver Fox.

“I really knew.” Said Nikki. “From the moment I set eyes on him. In my heart.”
“So did I,” said Georgie. “I always know if they’re duds. Quite easily, actually, because they always are.” (p. 254)

Oliver Fox, meanwhile, has found refuge with Mrs. Skorbatova, wife of the Russian oligarch who has taken such a keen interest in the foundation. Liberated from the obligation to deliver the Fred Toppler Lecture, Oliver is free to go where he wants, and with whom. If there are hints of Armageddon in Frayn’s alternative ending (“A showdown. The grand dénouement.”) such high drama must give way to the triviality of the designated ending.

The dénouement of Skios begins when someone catches fire, someone yells, “Fire!” and a gun is fired. How very apt that a story that begins with verbal confusion between the words ‘Skios’ and ‘skiers’ and the words ‘Fox, Oliver’ and nonsense word ‘Phoxoliva’ should end with a misunderstanding of the word ‘fire’.

The dénouement of The Government Inspector begins when the Postman reads the escaped Khlestakov’s letter to the assembled officials, each and every one of whom is treated to the impostor’s mocking words about him. Khlestakov has been unmasked, as have the townspeople; will order now be restored?  But there is no indication that that will be the case. The townspeople feel cheated by a charmer who turned out to be a dud, but more than that, as in interpretations of the play such as the 1999 staging by the Comédie Française, they are aggrieved  – and terrified  – beyond words. Thus the dumbshow at the end of Gogol’s script illustrates the townspeople’s complete psychological and spiritual paralysis. For all that the Carnival motif informs Gogol’s comedy and Frayn’s comic novel with the lively symbolism of misrule, it is as though the societies depicted in both of these works lack the resilience and coherence to sustain the full carnivalesque cycle, from order to chaos, and  back again to order.

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