Talk is Hope(less)

Reviewed by Scott Duchesne

Since Criminals in Love (1984), George F. Walker has taken on, in his plays, issues that affect the North American working class and working poor, advocating for a “push to consciousness” through the filter of his idiosyncratic aesthetic. On his riotous stage there is no subtext; nor are there moments for pause or intense reflection. Characters kick at the edges of the immovable darkness of their circumstances with irresistible force, cracking open a gap of light, a space for debate. Fundamental to his characters is a seething sense of injustice that hisses and detonates in sharp slashes of dialogue and extended, cathartic monologues that intertwine in waves. In Walker’s fractured dialectic, both sides know something is wrong, especially with themselves; the griever’s righteousness is plagued by self-doubt, and the figures of authority lack nearly all conviction, yet they know a solution is necessary. Conventional narrative resolutions are exchanged with lights gently fading on a continuing conversation; above all else, in Walker’s universe, talk is hope and the medium of our potential social awakening.

In the two disappointing one-act plays collected in After ClassParents Night and The Bigger Issue—the setting of the conflict is the classroom. The plays examine two of the primary and primal issues of Western culture: children and education. Both plays focus on the ideological opposition of teacher/principal and parent; the social, cultural, and political nature of their respective obligations; how they fail to live up to them; and how they might do better. After Class cleverly suggests the liminal period in which the discord occurs—when the seats are empty and the halls of the school echo, allowing the adults to battle honestly over their roles and their agency in this crucial stage of their children’s development. Parents Night examines familiar territory, pitting a seeming alpha male (John) and a typically Walkeresque formidable female (Rosie) against a worn-out teacher (Nicole) over issues of bullying and intelligence that are intertwined with class, race, and gender. The Bigger Issue leans more on Walker’s earlier penchant for laying bare the fundamental absurdity of received social structures through an acutely bent mirror, taking a macro view while Parents Night takes a microscopic view. Walker asks what necessary material conditions constitute a “good” home, family, and parents, and what right the state has to impose its opinion in its institutions.

It’s clear in these plays that Walker’s moral fire—what director Wesley Berger defines, in his introduction to After Class, as Walker’s “radical empathy”—still burns bright. However, it is also clear that his renowned faculty for novelty in dialogue and narrative, which arguably reached its peak in his Suburban Motel cycle, has given way to one-dimensional didactic conceits largely expressed in staid diatribes by sketchy characters contained in repetitive plot points (both plays, for example, feature someone injured in a car accident). Overall, the plays of After Class lack the creative energy to match Walker’s principled anger; as a result, the talk in these plays seems to elicit only hopelessness.

This review “Talk is Hope(less)” originally appeared in Rescaling CanLit: Global Readings Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 238 (2019): 172-173.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.