Class and Expectations in The Assembly’s That Poor Dream
In their play That Poor Dream, which recently concluded a run at the New Ohio Theatre, the downtown theater collective the Assembly freely adapted Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations to bring that classic into the twenty-first century, drawing inspiration from an eclectic list of politically-oriented multimedia along the way. It turns out that Dickens’s work doesn’t just chronicle in exacting detail the mores and assumptions of a time long past (as I had remembered it with some trepidation). It also speaks with newfound resonance to our generation, whose awareness of class, race, and privilege was awakened by the Occupy movements and continues to grow and refine itself with each new teachable moment.
That Poor Dream opens with Pip, a newly-made Columbia student, on a Metro-North train to Connecticut, where the reclusive Miss Havisham lives with her adopted daughter Estella. When the train gets moving, he meets fellow passenger Magwitch, a former burglar who never forgot the young boy who once helped him escape the police. The two discuss the surprising intersections of their lives, while in flashbacks we see how an unexpected, anonymous donation removed Pip from the care of his working-class brother-in-law Joe; how a young Pip was mesmerized by the icy Estella, who refused his love in favor of the bro-y Drummle; and how Pip struggled to fit in to a class he knew nothing about, and in so doing lost touch with the one he left behind.
The company mined this material for contemporary relevance, a comprehensive bibliography—helpfully provided in the program and including materials ranging from South Park to Thomas Picketty—informing its approach. Class, the play suggests, is subtly and inextricably intertwined with the American dream, pervading every aspect of our lives: our aspirations, our opportunities, our limitations. Shortly after Magwitch reveals himself to be Pip’s mysterious benefactor, Pip asks, “That’s what you get to do in America, right? Become better.” “No, rich,” Magwitch corrects him. “What you do is become rich.” The play makes it abundantly clear that these two things are not necessarily the same.
Near the end of the play, Pip’s world begins to fall apart: in a nightmare sequence, Joe is reduced to begging on the train, Miss Havisham forces Estella to beat a smitten Pip with a cane, and Estella marries Drummle as wedding guests ominously predict the violence he’ll subject her to. Coming back to the present, Pip finds that all his newfound money and bluster can’t help Magwitch, who is finally arrested for his decades-old crime.
At this point, the actors abruptly drop all pretense of character and speak to us as themselves as a young Pip watches. One tells the story of his father, whose frustration with the world led him to physically lash out at those he loved. Another remembers when his mother went to prison for welfare fraud, as well as the day she came home, newly-sober. Some of these monologues deal with major events, such as a mental hospitalization, others more everyday influences, like idealized beauty and the comforts of coming from a loving, supportive family. All are intensely personal; all are drawn from the actors’ own lives.
Via email, I asked the show’s director, Jess Chayes, and its dramaturg, Stephen Aubrey, about the evolution of this striking device. They told me that the monologues themselves appeared fairly early in the process, when each member of the company was asked to write about their own expectations—their dreams and disappointments—but it was only during tech that they fell into place as an embodiment of Pip’s growing awareness of the world around him. “By the end of the play, Pip is in a very low, broken place, one where he is finally able to see outside of himself and is open to hearing from others,” Aubrey told me. “Placing the monologues there made a certain kind of sense if Pip were to sit and listen to them all.”
And Pip isn’t alone. Sitting in the audience, what struck me most viscerally was the way each monologue drew everyone present into the conversation, making personal everything that had come before.
One monologue in particular stayed with me. Ben Beckley, who up until that point had played Drummle, shared his early successes, from being voted the Most Beautiful Baby in Lexington, Virginia to a slew of academic awards, before being hospitalized for physical and mental exhaustion. “When you show a lot of promise early on, your achievements start to define you and if you’re not careful, you find yourself engaged in a struggle for perfection so relentless that finally, only the future is real.”
When we talk about class, we tend to focus on the big picture: the Koch brothers buying democracy, the banks being bailed out while workers lose their homes, the sorts of things that make you want to stand up and protest or at least vote someone out of office. But listening to Beckley’s monologue, I was reminded that class is about more than just the 1% and the rest of us. It’s a series of pressures and privileges, assumptions and disappointments that determine who we expect ourselves to become.
As the play ended, with each actor whose world I’d just gotten a peek into staring out the train window at the world passing by, I felt somehow energized. Take any hundred people on a subway car in New York City, I thought to myself, and ask them about their own expectations. You’ll get one hundred different answers. I bet you’ll find something you can recognize in each and every one of them, too.
Both Chayes and Aubrey acknowledged that the ending has received mixed reviews, particularly from critics. Some found it jarring, others too on-the-nose. But to me, any discussion of the aesthetic value of the monologues misses the point. The Assembly set out to explore Americans’ complex relationship to economic opportunity, the expectations we internalize as part of the myth of the American dream. Given that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about these things for days, I’d say they succeeded.
Nathaniel French is a dramaturg and Greek Theater enthusiast. He is the Literary Fellow at Signature Theatre.