Midlife Crisis

It is the fantasies that condemn us. Like a dream continuing into our waking life, they pull us forever back into sleep; away from the world; its liveliness, its fun. So lovely these dreams; too lovely; their dazzling images an enervating drug, that weaken's the mind’s resistance, slowing it down, making it sluggish, that makes it dull. And so quickly: a sunlit street becomes a waterlogged marsh that grabs, that pulls, that sucks us down. 

At first so exciting soon these dreams bore us. The same old pictures repeating themselves day after day, it doesn't take long and we’ve had enough; are screaming: throw that damned zoetrope out! It is too late. Like horses in a carousel these dreams cannot run away. And we... We shout. We cry: let us off! let us off!  The attendant has disappeared; and the merry-go-round goes around and around, round and round, around and around and round.

The title of the play reads like a child’s nursery rhyme. The play itself actually contains a fairy tale: a middle-aged man’s foolish wish to rewind the years back to a once happy time when he experienced the innocent ecstasy of his first and only love affair. Though it is not only love that the Captain is looking for; he wants to return to a time of life where the corruptions of adolescent sex and adult maturity do not exist. When still in his teens his hair fell out. It is a symbol. He wants to escape a grown-up world that he associates with ugliness and pain. The Captain is a child. His collection of birds, they feel like relics from some dusty museum case, are the dolls a young boy refuses to throw out; emotive icons of a childhood he cannot leave behind.

Cougar seduces boys, he doesn’t look after them.

This play is no fairy tale. Cougar’s name synonymous with his predatory nature; with its intermittent hunts for sexual prey between the long idle days lounging listlessly under the sun(lamp).

The play is a domestic drama. Its fancy title hides a simple meaning: time flies when we’re having fun. The Captain has had his fun; unfortunately, it lasted only for as long as it took Cougar to get his cock out - no time at all. While Cougar…he never loved the Captain; he doesn't love anyone; his boys like condoms - used once they're chucked away. Sex: its all he desires. It means so much to him; describing the first time he came he describes it as the force of a religious revelation. And yet, Cougar’s passion for boys isn’t only about sexual gratification; he loves to seduce them; the chase as important as the catch. Cougar is a performer, alive only when telling stories to his intended victim; whom he captivates with his charm and verve. And these stories: they are about friendship not sex. In a revealing moment he tells the Captain he would like male friends (Cougar, we guess, is attracted to straight men, and is something of a homophobe). It is just another dream. Cougar loves to tell stories. He may even be addicted to them. Certainly they are more important to him than sex; which is not the first word of a love affair but its last full stop. Thus after the orgasm - the climax to all these tales - there is nothing left to say; the story ends; the boy is cast out; another soiled rubber for the bin.

It is a form of innocence. Cougar existing forever in the border country that is adolescence; that no-man’s land where a child acquires the experience of youth and adulthood. Such an exciting time! an unsettling one too, when we immerse ourselves in new adventures; feel the frisson of initiation…

Neither Cougar nor the Captain can leave this never-never land. 

The Captain grew up too soon. His teenage years over the moment Cougar got his hand inside his pants. His premature baldness symbolises this loss. One moment the Captain was an innocent child; the next all his innocence had gone. The hot tap is suddenly switched off; only the cold runs… Once sexually satisfied Cougar stopped his love play. The deflation so quick that the child, not able to gradually fade away amongst an unfolding love affair, is frozen within the adult male. Or to put it another way: the initiation into adulthood being incomplete the man is born prematurely, and is stillborn. The Captain has lost a magic time; one that full of discovery, excitement and liberty usually lasts for years.1 No wonder he craves it back. 

It is gone for good. 

By his sudden emotional withdrawal Cougar has stopped the fastest clock in the universe (those first few months of a passionate love affair), whose hands now remain stuck at ten to twelve - his victim remains a child at heart. By staying with Cougar, by feeding his illusion that he is still young and pretty, the Captain hopes to restart this clock, to recover his adolescent self. But…a paradise once lost is lost forever; the Captain condemning himself to an impossible quest, and a life of unhappiness.

Cougar is also a citizen of never-never land. He too can’t let go of his younger years; when he was beautiful, and sex was new and intoxicating. Using the magic of cosmetics he keeps himself forever nineteen. 

Tick-tock tick-tock the Captain Tock tick-tock.

The Captain lives inside Cougar’s fairy tale. He needs to believe in this make-believe world; for, despite the passing years and all the disillusionment, he still hankers after Cougar’s love. That memory of a few happy days - it is all the Captain has. A smidgin of delight has expanded to take over the entirety of his existence. The real world dressed in dreams; his flat is decorated with his fantasies: the stuffed birds and old ornaments that he obsessively collects, and which he covers with a patina of sentimentality, are the hopes that he will not throw away. Trapped inside an arid relationship, repeating the same old lies and rituals - he is Cougar’s servant and wife - time has stopped still for the Captain. We imagine a grandfather clock where the hands have been removed… No new seconds; no revelatory minutes; tomorrow’s hours the same as yesterday’s. So dull. Quite depressing. Nothing ever changes. Only the dreams are alive. Dreams. They are a womb; a prison cell.

Together this couple create an insane idea: that an ageing man is a miraculous youth who never grows old. Some people are united by love. These two live together off an illusion. Although we must be careful: Cougar and the Captain are very different species of animal.

Cougar has no feelings. His mind is that of a cynic and amoral seducer. It is an old man’s mentality. While his body, with by now much assistance - sunlamps, hair dye, cosmetics and an almost comatose existence: all movement leaves the betraying traces of age - still retains the visage of youth; if we do not look too closely.

To retain his looks Cougar must live outside time: the clock is no friend to beauty.2 Cosmetics can help him, but more than these he needs his imagination. This produces curious effects: such imaginative fancy instead of giving vital force to life takes it away; the variety and mobility of existence - its flux of contingent detail - is subsumed within an extremely inflexible idea that makes these lives static and lifeless. For Cougar to stay nineteen everything else in his life must remain the same. Every little thing must conform to this one big idea. We think of a museum. We remember the Captain’s antique shop. Then, as the decades accumulate, the idea is transformed into an act of faith, which becomes harder over time as Cougar’s belief is constantly tested by the ever increasing signs of age. The idea changes too; narrower and more rigid with the passing years, there comes a moment when nothing, absolutely nothing, not even the most insignificant, the most minute, detail must be altered; do so and the entire invention would fall to pieces. Every day Cougar’s fantasy is made more delicate.

There is always the danger… that one day a sceptic will pop in for tea and cake.

To commit oneself to a single idea is to live inside an extremely small room. Indeed, so small is their flat that we the audience could hardly get in… The claustrophobia is palpable and overwhelming; it makes the Captain and Cougar unhappy, so that time - it is a nice irony - goes extremely slowly for them both.

An idea. A story. A fairy tale. Such fragile things, easily damaged. Each word the most precious porcelain. This flat is not a collection of junk, but a gallery where all the priceless pieces are on display, on the shelves, on the mantelpiece; these the table, those chairs - how careful Cougar and the Captain must be, tip-toeing through their lives… We imagine a man in the middle of a frozen lake; he cannot move for fear of breaking the ice that is melting all around him; the water coming closer and closer each day… 

How old are you? 

Cougar explodes into a paroxysm of anger and agony; and only the magic of Cheetah Bee can restore him. Age is a word that must be taken out of the vocabulary. And truth? It is a clumsy hand on a Lalique vase. 

When Sherbet picks up the fluffy owl the Captain flinches. Dedicate your life to a single idea and this is what happens. 

The longer they live inside the fantasy the more rigid they become; every birthday a repeat of the old pattern: the cards, the cake, the pornography, the vodka; the same signal for the Captain to leave. Life doesn't move on; it doesn't change; it doesn't grow; recycling the past they impoverish it with each repetition. A child asks her mother to read Cinderella again and again; there must be no mistake, no deviation; if there is… It’s not the same! It’s not. It’s not. It’s not. As with the mother so the story of Cougar’s nineteen birthday party has lost its charm for the Captain; it is a reminder only of his own lost and fleeting love. When an idea dominates a life it gradually seeps into all its parts, until nothing is free from its influence - we imagine a man slowly freezing from the feet up.

The birds are everywhere. They have a sinister meaning. Antique, bric-a-brac, junk, call them what we will, these birds are symbols of what happens when we stop time: we take all the value out of life; which depends for its vitality on change and variety, growth and fruitful decay. Narcissus by never leaving the poolside is gradually turned into stone. It is the fate of these two men. They are becoming inanimate objects; mere ornaments; gewgaws.

A terrible thought: these worthless objects will outlive them both. The stuffed owl retains its plumage long after Captain has lost his; while its white feathers will one day be indistinguishable from Cougar’s - if he didn't use hair dye they may already be twins.

Cougar has no friends. They are too great a risk. For with friendship there is relaxation; there is raillery; and words lose their electric charge of meaning. Our friends are our first sceptics. Not only will a Frederic not believe in Cougar’s fantasies; he will make him aware of his disbelief. The vase slips out of the hand…smashes!

And yet Cougar needs men. He so wants their cocks and arses. This puts him in a dilemma: without men he is sexually frustrated; with them his fantasies collapse.3

His solution? To seduce boys and leave them after their first orgasm.4 But Cougar is getting on, and it is not so easy to do this; age is becoming an obstacle to sexual licence; which itself has become a completely corrupt and mechanical operation. To camouflage the intent the seduction must be hidden inside a story, which itself needs a structure in real time - thus the ritual of a nineteenth birthday (which happens, we surmise, more than once a year). Such a stratagem involves high risk, for it is based on a false idea that is increasingly easy to expose - only the very naive will believe that Cougar is a teenager. While the stories themselves have a flaw: it is only the itch of sexual gratification that gives them life; lacking feeling they are therefore inauthentic. This creates its own dangers. For without the truth of real fiction, of literature, Cougar’s stories are easily exposed as fakes.

The Captain believes in two fairy tales: Cougar’s and his own. To resolve the tension between them the Captain has created a personal myth.

Once upon a time there was a beautiful boy who adored by everyone feels nothing for anybody else. One day he meets a wizard and boasts of this worship and his indifference to other people. The wizard punishes the boy by giving him a vulture’s head. Cast out into a lonely and ugly existence one day he finds a woman threatened by a beast. He saves the woman and falls in love. His beauty is given back to him.

Poor poor Captain Tock. This fairy tale cannot possibly come true, for he has no talent for such magic acts. Indeed, the Captain doesn't even follow the logic of his story: instead of turning Cougar into an ugly bird, he helps him to retain his beautiful looks. The Captain is another fantasist. He is, we now realise, more of a dreamer than Cougar, who conjures up a horrible tale of a dying wife to get a quite specific material reward: the body of Foxtrot Darling. Cougar Glass tells stories to manipulate and control, and to create, reality - he uses his charisma to make others believe in him. The Captain does not have this power. His only hope resides in a children’s story. Only in dreams can he get the things he wants.

The greater the indifference, the stronger the love. Poor poor Captain Tock! You do not even understand your own myth.

Sherbet Gravel has a foul mouth. She also has insight. She tells the Captain that birds have no feeling in their faces; even when in the most terrible agony they show no expression. This man’s secret is uncovered. The Captain is infatuated with a species (birds: do we suspect an irony?) that is impervious to his presence. This is why he loves Cougar. He needs to love someone who cannot love him back. Cougar must retain his beauty, because it is the beautiful boy, the brilliant object, the gorgeous antique, that the Captain really loves. Oh dear Captain Tock, your fairy tale is playing you false - actually it is the vulture that you love. You need its coldness, its aloofness, its disdain. This man is the eternal servant, content only when serving some idol greater than himself; he is the disciple before a supreme leader; the little boy crying after his aloof papa.

But sex twists everything. Instead of loving a frigid patriarch the Captain longs for a beautiful teenager, a Narcissus, a sexual predator.

And then a sceptic enters the room. There is anarchy; a change in values; a revolution in the regime.

Sherbet shatters Cougar’s fantasy, and destroys his power. The revolution starts slowly, during the early stages of the party, when the Captain enjoying himself gains confidence. The revolution speeds up when the Captain sides with Sherbet and makes - it is a devastating surprise! - fun of Cougar’s bad temper. This party has gone badly off course; denied his cock and arse the child sulks; and sulking loses his charisma, his presence; his influence. Soon it is the Captain who dominates. He stops Cougar’s seduction of Foxtrot; ends the attack on Sherbet; and - this is the power he now commands - forces Cougar to speak the very last word of the play: “love” (which he does with extreme reluctance and bitterness). The fantasies are over. There can be no love, no eternal youth, no happiness here. Just two disillusioned men sitting together in a small flat.

Sherbet has her own tales to tell. To escape a wretched past she has invented a saccharine love story around Foxtrot Darling, whom she intends to marry. It is a cruel parody of Cougar’s own attempt to control the present; but one that is more potent - unlike his story this has a future. Sherbet has ditched her drink and drugs lifestyle and replaced it with a will to respectability - everything in her life is to be “traditional”; she wants a family and a proper job. This woman is very knowing; her fairy tale designed to make her life secure and safe; and it can do this because Sherbet does seem to genuinely care for Foxtrot Darling - he evokes her own feelings for a settled home. Her story, because it contains both feeling and realism, is more authentic than the men’s, and is therefore more likely to come true. 

Sherbet’s stories contain many truths. It the truth that destroys… 

Sherbet talks about Savannah Glass, Cougar’s dead wife. It is an extraordinary moment. The room so full of stories that the audience - cramped so tightly together in this tiny theatre - is overwhelmed by their number; their claustrophobia. Suddenly nothing seems real. Savannah Glass? But she doesn't exist… Or does she?

Sherbet is telling a story not to hide but to reveal the truth. Not all stories are fairy tales. Some, and sometimes the most fantastic, are as real as a pigeon flying into a window; an impact that shatters the illusion… The fancy dress is removed from an ageing body - Sherbet tells Cougar his real age.

After the devastation Cheetah Bee walks in amongst the ruins, and finishes her story about the abattoir; a place where animals are flayed alive to make fur coats. It is a horrible and evil place, but…the coats…she lovingly strokes her wonderful coat…the coats - they are so beautiful!

Cheetah Bee leaves, and we walk onto the stage and out into the university campus. We would like to ask the Captain if he will still love Cougar as Cheetah Bee adores her coat, now that the ugliness behind the beauty has been revealed. We don’t. We do not want to hurt him. For we know what he will say: I want to be taken to the slaughterhouse; where I will be stunned and battered and skinned… So sad. The Captain prefers the beautiful fantasy to the horrible truth.

Such belief will become harder as the fairy tale continues down the decades. The days slowing down as their unhappiness grows. And we imagine this future... Once upon a time I met these two old crocks; the slowest timepieces in town.

A Minotaur Theatre Company production.

1.  For such times read John Wain’s Hurry on Down (and my review: A Short Sprint).

2.  For an acute analysis of the relationship between time and beauty, an analysis that qualifies, massively, these remarks, read Enid Bagnold’s wonderful The Loved and Envied. Cougar lacks three things that make Bagnold’s characters content - real beauty (of the bone structure); love; and talent. The first lasts for as long as the woman lives; while the second two either gloss over the degradations of age or make a fulfilling substitute for them.

3.  We are reminded of Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night & Sunday Morning, a book full of the fun of the free young male. To avoid the threat of pregnancy and an end to his freewheeling ways Arthur shags only married women - it is the best contraceptive.

4.  To engage emotionally with another person is make oneself vulnerable. 

L’Eclisse is an extraordinary study of this vulnerability; and yet its heroine, Vittoria, because she loves Piero, accepts all the pain, the emotional turbulence, the loss of control, that comes with a new love affair. Cougar, in contrast, is too fragile, and therefore too controlling a person, to succumb to such dangerous feelings.

Love shatters our childish fantasies.