Famously, in the Seinfeld writer’s room was a sign ‘No hugging, no learning’, a necessary corrective to American sitcom’s addiction to redemptive endings. It’s not just the sitcom either; American drama in the mid-century period was often famous for its closing lines that sum up the play and offer a clear statement of the improving message that it’s been trying to convey. This is the way we were. Attention must be paid.
Clifford Odets’s Rocket to the Moon is no different. The journey the hero has to go on is curious but it is plainly meant to deliver a moral to the audience when Ben Stark declares ‘I’ll never take things for granted ever again’.
It’s a simple plot. Dr Stark is a dentist who lacks drive and ambition. His marriage has flatlined, his work barely pays the rent. Then he employs Cleo Singer, a ravishing young woman with whom he begins an affair. He was encouraged in this by his father in law, who is estranged from his daughter. In the event, the father in law falls for Cleo too, as does the rapacious theatre producer Mr Wax. In a final confrontation, she rejects them all and Dr Stark vows never to take anything for granted again.
What’s interesting is to have an essentially passive hero; everyone walks over him, he is hectored by his wife, doctors on the same corridor walk in and out of his waiting room without knocking. He’s offered funding by his father in law to set up a new high-class specialist clinic but he turns it down thinking that half a loaf is better than none. The rocket to the moon of the title is an affair; aged 40, maybe this is a make-or-break moment. Will he settle for his loveless marriage and his middling career or will he change everything, take risks, make something new of his life?
It’s got the same problem as Separate Tables. In the latter, the Major’s offence is to furtively grope women in the cinema. I think we’re inclined to be much less forgiving of him now that audiences would have been in 1954. We’d be likely to think that there might be more to it than groping (check his basement! check under the patio!). Here we are invited to think that having an affair is a bold and sympathetic action. The problem with the play - and with the new National Theatre production - is that it has to persuade us that the marriage really is in a bad way. In fact, in Keeley Hawes’s performance - but also in the text - Belle Stark is a gorgeous, sexy, funny, smart woman who is a little bossy but fundamentally more interesting than Cleo. Cleo is basically a bit of a bimbo (though brilliantly played, full of wit and detail, by Jessica Raine). As a result, the play asks us to take seriously a bored man shagging his bubbly young secretary and therefore cheating on his lovely wife as a supreme act of self-realization. I didn’t really buy that.
I’m not sure Odets had fully decided what sort of play to write. It’s a romance (particularly in Act 2). But it’s also a wisecracking comedy (particularly in Act 1). It’s also a realist drama (particularly in Act 3). There are traces of Odets’s earlier more directly political work in the continual talk of money and in the sensational scene where his fellow dentist Dr Phil Cooper returns having sold his blood for money - and also in the near-agitprop names: Stark, Singer, Wax all suggest something about their attitudes and situations. What I’m hugely understating is how funny the play is; it’s full of laughter, generous and cynical, all in character and often pitching the thing into realms of wonderful absurdity (‘Do you know something? I can’t read Shakespeare - the type is too small’).
The humour itself causes problems. The father in law is a wisecracking character, full of New York Jewish schtick; but then we have to undergo a crunching gear change as he declares his love for Cleo. To be sure, this gives him perhaps the most heartfelt speech in the play: ‘There are seven fundamental words in life, and one of these is love, and I didn’t have it! And another one is love, and I don’t have it! And the third of these is love, and I shall have it!’ But I remained unmoved by his love for Cleo, which seemed like an old man’s infatuation rather than anything more interesting.
There’s not a whole lot of plot either. The entire first act is set up. The second act only gets interesting when Ben exposes Cleo’s lies about herself, when suddenly, at last, you felt the air move, and here was a play about people with desires and aspirations and delusions and false fronts. The affair itself seems somewhat unconsummated and it’s only the third act where things really seem to matter. The short exchange between Joseph Millson’s Ben and Keeley Hawes’s Belle when she realises about the affair (‘It was only a thing of the moment, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it? Do you hear me - wasn’t it?’) was beautifully played, tender and awkward, Belle’s assurance momentarily crumbling. Odets’s stage direction says that at this moment Belle is ‘wavering, a spout of water’ and we got that. But even then the act dissolves into a series of conversations, with the cynical doctor Frenchy, with the father, then the decision that Cleo has to make.
And it all adds up to Dr Stark’s epiphany: ‘for an hour my life was in the spotlight... I saw myself clearly, realized who and what I was’ and makes that pledge: ‘I’ll never take things for granted again’. This is the problem with hugging and learning, an awful lot of stress has to be placed on the things peoplesay about what they do. But we know from life that when people promise to change their ways, that’s just words and it’s just the start. It’s their actions we want to see if we’ll believe them. And this case seems particularly suspicious. Is he really never going to take things for granted again? The existence of Kentucky? How about gravity? The airy vapidity of the announcement would, in life, communicate more about the speaker’s immaturity, their windy self-regard, than about any real intentions.