- Play title: John
- Author: Annie Baker
- Published: 2016
- Page count: 114
Annie Baker’s play, John, is an unusual mix of realism and the seemingly supernatural. The setting for the events that occur is a Bed & Breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The characters Elias and Jenny stay at this guest house owned by a woman named Mertis, where they also meet her elderly, blind, friend Genevieve. As the play progresses, we learn that Elias and Jenny have relationship problems, that Genevieve has a fascinating story to tell, and that Mertis is a more complex character than she at first seems. At surface level, the play charts the course of a tumultuous, romantic relationship, but Baker adds many complications, most obviously the suggestion of supernatural, possibly ghostly forces. The final line of the play conclusively answers at least one major question for readers.
Ways to access the text: reading.
As John is a recently published play, it is difficult to source for free online. However, the play is available on Scribd which offers a 30 day free trial.
Baker is a contemporary playwright and the text is relatively inexpensive so purchasing the work is also recommended.
Why read John?
Not all plays are reader friendly, but this play reads so smoothly that it is an absolute pleasure. It is relevant to note here that Annie Baker won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2014 for her play, The Flick. It is indeed because Baker is so skilled a writer of dialogue that she manages to insert so many strange events and revelations without disrupting the play’s flow or alienating the reader. For much of the work, our attention is drawn to the disagreements of the young couple where many of the tetchy exchanges are minor but serve to fully outline the characters of Elias and Jenny. However, there are other episodes like Genevieve’s gripping revelation of bizarre experiences from her past that serve to change the mood. Also, Mertis has a knack of asking probing questions that turn ordinary conversations into something fantastic, often not fully intelligible. However, even if one cannot find easy answers to all the mysterious events, Baker’s expertly crafted dialogue keeps one glued to the text.
Mysteries without answers.
This play offers the reader a challenge of sorts, but the challenge is not obligatory. By challenge, I mean the selection of unexplained events that occur during the play along with eclectic references, for example, to literary works, composers, and philosophies. One may suggest that the play demands an erudite reader but that is not correct because the play offers full satisfaction at various levels of understanding. Another point that is quite relevant for the reader – it seems that it would be impossible to find a comprehensive explanation for all the mysterious events of the play. Therefore, one may approach the work without any fear of misinterpreting it. The story of the young couple is interesting in itself and one finds out a major secret at the end. There are other aspects of the play that will make one ponder the meaning for days afterwards. In summary, the play offers a core story that all readers will appreciate but then goes on to complicate that story. It is certainly not a play for the type of reader who must have all loose threads neatly tied up by the conclusion.
Elias and Jenny’s relationship.
Jenny or Elias – to which of these two characters should a reader be sympathetic? This becomes an unavoidable question when reading the play. Elias is a Jewish man who seems, at times, to be domineering and demanding. Jenny has an Asian background based on her surname, Chung, and seems a more empathetic and politer person. Their relationship is obviously in trouble and they have broken up at least once in the past. While Baker presents Elias as lacking in affection and being quite defensive, Jenny is the one who is ultimately depicted as a false person. A reader may retrospectively consider all the times that Jenny has been busy texting her “sister” while she simultaneously declares her love for her boyfriend, says that he is beautiful, and expresses deep regret over her previous affair with John. In this regard, it seems clear who deserves the reader’s sympathy. Yet, on the other hand, Elias admits to Mertis that he eventually begins to think of all his girlfriends as “insects”. Such a disturbing admission from Elias makes it difficult, maybe even impossible for readers to take his side. At the end of the story, it is made clear that Jenny is still in contact with John but who is most to blame for the failure of the relationship between Jenny and Elias? Baker resists giving the reader an easy answer.
An interpretation of the couple’s relationship is prompted by various references to statues in the play. These references are suggestive of the myth of Pygmalion, an ancient story that may help resolve the mystery of who is to blame. In Ovid’s tale, Pygmalion shunned mortal women because he was revolted by their shameless sexual behaviour and so he carved a statue of a beautiful woman, and then fell in love with it. Later, the goddess Venus granted Pygmalion’s wish and the statue came to life and became his perfect bride (Ovid 232). In Baker’s play, Jenny may be seen as the statue since she is indeed described at one point as “stiff as a statue” along with the numerous references to her icy cold hands and feet. There is even a scene in the play where Elias carries Jenny, “he picks her up and carries her, stiffly, like a mannequin, down to the couch and drops her there” which copies the scene where Pygmalion “placed the statue on a couch … and called it his bedfellow” (Ovid 232). Another strong connection to Ovid’s tale is Elias’s own made-up story of the man who falls in love with the statue of a beautiful woman. One may find additional references to Ovid’s myth in Mertis’ own tale of meeting her 2nd husband, George, where she describes how it was like “emerging from the cold and into the sun.” This description is analogous to a cold statue coming to life. Yet, all these likely allusions to the myth of Pygmalion may be interpreted in conflicting ways. The first interpretation is that Elias does not love Jenny sufficiently to bring her to life in the relationship, so she remains like a cold statue. From this perspective, Elias’s love is inferior to the effusive love that Jenny gets from John. The second interpretation is that Elias is a man who has already lost faith in women just like Pygmalion and Jenny’s earlier affair simply reinforces such despair. Elias’s own reference to the “green insects” (praying mantis) clearly links to sexual matters, suggesting that the male mate will be coldly sacrificed once his duty is done. In an earlier argument between Jenny and Elias, Jenny apparently revealed that John is well endowed, sparking possibly unfavourable comparisons and sexual jealousy. Ultimately, it is difficult to say if Elias is indeed looking for a perfect partner like Pygmalion or simply one who is faithful and truthful. The play’s ending pushes a reader slightly more to Elias’s camp because even if he is insensitive, he does appear to be faithful.
Baker’s text is never simplistic. For example, when one reads Genevieve’s story of a domineering, controlling husband named John who took command of her mind, then it is hard to determine if that relationship from the past reflects a current relationship in the play. For instance, is there a hinted parallel between Genevieve’s ex-husband and the controlling Elias, or instead, with the more affectionate but overly needy John who had/is having an affair with Jenny? When Genevieve says, “everyone knows someone named John,” it suggests not just a common name, but a type of man. Elias and John both control Jenny in separate ways. John’s incessant texting is certainly a form of control especially since he knows the couple are on holiday. If one draws the conclusion that Elias and John are equally bad influences on Jenny based on Genevieve’s ominous example, then one changes sides again. Maybe Jenny would be far better off cutting her ties with both men. Additionally, maybe we can make a link between the unhappy marriage that Mertis had with her ex-husband, a man who was fatally electrocuted, and the “mind zaps” that Elias is suffering which feel like he is being electrocuted. Elias’ depression is a spectre in the background which threatens his own stability and the happiness of any relationship he enters. These are the sorts of random, loose threads that may fascinate or frustrate readers. Baker creates tantalizing clues, but they may just be lures to trick us into overreading some of the situations. The playwright pulls us into the familiar loop of he said/she said and this denies the reader the satisfaction of a clean-cut exit in the form of a definitive answer. The final line of the play only resolves the problem if monogamy alone is the deciding factor in a reader’s opinion.
The supernatural elements of the story.
How should one interpret the supernatural elements of the story? To begin, one may validly ask how reliable are the narrators? Our overall judgement of any character will normally determine our levels of scepticism or trust in the information they provide us. For instance, Jenny is an adult woman who is so afraid of her old dolls that she cut little windows in their storage box so that they could peep out! Her doll obsession is so strong that Elias thinks she has OCD. However, when Mertis asks Jenny if she ever considered selling “Samantha,” the American Girl doll, Jenny’s reply is an emphatic no, “I saved up two years’ worth of babysitting money to buy her.” For a reader, how are Jenny’s two vastly contrasting positions of fear versus material value compatible or even credible? If an object deeply disturbs someone then surely the logical solution is to dump it, give it away, or sell it. Furthermore, how can we give any credence to Jenny’s belief that the doll gets angry? Genevieve’s support of Jenny’s irrational beliefs about dolls is hardly vindication because Genevieve is a self-confessed former psychiatric patient and more importantly, her total recovery of sanity is questionable. The unreliability of several key characters in the play is an important point. However, Baker constructs such a complex intermingling of supernatural elements in the play, presented to us by various characters, that one cannot merely dismiss them all as they must contain some meaning.
It is helpful to list the apparently supernatural elements of the play to get a better overview. Firstly, the Bed & Breakfast is a former Union soldiers’ hospital where amputated limbs were reputedly tossed out of the windows and the bedrooms seem haunted to this very day. Then there is the fantastical tale of how Genevieve’s former husband took possession of her soul and spirit. Also, Jenny tells her own strange but amusing story of how the universe made love to her when she was high on drugs. Elias takes a picture of a ghost, or maybe it is just a blur. Then add to the mix, Christmas tree lights that flicker on and off a bit too sporadically, a piano that plays by itself or perhaps it’s a trick-piano, and a doll that may get angry and take her revenge! Finally, there is talk of “watchers” who are other-worldly and must not be annoyed. This is certainly quite a list for any reader to contend with, and many of these elements may be in the play for their entertainment value rather than on account of their meaningfulness.
Yet, a fascinating aspect of the play is how Baker occasionally underpins whimsy with something more meaningful. One prime example is when Mertis declares that she is a Neo-Platonist. A cursory introduction to Neo-Platonism is that it is a pagan, Greek philosophy in which the highest level of being is called ‘the One’ which may correlate approximately with the idea of the “watcher” that is discussed in Baker’s play. In Neo-Platonism, there is a strict hierarchy of beings with ‘the One’ at the apex, from which emanates all things that exist and to which all things eventually return. When Genevieve went blind and no longer had any pressing concerns about her body or the opinions of others then she began to lead a more thoughtful life. This is an example of a life that is in line with Neo-Platonist philosophy because Genevieve turned away from the sensual world and began to focus more on her inner self. There also appear to be connections between the teachings of Neo-Platonists and other aspects of the play such as Genevieve’s “disturbing connection with the soul of every person and every object that had ever existed.” Neo-Platonism is pantheist so there is indeed a belief that God is present in all things. One should also pay attention to Mertis’ comments on her “matter” which denotes her decorative dolls and figurines on one level but in philosophical terms the word “matter” refers to the universe. The idea that an inanimate object like a doll may be imbued with some essence of its godly creator is a salient point in the play. Neo-Platonism is a difficult philosophical field with a long and complex history, but some basic background information is certainly helpful to understanding the play. The main point is that Baker constructs a solid base for some of the strange events by referencing a whole philosophy of life.
The American Girl doll, Samantha, is an unusual but dominant focal point in the play. It is possible to use the doll to help explain some of the mysteries of the story. To begin, one may look at the two quotes which introduce the play. The first substantial quote is from a short story by Heinrich von Kleist and the second quote is a short Latin phrase from Marcus Tullius Cicero who was a Roman statesman and scholar. Von Kleist’s short story is called “On the Marionette Theatre” and it considers the elegance of movement of puppets and then observes that in comparison, human dancers are often too self-conscious to achieve equally graceful movements. Interpretations of von Kleist’s story suggest that it explains how humans become more isolated from one another the more conscious they become of their own separate identities. If the quite mismatched Jenny and Elias are performing a dance of love then their extreme efforts to make it work actually prove to be the dance’s downfall. One may begin to see further links with the doll, Samantha, when one notes that von Kleist writes that “grace … appears to best advantage in that human bodily structure that has no consciousness at all – or has infinite consciousness – that is, in the mechanical puppet, or in the God” (von Kleist 26). The fact that the puppet and the God are equal in regard to grace is important to interpreting Baker’s play. The introductory quote from Cicero translates as “never less alone than when alone.” The Cicero quote is quite relevant because Jenny never feels truly alone because Samantha always seems to be watching her. While both quotes direct a reader to focus on the doll, Samantha, they still require considerable unpacking.
An interpretation of the play may be constructed as follows. The doll, Samantha, symbolizes the God-like presence of the “Watcher” of whom Mertis often speaks. The “Watcher” is a seemingly unavoidable presence, just like when Jenny first sees Samantha in the B&B and she concernedly remarks, “it’s really freaking me out … I feel like she found me.” When Mertis later asks Jenny, “do you ever feel watched?” then Jenny responds with a yes and explains that as a child she used to lock Samantha in a cupboard, “so I wouldn’t feel her watching me.” This feeling of being watched has persisted into Jenny’s adult life. The most obvious explanation for Jenny’s current self-consciousness is a feeling of guilt, especially since we know of her previous affair. She suffers mental turmoil even when alone due to a history of telling lies and then living in fear of being found out. In different terminology, Jenny is constantly being pricked by her own guilty conscience. However, we must expand on this idea because Jenny has always felt watched since childhood. It is possible that a young Jenny was also accused of telling lies, maybe in relation to her dolls and their special powers. If one returns to the von Kleist quote on puppets and gods then the doll symbolizes a higher force (Pagan or Christian) whom one should pacify by leading a good life, a life that will gain one grace when grace is understood in a semi-religious sense. If Jenny led such a life then she would not be trapped in her own solipsism and feelings of guilt but would have a sense of existing in the community of man. In this light, the play is thoroughly rooted in the teachings of Neo-Platonism, yet one cannot help feeling that the “Watcher” when understood in this way is very moralistic since it is Jenny’s guilt, in childhood and adulthood, which prompts the squirming, uncomfortable feeling of being watched.
The next part of this interpretation concerns Cicero’s quote, “never less alone than when alone.” One can see how this reflects the previously explored idea of Jenny being watched by a puppet/god. When Mertis uses the quote over the phone to Genevieve, she links it to Cardinal John Henry Newman, a theologian and saint of the Catholic Church. This puts a decidedly Christian spin on the quote. Later, Jenny uses almost the exact same phrasing as Cicero, “less alone in my alone-ness” when describing how the universe made love to her when she was stoned. In response to Jenny’s story, the phrase that immediately comes to Mertis’ mind is “Deep Calling Unto Deep” which though left unexplained in the play, is a quote from the Bible, psalm 42:7. It is a reference to the mental turmoil experienced by David when he is caught in a storm. One explanation for the links between these various quotes is that Jenny finally feels less alone in the world and more at peace with herself, but only when high on drugs. This means that there is, temporarily, no judgmental “Watcher.” Yet, Mertis’ somewhat strange reply to Jenny is to quote a biblical passage that uses the metaphor of a storm to describe just how overwhelming an experience mental turmoil can be for someone. Therefore, one senses that mental turmoil of some sort is Jenny’s normal, non-stoned, everyday existence. Cicero’s quote when used in a Christian context refers to a connection with one’s god, for example when one is all alone in quiet contemplation or prayer. The difference between Jenny’s normal state of anxiety and a peaceful state is apparently due to life choices. The anxiety that Jenny feels in relation to the doll reveals something that is rooted in psychology rather than the supernatural. In summation, the message is about living a good life.
The above interpretation is somewhat long and convoluted but has attempted to decipher some of the trickier elements of the play. As previously noted, Neo-Platonism is a large area of study and has been treated superficially here. Baker tends to avoid moral judgments in the play, so it is best to focus on how the doll symbolizes a god-like presence who wants Jenny to live a good life for the sake of her own inner peace rather than traditional, Christian morals. One positive aspect of the interpretation is that the doll, Samantha, begins to look less like a horror-movie prop and more like the key to the story.
Baker, Annie. John. Theatre Communications Group, 2016.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated by Mary M. Innes, Penguin Books, 1973.
The Bible. Authorized King James Version, Oxford UP, 1998.
Von Kleist, Heinrich. “On the Marionette Theatre.” The Drama Review: TDR, Translated by Thomas G. Neumiller, vol. 16, no. 3, 1972, pp. 22-26.