The Play had stood—A Loaded Gun


Like many of the exquisite impossible dramas in Jonathan Ball’s Clockfire, Gun holds the funhouse mirror up to theatre, magnifying a conventional element until its inherent oddity becomes monstrous. When Anton Chekhov insisted that a gun appearing in the first act must go off before the play’s end, he acknowledged the extent to which the tight causal structure he and his audiences inherited from the pièce bien faite converted theatre into an all too predictable time machine that generates its own future. From this perspective, a play, like a gun, is a well-oiled mechanism for potential violence. To put a gun on stage early in a play loads the play’s chamber and cocks its hammer. Disobey the machine at your peril.


Ball begins by distilling Chekhov’s maxim to absurd purity, offering a first act that is nothing other than the appearance of a gun. In the second act, the actors lavish the gun with the outsized attention it has already demanded. As surrogates for an audience’s attachment to an onstage gun, the actors fetishize the prop and so contribute to its power. Andrew Sofer reminds us in The Stage Life of Props that a gun stands out from other stage properties in that its “power to destroy human time is potentially limitless.” As players in a gun-driven drama, Ball’s actors recognize the gun as their god, their prime mover, and also their oracle: they see their faces in its barrel but fail to read their fates.


The third act begins at the precise moment when blood emerges from the actors’ noses, mouths, and ears. We might say, adapting Lessing’s famous line from The Hamburg Dramaturgy, that they die of the third act. They are victims of the tyranny of dramatic closure itself, or perhaps of their own attachment to it. Like all figures on a stage, they sacrifice themselves at the altar of dramatic necessity. Guns don’t kill people, plots do. The actors die, like Marie Curie in Adrienne Rich’s “Power,” denying their wounds came from the same source as their power. They revere the gun, but fail to realize that its ultimate power lies not in its detonation but in its “obvious potential,” its capacity to generate virtual violence. The gun’s power—like theatre’s—is virtual in the oldest sense of that word, meaning full of power or potency, capable of producing a result in the future, and by extension, operating in effect rather than in reality.

About the Author

John H. Muse is Assistant Professor in English and Theater and Performance Studies at University of Chicago. His research explores work that tests the perceived boundaries of media: plays that resemble visual art, poems, or novels in dramatic form, metatheatre, and digital, impossible, or otherwise virtual theatre. His first book, Microdramas (Michigan, 2017), explores brevity in theatre since the late nineteenth century and argues that very short plays reveal fundamental assumptions about theatre's limits and possibilities.