I approached this book warily. After all, fiction and playwriting are such different forms, why put the two together? Fiction is designed to pull you into a world, and a published play requires you to imagine seeing a stage and, despite the stage directions, you forget that a stage is there or that the script is really meant for actors. Ideally, the characters and actions are so intriguing, you forget all the artifice. It’s a difficult form to get right for readers.
Still, as a published novelist and produced playwright, I adore both forms, so I plunged in, starting with the novella; The Queue is absolutely brilliant.
The Queue takes place sometime in the future, perhaps not that far off, where our world is under guidance of a leader whom people call Leader. With resources starting to become short, the Leader has decreed that the state will confiscate the homes of “citizens of advanced age,” people eighty and older. They all have to report to a specific spot, a queue of people that extends to the horizon. What will happen to the elderly citizens, arranged by age, oldest first, when they get to the front of the line? No one knows.
The story is told by a middle-aged man who has helped his two parents to the line, and he stays with them. Author Michael Hager pours out the truths of the human condition in an existentialist tone reminiscent of No Exit by John-Paul Sartre. The story is not just about aging, but of many aspects of the human condition.
For instance, some people in line including the narrator’s parents take solace from their religion. How can faith exist when it seems so clear there is no higher power, no sense, no fairness? Yet when the narrator runs into a group of elderly nuns, he is awed by their strength.
The narrator experiences a mixture of the Stanford prison experiment and the surreal. Guards abuse older people and shoot or hang them if they’re the least bit surly, yet the old folks patiently stand and worry, moving sometimes only meters a day, wondering what will happen to them. Maybe it’ll be good.
What adds to the strength of this book are the contradictions, such as the upbeat nature of some of the people in line when so much is horrible or how a pleasant scent of the soldiers’ coffee leads to a positive memory.
As one elderly gentleman tells the narrator in the harshness of the line with a smile, “To age well, one must accept suffering and death, not only as inevitable but as something natural and good—whether it comes in a battlefield or in a hospital bed.”
The format of the book is unusual, a dance between standard design and indented sections in italics that jump into the protagonist’s memory. Expositive by design, they nonetheless reveal a lot. For instance, he remembers a day he was deeply in love and was about to propose to his girlfriend when she “had something to say. She’d met someone. This would be our last time together.” Such juxtapositions lead the reader to nod at life’s inherent unfairness and absurdity while remain fascinated by the moments of beauty.
Hager’s three one-act plays, in contrast, lack the truth and lyricism of The Queue. The first play, “Warriors,” takes place in the Limbo Home for the Elderly. The young people who work in the home cannot stand the people they have to help. For instance, Nan, who is described as attractive, in her twenties, and sexy in her short-skirted uniform, says “I’m tired of wasting good food on these old geezers. They’ve all outlived their time on this earth. Now they’re just old parasites, feeding on the rest of us.”
Neither Nan nor the other young people realize they’d be out of work without the residents. There is no subtext or subtlety.
Of the three plays, this one is the most didactic. The five old people of the play complain a lot, and a few are convinced the government is out to get them. They get draft notices, and, despite their ill health, are drafted and sent to the front. What happens is not a surprise.
The second play, “Paradise,” takes place at the Paradise Retirement Resort, and while it runs the same themes, the characters are slightly less cartoonish and more positive. The story centers on a woman in her late seventies designated as “Newcomer,” who just buried her husband and needs a room for the night. The young manager, Eve (of
course her name is Eve), shows her around. The older woman meets some active and energetic seniors who try to convince the woman to stay in Paradise. There are not a lot of surprises.
The third play, “Home,” revolves around an 85-year-old man of comfortable means who tells his servant, a young woman, that he never wants to leave his home. Enter his daughter and husband in their forties who have called a government agency to whisk grandfather away. After a surprise, the play has nowhere else to go yet continues on for several more pages.
Perhaps Hager was aiming for the absurdity of something by Samuel Beckett, yet Beckett has richness and delightful ambiguity. These plays lack depth and irony or even
the contrast and questions of The Queue.
In sum, The Queue is so outstanding, it should be sold separately without the plays.
While all four pieces focus on old people in society, The Queue is a symphony and the plays are battering rams. Amateur groups of older actors might find amusement in trying one or two of them, but the best actors need stories with life beneath the surface. Where The Queue has mystery, the plays are on-the-nose. There are no hidden levels to them. However, The Queue will keep you thinking. Get it.