Same Time, Another Year
by Bernard Slade
Samuel French. 1975 / 1996.
I'm obsessed with a thirty-five year old play and I don't know why. Bernard Slade's 1975 Broadway success has been wildly successful, garnering international productions, a movie with Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn, a musical and a sequel. I have no doubt it's Slade's "annuity play", meaning he probably make a comfortable living off the royalties - the show is a staple of community theatre and summer stock. And now, after catching the latest production here in Montreal, the play won't stop its ceaseless march through my brain.
The premise of the play is as elegant as it is simple: George and Doris, married to other people, meet once a year to continue an affair started one weekend in 1951. Each scene takes place at roughly five year intervals, allowing us to see the march of history reflected through the lovers - Doris goes through women's lib, George loses a son in Vietnam. The original play shows the lovers between 1951 and 1975; the sequel runs from 1976 - 1993. From a producer's standpoint it's a bit of a wet dream: a single set, two actors, the nostalgia factor. Actors meanwhile love the play because it provides a good showcase for their skills.
But I'm a writer first and the script is what impressed me the most. Musical theatre icon Stephen Sondheim once remarked that simplicity "takes the most effort in the world" and this is what struck me most about Slade's work. There's no plot and each scene is a single dialogue, done in real time. This is a play about character and character is always the hardest thing to write. Yet Slade makes it look effortless: George and Doris evolve and transform and yet never learn the essence of who they once were. Slade essentially wrote six one-act plays (twelve, if you count the sequel) and each one is a self-contained animal, much like a short story collection in which the stories are linked but exist perfectly on their own.
Equally noteworthy - especially given the play's immense popularity - is that it is a quietly subversive piece in that it champions adultery. Neither George or Doris are in terrible marriages - though they exchange "good" and "bad" stories of their home life, it becomes clear early on that they love their spouses. Though they have children, they aren't the reason neither George or Doris ever discuss divorce. Early on, they wrestle with the morals of their affair but before long they have come to accept Slade's unstated thesis: that no one person can ever satisfy our emotional (or sexual) needs.
None of this is directly discussed: the comedy and charm of the writing turns both the original and its companion into perfect spoonfuls of sugar. One could theorize that the play's tremendous popularity would imply that most of us, on some level, accept Slade's theory as fact. The play is, in a way, the perfect piece of pornography for the married middle class. Just as pornography portrays sex without consequence, so do does Slade's play portray adultery without punishment. Have audiences been allowing George and Doris to act out their greatest fantasy for thirty-five years? Is this the secret to the play's success?
You could read the script but plays are meant to be seen, so if there's no production happening nearby, go right to YouTube: some kind soul uploaded the entire 1978 film. It has the slow pace typical of a 70's film, but Slade did the screenplay and it's a pretty faithful rendition of the script: