The Pursuit of Happiness, a saga of the San Francisco Financial District presented
in one act and three days, by Artist and Audience Responsive Theatre (AART) at
the Valencia Rose in San Francisco, Autumn '85 Written by Steve Omlid and W.B.
Higgs Reviewed by Lucius Cabins & Dennis Hayes.
"The Pursuit of Happiness," a new musical play about office life, appeared last
fall in San Francisco. The performance featured four characters, each at a different
level of hierarchy: a young female junior executive, Grace Werkerbee; her disgruntled
male secretary, Lee Sloven; a gung-ho bike messenger; and a psyche-babbling Bag
Lady, who has dropped out of office work and into philosophy (the voice of Wisdom
in this show).
This play featured five musical numbers, three of which could have been cut to
the betterment of the show, which ran on the long side. But a snappy and sarcastic
dialogue appropriately portrayed the myriad contradictions, banalities and ridiculous
aspects of life in the modern office. The play takes its central theme from the
title and poses it as a question: why work if it makes you desperately sad (secretary
Lee's tormented, nihilist dreams of isolation from the world), physically ill
(the bag lady's migraines and dizziness which drove her from office to street),
incapable of recognizing happiness in the world around you (the parade of sensual
but meaningless affairs in Grace's life), and blind to practical antidotes (captured
nicely in the ska-influenced song "Grace Under Pressure")?
The strength of the play lay in its depiction of the absurdities of daily office
reality: Grace, eager to fire her insubordinate secretary Lee, is initially dissuaded
by the enormous number of termination forms she must fill out. The following exchange
with Lee pushes Grace over the edge:
Grace:... Did you get those reports done?
Grace: Lee! I told you I need them today!
Lee: You should have told me earlier. I'm only human.
Grace: Well, can you stay late and finish them?
Grace: Why not?
Lee: Because I don't want to.
Grace: But they have to be done today! The people upstairs are breathing down
Lee: That's not my problem.
Grace: Now I'll have to stay and do them!
Lee: Sorry. (He turns to go)
Grace: Other secretaries stay late sometimes!
Lee: Other secretaries are stupid! (He exits)
The play reconstructs the office as a glass house whose occupants absorb and convey
unnerving pressure and misery. Isolated from each other by the office hierarchy,
they cannot rise above it, even when they share similar frustrations and circumstances.
Grace insists that Lee obey a corporate memo to wear a "Happitime" Happy Face
button (they work for the Happitime Products Corporation) while in the building.
This policy ostensibly protects real employees from bathroom muggings by outsiders
sneaking into the building unidentified. Lee abhors the button but succumbs to
his boss's pressure. In the following scene, the bike messenger brings in a package
for Lee's boss and Lee demands to know where the messenger's button is:
Bikeboy: Package for Grace Werkerbee. (Lee keeps typing) Hey, I said package--
Lee: Wait. (Keeps typing)
BB: (impatient) Look, I gotta--
L: WAIT! (types for a few more seconds, then stops and turns to Bikeboy, disdainfully)
May I help you?
BB: Yes, I have a package here for Grace --
L: Where's your button?
BB: My button?
L: How did you get in here without a button? I'm going to have to call the--
BB: Wait. (He digs the button out of his pocket.) You mean this thing?
L: Yes, that thing.
BB: Oh, come on. Look at it! It's ridiculous!
L: Look, I don't like wearing the damn button. But you have--
BB: ALL RIGHT! (puts button on) There. Now will you sign for this?
L: No. I want you to understand why you have to wear the button, so that next
time, we won't have this problem....
Lee goes on obfuscating and refusing to sign for the package on several absurd
grounds, including the possibility that it might be a bomb. When Lee finally signs
for it, the bike messenger is all riled up, throws his button out of the window,
and slams the package down on Lee's desk, cursing him. Lee smiles maliciously,
wishes the messenger nice day--and calls security to bust the now button-less
This scene struck me as a perfect example of how the powerless vent the frustration
on those over whom they have petty, even temporary authority. How often does this
happen every day in the work-a-day world? And how important is this to the general
system, to have those at the bottom bearing ill will toward each other instead
of banding together to reject ridiculous badge requirements, or perhaps to take
on significantly larger issues? The Pursuit of Happiness probes these underlying
questions. From a convincing depiction of surface events the play stirs a deeper
The play also sensitively portrays the personal and professional plight of lower
management. As the eager, climbing middle-level manager, Grace Werkerbee is willing
to put in long hours, dish out abuse to her underling, and limit her "free time"
romances to quick, impersonal "fucks." Her pursuit of happiness in the form of
career advancement is exploited by her company, and the play ultimately demonstrates
that happiness and career are incompatible, at least in the office context. In
this excerpt, Grace pleads with a higher-up:
"...Yes, I'll work them up for you tomorrow. By two o'clock. (pause] All right,
if it's that important. By noon. (pause)`Excuse me, sir, but could I ask you question?
(pause) It'll only take a minute.'(pause) Thank you. It's just these--reports;
you know? It's just that they seem a bit--routine. When I accepted this position,
I didn't think I'd have to--well. yes, sir, I know that I'm only a junior executive,
but--What? No, it's not that...No, I don't think that it's beneath me. It's just
that... Yes... yes, of course... no, really don't mind. I'll get them done. By
noon, yes. Okay. Goodbye. (She hangs up) AAH! Why do I have to put up with this
Lee Sloven, the surly secretary, represents a distinct and probably growing segment
of the office clerical workforce: those who would rather be dancing, photographing,
writing, acting, etc. -- but who cannot get paid to pursue such avocations (for
a lengthy analysis of this segment of the working population, see "Roots of Disillusionment"
in Processed World #6). Lee's bad attitude is shown to have a direct link to his
frustrated goal of becoming an actor. Several scenes flash Lee back to his high
school humiliation as a Shakespearean actor; the banality of his secretarial job
is painful reminder of his stunted creative impulses. The flashbacks offer insight
into his refusal to be a "good worker" Lee does not derive his self-esteem and
identity from his job.
Status and respect elude the bike messenger, who disdains businessmen and office
rats ("those who sneer at me as go by") and enjoys the relative freedom and challenge
of bicycling through jammed traffic, zipping in and out of buildings to which
others are harnessed all day. But he knows in his heart that he's only a pawn
-- controlling his appearance and some aspects of his schedule compensate for
that feeling, as does his ability to terrorize pedestrians and harass those who
have power over him. He loses his job for defending himself from an overzealous
Happitime security guard who threw him out of the building for being without a
button ("The customer Is always right!" admonishes his ex-boss). Gary Hinton's
portrayal was slightly overdone: most messengers are much less gung-ho and triumphant
about their jobs, among the most dangerous and least rewarded anywhere (see PW#15,
"Road Warriors & Road Worriers").
In the end, all are fired from their jobs. After consulting with the Bag-Lady
philosopher on her park bench, Grace, Lee, and Bikeboy conclude that they are
better off without their unhappy jobs since, as they sing in the play's final
score, "the pursuit of happiness is the point of everything." Where to go from
here this one-act play doesn't even surmise, besides energetically recommending
dropping out now rather than later.
There is plenty of room for disappointment with this denouement. Like the 60's
hippie subculture, the play suggests you, too, can drop out of the office rat
race and do what you want, provided that you discover the will to do so. The problems
of rent/mortgage/debt, feeding oneself and/or one's children and material survival
in general are brushed aside with nary a mention.
"Dropping out" may be an alternative to blindly accepting miserable jobs and
the lives that accompany them. It may even accurately gauge disgruntled office
workers' fantasies. But it is, at best, one strategy among many, and even then,
only a gambit. It offers no insight into a collective response to what is obviously
a social problem, or how society might shed its miserable office hierarchy. To
do so, the play would have had to explore the questions "What human projects does
office work advance?" "Is dropping out of work really an attractive and feasible
option for hundreds of thousands of office workers?" This is a lot to ask. But
it is certainly worth asking, particularly in light of the recent failure of the
60's drop-outs--the hippies--to sustain themselves as a social movement. By popularizing
individual escape routes, The Pursuit of Happiness leaves open the likelihood
that the system will survive and continue to impose the pointlessness and misery
which this play portrayed so poignantly.
AART's next performance project is the whimsical "eYe LovE", an environmental
theatre piece which explores how we "tune out" our surroundings in everyday
life. It will appear In Washington D.C. in the summer and in San Francisco in
the fall. A revised version of The Pursuit of Happiness is planned for S.F.'s
Financial District. To contact AART, write: 527 30th St., S.F., CA 94131 or
1711 18th St. NW, Ste. 1, Washington, D.C. 20009.