Pursuit of Happiness

review by lucius cabins & dennis hayes

Submitted by ludd on March 8, 2010

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?
Lee: No.
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?
Lee: No.
Grace: Why not?
Lee: Because I don't want to.
Grace: But they have to be done today! The people upstairs are breathing down my neck!
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 messenger.

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 understanding.

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 meaningless BULLSHIT!?

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.