Looking for Valparaiso

Don Delillo on the beginnings of the play


A man sets out on a routine business trip to a city whose name is shared by two or three other cities in the country and three or four more in the world.

This is what I had in mind about eight years ago when I first set to work on a play without a title. It did not go well. Soon I put the work aside to start a five-year forced march that would produce a long novel of time, place, characters and themes totally unrelated to the faceless stage play throbbing in a box somewhere.

Some time after I finished the novel, I stole a wary look at the play. There wasn't much. Mostly scraps of dialogue for half scenes in act one and some notes on yellow foolscap for act two. But there was enough to sharpen my senses to the original impulse behind the play. And after so much time spent elsewhere, in another discipline with very different requirements, I saw the play from a crystal distance. I saw it, suddenly, clean.

I don't think I kept a word from that early effort. But the central idea did not change. It simply found a purer route onto the page.

A man sets out on a routine business trip and when he returns everything is different. The way he and his wife talk to each other. They way they tell each other things, in public, they would never dare say privately. The way things are said expressly to be forgotten.

People in this world have needs and desires shaped by technology.

The way nothing is allowed to go unseen. The way nothing is left unsaid. The way things exist solely as footage waiting to be shot.

The novel, Underworld, is about the Cold War years in America. The play, it seems, is an attempt to understand what is happening in the culture now that those years are over.

There is a Valparaiso in Indiana, in Florida and in Chile. Does it matter that the pronunciation of the name is different in each case? Does it matter in which of these Valparaisos the man in the play ends up?

The way everything melts repeatedly into something else, as if guided by a finger on a TV remote.

The man is making the most modern journey possible, witnessed by millions, into the secret places of identity and transcendence.


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