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The Day Room by Don DeLillo

By Laila Sougri

The Day Room by Don DeLillo

“The Day Room” was criticized for being a meeting point between Beckett’s absurdism and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest’s (1962) madness but without conveying their seriousness. The play presents layers of realities which seem valid, but not trustworthy (they are layers of reality and not reality vs illusion,[1]). In the play, “nothing is at it seems; the sane becomes the insane, the authoritative physicians turn into lunatic inmates, and the real is pushed to the surreal.”[2] Doctors turn out to be patients. Physically diseased patients turn out to be mentally unbalanced. Patients belonging to a different wing become TV sets. Nothing has a definite identity; no one knows who they really are. The play creates more questions than it answers. Who are the patients? Are they really insane or are they there truly for tests (but dragged by the events and people around them)? How can a person transform into an object? Are actors found in the institution in front of him insane themselves, or are they just disturbed enough to act in a hospital’s day room?

Frank Rich brings to the fore similar doubts. “In Act II, ''The Day Room'' takes us to a motel that might not actually be a motel where we meet actors who might not actually be actors who are going to perform a play that might not actually be a play for madmen who might not actually be mad.”[3]

Beside investigating identity and madness, DeLillo focused in this play on the actors’ ability to show us how to hide from death. As he words it, “I began to sense a connection, almost a metaphysical connection, between the craft of acting and the fear we all have of dying. It seemed to me that actors are a kind of model for the ways in which we hide from the knowledge we inevitably possess of our final extinction.”[4] Hiding from what we already know seems to have become a vital condition to live life peacefully. Death is no longer something that the human accepts; it is shocking; it is abnormal when it comes earlier than expected and even in old age. For instance, it is not unusual to hear someone say “he died so young, and he was perfectly healthy.”

In times like this, the individual realizes that anyone is exposed to dying, any time. The great depression of the postmodern time emanates from this alienation from death and the inability to accept it. According to Hans-Georg Gadamer[5], “the real depersonalization of death reaches deeper still in the modern hospital”. This echoes what nurse Walker, (who might be insane), says about death. She does not think that death is worse than being insane since the psychiatric wing get droolers, and she gets death which is shaped in a way to avoid frightening patients: “there’s a procedure for getting the corpse down to the morgue. It is doubly or triply wrapped. It is wheeled on a morgue cart with a stretcher tied down over the wrapping. It looks like something else completely. Some shapeless, harmless, innocent hospital object. So patients won’t be frightened and depressed” (17).

The burden of existence no longer focuses on the consequences in the afterlife (acting in accordance with the possibility of going to paradise and escape hell), for death has become the end which leads to nothingness. The burden of existence focuses rather on how much time one has left to live.

The burden of existence and the suddenness of death leads to asking a number of questions: is life is losing its mystical and religious aspect, or mode of understanding, in the postmodern western world? Does the advance of technology contribute to the alienation from death when it assists science in presenting life not as a miracle but as a set of scientific processes? Are individuals losing their hope that this life is a transition, a path leading to a pure form of existence if one lives according to spiritual/religious guidance?

[1] DeLillo, Don, and Thomas DePietro. Conversations with Don DeLillo. Jackson: U of Mississippi, 2005.
[2] http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1989-06-07/news/8902070487_1_day-room-don-delillo-patient
[3] https://www.nytimes.com/books/97/03/16/lifetimes/del-r-dayroom.html
[4] http://perival.com/delillo/dayroom.html