Elisa Abatsis’ “Daguerrotypes”—An  Appreciation

By Jonathan Wallace


Note: Elisa Abatsis is a friend of mine who is a very talented writer. I wrote this essay to organize my thoughts about her work, to let her know how good I think this play is, and to encourage her to keep writing without making any compromises. 

Elisa’s play “Daguerrotypes” is one of the freshest and most interesting new works I have seen in some years—a play that does not remind me of 200 others. Set in a despairing universe in which the characters struggle to feel any hope, the play opens with 17 year old Gemma in a flirtatious confrontation with the high school art teacher with whom she has been engaged in an all-but-sex affair for some time. Professor Frodick wants her to open  her college acceptance letters.  She prefers to talk about whether the relationship has a future after high school (an exclusive boarding academy in Maine). The lights go down at the end of this extended scene just as Gemma appears to have won the battle, and the college letters are thrown into the wastebasket.

In the next scene, some years have elapsed, and we are in the town of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, in the offices of Tail of the Comet, a business specializing in photographing still born children to give their grieving parents a memento of their brief, or almost-existence. Gemma is nowhere to be seen; onstage are Chase, an annoying and arrogant young photographer, and his long-suffering, borderline alcoholic boss, Henry. Well into a scene of mutual irritation, dueling philosophies of how to run the business, and a backdrop of distressed awareness that the company is almost bankrupt, we learn that Henry’s former girlfriend, an actress named Darcy, is returning with her daughter, after suffering some personal and career reverses. Darcy arrives, daughter in tow—and the daughter is Gemma, who moved to New York with Frodick, did art, had gallery shows—and was completely undone when he killed himself for reasons that remain murky. Gemma can’t paint any more; she has accepted  Henry’s offer to work next to Chase as a photographer. Chase objects; the second in a series of well-handled, overlapping reveals is that he and Gemma were classmates in Maine, where they did not like each other.

The structure of “Daguerrotypes  is unusual, but it works. Gemma, who we assumed was the protagonist when we met her in the prolog, arrives back on scene only after we have had an extended introduction to Chase.  She does take the spotlight back from him—but the rest of the play is an extended struggle for emotional supremacy between these two intelligent characters, the despairing, essentially compassionate Gemma, and the nihilistic Chase. No spoilers—but the play has two more revelations about these characters that establish that we are not dealing with your every day twenty-somethings with attitude but without experience.

The background business—photography for grief-stricken families—is a tone-perfect representation of a world  tilting to death and sadness, in which each character must individually wrestle with the question of whether to remain, whether and whom to love, what work to find as an excuse to continue existing. “Daguerrotypes” is an extended narrative poem of our lives among (and as) things which fade and decay. This metaphor is woven through-out the play with great confidence, deftness and beauty, expressed in the related images of audiotapes which have decayed or been overwritten and a final smashing lecture about the daguerrotype process—which created images which mirror the world with a silvery, eerie beauty, but which fade away like the people they represent.

Frodick’s ghost wanders on and off stage, but as a probable representation of Gemma’s imagination, has no knowledge which Gemma doesn’t. He is an eloquent and witty ghost—after bickering with Gemma in one scene he observes that he is dead, and they are still fighting. His continuing role in the play is to create the opposite magnetic pole, to represent the magnetic attraction to Gemma of ceasing to exist. We never find out why he killed himself, nor should we; he observes to Gemma that it is not her fault she couldn’t save him. Like the other characters, he started his own life tilting over; not everyone can be propped up, retained, by love. Chase has a wonderful, cynical monolog when Gemma shows him a snapshot: he angrily wonders why Frodick didn’t pull Gemma into the picture, suggesting that he was a monster of narcissism in the first place (a theory consistent with his suicide).

The play contains several well-handled revelations, one of which is quite shocking but which makes tremendous sense, and feels completely right, in context. The ending doesn’t button everything up but shows us at least one significant failure while offering some hope. It sends you out of the theatre satisfied, that you have seen a completely elucidated world, real people struggling and hoping within it, and an ending which while not forced and not complete,  provides that “click” we all hope for in the theatre.