A self pointing pointing out itself to itself.
  • Chris Bennion
  • A self pointing pointing out itself to itself.

File this under TL;DR, but...

As I wrote in my review this week, even at its most superficial level, The Boy at the Edge of Everything at Seattle Children's Theater is sweet, poetically language-bending, and subversive. If you're looking for a weekend-morning event to take a kid to, Boy is a good bet. (Or to take a hungover friend to like I did last weekend—as we walked out of the theater, he swore it cured what ailed him.)

The play is about two boys who need each other: Simon, an earthling, is an over-scheduled 12 year-old whose head is spinning from math club, computer club, swimming, soccer, "correct-use-of-hallway assemblies" (because, he says, one unruly student named Chloe "rode her BMX through the building and water-pistoled all the teachers"), tae kwon do, the newsletter committee, and a whirlwind of other things, not to mention homework. "Which is crazy," he tells us, "'cause when you're 12, the words home and work shouldn't even go together."

Adorno on a German stamp from 2003.
  • Theodor Adorno/Shutterstock
  • Theodor Adorno on a German stamp from 2003.

The other boy is named The Boy and he lives at the edge of the expanding universe, in a house perched on the border between Everything and Nothing. Simon is frantic and overwhelmed; The Boy is calm but lonely.

After an improbable accident involving a meditation/sensory deprivation tank (which Simon describes as: "one of those isolation tanks which you fill with salt water and use for meditation when you're a parent going through your transcendental Vishnu yoga phase") and a shitload of fireworks, Simon gets blasted to the edge of the universe where he and The Boy learn about each other's worlds. (And about a planet made entirely out of dog poop.)

The Boy wants to do stuff but Simon mostly wants to sit on the roof of the house and stare into the Nothing. They eventually find a happy medium.

It's a great little gem of a play: imaginative dialogue, gorgeously clean but evocative set design (dominated by a fragmenting rooftop swooping across the stage), and some stellar lighting design (including an LED-lit inhaler to represent Simon's meditation box/spacecraft as it sails through the dark, past sports balls of various shapes and colors, lit with flashlights, to look like planets).

And the message to adults is clear: Free time is important. Extracurricular and other structured activities are not free time. We should stop treating childhood like a boot camp/training ground for becoming disciplined, inane, producing-and-consuming adults.

After I left the theater, I couldn't get "Free Time," a short and cutting essay by Theodor Adorno—and what The Boy at the Edge of Everything might mean to adults—out of my head. In the essay, Adorno writes ominously that "free time is shackled to its opposite." Free time, and "pseudo-activity,"* are not freedom from work. They're lashed together.

Which sounds a lot like Simon's situation at the beginning of the play.

Of course, most of us feel like we have free time—we have hobbies, see movies, take dance classes, go to Cancun, go hiking—but Adorno argues that our "free time" is an illusion of freedom from the dominating cycles of work and consumption. We spend it either engaged in self-improving activities that make us better workers, or doing things that refresh us so we'll be better fit for work when we return to it (but will never disturb work itself).

Genuine unruliness (not the fake unruliness of a rock show) and spontaneity that is unproductive (for work) but productive (for us) are out of the question.

From the essay:

Free time must not resemble work in any way whatsoever, in order, presumably, that one can work all the more effectively afterwards. Hence the inanity of many leisure activities. And yet, in secret as it were, the contraband of modes of behavior proper to the domain of work, which will not let people out of its power, is being smuggled into the realm of free time.

In earlier times, children were allotted marks for attentiveness in their school reports. This had its corollary in the subjective, perhaps even well-meaning worries of adults that the children should not overstrain themselves in their free time; not to read too much and not stay awake too late in the evening. Secretly parents sense a certain unruliness of mind which was incompatible with the efficient division of human life.

Unruly and inefficient like, say, riding your BMX bike through the building and squirting the teachers with water.

And real freedom—free time spent freely—is so remote it's difficult for us to imagine what it would look like. Since freedom must not impinge on our ability to labor, he says, "organized freedom is compulsory." We must be tricked into feeling free; if we saw how truly unfree we are, if we realized how truly miserable we are, the shit would hit the fan.

It seems like a paradox. Your free time feels free, but it's predetermined and dominated.

One blunt example of unfreedom pretending to be freedom is the upcoming ballot measure in Crimea. It has two options: joining Russia or going back to the 1992 constitution, which would mean de facto independence, which would mean a Putin puppet government. There is no option for maintaining Crimea's current status as part of Ukraine—and leaving the ballot blank renders it invalid.

A second example, closer to the issue, is Adorno's dissection of tromping through the wilderness which, at certain points in my life, has definitely felt liberating:

Camping—an activity so popular amongst the old youth movements—was a protest against the tedium and convention of bourgeois life. People had to "get out," in both senses of the phrase. Sleeping out beneath the stars meant that one had escaped from the house and from the family. After the youth movements had died out this need was then harnessed and institutionalized by the camping industry. The industry alone could not have forced people to buy its tents and dormobiles, plus huge quantities of extra equipment, if there had not already been some longing in people themselves; but their own need for freedom gets functionalized, extended, and reproduced by business; what they want is forced upon them once again.

Hence the ease with which the free time is integrated; people are unaware of how utterly unfree they are, even where they feel most at liberty, because the rule of such unfreedom has been abstracted from them.

Thinking of The Boy on the Edge of Everything through these bits of Adorno's "Free Time," the two boys (Simon and Boy) start to blur into one boy, alienated from himself. The over-scheduled Simon, working even when he's at leisure, is an avatar of us all.

In his yearning to go to the edge of nothing, he's looking—as we should be looking but maybe have forgotten how—for some place that is neither "working" nor a structured, predetermined extracurricular activity nor "fun" that is simply a negative-image of our working selves.

At one point in the play, as The Boy is chattering away about all the other "fun" activities they could try, Simon breaks:

Stop, please – I say to The Boy on the Edge of an Aneurysm. Everything we’ve been doing is fun. But what I really never ever get to do... is what’s up there – is Nothing.

I just... I just want Nothing.

Like I said above, the two boys (or the doubleness of one alienated boy) eventually find their happy medium.

At least Simon he knows he's being driven nuts. We're so used to being determined, we've forgotten what being undetermined—what sitting on the edge of the Nothing—feels like.

So what's the way out? What does real, unproductive, undetermined, spontaneous freedom that is not just distracting, busy-making "pseudo-activity"* look like?

How does Simon escape his busy whirlwind?

By taking an accidental trip to the edge of Nothing in a chamber designed for meditation—where there is nothing to make, nothing to buy, nothing to do.

I don't think Adorno had meditation (or space travel) in mind when he argued that we have forgotten what "free time" really is or could be. But trying to carve out some place where there's nothing to make, nothing to buy, and nothing to do—some radical not-do time—might be worth considering.

* Adorno is spectacularly cranky when it came to pop-culture activities that advertised themselves as freedom and leisure but were still a part of the make/sell/buy/be-docile routine. He reserves a special, withering place in his heart for hobbyists and music "fans." (He wasn't anti-music, not at all, but thought people who treated pop music like "fun" sonic wallpaper were cretins.)

That was in the middle-20th century—Lord knows how he would've dealt with the commodified and self-celebratory culture of gaming, nerdom, and fan conventions. Probably with a hot poker.

It's hard to read passages like the one below and think of Adorno as anything other than a killjoy. But this was a guy who, with his fellow intellectuals, had lived through Naziism, watched its horrors firsthand, and saw how people's ability to be pacified by trifles—instead of paying attention to what was happening around them—could lead to bloody, hideous consequences beyond what anyone could've imagined beforehand.

Anyway, Adorno:

The same jitterbugs who behave as if they were electrified by syncopation dance almost exclusively the good rhythmic parts. The weak flesh punishes the lie of the willing spirit; the gestural ecstasy of the infantile listener misfires in the face of the ecstatic gesture.

The opposite type appears to be the eager person who leaves the factory and "occupies" himself with the music in the quiet of his bedroom. He is shy and inhibited, perhaps has no luck with the girls, and wants in any case to preserve his own special sphere. He seeks this as a radio ham. At twenty, he is still at the stage of a boy scout working on complicated knots just to please his parents. This type is held in high esteem in radio matters. He patiently builds sets whose most important parts he must buy ready-made, and scans the air for shortwave secrets, though there are none. As a reader of Indian stories and travel books, he once discovered unknown lands and cleared his path through the forest primeval. As radio ham he becomes the discoverer of just those industrial products which are interested in being discovered by him. He brings nothing home which would not be delivered to his house.

The adventurers of pseudo-activity have already organized themselves on a large scale; the radio amateurs have printed verification cards sent them by the shortwave stations they have discovered, and hold contests in which the winner is the one who can produce the most such cards. All this is carefully fostered from above. Of all fetishistic listeners, the radio ham is perhaps the most complete. It is irrelevant to him what he hears or even how he hears; he is only interested in the fact that he hears and succeeds in inserting himself, with his private equipment, into the public mechanism, without exerting even the slightest influence on it...

Regressive listeners have key points in common with the man who must kill time because he has nothing else on which to vent his aggression, and with the casual laborer. To make oneself a jazz expert or hang over the radio all day, one must have much free time and little freedom... The more easily they meet the demands of the day, the more rigidly they are subordinated to that system. The research finding, that among radio listeners the friends of light music reveal themselves to be depoliticized, is not accidental.

Find more information about The Boy at the Edge of Everything in our theater calendar.