A fiasco is a rare event in our lives. We generally maintain control over our various endeavors, whether a class presentation, a tennis match, or a conversation. Some of us live closer to the realm of fiasco than others, and constantly grasp on to the precipice of order.
The universal law of entropy guarantees that all of us, no matter how good we are at enthalpy, will fall helplessly into the unpredictability of a fiasco. This American Life’s podcast “510: Fiasco,” chronicles three different fiascos and their implications in the lives of those who experience them.
Act I Opening Night
Ira Glass talks with Jack Hitt about Hitt’s experience as an audience member at a performance of Peter Pan that goes very, very awry. The director of the play, who has no previous directing or theatrical experience, rents flying apparatuses so Peter, Wendy, John, and Michael can fly around like they do in the movie. Rumor leaks of the flying machines and sends the unnamed town’s community abuzz. Expectations are high; by the time the audience settles into their seats, they expect greatness.
Glass and Hitt note that an expectation of greatness is the essential factor that causes fiascos. A fiasco can only occur in an environment filled with the blissful assumption of order, the idea that all is well and right. When a situation descends – or crashes – from order into the realm of unrelenting chaos, then we have ourselves a true fiasco.
This play crashes abruptly and dramatically into fiasco. Hitt describes how the operators of the flying machines make the actors “just lurch into the air”and “several of [the actors] start to circumscribe these circles in the air, where it’s clear that the people running the machines have just set them off on these oval courses that spiral farther and farther out.” Glass and Hitt cannot contain their laughter as Hitt describes the blunder of Captain Hook’s hook flying off and an actor crashing to the floor from the balcony as he attempts to descend a rope ladder. The man is clearly injured, so someone sounds the fire alarm. A siren located directly above the theater, signifying that the town’s volunteer fireman must assemble, begins to sound. Yet, the director insists that the show must go on, and so does the audience. By now, the audience “wants blood.”They disengage the cordial reservations of a polite audience and reach into their primal desire for violent entertainment, for fiasco.
The audience obviously understands that the play has become a complete debacle. Despite the siren’s blare and the fire department’s presence in the audience, the director insists that the show must go on. What else should the director do? How do she rescue herself and her performance from the domino effect of mishaps and blunders characteristic of fiasco? She makes the only choice one can when caught in this hurricane of chaos; she endures the fiasco. The passage of time is the only way a fiasco ends, and fighting it surely only catalyzes its force and increases the level of chaos and disaster.
Act II What We Wanted To Do
In Act II, Glass turns over the microphone to actor Jeff Dorchen who reads an excerpt from Ron Carlson’s novel “Return to Oakpine.” The excerpt is about a military man recounting his attempt to pour a boiling cauldron of oil from his village’s wall onto attacking Visigoths below. His entire plan fails thoroughly, two separate times. During the first attack, the soldiers cannot raise the cauldron in time to pour its contents on the invaders. During the second attack, the soldiers do not leave ample time for the cauldron’s contents to boil before the attackers reach the gate. Instead of dumping boiling oil on the Visigoths, the soldiers pour lukewarm oil onto them, stopping them for only a moment before they barge through the gates and loot the village.
This military man refuses to admit the failures and impracticalities of his plan and shrugs off the two fiascos that occurred because of his inherently flawed. It does not matter what this man wants to do because the universe will not let it happen. He, like the director of Peter Pan, insists that the village adopt his plan. Blinded by his expectation of greatness, he rationalizes a continuation of a military strategy that was the impetus for two major fiascos.
Act III Squirrel Cop
Glass returns to the microphone to interview a cop about the cop’s experience in a fiasco while trying to remove a pesky squirrel from a young couple’s attic. The attempt to remove the squirrel begins with this cop believing he can be a hero and impress the beautiful wife, despite the fact that such calls are not the police force’s duty to carry out. The expectation of greatness is present; this cop, like the actors and directors, reaches beyond his capabilities and duty. We have all the necessary predecessors for a fiasco to occur – and oh does it.
In only five minutes, the cops manage to break the husband’s nose, which spews blood all over the walls and carpeting, rearrange the couple’s living room furniture, indirectly kill the squirrel, burn the underside of the sofa, and ruin a set of brand-new silk pillows. The cop recalls to Glass that he is still unsure of how the fiasco began, nor can he stop of the fiasco. Holding true to the pattern, he forges on, hoping that the passage of time will bring a stop to the terrible madness. Luckily, time works its magic and eventually the fiasco ceases. The cop’s inability to articulate how or why the chaos started makes me wonder if the ephemeral realm of the fiasco clouds our sense of logic and perspective.
What makes us act so stupidly? What drives us to fumble and blunder? How can we stop it? Sometimes the universal order dictates our realities in uncontrollable and unfathomable ways. I adhere to the notion that in a fiasco, we must hold on and continue doing what we’re doing, no matter the blunders because only forces greater than us can save us from the chaos.
Act IV Fiascos as a Force For Good
Acknowledging helplessness in the face of uncontrollable chaos may not always be a bad thing. In the last act, Glass interviews journalist Margy Rochlin about her 1982 interview of Moon Unit Zappa, a prominent singer at the time.
The interview is not going well. Rochlin struggles to engage Zappa and initiate a comfortable flow of conversation until Rochlin decides to take a sip of her cup of coffee at exactly the moment Zappa tells her a funny joke. Rochlin purses her lips to prevent the coffee from flying out of her mouth. The closed lips only divert the coffee to her nose, where it shoots out all over Zappa and her living room. Rochlin begins to choke on some of the residual liquid left in her throat. Zappa’s mother rushes over from the corner of the room and performs the Heimlich maneuver on Rochlin.
This absurd sequence breaks down the previous awkwardness of the interview as Rochlin recalls it was like “[they’d] all been in an earthquake together.”This fiasco benefits all the participants involved and, unlike the previous three fiascos, serves as a force for good. If we cannot stop or truly comprehend fiascos, we might as well let them happen. Let them wreak the havoc they are going to wreak, and hope for the best. We need chaos and disorder in our lives. It serves to remind us that we are not in control of the universe. No matter how well we believe in the illusions of daily schedules, orderly apartment buildings, and planned cities, we are no match for the natural law of entropy.