Each of The Driving Force’s two acts is essentially a monologue - the first featuring a son addressing his now vacant-eyed father who is daily deteriorating from Alzheimer’s, a now-receptive father who can no longer verbalize the criticism he showered on his son.
Visiting thrice weekly to wash and groom his father, Claude, a successful playwright at 55, speaks his truth to the captive audience: an audience that cannot react or respond to what is being said, in essence “paying him back, day after day, for his pointless speeches” and endless rants. Claude accuses the wheelchair-bound Alex, 77, of innumerable failures as a parent - a bully, a boorish, drunken know-it-all, ever on the lookout for the flaws of others, his selfishness and destructive nature a burden to his unhappy family.
Drawing on the anguish of a lifetime, Claude spews out his hurt and disappointment, the helpless rage of being systematically ignored by his father: “I write crazy, badly constructed, wildly lyrical plays… and you can’t even appreciate them or dismiss them… the way that you did with everything I’ve ever written.”
Most startling for Claude is the terrible realization that he needs his father to remain alive as the object of his vitriol, the source of the creative spark that informs his work. The words of his plays are birthed from that central core of rage, the driving force of his life.
While his father is alive, even in this reduced state, Claude can justify the rage that drives him, fearful that if his father dies or he gives in to an urge for forgiveness “[i]t will leave a hole in the heart of my being.” Immediately following this realization is an equally powerful desire to murder the man who has engineered the enormous pain of his existence.
Act Two reverses the roles, Claude suffering from aphasia, Alex performing the same tasks, cleaning and grooming a lifeless body. The bitter Alex rails against his son’s unremitting selfishness, his sick need to wound with the words of his plays, the father’s perspective tainted by self-interest and an inability to take responsibility for the wrongs done to his family. Alex comes as well to a moment of forgiveness, followed by the same consuming rage and overwhelming urge to destroy his son.
Balancing these very different viewpoints, the playwright exposes the men’s lack of communication and convoluted expectations, their perceptions skewed by emotional needs and editorialized memory. Yet the likenesses are more profound than their differences: physical similarities and an innate desire to bridge rancor for a modicum of acceptance after a lifetime of enmity.
At the end of each act is the ultimate piece de resistance as first son, then father return quickly to the room, pulling the door open in case the other is faking his illness and concomitant unavailability. The Driving Force is a brilliant examination of a complicated relationship, fraught with dissonance and unfulfilled yearning.