Donald Freed’s George W. Bush Play:
PATIENT # 1
During five decades of a celebrated career, playwright Donald Freed has often asked “How shall we be saved?” In the starkly minimalist polemic of Patient No. 1 he posits an answer succinct and sure:
“We won’t be.”
Both Harold Goddard and Harold Bloom have argued that Shakespeare came to a similar conclusion:
“Is this the promised end? Or image of that horror?”
Patient No. 1 straddles a literary universe betwixt Lear and Strangelove. You can’t have G.W. Bush as one of three characters without the knavish smile of a fool grinning from ear to skeletal ear in the face of the absurd. Freed is after something more lasting than the regular bashing that attends our malaprop President. Malapropism is hardly the point when the Patient can only be coaxed to repeat a single phoneme during the first act of the drama. The Doctor becomes a 21st century Saussure as he attempts to reconstruct meaning from that single, simple sound. As he did with the character of Richard Nixon in Secret Honor, Freed discovers in the 43rd President a frailty that is all too pathetically human. The utterance in question is a breathtakingly moving moment in a play replete with them.
As 2009 begins its sojourn into 2010 the lights rise on the floorboards of a Floridian psychiatric facility that is home to a Doctor; a Secret Service Agent; and a Patient. The Patient is Patient No. 1, the former Commander-in-Chief, the 43rd President of the United States, George W. Bush.
The first statements of the Doctor are embittered exclamations. He punctuates each push of his tape recorder’s stop button with “sonofabitch” or “goddamn sonofabitch!” The prognosis is not good for either Patient or Doctor. Hurricane Xantippe is bearing down on the coast of Florida. When you understand that National Hurricane Center christens their storms in alphabetical order it becomes clear that the hurricane season at hand has not been hospitable. Perhaps the Kyoto Accords warranted greater scrutiny.
Aside from Xantippe, another storm is soon to flood the U.S. of A. That cataclysm is the “shit storm” that Freed has long foreseen as America’s judgment day. Reference is made to the firstattack on NYC—thereby implying a second. The country is close to Martial Law. The civil liberties that were severely tweaked under the last administration have been all but trashed under the new one. The military is fighting wars on multiple fronts and like the teetering legions of an earlier empire, is soon to topple.
In his seminal essay, The View from Lake Como, the author quotes Socrates’ summation to the Athens’ court that will condemn him:
“It is only a matter of time now before I stumble, and the Long Foot of Time overtakes me. We all run that race, my judges, and we all lose it in the end.”
At the beginning of the last century Henry Adams reflected on that foot in Victoria’s reach and empire:
“Rome was actual; it was England; it was going to be America.”
When a much defamed minister prays to “God damn America” we begin to suspect that the Long Foot of Time is not restricted to Florida’s coastline, but rather stretches “from sea to shining sea.” Among the family of nations, America has precipitated a modern alphabet soup of international disorder: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Santo Domingo, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Iran, Jamaica, Mozambique Nicaragua—all subject to our interference, covert or otherwise.
The Long Foot of Time extends to the microcosm of America’s premier patient. The sound of Mission bells is played off against the cacophony of a helicopter’s rotor and the roar of a dirt bike. The soothing music of distant waves contrasts with the howl of the approaching hurricane. The Doctor councils his Patient to think of his stay as a half time or rest period: “then back on the field. You leading the cheers—like always—like at Andover—like at Yale.”
The Doctor later confesses of belonging to the same fraternity as the President, Delta Kappa Epsilon: “Didn’t we burn it into the new boys’ butts with cigarettes? Rite of passage, that sort of thing, but your class got caught, ’68 and the New York Times called it “torture” in a headline—I have the clippings, here—and you were suspended—temporarily—but you fought back, said it was all just “Yale Tradition”—and so it was, so it was.”
From a nostalgia that is prelude to Abu Ghraib we are led to the first of two songs that straddle and define the play. Both are instrumental to our understanding of the Patient and the possibility of his cure. Song #1 is the Whiffenpoof Song dating from Yale of 09, the signature lyric of Act 1. It is a parody of Kipling’s poem, Gentleman-Rankers of 1892. Both employ the chorus of
“We’re poor little lambs that have lost our way, baa, baa, black sheep.”
The Yale version substitutes Gentleman Songsters for Gentleman-Rankers but both tellingly conclude with:
“Gentleman Rankers/Songsters off on spree, damned from here to eternity,
God ha’ mercy on such as we.”
Freed’s cultural reach is as deep as any artist currently working the Queen’s English. What song could be more therapeutically appropriate for a dry drunk President than a Yale drinking song whose subtext is the pathos of men soon to die in wars during the final decline of the English Empire! Kipling’s lyric begins with:
“To the legions of the lost ones, to the cohort of the damned.”
The Whiffenpoof counters with the more familiar:
“From the tables down at Mory’s, to the place where Louie dwells /
To the dear old Temple bar we love so well.”
The juxtaposition is astonishing. All the more so since Freed leaves the discovery of the subtext to his audience. War Presidents rarely attend military funerals—there is too much death to acknowledge. They would have to contemplate the “legions of the lost ones and the cohorts of the damned.
Toward the end of Act 1 the Doctor attempts to reach the Patient through a word association game that recalls sound bites from the inferno of the Patient’s subconscious: “Shock and Awe, Guantanamo, Skull and Bones… Waterboarding… White phosphorous… Organ failure… Osama Bin Laden, Gay marriage… The World Court, Hate Crimes… Harken Oil… Hurricane Katrina… Taking the gloves off… the late Saddam Hussein, Dick Cheney, the late Dick Cheney… Terror…Ter/ror—Remem/ber Ter/or? The Cheapest Word in the English language!”
Freed matches Orwell in his mastery of the governmental double speak of its agents. This he learned first hand from institutional harassment at various junctures in his storied career. The Agent attending the President rarely gets beyond “that’s a roger,” “affirmative,” “copy that,” or “decline to answer.” That even this citizen cyborg is individualized and given a quiet (if often hilarious) dignity is testament to the powers at work in the play.
In the second act the Doctor must enlist the aid of the Agent to break through to the Patient: “I’m going to do what I have to do—save this phony fucking frat boy war criminal—do it out of hatred for Them! But what I’m trying to tell you is that my hate and loathing for Them isn’t enough.” Those familiar with Freed’s Death of Ivan Ilych will recall the emphatic It that haunts thatdrama. In Tolstoy’s story It was the personal mortality of the dying protagonist. In Freed’s Patient No. 1, Them is the collective mortality stalking the world’s remaining superpower. The powers that be are those that have shaped the destiny of the nation since Whitman warned that the United States could become “the greatest failure of all time.” They are also the powers that shaped “Little George, George the 2nd –Junior, and My name is George, uh, I’m uh, an alcoholic…”
The Doctor emphatically pleads with the Agent for a hopeless compassion: “It is all over unless you can do something—out of love—for him!—Do you copy?… unless you give me this key—you’ll be out there naked, in the swamp, and the jungle, hauling the dead body, of the Commander-in-Chief, a half step ahead of an alligator…he’ll be dead, the phones and computers’ll be down— I’ll be gone… and no one in the City of Lies will know your name, Mr. Doe! He’s been a sleepwalker all his life… Never had a chance. They—the “Family” and the “Friends”—they put those chants and those cheers and that fake Texas accent in his mouth and they hard-wired him to steal the Presidency, steal the country, steal what’s left of the world’s oil and then this kleptocracy of kin folk programmed him to kill himself on that goddamn bike of his at Camp Victory—except that their perfect puppet started to actually believe the word salad that they had force fed him all those years, and he somehow got into his tortured—I say “tortured” reptilian brain that for some inscrutable reason Jesus Christ did not want him to die!”
The final exorcism is an attempt to free Bush and America—Vidal’s United States of Amnesia—from the mutual history of their bad faith. Roy Acuff’s Wreck on the Highway balances and refutes the Whiffenpoof insouciance of Act 1. Acuff’s prominence as the King of Country Music makes the lyrics of his song a chilling elegy not only for the Patient but, as well, for America. The theme of intoxication—blood and alcohol—returns with a telling vengeance. At the conclusion of the 1st Iraqi War, the road to Baghdad was christened: “the highway of death” for the massacre of retreating Iraqi soldiers. President George W. Bush will leave the U.S. Military still mired in the 2nd Iraqi War at his departure from office in 2008. Perhaps by 2010 he might contemplate the devastation to American lives that have, in his name, also been left on that highway. Freed imagines the President, the Doctor, and the Agent intoning a final lyrical interlude—the Patient’s last possibility of salvation—a nation enfolded in song:
“Who did you say it was, brother? / Who was it fell by the way?
When whiskey and blood run together / Did you hear anyone pray?
Their names I’m not able to tell you, / But here is one thing I can say:
There were whiskey and blood mixed together, / But I didn’t hear nobody pray.
I didn’t hear nobody pray, dear brother, / I didn’t hear nobody pray.
I hard the crash on the highway / But I didn’t hear nobody pray.
When I heard the crash on the highway, / I knew what it was from the start.
I went to the scene of destruction / A picture was stamped on my heart.”
Patient No. 1 and America have heard the wreck on the highway but will they acknowledge the picture stamped on their heart? On September 12, 2001 the major newspapers of Italy and France lead with the headlines: “We Are All Americans.” A day earlier, disparate cultures of the globe were conjoined in a tragedy beyond their ideologies or borders–a unity subsequently squandered in the wars and occupations that followed. The psyche of the President who precipitated those calamities faces a personal dissolution here at the conclusion of Freed’s play–can Humpty Dumpty be put back together again? The Doctor’s efforts fail. Apocalypse is Now. Bush swaggers with a cowboy’s gait and salutes Death from the velvet coffin confinement of a remembered Skull and Bones initiation rite. The stage direction reads: “Completely lost in his damnation he whirls out into the storm.” Freed ratchets up the tension between the dissolution of the Patient and the land fall of the hurricane. The human and natural elements are pushed to their extremity: “…outside the roar of the madman’s motor bike and his ghastly Rebel Yells merge into the fury of the storm.” Florida becomes the blasted heath of Lear’s “cataracts and hurricanes… striking flat the thick rotundity of the world”.
One of the great playwrights of our generation has given us one of its greatest plays. When Lear exhorts the elements to Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow! his furor at mortality becomes our own. As the world once believed we were all Americans, so Freed has led us to the discovery that we are each Patient No. 1. Famed for his political inquiries he gives us, at the last, a national nightmare resolved in the pathos of a decidedly human finale: “Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart that is sorry for thee.” Patient No. 1 is nothing less than the startling image of a horror stamped upon the heart of an unflinching masterpiece.
The Skirball Cultural Center has hosted the American premiere of Enrico Fink’s Lokshen–Patrilineare. This is a Jewish play but its human concerns are ones in which we all participate, Jew and Gentile alike. Indeed, the Iceman shares with his Hebrew brethren, the prepucial removal of an intimate piece of his epidermis. The Iceman’s surgery was one of medicinal romance, not communal ritual; a slice of life, as it were — not Levitical law. Fresh from the womb his genitalia appeared a tiny affair with little promise. At that early juncture he sensed that he might need all that heaven had provided and he was certain that he did not like the mad gleam in his doctor’s eye. His objections were ignored. Snip, snip. Slice, slice! The Iceman survived the mutilation but remains a goy to the gills. He attempts this review fortified with the remnants of a Lagavulin, a gift from a Jewish doctor who commiserates with his loss and his taste in scotch. Chop, chop. Chin, chin!
The notes for the drama note that the first word of the title, Lokshen refers to an Italian artist’s exploration of culture, presumably Enrico Fink. The second word, Patrilineare refers to the Greek root, patr – father. Patrilineage is the line of one’s progenitors. The protagonist is searching for the face of his fathers. During the course of an hour he will find hints and much that is inexplicable. His approach to meaning will include Yiddish folk songs, the lilting poignancy of a violin, and the haunting Hebrew of a Cantor’s hymns.
The play is minimalist. Before the lights have dimmed, a stagehand brings two stools to the stage. He returns with a boom box. He spends some time trying to find a plug. Finally, as if by accident, he discovers the audience. The audience discovers that the play has begun. The explorations of the evening are deeply personal. The audience is made to feel an afterthought. The protagonist is going to tell a story. Since we happen to share his theatre he might as well tell it to us.
He presents a photo, which we can not see. He models a coat that he does not wear. He finds a tailor’s receipt held once by a grandfather, now long since dead. With such fragments he assembles a story he can never truly tell and we can never truly fathom.
He believes his great-grandfather was born in a small Russian village that he guesses might be found “here,” on a map held within his mind that records only major principalities. He imagines the timbre of his grandfather’s voice. He attempts a melody the grandfather might have sung. He forces us to imagine an onslaught of Russian soldiers parting flesh from bone with drawn sabers gleaming in a noonday sun. He is disconsolate. Death is the province of the dead. Only by lying, as well, upon an ancient stone can we enter the consciousness of an Isaac awaiting a father’s sacrificial sword.
For a portion of the play the playwright / protagonist is companioned by a lady in a black. This is the gifted soprano, Susana Montal. Here, she accompanies a number of his songs on the violin. Her hair is pulled back. A pair of strands falls from each side of her forehead, suggesting the flow of blood but also, lifelines with which the protagonist might return to the living. She is, at once, an opaque and a sexually charged image. Ms. Montal is as expert a mime as she is a consummate diva — accomplished in silence and accomplished in song. Tonight she was called upon to play the stoic conscience of a race. It is a conscience that the protagonist will struggle to realize throughout the drama. Their interactions are as minimal as the two chairs that comprise the set – yet, the pairing of the violin with the protagonist’s tenor is the dramatic center of the piece.
The lady in black seems to operate at what the director / playwright, Donald Freed, calls a “lower level of abstraction.” Freed and Fink have pared away much of the musical scaffolding surrounding the play. A single musician is more dramatically a foil than the klezmer band that is usually employed. By accident and design this performance had a darker resonance than its European brothers.
The plaintive melodies issuing from the violin suggest a substratum of pain that the protagonist represses. At one point, Ms. Montal hovers over him as if her sexuality and violin were weapons threatening the sublimation he is powerless to discharge. If he is the suffering and death of millennia, then she is the Song of Solomon, that life will not gainsay.
The protagonist desires to tell the story of a past that he feels fated to share — the fate of the chosen and the doomed. He reads a poem about a pogrom in Russia from early in the 20thcentury. He understands that his grandfather immigrated to America at that same juncture. The poem describes the horrors of holocaust decades before the Holocaust. His songs suggest a suffering as old as Jewish memory and as young as his own. He will not speak of the fate of family members arrested in Mussolini’s Italy. That story demands to be told only in the screams that were never heard, screams that the protagonist can never stifle.
Enrico Fink is a gifted vocalist and writer. His moving tenor easily fills an auditorium without the assistance of a microphone. The word Auschwitz, however, is only approached in the hollowness of a horrified whisper.
Lokshen has graced over a hundred performances in Italy and Europe. Tonight was its U.S. premiere. Audience and actors are indebted to the vision of Patricia Rae Freed who marshaled its tenuous promise into the finality of production. Fink, Montal and the Freeds have sculpted monumental theatre with the merest of means. They performed before a capacity crowd. The Iceman salutes them each with the leavings of his Lagavulin. He commendeths them all,
THE ASSASSINATION OF HEINRICH REINBACH
The Assassination of Heinrich Reinebach is a new one act play written and directed by Lorinne Vozoff and presented by Theatre Group Studio at 2635 South Robertson, Los Angeles, CA.
Ms. Voszoff is a gifted protagonist who does a splendid job acting the singing role of the cabaret chanteuse, Lily. The setup is as familiar as the Café American with Vozoff doing duty as a Piafian Elsa to Emanuele Secci’s amalgamation of Bogart’s Rick and Dooley Wilson’s Sam. Secci is, however, prepared to stick his or Vozoff’s neck out for somebody (thing)—in this case, the Dutch resistance.
It is Lily’s last night in Amsterdam. She is offered the opportunity to flee unencumbered to Shanghai or to exacerbate her flight to freedom by assisting in an assassination plot unfolding before her. Heinrich Reinebach, a high ranking Nazi, has chosen to visit her cabaret. Heinrich is a nasty drunk whom the protagonists succeed in making drunker. No cognac is too rare for an antagonist being primed for the last call of the evening.
All this is straight forward enough but Vozoff has fashioned something more compelling than the limitations of her two character drama. Her most interior moments come as she stares into and through a mirror in her dressing room. This is a marvelous piece of stage craft. It becomes clear that we are sharing her reflection as the framing of the mirror faces outward to us—here, her brief recollections of mother, father, childhood, hope and disappointment become, heartbreakingly, our own.
This theme is further enlarged to include the ostensible villain of the piece, Heinrich Reinebach. He is heard on the sound track and addressed as if he were in the audience among us. The recorded menace of his voice allows us to share the reflection of the man she plots to murder. Vozoff’s addresses Reinebach on the existential plain that the audience occupies with him. He is in the audience with us—his vulnerability and his guilt is our own. The mirror motif is explicit—humanity is both executioner and executed and the ground of either is as morally ambiguous as the right to left reversal witnessed in the silvery shimmer of a looking glass.
With the exception of Chopin’s Fantasy Impromptu (and a German ditty that Heinrich requests) the music is comprised of six Kurt Weill songs, preformed live by Secci and Vozoff. Secci studied at the Vienna Music Academy. The Academy served him well–his keyboard artistry is one of the highlights of the evening. His gifts as musician are nicely complimented by his intensity as an actor. The music guides us through the drama. Each song is a telling (sometimes chilling) commentary on the action as it proceeds.
Our smaller theatres are a resource little acknowledged. Both actors are method actors. Vozoff’s excellence has ties to the world famous Group Theatre of New York. She was coached by founder Harold Clurman and continued her training with Jack Garfein. Garfein was a surviving teenage-inmate of Auschwitz. Sometimes the distance between theatre and fact is sadly minimal. Those seeking sustenance outside the multiplex will do little better than scheduling a Saturday evening visit to the Theatre Group Studio before performances of the play conclude on Saturday, August 2, 2008
THE DEATH OF IVAN ILLYCH
Donald Freed’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych was given its world premiere in Granville, Ohio at Denison University—April 16, 2004. The play begins at its conclusion. We hear a dying man’s final breaths. This is followed by the announcement of his death: “Gentlemen! Ivan Ilych has died.” We know from the outset (Tolstoy’s title, Smert Ivan Ilicha, is also a clue) that Ivan will not escape the fact of his mortality. In morphine-induced dreams, he remembers a syllogism from grade school: “Caius is a man. All men are mortal. Therefore Caius is mortal.” The play’s movement is from Ivan’s denial of being Caius: “But I am not Caius!” to his acceptance of being mortal. By evening’s end an audience that converged from New York to L.A. will share that assurance. One wishes the residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue had also made the pilgrimage. When death and carnage parade as patriotism it is not viscerally believed. The Death of Ivan Ilych is believable death. This was a remarkable evening of theatre—an evening of life and enlightenment.
Freed is renowned for a venerated oeuvre of political dramas. His lifelong devotion to literature has also produced lesser known productions concerning Socrates, Shakespeare, Stendhal and Joyce. At the behest of the Jonathan R. Reynolds Playwriting Residency he was been given rein to expand his literary mise-en-scene to the world of Leo Tolstoy.
This was a dream production. Dan Bonnell flew in from Los Angeles to direct. The set design was by Brad Steinmetz, the lighting by John Edward Ore, the evocative screen presentations were by Christian Faur and Trent Edwards and the sound designs by Andrew Johns and Dan Bonnell. Period costumes were nailed beautifully by Cynthia Turnbull and Sarah Casebolt. Freed’s words are in no need of embellishment (the play would be a thing of beauty on a bare stage) but here in Granville it is wonderfully augmented by the creative team assembled at Denison.
The piece is composed of a prelude and 17 scenes. These record Ivan’s inexorable decline and demise. The scenes are further delineated by months, seasons, and hours of particular days. Ivan enters Scene 1 as a master of his universe – a member of the Court of Justice – a judge who will come to judge his life with the same contempt that Tolstoy had earlier judged his own. Ivan is played with a ferocious intensity by the celebrated Jon Farris, the former longstanding chair of the Theatre Department. His is a performance that never flags, achieved with an integrity that never falters. His wife is played by the arch (though ultimately touching) Megan Long and their daughter by the lovely Elizabeth Martinez-Nelson. Ivan as a child is played by Rankin Langley who also bows a mean cello.
Freed finds moments of terror that lie beneath the subversion of language. Ivan’s “no, no” trails off into “O, O, O.” One is reminded of Lear’s “Never, never, never, never, never;” and Eliot’s: “O dark, dark, dark….” Farris made a minor career out of traveling down the dark corridors of Richard Nixon’s mind in Freed’s Secret Honor and later in Russell Lees’ Nixon’s Nixon. Here resignation isdeath and Farris’s silences are as harrowing as his howls.
From early childhood Tolstoy was well acquainted with death. His mother died when he was two, his father, seven years later, his grandmother, the following year and his beloved Aunt Aleksandra when he was thirteen. A young manhood of gambling and debauchery would prove as pointless a life as that which Ivan Ilych comes to reflect upon: “It’s all false from beginning to end… all lies.” And as if to anticipate the miseries of Tolstoy’s concluding years with Sofya Andreyevna, Ivan asserts to his wife: “We despised each other, like all married people!”
It’s at this moment that Freed places Ivan’s confession of Tolstoy’s vision of IT: “IT would come before me—would look at me. The court chambers would melt away, and only IT was there. Filling up the court, filling up the world… IT would pop up from behind a screen staring at me! And my side would start its gnawing–like an animal inside me! – IT would be peering out at me from behind the flowers or the window sill. Aghh! Now—do you understand? Do you?… You must! This is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Not the “truth” of the court but the truth of life!”
That pronouncement recalls a concluding passage, at the beginning of his career, from the third of his Crimean War sketches, Sevastopol in August: “the hero of my story—whom I love with all the power of my soul . . . who was, is, and ever will be beautiful—is the truth.” After completing his major novels, he underwent a profound emotional crisis. His wealth and fame seemed worthless in the face of “IT.” He renounced the churches of Christianity. He abjured miracles, sacraments and the immortality of the soul. He used proceeds from his novel Resurrection to assist the relocation of the Dukhobors to North America. Nine years before his death he was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church. He returned to the faith of Rousseau and the noble savage of his beloved Russian peasant.
Here Freed and Tolstoy give us Gerasim. As lovingly played by Vasilios Yani Koumandarakakis, Gerasim is uneducated but clearly the wisest and most humane character in the drama. When Ivan ponders what he has to leave his son he contrasts his own shallowness with the simple gifts that a farmer (or perhaps a carpenter) might bequeath: “What have I got to leave? What tools have I left? What can I leave my son?” And then, in a refrain that runs through most of the Freed canon: “…how to dance the dance of privilege and power to play at being judges and Gods when we weren’t even men.”
Although Tolstoy renounced Christ he never lost his affection for Jesus. Gerasim tends the dying Ivan with the tenderness of the Nazarene comforting the lepers. As Ivan descends into an imagined black bag held by his mother, Gerasim demands of Ivan’s demons: “Come out of the man.” The Christian symbolism shifts to Ivan when Gerasim anoints his feet and calves with a soothing liniment.
In one of the most devastating moments of the evening, and, I have no doubt, one of the most devastating in recent theater, Ivan imagines that Gerasim is his mother inviting him into the black womb of death: “Ah, I’m in – I’m in – mamma, I’m in – kiss me on the mouth!” The stage directions read: (Gerasim kisses Ivan on the mouth. Time stops for Ivan Ilych. He looks into the youth’s face and he sees: all the truth of Gerasim’s love; then his mother’s visage; then, Christ’s; and finally, Gerasim, again …Ivan Ilych arches—stiffens—stretches out—dies.)
Richard Wagner begins his Ring Cycle with a single sustained chord. From it the universe of Der Ring des Nibelungend is unfolded over the course of four evenings comprising a near 17 hours of music. Director Dan Bonnell concludes Freed’s one act drama with a transcendent chord—also, inordinately sustained. In it one feels Tolstoy’s universe and Freed’s 17 scenes enfolded. Gerasim blesses Ivan and touches a leather button on Ivan’s death bed that had been featured in one of the dying man’s reveries. Gerasim then picks up Ivan’s commode and moves offstage. We are left with the enormity of the gulf between these closing images. A detail of life — a leather button, once featured in a memory—and a detail of death—feces returning to the Russian soil as the chord and drama concludes.
Tolstoy would be amused (if not appalled) by our culture of celebrity. In his essays on history he castigates the notion of great men sculpting their recorded eras. That the world would celebrate fame without greatness would have, undoubtedly, confounded him. To Tolstoy an infinite array of causes is involved in any single event. To attribute these to a celebrated few was a falsity. In this is much of the torment of his own celebrated mind and the reverence in which he held the simple and the unaffected.
Ivan Ilych is a powerful man who, in the face of dissolution, is reduced to whimpering incontinence. Count Leo Tolstoy was Ivan Ilych—so are we all. Tolstoy was the radical conscience of his age. He refused to support the violence that is the hallmark of nations and empire. He was a vast mirror into which the 19th century was invited to gaze. Eyes that surveyed the age of Napoleon anticipated the abattoir that would become the 20th century: “After that, after, ah…it all becomes dark and black—faster and faster—days and nights…nights and days scurrying past like black and white mice—speeding by in an inverse ratio to the square of the distance from death.”
From the purview of a dramatic masterpiece equal to the literary one from which it was drawn, we are invited by Freed and company to contemplate the artless love of Gerasim, in anticipation of graves that in the 21st century will one day be our own.
THE WHITE CROW
Early in the fall of 2003, I traveled across a continent and an ocean to arrive at the Mercury Theatre, near the east coast of England , in the ancient municipalityof Colchester . The occasion of the journey was a production of Donald Freed’s The White Crow (Eichmann in Jerusalem ).
I had previously written an introduction to a collection of Freed’s plays published by the Broadway Press. The piece was called, after one of his plays, “How Shall We Be Saved?” The collection also contained my musing on the text of The White Crow. Anyone familiar with Freed’s oeuvre will understand its growing relevance to our current wars and demonologies. It was with an enthusiasm bordering on dread that I awaited the apocalyptic animation of Freed’s words upon the stage of the Mercury.
“White Crows” were Germans opposed to Germany ’s holocaustic descent and the race laws that preceded it. The psychologist Miriam Baum is fictional composite of intellectuals and moralists deciding the fate of Adolph Eichmann.
The death penalty in Israel is reserved only for Nazi war criminals. Eichmann was kidnapped in South America by Israeli intelligence operatives, shortly before his trial in 1960. The question the play poses holds as true for the captors as it does their captive. Dr. Baum seeks to salvage some semblance of humanity from the prisoner, Adolph Karl Eichmann. Can she persuade him to imagine the horrors of which he was complicit and call them to a halt? Can Dr. Baum conjure humanity from a monster? In a chilling scene, late in the second act, Dr. Baum calls upon Eichmann to stop the trains traveling to the death camps – to stop the gas flooding the death chambers. He can do neither.
The Israelis are called upon, as well, to stop the execution of a Nazi; to stop Eichmann’s inexorable march to the gallows. Both parties fail. One is not surprised at Adolph Karl’s limitations. When one resides at the bottom of humanity, one’s fall is but a step. The greater tragedy is for Dr. Baum and the Israelis. When captives become executioners a moral universe is traversed. The graveyards of Israel and Palestine are the current testament of that merciless exactitude.
Following the pattern of Aeschylus, the play is fashioned for two characters. A guard, played by Nick Waters, remains a silent witness for portions of each of the two acts. Dr. Baum is played by the lovely Holly de Jong and Eichmann by the remarkable Gerald Murphy.
On opening night the play was somewhat overwhelmed by the power of Mr. Murphy’s performance. Mr. Murphy reminded one of the tortured Quasimodo of Charles Laughton. His virtuosity brought the first act to such a distressing conclusion that the dynamics of the second act had, perhaps, too great a distance to traverse. Ms. de Jong rose admirably to the challenge but one felt this was a production still finding its legs and warranting another viewing.
I had that opportunity on Monday the 6th of October. Here Mr. Murphy’s performance took on the greater subtlety of an Emil Jannings and Ms. de Jong’s performance had risen in stature to the blue angel of a Marlene Dietrich. The first act was more slowly paced and allowed its audience a surer grasp of Freed’s themes.
The second act ratcheted up the drama with a pace that never faltered. Both actors allowed their performances the full expanse of their art and the result was devastating in impact. A fire set in a trash pail smoldered unrelentingly toward the close of the second act. The auditorium filled with smoke. The actors and the audience engaged the scenes as if from the lowest rungs of Dante’s abattoir. Each was implicated in a damnation visited upon all.
The production was consummately directed by Michael Vale. The lighting was designed by Emma Ralphs. The stage manager was Claire Casburn and the Technical Stage Management was overseen by Howard Smith. Special mention should also be made of the executive vice-president of Mercury Theatre, Dee Evans, who courageously marshaled the production to the stage. Ms. Evans is a visionary who is arranging lectures involving theatre at the Mercury and a circuit of plays concerning human rights. Plays by Pinter and Freed are planned. The White Crow was a remarkable initial foray into the theatre of thought and political meditation.
Once the production caught its stride it was an overwhelming marriage of performance and word. The richness of Freed’s text had come to startling life on the Mercury stage. The actors and their audience had become the “abstract and brief chronicles of time.” The ovations at curtain’s fall were proof of a brevity easily worth the distance each had traversed. Freed’s tragedy haunts the memory of the 20th century and attends the 21st in any political judgment too cavalierly convinced of the certainty of its own righteousness.
Susan Hussey’s play, “The Toxic Wave” has received the compliment of a hard cover edition from the University of Tampa Press. It is paired with Hussey’s earlier AIDS meditation, “The Dressing Room.” The Iceman fortifies himself with a single malt on ice, three fingers of water laced loosely upon libation. He reflects that to some the islely malt sparkling in his hand might be considered toxic – over a lifetime, probably so – though an evening’s refreshment troubles him little and is rarely denied.
The Toxic Wave begins with a conversation between Michael and Andrew. They are speaking from a changeless limbo seven years after their death. Their deaths were consequent of contact with a toxic chemical, identified as toximate. This contact took place while playing in an unsecured Dumpster behind a manufacturing plant, near their homes. The scene is short, well written and deftly sidesteps any temptation to cloy.
Seven of the fifteen characters have dual roles and one has a triple role. In Eliot’s notes to The Waste Land he indicates “that all women are the same woman.” Here Ms. Hussey’s mothers and fathers (of the dead children) are played by the same actress and actor. The two ostensible villains of the piece are played by the same actor. The wife of one of these is, as well, an investigator from the EPA and a reporter from a local newspaper. Each character is clearly delineated. The life of a live performance will be found in the nuances a competent actor brings to these doubles and triples.
Act 1 is comprised of five scenes and Act 2 of seven. Each illuminates a different time frame in a tragedy that unfolds across seven years. Each scene depicts participants of the tragedy at different points of this timeline. One of the mothers refuses to settle her law suit because her son would then become a canceled check. It is sadly apparent that even if pain is all that is left of remembered love, it is no less difficult to relinquish. The tragedy in The Toxic Wave is not one that took place on a single day, but rather one that has continued during each day of the seven years chronicled in the play.
The play starts in the eternity of the children’s limbo. It then coils backward in time to its penultimate scene, the discovery of the bodies in the dumpster. As a masterstroke Ms. Hussey saves her final scene for the “Night before the boys death / friends meeting before supper. The meeting takes place at the Dumpster. Michael and Andrew discuss aspects of their broken family lives. The parents, therefore, are also implicated in the tragedy. The children have been poisoned by more than toximate or if the pun is intended, precisely by toxi-mates. It is tribute to Ms. Hussey that each of her characters are drawn to share our common humanity. The seemingly least human character in the play, Bureaucrat Woman, is delineated as such because she speaks for the author: “I’m off the clock now, asshole. Buy a fucking lock.” In the theatre of advocacy, the audience will, no doubt, contemplate the dumpsters left unlocked in their own lives.
The last scene mirrors the first. In the first, the children play in the eternity of a shadowy afterlife. In the final scene, the children play within the eternity of a windswept summer evening, neither child suspecting this night to be their last.
The volume retails at $22.00. The single malt retails for considerably more. The Iceman is torn between the relative merits of the two. His advice will affect the lives of many. What purchase is the more morally imperative? Consult your local bookseller.