Listened to a wonderful reading of my play, Bachelor's Graveyard, yesterday. Five really fine actors: Rob Arbogast, Jon Zenz, Chad Coe, J.R. Mangels and Ryan Keiffner. Rob is playing the lead role. Really fascinating actor to watch. He has a monologue in the play about the Ali/Forman fight of 1974. The rumble in the jungle. The monologue is about 15 minutes long. It's a passionate monologue that starts out as a blow-by-blow account of that incredible (see the documentary When We Were Kings) boxing contest that occurred at three in the morning in Kinshasa, Zaire (the former Belgian Congo) and ends up as a tribute to a failed, fallen decade. I believe that is the moment when the turbulent sixties really ended. Not on new years eve of 1969, but on October 30, 1974, when Muhammad Ali reclaimed his stolen crown.
The monologue is a doozy. A play-killer in the wrong hands. Yesterday as I listened to Rob Arbogast do it I was reminded again what a really good actor can do with words. I was transfixed. He found the elusive, "illusion of the first time."
I knew when I wrote it how hard it was. In fact, I remember doing it myself after I'd finished it and thinking, "I can't even do this damned thing. How can I expect someone else to?" Well, he did. And it was apparent he didn't just pull it out of his ass and get lucky with it. There was a lot of work there. It is one of my favorite moments in the theatre; when an actor nails a piece of my writing so clearly and passionately. Nothing quite like it.
The play's original title was "Eddie Cobb Hung Himself Today." The name comes from a layover flight in Miami years ago. As we waited for our plane to land, there were a crowd of people enclosed in one section of the airport. Next to me were four or five teenage boys waiting for the same plane. I was evesdropping and they were discussing the one friend that apparently couldn't make the trip with them. His name was Eddie Cobb. I was amused to hear that none of them ever called him just "Eddie." It was always his full name, "Eddie Cobb."
The play is about being 18 years old again and, impossibly, having a curious and rather brutal idea of what life has in store for us at that age. About what none of us can see...the metaphoric car wrecks and accidental monsters that await us in life. The idea that the people we love, the people that shape us, can die before us. That they will not always be there. The quick decisions made, seemingly random, that inform the rest of our lives. In some ways, that is what all of my plays are about. I'm fascinated with that theme. Maybe because I'm getting older.
As I mentioned, I attended a gathering on Saturday with a lot of folks I hadn't seen in nearly thirty years. Upon entering, one of the guys there came up to me and offered to take the stuff I held precariously in my arms. We had done a play together three decades ago. I could see in his eyes that he thought I was just Angie's boyfriend, some guy that she was dating perhaps, that happened to just come along. I had obviously changed so much physically that he quite literally didn't know me. It put me in mind of the theme from Bachelor's Graveyard. In an instant he saw not the hopeful, arrogant, desperate, fearless kid he had done a play with so many years ago, but instead saw a balding, aged, somewhat resigned guy that has clearly lived a life chalk-full of accidental monsters and incidental happiness. I was intrigued by his lack of recognition rather than offended. Because it was a theme upon which I dwell in my work. And here it was as a microcosm. Two people going from 22 to 49 in one moment. In an instant recognizing the 27 years of wreckage that life can hand us. And treating it with a passing nod as to its significance.
I never think of myself as a forty nine year old man. When I dream I'm always around thirty or so. I don't know about other people and their dreams. Maybe that's when I felt best about myself. I don't know. When I was thirty I was living in Queens, NYC, jobbing from one theatre to the next, a heavy and unapologetic drinker, secure with who I was and clueless about the ravages of time and the joy and disappointments life held in store for me. Ignorance was indeed bliss.
I am not the only one to obsess on this idea. Songs, novels, poems, plays...I'm certainly not the first to cover it. It's nothing new. Woody Allen recently said in an interview that he works not for awards or recognition, not even for satisfaction in his artistic life. No, he works to keep the images of death at bay. He works to keep from living day to day in constant terror of what happens when we die. He said, "If any of us had any idea how quickly we were rushing toward the void, we would be too terrified to get out of bed everyday." That's why he works. In a sense, that's why we all work.
This is where, of course, faith plays a hand. I don't have a faith as most people define it. I have only resignation. I do not believe in a better place for the dead. I believe in the necessity of hiding and dodging and grappling with the accidental monsters lying in wait today. I believe in the inevitable.
I've recently, not coincidentally, had a few close friends die. Robert Fiedler, an actor I started out with in NYC, Carol Provoshna, a fine, comedic actress with whom I did a lot of work, a buddy from Chicago succumbing to Cancer. They are in the void before me. Making their way through Shakespeare's Undiscovered Country. They were living, laughing, thinking people that I consciously chose to be my friends. I feel certain we must have talked about death together at one point in our lives. We were close. Now they know something that I don't. They know something I don't care to know. They either don't exist anymore or are stepping gently through another journey of which I have no concept.
In Bachelor's Graveyard one of the characters says, "I don't know why there's so much hurt in the world. I wish I did." I'm beginning to think I don't really care for that line. Because I'm glad I don't. I don't know why some are taken and some are not. I don't know why I'm sitting here typing this blog right now when I've misspent a lifetime placing myself squarely in the midst of harm. I don't know why the random, savage and gentle episodes of life have spared me. I only know that people die, people move on, people age, people intersect and sometimes they wander across a determined path and end up eating a fruit salad together at a painted picnic table twenty-seven years later. And they don't even know each other anymore. They go, in an instant, from sharing a joint or drinking the same champagne and laughing about the same oddities to being older, wiser, frightened people in a stranger's backyard.
And somewhere deep, deep, deep inside we think, "Who's next?" At least I do.
See you tomorrow.