At the end of Eugène Ionesco's The Killer, which closes this weekend at Theatre for a New Audience's spacious new home in Brooklyn, something happens that everyone in the audience knows will happen: The hero, Berenger, confronts the killer, a silent figure with a knife whose face we can't see, whose only response is a wordless snicker.
The wordless presence provokes Berenger to launch a monologue that's notoriously long and demanding, an epic challenge for the actor. (Being involved, I must recuse myself from praising Michael Shannon's performance of this scene, but people I respect have told me they rank it among their greatest theatergoing experiences.) The scene sharply divides audience response. People who don't get the play find it predictable and repetitive; those on its wavelength, myself included, sit totally enthralled.
I can understand the negative reactions: The event of the scene is indeed predictable: We know that Berenger isn't going to win this one. Like all of us, he's ultimately going to have to face the reality of his own death, though strictly speaking Ionesco ends the play before it occurs. But though the event's inevitable, the substance of the scene isn't. Certainly Berenger's need to stave off his own death remains an unspoken subtext. Actors trained in Stanislavsky's method would call it his superobjective — his overarching goal throughout the play. Instead, Berenger's objective, his ostensible goal in the scene itself, is to learn why the Killer kills. The action's a guessing game, in which he offers a series of possible motives, supplying a counter-argument — plus what he sees as a viable alternative, for each. (These latter attempts at liberal problem-solving get more extravagantly absurd as the speech goes on.)
With the unspoken fear of death always hanging over him like a gigantic black cloud, Berenger's efforts will manifestly get him nowhere. But his manic temporizings make a great surrealist cartoon, a scrambled-egg history of Western thought that's also, simultaneously, a portrait of the dark confusions inside Berenger's scrambled brain.
It's while Berenger moves toward this inner darkness that I start to feel my own unnerving kinship to him. "Maybe you think the whole human race is no damn good," he tells his snickering opponent. "Man is an unhealthy animal and always will be, no matter what he achieves...so that you're trying to practice a kind of universal mercy killing."
These grim notions of human life didn't originate with Ionesco. Back at the beginning of modern political philosophy, in 1651, Thomas Hobbes suggested that without civilized law to bind us together, humanity would live "in continual fear of violent death," making every life "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." (The last three words became one of Western culture's catchphrases: In Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera, Mrs. Peachum quotes them to Macheath as he's on his way to the gallows.)
Hobbes, advocating a civil accord among all classes as an alternative to the horrors of this "natural state" of humankind, was writing in exile in France while civil war raged in England. One wonders what he would write if he were here to read the front page of The New York Times every day, as I do. Three hundred sixty-odd years later, this is where centuries of efforts to build a civil accord have gotten us. While overpopulation and overconsumption slowly destroy the planet, Islam is fighting its version of the Thirty Years' War in the East, while over here the disturbed young increasingly wield weapons against their peers, without even sectarian dogma to justify their actions. A Times story last week on the failures of the mental health system in tracking troubled adolescents was headlined "Little Help or Hope for Sons with Violent Tendencies." I assumed at first that it was a sidebar to the story directly above it, on the fighting in Iraq.
From the point of view of those who find The Killer predictable, I suppose this is all old news too. Humans have for centuries been using the pretext of civilization to commit uncivilized acts; our speeded-up electronic communications have simply intensified our rapid descent into incivility. If I seemed grouchy in last week's column about Ayad Akhtar's underestimation of the troubles the heroine of The Who & the What would face if she published the novel he imagines her writing, about the love troubles of the Prophet, it's because I know there are people, in the Islamic world, struggling to understand the complications that world faces.
Akhtar's characters are Pakistani-Americans. By an odd coincidence, I happen to be one of the few Americans ever to have seen Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House performed by Pakistani actors, in Urdu. I was a guest critic at the biennial Ibsenfest, when Norway's National Theatre brings in Ibsen productions from around the world. To see the play transposed into Muslim culture, and superbly performed, was a tremendously moving and enlightening experience. When I think of Pakistan, I think of the fine artists who created that production; and then I think of people who believe that setting off bombs in crowded marketplaces, or jumping on school buses to shoot little girls in the head, somehow constitutes a meaningful act. And then I realize that I am talking like Berenger, and nothing that I say will stop the killer.
Michael Feingold's next two-part "Thinking About Theater" column will appear on consecutive Fridays August 15 and August 22.