Okay, at the very first my reaction was “Really? What the hell is the point of asking, anyway?” Then I ruminated on it, cuddling the idea until it gained weight. Out of all the questions/subjects in human history, this is probably the thorniest. To wit: Do you think about death? And, if so, what are your thoughts? And how do you, as a playwright, treat your characters who die?
The question was asked by a playwright. God knows what spurred him on to dump this onto Facebook, but he did. And, of course, it being Facebook, folks responded. Mostly serious, nearly all earnest. I think there was one who responded with tongue mischievously planted within cheek.
I sound dismissive. I, like most self-aware, sentient beings, understand death to be inevitable. (It's actually the very last thing on my bucket list.) It's gonna happen. Only questions are when and how.
Having come pretty close to sharing a hot fudge sundae with Death on several occasions, I think I have a passing familiarity. When I was a kid, I had asthma bad enough to close my airways down far enough keep me in an oxygen tent for two weeks. The doctor who did my tonsils when I was five fucked it up big time and I was ambulanced back in to Lenox Hill Hospital toot-fucking-sweet to stem some kind of out of control infection. (Because of my childhood proclivity to contract all sorts of stupid medical ailments, Lenox Hill became my home away from home and I knew all of the nurses in pediatrics by name.)
I had five concussions by the time I was eleven. (And NO, it was not from physical abuse. I was a first-class klutz. I once fell off the damn doctor's exam table when I was five and landed square on the noggin. These are the days before litigation became as commonplace as therapy.)
Three bouts of pneumonia by the time I was eight. When I was nine I contracted viral meningitis. I was in hospitals so much I came to think of them as normal places for any kid to be. To this day I find them soothing and safe. My parents heard from doctors more than once not to plan on keeping the college fund open. Nurses, who kept me from being frightened, who stayed up with me and played games with me and made sure I was okay and sat with me when my Mom and Dad weren't there . . . they are the noblest humans on the planet; they are my goddesses of goddesses.
Moving on. I was almost decapitated on the number one train. My appendix burst right before the surgery. A giggling four year old girl tossed a live mortar at me one sunny day in Baghdad. My wife and I were hit by lightning in Quebec.
Any one of these could have led to a greasy end. How do I feel about death? Like I've cheated it a few times. Like there's a big bill accruing. Like whoever is eventually gonna collect is deliberately fucking with me.
So when someone asks how I feel about killing off my characters, I respond with curiosity. I mean, how should I feel?
I've expounded to those within earshot any number of times about being a playwright and playing God by creating virtual life forms on the page. Characters with feelings, pasts, motivations, fears, loves, etc, whatever resembles real soul-possessing humanity as closely as possible. Because that's what we do: we create viable souls. To me, in my head, my characters are real. They exist. In reality, they do not. Thank you, Dr. Phil, but I know the difference.
And should I have occasion to end their literary corporeal existence, I do so with what I hope is good reason. Death is, simply, a truthful functionality. They die because that is what is supposed to happen. All things die. They die because they are meant to. I can only hope they die at the right time and for the right reason.
To me, Death is not a convenient device, it is a logical end to a character. It is not used to be efficient, to remove a body from a stage, to lean down a production. It is used because that device of death for that character-soul is an integral part of the whole (plot). That death, as every death should, resonates throughout the work and creates ripples in the plot that others now have to deal with.
Again I come back to a topic all too familiar when dramaturging a work: what, as opposed to the playwright's own particular desires and wishes, serves the play itself? More than a few times I have had to seriously reflect on what I'm scribbling down: is it my wish as “a playwright with desire and ideas” that it should happen THIS WAY or is it the play itself's dictation that X should bite the big one? Most of the time I know, deep down, behind the initial surprise, that it's right because I have that feeling of logical completion. Only once have I been perturbed by the play telling me of the need for a character to shuffle off this mortal coil, and it took this path:
Discovery: Oh fuck. Really?
Denial: Oh, fuck no. Not you. Dude. I like you.
Anger: Fuck this shit!
Bargaining: Oh fuck, can I rewrite . . .?
Depression: Oh fuck. The rewrite's bullshit. I hate this writing thing. I'm no good. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck!!!
Acceptance: Ohhhh . . . fuck!! Wait a minute . . . this works!!!
So I guess my answer to the question of how I think about my characters who are no more, who have ceased to be, whose metabolic processes are now yeah yeah yeah is simply:
This is your job. You are dead. Since you are dead in one of my plays, you'll probably still have lines. You'll have a really creepy makeup job. This is theatre, remember. Dead people on stage are pretty cool. Think about it: from Hamlet senior to the Woman in Black, you're the character who most likely lucked out, cuz you get to provide the spine chills and the bad dreams. You're dead, yes, but you're lucky.
The author Terry Pratchett passed away last week. I'd read all of his books at least twice each. His characterization of Death was the personification of the Grim Reaper: cloak, hood, skeleton, scythe. SPOKE IN ALL CAPS. Classic freaky anthropomorphication a la Dickens and many others. And yet this Death had a large part of humanity within him, although he didn't quite know it. He did his job ruthlessly and efficiently, yes. He took whomever was next on his list and cut them loose from life as we know it with dutiful precision. He was, for the vehicle that moved you on, rather non-threatening. He had a sense of humor. And a profound sense of sympathy.
What do I think about Death? I hope Pratchett was right.