Viral, Tolstoy, Rattlers and Imaginative Empathy

(Photo: Deborah Alexander)

“The awful, terrible act of his dying was, he could see, reduced by those around him to the level of a casual, unpleasant, almost indecorous incident…and this was done by that very decorum which he had served his whole life long.”

–from The Death of Ivan Ilyich, by Leo Tolostoy

“Since you’re already planning to take your own life, there’s something you can do that will make a lot of lonely people very happy.”
-From Viral, by Mac Rogers

I built up this little fantasy for myself. That she suffered. You know? That she knew she was going to die and she couldn’t stop knowing it. And she tried to find peace in the lord, but she was too scared. I saw her laying on the asphalt in a pool of her own blood there knowing she was going to die, like a train was headed for her and she couldn’t get out of the path. And I almost couldn’t live thinking she suffered like that.
-From Rattlers, by Johnna Adams

“How can they still have war?”
It took me a few seconds to leap across the conceptual gap between the highly personal and particular conversation we’d been having and this eternal conundrum.
“They couldn’t,” I told her, “if they felt the loss of each life the way you are feeling this one.”
How could that happen? How could those who make and profit from war be given the opportunity to experience the fullness of loss created by their enterprise?
-From Arlene Goldbard’s talk at the NET Summit

(Cheery start to a post, no?)

First, go see Gideon’s production of Mac Roger’s Viral. There are liable to be some spoilers in what follows, but it’s a play worth much discussion. Here I want to talk about how it mirrors The Death Of Ivan Illyitch, and how these works, and Johnna Adams Rattlers, serve as one possible answer to Arlene’s question.

For more on The Death Of Ivan Illyitch, go here. Done? Then let me add that reading this novella my Freshman year of college was a shattering experience. The terror Ivan feels at the certainty of his death and the waste of his life haunted me for weeks. The uneasy truce I’d made with my own mortality years back was broken, and I felt again, keenly, the size of loss in a single death.

Viral is a mirror of Ivan Illyitch: where Tolstoy gives Ivan a Christian rapture, Mac gives Meredith a secular redemption; where Ivan runs from death, Meredith runs towards it; where Ivan’s death causes his estrangement from his community, Meredith’s draws her into one; where Ivan’s dying is linked to spiritual awakening, Meredith’s is linked to sexual awakening.

Both stories, however, do not sugar coat the terror of death, sought or not; and both make the audience feel the full and final loss of a single life. It is their unyieldling focus, and there is no refuge of sentimentality to soften the blow.

Why? Why shatter that truce with mortality and open our mind to that terror and pity? Because these plays stand in direct opposition to the way death is portrayed in our mainstream culture. Heroes stride through fields bloodied with faceless villains; detectives stoically unravel violent crimes with those who bear the loss treated as scondary characters; grandparents are carried off by flights of angels all singing “it was their time”. Death and murder are portrayed as necessary, even heroic, parts of life; and little time is spent with the nameless, faceless dying; unless of course, they die with violins and a twinkle of wisdom in their eye.

It’s no wonder – it feels better to think of death and murder as necessary – but only one of them is inevitable. In our urge to take the sting out of death, our stories have taken the sting out of murder, and war persists as an inevitable and heroic thing:

“War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.”
-Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

History bears out the Judge’s claim. But maybe the imaginative empathy I experienced through Viral and The Death Of Ivan Illyitch, those experiences that make me seemingly incapable of watching action movies without uneasiness and pain, maybe they can (as Arlene believes) actually save us.

Which brings us to Rattlers, Johnna’s play that feature two men dealing with the death of the woman both loved more than the world itself. The quote above comes too late, of course – the murderer finds the remorse of empathy only after the fact – only when he is alone with her dead body. And maybe that’s what we need more of in the theatre, painful as it is – plays that take all the wounded and dead together and put them in the room with us; so that we cannot escape witnessing their question.

This is not a license for bleakness – far from it. Rattlers and Viral only work because they are filled with humor, light and hope. Nor am I calling for an end to action movies. But we cannot deny the extraordinary power the stories we tell each other have over our actions. And right now, I think we need more stories like Rattlers, Viral, and The Death of Ivan Illyitch.

So go see it!

Leave a comment