Who Pays Death and Does He Take Checks?

Last night I made a ramshackled and abortive effort to turn my bedroom into what was supposed to be a cross between an Edwardian style tearoom and an opium den with my treasured, bamboo-handled teapot, Lebanese Hookah and my most recent extravagant purchase: my imported, Al Fakher mango and molasses shisha fresh from the United Arab Emirates. No doubt slave labor was used to harvest my shisha, but if it’s all good with the International Olympic Committee and the International Federal Football Association—otherwise known as, “FIFA”—then who am I, a citizen of the post-Golden Age, Anarcho-Capitalist, Neo-Roman Empire, United States of America to raise a haughty eyebrow? I wasn’t building my own Edwardian opium den to make a social statement (and I think I can say with some certainty that nobody has built their own opium den of any fashion with the intention of making a social statement or just good intentions in general), I just wanted to have my own private tea party and smoke in my house without my mom catching me. Shortly after the construction process was over and my glorified pillow fort was complete, everything that could have possibly gone wrong immediately went wrong.

The fire alarm went off several times while I was trying to sit back in my favorite hourglass armchair—one with those broad backs and no arms. I like the design because I can sit and play guitar without any armrests getting in the way of my monster solos. But don’t let me be mistaken for an hourglass-loyalist, I grew up in a family that has been in the antiques trade since we buried all of our silver during the French and Indian War and I do love me a good old fashion wingback armchair. I think it’s in my Puritan DNA to not only like but also to go so far as to prefer to fall sleep sitting straight up in a wingback armchair. Comfort be damned! Only a dirty, unhousebroken Papist would fall asleep lying on the horsehair couch in the middle of the parlour! How gauche.

Somewhere in between setting my bed on fire and shouting frantic apologies to my mother—who came home from work way earlier than she usually does—over the screams of every fire alarm in the house, I figured out what I wanted to explore in my final paper: DEATH!

Death, personified as a character, has always fascinated me. I imagine him as a tiny grim reaper with a jovial skull for a face; or at least as jovial as a skull can be. He’s got on a tiny black robe with a pointy hood and little skeleton hands in which he holds his comically oversized scythe. Since I was very young I’ve always loved to draw and color. I’m a doodler, as John Lennon once put it. I’ve always loved drawing comics and to this day I write, draw, create my own comic books. I was 13-years-old I came up with this funny comic book version of Death. I imagined him to have the comical demeanor of an ex-cop: jaded and bored with clocking in his crumby hours, century after century and fighting with fools who try to cut deals with him. I thought, man, if Death were a real guy, he’d probably be so sick of people challenging him to chess. I bet Death looks at his watch and impatiently taps his foot while he rolls his eyes every time some pseudo-intellectual melodramatically coughs up his excruciatingly contrived last words. And yet in the Judeo-Christian tradition, Satan is the one who is supposedly punished by being kicked out of paradise. Not even Satan has to deal with the monotony that Death does. Satan gets to do cool stuff. In “Dr. Faustus” Satan shows up in Faustus’ study with his friends Mephistopheles and Beelzebub. Satan not only gets to have friends, he gets to be Lucifer, King of Hell. Satan has dedicated fans like Ozzy Osbourne and sweet AC/DC songs to jam to on his throne in the Inferno. Nobody is a fan of Death. Only crazy people worship Death. At best, many cultures have a healthy respect for the man—I imagine him as a man because symbolically in contrast to men, women give life so it makes sense that the job of taking away life would be a done by a man but this is just my own personal characterization of Death. Interestingly though, in the Hindu tradition the female goddess Kali is the goddess of Death. In Hinduism, Kali is respected and worshiped as the Goddess of Death and there are even factions of the religion who are devoted followers of Kali specifically. But Western Society is based so heavily in the Judeo-Christian tradition that our relationship with Death is much more timid than in Eastern Society and other world cultures.

I had a history professor once who explained to me that Western Civilization is based on Greek Philosophy, Roman Law, and the Judaic tradition of Monotheism, which is the inspiration for the big three Abrahamic Religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In my own existential interpretation, I’ve come to think of life being defined by death because without death, then we probably would not have a word for life. Aristotle describes humans as, “featherless bipeds” but he said that we were much more than that because unlike all other animals we had cognition and the ability of conceptualized thinking. Immanuel Kant described humans as, “rational agents.” To put this into the context of my paper: unlike animals, humanity has this ability as rational agents to understand the concept of death in complex ways. Our study of death, if you will, goes well beyond philosophy, science and religion. Humanity’s complex relationship with death quite often is the subject of art and in particular it could be argued, makes its way into the majority of theatre because it is the eternal conflict. In man’s own dramatic narrative, Death is the ultimate antagonist. Whether or not he is manifested onstage, Death is still very much present. Everyone could survive at the end of a play and yet death could still be a threatening influence on the characters actions. Nobody dies in Aphra Behn’s, “The Rover” and yet Death is still a factor in the drama. When considering her father’s wish that she marry old man Don Vicentio, Florinda and Hellena pros and cons and one of the big pros is that he’ll inevitably die shortly after the marriage so the pain of being married to an old man will not last all that long. This seems a superior alternative to marrying Don Antonio who is young, strong, and unlikely to die anytime in the near future. In all artistic mediums, man wrestles with his mortality. This is a common theme in Western theatre. In theatre, we are able to personify death and turn the concept of death into a character and on stage we try to come to terms with Death and how it relates to us as individuals living in Western Society through the lens of Judeo-Christian tradition.

I think that the reason why “Everyman” is an important play to teach is because it is my opinion that the device of the personification and characterization of concepts is utilized most effectively in theatre more so than in any other artistic medium. In the simplest of arguments, theatre is a medium in which an audience sits and watches real humans in real time perform. This is in complete contrast to film in which the audience is completely separated from the action that is taking place on the screen. When an audience sees a play like “Everyman” in which Death is a character and engages in dialogue with another character, the dramatic tension is much higher in a live performance rather than presented on a screen. The audience is literally in the room with Death.

Once film was mastered and became an artistic medium around the turn of the century, the purpose of film was to bring to the audience a reality that was not their own. Early films were silent and thus relied on visual spectacle. Film was supposed to be magic brought to life on screen. Every nerdy nerd film student knows Georges Mêlées’ 1902 film “A Trip to the Moon” in which a bunch of wizards build a rocket and go to the moon and slaughter all these aliens with their umbrellas. Sensationalism was the name of the game before the French New Wave started the trend of realism in the 1960’s. Every film student is drawn to film because film offers one the ability to create a world that is unhindered by reality. Writing be damned! Everybody set your phasers to kill and let’s go blow up the Death Star! In stark contrast, the world of theatre, including musicals, exists very much in the limitations of reality and it is the reflections on everyday life that still draws us to the theatre in an age when literally anything is possible in the cinema. It is because anything is possible in film that the power of having Death as a character is greatly lessened. To this day, theatre is the best medium in which to personify concepts.

I have always wanted to write a play in which Death was a character. I’ve even written some rough drafts that were about Death’s relationship to Satan and God. I’ve always wondered, “Who pays Death?” Who is Death working for? Death is a much more mysterious character than Satan if we are talking about the two in the terms of Judeo-Christian reality. I find Satan infuriating. Lucifer was kicked out of paradise and now he collects the souls of those who are unworthy of eternity in paradise. For the consideration of this paper, I will pretend that I am satisfied with Marlowe’s ideas about Satan that he expresses in Faust. Faustus asks Mephistopheles, “What good will my soul do thy good lord?” And Mephistopheles answers, “Enlarge his kingdom…Solamen miseris socios habuisse doloris.” It is a comfort to the wretched to have companions in their sorrows; i.e., misery loves company. For the sake of keeping this paper under a billion pages long, I am willing to accept this interpretation of Satan’s intentions. As Nietzsche put it, “In heaven, all the interesting people are missing.” Combine that with Nietzsche’s other famous quote, “Gott ist tot,” and we’re talking about paradise being one pitifully unexciting and downright boring place. And around the same time that Everyman and Faustus were published, Machiavelli said, “In hell I shall enjoy the company of popes, kings and princes, but in heaven there are only beggars, monks, hermits and apostles.” From an actor’s perspective, what thinking about Death has made me realize is that if we can make an anthropological case study of the Christian and Jewish cultural relationship with Death, then we can also apply the same questions to any character we may play.

Playing Duvid in “A Shayna Maidel” I spent a lot of time thinking about Duvid’s background as a devout Jewish young man. It was difficult to find a place to start because I am French Huguenot: the greatest cowards, traitors, and deserters in history. To Papists and Witch Burning Puritans alike: we’re the scum of the Earth. The French Huguenots are the ultimate foil to the Jewish people as far as persecuted European minorities are concerned. My family ran the hell away from every corner of Europe and the Colonies long before anybody even had the chance to politely ask us to leave. My family changed our name, religion, and citizenship, as many times as possible before ultimately fleeing at the first whiff of persecution where ever we happened to be pretending to be invisible at the time. The Esten family spinelessly slunk our way out of Alsace-Lorraine, Holland, England, The Massachusetts Bay Colony, and Rhode Island, all out of our insane fear of death, which is healthily practiced to this day. The unofficial family motto is, “Leave before you get stabbed. Nothing is worth dying for and if one of these violent psychos is right and it turns out that there is a God, keep your fingers crossed at the gates and hope that St. Peter’s a soft grader.” I’m sure it sounds way more majestic in Latin. As cowardly as our family M.O. is, it has brought us nothing but success in the New World. This decade, the Estens celebrate 400 years of paying other people—mostly the Irish—to fight in our place in every war ever fought for the glory America! Our cowardice has been nothing short of rewarding: the average life span of an Esten is just shy of a full 100 years. One may call it cowardice. I call it integrity! Five centuries of unbroken dedication to self-preservation. If that isn’t integrity, then I don’t know the meaning of the word. I like to imagine that one of my ancestors—most likely some dumb Alsatian dirt farmer named Francoise Van Der Von Schnitzelwolf Di’Este—once upon a time said to himself, “Martyrdom is stupid. I’m not dying a city called ‘Worms’!” Thus sealing our fate as Europe’s most elusive undesirables. And so, with my DNA consisting of believing in absolutely nothing and having a ridiculously over the top fear of death I asked myself, “what is Duvid’s relationship with death? And how does it change throughout the play?”

At first I thought I had nothing in common with Duvid on the surface so I started big: we were both mortal. “What is his relationship with Death? And how does that relationship change?” I thought that the answer to these two questions were essential to my portrayal of the character and understanding of Duvid from a deeper psychological perspective. I had never thought about this before when playing other characters but it seemed like a great actor question that was applicable and pertinent to approaching and analyzing any character one might play. What is any character’s relationship with Death and how does it change and how does this potential change affect their behavior and psychology and interactions with other characters? It seems to me like a great place to start because the question applies to all characters in all plays. Even immortal characters. If I were to play Dionysus in The Bacchae, I would take the time to consider what it would be like to be unencumbered by Death. How does being immortal affect the psyche of a God? Immortality is what ultimately sets man apart from Gods. I think that a character’s relationship with death is integral to who the character is. Duvid was a young, devout, Jewish man. His fearless approach to life was what struck me upon my first reading. I wondered, where does this fearlessness in the face of certain annihilation come from? I started studying Judaism. I learned that Duvid wasn’t preoccupied with getting into heaven or staying out or Hell. Whereas in contrast, a similarly devout young Polish Catholic man during this time period would have been defined by these preoccupations. In discovering what Duvid thought about Death, I also found the place from which he got his confidence: the courage of his convictions. Duvid would’ve felt close to God while living and known that—according to the Talmud—that sooner or later after death his soul would find a place in God’s presence in The World To Come. Duvid would have believed as a conservative Jewish man that this life was the most important and the goal was “Tikkun,” to leave this physical world a better place than you found it. The point of this life wasn’t to dodge Death for as long as possible and try to con your way out of damnation and into heaven like Everyman does. Also, Duvid knew he wasn’t going to Hell. Hell for a conservative Jewish man would’ve been a place reserved for only the evilest and malicious of monsters. My own personal dumb-ass interpretation was that everybody, including gentiles, dies and makes it to the Garden of Paradise. That’s a way better deal than Christianity. It was very important as an actor to understand that this was the axis around which Duvid’s reality spun. Duvid’s relationship with Death being characterized as simply a natural and inevitable part of life helped me get inside his head. And the second question I had ended up answering itself, “How does Duvid manage to survive?” To me, Duvid doesn’t survive because he’s physically strong and possesses above average intelligence. Duvid survives because this life is all he has. Nothing is stronger than his love for Lusia because she brings life to his faith. Her love takes his beliefs and turns them into realities. Her love, tied together with his faith, transcends belief itself and that’s where he gets not only his confidence but also his will to survive. Duvid survives because of the courage of his convictions and the way Lusia’s love strengthens his faith in the promises and beauty of this life. I imagine that Duvid never felt far from God or any less full of life even when he was face to face with death. He knew Lusia was alive and he was determined to see her again in this life. As long as he had her love in his heart Death was not going to stop him.

Duvid is the complete opposite of that buffoon Everyman. Everyman never even considers that Death will ever come for him and spends his life basking in raw hedonism. And then, all of the sudden, when Death comes to get him, Everyman is very, very certain that his ass is going straight to Hell. He knows this is not good. This is where I would normally go head first into a rant that would put Karl Marx to shame demonizing Christianity for fear mongering, and teaching people to spend this life in terror of dying and earning yourself an eternity as Satan’s passion puppet rather than, in contrast, the way in which the Chosen People of the Jewish persuasion are taught to enjoy this life and do good deeds just because this life is all we really have and don’t get all worked up over death because it’s coming no matter what and nobody’s going to Hell so don’t waste your time getting all worked up. Everyman get’s all worked up. If he doesn’t scramble, he’s looking at one long eternity face down on Satan’s favorite beanbag chair waiting for some scorching hot love squeezings.

Scorching hot love squeezings aside, this is beside the point. Last night, I went to bed just like how I imagine the vast majority of the world went to bed last night: disappointed that my pillow fort opium den tea party got debacled, and reeking of curry and cigarettes. It’s rare sometimes for someone like me to have a moment where I feel like a regular person. As an actor, I like to think I’m way more important than I really am and I actively avoid normalcy. But it dawned on me as I fell asleep that what unites all of us is that we all have some awareness of our own mortality. We all have a relationship with death. Whether or not art imitates life or life imitates art, art is produced by mortal men and our mortal reality is imbued in the characters and worlds that we create. This class has challenged me to think in ways I’ve never before been challenged. I learned very much and I was quite entertained. If I were asked what I learned this semester in this class as it relates to my pursuit of a career on stage I would say this: I’ve spent a lot of my time before this class wondering how I ought to approach every character I play. I wondered, “where or what is my neutral self?” Most actors know where their zero or neutral zone is and build from there to create a character but I have never been able to find myself neutral in any sense of the word. Rather than stupidly wasting my time trying to find out how to get to a neutral state, I found something better than that in this class and something that works best for me. I learned where to start. I have realized that every character has a relationship with death. My job as an actor is to find out what that relationship is and how it changes from the beginning of the action to the denouement. From now on, I will always start with this question. With this new trick, I now feel much more confident that I could play any role I wanted. Any role, that is, except for Hamlet. But just like realizing my own mortality, I’ll just chalk it up to awareness of my own limitations as a featherless biped.

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