At intermission last night at The Body of an American, I asked Stephen, "So, are you offended by this?
We've had many discussions about whether people's tragedies should be allowed to be fodder for other people's art. Stephen's instinct is to defend the subject - the individual whose death is being dramatized in the movie, sensationalized on the news, photographed and distributed.
"I've never really been afraid of death," Stephen said in a blog post not long ago. "So it's really peculiar that I feel so strongly about how the dead are treated... We drag celebrities out of their graves - Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse - pouring over the details of their sad lives.... I feel that people like Ann Rule and her ilk make their living off of the horrendous misfortunes of other people... Why can't we leave them some dignity?"
Even when the art in question is utilizing that tragedy to make a statement, to protest, to teach, Stephen has a hard time being OK with it. I tend to take a more open view, that the end sometimes justifies the means, but I get his point: is it just cause or exploitation if the dead have no chance to decide for themselves whether their stories or their images are used?
Witness photojournalist Paul Watson - the subject of the play The Body of an American - photographing soldier Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland's body being dragged by Somalis through the streets of Mogadishu - and winning fame and a Pulitzer for it.
Remembering the day he took that famous shot, Watson wrote, in his memoir Where War Lives, "In less time than it took to breathe, I had to decide whether to steal a dead man's last shred of dignity. The moment of choice, in the swirl of dust and sweat, hatred and fear, is still trapped in my mind, denying me peace: just as I was about to press the shutter on my camera, the world went quiet, everything around me melted into a slow-motion blur and I heard the voice: 'If you do this, I will own you forever.'"
In the play last night, as actor William Salyers as Paul Watson crouched and aimed his camera, actor Danny Wolohan stood over him like a ghost and delivered that line chillingly. I will own you.
My experience of the first half of The Body of an American came in waves. The first wave, I have to say, was confusion. I got a little lost in the construction - two men alone on stage playing different parts, often playing the same part. For the first fifteen minutes or so the ricochet of characters and voices left me wondering whether I'd be able to sort it all out. Once I got into the swing of it, though, I was able to enjoy that ricochet - and enjoy how deftly the two actors were presenting that ricochet. Each man played each character in the production and amazingly made each live with crisp individuality.
The second wave was unease. That whole art/death/respect conundrum. Briefly, The Body of an American is a play by Dan O'Brien about Dan O'Brien writing a play about photojournalist Paul Watson. It's a record of their relationship, first by e-mail and then in person, exploring PTSD and ambition and regret. The first half of the play is a back-and-forth of e-mails, and in his side of the conversation, Paul Watson talks at length about the death and degradation he's seen and photographed. I started to get overwhelmed by it all. By the endless listing and description of the awfulness in the world. I needed to look away and couldn't. As Paul Watson delivered his monologues, two big screens moved in the background, showing what I assume are the real photographs of the real people.
I felt inundated and implicated.
Implicated as a witness to these real people's horrors and as an American with a cushy life contemplating these horrors while safe in a cushy theater.
This was what I was supposed to feel, of course, and that's the brilliance of The Body of an American [what I realized in the third wave, somewhere about halfway into the first half]. The play uses art and reality to ask hard questions about art and reality. It asks, was it right to photograph the death and degradation of Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland, is it right to photograph and print and distribute - and view - the tragedies of others. It asks, what is the cost of this and how can one divest oneself of the ghosts that come from this and - the most interesting question, which didn't come until later [spoiler alert] - after all the time searching for a way to divest oneself of this, is one really willing?
When I asked Stephen at intermission whether he was offended, he surprised me. "I think it's pretty brilliant," he said. We talked all intermission on these very weighty subjects - and also about the two actors, who did a magnificent job of portraying character and not letting the dramatic themes of the play wilt over into melodrama. The second half for me was surprisingly funny - surprising all around, actually, since the Paul Watson I expected to meet in person after I thought I knew him through the e-mail back-and-forth of the first half, was not who I met. Again, this was the point - although I won't elaborate on it this time. The play does it best. All I'll say is that it wound up to a surprising and thought-provoking finish.
The Body of an American is playing at Portland Center Stage through November 11th.