I've just spent much of this weekend reading Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood'--a book that is enjoying a bit of a 2nd Coming, after the success of Phillip Seymour Hoffman's performance. Between "In Cold Blood," "To Kill a Mockingbird," "The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" and "Macbeth," all works that have dominated my reading list in the last week, it's been a hauntingly somber weekend for me.
I once performed the role of Proctor in Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," some years ago now, back in high school. At the end of the play, three characters, including my own, are hanged as unrepentant and obstinate witches, and our production performed the hangings as backlit silhouettes behind a transluscent scrim, all three actors standing on stools with their heads thrust through nooses. A blackout preceded the sound of the stools being kicked away, leaving the audience to imagine our dancing legs. I always thought the effect to be spare and effective, a pitch-perfect conception.
Closing night, a technician had mistakenly placed the stool rather off the mark on the stage. I remember a split-second moment when I considered whether this would present any problems; but, this being closing night, and in playing a role so important to the action of the play, I overruled whatever qualms I had and thrust myself--I willfully and intentionally thrust my neck--into the awkwardly distant noose. As the blackout commenced, I lost my purchase, and my stool actually did kick away, and for about five seconds I found myself in the awkward experience of actually being hanged.
Previously the performance of this sequence in the play had been a matter of denouement; all the real obstacles, the real emotional scene-work--in short, the acting--had just been surpassed in the previous scenes, and all that was left was mere pantomime. This was shadow-puppetry. I pantomimed my hands tied in front of me. The noose was loose enough that I could just bow my head through it. This time around I was leaning forward, and then actually dangling. My untied hands were at my neck.
These were very quick moments. I remember feeling rather silly. That this was an exceptionally stupid thing to do. I remember a swelling terror. It seems unnecessarily obvious to say this, but it was startlingly painful. The pain of a rope biting into your neck was surprising, arresting, overriding, rather immediate and insistent, quickly eclipsing whatever else might have been running through my mind. It caught me completely off guard, to be expecting the non-sensation of acting a hanging, and then to encounter the very immediate sensation of being hanged. When the backstage lights came up, somehow I extricated myself from the noose, and hurried through the motions of curtain call.
I remember always having had a difficult time of adjusting out of that role after a performance. I remember seeing myself hoarsely wretching, tearlessly sobbing, perhaps self-indulgently, but genuinely so. But after closing night, I was in shock, very still, ashen. Castmates saw that something was wrong, and when they asked me about it, holy hell blew up, lots of people became indignant or sheepish, depending on what their role in that mistake was. I don't much remember saying anything beyond the most laconic description of what had happened. I do not remember feeling angry. I remember feeling nothing at all.
I do not know how accurate my memory is of these events. I get the impression that a lot of this experience is hidden from me, and that there is a strong impulse to color things in, supply the meat of details from half-imagined outlines.
Reading these books now, I've begun dreaming some of the dreams Capote describes the convicts Hickock and Smith as having had. (At the time of that case, Kansas was one of a number of states that executed its prisoners by hanging, a practice long since superseded by lethal injection as the preferred method of execution.) I can feel the details of slave narratives and bloody verses bleeding into my memory of this hanging, and I'm struggling to keep the experience discrete from those writings (which is why I'm writing this here).
There is a strange sense of guilt that has since crept into my understanding of The Crucible's closing night. Strange, because I certainly am not guilty of witchcraft, nor of murder, rape or absconding from a place of indenture. And yet, I don't know how to explain this, I've begun to feel as though I've gotten away with something. As though the crimes, and/or the injustices, perpetrated by or inflicted upon these men, are somehow slightly my own.
Writing this out, specifically tacking down these notions, clearly demonstrates their absurdity. I am not a runaway slave, nor did I murder my best friend, etc.
As I see it, the first job of the Humanist, as it is of the Actor, is empathy. I pride myself on my ability to sympathize, and even to identify with, the subject of practically any inquiry I take upon myself, any role or any cause. The principle of empathy is the surest safeguard any human being has against the perpetration of injustice. Empathy is what will prevent me from prejudice against another human, just as I trust in empathy to protect me from someone else's prejudice. This is, of course, an ideal, neither more nor less perfect in its application than any of the other principles ("Life & Liberty," "Due Process," "One man, one vote") codified in the US Constitution.
In this instance, the operation of this ideal is playing with my memory, transmuting a past event into an ongoing experience; when I think of The Crucible, I think of lynch mobs, I think of Scout and Atticus Finch, I think of Ft. Leavenworth and Birnam Wood.
The most startling piece of all of this, is the part of me that is actually relishing the confusion of so many details and sensations. Part of me is eating this all up, savoring it, even. The palpable strangeness of owning experiences that are not in fact my own; empathy run amok.