Imagine the sound of dozens of gunshots. The corpses of several presidents. A slack body hanging from a noose. A flash of electricity surrounding a man on death row. A woman training her pistol on her own child.
A little much?
It was for me, too. But that was how I spent this past Saturday night, watching the play, Assassins.
What is Assassins about?
I kept asking myself that very question as I watched this collaboration between Seattle’s ACT — A Contemporary Theatre and The 5th Avenue Theatre. Was it about the tragedy of lost presidents? The psyche behind assassins and would-be assassins? The 2nd Amendment right to bear arms, or gun control? Or was it a commentary on society and how we keep moving forward after tragedy?
Anya Rudnick, Director of Education and Outreach for The 5th Avenue Theatre, says the play is about what it means to be American, the American dream, the cult of celebrity, mental illness, “history and all of the people, both good and bad, who make up the story of our country.” It’s about humanity, she says.
Maybe so, although the focus is heavily directed toward the dark side of humanity. Besides, that’s a lot to pack into less than two hours, leaving very little time for the writers, directors, and cast to explore and opine on any of those subjects, or to let audience members even ponder the topics. Assassins is about so much that, at times, it feels like it’s about very little.
Is it a celebration or a meditation?
I like dark. And the subject of Assassins–nine desperate, disturbed individuals who assassinate, or attempt to assassinate, American presidents—is certainly dark. The problem is that it’s also a serious matter, and watching the story set to music, was disorienting for me.
“There are always people who think that certain subjects are not right for musicals…[w]e’re not going to apologize for dealing with such a volatile subject. Nowadays, virtually everything goes.” That’s what composer Stephen Sondheim told the New York Times back in 1991. Okay, that’s fair, but what makes this performance particularly difficult is that, unlike, say, Les Miserables–which has lyrics and a musical score mirroring the emotional depth and mood of the story–the music for Assassins is carnival-style, feeling more celebratory than contemplative and thus contradicting the underlying narrative.
Artistic director John Langs says Assassins isn’t meant to be a celebration but, rather, a work of art that “stirs you up and can make you angry.” Okay, well he got that part right. The play made me angry—and it made my theatre companion so angry that she left midstream, further contributing to my already unsettled state of mind. I couldn’t help but wonder: was there something wrong with me, and everyone else in the audience, that we stayed until the end?
Who were these flawed people?
The psychological complexity of the nine disturbed individuals is most interesting to me. Unfortunately, the lyrics offer only glimpses into the troubled lives of these people, beginning with John Wilkes Booth and ending with John Hinckley, Jr., and I found myself craving more about who they were and what brought them to this place of wanting to kill a president.
I also wanted to somehow know what aspects of their stories, as told in the play, are indeed true. Certainly the gatherings of the various characters across time is a contrived, albeit creative, story-telling technique–most notably near the end when they all ironically conspire with Lee Harvey Oswald to kill JFK. But these gatherings also raise the question of historical fact versus fiction, which is always a consideration when writing and/or performing a work of historical fiction, and you can’t be sure what is believable and what isn’t.
When the imagery goes waaaay over the top
Maybe I could have handled a quick-paced story about nine disturbed individuals and their murderous intentions. Maybe I could have accepted the music. But what kept me from embracing this production more than anything else was the over-the-top imagery. Witnessing a suicide, a prison execution, a hanging via noose, the killing of a dog–even if accidental—and the mere suggestion of a mother about to shoot her own child: waaaay too uncomfortable. These visual props do little to further one’s understanding of the story, and if artistic director John Langs wants his audience to find any sort of empathy for the assassins, which he calls “people who bought into [the American] promise, and [for whom] it’s been out of their reach,” he eliminates much chance of that happening by shocking us with these macabre scenes–which I still can’t quite get out of my head. (Note to self: be mindful about what scene will linger in the memories of your readers, and work your best to be sure it’s the scene you really want to last.)
The impact on our greater society
Anyone who was alive at the time JFK was shot remembers the shock and mourning of our nation. I do, even though I was quite young. I imagine the American citizens felt the same way when Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley were killed. Witnessing the violent death of anyone, and especially the leader of a free people, needs to be processed—even if you’re just an audience member watching the re-creation of an event. Unfortunately, this 105-minute production doesn’t afford the audience that time whatsoever.
For example, the lyrics of The Ballad of Booth only briefly acknowledge a degree of pain from the loss of Lincoln: Hurts a while,/But soon the country’s/Back where it belongs,/And that’s the truth.
Only after Lee Harvey Oswald shoots JFK, near the end of the play, is there any true acknowledgement of the severity of what happened, as these lyrics suggest in Something Just Broke:
“I was scared.”
“Made me wonder who we are.”
“Bringing us all together.”
“Something just broke.”
“Something just spoke/Something I wish I hadn’t heard/Something bewildering occurred.”
Also, it was only during this song that a few molecules of emotion inside me felt somewhat redeemed, rather than complicit, for having endured this exercise in violence, which leads to an entirely different set of concerns I have, and have had for some time, about our collective ability to watch horrific events on TV, at the movies, and on videogames as though nothing significant had happened at all. For that reason alone I wish Assassins would take a little more time to address our overall attitude toward violence.
* * * * *
Writers have been debating for centuries about when and how it’s okay to write about violence, which, when you get right down to it, is what Assassins is about. Violence is, sadly, a part of our world, so it’s not that I’m opposed to plays (or books or films) that incorporate or even focus on violence. However, I believe it must be presented in a way that allows the reader or audience member time to take it in slowly, to process it, to try to make sense of it and how the violence fits into his or her world. And, above all else, the reader or viewer should not be made to feel complicit in the violent act in any way.
Japanese author Shusaku Endo said, “Every weakness contains within itself a strength.” If I take Endo’s word and look for strengths amidst this play’s weaknesses, I can say, first of all, that I think the cast and musical team do a stellar job with a most difficult work. Also, Assassins successfully reminds us about some of the darker parts of our American history—parts we don’t spend much time contemplating, and for that I’m grateful. Finally, it gave the writer in me a number of important craft considerations to keep in mind.
Have you seen Assassins? If so, I’d like to hear your thoughts.