When I was eighteen, I saw John Malkovich in The Libertine at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. Years later, the specifics of the plot had become a blur. I knew that it was about a debaucherous man living in a particularly decorous time in English history (was he Victorian?) and that his debauchery eventually led to his demise (was it syphilis?). But the details were less important than the singular fact that something happened to me at the end of the play—during Malkovich’s final monologue, spoken over his character’s own dead body—that changed the course of my life forever.
I am not being melodramatic; I am not remembering it as more important than it was. Even in the moment itself I ascribed a supernatural, transcendent quality to the experience. My head was buzzing on the bus home from the theatre. When we arrived back at the dorm I couldn’t sit still. Something inside me was demanding that I devote my life, however futile the attempt, to creating moments (perhaps even only one moment in a lifetime of attempts) of artistic transcendence the way Malkovich had done in that play that night. I was so determined to create something right then and there that (and this you can corroborate with them if you’d like) one of my friends literally sat on my back while the other pinned my arms to the ground, insisting that there was no art to be made on a Friday night at midnight, and that it would do just fine to begin my lifelong and quixotic quest for transcendence in the morning.
The rest of my college career I spent trying to be a poet. It made sense—the title character of the play was himself a poet, and as an artistically high-minded spirit, I was under the impression that poetry was one of the loftier methods or exposing and expressing the human condition. I don’t think I was wrong about that, but there was something about my poetry that wasn’t quite getting to the place I wanted it to. I wasn’t bad at it, not for a twenty year old anyway. But there was something else “off” about my attempts to fully express myself and my understanding of the world through verse.
It wasn’t funny.
Which would be fine—most poetry isn’t—if it wasn’t so noticeably detached from what others saw to be my authentic spirit. I remember my BA advisor’s first note upon reading the draft of my BA project—a play-length poem about my relationship and break up with a guy I met (of all places) in my college improv team. “Why isn’t it funny?” my advisor asked, confused. To me the answer was obvious: This is a story of heartbreak and self-discovery and hope and loss—where would I put the jokes?! But I now realize that this was precisely what my advisor meant—that the play that I wrote about heartbreak and self-discovery and loss, if it were true, would also necessarily be funny. That humor was my default condition, and to deny that was to be inauthentic, even (or maybe especially) when addressing the most serious and important aspects of my life.
I could have saved myself all of this misunderstanding if I’d just reread The Libertine a few days after I’d watched it, after the initial high had subsided. Instead, I waited exactly half a lifetime to see the play again in Boston when it was playing this month at Bridge Repertory. I was anxious to compare the lead actor’s performance to Malkovich’s and find it lacking in some way (the way no kiss will ever compare to your first kiss, if your first kiss was with a young Paul Newman). I didn’t even consider how reminding myself of the actual plot of the story would impact my understanding of one of the most important moments of my life, or how seeing a different interpretation of the play could potentially enrich my experience of it, rather than diminish the impact of the initial experience. And indeed, Bridge Repertory’s interpretation was different. There was something about the clip of the dialogue and the playfulness of the staging that highlighted something that seemed so obvious now but that I hadn’t noticed the first time around. Within the first five minutes of the play I had stopped comparing it to the Steppenwolf version and was instead struck by a realization almost as profound as the original one I’d had back in Chicago eighteen years prior: John Wilmot, The Earl of Rochester, infamous gadabout, drunk, and thorn in the side of the English Restoration, was a comedian.
How had I not remembered that? How had that obvious feature of his character not embedded itself in my mind the way Malkovich’s portrayal itself had? I did some research into the historical Earl of Rochester. Indeed, his contemporary Andrew Marvell called him “the best English satirist.” By all accounts, it seems that if he hadn’t allowed his personal excesses to rot his body (a bit more research revealed to me that he did, in fact, die of a venereal disease, although in the play they intimate that it was the kidney stones that took him) and his cynicism to rot his spirit, he would be remembered more widely for his brilliant satirical mind. The Restoration’s answer to Jon Stewart, if Jon Stewart was also a philandering drunk.
But I guess that’s precisely the point as well, since John Wilmot died at thirty-three, not having had nearly the influence or impact he could have had on the world. And it’s not just because he wasn’t good to his body. In the play, his greatest failing is depicted as excess, certainly. But his excesses of the body seem less important than the excesses of his own satirical perceptiveness. He was too acutely aware of man’s failings, too constantly reminded of the absurdity of living, to feel anything but disdain for himself and his fellow man. Only with his lover Elizabeth Barry, does he seem to find moments of quiet joy and appreciation for the beauty that exists between the horrible hypocrisy and despair of the human condition. But these moments are fleeting—he feels them only in the privacy of their bedchamber and can’t seem to leverage them into any kind of lasting happiness. One might say this is as it should be—that it is the nature of the satirist to see the meanness in himself and others, that in doing so he martyrs himself for us and provides us the kind of insights into our own condition that only someone so disturbingly aware of the dark corners of man’s motives can supply.
And indeed, any death at thirty-three will beg a Christ comparison. The Earl of Rochester, looking into the mirror of humanity and finding it lacking, reports his findings and is crucified for the truth he reveals. And that’s part of it. But here’s the other part: John Wilmot hated humanity, hated himself, too much to ever be a truly great satirist. Because only half of comedy is noticing the darkness and absurdity of the human condition. The other half, the harder half, involves loving people so much, having so much hope for their goodness and their intelligence and their ability to learn and grow and change, that you believe that holding the mirror up to their darkness will reveal to them a new light. It involves a belief that admitting how bad we are can help us be better—if even for a brief and fleeting moment—that acknowledging that humanity is doomed is a necessary step to its (however small and short-lived) salvation. To be a great comedian you have to believe that comedy matters, that it does something, that it works.
I didn’t realize the full significance of why that moment struck me back when I was eighteen because I hadn’t yet realized how profoundly I believed in the power of comedy, and didn’t have the foresight to see just how central a role it would play in my own life. And because, in that moment, I didn’t see Malkovich’s reading of the monologue as comedic, but rather cynical, angry, sad. As he said the line “There I go,” he flapped his arms through sleeves of a billowing white nightgown like an ironic angel who didn’t even believe in himself, and his gaze panned upward toward heaven. But now I realize, that is what a comedian is. Not a sad clown, but a reluctant angel, with powers he didn’t ask for and tasked with a mission for which he feels woefully unfit. The secret to not completely destroying oneself under the burden is not to believe in oneself, but to believe in others. A comedian’s martyrdom is less valuable to us than his minute but persistent hope that everything is not total shit. And if he can convince us that he has seen the dark corners of humanity and still persists in that hope, that is his gift to the world.