The Commandment: Breaking the Silence in More Ways Than One
Date : July 8, 2016 By
Since 2005 much of the theatre I have created has been with Keystone Theatre, a Toronto theatre company that takes its inspiration from silent film. The plays that we create have all been in Keystone’s signature silent film style, which means that when I appear on stage, I wear white makeup, and most notably, I don’t speak on stage. My character might “speak”, but at no time do I make a sound. My “lines” are expressed through gesture and physical detail, but never through the spoken word. I have not spoken aloud on stage in nearly 5 years.
Rehearsing The Commandment has been a process of relearning how to do a lot of things I used to take for granted. Things like how to breathe and speak on stage. And how to remember lines. I went into this thinking that remembering lines would be easy, because I wrote the play. But writing isn’t the same as acting, and so the process of learning was not made any easier by having written it. I struggled with learning these lines more than I have with anything I have ever written or performed before. I think there are two reasons for that: first, its more lines than I’ve ever had to learn before, and second there’s some personal stuff in the play that has never been easy for me to talk about.
When I say personal stuff, I don’t mean that the play is autobiographical (I’ve never had god speak to me while I was using the toilet), but I did use writing the play to deal with the suicide of someone I loved very much.
When I first came up with the idea for The Commandment, I told myself that there was no way that I was going to turn it into something that might have any elements from my own life in it. This wasn’t going to be theatre as therapy or anything like that. It was going to be a somewhat silly, completely fictional story about a guy who finds himself in a bad situation. But it wasn’t working very well. It was missing something.
I had the idea for The Commandment, the premise, and I’d been trying to write it, but something wasn’t working. At the time, it was reading a little more like stand up act than a play. It had no emotional core. And I didn’t know where to find one. I didn’t have anything that I could draw on because I was fine, right? So I put the play aside and told myself there was nothing there.
In 2006, I picked up a copy of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. I’d heard about the play and was told it was blowing audiences away. I knew I had to read it. And it was good. But it didn’t blow me away. Until the last few pages of the play. Judas speaks to Jesus, for the first time, and he’s pouring out all his pain, and I feel something. Because he had this anger that I felt, and he is, in many ways, saying what I’d been hiding from. And then, he says “All I know is that you broke me unfixable – and I’m here”, and that’s what breaks me. Because that’s what I was, that’s what was pushed way down inside that I’d been hiding from. I couldn’t even start reading the final monologue of the play, because the floodgates opened. And I started to weep the same way I did at the funeral. And then I got angry. And I had to do something with that anger. I had to deal with it somehow. And I channelled it into The Commandment, and then I had the core of the play, its heart.
I had been so mistaken about my own emotional state. I thought that I was fine. I thought I had dealt with it because I had wept so much trying to deal with Erika’s suicide. I had known about her depression, it wasn’t a secret, but when she took so many pills that she died, that was a shock. I had assumed that she was in control, that her depression wasn’t as bad as that. But I had been so wrong, and in the days before and after the funeral, I wept until I didn’t have any tears left. And then, I thought I was fine.
But I wasn’t. I was angry at Erika, but it’s hard to be angry at the dead. We tend to forgive the dead and make them saints in our minds; we don’t “speak ill of the dead”. So how to deal with the fact that I was angry at Erika for what she did? I didn’t. I buried it. I held it in. And I told myself I’d forgotten it, that I’d dealt with it.
We’re a society that doesn’t do a great job of talking about death. We have lots of euphemisms that help us avoid the topic. Someone “passed” or is “no longer with us”. And when the death is a suicide, we have even more trouble with it. We don’t talk about that part. We don’t even have good euphemisms for that. The obituary might say that they “died unexpectedly”, but it will never say that they died by suicide. Even at the funeral itself, we’ll dance around the topic. And in the end, because no one is comfortable talking about it, the people left behind, the friends, the loved ones, end up feeling more alone and more lost, because they just can’t talk about it the way they need to.
The Commandment isn’t a play about suicide. It’s a play about someone in a bad situation, coming from an even worse situation. Its comes at the topic from the side. It’s not a play that throws suicide at you right away. The main character is dealing with some pretty big stuff. Like being a reluctant prophet, and his life being ruined. The play has this comedic premise (An atheist who finds he’s been chosen to deliver God’s new commandment), which provides a few laughs before it ever deals with the serious stuff. But when it comes, it doesn’t turn away. It says the words. And it looks the aftermath of suicide in the face, and finds some peace in the end.