Henry is in a coffin. Numb from the waist down, he attempts to make sense of his surroundings and of the life he lived before landing in this limbo. His only companions come in the form of a wine bottle, notes with meaningless aphorisms that descend from the void (the origins of both are unknown), and a beautiful if aloof woman who stalks by his wooden cell without so much as acknowledging his presence. Henry’s reverie—which has been underway for either eight minutes or eighty years—is interrupted when Henry gets a visitor. The Devil comes calling, with an offer to end Henry’s torment on a rather sweet note; but the price for peace is going to be steep...
James O’Connor’s Timor Mortis, which COItc premiered in January and February of 2009, marked our first production to spark audience walkouts, baleful glares at staff, and even a confrontation with our stage crew by one particularly devout woman, incensed we would have a character say to God: Fuck you, you bastard.
“After all,” our erstwhile critic declared: “God is all I have.”
But the shock of hearing the line had blunted the point. For Henry (the character with the chutzpah to curse Him), God was all HE had left as well.
The value of shocking art, religion in theater, and the merits of self-censorship are all topics worthy of their own articles—and that is precisely why they will not be examined here. Instead, we invite you to examine with us some of the larger tropes within which Timor Mortis finds itself—and the ways playwright James O’Connor bucks established norms in this genre.
O happy the man who still can hopeThe problem with the Faustian bargain is that the other shoe barely has time to drop before the final curtain does. Stories of sinners getting their just desserts end just as the dish is served.
Though drowned in a sea of error!
Man needs the things he doesn’t know,
What he knows is useless, forever.
Terrors unknown are freezing me,
Demons of doom are seizing me,
Is hell let loose to torture me?
Or does it mock my sight?
Torments eternal wait thee!
Burning in endless night!
My soul is rent in agony!
Condemn’d to endless misery,
Oh, doom of wrath and terror,
No more to see the light!
Mozart, Don Giovanni
Timor Mortis is a full inversion of the typical Faustian tale on three counts:
(1) It begins where other stories usually end;
(2) Its protagonist is unexceptional; and
(3) Its protagonist doesn’t willingly enter into a deal with the Devil.
The playwright’s other vocations as poet and translator are reflected in the visceral descriptive power of his character’s words. In the tradition of Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh, Timor Mortis is a play about storytellers whose stories sometimes wind out of their control.
The lighting designer for our world premiere of the play rightfully called it “fully theatrical”: it contains in its execution setups both grounded and otherworldly.
Starting with literally nothing in the void, Henry creates a world with rules and reference points: a never-ending bottle of wine, visitations from unknown creatures, notes from the heavens and a crashing organ. From this perch, simultaneously precarious and firmly grounded, Henry evokes his past life: the freckles of his wife’s back, the sometimes wonderfully messy, sometimes horrifying physics of lovemaking.
These experiences are no less concrete for not being recreated on stage before the audience. On a whim, the Devil recreates the happiest moment of Henry’s life, which Henry subsequently witnesses and relives simultaneously. These are events which live theater—unrestricted by the cold camera lens, and yet far more grounded that the literary voice—can deliver.
The distinctive syntax inversions of O’Connor’s play emerge most strongly in his inversions of trope, outlined above and expanded upon now.
(1) It begins where other stories usually end.
What makes Timor Mortis existential is that the life Henry’s lived is actually a secondary concern. The moments of his existence on earth that resonate after he’s left it are positively pedestrian: Henry is as far as one can get from a Wagnerian hero with his opening:
HENRY: I woke up this morning in a coffin and I have no idea how I got here. It’s a complete mystery to me. I don’t remember being sick. I don’t remember having a heart attack. I don’t remember a car accident. In short, I don’t remember dying.One can hardly imagine Die Walküre’s Siegmund waking in Valhalla with such words.
Walking along the beach with his mother, the glimpse of his wife’s nipple in the corner of his infant daughter’s mouth—these are not the elements of an übermensch ready to take on the gods, but the offal of an ineffectual bourgeois man who’s spent too much time on a Freudian couch (Sigmund instead of Siegmund?). Which takes us to
(2) Its protagonist is unexceptional.
THE DEVIL: I like you, Henry.How could such a pedestrian man spark the protection of the Prince of Lies? Clearly because this is not entirely true: Henry is exceptional, just not while he’s on Earth. Henry’s moment to shine comes after he’s departed.
HENRY: Do you?
THE DEVIL: Of course I do! Why do you think I’ve been looking after you?
HENRY: I don’t know.
THE DEVIL: You’ve made me very proud. I almost feel like a father to you.
This tension, between the prosaic and the profound, underpins the entire play: if he is not a great lover like Don Giovanni, if he is not a great physician like Faust, what is it that makes this man exceptional, that makes him catch the attention of Lucifer himself?
The basic question confronting all acting students (and playwriting students, and directing students) is sometimes called the Passover question: why is this night different from any other night?
Henry’s plight is at once prosaic and profound because he makes clear that he has been in this state for some time, and the events he witnesses—notes dropping from the sky, aloof women strutting down imaginary catwalks—are everyday occurrences. However, the play mainly encompasses exceptional moments: his intimacy with the messenger, his colloquy with the Devil. What changes? What makes these things happen now? Why is this night different?
In a similar vein, Henry divorces, re-marries, continues to have affairs, and lies to his second wife (a lot). These are, sadly, not abnormal behaviors for a man. So why is he special? Because out of Henry’s commonality springs the audacity to speak truth to ultimate power.
HENRY: Who are you?Henry’s essence is irreducible because it started at such a basic level; a philandering husband willing at first blush to blame his children for the failure of his marriage has no compunction cursing God’s love; a post-man stuck in a coffin with a numb, engorged penis has nothing to lose in telling the Devil he’s a terrible writer. The power of Henry’s defiance is underwritten by his ultimate impotence, underscored by the fact that it is preceded by a shrug.
THE DEVIL: You know damn well who I am. By the way, I’m the one who wrote that message regarding solitude.
HENRY: Well, forgive me for saying so, but you’re not much of a writer.
And that defiance takes us to
(3) Its protagonist doesn’t willingly enter into a deal with the Devil.
Henry is, in fact, exceptional to the Devil by possessing a quality he has in common with all of humanity: free will.
The Devil needs Henry to choose his path in order to claim him as one of the Devil’s own. This is something Henry simultaneously accepts and rejects: even as he takes the oath, Henry continually defies the Devil’s will, up to their final exchange.
There is not a little wish fulfillment in the Devil’s fascination with Henry. Lucifer as a fictional or dramatic character holds such interest to many because he is usually used to embody our collective id; he offers us the most tantalizing rewards the corporeal world has to offer, but also is that very desire personified.
We want the Devil to appear and tell us the things we desire the most can be ours, and moreover, that desire is—in and of itself—okay. (See The Devil’s Ten Commandments, below.)
The Devil that occupies the pages of Timor Mortis, like the play itself, takes a sharp right turn from the expected Lucifer of lore and popular culture. He is closer to the fallen angel of the Bible, less warped by being the embodiment of evil and more by the loss of love. From the Devil’s first significant question to Henry—It’s not easy giving up love, is it?—love is revealed to be a touchstone; the harvesting of Henry’s soul an inconsequential byproduct of Henry’s declaring allegiance to the Devil’s nihilism:
THE DEVIL: You must renounce the afterlife. You must renounce your own soul. You must believe in nothing. Nothing, Henry, but the earth and the stars.The Devil’s bargain of Timor Mortis is perverse in its most basic sense. It’s one thing to declare one’s nihilism as a means to grab onto something definite—the refusal itself—in the face of the indefinite (existence of God, the afterlife, etc.); it’s quite another to do so in the very face of its evidence. The Devil requires Henry to disbelieve his own eyes, to defy them. This is the sordid underbelly of free will; one can freely choose one’s own annihilation, and the Devil exploits it to its utmost.
The Devil’s Ten Commandments
THE DEVIL: Forget your wife, Henry. You’re dead. And now you shall be judged according to my Ten Commandments.Marlene Clary, COItc's Director of Readings and Young Artist Development (as well as the director of Timor Mortis' world premiere production), has observed that although the Devil sets his own commandments as a parallel to God’s, where God’s Ten Commandments are proscriptive, the Devil’s are descriptive—even permissive. They allow Henry to justify his behavior. The Devil himself describes them as insights gained over millennia of observation: Devil-as-anthropologist. This is a far cry from Goethe’s source of torment. The Devil’s Commandments are anything but: they establish him as Henry’s advocate.
HENRY: You have Ten Commandments?
THE DEVIL: What! I can’t have my own Ten Commandments?
HENRY: No, I just thought...
THE DEVIL: Only God can have Ten Commandments! Is that it?
HENRY: I wasn’t saying that.
THE DEVIL: I’m sure you know God’s Ten Commandments! So why don’t you know mine? Nobody ever knows my Commandments!
HENRY: But I don’t know God’s either. I mean, yes, I know a few of them, but I don’t know them all.
THE DEVIL: You don’t know even one of mine! You didn’t even know I had Commandments to follow!
The temptation of what the Devil in Timor Mortis has to offer in no way resembles classic soul-selling tales: or if it does, it is a Faustian bargain taken to its most extreme degree, temptation on steroids.
In one reading, rather than sell his soul for a short-term gain on earth while losing sight of the long-term picture (like Faust), Henry is persuaded to embrace the Devil’s view of a life that Henry has already lived, and thus can either re-live it in his mind for all eternity, or re-live it in actuality one more time before having his existence nullified permanently.
In the other, this actually is a Faustian bargain: but instead of luxuriant decades on Earth in exchange for an eternity of torment in Hell, Henry is given the opportunity of ten minutes of ecstasy in exchange for an eternity of nothing. This is extreme on both ends of the bargain: ten minutes of heaven is powerful stuff after a century of numbness. (But the other side of the deal is equally overloaded: it is arguable whether an eternity of torment [and therefore self-awareness] is preferable to an eternity of not existing—but it’s less debatable that the latter is a far more drastic result.)
Hell is Others, Hell is You
It’s a dilemma reminiscent of Sartre: no matter how seductive, tempting, demeaning, or demented the Devil appears, his ability to torment Henry has nothing on Henry’s capacity to torment himself.