We sat in on a staged reading last night of "Good Monsters," a play by a local playwright, Nate Eppler, and the play was intense and amazing and gobsmacking. Plus, it irritated me and confounded me, and I felt the yin/yang of great storytelling, which is in itself a thorny need ... humans can't seem to process any fundamental reality without corralling it with labels and symbols and a narrative that have some kind of personal meaning for them. I find this to be further proof of the blundered nature of the homo sapiens species, bearers of such huge brains and powerful prefrontal cortexes, but wholly incapable of a gestalt that warrants our evolutionary prowess or suggests a future that isn't fraught with terminal issues of our own making. We must learn to be smarter than our tools and so on.
But I digress.
The play's protagonist is damaged yet compelling, which with the right lighting and backstory could be said of the most pedestrian of humans. Most observers, once given additional context on a situation, will feel empathy on some level with the previously monstrous specimen. But judgment lurks, always, always demanding a sacrifice on its altar of Blame. We seem fatally flawed, needing gods to drive the point of it all and give meaning to our lives, incapable en masse to hold ourselves responsible for our own poor choices or unwilling to accept that sometimes bad shit happens no matter how carefully we plan otherwise.
To distill the play: a moonlighting cop named Frank (nicknamed "Frankenstein" -- pause for a moment and let that ironic appellation sink in just a tick tock) is grappling with his shooting of a shoplifting teenager in a Walmart parking lot. She dies from the gunshot.
Of probative note is the reason why he shot her -- he thought she was pulling a gun on him. This salient and crux-heavy detail goes largely ignored, however, in the hue and cry of the town/state/nation that prepares to burn him at the stake for doing his job. (I suppose it once again just seems too-much for the average bloke to let dead kids just be dead without extreme and overt lamentation, but that's a soapbox pique of mine I'll leave unmounted.)
The shooting and death of the teen is plastered across all the usual media suspect outlets: news, magazines, the YouTubes. The judging, blaming populace looks for "patterns of behaviour" to explain what seems like senseless violence and overkill in his reaction, never pausing for a moment to understand we trained him to this. And more importantly, we need him to do this. And most important of all, he is our own action/reaction ... since my suspicion is that -- validly so! -- anyone who has the ever-present threat of death by violence on the job is likely a little jittery about staying away from the business ends of guns and knives. Who among us, with a gun on our hips and the constant possibility of harm in every interaction with those we 'protect and serve,' would just stand there and blandly assess a running suspect who turns suddenly and has their hands hidden in their waistbands? We can all armchair quarterback it ad nauseum, and boy-oh-boy is that played out well and good in the script. Instead of pondering the ramifications of paying former soldiers to be our public servants, with too-little salaries to live on so that perhaps less-desired personalities and hotheads find careers in law enforcement ... no, instead of trying to problem-solve this tragedy, it turns into the typical witch hunt we would expect from modern culture. That Frank is noble in the fallout, that he feels guilty at all in the line of work we ask him to do ... dare I call that "miraculous"? I was gobsmacked.
There are plenty of other nuances to this play, but I'll concentrate only on this one, because it's the one that vexed me the most. I was enraptured at various points in the story, and it was not until the end, when the lights came up and the audience got the chance to respond and give feedback that I fell off my buzz. I am loathe to share my personal observations with John Q., especially in this part of the religiously and politically Pavlovian southern U.S. of A. And the crowd around me seemed to utterly miss the the root reality of what we demand of the public sector, what we need to feel safe, and how that can occasionally overreach and be tragic. They were ready, quickly enough, to concede sympathy on the circumstances that might have lead and fed into the blood spilled in the parking lot, but none of them (that were willing to brave the public gauntlet and speak an opinion) wanted to see Frank in any noble light. He was a monster, pure and simple, who shot first instead of ... whatever it is they think he should have done.
And that's the point that the audience seemed to miss, and that haunts me today ... how they seemed just as quick to classify, judge, and file away the reality that the play's author pointed out during the Q&A at the end -- none of us wants to live even for five minutes in a world where there are no police. The reality got lost in the rhetoric; it was even said that "Frank killed an innocent person." The dead teen was not innocent; assuming any human old enough to be self-aware is truly capable of what we might define as 'innocent,' she was a thief. And she did not die because she was stealing jeans. She died because we live in a violence-soaked culture, where in order to feel safe from each other, we pay plenty of folks, some of them very noble and justice-focused men and women, too little to live on, and we never consider the skills that make them very good protectors -- the willingness and ability to wear a gun every day, to be willing to die to protect strangers, and to occasionally be shot by shoplifters, drug dealers, and petty humans of all stripes who also carry guns. When we can agree that no petty criminals shall carry weapons of death, then I will agree to hold cops to inhuman levels of responsibility. Until then, I am grateful there are folks out there who will do that work, for very little money and a metric fuckton of suspicion and fear by the rest of us. And I will cry for those who die needlessly while breaking the law. But I will not, no I will not, blame the people who are just doing what we pay them to do, as best they can. That was the point I think the audience missed ... "there but for the grace of the gods go we all." Because we need the cops, we want the cops, and in places we don't talk about in theatres and dinner parties, they are us. And we are doing the best we can.
In previous musings here in my mind-madness-discoursing, I have perhaps overused pop culture references to the seminal, epic "A Few Good Men," but I'm gonna reference it again in closing. It's just too perfect, the arching echo of Nicholson's monologue as the monstrous Colonel Jessup. His voice is oh ... so ... exactly what I keep hearing. With his monstrousness, if that is in fact what it truly is. A monstrousness that is no less needed and correct, despite or perhaps because of its monstrousness.
So say we all. Or so we should.
And damned fine work, Nate Eppler. Damned fine stuff.