It’s taken me a very long time to die. On stage, that is.
I walked onstage for the first time. I carried some fake cherry blossoms. I was weepy. My duchess had died. I’d known someone very slightly who died, but it wasn’t really part of my daily life. Later, as it came closer, it was more meaningful. But the best I could do at the time was “weepy.”
My second stage appearance was as a high school kid. The play was a comedy, and all I recall was that I knocked down a big brawny kid during rehearsal. I was playing an intellectual wimp, which was pretty easy for me, and when the script said “He hits him,” I asked the director what I should do. “Just hit him,” she said. So we said our lines and I hit him. He fell. I’d hit him. He wasn’t so brawny, and I wasn’t enough of a wimp.
Maybe the next was a community-theatre production of OUR TOWN. I was too young for much of anything, but wound up playing the paper boy, who comes on in one scene and doesn’t do much. His big moment is when the Stage Manager reports that Joe Crowell Jr. was killed in the Great War, but that’s when I’m back in the green room waiting for the curtain call. I don’t get to act dying in agony with a bullet in my gut.
That doesn’t happen till the next show. I’ve convinced the drama teacher at my high school to take a show to the state contest. It’s Saroyan’s one-act HELLO OUT THERE, starring me. And I get to die. The guy is in jail for rape, but he’s innocent, and at the end he’s killed. We had the problem that there weren’t any rapes in the Fifties, or at least you couldn’t say it on stage, so it was my maiden playwriting effort: turns out it’s shoplifting. Still, they kill me and I die and win a best-acting award.
It’s a long time before I get to die again. I’m Elwood P. Dowd in the junior class play, an immigrant son at the community theatre, a waiter at the Omaha Playhouse, and another crazy in the senior class play. Meantime, I’m surviving day by day until the time for state contest rolls around. By this time I’ve read a bunch of Ibsen and convince our drama teacher that we ought to do GHOSTS. I cut it down to forty minutes, and fortunately I don’t have to inflict Oswald with a gum disease: Ibsen has already adapted to the morals of his time, alluding to syphilis without ever mentioning it. And I didn’t properly die, I just lost my mind, so it took longer. But we won a lot of “bests.”
In college it took much longer even to go nuts. I played a Duke who condemns a prisoner to death, but it’s not the same thing as if he died himself, and he doesn’t. I did have a couple of major roles, but I can’t remember the end. I discount my role as Laertes in HAMLET, which was purely fake. The starring guest artist was no fencer, and neither was I, but for the final duel we had a fencing coach who was pretty good. Unfortunately, the actor playing Hamlet really got into the role and started to improvise the duel, and since we knew only the choreography we’d both thrust and parry together, which was a bit absurd. I got an arm wound for real, and finally we managed to kill one another.
Subsequently, in my theatre career, I’ve died a few times, and I think I’ve done it well, though mostly in the times leading up to it. When I drifted into directing, others bit the dust and I leaned back in my chair, never to die.