“Whatever it is, we can work it out. We can make it better.”
So says the well-intentioned but clueless Stanley (Mike Meagher) to Hannah (Aileen Brenner), his suicidal ex-girlfriend, in an early scene in the morbidly fascinating 7 Lessons on Suicide. In a play replete with aspiring suicides, Stanley, the only character who seeks to live, paradoxically suffers from the greatest number of delusions – about life, about the death instinct, about the inner workings of the self-annihilative mind.
“You’re happy, you’re healthy, you’re normal,” he adds for good measure, unwittingly compounding his faux pas. And in a certain way, Hannah and her fellow death-seekers undoubtedly are. For them, the urge to die is normal, natural, even inevitable. As the suicidal Mr. Knotty (Kevin Brotzman), who works for the U.S. Postal Service (a regrettable cliché in an otherwise unconventional play), blandly says, “No point putting it off. Got a schedule, gotta keep to it.”
The horrified reactions of the supposedly sane elicit, in their minds, a sense of incomprehension, macabre jesting and proud defiance. “I shouldn’t have to think straight if I don’t want to,” one character brightly explains. Deep down, you sense, they still appreciate the gravity of their actions, but you also understand that their suicidal instincts spring from an ingrained conviction that life itself offers no possibility of an alternative. In light of their putative afflictions, suicide seems the most reasonable, the most rational, the most humane course of action, as ordinary as the passing of an octogenarian after a long illness. When one character in the play takes his own life, another tells a 911 operator, “No, it’s not an emergency – someone’s killed himself.”
The plot of the play – did I mention it’s a (black) comedy? – revolves around a “party” spearheaded by Hannah that seems, at first blush, benign: Music, dancing, delicacies, irreverent banter, and good company appear to constitute the top agenda items. But as the gathering’s truer, more ominous objective becomes clear, the play’s sensibility reverts to a sort of psychological Grand Guignol, where the prospect of mass suicide becomes a source of dark humor, mischief, and even competition. In one scene, several characters discuss in hushed yet impish tones their chosen means of self-immolation – pills, gunshot, fire – as though they are comparing prospective romantic partners. One character’s plan to set himself aflame – he has thoughtfully brought a canister of gasoline for the occasion – prompts an awed, admiring reaction from his fellow revelers, as though he has volunteered to perform a daring stunt on a reality TV program. There is, apparently, no accounting for taste.
Nor, it seems, for motives. 7 Lessons on Suicide offers no pretense of definitively resolving the puzzle of suicide, but it compellingly depicts the average person’s utter incapacity to grasp the inner ruminations of the seeker of death. The ignorant masses, the play suggests, think of suicide solely as the product of an intolerably painful event (or series of events), and the actual decision to commit suicide strikes them as baffling, even outrageous. They ask: Why did he do it? They wonder: His life wasn’t so bad! They reprimand: Look how selfish he was! They self-righteously claim: I’ve gone through worse problems! And, perhaps more heartrendingly, they cry: How could it be that I never saw this coming?
But the suicidal mind operates within its own perverse sphere of logic. Some of the death-seekers in 7 Lessons on Suicide identify two sources of misery – unbearable loneliness and a failure to live up to the (unspecified) expectations of others – but they neglect to explain why these fairly common emotional discontents have impacted them so wretchedly.
In a certain sense, the production seems to anticipate this quandary. The lessons of the title refer to a series of brief monologues performed by different characters in the play that interrupt its narrative at key moments. The topic of their soliloquies? How to write a suicide note. Not surprisingly, it’s a controversial question that prompts divergent responses. Yet as 7 Lessons suggests, the answer really depends on your conception of the note’s purpose. Who is your audience? Can a note really reduce the incalculable anguish of your loved ones? If so, what should you write? If not, why bother with the exercise? And can a single note really make sense of any suicide?
One character, unsure of how to proceed with her note, finally declares, “Your entire life is your suicide note.” It’s a response that simultaneously explains everything and nothing about the suicidal mind. And it may be the most compelling answer of all.
7 Lessons on Suicide
Written by Stephen Spotswood
Directed by Tess Pohlhaus
Produced by Zero Hour Theatre
Reviewed by Tzvi Kahn
Running time: 60 minutes
Read all the reviews and check out the full Capital Fringe schedule here.
Did you see the show? What did you think?