New Ohio Theatre presents George & Co.
Directed by Anisa George
Written by Anisa George in collaboration with the Ensemble
Featuring: Jaime Maseda, Matteo Scammell, Scott Sheppard, Bill George, and introducing George Truman
Set Design: Nick Benacerraf
Costume Design: Rebecca Kanach
Lighting Design: Seth Reiser
Sound Design: Alex Bechtel
Props Design: Cem Ozdeniz
Dramaturge: Madeline Charne
J. D. Salinger has been dead for seven years, and his admirers have long given up hope of an unpublished masterpiece emerging from the bunker in which he spent the greater part of his last forty years, struggling with drafts, ideas, and obsessions. His much-publicized life in isolation, where he vainly attempted to wring out another success of the order of The Catcher in the Rye acquired a universality as a Promethean myth of the agonies of the creative life. Whether the artist manages to keep inspiration alive or has in truth dried up, life is by no means easy. Salinger’s was a particularly American myth, foreshadowed by Ernest Hemingway and his decline in his later years and perhaps Melville, by those would discount Pierre and The Confidence-Man. The myth is predicated on Americans’ sense of physicality in writing, especial in writing a successful novel, as if it were like hitting a home run in baseball. An outstanding player might show consistent excellence in statistical form, but, no matter how good you are, you won’t hit a homer every day. The sad story of Salinger’s last forty years is as well-known and as compelling as the myth he created in his bestselling novel.
There is a case for regarding Salinger as a one-book author. None of his other works had anything like the attention and influence of The Catcher in the Rye. It was the Werther of the post-war decades. Some young readers identified strongly with Holden Caulfield; others did not. But there was an expectation among people, especially among the older generation—stressed parents and English teachers eager to make their curricula “relevant,” for example—that young people, especially young males, would naturally identify strongly with H. C. A certain anomie and anger was what was expected of one. Among one’s peers, if one didn’t complain, one might be suspected of insincerity, smugness, or stupidity. Fortunately Holden didn’t commit suicide, and the novel never inspired a vogue for self-destruction, like Werther. Its influence was felt in less definite, more diffusely branching ways, whether in a period of disaffection before taking on the burdens of marriage, family, and employment, or in the rejection of mainstream society which gathered momentum some ten or fifteen years after the Catcher‘s publication. At the boarding school which I, like Holden, attended at that time, one was either a “poso” or a “nego,” and I don’t need to say which was the cooler alternative or which was associated with H. C. Perhaps parents of a decidedly conservative inclination might have considered it a dangerous book, but that was certainly not the general belief, since it was more likely to inspire disappointing grades than suicide or other crimes.
It is obvious to any person of normal intelligence that guns are dangerous. It is grievous to contemplate the number of people, adults and children, who have been killed or wounded because it is so easy for anyone, even with a record of crime or insanity, to obtain a firearm. It is clear that these numbers would be reduced if it were harder to get hold of these weapons. Now at least two high-profile crimes, one a murder, the other an attempted murder, were committed by young men who were morbidly obsessed with The Catcher in the Rye. Their experience with the novel played a sufficient role in their decisions to commit these crimes that it can indeed be called a dangerous book, at least in these cases. No one —at least I hope—would consider restricting access to the novel because reading it might result in a death, although I assume that some students have by now protested its presence on their curriculum, or demanded trigger warnings, or some quality time with the stuffed animals in a safe room. No, dangerous books, barring Werther, don’t kill people, they make them more alive.
The Catcher in the Rye produced decidedly dangerous results as read by two enthusiasts in their mid-twenties. Mark Chapman, who murdered John Lennon in 1980, first read the novel in 1971, when he was sixteen, the same age as the hero. He was so impressed that he decided to model his life on Holden Caulfield. His obsession with the book was not the only example of abnormal behavior in his life. He was also prone to born-again Christian fanaticism, suicide attempts, generally instability in college and the workplace, alcoholism, and more, including John Lennon, who was not his only choice as a murder victim. On the day he set out to kill Lennon, he bought a copy of The Catcher in the Rye, and inscribed it “This is my statement” and signed it “Holden Caulfield.” After shooting Lennon. Chapman stayed at the scene, took out his copy of the novel, and read it. In making a statement to the police after that, Chapman said, “I’m sure the big part of me is Holden Caulfield, who is the main person in the book. The small part of me must be the Devil.”
The following year John Hinckley attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan, wounding the president with a ricocheted bullet and directly hitting three men around him. The police found a copy of The Catcher in the Rye in his room after the shooting. His obsession was not with Holden Caulfield, but with the actress Jodie Foster, whom he had seen in Taxi Driver. His motivation for the crime was to impress her, so that she might take a romantic interest in him. Hinckley was acquitted by reason of insanity.
In this fascinating and original play, written by Anisa George in collaboration with the the ensemble George & Co.: Jaime Maseda, Matteo Scammell, Scott Sheppard, and Bill George, we find the two assassins in Salinger’s writing bunker. They are accompanied by a young man named Zev, “a young American male from the present moment. Though not a lover of The Catcher in the Rye, an unambiguous lover of guns,” as the script describes him. All four are asleep as the lights go up. Salinger’s visitors are there to help the author finish the novel he is working on and publish it. They passionately want another book from him. The three visitors are energetic at the very least, even when they try to nap, and often violent. The writer couldn’t have a more distracting crew of companions, as he attempts to complete his novel, which is strung out, chapter by chapter, on a clothes line. In spite of their antics, Salinger, played by Bill George, manages to stay fairly steadily on course, as he proceeds through his orderly, but unproductive day. The only structure or limit to the visitors’ behavior is Hinckley and Chapman’s respect for Salinger, whom they call the Boss, and their goal of getting him to finish his book. Otherwise they act out their obsessions and fantasies, not only The Catcher, but Taxi Driver, the Second World War, guns, etc., perhaps with some desire to communicate with one another and get acquainted, but mostly just to fill their day, to relieve their boredom, as the pursue their effort to help Salinger, who comes and goes from the bunker and occasionally naps or works at his typewriter, giving them few opportunities to connect with him.
They are fascinated with Salinger’s war mementoes, above all the helmet he brought back from the invasion of Normandy, complete with bullet scars. He had a particularly gruesome experience in the War, to the point that he was hospitalized for battle stress. Its imprint stayed with Salinger all his life, it is thought, and it overshadowed the young men as well, with their enthusiasm for firearms and combative urges.
The others regard Zev, the newcomer to the group, as inferior, because he hasn’t killed anybody, at least as far as he can remember. They also learn that he doesn’t appreciate the novel and actually hasn’t read it to the end. And he is no more impressed with Holden Caulfield. But what brought them all there to the bunker is Holden, and, if Zev is there, he must be a Holden. As Chapman explains:
That’s what they said to me, but …. they couldn’t read the signs. A truly sensitive man comes into contact with it and can feel the truth burning right through it, like a fire. Yeah, I did feel like I was Holden and Holden was me, and maybe you don’t. Fine. But the fact is you wouldn’t be in here if you weren’t connected to him in some way. Fact is, you got more to do with Holden than you know. (Hinckley walks over to Zev and adjusts the hunter’s cap on his head.) And while you’re figurin’ that one out, let me give you another piece of insight. You can get to know the original, genuine Holden (he points to Salinger, still in bed) right there. Once I saw that I was Holden and Holden was me — once I caught fire like that, that fire just started to grow and rage. And I could not deny it what it wanted. No, I knew deep down what it wanted.
What Zev will do with his new understanding is important. They discuss the possibilities, and Zev talks about mass murders, still failing to earn the respect of Chapman and Hinckley. They tie him and and gag him with duct tape. Eventually he loosens the bonds and can engage in more conflict with Chapman, who becomes wrapped up in thoughts of Lennon, while Hinckley begins to recite a speech of Ronald Reagan’s, a mellifluous and expansive evocation of American life and character.
But the violence encompasses him as well. Zev runs away. Salinger lies down on the cot to go to sleep.
Now Salinger’s young daughter, Peggy, has been coming and going throughout the play. At the end she comes in to tell her father about a nightmare that frightened her in the night. He tells her a story to comfort her. Chapman and Hinckley hear this and try to join them in the cot as they fall asleep.
As stated by the playwright, there is no definite point in time for the action of the play. Peggy’s age might point to the mid-1960s. Chapman and Hinckley have already committed their crimes, placing them after 1981, perhaps well after. Zev belongs to a different generation altogether. He might well have been born in the mid-1980s. One remarkable thing about the play is that the narrative elements which are traditionally defined in time and linked by causality are fluid and open-edged. They have no clear delineation. And so they would, if they were acting out their obsessions, nightmares, and conflicts within Salinger’s mind. And what more vivid image of the author’s mind than the contents of his writing bunker?
Another remarkable aspect of the production is the obvious depth with which the actors have absorbed the script. The play swings from frenetic activity to stasis, and there are long pauses. Nothing is really happening materially, except for the writer and his daughter going about their day. There are no ordinary cues as one would find in a conventional plot. In order to convey the pauses and the shifts of energy, the actors must have a deep inner possession of both what is written and not written in the script—not to mention total identification with the characters. In this the excellent cast succeeded most impressively. They have worked together on previous runs of the show in Philadelphia and elsewhere, and it shows. One doesn’t arrive at this kind of mastery of a play in a few weeks’ rehearsals, even under such brilliant direction as Anisa George’s.