At 11pm Sinagpore time, I received a Gmail notification sent by the Cosmoetica e-list containing the full manuscript of Dan’s 51k word play – The Thing After Death. By 3am, I was 75 pages into the 100 page manuscript. I slept, woke up at 9am, read until 10am and I completed the whole play. To set things in perspective, the average Shakespeare wordcount ranks at roughly 22k words, and Hamlet is 30k words. According to Dan, the play was finished in 10 days.
Now, of course, given that this was the first manuscript – there were countless typos. But the very fact that, despite such supposedly jarring aspects – I was fully wrapped into the narrative of the play, speaks tons about the sheer ability of the author and the strength of his structure. This essay will be on my first impressions of the play.
Now, there are many places to start when talking about a humongous and complex play like this one – but I have decided to start at the place which I probably should start at:
THANKS A LOT DAN. I’m thrilled to think that, 500 years into the future – my name will exist as a footnote in the analysis of some cyborg academian trying to unweave the cultural references of the Schneider Corpus. (I have a WordPress – does that count?)
But, I don’t want to start with this extract JUST to blow my own horn about the miniscule immortality accorded to my name by the very fact of this appearance (although that is one of several reasons). Rather, I want to deal with what I perceive might be an extremely high barrier to proper criticism for those first critics who, in the future, will finally be able to get their hands on The Thing After Death (and, probably, many other Schneider books). I have a feeling that, in a somewhat similar way to the critical treatment of Woody Allen with regards to Stardust Memories – critics might be too caught up with the metafictive qualities of The Thing After Death – without realizing that, even if Dan Schneider were a two-bit hack playwright who just happened to pen The Thing After Death in a stroke of genius while the rest of his corpus was made out of B-movie flicks and bad pulp fiction – Danny Wagner (the metafictive persona of resembling Dan Schneider in this play) would STILL be a great character & fiction device simply because of how he serves more purposes than just to advertise for Dan’s greatness as a writer. On the other hand, it is exactly what makes Dan a great writer that he has the balls to do something like this while simultaneously going beyond the mere metafictive novelty of the character – using Danny Wagner as a mirror for the other characters in the play to bounce up against – fleshing out their faults in contrast to the ideal that he represents.
Now, with that in mind – let’s dive into the meat of the play. First, I’ll show you the Stage setting instructions & characters of the play:
Characters & Stage
The Thing After Death is a play in 5 Acts – Play 1 of Dan’s new & upcoming Infidelity Trilogy. That very subtitle creates expectations about what the play will be about – the tropes and themes involving infidelity strewn throughout Literature & Film – setting up the audience for the surprise that occurs when so many of these tropes are broken and dealt with in novel and creative ways.
The core of the narrative focuses on a screenwriter in her 50s named Megan who has to prepare for her father’s funeral. She suffers from guilt due to being the indirect cause of her family’s dissolution when she was a little girl – when she caught her father with her 17-year old babysitter named Valerie & went to tattle to her mom about it. She is married to a construction business owner named Michael, is friends with a gay black actor nicknamed Zephyr, and is also a collaborating on scripts with her ex-boyfriend Danny Wagner – Dan’s metafictive stand in. In the meantime, the play also tracks Valerie, also in her 50s, hearing about the Funeral & deciding to pay her respects and, hopefully, make up with Megan as well. The characters interact, exchange words of wisdom, ruminate on life at 50, discuss the past, and slowly prepare for the inevitable confrontation between the two women & conclusion as the funeral looms closer and closer.
Yet, while the Infidelity & the Funeral are the main plot devices of the story – there are so many other themes and moving ‘wheels’ within the play itself that build up into thematic crescendos and parallels throughout the whole story. As such, I cannot really describe the narrative in a linear fashion to you. It moves atmospherically between different scenes that seem separate but cohere together in beautiful and unexpected ways – a ‘Slice of Life’ play in the truest sense – bringing to mind Woody Allen’s Radio Days, Chekhov’s ‘mood dramas’, and Bergman’s movies. But such comparisons do not do justice to the play – which also draws inspiration from & uses devices of melodramatic Soap Operas, American Realist plays, Shakespearean soliloquies, and a plethora of other tricks that have been done in other places – but never in ways as unique and powerful as what occurs in this one. Dan once commented that his aim was to break the idea of what was truly possible in theatre by going beyond the ‘single spoke’ of past dramas.
(Incidentally, this reminds me of an 8-hour Chinese play called A Dream Like A Dream involving interweaving stories by famous Taiwanese playwright Stan Lai – that my father went to watch once. The stage is a 360 degrees stage set like an actual Buddhist wheel or something like that. I didn’t go to watch it since there were no subtitles due to the stage & my Chinese is bad – but he said it was a cosmic experience. I hope it gets translated one day so that I can really see if it stands up against The Thing After Death.)
For example – one aspect of the play is how goddamn delightful it is. The characters aren’t all dead sombre weights like many other serious drama plays. They shoot the shit about things like Star Trek and the Trump election (this is one of the greatest plays to be set in 2017, with comments on technology and our current culture). They make crass jokes to one another and bitch about their jobs. In a way, the levity of their personalities ironically undermine the character’s various melodramas & their own problems – and it all leads to a great philosophical point by the end of the play – about Life itself and the solipsism that humans have to escape from. One example comes from the element of the soliloquy – Megan breaks out into a soliloquy about all her Freudian and psychological hang-ups, exactly after the scene where she shoots the shit with the gay, black & bitchy Zephyr – which ends with him calling her a ‘downer’. In a way, this parallels with the themes as a whole – because the soliloquy is the very epitome of a solipsistic device meant to create poetic exposition on a character’s own miniscule psychology – opening up these psychologies to operatic heights.
Another device that the play subverts is the use of flashbacks. Normally, with regards to this kind of story – and given past works like Death of a Salesman – you’d expect flashbacks of Seamus to be extremely prevalent within the play itself & showcase the full nostalgia & regret of memory. Yet, there are only two flashbacks – never of the event itself – but of things before and after. One is Megan having an idealized recollection of her father when she was a girl. The other one is Valerie remembering how she got pregnant with Seamus’ baby and aborted it – and how he scolded her because he wanted to keep it. I can spoil plot elements like these because one of Dan’s views is that good Literature is cannot be spoiled because the themes manifest themselves from things beyond just the events themselves. There are great bits of wisdom and dialogue that cannot be reduced to the events and cheap revelations. Beyond these two flashbacks, a recurrent memoristic device is the sound of kittens mewing that plays during the start of certain scenes in the play – later revealed to be in reference to an event from Megan’s past where she took care of a bunch of kittens with Valerie. In a way, this is an even more refreshing take on memory than the classical devices – acknowledging the fact that memory doesn’t always just manifest in a full recollection – but sometimes it creeps and subtly alludes, or is supressed. The symbol of the kittens can, when you reach the end of the play, mean different things to different people based on their own view of to what extent Megan has really forgiven Valerie.
Also, there’s the use of excerpts within the play itself – which is intertextuality at its finest. This is one of the purposes of Danny Wagner as a character, although other characters can fulfil this role – in that it allows for Dan to use his own poems or other works of Literature within the play, with Danny as the medium for these ‘higher’ interludes. You’re also more likely to see these interludes from the characters who are more entrenched in the arts than those like Valerie or Sarah – although they have their own form of cultural reference with things like lower brow pop culture and rock bands. These excerpts are sometimes recited by the character off-handedly, without any particular higher intent – and yet the passages chosen hide deep import to the themes of the play.
In the first excerpt, Danny talks about O’Neil (in a conversation about theatre in general the play he’s trying to write – which of course happens to be The Thing After Death) & quotes a long passage from The Hairy Ape:
This monologue is delivered with seething rage by Yank from the Hairy Ape, commenting about the primitive power that the workers represent which runs all things. When placed in the textual nexus of The Thing After Death, it has great symbolic import. I won’t be able to tell you exactly what import it has until I reach the themes that this work deals with – but, for now, keep in mind this excerpt, and also keep in mind the question posed by the title of the play itself – “What is the thing after Death?”.
Atmosphere & Stage
Scene fading in reminiscence
Let’s go back to the specific instructions Dan designated for the production of the play. He advises it to be told as minimalistically as possible – “things should be suggestive and influence the audience subliminally by the characters’ perceptions of them”. He also advises that many interactions & things aside from the main characters be invisible so that the characters speak to “the wraithic embodiments of such”. The result is that you have a very ghost-like atmosphere where these characters drift about in their interactions – hinting only at the viewpoint which they are present in while the outer universe is obscured. This atmosphere, if done well (in my mind’s theatre, I imagine something akin to the dream sequence from Another Woman – or the atmosphere of Bergman), can also generate visual-symbolic import for the themes of the play. Within the play itself, there are also many scenes that are engineered to fade away, rather than end with the resounding crash of a new revelation or emotional outburst – and this minimalism can help to elevate the effects of those fades.
Yet, normally, when you think about such an atmosphere – many Absurdist type or emotionally sparse plays comes to mind. The Thing After Death, as I’ve noted – with its lengthy banters about pop-cultural milieu and comedic moments – is the very opposite of the austere ‘mood-drama’ that we expect. Although – there are great moments within it that can invoke that very strain of atmosphere. In my mental picture of the play, there are moments where I feel like it would look like a sitcom filmed by Bergman’s cinematographer or directed by Beckett.
But such a contrast isn’t a detriment – though it might place a higher difficulty barrier on the cast – because of how important this tonal shift is to the core philosophy of the play. This idea of matching a minimalist stage with characters that overflow with life & humour helps to support the element that I talked about earlier – about the humour that undermines the dramatics of the character’s personal problems. Actually, I’ve just thought of a better comparison – the way the play feels reminds me of John Cassavetes’ Opening Night – and the ending where Gena Rowlands destroys the mood of the lame serious sombre play that she has to act in by doing improv comedy /w Cassavetes’ character.
Speaking of improv, there are actual moments within the play itself where Dan notes that the cast should improvise actions between characters. You can see one such example here:
Improv in Flashback
Ultimately, this makes The Thing After Death a play of extreme difficulty to pull off. Not only must the cast deal with a script that is longer than Hamlet, and, unlike Shakespeare’s play, where every single scene has import and meaning – they must also be able to deal with the contending comedy-drama moods, the intertextual elements where they have to act out scenes from other plays & Dan’s poetry, the improv moments where they have to be spontaneous to add to the naturalism, and they must also be able to gesturally hint at a string of wraithic ghosts that represents the world outside of the perspective that the characters inhabit. Not only that, but they have to play, convincingly, some of the best characters to ever appear in the history of drama – one of which is a metafictional doppelganger of Dan himself (I can imagine a possible actor focusing too much on the self-praise with none of the subtlety and wisdom – and making Danny Wagner look like a massive douche). And, to top it all off, they have to be able to fart at will. Indeed, the Thing After Death might just be the first high literary work of drama that requires a fart-track to pull off well.
I’ve talked so much about the characters but I’ve yet to go into detail about them. The Thing After Death is, at its core, a play that moves by the power of the characters and the situations they inhabit. Although I use the word ‘situations’ – you could say that much of the play is made out of small moments, the gel between the big events – and it ends with the major event of Seamus’ Funeral. The Funeral – Act 5 – takes up 30 pages and acts as the philosophical core of the whole play – uniting all the themes that were hidden underneath the surface for the first 70 pages.
The character I’ll start with first is Megan Ann Fitzgerald Morrow.
I’ve told you about the details of her past & her regret – but equally important is her occupation. Megan used to be an actress and is now a screenwriter of B-movie films – and the play itself makes reference to Piranha & The Room (Sarah, Valerie’s friend, comments that one of her films was as bad as “that Tommy Wisenheimer film… where a football game in tuxedos breaks out” – while Valerie comments that she watched a film with “Some shit about a giant piranha and six teenagers losing their virginity before penises and tits are devoured by the fish.”)
In other words, Megan is a bad writer, and she is acutely aware of that fact due to her relationship with the great writer Danny Wagner. This is another burden that she has to bear, but, at the age of 50 – it’s something that she’s accepted and has to live with. In fact, she even ropes Danny in as a script doctor for some of her scripts. To use a Dan-ism drawn from his review of Woody Allen’s Interiors – Megan is a Joey (edit: Dan contends this in the comments because Joeys lack talent but have all the passion – while Megan has some talent but was lazy), except for the fact that she’s better off because of that acceptance even amidst her own insecurities. The other difference is that the characters which surround her, the objective & wise Danny, her loving husband Michael, and her funny friend Zephyr – are a far cry from the poisonous passive aggressive atmosphere of the household in Interiors.
This aspect helps to further develop a core motif of her character – the idea of what she could have been, and probably was – but what she sloughed off in the passing of time and the development of a better environment around her. This comes to the forefront in her soliloquy/monologue where all the neurotic stuff bubbles to the surface. This part of her character is so aptly summarized by the remark she makes at the end of that soliloquy: “Oh, Michael and I are happy, but I know there is more beyond me, beyond life. It’s just the getting there that’s hard.”
First part of Megan’s Soliloquy
Of course, by the end of the play, we will know that this sentiment is more or less WRONG – or, rather, it is correct but in a different way than she probably conceives it (as, for example, the artistic transcendence of Danny Wagner). By the end, it is Megan’s acceptance of her station & her past that allows her to go ‘beyond’ – in a deeper and far more meaningful way than she is probably even aware of. Life, and age, overtakes her own woes, and pushes her into happiness. This is an amazing use of the soliloquy which, before, was used to dramatize feelings with poetic heft and turn them grandiose – but, in the play, delineates neurosis and smallness within Megan while SIMULTANEOUSLY allowing her to commentate on greater things without her realizing it.
But, we have to go back to Megan’s past and talk more about those demons that have been haunting her so.
If there’s one thing I have to hone in on to prove Dan’s expertise at subverting expectations, and getting to the core of a deeper and more interesting reality – it would be his treatment of the infidelity itself. In the end, what Megan latches onto as the most pressing consequence of the whole affair was – out of all things – the loss of her friend & babysitter, Valerie. In a way, it makes more sense that the loss of a friend who babysat & played with you for about a year – whom expanded the narrow horizons of your small universe – would be tons more painful on the subconscious than the larger stuff that she doesn’t really know the import of. It also undermines the importance of the crime – so overdone in a multitude of works and so born from petty human emotions and their selfish desires – that the real tragedy is the lessening of everything else into that thing.
Twist on Infidelity trope
Although, we only know this aspect of the infidelity from Megan herself, who has the character trait of psychoanalyzing everything too far – so it could just as easily be a myth she developed for herself to tide against the trauma. But it speaks volumes about her depth as a character that such ambiguities exist – and there can be many factors leading up to exactly what she is during the timeframe of the play – the affair, the friendship broken, influence from her mother, her artistic insecurities etc… etc… What matters, ultimately, is that she overcomes, either through myth or reminiscence, and is able to face Valerie by the end of the play & pay good respects to her father at the funeral. Although her mind is attached to those details, her body & time is already leading the way. And this grants cosmic import to the recurring mews of the kittens at the start & end of the play.
The next character I’ll deal with is Danny Wagner.
Great poet, great writer, and working on a play. Shunned by Academia. Married to Jessica Wagner – an “artsy type” with the “whole Plathian melodrama thing going on”. Works as a custodian – although has to see a chiropractor because of a hurt back. Runs an interview show & a website called Omniversica etc… etc… – all the other things that we know about Dan. OK – Next!
Just kidding! If Danny Wagner’s existence in the play was merely to recapitulate who Dan Schneider is – he would not have as much potency as he does here.
For example – to serve as a contrast to the bitter tear between the marriage of Megan’s parents. Danny is Megan’s ex, but no bad blood runs between the both of them – merely the acknowledgement that there are ‘insuperable’ things between certain people which prevents them from truly meshing, although it still allows for interaction. She retains his company because she knows that there are higher things than getting mad over a break-up.
His sincerity, directness, and ‘higher vision’ also allows him to quell situations which, in other lesser plays, would be milked for their dramatic value. For example, when Valerie arrives at the funeral, he has no problems going up to her & talking to her – despite his knowledge of what Megan feels about Val. After the funeral, he’s the only one who talks to Val – shooting the shit about lowbrow culture and television shows – while the rest stay by the sidelines & wait for the eventual confrontation between the two main characters.
Valerie’s character developed through pop-culture references
In some ways, he could be ‘harvesting data’ for his own play & literary works – & one of Megan’s hang-ups about her relationship with Danny was that she felt she was “becoming just fodder for Danny and his art” – which is, in a way, true, but also inconsequential because it is precisely this view of the world that allows Danny to have deeper relationships with & better those around him. This places Danny Wagner as the opposite of the cliched ‘aloof artist’ – but rather an entity that dives deeper into life than anyone else and is more grounded than anyone else, and his relationship with Megan failed because she could not plunge into his depths, not because of his distance. This makes Danny Wagner possibly the best representation of an artist-character to ever appear in the history of drama – which is a bit cheap because all Dan had to do was to write himself into the play.
Character implications for Megan + Meta-comment
And, to push the character even further – Dan also engineers the perceptions of the other characters to Danny’s personality. I’ve just pointed out Megan’s selfish appraisal of him – even as she’s bettered by the acquaintance. In her soliloquy, she chastises herself for wanting to live life comfortably without being able to live up to his integrity. “He was too dedicated to the arts. I wanted to live, to have life and some comforts” – and this statement is ironic because Danny is the one who is engaging in life more than her, having fun with her husband and her dad at poker games while she’s caught up in psychic shit, being able to talk to Val with ease, and moulding the environment that he sees fit for himself – doing all this despite his bitching about his lack of artistic recognition & his having to put up with blue-collar jobs and custodian work. As I pointed out earlier, critics could easily be misled by this element, should they come into contact with the play – in that they view Danny as an insecure artist egoistically flaunting his own art, when, in fact, all of his actions proves that he is simply more grounded than all of that. Megan only gets a sense of all this by the end of the play – how much life has given to her and how much she should cherish it – when she eulogizes at her father’s funeral.
“I have had the good fortune of a loving husband, one whose own success has allowed me the luxury of being an artist, even if not a high one. I know great artists…. who lack the time and support I have. Some handle it better than others, yet how fortunate I was, and am. I know it. I feel it, and, before I get too carried away, let me just state that I appreciate so much of this, even if I fail, in the end, at expressing it.”
But, if I am to talk about the character of Danny Wagner, I also have to talk about the character of Jessica Wagner as well. Jessica doesn’t appear in the play at all, and it is a running gag throughout the narrative where various characters make fun of her & share anecdotes about her tempestuous artsy personality. I have no idea if the real Jessica Schneider is like this – but within the framework of the play, she serves as a kind of foil to Megan even though she doesn’t appear. She is the great artist that Danny marries in the end, but her ability to write great novels & grasp that higher vision doesn’t save her from her own neuroses – although her marriage to Danny does – and there are many implied similarities between her & Megan, although Megan tries to distinguish herself from it:
“Well, once Danny and his wife, Jessica, visited Michael and me. She’s smart, but like me, she has difficulty making friends with women. It’s different reasons with her- the usual artsy bullshit. With me, it goes back to Valerie.”
She also notes that Danny once told her “But she’s the Sylvia Plath sort, and he has to handle her with Kid Gloves, as they say.” – the irony being the fact that Michael, her own husband, is also handling her with kids gloves by not revealing to her that he’s been playing poker with her father.
Pissing on Jess
Jess is portrayed, through the words of Danny & the others, as the person that is bitter about the lack of artistic recognition for her own & Danny’s corpus – and so she’s unable to slough off the burdens of her life in the same way that Danny, and later Megan – are able to. And it’s a resounding truth that some people can be great artists, with the ability to dive into the core of humanity – yet be less oriented towards life than others – same for people who excel in many other professions.
Zephyr (John James Johnson) is one of the primary comedic relief characters of the play – but this in no way means that he lacks characterization, depth, or meaning. On the surface, he seems like a character defined by a series of quirks – gay, black, bitchy, and sole coloured person in a group of white friends – but through the use of multiple subversions, as well as great writing in general (because, unlike what some people might believe – a 3D character can’t be created solely through subversions). Dan uses the character to criticize various and stereotypes (“Let’s face it, a short, gay, black man is boring, these days. If I really wanted to stand out, I should be a drag queen. But I don’t even have that gay lisp thing going for me. Damn my ‘hardy Negro’ voice”) – but he also uses the personality as a foil to many other characters, such as Megan or Sarah, within the cast.
Take a look at this bit of dialogue which succinctly defines his character hang-ups – providing a comparison as a person hung-up on his parents – just like Megan – but manifesting in different ways. He also reveals a great truth about how it is those that are proximal to himself with a greater chance of causing him harm in subtle and insidious ways – rather than any overt racism. As such he wishes for an enemy, but finds none. Yet, he has enough integrity not to defer responsibility completely – which comes up in a later scene where he disses an article he saw online about a triggered Clinton supporter. His personality is bombastic and aggressive, but self-effacing. He also happens to be stuck doing lowly jobs – having to work jobs that a temp agency assigns him because his acting job isn’t paying the bills.
Unlike Megan, Zeph also has to deal with the loneliness intrinsic with his sexuality & his inability to find a companion. As a result, he frequently visits a shrink. In an Allen-esque fashion, he jokes about it and other such problems. This allows him to undermine Megan’s woes, especially when he makes fun of the affair in his own open manner – comparing it to other movies and melodramas:
Yet, there’s a bit of a pathetic nature to him that surfaces during the funeral scene. Until that point, we’ve seen him as an aggressive and bitchy character – and during his eulogy, he tries to go after Seamus in a diss speech (“Bitch tried to steal the show. Now it’s homeboy’s turn.”) – only to realize that now’s not the time and place for his bullshit, and he falls into a spiel about his own childhood before petering out, leaving the floor for Danny Wagner (but not before dropping a hilarious “Thanks for saving my black ass in front of Da Man!”). Later, when Megan faces Valerie, she admits that Zeph is “all bark and no bite”. Compared to Danny, Michael, Marina, and Pastor Steege – all of which have grand philosophical points to make – his speech reveals the extent that he still has things to face. When Megan comes up, her speech begins in that kind of wavering fashion – but gradually builds up tempo into the same philosophical tremor of the other speeches, with Danny as a clutch to help her through.
Vulnerability, humour, and symbolic purport. Zephyr is elevated to a great character in lieu of this, but he gets to contribute to the bigger ‘overtone’ of the play when he drops in an excerpt from Macbeth, which speaks a lot about himself, as well as the themes of forgetting and memory:
Macbeth quote & farts
Now we move on to the other side of the equation – the character of Valerie, and her ugly friend Sarah.
The dynamic of these two characters mirror Megan & Zeph – but it represents more of a view from ‘below’. Both work at a supermarket and are lower brow, while Megan & Zeph are entrenched in the arts (although Zeph also has to work shit jobs). Even when positions apart, Valerie is just as much steeped in her own woes as Megan – while Sarah acts as the comedic emotional foundation to pull her out of it. This is a great twist – where the beautiful woman has less emotional resilience to deal with life compared to the ugly one, and she relies on the emotional support a person who has been through the rough and came out all the better and hardier for it.
Valerie is, to use her own words, a slut. She can list more than 60 past lovers – 3 divorces and once widowed – and has, by her age, gotten used to her own passions (“She seems resigned to the scene, as if she has done this many times before”). It’s especially interesting that, despite being a main character that is tracked for two acts – her troubles are not as openly signalled as Megan’s, at least until the confrontation. She even has her own soliloquy – but she lacks the Freudian terminology to ruminate about it, and focuses more on going through mementos and commenting on various things. Compared to Megan’s, hers is also funnier (“That time at the chiropractor- ten minutes of therapy and I let him take me from behind”). This soliloquy segues into a Seamus flashback – the moment when her emotional past is clearly revealed – and then goes into her waking up to her 68th lover. But, she’s troubled by things – she calls Sarah at night, calls out Seamus’ name in dream, and is said to have ‘pensive moods’ by Sarah.
What she’s been through, and a deeper sense of how she feels, is directly revealed during the confrontation:
Its implied that her parents are a lot worse, or, at least, as bad as Megan’s – and that fact, combined with her initial position in life – were what might have contributed to her personality being what it is. Throughout the confrontation, the two main characters discuss about how the affair & destruction of the friendship was both their fault (in the agency that both of them took to lead to that conclusion), and how it was also something out of their control (in that they were already in a bad situation that was bound to crash, and that they were also moulded by their circumstances).
Now, with a play as thick as this one – I have to admit to some critical inadequacies. There are still certain areas that I have not grasped given that I’ve only done one initial reading with a couple of flip-backs to concretize my points. This is, in the end, still a first impressions (even though it has already taken on the wordcount of a full-scale analysis, which just shows how much the play has entered into my thoughts for the past stretch of time). On my first reading, my mind oriented itself to certain characters versus others – such as Zeph, Megan, and Danny – due to their proximity to my own concerns & interests. Michael, Valerie, and Sarah are, as such, less concrete in my mind. I am uncertain about the details in some areas & am less sure about my interpretations – such as the extent to which Valerie is attached to the affair – whether she has sloughed it off more than Megan or not. Certain ambiguities with regards to the characters, certain depths and symbols – might become clearer to be upon re-reading, or, if the play actually, by some miracle, manages to appear in a visual format. Some of my analyses above may also be over-reaching – and a re-experiencing might tighten my view of the details.
So, to end of this lengthy section on the characters, I would like to point out one last thing about Sarah. Many who first see or read about her are likely to compare her with Zeph – as both are bitchy characters that have weaponized the negative sides of their lives into snarky and funny personalities. Yet, I was also thinking about the differences that are manifest – even with these apparent similarities!
Sarah is, in her own ways, a character foundationally closer to Danny while further away in terms of vision, and the ability to express this. She is fully aware of her station and has decided “when life fucks with me, I reach for my trusty strap-on, bend life over, and make it squeal like a pig”. This works positively for her life, but negatively towards others – in how it hardens her to make quick cruel judgments of Megan. As such, her aggressive personality feels as though it is born from her will – while Zeph’s feels like it is born out of his inadequacies.
Sarah’s Acceptance (note the view of randomness, which parallels Dan/Danny’s)
I wish I could make a greater comment on Michael – but I feel that on first reading he is overshadowed by the other characters, although he is so important to Megan. On first glance, he seems like the overall nice guy – grounded individual that helps to root Megan down & is concerned with the pragmatic parts of life. This doesn’t mean that he’s separate from higher things, because he interacts with Danny & also understands aspects of his art (“Jess is more classical in her themes and style, and very pungent in her prose’s poesy, whereas he’s the great experimenter, and his poesy is not as obvious”)
His standout moment is in the funeral scene, where he eulogizes with a quote that has less poesy than the other speakers, but is just as philosophically potent – from scientist Carl Sagan:
“On this dot everyone you love, ever heard of, every person who ever was, lived out their lives. Every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every young couple in love, every corrupt politician, supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there- on a mote of dust suspended in a shaft of sunlight. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a tiny fraction of that dot.”
The Thing After Death
We return to the question implicitly posed within the title – What is the Thing After Death?
Now, I have talked and talked about the play for several thousand words or so, and yet I feel as though I haven’t even gotten to the meat of it. I have talked, mainly, about the characters and their interactions with one another – and, if the play were solely about those characters – it would probably be a good to excellent play. What drives the play into greatness is something more intangible that exists in between the cracks of those words. It is about the truly beautiful repetition of ideas that play off one another – like chords and melodies in a song.
There are many answers as to what is The Thing After Death. It is forgetting. It is remembrance. It is a start. It is an afterlife. It can even be Time Itself.
Or, more likely, Life, plain and simple.
And, to me, if I were to give my own personal opinion as to what the title implies – I would say that it means the End of Human Weakness. Because The Thing After Death is a wonderful play about many things – but one aspect is how much understanding, recognition, and dignity it gives to human weaknesses – even while it makes fun of it, mocks it, and shows a higher view:
Because the subculture & medium that I love – to which I started this WordPress for in the first place – mentioned in the very title of my site itself – has a certain fondness for human weakness. They love the act of self-effacement, the comfort of self-pity, the refuge of the cute, and the allure of the minuscule little kingdoms that they can protect – database animals that they are. And, even though the play is not necessarily about those things – I cannot help but feel those resonances that are molded into its structure – calling out to the things I love. Perhaps, a later re-reading, when the years have passed, might expand my view of it – cooling the passion while increasing the insight and appreciation.
And it is this ability for the play to be so joyful, dreamlike, and life-affirming – even while it deals with the most sombre of subjects and criticizes aspects of human character – that makes The Thing After Death both a great play, and undeniably one of my personal favorite works of art. I cannot help but wish that everyone gets the chance to enjoy it as well.
But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we’ll not fail. When Duncan is asleep–
Whereto the rather shall his day’s hard journey
Soundly invite him–his two chamberlains
Will I with wine and wassail so convince
That memory, the warder of the brain,
Shall be a fume, and the receipt of reason
A limbeck only: when in swinish sleep
Their drenched natures lie as in a death,
What cannot you and I perform upon
The unguarded Duncan? what not put upon
His spongy officers, who shall bear the guilt
Of our great quell?
(All excerpts from The Thing After Death are copyrighted by Dan Schneider)