The last of five vignettes.
Postcard of Zola, 1899.
I was teaching a class which I believe was called “Dramatic Theory” but which, more accurately, if more dauntingly, might have been called “On the Nature of Group Perception,” the study in which the dramatist is actually engaged.
The university had engaged me to show up two days each year for four years. In the second year of our compact I made a pre-appearance request of the English or dramatic department or whomever I was to traipse in under the auspices of.
I suggested they, if they wished, were free to judge the applicants for the limited space in the class according to grades, entrance quizzes, or any other criteria, if they, on determining the lucky winners, would then disqualify them, and assign the spaces at random to anyone else at all.
“Or just give me the ne’er-do-wells,” I asked.
I was saddened, but not surprised, to find, on my arrival, that the university had taken my request as a witticism, and chose for admittance only those students with high grade averages and correct demeanors.
Anyone with sufficient patience to sit through English and drama classes in hope of transmuting their attendance into knowledge or employment in the arts has a great gift. The gift, however, whether of courtesy or sedulousness, is a sure sign of a lack of talent, which is never found without zeal and disruption—in short, without love. And who loves being bored? Some may accept it as a notional price for some greater good, but the inspired know there is no acceptable trade for their enthusiasm and their time.
But there the students were, early, and with notebooks open. Being a mountebank, I asked them to close their notebooks, as, if I said something memorable, they would most likely remember it; and, if not, why torture themselves considering it twice?
Some half hour into the class the door opened and a young man came in. He was unapologetic, and, in fact, rather arrogant. He entered removing a full-face motorcycle helmet which he threw onto a side table, then he sat on the table, at ninety degrees to the class.
I remembered the advice of Lord Chesterfield, that the surest test of superior breeding is never to be upset by impertinences. And there he was, seated apart from and above his classmates, perched on the table lounging back against the wall, a ghastly bad portrayal of privileged youth.
I was leading the class in the construction of a screenplay. I’d taken suggestions for protagonist, objective, setting, and so on. I’d asked for a simple situation, and we had determined that the hero was to be threatened by a terrorist.
“A terrorist,” I said. “Good. An Arab terrorist.”
The young man spoke up.
“Why an Arab terrorist?” he said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I suppose they came to mind as they have just blown up New York.”
“Haven’t they suffered enough?” he asked.
And there he had me. He had taken umbrage on behalf of a group which had just attacked his country, and suggested that their very contemplation as malefactors was inhumane, as they (a) would somehow suffer from my mentioning their group in a class of twelve, and (b) they had “suffered enough.” “Arab terrorists” had suffered enough.
But the class cowed. I saw that the fellow was some sort of campus personage. They were silent, and I was stunned. I do not know how I concluded the hour, but I did. I returned to my hotel, and, the next day, to my home.
One year later I was scheduled to teach my two days at the university. I was coming down with the flu, but went to the airport, and found myself too sick to get on the plane. I returned home to find that some organization had advertised, in the campus newspaper, a rally to determine whether or not I should be allowed back on campus, as I was some sort of racist.
I would say that the young man, his life, and future depredations do not bear more contemplation, except that I think of him often. His had intelligence uncolored by morality. He was not a psychopath, for he lacked even the desire to manipulate. His was merely the face of pure evil.
David Mamet is a stage and film director as well as the author of numerous acclaimed plays, books, and screenplays. His latest book is Three War Stories.
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