I am often confused, having been abused as a child, as to why I have chosen to spend my life writing about conflict. You would think that as an adult I would want to run as far away from conflict as possible, and in many ways I have done just that. I work alone. When my five-year-old has a tantrum—thankfully a rare event, and almost always for good reason—I want nothing more than to resolve things quickly, or better still, to prevent her upset with more supple parenting. I am soft-spoken. When I teach I try not to persuade. I have been accused of appeasement in several arenas. At dinner parties I do my best to help everybody get along.
A psychotherapist would say—as, full disclosure, many have said—that I choose to spend my life writing about conflict precisely because of the conflict of my childhood; I am compulsively striving to control, even to master an abstracted conflict in the hope of transcending not only the humiliation of past abuse but the echoing, damning directives of self-abuse in my psyche. All this is true; but as usual the explanation cannot solve the problem.
Those of us who write scripts talk of an inciting incident, the precise point in our first five or ten pages where and when the conflict that is our story begins. Perhaps it’s fair to think of this section of my essay as an elucidation of a few inciting incidents, at least elements, in the ongoing conflict of my own personal dramaturgy.
Like most of us, I believe my parents could have used some therapy themselves. In my opinion, and I’ve had to think long and hard about this, my mother suffered from borderline personality disorder. She never got herself diagnosed but she checks enough boxes: splitting (also described as black-and-white thinking, and devil-god characterization of her loved ones), a ferocious if not delusional—and therefore self-fulfilling—fear of abandonment, uncontrollably intense emotions disproportionate to events and situations … Borderline people, to be flip about it, are dramatic.
Theirs is a disorder of perceiving conflict, and they overreact with such resentment and rage that they typically end up creating the very conflict that so terrorizes them. If you were raised by a borderline parent then you have come back from the war—that is, survived into adulthood—hyperattentive to even the merest hint of an incipient quarrel. You are anxious. You are maybe a writer. You understand in your heart, in your very cells, that the nature of conflict is fascinatingly, perhaps impossibly relative—if conflict makes any sense at all.
If I were his therapist (and he’s never had one) I would diagnose my father as a paranoid personality type, comorbid with schizoid personality disorder and autism spectrum disorder. Yet he was the less frightening parent because most of the time he simply ignored us, reading his science fiction and fantasy novels and watching TV. Living with him consisted of long bouts of boredom punctuated by explosions of shouting and swearing and walls punched and dogs kicked (he hit his children only a few times); but at least we knew where we stood with the man—as far away as we could, or sitting in other rooms with doors closed and books in our faces. By avoiding him we hoped we could avoid his conflict. Both my parents also exhibited florid symptoms of depression and anxiety—just to round out the sunny picture here. The anger of their children, it should almost go without saying, was verboten.
It was easy for me as a child to sympathize with my parents, as they were both abused as children; but they didn’t talk much about all that—or at all, in my father’s case. My mother’s abuse, involving a violent alcoholic mother, a workaholic father, and a schizophrenic brother who’d been fostered away to a home in Alberta, Canada, became the stuff of legend in our home. I have long suspected—no, intimated—that my mother was also sexually abused, but I doubt I will ever know the truth about that.
They weren’t Catholics or Latter-day Saints, but my parents had a lot of kids anyway—six of us (in itself abusive, considering our circumstances)—and while we siblings got along well enough, we splintered and scattered into our adulthoods like the survivors of a cult or a totalitarian regime, wanting little or nothing to do with one another because our memories were too distressing, and the old ways of seeing and being ourselves in one another’s presence too easily resumed.
It took me a long time to begin to understand why the theater had drawn me inexorably toward it: here was a family to replace my family. Here inside the theater my new family engaged in conflicts of story that would resolve artfully via the alchemy of collaboration. Of course collaboration—with actors, directors, designers, dramaturges, producers—creates its own kind of conflict behind the scenes: discord in the rehearsal room, the pressures of rewrites in workshop, and approaching press night. If we failed as a company—with lackluster reviews, anemic ticket sales—I would feel that I had failed personally and existentially, and this feeling was dimly but deeply familiar.
What had my childhood taught me of conflict? That it is pervasive and intractable. That its origins are ancient if not apocryphal and its only resolution is forbearance or martyrdom—both strategies, essentially, of avoidance.
As a young playwright I knew conflict was crucial; all my teachers taught me so. But I wasn’t always successful at writing it. At their best my first plays were absurd, approximating tragedy; at their worst they constituted a theater of cruelty, even, God forbid, the antiplay. For all my sensitivity to conflict in my life, my plays were not conflicted enough. I had yet to learn that conflict can be survived.
The teachers will teach you that your characters must be forced into conflict by what they’ve done or what’s done to them, and if they do not struggle to achieve, to change, in combat with the wants and needs of other characters (and other forces) on the stage with them, right now, then nothing much will happen. Conflict is the substance of drama. Dramatists invent, build, structure conflict; we are conflict engineers.
These same teachers will teach you that there are three categories of conflict: (1) the interpersonal, the most graspable conflict—for the characters, the dramatist, and the audience—because it is social and at least partly externalized; (2) intrapersonal or “inner” conflict that is usually illuminated by monologue or revealed in fractured moments of interpersonal conflict; and (3) conflict between characters and the world at large—Puritan New England, climate change, white supremacy; you can, if you want to sound like you have an M.F.A., call this “extra-personal” conflict.
Inevitably one conflict dominates: if this is a play mainly about inner struggles, then odds are it’s a monologue or one-person show; if a cultural conflict is the play’s reason for being then it’s agitprop or self-consciously political theater (or it’s not a play at all but a blockbuster movie involving armies, superheroes, dragons). Most modern American theater is, for better or worse, and for lots of reasons, primarily concerned with the conversable struggles of close relationships.
Regardless of its focus, any compelling play is composed of many strains of struggle in concert, feeding and enforcing and intensifying one another. Inner conflicts pitch your characters into conflicts with other characters. Likewise the world around them influences your characters’ private and social conflicts in sometimes palpable, often subliminal ways. At the conclusion of the psychologically well-made play, the resolution of the exterior conflict has resolved the interior. If theirs is a truly happy ending then your characters retire from the field of battle—that is, the stage—blissfully unconflicted in all spheres of life, at least for the time being.
Actors will talk (and talk) of their intentions, in the scene from moment to moment, or beat to beat, inside the skins of their characters. They pursue their desires across a rope-course of choices and actions. The other characters are, of course, likewise impelled by their own inner conflicts into conflicts with one another, as together these actions braid into the action and events of a play.
For all that, conflict will soon bore the audience if the playwright hasn’t instilled a vivid sense of why it matters. So, despite my distaste for the word, because it reminds me of Wall Street and equestrian contests, we must talk of stakes, of risk and cost, of the propulsive value and captivating power of a prize won or lost, and how conflict without stakes is mere spectacle.
In drama and comedy (and on the spectrum between) the stakes are life-and-death, yes, but also particular, because each of us has different ideas about what is profoundly threatening and desirable. It is one of our most subtle skills as playwrights to be able to convey the subjective nature of what’s at stake. And the character doesn’t need to always understand why they do what they do—in fact they probably shouldn’t; this awareness is most dramatic when it’s hard-won in the sweat and froth of conflict—but the audience needs to incrementally learn what the playwright knows: the reasons for this behavior and why these reasons matter.
When structuring a play—that is, shaping conflict—it can be helpful (some would say critical) to think in terms of a protagonist, or protagonists if you must. Love stories of any kind are dual-protagonist stories in which our main characters share the same objective, that of consummation—though inner and external conflicts, not to mention conflicts with secondary and tertiary characters, will undoubtedly get in the way. Multi-protagonist plays, more elegantly referred to as ensemble plays, are the more difficult to write because they tend to bloat or dissipate with characters and their conflicts rambling and ranging every which way. Writing an ensemble play requires the deft knitting together of equally important conflicts so that they escalate and resonate and culminate with one another. An encompassing external conflict, perhaps represented by a very real brick-and-mortar “container” like an ancestral estate with a cherry orchard in Russia, for example, may help the ensemble play cohere.
The modern American theater seems to have largely abandoned the antagonist. Playwrights may write a relative or structural antagonist, if you will, a less sympathetic character whose wants and needs and therefore actions conflict with what our protagonist is after; but the villain of old is often nowhere to be found. The neoliberal theater seems to believe that an antagonist is simply a protagonist we have not yet understood.
But it can be useful as a playwright to remember, and to explore if not exploit, the truth that dramatic conflict is in its purest form the depiction of the struggle between good and evil. Us and them. Protagonist versus antagonist: Beowulf and Grendel, Cain and Abel; theirs is the essential conflict. If we can believe in an enemy then our attention will be total.
Because in the end we all want to win—or at least to survive. (The antagonist wants to win, too; but we don’t care.) Our objective in the audience is to vicariously achieve a resolution to the story that will feel like justice, maybe even like peace.
I have never been to war. Trudging uptown through Chinatown on the morning of September 11, 2001, away from the burning towers and the neighborhood where my then girlfriend, now wife, Jessica, lived, I saw myself in my mind’s eye someplace sunny and sandy like Afghanistan or Iraq, enlisted and fighting to defend my country. But I didn’t enlist. Perhaps because I quickly found myself distrusting the objectives and methods of my country’s response to the events of that day; perhaps I was simply afraid.
I come from a long line of at least physical cowards. The only warrior I’m aware of in my bloodline is one John O’Brien (one of multitudes) who came to Manhattan fleeing the famine in Ireland and promptly exchanged his rags for a Union uniform, a hot meal and a rifle and a train ticket south. I don’t know whether he fought, or whether he peeled potatoes behind the mess tent; all I know is that he survived, as evidenced by my existence.
While I have never been to war I have spent more than a decade writing about war, albeit through the eyes and ears of a combat journalist named Paul Watson. After hearing him on NPR interviewed about his forthcoming memoir, I emailed Watson, or as I call him now that we’ve become friends, “Paul,” vaguely seeking a creative collaboration. I didn’t really know why I was reaching out to him, all I knew was that I felt haunted by his story of feeling haunted, and that investigating why would in some way constitute our prospective collaboration—should he reply. Thankfully, and with great consequence for me, he did.
This was 2007 and Paul had already spent almost twenty years reporting from war zones around the globe, beginning in South Africa during apartheid followed by the Somali Civil War and the Rwandan genocide and the Balkans and our forever wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and lastly, before his reluctant retirement a few years ago, Syria. At the heart of Paul’s story, from which I have so far derived two plays, two poetry collections, an opera, and a failed TV pitch, is a photograph he took of the body of a U.S. Army Ranger dragged from the wreckage of a downed Black Hawk helicopter and desecrated in the streets of Mogadishu in 1993. This photograph, which received a Pulitzer Prize, resulted in the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Somalia and emboldened an ascendant Al Qaeda with the lesson that a single well-placed atrocity—and, more importantly, images of that atrocity—could defeat the world’s greatest superpower. Paul claims that just before he took this photograph he heard the voice of the dead soldier speak to him, both in his head and out: “If you do this I will own you forever.” Paul took the picture anyway. And every day since he has lived in fear that he will be punished—drastically and ultimately—for this moral transgression. When he was stoned and stabbed by a mob in Mosul in 2004, when last year he nearly succumbed to a bout of blood poisoning related to his polycystic kidney disease, he felt that judgment had come at last.
But the paradox of trauma and guilt aside, why was Paul drawn toward war to begin with? Perhaps because his father was a World War II vet who survived D-Day, only to die of polycystic kidney disease when Paul was two years old; and because Paul was born with just one hand he could never go to war himself. Probably his brain chemistry was, for whatever reason, naturally depressed, and the thrill of war provided a steady stream or cascade of dopamine hits that could make him feel at least temporarily “normal.” Whatever the cause, the young Paul Watson had an instinctive, desperate need to experience conflict—first as a freelance “war tourist” in his college years, then as a self-avowed adrenaline-junkie on the payroll of Hemingway’s Toronto Star, then the LA Times. Paul has never been ashamed to admit that he finds war thrilling.
Stories of war, too, can be thrilling, as we all know. Most war stories excite by lying about war, erasing chaos and carnage while hyperbolizing glory and valor. But even the truthful war story thrills—by conveying how the awful awareness of violence casts reality in a sharper relief, revealing to us a world more beautiful because it is more fragile and perilous than we had imagined. As Tim O’Brien writes in “How to Tell a True War Story”: “A true war story is never about war. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do.”
I wanted to tell Paul Watson’s story of a man haunted by war because I was haunted by my childhood. Survivors of child abuse often describe the homes they come from as war zones, and their emergent psychologies as post-traumatically stressed into any variety of disorders. When I began working with Paul I was physically free of my family but terrified that I was in some way fundamentally cursed, that my escape could never be countenanced by the cosmos and therefore, like Paul Watson’s, my judgment was fast approaching. I feared that I was “owned” by the trauma of my upbringing, just as Paul was owned by his photo of that soldier.
During a talkback after the performance of my first play about Paul, a discussion in which Paul and I had been rehashing much of the trauma in the play, a somewhat exasperated New Yorker raised his hand and asked us both: “But are you happy now?” I believe Paul answered Socratically—“Happy about what?”—which made everybody laugh uneasily; I said something sad about life always finding a way to present you with a new conflict, if you’re just patient enough. What I didn’t feel able to talk about publicly at the time was that my wife had been recently diagnosed with breast cancer, and was at home in California in the middle of her extensive treatment; and within a few weeks I would go home and find myself diagnosed with cancer, too.
I worried for a long time—I still worry sometimes—that our cancers came as retribution for the transgression of writing about Paul’s transgression of taking a picture of war. The traumatized are desperate for connections. Paul feels significantly responsible for 9/11; the pulverized World Trade Center coated Jessica’s apartment in Battery Park in dust, and surely despite HEPA filters we were inhaling that poison for months. It was September 11, 2015, when Jessica discovered her lump. But of course I’ll never know. Perhaps the cancers were retribution for the transgression of leaving my family—though in truth they left me, or it was mutual. I had written so many ugly things about abuse and war over the years. I wanted nothing more now than to repent, to renounce what I’d written—even never to write again, so long as I could be forgiven and survive.
So: though I have never been to war, I am classified as a survivor. I have been treated for a metastatic yet treatable colon cancer, and have now lived two and a half years post-treatment without evidence of its presence in my body.
Of course one can survive many things in addition to war—concentration camps and earthquakes, for example; many readers of this essay have survived bereavements, accidents, assaults. But the cancer-war analogy is common, probably because cancer is common. Four out of ten of us will receive a cancer diagnosis at some point in our lives, while only 8 percent of us are military veterans (and only about half of a percent of Americans are serving in the military at any given time). But the bellicose metaphors are abundant and clichéd: we battle cancer; anybody with cancer is a warrior, an almost classical hero—certainly the protagonist in a highest-of-stakes drama. And cancer is the arch-antagonist, a humanized yet inhumanly cruel adversary we must annihilate at all costs.
Some of the grosser similarities between cancer and war have to do with the horrors of the damaged body, the humiliations of tubes and fluids, and the mutilations of life-extending and sometimes lifesaving surgeries.
Then there is the bombardment of radiation, and chemotherapy like chemical warfare in which surgical masks are sometimes worn like Great War gas masks defending a compromised immunity from the mustard gas of everyday microbes and viruses. Cancer treatment is overall a long march; in its final months, like trench warfare. We develop a siege mentality. We are being held hostage and tortured.
And when cancer or at least treatment is over, if we are lucky enough to return or escape from war, like a veteran, like a refugee, we find ourselves living in the aftermath with some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder. We experience flashbacks and nightmares, repetitive and distressing images, physical sensations that trigger like a mild summer cold reminding us of the sandbagged limbs of the sickbed, the frazzled numb extremities of neuropathy, or an after-dinner mint like a madeleine moment sucking us back into the months when incessant minting was required to counteract the nauseating taste of our chemo-scoured tongues.
Many survivors of both war and cancer may succumb to the life-and-death intrapersonal conflict that is suicide. Paul Watson has often said that, when his PTSD was at its untreated worst, he would choose to return again and again to war zones in a half-passive attempt to get himself killed; he lacked the courage, he said, to do it for himself. Thankfully my brain is wired more for strenuous anxiety than despair; when I was deep in the trenches of my treatment, a doctor, ticking through bullet points, asked whether I was experiencing any “thoughts of self-harm,” and I was baffled: “No, no”—I nearly shouted—“I want to live.”
My wife and I employ the cancer-war analogy all the time. In our most private if not shameful moments we may even miss the war because we seemed to know then what mattered: this moment, the love given and received within this moment, the beauty and pleasure of being absorbed with no thought or emotion greater than gratitude. We desired then only to survive the conflict of cancer so that we might inhabit more such moments in the future—any future.
And when by some miracle of medicine or fortune or God we find we have survived months, then years, post-treatment into a future in which we are living in Hampstead in London, and I am receiving “in the post” a literary journal from Boston containing poems I wrote four years ago while my wife convalesced in bed at noon post-mastectomy; where I go running in the afternoon in a heath; where I am collecting our pigeon-chasing, boisterous, somehow-almost-six-year-old daughter in her pale-blue gingham uniform at the wrought-iron gate of a centuries-old church—I feel that I have been delivered back into the world but the world is changed. Or I am: a race apart. Only another survivor can understand where I’ve been and where I am and where I may or may not be going. I feel stronger. If I have survived cancer then surely I can survive a rejection, a review. Other times I know I am letting myself down. Having survived all that, why am I muddled again by the old concerns, the petty worries, the frontal lobe? Why is the world less beautiful again? Is it because I feel safe?
Now, there are countless reasons why the cancer-war analogy rankles and rightly offends, and here are a few: nobody enlists for cancer; the vast majority of soldiers are young while most cancer patients are middle-aged or older (though of course it’s not just soldiers who can be devastated by war); the cancer patient is not required to commit state-sanctioned murder.
The analogy also implies that those who have survived cancer have fought harder or better, been more tactical or religious or “positive,” than those who have not survived. It is only a further leap to believe that those who have developed cancer must have done something in the first place to deserve it. When I was newly diagnosed, a Russian acupuncturist in Venice Beach informed me that my cancer was caused by my unexpressed anger (my conflict aversion?); I told her to shove it and slammed her office door on my way out. Maybe such victim-blaming is forgivable in reference to dedicated longtime smokers, or Instagrammers on vacation in Chernobyl or Fukushima, but a quick tour of the pediatric cancer ward should cure anybody of the notion that cancer makes much sense. Like those of war, the causes of cancer are manifold and overdetermined and mysterious and far more complex than any one of our singular lives.
So the metaphor is flawed. Yet it is useful, and compelling. I at least feel that I have been to war; and I have come back with new knowledge. What should I do, then, with my new knowledge?
Or more germane to my subject in this essay: How did the conflict of cancer change how I write?
I try to write as honestly and explicitly as I can about suffering more broadly. I choose to engage with my subjects in the struggle of their stories as I have been accompanied and succored in my struggle by the stories of others. I participate in the ugliness in my stories because I know it’s not ugliness I’m after but the high-relief beauty of Tim O’Brien’s dawn spreading out across a river, the river of time we are walking beside knowing that eventually every one of us will have to march into the mountains and do the thing we are afraid to do.
I wish to write now about only that which is high-stakes for me—that is, what matters to me, and what matters is what scares me, infuriates me, disturbs me; what matters is what I am trying to figure out about life while there is life. My objective as the protagonist-writer has never been clearer. And I know what doesn’t matter—professional striving and competitiveness—because when I could climb the stairs only maybe once a day, when sitting up in bed took too much effort, I didn’t care what others thought of me. I try to retain this kind of useful disregard. I write slower now because what’s the rush? I write as fast as I can because what are we all waiting for? I don’t write for anybody, other than my wife and daughter, because I know it’s entirely possible I won’t be around to see what I’ve written produced or published or in any way “received.” A deadline means something very different now.
I feel braver. Before cancer I was researching the Sandy Hook shooting but I couldn’t quite face it; now I am writing the play because how can I not as a father with a child in America? And it’s distressing; it is a choice I make with fear; I would like to turn away, to write about less difficult subjects or even sometimes to stop writing altogether. Some primitive part of me doesn’t want to type these words, as if simply committing the words metastatic and retribution to paper or to the screen could somehow invite more trauma. But another thing I know now is that nobody can hide.
If you take my advice—if any of this has been advice—I don’t know whether your writing will improve. I doubt your writing will become more marketable. A lot of people won’t care about what you care about, or they won’t care for the way you tell it. The world is crowded with concerns, after all, and human begins can bear only so much reality—in their entertainment especially. So the reality of any punishing conflict will always be a hard sell.
As I alluded to earlier, I have pitched only one television series in my career to date. Paul Watson and I concocted it together and we called it The Zone, which is, I acknowledge now in retrospect, of course a fad low-carb diet. Our Zone endeavored to tell the documentary-style saga of Western journalists covering the war zone of Syria (with each new season we imagined our setting shifting around the globe to a different war zone—Yemen, Libya, Somalia again). We spent months preparing, developing a treatment of characters and conflicts and storylines, and weeks “taking meetings” at all the prestige networks, but in the end our pitch failed. It failed for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that the war in Syria had already failed as a narrative for the American audience. Just when the infotainment conglomerates thought they had a protagonist in the Syrian National Front, al-Nusra, also known as Al Qaeda in Syria, arrived on the scene and confused everybody’s sympathies; then ISIS, then Russia … The Syria conflict was and remains a mess, a miasma of antagonists, a story hard to understand and therefore hard to sell.
If conflict makes money, it must be presented as starkly us-against-them. And of course I’m not just talking about entertainment—in this country alone war is a trillion-dollar industry. The line between entertainment and politics in our culture has been tragically perforated for some time, but our current administration’s dominant political gambit is one of brazen deceit. We are lied to regarding the Trump administration’s policy of “family separation” and other brutalities committed against asylum seekers from Mexico, from Central and South America. We are lied to about the presence and virulence in our country of racism and misogyny, trans- and homophobia.
And we are being told, yet again, another fiction meant to compel and impel us toward yet another war—this time in Iran. As Vice President Pence said to West Point grads this past spring: “It is a virtual certainty that you will fight on a battlefield for America at some point in your life.” In other words, more war is (always) coming—against “radical Islamic terrorists” but also, why not, Venezuela, as “some of you may even be called upon to serve in this hemisphere.” Also at West Point, Bush the Second said much the same in 2002, setting the scene for the disastrous and ongoing drama of our felonious invasion of Iraq. Johnson lied about the Gulf of Tonkin, McKinley about the explosion of the USS Maine … History is rife with the weaponization of humanity’s biological predilection for high-stakes drama.
This is why Paul Watson took his photograph that day in Mogadishu in 1993: the Pentagon was lying when it denied on numerous occasions that similar desecrations of American soldiers had been occurring in the weeks prior, and they were able to get away with this because Paul hadn’t provided any photographic evidence—yet. If the true story of what was happening on the ground and in the air in Mogadishu had been known, then the U.S. intervention in Somalia would have appalled the commonsense voter. Policy would have changed, probably lives would have been saved. So Paul told the truth with his art, with his photograph, which is why I believe that, despite his guilt, he did the right thing.
I want to end with an evocation of the most intangible yet arguably most vital kind of conflict in storytelling: the one between the story you tell and the society you live in.
I learned this early, and like many valuable lessons it begins in humiliation. I was telling some joke over and over, as children do, until my father far above me snapped: “Shut up, Danny. It’s not funny anymore.”
After my older brother Chris tried to kill himself by leaping from a window in our attic, an act I witnessed, we would all eat dinner together every night—something we rarely did before—because Mother had gleaned from her self-help books that children need a stable family unit. So our dining room table became a nightly stupefying lie of normality. The truth was that Mother despised how Father chewed: too much and too loudly; how he hunched and picked at the iceberg lettuce with his fork. My brother Chris’s lubricious mouth-sounds turned her stomach, too. Father for his part ignored Mother down there at the foot of the table, unless it was to ask without looking, “Where’d you get this meat?” (despite the fact that Mother often said she had only given us food poisoning once, when she—and we—were very young so what was the big deal) or to ridicule her for saying something “idiotic.” He’d shake his head with disgust if she forgot, yet again, to serve the chicken with his cranberry sauce, sloughed out of its tin can and sliced with a butter knife (only Father liked the stuff; Peter ate it but he ate anything). Pam, home from college, would just sit there inconsequentially nervous. Chris would say nothing while staring at nothing. That nothing was across the table where I would be sitting, so he stared at me, or rather through me, at the beige wallpaper, with the miserably hateful expression of the incarcerated, answering any question lobbed his way with one word—one syllable if he could manage it. A thatch of dark chest hairs sprouted in the gaping collar of his Izod; the seat of his pants or summer shorts stuck lightly to the seat of the wooden chair whenever he fidgeted or stood, and we would snicker behind his back: such execrable hygiene! which shouldn’t have been funny because if he wasn’t washing—his self or his clothes—then chances were high he was considering suicide again. Carrie chirping beside Mother, Baby Timmy on Mother’s other side refusing to eat, wisely; and all the while I was doing everything I could to undermine our father with my jokes at his expense, especially when he had just barked something cruel about ethnic minorities or women or gays, or his wife and children. The closer I could cut to his bone the better—and the funnier. I made the long table laugh, or twitter at least, that whole captive audience of our unhappy brood. Even my father had to chuckle sometimes, as if he hadn’t understood himself to be the butt of my joke; or he did understand but didn’t have the wit to retaliate. I played the fool to his thick-headed Lear at the dining room table just as I would in my life moving forward, because he’s right: it isn’t funny anymore. It never was. It’s life and death and I want to live.
Dan O’Brien is a playwright and poet and recent Guggenheim Fellow in Drama. His play The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage received the 2018 PEN America Award for Drama