“Who Am I?”
By Marvin Payne
“Jane Eyre” closed after a thunder-and-lightning run, and I came home and that very night buzzed off all the “chocolate cascade” hair (didn’t take long) that had me looking yea, verily, shall we say, sixteen months younger than I really am, on account of my character, Rochester, now instantly a couple of centuries deceased, was about sixteen years younger than I really am. The next morning I got up for church looking all gray-haired and exactly like me and got to be my own age for about three days, because then the white goatee began to show, because I’m now on my way to being sixteen years older than I really am, this time as Don Quixote. (I’m glad it’s mostly just age I have to put on – my insanity level and his are probably about equal.)
(Next age jump is even twelve years older than Quixote, being the age of J. Golden Kimball in his final year of jabbing, tormenting, and tickling the Saints. ((The promotional line is, “The most talked-about General Authority since Jonah was regurgitated onto the beach.”)) )
It’s easy to wonder, “How old am I, anyway?” I mean, it’s written down somewhere, but if it’s this fluid maybe it doesn’t really matter much. Really, a more fundamental question would be “Who am I anyway?” Don Quixote didn’t ask that question, because he was quite certain who he was – an invincible white knight bringing hope and rescue to the downtrodden and oppressed. Of course he was wrong, but hey, maybe that’s the crux of the story. I mean, whether or not he was wrong. Really.
This can be a challenging thing for an actor, this “Who am I?” thing. Peter Sellers, for example, is said to have been kind of lost when he had to be, say, Peter Sellers instead of Inspector Clouseau. (Should that have an “x” at the end of it? Would it be more quintessentially French if it were “Cleusieux“? Ieux well…)
In his last film role (excluding The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu, which most everybody does – exclude, I mean), he played a guy who sort of had no identity, and he did it frightfully well. When Mr. Sellers guest-starred on “The Muppet Show,” he refused to appear as himself. People have asked if he knew who he was. I, for example, as one of the people, have asked if he knew who he was. Maybe that’s because I ask myself the same thing, even if “people,” generally, aren’t exactly aflame with curiosity over the matter.
Nor, I suggest, are they exactly aflame with curiosity over who they are, because of our curious habit of defining ourselves in terms of what we do. It’s easy for me to imagine, for example, a tractormonger reading this column and saying, “Hey, I get paid pretty good money for pushing John Deeres off the showroom floor. Am I then not allowed to think that who I am is a tractormonger?” Well, sure. But if I were to get paid for being Don Quixote, couldn’t I retort, “Hey, I get paid pretty good money” (this is hypothetical, remember) “for assaulting windmills. Shouldn’t I then think that who I am is a sixteenth-century Spaniard borrowing a white goatee from a twenty-first-century Meridian columnist?”
This is the old harangue, of course, about the tension between “who” you are and “what” you are. You might think you could torpedo the tension simply by observing that you really are a tractormonger, whereas I am a mere actor pretending to be this goateed Spaniard. But what happens when John Deere determines that you have lost your ability to answer the recommend questions right, and you are excluded from the showroom? Or you’ve started showing up for work in a fedora, and they fire you on the basis of “incongruent image.” Or maybe they “downsize,” which requires no logic or justification whatever. Which brings me to where we started: “‘Jane Eyre’ closed …”
Getting fired is almost always a surprise. Your house burning down is generally a surprise. Getting divorced is, in most cases I think, at least a delayed surprise. You’d think that closing a show wouldn’t in any way be a surprise – I mean, you are sufficiently literate to read a calendar. But on Saturday night you have a job (in Rochester’s case, “gentleman”), a house (in Rochester’s case, Thornfield Manor, which, I suddenly remember with some embarrassment, does actually burn down during the show – this would be eighteen times, but then, it’s always back up again, de-burned, for the next performance), and (finally! after nearly three hours of “Will they? Won’t they? How could they possibly? What are they thinking?), a marriage. Then on Monday morning you wake up (skipping Sunday here, day of rest from all forms of pretense, both onstage and in the John Deere showroom) and you’re without a job, without a manor, and without the girl (Wait! Who’s gonna raise our son?! Oh yeah, plastic doll that entered ninety seconds before the final curtain and didn’t even get a bow. ((In “Saturday’s Warrior” on the road we usually kidnapped a real baby from the lobby for that scene – my grown son David’s theatrical debut was as Emily Flinders.)) ) I won’t even remind you that I am also without the chocolate cascade hair.
But you’re not Edward Fairfax Rochester, you’re Conrad Columnreader, lately of John Deere, and maybe your absence from the showroom isn’t a matter of worthiness, but a matter of conflagration of said showroom, so your sudden unemployment is even less deserved and less logical than it would have been as a result of downsizing (if you can imagine that), and you’re suddenly divorced from all your friends at whom you never even threw saucepans, much less on whom you ever threatened to walk out. It gives one pause. In this case, it gives two pause – you and me.
(Four days after “Jane Eyre” closed, it felt so good to be, for fourteen hours straight, a fiend of the infernal pit. I knew who I was again – somebody was actually paying me to be scruffy and coarse and to yank on the chains of Joseph and the brethren lying cramped on the floor of Richmond Jail trying to sleep. Peter Sellers would have loved it – might not entirely have understood it, but loved it. And if I were to forget my identity for even a moment, Joseph would rise to his feet and remind me ((this happened about thirty-eight times, not because the Joseph actor wasn’t getting it right, it’s just because he had to chastise us fiends from several different angles)) ).
But now both the show and the showroom are closed and you and I ask, “Who are we?” (Maybe you don’t ask. I’ll wait for your column about this – or hey, you can e-mail me! This is always welcome.)
The Asking: Am I the elders quorum president? About one day in seven, I act like one, but I’ll get released soon (it’s confusing to my elders to be led by all these brooding Gothic enigmas and nutty Spaniards and cussing cowboy General Authorities). Am I the Meridian Columnist? Only until somebody in Editorial wakes up and asks, “How long are we gonna let this guy get away with this, anyhow?” Am I the tractormonger? No, this would require the possession of marketable skills. Am I the Provider, Protector, and Presider over my family? Hit and miss – and even when it’s “hit,” some little voice inside me is admitting that the Lord (the real Provider, Protector, and Presider) is just letting me pretend to be those things, for what I might learn about Him while I’m pretending. (Hmm … acting!)
Then am I Casey Terry and Leah Ledbetter’s home teacher? That somehow starts to feel closer to the truth, like I’m getting “warm.” The flag out front of the cabin is flapping out northward right now. I think four-year-old John Riley and I will take down the kite this afternoon. “Warmer.” On the table in the stairwell is my seven-year-old Caitlin Willow’s handmade Valentine to me: “Hickle-dee foo, I love you.” “Way warmer.” I rewind to last night and I suddenly see my wife Laurie’s face across the kitchen table that is strewn with bills and penciled calculations. In the non-sequitur of the century, her eyes soften and she says the words that are always a surprise and an amazement, “I love you.”
Hey, I know who I am. Pray for Inspector Clouseau.
“…come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift…” (from the last page of the Book of Mormon)