“Only you and your darkness know who you are,” Amber Tamblyn wrote last week.
She was talking to fellow actor James Woods, who’d accused her of lying when she said he’d made a parking-lot pass at her when she was 16.
But she might have been talking to Bill Cosby, or to Sheriff Joe Arpaio, or to the president of the United States. Or to any of us who’s ever shaded the truth about what we want or what we’re up to.
We’re so disillusioned these days, so calloused about spin. We’ve been lied to by our idols, deceived by our leaders, conditioned by experience after experience to believe that no one’s ever really telling the truth.
In Woolly’s current production, protagonist George Betterman asks a version of this question when he demands, “Where’s it going to get us if we start assuming everyone’s an arsonist?”
He’s not just asking about the how, though that’s certainly part of the conversation in that scene; he’s getting at the why of the matter, too. How do we run a society, how do we live as part of a society, when you can’t trust anything anybody says?
Betterman isn’t a better man or a braver one than we are — in the original his name is Biedermann, and in German “bieder” means things like “small,” “ordinary,” “average,” “tame,” “conservative,” along with the marginally more complimentary “decent” and “honest.” But if he’s nobody’s hero, at least he’s asking: “Why should I assume the worst about you? Why can’t we trust each other at least long enough to get acquainted?”
We don’t have to look far to see why questions like that matter. Today, as senators scramble to pass a health-care bill that would leave a vast swath of details and decisions up to the states, but insist that pre-existing conditions would still be covered, whose analysis are we to credit?
And as the White House denies the Turkish president’s claim that our own leader apologized to him over the indictments of Turkish security officials in a D.C.-sidewalk brawl outside Turkey’s embassy, whom do we believe — the increasingly autocratic leader of a once-stable NATO member, or the president of Turkey?
These aren’t little questions. These are things that go to the heart of who we are. Will we be a civil society, or a society that turns a blind eye to civil violence? Are we a nation run by and for all its stakeholders, or only by and for those lucky enough to be shareholders?
“When someone shows you who they are, believe them — the first time,” the novelist and poet Maya Angelou famously urged. George Betterman waits too late, in The Arsonists, to see who his houseguests really are, rather than reading the signs, listening to their own words, and trusting his gut about what it all means.
In the real world, just as in the world of The Arsonists, the signs we need are everywhere. In the play, Betterman even has a Chorus of watchful firefighters to help him make sense of them — to draw attention to the clues, to prod him when he pauses, to demand that he at least acknowledge what he’s seeing.
“I have the right not to think anything at all,” is his indignant reply. And the Chorus, bound by the ancient rules of the theater to observe, to analyze, to caution, and to cry out — but never to act — can’t do a damn thing about it.
Sound familiar? We Americans, by law, have a Chorus of our own, its free-press prerogatives enshrined in the First Amendment. It’s constantly observing, analyzing, cautioning, and even crying out.
The acting, though: That’s up to us.
Trey Graham is the writer and social-media specialist on The Arsonists. For two decades, he covered D.C.-area theater for the Washington City Paper, where his work earned him the George Jean Nathan Award for distinguished drama criticism. He’s been published in American Theatre magazine, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and his arts-journalism career also included a nice long stint on staff at NPR, where he was part of the team that created Pop Culture Happy Hour.