Several years ago, when I fell on rough times, I decided to rent out space in my bedside drawer to a small theatre company who were preparing for a production of the Jew of Malta. They kept to themselves mostly and didn’t bother me except that I had to leave the drawer open at night so they could breathe. In bed, with my head rested on the pillow, I felt acutely the narrow distance between the sharp corner of the open drawer and my eye. I would squirm inwardly, knowing that at any point in the night I might swing my head out of bed and have my eye penetrated by that splint of laminated wood.
I confided this fear to the girl playing the part of Abigail during one of our brief chats. I told her how I would be relieved when the day finally came that my eyes were actually plucked from their sockets. My castration anxiety too, I thought, might be alleviated by being castrated, but I didn’t mention this to her. It would have to be the whole way, no half measures. Americans and Jews are the most neurotic people on Earth, precisely because they have taken their castration only halfway. If you want a life without neurosis you need to be completely intact or entirely destroyed. Living marginally just won’t do at all. It’s the same with my eyes, which have always been poor. The sooner I have them poked out by beaks ー the sooner I am told that some terminal cancer will rot them out of my skull ー the sooner I will sleep at night.
The girl told me that she had a longstanding fear of being trapped. She couldn’t see out of the drawer, but at the time I was nervously twiddling the handle with my thumb and forefinger as we spoke. Perhaps I was making minute vibrations that were perceptible only to those in the drawer. I stopped. The girl went on to say that she felt somewhat alienated from herself in her role as an actress. It wasn’t so much her words that alienated her, but the physicality of it. She didn’t feel that her body belonged to herself, but rather to the company director; to the audience; to the many outfits it inhabited. I told her I knew what she meant. I said “I know what you mean,” but really I was thinking about how I might have sex with her, if I had really wanted to ー what the logistics of that might be, her being so very small. She was dressed as a nun, or rather she was dressed as a girl who was pretending to be a nun.
That night I had a mad dream, and I must have thrashed about quite a bit because I woke up with a long cut along my arm. God knows what the production company thought of me when I doubtless woke them up in the night by slamming my arm against their little drawer corner. I’d probably knocked them out of their beds, but they were too polite to mention it in the morning. That was the very worst thing, having to suffer their polite reservations. I’d rather have them chew my head off and get it over with instead of having to rumble on with the slow, dull ache of embarrassment. What a landlord I was! shaking them up like that. I’ve been told that now and again I speak during the night, the formless moans sometimes coagulating into words and phrases. They write everything I say down. I have seen their notebooks.
To experience the conscious mind is really only to watch the stage, the invisible hand of the director is all that gives the illusion of spontaneity, of control. I cannot help it if I say things at night. Not unless I accost one of the actors and expose the play as a fraud. Or if I literalise it by actually boiling Barabus in his cauldron. These are the two paths of intervention and the only possible freedoms. Coleridge says that the play’s power depends on us believing it, but what man would stand idly by and watch a man boiled to death if he had any sympathy with him? What man would watch a girl poisoned by her father without rushing the stage, or at the very least, screaming a warning? No, we enjoy the play because we only half believe it. This is why the pantomime is the truest form of theatre. It is also Britain’s best artform and solid proof that we deserve extermination. Teach your children to advance the stage with knives hidden in their bootstraps. Teach them to stab Widow Twankey multiple times in the neck. I resolved that night to close the drawer.
I watched the company throughout the day as I lay in bed pretending to read. I watched Abigail pretend to choke on poison in her habit before taking a coffee break. I watched Barabus being lowered into an empty, plastic cauldron. A party of frauds, us all. I asked the girl playing Abigail if performing the play was problematic to her, it being antisemitic propaganda. She told me the best way to present the play was in its original antisemitic form, the context of the twenty-first century stripping it of its noxious elements. The play, she said, actually comes to condemn itself once it has passed through every cultural shift between now and c.1590. What we see as the sympathetic elements of Barabas were never meant to be anything more than Jewish tricks. We imbue them with a reflexive meaning all of our own simply by presenting them to a modern audience. She said that we can never, ever experience the play in its original form, and that each iteration was a new play with its own tiresome elements.
That night I played with the handle of the drawer while the company slept. Just one hard push was all it needed, but I couldn’t convince myself that it wouldn’t just make things more multifaceted, more complicated. Worse, I couldn’t convince myself that to experience nothing of the company really would be better than the double-entendres and the paradoxes; better than the cultural and historical contexts; better than the amorphous nature of this and every other performance. There would still be a plethora of floating, inharmonious elements that I would have to stew in. A pure-white room has its own complexities. My eye still seemed to revolve around that sharp edge, connected by an invisible string. I know one day that string will tighten and the two will connect violently while those little people endlessly repeat the same (but not the same, never the same) play forever. In the end I had a quick wank and that seemed to do the trick.