Sunday, October 28, 2018

Body Count

When I published my one-act play “Code Five” earlier this year, I was open in admitting it mirrored my own difficulties with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.).  I told few at the time about the odd occurrences that came just before and after its acceptance.  This is that story.

“Code Five” is a two-person show where a solitary therapy session (after five years of treatment) creates the breakthrough for a young man who is mentally tortured after surviving a mass shooting.  It dramatizes the destruction of lives that can occur when a person lives through a violent crime.  A survivor is supposed to feel like they are one of the lucky ones but it often doesn’t work that way.

When I first sent it to my publisher, they were open to the idea of a play about P.T.S.D.  They had, in fact, been actively looking for one.  After their first read in late summer, the response was lukewarm.  It was generally felt that the play was missing something, some small bit of humanity that needed to be fleshed out.  They liked the overall story but asked me to have another run at it using some of their suggestions. I reluctantly agreed.

I don’t have a problem taking suggestions from an editor.  I’ve been doing this professionally for twenty-five years this December.  But I really didn’t want to dig back into this story.  It was hard enough to write initially and I had already put it through five drafts before I offered it up for publishing.  Each time I would revisit the story the pain was still there, though it had been more than twenty years since I had been the victim.  Sometimes I would begin to cry and have to get up and walk around outside until I could pull myself together.

I finally came up with an idea to incorporate most of my publisher’s suggestions.  I finished a sixth draft and resubmitted it in late September.  It took quite a bit longer to hear back the second time.  It made me very nervous, thinking that perhaps my rewrite had destroyed what they liked about the piece.  Finally, I wrote them and asked if there was a problem with my play or if, perhaps, Mr. Tech-Savvy-Playwright had e-mailed the document into the Internet ether.  No, I was assured, we will get to it, they were in fact looking forward to it, but they were VERY busy.  Okay, I thought.  Good enough. 

By the time they got back to me, it was December.  They couldn’t say enough good things about it.  They said I had addressed EVERY ONE of their concerns and that the piece was near perfect.  “A couple of my readers CRIED when they read this,” I was told.  It was accepted for publication.  They sent me a galley late in the month and I agreed to check it over the holidays and have it back to them in early January.

When I finally opened the file between Christmas and the New Year, it was the previous version of the story.  With no one in the office until January 2nd, I sat on my hands and waited to hear back.  They promptly responded to my e-mail after the holiday and sent me another galley.  It was still the wrong one.  “The one you’re looking for is the full-length one,” I explained.  “The one with four more characters.”  They were even happier to hear that.  Four more characters meant four more scripts to sell.  I resent the sixth draft so it would be right in front of them and they promised to get back to me promptly.  Here’s where things got weird.

“We’d like to stick with the one-act version if that’s okay with you,” they explained.  It just has so much heart.”  I said okay.  They’d always seemed to have my best interests at heart.  I signed the paperwork and took a deep cleansing breath, eager to write comedy again.  One thing bugged me though. 

The version that they accepted in December was the same one they equivocated on in August.  NOT ONE WORD of the text had been changed in the fifth draft.  But something changed…what was it?  When it finally hit me, I cried again.

It was the body count.  Not in the play, but in America.  In August, there were no mass shootings that stayed in the news.  We’ve seen that the murders of two or three people sometimes can’t even top the news cycle, much less hold it for more than a day.  But in October a mad man mowed down 58 people at a music festival in Las Vegas.  November’s headlines were about a church in Texas where 26 had been killed.  In December, the play that had been missing something in August hit them viscerally in the gut.

I woke up to the headlines today about Pittsburgh and can’t imagine the pain in that city or in the Jewish community.  I mourn for those who lost their lives.  I worry about those that remain.

Again, the point of my play was about the collateral damage.  The incident I was involved in might have rated a blip in the newspapers but it affected me profoundly.  What will become of the people who didn’t die in the Synagogue?  Will someone lose their faith because they can’t believe in a God who would allow the slaughter of the devout?  Will someone take their own life because they can’t reconcile their survival with the loss of life for others?  Will one of the police officers involved be quicker to fire their weapons when threatened?  As children weep for lost parents, we dither and speak in platitudes and indulge in what-ifs.  The only thing certain is that we will hear little or nothing about Pittsburgh after another, larger, shooting.   

Sadly, today we all understand one thing that rolls around in the head of deranged killers.  The wounded left lying in hospital beds and the devastated lives of uninjured survivors are unimportant.  Whether its journalism on the front page of a newspaper or a fictional piece in a drama catalog, it’s only the body count that matters.

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