A Hard Man

It's interesting to me... When I'm working on a show, the themes and issues from that show run around in my brain 24-7. And I see the world through the lens of those ideas. And this allows me to see things and consider things that never even occurred to me before.

Cast in point: The Congressman with Republican Tourette's, Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina), who yelled, "You lie!" at the President during his address to the joint session of Congress. It was mean and ignorant, but more than anything else, it was cold. And it was just like the Town Hall meetings in August, where people shouted down folks in wheelchairs, waved posters of Obama dressed as Hitler, and talked of secession. Much of this is born of fear -- and too big a slice is fear of a Black President -- and most of it is about de-humanizing Obama. It is to make him "Other," just like soldiers do to an enemy in wartime, so that they can attack him and call themselves patriots for it. It allows them to hate him and slander him, but still call themselves Christians.

At its heart, it is a lack of empathy, elevated to DEFCON 1. These people can't feel what the impact of their actions must feel like to the other person. They have no empathy. (Remember the Conservatives mocking the idea of empathy during the Sonia Sotomayor hearings?)

And being in the midst of Love Kills, I've been thinking a lot lately about empathy and about recent brain research that I've already discussed here. If it's true that a lack of physical affection in a kid's early years leads to an under-developed frontal lobe and therefore an absence of empathy, then you have to wonder if that leads us back to the kind of child-rearing Conservative America was practicing in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. From what I remember (being born in 1964), the more conservative families we knew were very formal with each other and there was very little physical touching but a lot of physical punishment. Now I can't help wondering what those folks' frontal lobes looked like...!

Admitting to being only an amateur psychologist and totally biased to the Left politically, who knows for sure, but I wonder if the kind of authoritarian family structure that much of America lived under during the mid-20th century has led us to this slash-and-burn, lie-without-shame, angry, crazy, Apocalyptic political landscape.

And it leads me to re-examine the character of the Sheriff in Love Kills. It never occurred to me before that he just might not feel any real empathy for others, not because he's mean or hard but because that part of his brain never developed, because he had a distant, authoritarian father. He has a song called "Hard Man," in which he tells us his father taught him to be that way, but maybe it was just as much about the structure of his brain.

And that leads me to see that Empathy is one of the central themes of this show. Charlie Starkweather doesn't have empathy and neither does Caril; they can both kill without remorse. They are unable to imagine how another person feels and therefore they don't feel the horror of the murder. Which is also why their love has no depth -- they need each other but don't understand real love. Both Charlie and Caril seem to have an inkling of this at the end of the show...

But Merle's lack of empathy serves him well in his job. (It probably also served him well in World War II, just 15 years earlier.) Merle is an enforcer of the law -- it doesn't matter if the criminal is a nice guy or not; it only matters if he's a criminal. Merle doesn't get emotionally involved in his work. But maybe this is the work he does because he doesn't get emotionally involved. And then what does that tell us about his marriage? In one telling exchange, Gertrude says, "Love isn't the same as need," and Merle responds, "Yes it is. That's exactly what it is." In a lot of ways, Merle is like Don Draper, the hero of Mad Men. Which I think bolsters my argument.

But Gertrude feels empathy. She identifies with Caril. She feels her sadness. She can put herself in Caril's place. But can we assume she had a more loving childhood? Who knows? But what a sad story this is -- both in micro and in macro, both for these fucked up kids and for mid-century America. These four disconnected people trying to connect to anyone or anything, but three of them not being able to feel how another person feels. It makes connection impossible. And it gives Charlie his Shakespearean Tragic Flaw.

I love working on this!

Long Live the Musical!