Theater archives

Documenting Tragedy


Honorable, hardworking, and immaculately staged by its co-author PJ Paparelli,
is a vivid illustration of both the virtues and the dangers of theater that aspires to documentary status. Its last few scenes, which cover in detail the events leading up to the mass killings at Columbine High School in 1999 and the collective trauma they left behind, are inevitably devastating, and not just because the taped sound effect of the 9mm gunshots is forceful enough to set every armrest in New York Theatre Workshop’s auditorium vibrating.

As in the greatest tragedies, we know what’s going to happen, and know that it can’t be avoided. But in tragedy we know that what happens is both inevitable and fictive; history, especially history as recent as the Columbine killings, is a more fluid matter. We know that Medea will kill her kids, or that Hamlet will kill his murderous uncle and then die, because a poet drawing on a body of myth has told us so: Our interest is in seeing how it happens, and in what resonances the poet’s way of telling it can rouse in us. That there was a historical Hamlet who killed his historical uncle several hundred years before Shakespeare doesn’t matter much; Shakespeare had the story secondhand anyway, and freely changed it around to suit his poetic purposes. (There was a lot of shocked grumbling among American book reviewers in 1940, when James Branch Cabell’s sardonic novel Hamlet Had an Uncle went back to the brutality of the original Danish chronicle.)

Recent history, in an age when the sound and image of every recordable event are digitized for perpetual replay, limits the available poetic strategies. We know the facts. We’re stuck with them. Anyone can devastate us with their simple recitation. The challenge for theater artists is: What can you add to the facts to make an experience bigger and more meaningful than a simple assemblage of news clips?

The United States Theatre Project, the ensemble with which Paparelli and co-writer Stephen Karam have created columbinus, tries to answer the question with generalizations. The first half of the evening is a series of impressionist scenes of life for American high schoolers today: waking, showering, and dressing; classes; social tensions in gym, in the cafeteria, and in the hallways between classes; cliques, rivalries, and personality conflicts. The two actors who will play Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris often find themselves on the fringes of the group, shunned, mocked, or harassed by the others.

While not uninteresting to watch— especially since we know what’s coming—these vague washes of event are essentially unenlightening, not only because they’re so familiar but because their familiarity has no relation to the matter at hand. There has never been a high school without cliques and rivalries; if there’s one where students who are “different” in some way are not singled out for ridicule or persecution, it would be front-page news. That children can be brutal to their peers, and adolescents appallingly so, might be a shock to a hermit or to someone who grew up in a Skinner box, but not to anyone who has ever passed through the halls of an American public school. But thousands upon thousands of adolescents have survived four years of high school without confronting anything like the violence perpetrated by Klebold and Harris. Even urban-jungle high schools forced to resort to metal detectors and armed police patrols know virtually nothing like it. A crime is fascinating precisely because it is an exception. Kids are snobs who make fun of anyone who’s weird, geeky, nerdy, impaired, too bright, too dumb, too mannish, too effeminate, too uncoordinated, too tall, too short, too thin, too fat—you name it. And countless thousands of the ridiculed have nurtured fantasies of violent revenge, any number of which have found their way into books, plays, films, TV shows, rock songs, and comic strips. But the number who have actually exacted such revenge is small indeed. Even within the vast group of those for whom humiliation by their peers constitutes a virtual rule, Klebold and Harris were an astonishing, appalling exception.

Columbinus‘s second half, leading up to the slaughter, draws more directly on documents released in evidence or news reports and has some of the harrowing specificity that might have infused the show as a whole. We get to see how teachers, guidance counselors, and therapists all missed the danger signals by asking the wrong questions, not perceiving the two troubled boys’ potential explosiveness because they viewed them as cases instead of people.

But even this fails to evoke the deeper causes. In one very bad strategic move on the show’s part, the two are seen simultaneously dining with their respective families. The two dinner table conversations are made identical, as if to say that dysfunctional family equals dysfunctional family. Tolstoy, one might say, knew better: A dysfunctional family is dysfunctional after its own fashion, and the scary part here was that the two fashions could merge to produce the folie à deux that led to the carnage. The growth of that dual mania, at least, we get to see, in a climactic scene between the two boys, drawn from the tapes and e-mail messages they left behind, during which one of them nearly backs out. Rising to this point, columbinus nearly reverses its ostensible goal, becoming a lesson not in how the tragedy happened, but in how any tragic event caused by human agency might not happen.

The moral, in a sense, is not that Columbine could have been prevented, but that we should be grateful, in a culture as sprawling and violence-ridden and misfocused as ours, for its not happening, somewhere in America, seven times a week. But this opens a set of questions that the makers of columbinus, despite all their goodwill and good work, have barely begun to adumbrate, let alone explore. Their desire to link the experience at Columbine with the experience of every high school has only brought them to the far bigger challenge of analyzing the society in which such high schools, and such children, can exist. For that, the documents of this one horrifying case provide only a quick glance into the abyss. Tragedy needs to stare more deeply.