Marvin's Room, a play about characters afflicted with chronic, wasting diseases, was written by Scott McPherson, who died of AIDS in 1992, at the age of 33. The irony here is not that a sick man created a drama about sick people, but that McPherson wrote his play in 1988 at age 29, before he had begun to suffer from the disease that killed him. As John Lamb of St. Louis University has noted, "Oddly, Scotts's life mirrored the play he had written, not the other way around."
The following is from Scott McPherson's obituary, which appeared in The New York Times on November 8, 1992:
Scott W. McPherson, an actor and playwright who wrote Marvin's Room, an award-winning Off Broadway hit, died yesterday at his home in Chicago. . . .
Compressed into a handful of paragraphs in a newspaper, McPherson's life, tragically shortened by illness, sounds uneventful, a bare catalog of modest professional experiences, capped by one highly successful achievement, Marvin's Room. From Columbus, to Chicago, to a bright moment of accomplishment, and then death. In 1988, when he wrote his famous play, he was a healthy young man not yet 30. Where in that brief odyssey did he gain the familiarity with suffering and mortality that suffuses this darkly funny and deeply compassionate work?
An interview with the playwright that appeared in The Boston Globe on October 25, 1992, just days before his death, can help to answer that question.
His first play - 'Til the Fat Lady Sings - was written while he was a 23-year-old senior at Ohio University in Athens. . . . [H]e found the idea for the . . .play in the death of his 21-year-old brother Bret, who was killed in a motorcycle accident. . .
A professor at the university, George Sherman, assigned McPherson to write a sketch "with no jokes, none at all." Says Prof. Sherman,
Scott brought in this 10-minute piece. It was just mindbending - about a funeral, about a brother who had been killed and the effect his death had on a younger brother. And it was incredibly funny. It really dealt with people in pain and discomfort, but in such a perceptive and original way it was undeniable. I told him he had a one-act play and to expand it, to expand the young brother's thoughts and feelings. Which he did. . .
Thus, McPherson's first play flowed directly from his personal experience of loss, and it included the same kind of mordant humor that characterizes his better known work. He comments on this further on in the interview
Mordant, yeah. Well, like, some guys have all the breaks. Mordant's been my life,' McPherson says. 'My father - Sandy McPherson - died when I was two, wrapped his car around a telephone pole. He was 33. My mom had me and my two brothers, Mark and Bret. So we went to live with my grandparents. I loved them. Then they died when I was seven or eight. . . . Then my mother remarried. All of a sudden you're thrown into the Sansbury family - my stepfather's a lawyer - where five strangers - two boys, three girls - are introduced to you as your brothers and sisters. Not the easiest thing in the world. I was in the second grade. There was, like, this enormous unreality about it. It was like the Brady Brunch! But it all worked out.
Even as he looks back over the painful losses and adjustments of his past, we can hear the comic note enter his voice, as he compares his family--doubly ravaged by death-- to t.v.'s saccharine Bradys.
In program notes he wrote for Marvin's Room, McPherson gives us further insight into the kinds of first-hand knowledge about suffering and death that pervade that play:
My grandmother was the first "dying" person I ever knew. I already knew a dead person. My father, Dad, who was once a race car driver and then a married Volkswagen salesman with three baby boys, drove the babysitter home and on his way back to us wrapped his car around a telephone pole, killing himself and disrupting phone conversations on the east side of Columbus for a good couple of hours. But I never thought of my father as a "dying" person. He was alive - and then simply dead.
Here again, a sardonic view of the facts of death colors the playwright's version of his own life: his father's fatal smash-up disrupting phone conversations in Ohio; his grandmother's lingering illness coming between him and Ed Sullivan.
Behind the bland, summary paragraphs of the Times obituary, then, we can see clearly the dark realities of Scott McPherson's brief life: the loss of father, grandparents, and brother, all by the time he was 20; the emotional challenge of entering a large and unknown step-family in early childhood; the shock of being diagnosed HIV positive before the age of 30.
The Globe interview notes,
When he sat down to write Marvin's Room, he wasn't thinking 'consciously about AIDS.' His voice fades, a cough covers his words like a thick cloud. 'When I wrote it, I was HIV positive, but I wasn't thinking of issues, I was thinking of some half-forgotten relatives in Florida I hadn't seen since a very young child. But when I finished it, I realized it was a metaphor for the AIDS epidemic.
By presenting the chronic illnesses that pervade Marvin's Room--the stroke that keeps Marvin in bed, the wasting spine that confines Ruth to a wheelchair, the leukemia that strikes Bessie--as “metaphors” for AIDS, McPherson reminds himself and us of death's ultimate claim on us all, gay or straight.
The action in Marvin's Room takes place in, "Various locations in Florida and a mental institution in Ohio." With eight different settings (including two different parts of Disney World), and rapid transitions from place to place, the staging must be spare and easily altered. Thus, each location will be established by a few elements that evoke its identity rather than by detailed or elaborate scenery; by suggestion rather than literalism. This style of staging is often called "selective realism," and is one of the hallmarks of the modern theater. The "selective" in that term means that only a few, essential features of a setting are presented to the viewer; the word "realism" emphasizes that this style, though not literal in its portrayal of the world, is fundamentally committed conveying an objective viewpoint rather than the subjective vision of a particular character or an author's intentionally skewed perspective.
The play opens in a medical office where Bessie is being examined by Dr. Wally, a comically bumbling physician who has a hard time remembering the names of his instruments or his patients. We learn from their conversation that Bessie's sick father, who is thin as "a bone" and "white as a bedsheet," likes to suck on odd objects, like Yahtzee dice. She also has an ailing aunt, Ruth, who has "three collapsed vertebrae in her back." To combat the pain caused by this condition, Ruth has had an electronic anesthetizer implanted in her brain which, unfortunately, causes the automatic garage door in their home to open when she uses it. Bessie, it seems, spends virtually all her time caring for these ill and elderly relatives, "always lugging one of them in here for something or other."
Now it's her turn to be sick. Suffering from fatigue and subject to easy bruising, she may just be the victim of a vitamin deficiency. But, then again, it might be something much more serious. The scene ends without our knowing which.
Scene 2 takes us to Bessie's house, the actual location of "Marvin's room"--Marvin being the emaciated father she described to Dr. Wally. Here we experience the moment-to-moment reality of her life: administering medications, changing bed linens, cheering the down hearted, rescuing her father from choking on the strange objects he likes to suck. Today, however, is somewhat different from all other days. Bessie has been gone from the house for her visit with the doctor, and in her absence anxiety and disorder have invaded. Aunt Ruth has forgotten to give Marvin his pills, has been terrified by a strange cat staring through the window, and has been fretting about the possibility that the old man might die while Bessie is away. Bessie tries to calm her aunt's fears, and the scene ends with her remembering all the wonderful foods her father was once able to eat: "Flapjacks and bacon and eggs . . . and grits and biscuits and roast beef and green beans and mashed potatoes and apple pie and ice cream he churned himself."
Scene 3 takes us back to Dr. Wally's office. Vitamin deficiency was not the answer. Now the doctor wants to take bone marrow from Bessie's hip. Suddenly her prospects are much darker. It may be leukemia. Again, the scene ends without our knowing for sure.
The next scene finds us in Ohio in the visiting room of a "mental institution." There, Lee, Bessie's younger sister, is consulting with Dr. Charlotte, the physician in charge of her son, Hank. In addition to mocking his mother's boyfriends ("Hank made fun of his being on parole"), he has also burned down Lee's house. Hence his presence in the institution. And hence Lee's current residence in the basement of her local Catholic church, where, with the nuns, she pitches in every week in the making of communion wafers. When Hank finally appears, he is covered by "motor grease" and bristling with resentment of his mother. But despite appearances, his mental condition seems to be improving, since, as he tells Lee, "They're not strapping me down any more." This is helpful because Lee has come to inform Hank that he, she, and her younger son, Charlie, must travel to Florida as potential marrow donors to Bessie, who, we learn offhandedly, does, in fact, have leukemia.
This puzzles Hank, since he has no knowledge of his Aunt Bessie, having never seen or spoken to her or heard anything from his mother about her. This, Lee informs him, is not strictly true. "I've mentioned her. . . . You know how at Christmas I always say, it looks like Bessie didn't send a card this year either. . . . That's your Aunt Bessie, my sister."
The remaining scenes of the play chart the reunion of the estranged sisters and the merger of the damaged families they head. "I'm glad you're here," Bessie tells Lee shortly after the latter arrives from Ohio, "but we've been getting along fine by ourselves for a long time and not because we wanted to. That was your choice." We can hear the ambivalence in her words: the resentment lurking underneath the welcome, the grudging embrace, the understated reprimand. Lee has arrived to help, but, we and Bessie wonder, does she bring with her more trouble than relief, more irritation than balm? After all, Lee herself, with her jailbird boyfriends and her checkered past, is at best dubiously reliable as a source of comfort; and her son Hank, troublesome in many ways, poses a real threat of domestic disruption. Will this reunion restore broken family ties, or further estrange the sisters from each other?
The answers to those questions begin to emerge in a late night scene in the back yard between Bessie and Hank. As he admires a boxful of his grandfather's old tools, Bessie and he talk about Marvin, about Hank's experiences in the mental institution, about Hank's father, and about peoples' motives for doing what they do. "Nobody ever does anything to be nice. That's what my therapist says," declares Hank. "They get something for it." Shocked by this radically self-centered view of human behavior, Bessie, having already made a gift to Hank of Marvin's tools, demands, "Why have I spent the last twenty years of my life down here? Because I enjoyed it? Because I got something out of it?” Hank insists that there must be some sort of payoff.
HANK: Maybe you did it because you thought you'd never land a husband. Or maybe you wanted to hide out. When you're not around a nursing home will do it for the cash.
Do people act purely out of selfish motives? Or is there such a thing as disinterested love, selfless devotion to another? With this crucial confrontation, the first act ends.
Act Two immediately takes up these issues with a scene between Bessie and Lee in the office of a nursing home, where they are exploring the possibility of sending Marvin and Ruth as residents. Bessie is unhappy with the idea; Lee--in contrast to what her sister said about her in the previous scene--is eager to make the change. Bessie, too sick with leukemia to continue caring for her father and aunt, suggests that Lee move to Florida and take over that responsibility. Lee flatly refuses.
We should note that Bessie never fills in the blank left by her unfinished sentence. Lee is "the most . . ." What, exactly? It is characteristic of Bessie that she withholds explicit judgment, that she leaves the condemnation lurking beneath the surface, tacit rather than explicit. Instead, she expresses herself indirectly a moment later when, Lee having pocketed a dishful of candy left out for guests by the nursing home management, Bessie dumps a handful of change in the dish in payment. Lee insists Bessie take back the money. Bessie refuses, believing that her sister has in fact stolen from the nursing home and that she needs to pay the price of Lee's transgression.
BESSIE: I'm not going to steal them. It's wrong.
Clearly, they're not talking about candy here, but about the way each has behaved toward her family.
As the act proceeds, we learn that Lee is in fact not a compatible marrow donor for her sister. Neither is Hank or Charlie. So Bessie, having in effect donated her whole life to her family, seems to be receiving nothing in return in her moment of greatest need. On the other hand, she does make significant emotional contact with Hank, who breaks through his pose of hostility and alienation, and tells her frankly what his life is like, and what his dreams are. She also has a scene in which she and her sister overcome some long-standing barriers. Lee offers to style the wig Bessie must now wear because of her hair loss to chemotherapy, and Bessie finally tells Lee about the single love of her life, a boy who worked at the carnival that came to town every summer. Tragically, that young man drowned as a crowd of onlookers--including Bessie--stood by and watched.
BESSIE: Laughing and choking looked the same on Clarence. He drowned right in front of us. Every time he came up for air, there we were chuckling and pointing. What could we have thought.
Having stood by and watched her "carny boyfriend" die because she couldn't tell the difference between his usual funny-faces and his drowning cries for help, she made amends by spending the rest of her life paying absolute attention to the dying needs of Marvin and Ruth.
As they share these reminiscences late at night, a frightened Ruth appears, upset because she went to look for Bessie who was not in her room.
BESSIE: I'm here.
This sort of intimacy and warmth, the scene seems to be telling us, is Bessie's reward for her years of devotion. Meanwhile, the more selfish Lee looks on from outside the circle of affection.
The next scene brings this eccentrically blended family to Disney World, that national center of "family fun." There Lee tells Hank, in the midst of a story about his father, that her feelings for him "are like a big bowl of fish-hooks. I can't just pick them up one at a time. I pick up one, they all come. So I tend to leave them alone." For Lee, the pain caused by her son is inextricable from whatever joy or love he might also inspire, and so her response has simply been to stay away from him, emotionally, altogether. But this confession is itself an emotional act, an attempt to reach out to Hank, to establish some basis for mutual understanding. Another fish-hook in the tangled bowl.
The visit to Disney World takes an alarming turn when Bessie suddenly begins bleeding from her mouth. Grotesquely, "A Cartoon Character enters as Bessie faints and falls to the ground. The Cartoon Character turns and walks toward the audience, waving as the lights fade.) The next scene finds Bessie and her family in the Lost Children's Hut at Disney World. There she confesses that she fainted because she is frightened--so frightened that she never sleeps anymore: I'm afraid to close my eyes. . . . I yank myself awake all night long." Consumed by fear, but, as she says, "trying to be brave," she chooses this moment to count everyone's blessings: "You're lucky to have those boys," she tells Lee. "I'm lucky to have Dad and Ruth," she tells herself. "I am so lucky to have been able to love someone so much." But, as in Lee's bowl of fish-hooks, this feeling immediately gets tangled up with another, darker realization: "We're fooling ourselves," she declares, "Hank and Charlie aren't going to match. . . . They're my nephews. They're once removed." So no matter how close she may feel to these boys emotionally, their marrow, like their mother's, will be useless in saving Bessie's life.
Back from Disney World, Hank decides to run away from his afflicted family. Before disappearing, he advises his little brother, Charlie, to "pay more attention" and to pick out his own clothes. The next day, Bessie and Ruth are preparing to celebrate the wedding of their favorite soap-opera characters with a gala session of t.v.- watching when the phone rings with news from the doctor: as Bessie predicted, neither Hank nor Charlie qualifies as a marrow donor. Having just absorbed this grim news, Bessie next learns from Charlie about Hank's departure. Her nephew, however, has left her a letter: "Aunt Bessie, gone someplace else. Goodbye, good luck. I love you, too. Hank." So he finally returns the love offered by his aunt earlier in the play, but only in a letter announcing his abandonment of Bessie when she needs him most. Once again, we encounter Lee's bowl of fish-hooks. The last we see of Bessie she is brokenheartedly entering Marvin's room with words of comfort. "There's nothing to be afraid of," she says to her dying father.
But though this is Bessie's final exit, the play doesn't end on this dark note. Instead, Hank appears at the last moment, encounters his mother, drops his bags, and doffs his bandana. For the moment, at least, he has returned. As the play ends, Bessie is offstage in Marvin's room, amusing him with one of his favorite tricks: bouncing reflected light off the walls from the mirror of her compact.
Bessie has been caring for her sick father and aunt for two decades, since she was twenty years old. This suggests two possible views of her character. One is expressed by her nephew, Hank, who suggests that she retreated from life because she was afraid she would never find a husband--afraid she was incapable of normal fulfillment. Hank's interpretation stresses weakness, even a kind of spiritual pathology, on Bessie's part. But if this were the case, we would expect to see symptoms of her sickness in her treatment of Marvin and Ruth: hints of resentment and self-hatred expressed through acts of cruelty or meanness. But this is far from the case. Bessie is never less than kind and loving toward the old people under her care, and generally good-humored towards others as well.
Actions make character, and Bessie's actions are almost without exception selfless and loving. She cares for Marvin and Ruth both physically and emotionally, devising the mirror and light diversion for her father, and sharing Ruth's interest in soap opera. There are moments of ambivalence towards Lee when her sister first arrives from Ohio, but Bessie can never bring herself to be directly harsh or explicitly hurtful. Probably a significant part of what motivates her devotion to Marvin and Ruth is a repentant sense of having stood by while her "carny boyfriend" drowned, of having failed to see and understand his need for her help. Rather than commit such another terrible omission, she gives her whole attention to her dying relatives.
So an alternative to Hank’s view of Bessie is to see her as a kind of saint. Despite all the demands levied by her family, despite her own onrushing death, she remains steadfastly loving to everyone around her, an unselfish believer in the blessings of life, however minimal they may seem.
Lee. Many dramatic works feature contrasting pairs of characters--think of George and Jerry on Seinfeld--and Marvin's Room is among them. Here the contrast is between the dutiful and selfless Bessie, and her younger, rambunctious, and self-absorbed sister, Lee. Lee declares herself right off the bat in her first scene in the "mental institution." After being told by Dr. Charlotte that there is "no smoking anywhere on this floor" she declares, "I'll be very quiet then," and lights up. With a single action, she reveals herself as a rule-breaker, intent on her pleasure regardless of the prohibitions.
Unlike Bessie, whose life for twenty years has been unvarying in its focus on Marvin and Ruth, Lee still talks about her life finally really getting started. While Bessie has lived in the same house undisturbed for two decades, Lee has had her house burned to the ground by her crazy son. Where Bessie has had a single, unfulfilled love, Lee seems to have had a string of relationships, all somewhat rocky, and none enduring.
It is this contrast, of course, that provides a major source of dramatic interest in the play. Can two such different people bridge the chasm that separates them? And if so, how?
Hank has burned down his mother's house, which is a pretty telling action for any character. It suggests, at the very least, that he is angry with his parent, and dissatisfied with the sort of home that she has provided. Burn down the house, and you eradicate the past that has made you miserable. Of course, such symbolic actions aren't magic: they can't erase or even change the past. But they do express feelings and desires pretty clearly.
Bessie gets Hank to go beyond such symbolic gestures of self-revelation. She wears down his defenses through persistent attention and love. Finally he talks to her in the longest speech of the play. "Most of the time I keep to myself," are the first words of his confession. But he goes on to sketch out the life he longs for: a house, surrounded by lots of land, with big dogs running free, and a go-cart track. Liberation seems to be a major theme, but also privacy: "And nobody would know where I was. I'd be gone. Most of the time I just want to be someplace else." That's the destination he announces in his good-bye letter to Bessie at the end of the play. But with his ultimate return, we see that "someplace else"--some alternative to the painful life he has always known--turns out to be his aunt's odd little household.
Ruth describes herself with a fair amount of clarity--and honesty--as "a silly old woman dressing up for a TV show." After years of pain and immobility, her life has been reduced to watching television, and living vicariously through its characters. But there is more. Above all, she has Bessie, to whom she always turns for comfort and help. When they embrace, with Lee standing apart and watching their loving attachment, we see the human link that keeps Ruth alive.
Charlie is the boy who is doing poorly in school because he reads too much; whose mother begs him, "Chrlie, please don't read. You're at Disney World." Brief strokes, but enough to conjure up a whole person. Like his brother, he seems to want to be "someplace else," and the way he gets there is through books.
The author writes that only after he had finished his play did he realize that it was "a metaphor for AIDS." Meaning what, exactly?
At the height of the AIDS epidemic in the United States, life in the homosexual community in some parts of New York and San Francisco seemed very much like Bessie's house: everybody there was dying--or knew someone who was dying--of an incurable disease. Young men in their 20s, 30s, and 40s who should have had many years of life ahead of them were rapidly wasting away, with friends and loved ones tending their rapid passage to the grave. This has been the subject of numerous dramatic works, notably Tony Kushner's Angels in America and Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart.
Under such circumstances, words and concepts like "living" and "dying" take on meanings radically different from ordinary experience. Everyone acknowledges that we are all dying, all of the time. But direct confrontation with that fact is something we always put off until "later"--until, that is, old age comes knocking. For Scott McPherson and his gay contemporaries, however, "later" had arrived, way ahead of schedule. Death and dying were daily, ubiquitous facts, and as such they forced a radical revision of values.
Knowing he was to die shortly, Lou Gehrig told a stadium full of people, "Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."
And when Bessie finds herself bleeding and terrified in Disney World, she declares, "I'm lucky. . . . I am so lucky to have been able to love someone so much."
In both of these cases, the speaker's words seem to be turning common sense upside down. The dying Gherig tells us he's the world's luckiest man; and the bleeding Bessie declares that she is blessed. What's going on here? In each case, the common yardsticks of life are broken, the ordinary apple-carts are upended. When death is looking us in the face, the present moment, however trivial or banal, is "transvalued," changed into something supremely precious and charged with meaning. When facing death, we no longer look over the shoulder of the present to see what the future holds; instead we give all our attention to the here and now, and to the people who inhabit it with us, realizing how fortunate we are in their presence. There's no time to dwell on shortcomings or to wish for alternatives--and no point in doing either. As McPherson says in his program notes for the play, "By most we are thought of as 'dying.' But as dying becomes a way of life, the meaning of the word blurs." When living is equivalent to dying, wisdom surely dictates that we look for happiness with whatever time we have. Thus Lou Gherig’s paradoxical assertion. And thus the gratitude and love with which Bessie faces the fact of her mortality. Though Marvin's room is, in fact, a place of dying, it is also a place where life, for all its dreary shortcomings, is lived with fervency and love.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.
1. Has Bessie wasted her life by caring for her father and aunt?
2. Has Lee made a wise choice in staying away from her sick relatives?
3. Why did Hank burn down the house?
4. Why does Charlie read constantly?
5. What does Lee mean when she describes her feelings about Hank as "a bowl of fish-hooks?"
6. What is the significance of Bessie's story about her boyfriend's drowning?
7. What do you think will happen when Bessie becomes too sick to care for Marvin and Ruth?
8. Why does Hank run away?
9. Why does he come back?
10. Why is Bessie so thankful despite the presence of so much death and disease in her life?