The single best-known line in the history of Western drama puts the matter front and center: “To be or not to be?’’ It’s right there, too, in the title of the most famous American play ever written: “Death of a Salesman.’’ And the experience itself is often described with a phrase drawn from the world of theater: the final curtain.
We’re talking about death. On local stages and on Broadway recently, the subject has been nearly inescapable.
In the David Cromer-directed “Our Town’’ at Huntington Theatre Company, Thornton Wilder’s famous third act transpired in a cemetery populated with deceased but still ruminative denizens of Grover’s Corners. Death is knocking at the door in Robert Brustein’s “The Last Will,’’ Alan Ayckbourn’s “Life of Riley,’’ Howard Brenton’s “Anne Boleyn,’’ Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,’’ and Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop.’’
Then there are the plays in which the presumed loss of an unseen character is central to the plot, from Dan Hunter’s “Legally Dead’’ to Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’’ to Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities.’’ Death even has a role in two child-friendly musicals based on the work of Charles Dickens: Lionel Bart’s “Oliver!,’’ at Wheelock Family Theatre, and Rupert Holmes’s “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,’’ on Broadway.
The grave is the universal destination, so if dramatists are going to be true to life, they must perforce be true to death. Wilder knew that. An awareness of mortality pervades “Our Town,’’ in which the newly deceased Emily, seizing the chance to “live over’’ a day of her life, returns to her childhood home on her 12th birthday. At first, the sight of her parents and the humdrum domestic routine fills her with wonderment. “I can’t look at everything hard enough,’’ she says.
But Emily very quickly is overwhelmed by an awareness of lost opportunities and wasted time. She gives voice to her anguish in a brief and piercing soliloquy, just before returning to the graveyard, where eternity awaits: “It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. … Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” She asks: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? — every, every minute?’’
Some do, at least onstage, especially when death enters the picture. Samuel Johnson observed that the prospect of being hanged concentrates the mind; similarly, nothing so concentrates a story line as the presence of the Grim Reaper. The end of life serves a dramaturgical purpose for playwrights, not just because it’s handy for rounding out those beginnings and middles, but also because, as they flesh out the motivations of their characters and build complications into their plots, they can draw upon death’s dual power to simultaneously destabilize and clarify matters.
Ayckbourn takes full advantage of dying’s domino effect in “Life of Riley,’’ now at Zeitgeist Stage Company. George Riley, the unseen title character, has only months to live, but rather than diminishing his relevance, it enlarges his power to discombobulate the others in his orbit — some of whom prove willing to jeopardize their marriages for him. In the process, they have to figure out what really matters to them and then act, or not act, accordingly. “His imminent death focuses the other characters’ minds greatly,’’ Ayckbourn told me in a recent interview.
The same could be said of the profane, bellowing Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,’’ now on Broadway in a production starring Scarlett Johansson. Doomed by terminal cancer, Big Daddy has the power to permanently enrich Johansson’s Maggie and her husband, Brick, by bequeathing to them his cotton plantation — or not. As a ferocious family battle rages over the inheritance, an increasingly desperate Maggie knows that her best shot at economic security lies in getting pregnant.
But there’s a huge obstacle: Brick, mourning his friend Skipper, is so convinced that Maggie is to blame for his loss that he refuses to sleep with her. By drinking himself into oblivion, Brick has embraced a kind of death-in-life. At the end of the play, alone in their bedroom in a house she calls “this place that death has come into,’’ Maggie uses the language of resurrection as she summons the full force of her sexuality, saying to Brick: “Oh, you weak people, you weak, beautiful people! — who give up with such grace. What you want is someone to — take hold of you. — Gently, gently with love hand your life back to you, like somethin’ gold you let go of.’’
Playwrights turn to death so often for the most pragmatic reasons. It can add urgency to what we see onstage. Hall’s “The Mountaintop,’’ recently produced by Underground Railway Theater, features an encounter between Martin Luther King Jr. and a mysterious hotel maid on the night before his assassination, and Brenton’s “Anne Boleyn,’’ now at the Gamm Theatre in Rhode Island, begins with a stark reminder, her severed head: Anne’s fate was to be executed.
Often, death throws into sharp relief the conflict that drives drama. In the black comedy “Legally Dead’’ at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, which opens with a character covering up the demise of the family dog, the Lincoln clan’s paterfamilias has been missing for five years. Daughter Annie, a recently divorced attorney, wants to declare not-so-dear old Dad dead so they can sell the family car dealership. She runs into the fierce opposition of her ex-con brother Tommy, who is trying to persuade their mother (who periodically claims to be dying herself) that the family should hold on to the dealership so he can run it.
There’s a head-on crash between law and metaphysics when Annie urges her sister, Rebecca, to sign the document declaring their father dead. Rebecca protests: “You can’t just make someone dead.’’ Replies Annie: “Not dead dead; legally dead.’’
Ah, the fine print. Its use as a comedic device offers a reminder that death’s shadow falls across a remarkably wide variety of works, ranging from Eugene O’Neill’s somber “Long Day’s Journey Into Night’’ to Stephen Karam’s seriocomic “Sons of the Prophet’’ to Stephen Sondheim’s macabre masterpiece “Sweeney Todd,’’ not to mention much of the Shakespearean canon. Indeed, death scenes provide some of the most wrenching and unforgettable moments in Shakespeare: Lear desperately trying to see Cordelia’s breath on a mirror, the double suicides of the title teenagers in “Romeo and Juliet,’’ the bloody deeds of Macbeth, the murder of Desdemona by her husband in “Othello.’’ And of course there’s the corpse-strewn “Hamlet,’’ in which the protagonist struggles with that choice between being and not being.
Hamlet’s creator is at the center of the final installment of Brustein’s Shakespeare trilogy, “The Last Will,’’ now at the Modern Theatre in a co-production by Suffolk University and Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. After decades of theatrical success in London, Shakespeare has finally returned to Stratford and his long-neglected wife, Anne. But it is not a happy reunion.
Death — in actuality and in memory — is everywhere. The plague is about to claim his brother Gilbert among its many victims. Shakespeare himself is suffering from a fatal illness that has robbed him of his creative powers and, increasingly, his wits. Believing Anne has been unfaithful to him with Gilbert, he sets about revising his will to disinherit her. As for Anne, she has not forgiven him for his decades of inattention and for not attending the funeral years earlier of their son, Hamnet — and there are signs that Will has not forgiven himself, either.
The actor Richard Burbage tries but fails to persuade Shakespeare to resume playwriting. “Atonement, eh?’’ says Burbage. “I guessed you were thinking on your death.’’ Shakespeare’s reply amounts to a colossal understatement not just for history’s greatest playwright but also for the theater that he did so much to define and that has taken its cue from him on mortal matters. “It crosses my mind from time to time,’’ he says.