at Cafe Voltaire

By Adam Langer

I don’t know where it will all lead, this obsession with assassins, serial killers, and would-be murderers. I can’t imagine it will wind up anywhere good. It seems we have a growing tendency to view criminals with a twisted mixture of horror and admiration, as if somehow the murderer represented a brutal honesty that we, shackled by society’s morals, can only dream of possessing.

Thus the Unabomber becomes a symbol of crazed patriotic fervor standing against the forces of technology and commodification instead of a crazed, antisocial lunatic who can’t construct a sentence. Valerie Solanas, the attempted slayer of Andy Warhol, becomes a spokesperson for the disenfranchised instead of a profoundly disturbed megalomaniac. Roberto Zucco can be transformed from a serial killer into a poet and a prophet by French playwright Bernard-Marie Koltes. John Hinckley and John Wilkes Booth are able to take their places alongside Georges Seurat as the subjects of a Stephen Sondheim musical. And Nick Cave, promoting his new album Murder Ballads, can cheekily observe that “there are a lot worse things in the world than murder.”

Artists frequently justify their attraction to the Gacys and Dahmers of the world with the argument that it’s necessary to explore the darker side of human nature. I don’t buy it. Though there’s some validity to trying to comprehend the criminal mind to prevent similar crimes, artistic treatments generally contribute more to morbid fascination than understanding. And although depictions of murders have become far more graphic in theater and cinema over the last decade, it seems the only tangible result is a culture so inured to violence that it can laugh off murder in Quentin Tarantino movies and Nazi genocide in Schindler’s List.

To writer-performer Timothy Hiatt’s credit, he seeks neither to glorify nor crucify Mark David Chapman in his one-man show about John Lennon’s assassin. Indeed, he eschews the cheap theatrical tactics one might have expected. There’s no Lennon music, no “imagine no possessions,” blaring over Cafe Voltaire’s sound system. There are no gunshots or maudlin screams, like the ones favored by Yoko Ono on her mournful album Seasons of Glass, released shortly after her husband’s death. Seeking only, Hiatt says in the program notes, to understand “a very disturbed man,” the playwright positions us in Chapman’s room at the YMCA on December 6, 1980, and chronicles the disintegration of his mind until, two nights later, he goes to the Dakota to commit murder.

Over the course of an hour or so we’re invited to enter the mind of “the man whose name must never be spoken,” as long-time Lennon friend Harry Nilsson called Chapman. Much of the show, directed by Morgan McCabe, is given over to Holden Caulfield-esque rants: Chapman decries the phoniness of the world as exemplified, he thinks, by Lennon’s betrayal of the peace movement (“How can you say you’re for peace and love when you live in a place like that?”). Quoting from his personal mantra, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Chapman leads board meetings with a panel of his imaginary friends, defending the sanity of murdering Lennon, and discusses his misery as the child of an abusive father and as a druggie, his favorite movie (The Wizard of Oz), and his encounter with a prostitute whom he paid to engage in conversation instead of sex. As the evening wears on, voices coming from his television and his next-door neighbors grow louder, suggesting Chapman’s inability to escape the voices in his head urging him to kill Lennon.

It’s a plausible impersonation of madness. But for Hiatt to suggest that Chapman will lead to any greater understanding of the man’s motives or inner demons is presumptuous and naive. That an hour’s worth of fictionalized monologues and nervous, high-strung chatter can explain an individual’s life is a fundamentally flawed idea. And in Chapman’s case there’s precious little reliable biographical information. True to his word, Hiatt neither demonizes nor deifies Chapman, but he never really convinces us that he’s come to understand his subject in more than a superficial way. The result is a rather generic portrayal of a confused, profoundly depressed man who in some twisted way thought he was fighting for justice when in fact he was committing cold-blooded murder.

Since Chapman includes little drama, well-constructed language, or deep consideration of the sort of society that could produce a Mark David Chapman, the main reasons people will see this show, despite Hiatt’s intentions, are prurient–the same reasons that interviews with Richard Speck and John Wayne Gacy draw killer ratings during sweeps week. Those folks will go home disappointed, but so will anybody who goes for a different reason. The audience won’t identify with this creep, but they won’t make much sense out of him either. Hiatt is generally believable in his portrayal, except when he shouts lamely at his imaginary companions and pummels the wall. But he could just as easily be playing John Hinckley. Give him a beard and some techno dialogue and he could be Ted Kaczynski. Put him in drag and he could be Valerie Solanas.

Hiatt makes a mistake common among dramatizers of famed killers: he assumes that the gravity of Chapman’s act in itself makes him an interesting figure. But instead of a detailed portrait of the inner workings of evil, we get only the pathetic, crazed ramblings of a not very intelligent or distinguished loner. The most chilling and insightful observation in the show, though it’s probably not what Hiatt intends, is that the world can be profoundly changed by someone too dull to be the subject of a play. A deeper understanding of the man who murdered Lennon may be possible, but we’ll have to wait until Chapman’s sentence is up, in about five years, and Inside Edition pays him a million dollars to tell his story.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Uncredited photo of “Chapman”.