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Don Becker is a manic-depressive guy "with psychotic features" who writes humorous stuff for a living--first as a stand-up comic, now as one of Denver's most irreverent playwrights. His first play, Back on a Limb, was a one-man show, an expose of his own mad life. Becker hid nothing of his struggles with bipolar disorder in that autobiographical work. His second play, Lucifer Tonight, was a brilliant and caustic effort in which he appeared as a kind of postmodern Screwtape to point an infernal finger at his audience.
Becker's latest play, Kurt Cobain Was Right, which opened last weekend at the Acoma Civic Center, lacks the philosophical depth of Lucifer, but it's even more strident. Starkly profane yet deeply religious, the play--the first of Becker's in which he doesn't appear on stage--explores a nightmare scenario about the end of the world. Named for the Nirvana guitarist who committed suicide, Becker's absurdly funny play repeats what by now is a familiar device for him--using black humor to explore the roots of despair.
"I was forced to look at my despair because of my mental illness," says Becker, a onetime contemporary of former Denver comics like Roseanne Barr who by the 1980s had become so troubled that he put his arms on a railroad track and lost one of them to a freight train. "I couldn't run from it. It was there right in front of me. I had to die or go crazy or start dealing with my despair."
His first two plays were predominantly serious in tone, notes Becker, who says that when he sat down to write Kurt Cobain, he was ready for a change. "I wanted to return to comedy," he says. "I wanted to write a funny play about the end of the world. I've had a lot of apocalyptic visions--some of them drug-induced, some related to my mental illness--and they were terrifying." At one point, says Becker, he had a delusion that Ronald Reagan was Jesus, that he had launched nuclear weapons, and that the world was going to be destroyed. It sounds laughable now, but at the time, Becker believed it and was scared to death.
"In my work, I put things on stage so I can look at them and not be afraid of them," he says. "And so if I can take the thought of a president of the United States ending the world and put it on stage [as he does in the new play], then I don't have to be afraid of it."
Becker believes that as the millennium approaches, the incidence of mental illness associated with extreme religious beliefs will skyrocket. He's a self-described Christian himself, but he's also a pessimist who readily admits to having no real hope for the world--it will be destroyed by the hand of God or of man sooner or later, he says. Still, as Becker points out, all comedy is based on tragedy, and his plays are a lot funnier than one might think from listening to him talk.
"I think despair is a starting point," says Becker. "That is where you begin to live. And that's where you start telling yourself the truth, to discover who you really are and what you really want. I am in a constant state of despair because I know the world is not going to last. I'm not going to last, and my words are not going to last. All my plays come out of this despair.
"But when you touch despair--if you are willing to sit still in it--you can learn a lot. The whole reason [the play] is called Kurt Cobain Was Right is that when I think about him, he was a very despairing individual, and he kept trying to run from his despair. I think that he was right in that part of him needed to die--the part that wanted to run away from his despair. He needed to accept that despair is a condition of life."
Becker points out that most people ask the big questions in their youth: Why am I here? Why do I suffer? What is the meaning of life? But most people quit asking the big questions and just become numb--so numb that they don't even realize that they are unsatisfied in relationships and have no realizable dreams. What they end up doing, says Becker, is striving for a level of comfort that will save them from having to face the awful emptiness inside. He even despairs that people don't despair enough--that they can read that 40,000 women were raped in Bosnia and be too desensitized to realize what that means.
"We don't have a clear picture of what is going on in the world," he says. "We don't know about the suffering in the world. When you face your despair, compassion can flourish, and you realize you are not the only one suffering."
That struggle against self-pity appears to be a key element in Becker's plays, which urge viewers to take a hard look at themselves. "I was unhappy with my life and relationships, and I realized I was a pretty ugly, selfish human being and I wasn't very loving," he says. "When you finally stop and take a look at yourself in your misery, you realize you are miserable because you are not a very nice person.
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