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.
"I have certain responsibilities as a human being to my community," Becker adds. "So I do things like teach poetry to little kids, I go to Amnesty International--I do service. I think it's possible to simultaneously have hope and still be in a state of despair."
And there's nothing more hopeful than writing a play to address your despair. Becker's new effort is divided into two "parts" (as opposed to "acts"). The first, called "Decorum," concerns the election of a radically stupid man, Ford Landers, as president of the United States. He's a media manipulator and religious bully who glories in his power and wants nothing more than to push the button. He's into bondage, profanity and extreme Christian fundamentalism.
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"The driving force behind 'Decorum' was that I remembered that LBJ was known to be a vulgar man in private and swore up a blue streak," says Becker. "I also remembered reading that in Washington, D.C., there's a big demand for bondage and dominance among the Capitol Hill types because of all the power issues in bondage and dominance.
"The other thing is, I haven't had a TV for most of my adult life, but I just got a TV and VCR, and everybody told me to watch Seinfeld. So I watched it, and it was just a string of cheap little sex jokes. I was appalled. So I looked around at other TV shows, and it was all cheap sex jokes. What I couldn't figure out is how we went from Victorian restraint to postmodern decadence without ever going through healthy sexuality. In my standup, I always avoided blue material because I thought it was in bad taste, but after watching Seinfeld, I thought, 'Well, I'm going to tell a sex joke--but it's going to be a big, in-your-face sex joke that's going to make people squirm.' And I think the sex is more real in 'Decorum' than it is on Seinfeld--people don't talk in that cutesy way. Men are crass and crude."
In Part Two of the play, titled "The Comet," Becker takes the sitcom format to extremes. The protagonist is Charles Horse, the father of a loving but crazed family. Charlie's a man of faith who's deranged but turns out to be a prophet. Mad as he is, he is a hero in Becker's worldview because he's a good father who knows that God does not hate mankind.
That kind of pure faith is something to which Becker aspires. So far, though, he says he hasn't made it. "I think you have to be born again every moment," he says. "For so many people, they think they accepted Christ and then their lives got easy. But for me, it got harder. I am a shabby, undeveloped Christian, and I find that I am so aware of my hypocrisies--I smoke, I occasionally drink or do drugs, I lie, I'm lazy--I don't pick up my cross and follow. I waste a lot of time. My faith is incredibly weak. So much of the time, I am in fear. And I don't do a good job of loving. For Charlie Horse, love is real--and it's more real for him than it is for me.