A review by Joey Madia
There’s nothing like a pandemic to adjust one’s perspective and beckon new ways of being.
Since April, I’ve added a few select, exquisitely written and constructed plays to my review list. All have been solicitations from the playwrights. Having a theatre company that is indefinitely mothballed as far as presenting plays for live audiences and being a playwright myself, I have great sympathy for these works without a home, without a mechanism to reach an audience, as well as for their creators.
So I am doing what I can to make a case that certain plays can offer almost as much to a reader as they can to an audience. After all, that is how good plays get produced… they are read by a dramaturg, director, or producer and, if the strength of their vision, the weight of their words, the complexity and authenticity of their characters, and the energy of their narrative are sufficiently compelling, the playwright’s work is lifted off of the page and onto the stage.
A reader can do this work of engaged, discerning reading just as well as most directors or producers because all you need is inherently already there.
That is precisely what a skilled and passionate playwright can accomplish.
Margaret McCarthy certainly qualifies and that is exactly what she has achieved with The Sacrificial King.
It is important to note that this is not a new, untried play walking into the world on weak and wobbly legs. The play has excellent pedigree, having been work-shopped in New York City after staged readings there and at Duke University. The play was also presented to accolades and abundant awards at a high school thespian competition in Massachusetts.
It is no doubt the play benefited from each of these opportunities—they are the lifeblood of new works, as I have well and truly learned from three-plus decades as a playwright, director, actor, and producer.
I will also say that the “bones” of the play had to have been incredibly strong from the onset, or else it would not have had these opportunities, nor would it be the must read that I will spend the rest of this review trying to convince you it is—especially if you are a Creative and/or a fan of the Beatles.
I make these emphases because the parallels and symmetries of The Sacrificial King are, at their core, about more than the life and death of John Lennon. They are about the Creative Process, the myths and pitfalls of “celebrity,” and a time in the history of this country that is now being played out anew with striking similarities as I type this review, exactly eight days out from a contentious and potentially dangerous US election.
The expression of these themes is in the play’s parallel storylines. One follows a young female artist while the other follows John from his initial meeting with Paul McCartney until his assassination on the steps of the Dakota in New York City on December 8, 1980. In a few months we will mark the fortieth anniversary of that tragedy.
I was twelve years old, living in northern New Jersey, about an hour from where it happened. I remember the voice of the announcer on a transistor radio on my dresser, which was tuned to a New York rock station.
In the decades since, I have read numerous books about John and the Beatles. He is one of several musicians on whom I am basing a character in a work-in-progress theatre piece. Although Paul is the Beatle with whom I most identify in terms of personality, as well as lyrically, I have always had a deep respect for and fascination with John Lennon. He always seemed to me to be chasing something just out of his grasp while staying just half an inch ahead of what was chasing him.
In that sense, we are alike and McCarthy’s play captures this difficult way to live in a powerful, moving manner.
In terms of the play itself—which, as you can see, is highly evocative—it is Mythical and Epic, yet deeply mired in Truth. The immense amount of research the playwright did on both John and the 1960s/early ’70s is abundantly clear (although the play is never pedantic or slowed by info dumping). As a few hardcore Beatles fans pointed out in reviews I have read, the play wanders from the facts, but it certainly does stay close. And the playwright’s artistic license is never arbitrary. Never selfish.
The Sacrificial King is equal parts poetry and prose. Its parallel stories of John and the young female artist navigating these tumultuous times benefit from an array of multimedia and set-piece visual devices delivered through innovative stage composition and song snippets, voiceover news and interview pieces highlighting key moments in John’s controversial life (such as his statement about the Beatles being bigger than Jesus) and the world at large (for they are inseparable), and visual projections suggested by the playwright.
The title of the play, The Sacrificial King, refers to cultures that would choose a young man to be king for a year. He would have the best of everything—riches, women, food and drink, and all the attention he craved—and when the year was up, he would be killed in an elaborate ritual designed to appease the gods.
There’s a 1975 episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker guest starring Erik Estrada about this very thing.
American culture, with its warped deification of celebrity, is rife with simulacra of this ritual, expressed in the play when the female artist and her best friend break into a hotel room where the Fab Four had stayed and fight over the pillows and sheets. The only thing Americans love more than a rising star is a falling one. And many pay the price in suicide, broken families, alcohol and drug abuse, and madness.
John Lennon, because of his political activism, was targeted by the US government, as part of its COINTEL program, with eavesdropping, harassment, and threatened deportation to a level unprecedented before or since with celebrities.
In the end, that same government chose a lonely, misguided young man in intense pain, who goes unnamed in the play and shall also remain so here, to do their dirty work.
This admitted bit of conspiracy theory is my own belief about the circumstances of John’s death. There is nothing in the play that suggests it. Instead, the playwright focuses on the loneliness and pain of a Nobody seeking Stature by killing a celebrity. The way the assassination is framed (literally) strengthens the conflict into its inevitable and tear-inducing climax.
Some of my favorite moments include when McCarthy inserts lines from Beatles songs and the John and Paul solo projects. It is always done subtly and to great effect, which is not always the case when other writers try the same.
Similar to other playwrights whose work can stand on its own as literature, McCarthy is a poet. Scriptwriters, like poets, work with an economy of words. And those words can and must have power to support the visuals without competing with them. John’s solo moments on stage, telling the story of the broken home and heartbreaks of his youth, are girded by immensely powerful poetry. Other characters use it to great effect as well.
It is the challenge of every writer working from true stories to turn the seeming deficit of the audience knowing the ending into a strength. As The Sacrificial King progresses, we are weighted with the knowledge of the Inevitability of What Is to Come. There are moments—for both the young artist as well as for John—that I wanted the path to diverge. I wanted (like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel) to pick a different path for each, making me no better than their mothers, or managers, friends, or foes.
All due credit to Margaret McCarthy for that.
And all I can say regarding Yoko is, as someone who cannot help but wonder what the Beatles might have been and done if John had never met her, I find the scenes with this Complicated Muse to be among the most moving in the play, rife as they are with the ready contradictions of how the public and the press perceived both her and Them.
One last, important thing. Notice the subtitle: A Play for John Lennon. Not about, but for.
I imagine that John, walking in his strawberry fields forever, is well and truly pleased by McCarthy’s labor of love.
If you wish to read The Sacrificial King, you can access it at https://newplayexchange.org/users/15101/margaret-mccarthy
TITLE: The Sacrificial King: A Play for John Lennon
AUTHOR: Margaret McCarthy (firstname.lastname@example.org, www.margaretmccarthy.com).