“You may call me a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” — J. Lennon.
When Albert Goldman’s biography The Lives of John Lennon came out in 1988 it was roundly attacked. Paul McCartney called it “a piece of trash,” and Rolling Stone said it was “riddled with factual inaccuracies.” Goldman had savaged a pop music saint, and no one would give credence to Lennon’s feet of clay — much less Goldman’s insistence that Lennon was a hollow idol, who in real life was cruel, selfish, and manipulative. The trivial truth was that Lennon was human, and as such, full of human failures, limitations, and fears. But the way he inspired people to dream about love and forgiveness made him seem above mere humanity in the eyes of his fans.
The same could be said for those paragons of working class heroism, the heroes of comic books. As mythological creatures, demi-gods of popular culture that first sprang to life during the Great Depression, they fight bad guys with an unambiguous “pow!” “zap!” and “ka-blammo!” In the 80s it became fashionable to make the heroes more human (e.g. “Superman III,” “Legends of the Dark Night”), and audiences came to understand that the flaws of their heroes made them paradoxically more heroic. The pathos of Superman or Batman is a product of their limitations, not their powers. But their essential heroism is still pure: they know who the bad guys are and how to defeat them in thirty-six pages or less.
August Schulenburg’s new play Dream Walker presents us with a hybrid working class hero. Richie, played by Collin Smith, is part Lucy in the Sky, poetic dreamer and part Annikken Starkiller, natural born ass kicker. He is a social misfit, hopeless romantic, and allergic to money. His older brother Gary, played by Matthew Archambault, works in the “real world” to support Richie with food, raiment, and shelter while Richie crafts a Tolkien-esque fantasy novel that may never see the light of day. But Richie has two special powers: as a writer (unpublished when the play opens) he has the very human power of weaving beautiful stories; as a comic book hero he is able to enter people’s literal dreams and influence them.
At first Richie uses this power to selflessly help his loved ones. He walks into the dream of Gary’s boss, who denied Gary a promotion, and convinces her to give Gary the job after all. When Gary’s girlfriend’s mother looks like she’s about to succumb to Alzheimer’s, Richie enters her dream to stitch up the ripped fabric of her consciousness. The mom makes a miraculous recovery, and for two weeks before her cancer kills her she is able to say a proper goodbye to her daughter. The daughter Dawn, played by Jennifer Somers Kipley, is open, loving, and supportive of Gary when he’s down, but Gary can’t return the favor. Like Oliver Du Bois in As You Like It, Gary resents his younger brother’s natural moral and intellectual superiority; he resents the fact that Richie clearly loves Dawn, whereas he feels ambivalent; and he resents feeling obligated to empathize with Dawn as she loses her mother. So Gary decides to sabotage his relationship with Dawn by sleeping with his boss. Seeing that Gary and Dawn are on the rocks, Richie walks into Dawn’s dream to reconcile the two, but in an expected twist of fate, Richie and Dawn fall in love.
This causes Richie some cognitive dissonance. He realizes that his power to get into other people’s heads has not given him the ability to understand himself, or that his own unconscious has been simmering resentment, even hatred, for his older, more successful brother. So in an act of penitence he throws himself in front of traffic and ends up in a coma. Gary’s descent into douche-baggery continues unabated, and when Dawn arrives on the scene to save Richie by walking into his dream, Gary refuses to let her try. Fortunately Dawn prevails, and when she walks into Richie’s dream she helps him overcome his idol worship / Oedipal hatred for Gary. Richie wakes from his coma, and all is well. He and Dawn get together; he sells his novel and the movie rights for an astronomical sum; and Gary is punished for his feet of clay by losing his job, his friends, everything.
Mr. Schulenburg has said he wrote Dream Walker as a comedy. Generically speaking, comedies are like comic books: the good guys are avatars of our best selves and the bad guys are avatars of our worst selves. The best prevail because they are virtuous, and the worst are punished. Along the way we get a few laughs out of the foibles of the villains and head home feeling all is right with the world. But Dream Walker, like Star Wars and The Lives of John Lennon has more than a little tragedy in it. Taken as such we see that Richie is not the play’s hero; he is its villain. Richie uses an unfair advantage to break the rules of nature, fair play, and honor because he is angry about something he can’t change — being younger. To add insult to injury, he does his dirty work while espousing peace, love, and unity. Even his act of contrition — his attempted suicide — reads like a selfish cry for attention. And in the final scene he demeans the brother who sustained him by trying to buy him off with a personal check. The curtain goes down on Gary, broken and friendless. According to the rules of comedy we should laugh, but all I felt was pity.
The great moralist and equally flawed human being Samuel Johnson wrote, “a transition from an author’s books to his conversation, is too often like an entrance into a large city, after a distant prospect. Remotely, we see nothing but spires of temples, and turrets of palaces, and imagine it the residence of splendor, grandeur, and magnificence; but, when we have passed the gates, we find it perplexed with narrow passages, disgraced with despicable cottages, embarrassed with obstructions, and clouded with smoke.” Mr. Schulenburg’s lyricism (he is an unquestionably talented playwright) makes Richie seem like a great city from a distance, but upon closer inspection we find that heroism in the theater is far more complicated than in the comics, and that even the golden dreams of the poets like Richie contain residual dross.