The Pagliacci syndrome

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BitDepth#950 for August 19

Anthony Seyjagat photographed in costume, 1990. Photo by Mark Lyndersay
Anthony Seyjagat photographed in costume, 1990. Photo by Mark Lyndersay

Robin Williams is dead. There. It’s said. 

I did not know the man, and even though he gave of himself in an abundance of riches in every medium he touched, I never confused those pleasures with any sense that I understood who he was. 

At least part of that is because of Anthony Seyjagat, a talented physical actor, mime (of all things), and an awesomely effervescent personality. 

Anthony did traditional mime performances, but then he took it to another level in a seriously disturbing suite of pieces performed with Penelope Spencer at Raymond Choo Kong’s The Space at Bretton Hall.

Even after I’d begun wandering away from my ten-year flirtation with the local theatrical community, he kept in touch, constantly trying to get me involved with one project or another.

During that time, he also tried hard to mend a rift I’d managed to engineer with Raymond some years before. 

After Anthony abruptly committed suicide, it became clear that he had spent weeks calling and visiting people having, what we all realised in retrospect at his wake, were not pleasant, out-of-the-blue chats but final conversations. 

I was angry after I’d heard the news of his passing and when I was asked to speak at his funeral, I said so. Ultimately, we didn’t know Anthony Seyjagat at all.

When I heard that Robin Williams was dead, most likely by his own hand, I didn’t think of Mrs Doubtfire or the Genie. 

I thought of Anthony perched on a thin ledge, braced against a second story wall, for a promotional photo for the Baggasse Company’s Children’s Storyworld.  

I also thought of the unkempt bush around the rectangular mound in an Arima cemetery the last time I visited his grave two decades ago. 

Creating is hard. It’s so much easier to do work that passes muster than it is to do something that challenges or even defies expectations. 

Being funny is hard. You can’t really be funny without being a bit wicked and the best humour is downright nasty. Every joke has a butt and it’s often roundly kicked.

In the early 1980’s I wrote my first produced play, after a fashion. I wrote a play called Sno Kone and the Seven Douens as a possible sequel to the smash Christmas production that Helen Camps’ All Theatre Productions had staged the previous year, Cinderama.

It wasn’t really a sequel. It was a black comedy and very little of my original script made it to the stage after it had been workshopped with the cast and Roger Israel had written the music, just the general outline, a couple of songs I wrote lyrics for at the last minute and a few bits of dialogue here and there.

It was a dismal failure. People walked out halfway through, deeply offended at its bleakness. The ones who stuck it out to the end got a fake newspaper celebrating the death of all the heroes complete with a very Randy Burroughs kind of photo of dead bodies lying at the feet of the law.

It’s impossible to create anything of any value without leaving some skin behind, and good comedy demands a regular pound of flesh from its author. 

In a country with a distinctly immature funny bone, satire gets treated like gospel truth and bawdy fun rules. 

Happiness isn’t a default for most of humanity. It’s something precious that must be continuously earned.  I experience it as a frisson of pleasure on occasion, like a cool breeze aberrantly wafting through a stifling and damp mineshaft. 

There is a price for seeing the world as it is, and the fee rises as you choose to share that understanding with increasing honesty. 

People who do so tend to self-medicate, either to blunt their perceptions or worse, the consequences of expressing them. 

There’s an old joke told about the protagonist of the opera I, Pagliacci that’s retold with brusque irony in Alan Moore’s Watchmen, a bit of harsh wit that hearkens to the final line of the opera, “La commedia è finita!”

Of all those who dare to return with dispatches from the front lines of reality, funny people are the ones most at risk, because the reality they mine ruthlessly is often their own. 

If art is truth reinterpreted, then the best comedy is the most dangerous of fun house mirrors, the reflection that is both honest and surreal, the guffaw that catches in the throat sourly.