William Salyers is an excellent actor who spent many years doing strong work in Seattle theatre before moving to L.A.. to make his grab at a slice of the big money Hollywood pie. He has been especially invaluable to the development of new plays, originating such roles as Mr. Wickett and Truett in Louis Broome’s Texarkana Waltz, Hampstead Hamilton in Jillian Armenante’s In Flagrante Gothicto, Audie McCall in Paul Mullin’s Tuesday and the title role in Mullin’s Louis Slotin Sonata, for which Salyers received a Backstage West Garland Award for Best Actor.
Bill happens to be that old school kind of actor who arrives at the theatre before anyone else and leaves after all the other cast members are already on their first shot and beer back. It was well after final blackout one night during the L. A. run of the Sonata when the house manager came backstage and told Bill someone was waiting in the lobby to talk to him. This was odd, since Bill didn’t remember having any acquaintances in the audience that night, but the play was pretty controversial, so he figured it might just someone who wanted to hash out one of the play’s obscurer points with him in lieu of the playwright.
Waiting for him in the lobby was a slight elderly woman. Bill politely introduced himself, but the lady, in a heavy Eastern European accent, skipped past formalities. “Are you Jewish?” She asked. (Louis Slotin, the real-life scientist Bill portrayed had been Jewish.) Bill was not and told the lady so. “But you are European, no?” She persisted.
“No, ma’am.” Bill smiled. “I’m just a country boy from Okahoma.”
“Oh.” She seemed momentarily puzzled. “Well, then where did Mengele come from?”
During the play Louis Slotin has a nightmare in which he imagines himself as Josef Mengele, escaped from Auschwitz and fleeing East across the Eurasian continent. (I’ll include an excerpt of Slotin’s Mengele monologue at the end of this node.)* At this point Bill imagined he saw where the old lady was going. Many Jewish audience members, and scientists, objected to the author’s inclusion of Mengele, since they believed that no self-respecting Jew, or scientist, would ever envision himself as one of the most heinous pseudoscientific torturers of all time. Bill began defending the playwright: “Well, I think what the author meant by Mengele is that often during our deepest feelings of grief and shame we cast ourselves as the most evil character we can imagine.”
“No, no.” said the lady. “Where did Mengele come from... in you? How did you know what he was like?”
Bill admitted, “I didn’t. I have no idea what Mengele was like. I can only imagine.”
“That’s strange,” said the lady.
Bill began to feel uneasy. “Why strange?” he asked.
“I knew Mengele,” she said.
The very air between them seemed to tighten. “You... knew Mengele?”
Bill had to ask. “You were at Auschwitz?”
“You actually saw him face to face?”
“I—I don’t know what... to say.”
“Your performance was very convincing.”
Bill made a motion to touch the lady, on the arm perhaps, some gesture of common humanity; but the woman stiffened, instinctively pulling back. She politely bid him good night and left the theatre, leaving Bill to ponder less with pride than baffled awe how it could be possible to blindly reach across the chasm of half a century to summon up the monster that still haunted this woman’s memory.
Some times, such is the power of theatre, such as it is.
*I actually witnessed Salyers transformation from Slotin into Mengele many many times, and each one was uncanny. An off-hand Teutonic pride entered his voice and something very palpable died behind his eyes as he began to speak these words:
My name is Doktor Joseph Mengele. I am physician and a scientist. I am wearing the skin of a foolish Canadian Jew who tried to kill me. With this clever disguise I am able to make my escape from Katzet Auschwitz. Outside the camp, I find my horse, pale and sickly. I mount her and we fly east like fire up a flue. Time is fleeting. I must make haste. East past the frozen bone heaps of Stalingrad, east past Moscow, that festering boil of Bolshevism, past the Urals, and into the wastes of Siberia. My mount shies as we come upon the unspeakable depths of Lake Baikal, but I push her on. We must go East. Time is fleeting. On through Manchuria and then down to the shores of the Sea of Japan. For I have an appointment to keep with the honorary Aryans that rule the Empire of the Rising Sun: an important symposium that my spies tell me will include a demonstration of a new experiment, beyond the wildest fantasias of the SS. What took us years to do in stinking, filth-filled camps, can now, they say, be done in milliseconds from the comfort of an aeroplane cockpit.
This I must see for myself.
End of Act I.)