The Autumning Empire

Culture, Politics, Etc.

Cancer, Live Theatre, and “The Penguins of Ithaca”

There are…things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself.”

Notes From the Underground, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Every writer has stuff that’s off limits. There are some things we just don’t want to think about. They are too personal. Or painful. Or perhaps writing about them would be awkward, or even embarrassing. Eugene O’Neill waited until his father, mother, and brother died before writing Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and even then gave strict instructions to suppress the play’s performance until 25 years after his own death.

Writing is terrifying, especially when it requires us to relive any kind of pain. “Why do I have to go through everything again?” So cries Louis in Suicide in B Flat, Sam Shepard’s beautiful and bizarre mystery play about the fragile and explosive relationship between Biography and Art. The play is literally framed as a mystery: Louis is not an artist, but a detective who, while searching for the link between the artist and his life, falls prey to his own inner demons, until all that is left is the past.

That’s all well and good, but who of us can write as well as Shepard? I know I can’t. There’s a reason why creating art is called a ‘risk’: the potential for failure is enormous. You want proof? Look at The Onion: “Study: Family History of Alcoholism Raises Risk of One Man Show.” Pure satire, but the joke magazine’s description self serving ineptitude has the terrible ring of authenticity. “The study found that males raised by alcoholic parents are 40 percent more likely to someday force their friends to attend a self-penned theatrical production about their life experiences….To see them throw their lives away by performing an hour-and-a-half-long monologue for 15 people in a tiny black-box theater is just plain sad. Tragic even.” One man’s catharsis is another man’s kitsch. Maybe it’s easier to just not write at all.

Alright, fine. But what’s the alternative? Years ago, I read an interview with Paul McCartney. This was a long, long time ago, back in the day when journalists and reviewers criticized the former Beatle for putting out less than totally outstanding material. (It’s kind of hard to imagine anyone doing that now, isn’t it?) Frustrated, the future knight of the realm shot back: “What am I supposed to do? Take Polaroids of myself sitting on the toilet?” It’s a good question; and one that every artist needs to ask when feeling too chicken to get disciplined, sit down, and start telling the truth. One of the great pleasures of Notes from The Underground is watching the author undermine of the narrator’s false premise. We can admit everything. It is possible to speak the truth. Not just speak, but write it down. Put the painful thing on paper and relive that moment we thought we never could. Or should. In order to survive, we finally need to heed Danton’s heroic call: “L’audace, L’audace, tu jours L’audace.” Sooner or later, we must employ audacity, and finally emerge from the underground.


Fifteen years ago, I began tutoring 9 year old boy named Eric. My new student had recently been diagnosed with leukemia, and was being homeschooled. Told by his family of a voracious appetite Shakespeare, I was asked if I could take an hour a week to help foster his burgeoning interest.

Eking out a living as a professional actor in San Francisco, I was happy for the work. And I was especially pleased to meet my new charge; even at our first interview, Eric wasted no time. He wanted to talk about The Merchant of Venice. Bothered and fascinated with the Bard’s treatment of the Jewish moneylender Shylock, Eric wrestled with the most troublesome issues in the play before finally asking: “Was Shakespeare anti-Symmetrical?”

Most malapropisms reveal ignorance. Eric’s revealed knowledge. And curiosity. I mean seriously, how many nine year olds do you know who have even heard of The Merchant of Venice? Not only that, this nine year old boy cared about Shylock as if he were a living human being. Eric was concerned that Shakespeare might have done his own character an injustice. Tutoring Eric was already proving to be an extremely exciting prospect, and within a month, he’d read A Midsummer Night’s Dream from cover to cover. Pretty soon we were tackling Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, and Eric’s personal favorite, Macbeth.

We had great fun together. And Eric was brilliant. Totally, totally brilliant. It wasn’t just that he could read Shakespeare, he understood it. Not just intellectually, but on a visceral, gut level. “Malvolio and Puck are basically the same person: they’re both just in love with themselves.” “It’s wrong for Antonio to treat him that way, Shylock has to do something.” Eric once told me that Macbeth was his favorite character from Shakespeare. When I asked why, he replied, “Because even when he knows he’s going to die, he keeps on fighting. Right until the very end.”

I should have paid attention. There were times when Eric was just fine. Better than fine. His white blood cell count improved. He was in remission. He had energy, tons of it, and everything seemed to be moving in the right direction. But then there were times when Eric was not just fine. The cancer came back. He had a stroke. And graft versus host. And a bone marrow transplant. And exhausting treatments. And…I don’t know. Disappointment? Fear? I’ll never really know what it must have been like. To be Eric, or his amazing family who loved and supported him every step of the way. But you don’t need a great imagination to guess that the worst of it must have been terrifying.

I knew Eric for five years. And pretty soon, it became clear that I was being called upon to do something besides teach Shakespeare. I did the best I could, but I made a lot of mistakes. The worst was a speech that I gave at a concert held for Eric while he was in the hospital. (The scope of this boy’s influence was unimaginable; you simply can’t count the number of artists who decided to be a part of Eric’s life). At the time of the concert, his condition appeared to be improving. I said to the audience that I had faith that Eric’s life would not finally be a tragedy, but a comedy. Yes, I said “comedy”. Sure, I qualified it with some clever remark to the effect of “not the slapstick kind that makes people laugh, but the comedy of life renewed, and blah, blah, blah,” but the fact of the matter is that the operative word, which I used more than once, was “comedy”.

Eric was not amused. He saw a videotape of the concert, and a month or so later, when he got out of the hospital, he sat down with me and made his feelings clear. His cancer was not a comedy. There was nothing funny about his struggles. And my use of the word had upset him. Eric was quiet, direct, and polite. I was devastated. But not as devastated as Eric must have been felt when he heard what I had to say at a concert that was, after all, supposed to be in his honor.

Instead of firing me (he certainly could have) Eric stated quite reasonably that he hoped that it would not happen again, and would like for us to continue in our work together.

When did I figure out that he was smarter than me? That I was running out of things to teach him? Was it when he started learning ancient Greek? (Homer was quickly replacing Shakespeare as his author of choice, and Eric was determined to read the original). I didn’t keep a journal of our time together, so I rely entirely upon my memory, which is fragmented, incomplete, and infuriatingly anti-Symmetrical.

Five years is a long time. And I am grateful for every minute. But I wish I’d had more. Eric died ten years ago, and hardly a day passes when I do not think of him. And I guess some part of me still expects to hear his voice when I answer my telephone. Indeed, for years I kept one of his last messages on my answering machine. Finally, a technical malfunction erased his voice, and with it the illusion that I would ever talk to my friend again.

But that’s not entirely true. In fact, it isn’t true at all. Because I do talk to Eric. All of the time. It started from the very day he died. About a year before, I’d moved from California to Portland, Oregon. Eric and I continued our lessons almost every week over the telephone. I even managed one trip back to California to visit him. But I wasn’t there at the end; Eric’s mother telephoned to tell me of his death. I hope that I was able to give some small measure of consolation to Eric’s grieving family. But, as is the case with so many other things, my memories are fragmented. I simply can’t remember.

Here is what I do remember. The day that Eric died, my wife and I had family visiting from out of town. Resisting the temptation to spend the rest of the day in a dark room, I kept the dinner date we’d made. We took our company to this place called The Kennedy School, a former elementary school in Northeast Portland that’s been refurbished into a pub and motel.  The school’s halls have been repainted by local artists, and part of the establishment’s charm is in its invitation to stroll around the grounds and explore every inch.

It was weird. I felt alone. Eric was dead, and all I could do was pace around some local brewpub and sip on an IPA. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be doing, but thiswas definitely not it.

I want to be careful how I describe this next part, because after a decade, I still don’t understand it. I also want to resist the temptation to guild the moment with any gratuitous drama. So the best I can say is this: as I walked around The Kennedy School, I started to feel like Eric was there. Here he was standing by the radiator. There again, for a second, looking back at me from a painted wall. They were moments, and only moments. But the feeling was clear and unmistakable. Most of my adult life had been spent as a lazy agnostic. As was so often the case with Eric, my previously held assumptions were proving absolutely inadequate for the awesome immediacy of the present.

Was Eric really there? Or did my grief and imagination get the better of me? And in the end, does it really matter? When Harry Potter asks Dumbledore’s spirit: “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?” his master replies, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry. But why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”


Years passed. My son was born. My mother died. I started writing plays, all of them haunted by the specter of death. A girl refuses to visit the nursing home of her ailing grandmother. A couple vainly ignores the death of their middle child. A teenager commits suicide in Act I, only to return as a ghost in Act III to haunt his grieving siblings.

One day I had a chat with my godmother about my writing. Karen, a retired actress who still lives in New York suggested: “You should really write about Eric.” “Oh, I already have,” I lied, “All of this stuff I’ve been writing…it’s like, well, it’s my indirect way of processing my experience with him.” It sounded plausible enough to me, and I considered the matter closed.

But the truth was, I had made a decision not to write about Eric, or the effect he had had on my life. For one thing, I didn’t want to churn out some sentimental TV movie of the week Lifetime special get out your hankies and have a good cry piece of horseshit. Sure, I guess all writing is manipulative. But still, the whole prospect seemed wrong. And after all: I hadn’t had cancer. Eric had. Wasn’t this his story? Hadn’t I been there to help him? And hadn’t I screwed things up enough by just talking about his life with that horrible ‘comedy’ misnomer? No way. I wasn’t going to do it. Every writer has stuff that’s off limits. There are some things we just don’t want to think about.

In the spring of 2010, eight years after Eric died, I was writing a piece that I guess you could call an absurdist sketch. Here’s how it went:

A fully grown man named Ectoplasmic Jim is confronts an imaginary version of his middle school English teacher, a woman in her ‘70s whom he’d always had a crush on. Ectoplasmic Jim (EJ, for short) is smitten, terrified, neurotic, and self absorbed. Sputtering like a teenager, he presents his former teacher with a list of his virtues and good deeds, hoping to mitigate his crush, and in the proces justify his entire existence.

“Hmm,” I thought, “What does EJ have to say for himself? What’s the first thing that would come out of his mouth?”

And the first thing that came out of my brain was this:

“There was this one kid that I hung out with, he was like this genius. I think that he was ten or eleven or something ridiculous like that and they already had him studying ancient Greek.”

Oops. I knew where this was going. Eric did not belong here, didn’t belong here at all.

But I had made myself a promise: never censor anything from the first draft. You can always edit later. And you don’t have to show it to anybody. But the first draft is sacred. A note from the underground. So I took a deep breath, and spent the next month and a half writing something that I’d been avoiding for years.

The play I wrote is called The Penguins of Ithaca. It is about a self absorbed, neurotic man named EJ who befriends a ten year old cancer patient named Carl. (I named after the children’s author and illustrator Eric Carle). The play is a work of fiction. Most of the events are imagined, and roughly half of them aren’t realistic. But the play for me is real. In writing Carl, I tried to capture Eric’s voice as accurately as I could, even when inventing dialogue that never happened in real life.

I’ve tried to be respectful. I hope I’ve been honest. And I’m sure that I’ve made tons of mistakes. But McCartney was right: you have to keep going, even at the risk of getting it wrong.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall is not the story of Annie. Rather, it’s the story of how she forces the neurotic narrator to get over himself and grow the hell up. I tried to be original, but I’ve never been able to shake off Woody’s influence. And so my play is not about Eric. Rather, it is a fragmented, anti-Symmetrical reflection of how he taught me life’s value of making every moment count.

Still, I wonder what Eric would think. He was very critical, and I cannot help imagining him scratching his head and asking: “When did we ever talk about that sort of thing?”

Then again, Eric was a performing artist. He could do the dagger speech from Macbeth like nobody’s business. He put together intricate clown routines that from time to time he’d share. And Eric was a remarkable dancer. One of my most cherished memories is that of watching him perform in The Nutcracker at Marin Ballet. So I can’t really say whether or not he would have liked this thing. But I know that in writing the play, I have tried to honor his memory. I hope that perhaps, on some level, Eric is able to understand.


Shortly before he died, The Make-A-Wish Foundation sent Eric and his family to the island of Ithaca. My young friend was eager to visit the home of Odysseus, who’d trumped even Macbeth as his all time favorite hero. “He’s a survivor,” Eric told me, and it was clear that he’d found his kindred spirit. Back in the states, Eric filled me with tales of his own voyage to Ithaca, as wonderful and amazing as any told by Homer.

Suddenly, he asked me: “Do you know where the word ‘perfect’ comes from?” I confessed my ignorance. “It’s from the Latin word ‘perfectus’, which means ‘finished’, or ‘complete’, like…like coming around full circle.”

It would be one of my last conversations with Eric. Except for the fact that I still talk to him. It sounds crazy, until you consider the alternative. Those notes from the underground will only be ignored for so long. If Eric taught me nothing else, his life demonstrated the amazing and transformational power of art, knowledge, and friendship. I shall not look upon his like again.

Thank you, Eric. I hope that your Odyssey has indeed come full circle. As for myself, I still have a bit of a way to go. But wherever you may be, you will always have the gratitude and fondness of a humble fellow traveler.

David Berkson



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2 thoughts on “Cancer, Live Theatre, and “The Penguins of Ithaca”

  1. A workshop/reading of “The Penguins of Ithaca” is playing in Portland, OR on January 27, 28 and 29 at 7:30 PM. Details are below.

    WHO: Readers Theatre Repertory
    WHAT: THE PENGUINS OF ITHACA Workshop/Reading at Fertile Ground.
    WHEN: January 27, 28, 29 @ 7:30pm
    WHERE: Northwest Academy Blue Box Theatre, 1130 SW Main St, Portland OR 97205
    TICKETS: $10 advance/$12 door | or
    1-800-494-8497 (TIX)

  2. Pingback: Inspired by… Cancer and Beauty and a 9 Year Old Boy « Fertile Ground Portland

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