Actor David McPhail tells drama on the waterfront about his experience playing the famed creator of some of the world’s favourite cartoon characters in A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney.
I didn’t like Bambi. In my small, seven-year-old mind a deer was always associated with antlers. I was scared of antlers. I had trouble understanding what Mickey Mouse was actually saying. Even worse I was never sure if Mickey was Minnie’s brother, or her husband, or simply a friend with similar ears.
I felt happier with the nihilistic violence of Wile E. Coyote and his attempts to flatten the Road Runner. The mindless mayhem of Tom and Jerry made more sense to me. A heavy mallet on Tom’s head would make his tongue roll out like an endless welcome mat. And then Jerry would nail it with a railway spike. But that was another cartoon company. Walt Disney had Silly Symphonies so Warner Brothers hit back with Looney Tunes. I loved that.
Meanwhile over in Fantasyland, Donald Duck sounded like a squeegee, Mickey and Minnie were doing whatever they did and Pluto, the severely retarded dog, was waving his ears around. It’s interesting to reflect that two of Walt Disney’s most endearing characters were a brain-damaged dog and a dwarf called Dopey. The character I liked most was Scrooge McDuck. He was bitter, twisted, cruel and mean. Scrooge didn’t last long. Perhaps he was getting under the skin of his creator too much. Walt Disney’s creations were always friendly
Today I’m trying to get under the skin of the man whose mind created Mickey Mouse. We have one thing in common and ten thousand things we don’t. Disney was a cigarette smoker. So am I and working in this play I’m seriously concerned about my addiction. You’ll understand why when you see the play.
The things we don’t share? He was fabulously successful, extraordinarily rich, admired by Mussolini and the creator of the most iconic and perhaps moronic mouse in the world. Try as I might I haven’t achieved any of those milestones.
When I was younger, roughly around the time of the last Ice Age, you could watch Walt Disney on television. He’d fade up in flickering black and white and cheerfully describe everything you were about to see while constantly assuring you that everything coming up would delight you. I rarely paid much attention. Instead, I was hoping we’d get Mickey and Minnie in an inflatable dingy about to hurtle over Niagara Falls and one of them would die. Neither ever did. Because Walt Disney really wanted to make the world a more cheerful place. He was obsessed with happy endings. In an attempt to achieve these he wrecked himself, alienated his family and nearly demolished all the magic kingdoms of his dreams. Why? Well, in his own words: ‘You can’t just let nature run wild.’
Running wild is a central motif in Lucas Hnath’s play. The words are scattered over the pages like black confetti. The rational connections of human speech are carved up and reassembled randomly. It’s reminiscent of the cut-ups of William S. Burroughs except Hnath dismembers conversations while Burroughs carved up whole pages of other people’s books. The Ticket That Exploded is probably the best and worst example of this happily neglected form of plagiarism. Hnath simply slices his own sentences. This creates an authentic language. But, it is bloody hard to learn. It is a conversation without connections. This is the way we speak. Disjointed, discursive, disruptive and frequently dying away into the distance.
So, that’s the language but what is the play about? Aha, that’s where you come in. Where we all get together. Don’t be deceived by the title. This isn’t a play about death. It’s your play. We may tell a story and we use a language but what happens is entirely over to you. For centuries playwrights have been driving their ideas, their hopes and their ideals into the face of their audiences. I want to make you laugh. I want to make you tearful. I want to change you. I want to show you a more seductive future. I want to make you forget the past. Most forgot the eternal ingredient. I want to tell you a good story. This is a good story. How we tell it is critical to your enjoyment. But the story is more important than the tellers.
A little fat boy called Walter Disney. Scribbling away with a broken pencil. Sometimes drawing animals. Always small things like ducklings or mice. Never lions or cobras. Little dainty creatures with big innocent eyes and four-fingered hands. Safe tiny animals in a candy-floss world with lemonade streams. Thirty years later Disney, who now calls himself Walt because it’s manlier, is still drawing the same things. Except now they move. Their little tails twirl, their big ears wobble and their eyes are more googly than ever. And this is making millions.
So, what does a little boy do when he wants more? He makes something bigger – Disneyland or even Disneyworld? This play is about a dream that went hay-wire. It’s also about childhood day-dreams and the dangerous hope of never growing old. It’s about striving to be young. But, the body begins to falter. It won’t stop fading. It doesn’t work anymore. The lights are going out in Disneyland. So what’s left?
The chance of another life. A cartoon life? Where everything can be fixed. Where all the fun, the frolics and the future can happen again and again. This is the weird world of Walt Disney and Jessica, David, Richard and Nick will open the magic doors, sprinkle a little star-dust around and then drop you right in the shit.
A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney runs in Circa One until 27 September. To book, call 801-7992 or visit www.circa.co.nz.