When Günter Grass died earlier this year, it brought back memories of 1991, my first year in New York City. I sometimes think of this period in New York as its last dangerous days, when the city still had that anxious, patched-together sensibility, which is just another way of saying that once I lived in a New York City different than the New York City of today, a New York City that was romantic because I was young then. I lived that first year alone, in a single room on the upper floors of the 92nd Street Y. The 92nd Street Y was better known as a point of call for Manhattan sophisticates, who likely had little idea that, as they listened to the wisdom of celebrities in the great lecture hall, dozens of men and women were residing, like me, in tiny rented rooms on the floors above them.
I hardly saw another person during my time at the Y. When I first arrived in the fall of 1991, I would leave my room at what I thought would be sociable hours, walking through the linoleum halls to the communal kitchen or the communal bathroom, looking for company. Most other tenants did not live at the 92nd Street Y as I did; they were in New York to sightsee, staying a few weeks or so and spending most of their time on the town. Not long after I moved into the 92nd Street Y, I started eating in my room, leaving only at odd hours, to make the loneliness seem less unusual.
I had come to New York City to study theatre at a famous academy, which had produced many actors of note. At 18, I thought the theatrical life to be a romantic profession, and that to step out onto a New York City stage as an actor was to finally be a person. It didn’t matter how small the stage — the smaller the better, as a small stage was a sign of authenticity and mystique. My school was in the middle of the island of Manhattan, on the same subway line as the 92nd Street Y. That green subway line was, in my first year, a spine from which all other parts of the city spread and I rarely strayed from that spine. Every day, five days a week, I boarded the train at 86th Street and traveled to the neo-Colonial building in Midtown where I pretended to be other people and things: a resiliently moody waitress, a mythological Greek princess, a dot. At the end of the school day, I returned to the 92nd Street Y and spent my nights alone, eating Chinese dumplings on the bare floor and listening to music on the portable cassette player I had brought with me from my hometown, along with my Third Edition Roget’s International Thesaurus and a worn paperback copy of my favorite novel, The Tin Drum. When I was done eating, I would turn off the lights and sit on my bed, watching the taxis go down Lexington Avenue.
A few months into school, the holidays came. Having nowhere to go, I spent my time admiring the famous window displays on 5th Avenue and the way the city still moves fast in the cold. On Thanksgiving, I baked chocolate chip cookies on a disposable tin sheet in the kitchen of the 92nd Street Y, put them in plastic baggies, and walked around the Upper East Side handing them out to hobos, introducing myself as I went. If a man was sleeping (they were all men), I would place the cookie bag gently next to his face, so that he would not miss it upon waking.
In late December of 1991, I broke my foot rehearsing a movement for a role. I was determined to stay on in the city and continue my artistic career, despite the huge cast on my leg, and the crutches under my arms, and the fact that it had started to snow. Every day, I pulled my body through the grey slush, made my way down the crowded steps of the subway, and took the green line to school in Midtown. There, I performed my roles as best I could, sitting in a chair or on the floor. When weekends came, I sat on my bed in the single room of the 92nd Street Y with the window wide open, to bring in the air and voices. Below me, Manhattan society mingled in the lobby as I read The Tin Drum under the covers.
From the moment Oskar Matzerath is born in Danzig, in 1924, he is consciously acting a part.
“I was one of those clairaudient infants whose mental development is completed at birth,” says The Tin Drum’s protagonist, “and after that merely needs a certain amount of filling in. The moment I was born I took a very critical attitude toward the first utterances to slip from my parents beneath the light bulbs.”
“He’ll take over the business someday,” was the utterance of his father.
“When little Oskar is three years old, we’ll give him a tin drum,” said his mother.
“Outwardly screaming and impersonating a reddish blue baby, I reached a decision,” says Oskar. “I would reject my father’s suggestion … point blank, but when the proper time came … I would give favorable consideration to my mother’s wish.”
To Oskar Matzerath, the whole world was a play in which adults predictably perform. Act One: The coarse father unintentionally belittles his mother. Act Two: The mother screams at the German father in Kashubian, which he can neither stand nor understand. Act Three: The weeping mother is consoled by her cousin/lover until, at last, everyone makes up and carries on as before. Looking for a way out of this hellish, grownup show, Oskar resolves to stop growing. The night of his third birthday, as the play is performed in the living room, Oskar puts his new tin drum safely aside. He walks to the top of the cellar stairs and hurls his body down. At this moment, Oskar not only makes himself perpetually small but dangerous and loud. At home, at school, in the street, Oskar bangs away on his tin drum to drown out the sounds of people. Oskar learns he has a scream that can shatter glass. In short, Oskar makes himself into a freak, a part that no one wants to play. His freakishness becomes his power.
In the years to come, Oskar’s Danzig becomes a war zone. His neighbors sing the slogans of the Nazi party and wave little flags. His father wears his SS uniform with pride. Oskar’s uncle Jan is killed in a standoff at the Polish Post Office; his mother commits suicide by gorging herself on fish. In his late teens, Oskar runs away to the circus where he entertains Nazi officers with his glass-shattering talents. Eventually, Oskar is accused of a crime he didn’t commit and is confined to a mental institution. There, he writes the story of his life, slipping between first and third person, now referring to himself as ‘I’ now as ‘Oskar.’
Oskar’s smallness acted as a barrier between himself and the rest of the world: the oafish antics of his father, the infidelities of his mother, the mocking songs of children, the traumas of war. At the same time, Oskar, conscious that he was playing at the world, was never fully in the world. He was not a child, not an adult, not a Pole, not a German, invisible and utterly conspicuous. Slipping around from one identity to another – faking life left and right like a prizefighter – may have protected Oskar from some suffering, but it also left him without any single identity to rely on. Oskar knows his freakishness is just another role, the role of “the eternally three-year-old drummer.”
“Lonely and misunderstood,” relates self-conscious newborn Oskar, “Oskar lay beneath the light bulbs, concluded that things would go on that way for sixty or seventy years until a final short circuit cut off all fonts of light, and so lost his enthusiasm before this life beneath the light bulbs even began …”
At school, because I could not move well in my cast, I performed my roles stationary. Acting still, I discovered that movement is a big part of the craft. A really devoted actor can’t move like someone else until first investigating how she, herself, moves. In study, an actor learns to watch herself as if she were watching a performer. Attention is drawn to her posture, her speech. She must study the way her mouth moves when she chews, how she walks, what her hands do when she is angry, what it looks like – from the outside – to walk, to chew, to feel. One’s own walk is then replaced, gradually, by the character’s walk, the character’s inflections, the character’s feelings. The actor is both subject and object.
Through deep attention, an actor can learn a lot about his or her self. This, I think, is what often makes great actors suffer. Not the inability to live in a world of make-believe but the inability to live as one’s own self once the information about one’s self has been revealed. It’s a subtle difference. Many people simply perform life, without ever knowing how they do it, without asking why, maybe without needing to know why. Acting, on the contrary, turns life into layers of witnessing. Onstage, the actor watches the actor who performs the character who is, in turn, watched by an audience. Offstage, actors must let go of the watching and just be. Actors must learn to reintegrate their self-awareness back into themselves, in order to become whole again.
Maybe there is, at the core of every actor, an unbridgeable rift between the watcher and the watched, a permanent seat on the sidelines of one’s own life. Maybe this is why New York City, the great theatre capital, is called the City of Dreams.
How exactly did I break my leg rehearsing for a part? I’ve asked myself this question many times over the years. The more I’ve considered it, the more puzzling the whole episode seems. I think, reflecting after all these years, that some part of me was looking for a way out — not completely out, not so out that I would have to leave the city, or join the kids in Tompkins Square Park, or the hobos off Lexington, but just enough to keep me on the sidelines, much as I had been in my hometown. My broken leg protected me; it kept me from being a full participant in both my acting classes and New York City. It insured that I would stay small. My injury was a bulwark against the real New York City, and a protection for the New York City of my dreamworld.
“Outwardly screaming and impersonating a reddish blue baby, I reached a decision…”
In 2006, Günter Grass published a memoir called Peeling the Onion. In it, the writer revealed to the world a secret: that he had been conscripted into the Waffen-SS when he was 16 years old. Until then, it was assumed that Grass had been too young to be actively involved in the Nazi party. For Grass’ entire illustrious career, he had remained silent about this episode. He had hidden behind his youth. Unlike Oskar, who decided he would act small so that he could feel big, Grass decided to act big in order to remain small. Grass’ protection – and his wound – was silence. All his life, Grass used silence so that he could play his role — the role of an important, uncompromised writer.
In 2013, on the occasion of The Tin Drum’s fiftieth anniversary, the BBC interviewed Grass. At one point in the interview, a listener asked Grass why he made Oskar a dwarf. “Germany,” emphasized the listener, “is by no means a land of short people.”
Grass answered. It took a long time to find the right perspective from which to tell the story, he said. “I needed a person who was not involved, like a boy, but inside like a grownup, understanding everything.” From a dwarf’s perspective, the story of Nazi Germany could be told by someone who was implicated and, at the same time, innocent. Oskar, for Grass, was not made small to be a witness. He wasn’t a simple “victim,” a “loser,” as the Nobel Committee expressed. Oskar, Grass told the BBC, was a mirror, “a mirror to all the things that happened.”
“The behavior of people in Germany, you understand,” said Günter Grass, “was of a people who were not really grown up.”
“I was not lucky enough,” Grass told the BBC, “to stop my growing when I was three years old.”
Even though it was right below me, I only attended one event at the 92nd Street Y during that first year in New York. It was a screening of Volker Schlöndorff’s film version of The Tin Drum. I liked it, but I remember being surprised that the film left out Oskar’s consignment to the asylum. You never see how Oskar – after deciding at the graveside of his father that he can, and must grow – remains a freak nonetheless. This, to me, is an essential part of Grass’ story, that no matter what role Oskar wanted to play, it would have to be a small one. •
Art by Diane Pizzuto from a tin drummer illustration drawn by Günter Grass, used on various covers of The Tin Drum, including its first edition, and photos by Phillip Capper via Flickr (Creative Commons) and Andrew via Flickr (Creative Commons).