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'Holden' and the Search for Authenticity

Anisa George’s play imagines the psyche of author J. D. Salinger in exile.

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J. D. Salinger is most well known for writing the acclaimed novel The Catcher in the Rye, an anthem for disaffected teenage boys for generations. But Salinger is also famous for his reclusive lifestyle; though the author lived until 2010, he stopped publishing any works in the 1960s, and anything he wrote after then went unseen by anyone else. In Holden, written and directed by Anisa George, J. D. "Jerry" Salinger grapples with the consequences of his controversial novel as the voices in his head urge him to publish again.

The story begins in a bunker of sorts, in which three young men argue, play and do everything they can to assist Jerry in finishing his manuscript. But it soon becomes apparent that these men are not Salinger superfans who have staked out his home—they actually only exist within his mind, confined to the bunker and to the eternal task of getting Jerry to write. Indeed, there is a somewhat Freudian structure to the trio: Hinckley, the imaginative one prone to slipping into reenactments of the movie Taxi Driver, is the id, leader Chapman, who becomes the editing voice in Jerry's head, is the ego and newcomer Zev, a destructive influence, is the superego.

As the men continue to get to know one another, however, it comes out that they are not just figments of his imagination. Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley, Jr. both sought to kill famous figures while citing the influence of The Catcher in the Rye, while Zev is an aspiring mass murderer. Thus, the three figures embody not just a metaphor for the anxieties and struggles of being a writer but also a reflection on the toxic disaffected masculinity epitomized by Holden Caulfield. 

What is writing, after all, if not a quest for truth? This desire for authenticity unites Jerry and the disturbed young men, and nowhere is the link stronger than in the idea of the "phony"-hating protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye.

And is Jerry responsible for the actions of murderers inspired by his writing? From the way in which he continues to imagine Hinckley and Chapman living in the bunker with him, it is clear he believes so. When the two men try to assist him in writing his new book, then, based on his experiences during the war, his torment over their actions gets mixed up in his apparent PTSD from his time in the army, with the men who make him afraid to write again urging him in his head to do so.

Holden is a frustrating and deeply sympathetic glimpse into Salinger's difficult life and the difficult phenomenon of violence symbolized by and at times inspired by the author's creation, The Catcher in the Rye. Chapman and Hinckley are as committed to the righteousness of their violent actions as they are to getting Jerry to publish again. Zev, meanwhile, though not a fan of the book, represents the modern and much more destructive iteration of the lone shooter (Chapman and Hinckley both come from the '80s), and indeed, the three men's conversation about why they desire to kill is one of the most powerful moments in the play.

But this performance has just as much to say about being a writer as it does about the deadly consequences of Holden Caulfield-esque disenchantment with the world. The moment in which Chapman and Hinckley stand over Jerry at the typewriter shouting contradictory directions at him as he tries to write will hit home for any aspiring novelist, and in fact, if you watch closely, Jerry seems to get his best work done while the "voices" in his head are busy distracting one another.

The four actors on stage do a fantastic job toeing the line between the comic and tragic elements of their situation. In one moment of childish glee, Zev (Matteo Scammell) demands Hinckley (Scott R. Sheppard) hit him on the head as hard as he can with a broom to see if he can feel it while wearing Jerry's WWII helmet, while not long after Chapman (Jaime Maseda) describes with chilling detail how he fixated upon his "phony" victim, John Lennon. And while all of this is going on, Jerry (Bill George) performs with subtle grace the struggle of having all of these contradictory impulses inside of him.

The dual themes of writing and violence come together in the act of chopping wood, a typically masculine and violent action that also represents the writer seeking to clear his head through manual labor. That the entire bunker is constructed of this wood hints not only at the immense duration of Jerry's writing struggle but also his isolation within a male-only space, from his time in the army to his present exile. Given this clever setting, the brief appearances of Salinger's young daughter Peggy (George Truman) are a welcome intrusion, one that terrifies the voices but provides the only moments of relief and relaxation for Jerry himself.

From Holden Caulfield to Jerry Salinger, Chapman, Hinckley and Zev, it is clear that for at least some men, this kind of social isolation is profoundly dangerous. Can Jerry find his way out of his exile, and will writing bring him that peace he so greatly desires? We may never know the answer, but by the final few minutes of Holden, we can begin to see the light.

Holden plays at the New Ohio Theatre through January 14.

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