It’s 1987. I’m standing in a bookstore on St. Mark’s Place in New York City. I pick up a book of writings by crazy people, titled Rants and Incendiary Tracts: Voices of Desperate Illumination, 1558 to Present. Being the young man I am, I think: hmm, looks interesting.
The book falls open to a selection titled “I Wish You All Had One Neck.” It’s a letter by Carl Panzram, a madman from the 1920s who was in prison and awaiting execution for the brutal, un-repented murders of almost two dozen men and boys on two continents. The letter is written to a kindly prison guard who took pity on the black-hearted maniac.
Panzram’s voice is savage, yet clear as a bell. “I have done as I was taught to do,” he writes. “I am not the least bit sorry. I have no conscience so that does not worry me. I don’t believe in man, God nor Devil. I hate the whole damned human race including myself. I have consistently followed one idea through all my life. I preyed upon the weak, the harmless and the unsuspecting.” To those who would wish to help him, he saves his most blistering attack: “The only thanks you will ever get from me for your efforts on my behalf is that I wish you all had one neck and I had my hands on it.”
Panzram’s mind on paper is chilling and unequivocal. And I think: if I can build a story around a character that strong, that absolute, that pure, I’ll really have something. I know some will love it and some will hate it, but I know everyone will respond to it.
I come up with an idea for a play as simple as a meat cleaver: a serial killer escapes from a mental institution and crashes a dinner party on Long Island. I take my character, my distillation of rage and misanthropy, and plunk him down in the middle of the cream of society – doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers, artists, media stars – and let him rip. The result is a dark comedy (“The mother of all black comedies” was the tag-line of the San Francisco production) that’s part The Man Who Came to Dinner, part Endgame and part Grand Guignol gorefest. By the end of the play we see that the killer is not a deviation from the norm, he is the purest expression of the norm. He’s not running counter to civilization, he is civilization, relentlessly, greedily pursuing death and destruction, conscienceless and remorseless.
I send the play out to agents. One responds with a phone call that says, and I quote, “This is the best play I’ve read in 17 years of being an agent, and I’m calling to tell you that I can’t represent you because it would be immoral.”