Sensitivity Test: A Play

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In one scene (shortened from the original four scenes for the
Public i)
Original cast: Walter Matherly, Mark Enslin
Original Performance: April 2005 House T h e a t e r,
Urbana, Illinois
Mark and Walter, sitting on chairs, with cardboard boxes
over their heads, holding hands.
Mark (takes off his box, knocks on Walter’s box): Knock
knock. Hey – how is it?
Walter (taking off his box): Still numb. Num’b’.(to audience):
You pronounce the ‘b’.
M: Why do you think you’re ‘num – b’?
W: Something happens, I don’t feel anything. Something
doesn’t happen, I don’t feel anything.
M (optimistic): You’re ‘reliable’!!
W: (shrugs it off)
M:You ever hear of ‘predisposition to action’?
W: No–pe. (to audience): I’m practicing the ends ofmyworDS.
M: Biologist Humberto Maturana coined it – he said, we
humans do and feel things together such that our bodies
become PREdisposed to act. Take a mother with a baby – all
that bonding and loving each other they do – the moment the
baby cries the mother jumps up and takes care. She’s ‘predisposed
to act’.
W: What’s that got to do with numb”b”?
M: If you have no feelings, you’re not ‘predisposed to act’!
W: Huh?
M : In other words, when your baby cries, you don’t jump up.
W: I don’t care about the jumping up part. I’m no mother.
It’s the numbness –
M: Let’s try something. Here’s an ice cube – do you see it?
W: Yup.
M: I’m going to press it in your arm.(presses ice cube in
Walter’s arm) How do you feel?
W: Cold.
M: And how do you feel predisposed to act?
W: Predisposed’? Huh ?
M: What are you gearing yourself up to do with this cold
thing on your arm?
W: To tell you to get it off!!!
M: Good. Next: You ticklish?W: Yup
M: Under your arms ?
W: Especially
M( starts tickling him): How do you feel?
W(giggling): I feel tickled.
M : And the ‘predisposition for action’?
W(giggling): I want you to stop….no, continue!!!…
no, stop, stop!!
M: Ok. Imagine your wife.
W(longingly): Oh I would love to. The box
has come between us, more trouble –
M: she ticklish ?
W: Very.
M : Imagine that I’m tickling her – with your
permission. Here I go (Mark makes animated
tickling gesture) Now, what do YOU feel?
W: (looks for a moment at Mark miming tickling):
Aside from enjoying you make an ass
of yourself, nothing at all.
M: No, c’mon – what do you feel?
M: What am I supposed to feel? You’re tickling
HER, how can I feel it?
M: Imagine! Use your mind like a human, not
only for ingesting and pooping out data.
Imagine your wife – see, she’s laughing, she’s
giggling. Remembering being tickled yourself.
W: Alright – yeah, my imagination – ok
alright . She’s laughing! Get her a little lower,
under the ribs!!…. T h a t ’s it, now you got her –
s h e ’s hysterical!! (he starts giggling)
M: How do YOU feel?
W(giggling): Me? I feel good, great!! I love
to see her laugh!! (to his imaginary wife) He’s
good, isn’t he? Man, he got me going there,
right under the armpits –
M: And, predisposition to action?
W: Alright now stop tickling her. She’s my
wife…Keep your hands to yourself, one thing
leads to another –
M: Alright, last experiment –
W:Wait, time out. What has my feeling numb
got to do with you tickling my wife? It’s MY
numbness I’m concerned about. Are you
proposing that I’m supposed to FEEEL vicariously
what the other person is feeling – and
thus won’t be numb? That I have FEEL my
wife being tickled?
M: Why not? You feel only when things happen
to YOU?
W (his mouth open, speechless, jabbering):
Well no, of course not, but err, umm, see I –
M: Speechless, eh?
W: Not really but I uhhh –
M: Let’s go on – See my hand? And my
W: You got fangs there buddy. What are you
going to do?
M: OK, I’m going to dig my nails into the
hand of –
W: Not MY hand! –
M: No, not yours – into the hand of someone
we don’t know, on the other side of the world.
W: As far away as possible, puhlease!
M: I’m going across the ocean, I’m traveling
in Europe, I’m in the Middle East, I’m in Ira-
W: now wait a minute –
M, repeating: I’m in the middle east, I’m in
W: No, DON’T GO THERE!!! Not there!!!
I t ’s not only a horrible situation, it also
changes this skit from a light-hearted comedy
between two men in boxes into a political
polemic and —
M: I’m digging my nails into a man’s hands,
someone we don’t know. Here I go. (Here
Mark sings one pitch; he keeps singing this
throughout the ‘digging-his-nails-into-aman’s-
hands’ section, stopping only to speak
his lines.) How do you feel?
W: No, I won’t do this – it’s a fiasco over
there – if I didn’t already have a box, it would
drive me to hiding inside a box – it’s a mess, a
disaster area over there –
M: Not about tidiness issues – how do you
W: The invasion started as a farce, now its
black comedy, annd –
M: Not about theatrical forms, either. How do
you feel that I’m digging my nails into a
man’s hand?
W: I won’t go along with this.
(M continues the digging action, with
W: I wish you would stop…..(Mark continues)…
How can I get you to stop? I have my
box you know….retreat IS an option…
M: Imagine.
W: What?
M: That I’m pressing my nails into the hand
of a man.
Walter (upset): What is this – reality TV? A
ritual? A symbol? A representation? A simulcast?
Infomercial? Metaphor? Test? What are
you asking me to participate in?
M: I want you to imagine I’M digging my
nails into the hand of a man, and then tell me
how you feel
W: “How I feel”? “How I feel?” You’ve got a
lot riding on the question ‘how do I feel’?
M: What’s the question you’ve got a lot riding
W (opens his mouth, is speechless): Err,
ummm, seee , but, uhhhh –
M: See?
W (to audience): This is the second time I’ve
been given nothing good to say back. No
snappy comeback. To the writer I protest –
M: Just imagine the situation
W: Alright alright.
M: Imagine I’m digging my nails into the
hands of a man.
W: Alright. No it’s not alright – I hate this, I
hate what you’re doing…People like you are
vicious, enjoy inflicting pain… those A m e r i c a n
soldiers, humiliating soldiers, torturing them.
Oh they say “a few rotten apples” – bullshit!! –
M continues.
W: C’mon stop it – I voted against this. I registered
people to vote to be against this. I go
to rallies against this –
M: not asking you what you’re DOING, –
I’m asking you what you’re feeling . Do you
feel the suffering?
W: O give me a break. I feel MY suffering….
Give me that hand (pulls Mark’s pressing
hand away) – See I can’t stop you – I
can’t stop this war – the racism in this count
r y. . . s t u p i d i t y…neocons…the sickening
wealth… the power over— you want the
whole list?
(M continues)
W: Oh give me my box, I can’t stand watching
this.(Puts on box)
M continues pressing down on hand
W (peeks to see if Mark has stopped; goes
back inside box)
W (from half inside the box): And you’re
wrong – I’d like to feel something. there’s a
little sweetness, to feeling. But there has to be
some positive outcome – why feel if it’s
going to be horrible?
W peeks to see if Mark has stopped. Back
into box.
W: (half out of box): Alright, I don’t feel anything.
You wanna know why? Because I don’t
want to feel anything. You wanna know why?
Because I’m smart not to feel anything: I do
not want to sit here in a hot seat of pain where
everything I do seems grotesquely insufficient,
the insufficiencies grinning at me like
gargoyles. I don’t trust ‘feeling’. I’ll settle for
good old numb.(back in box, then comes out:
“b” (goes back in).
M (stops the nail digging): Sorry. (gives hand
back to suffering man) (to audience): I work
backwards: the baby is crying and crying and
crying – and it doesn’t look like anyone is
jumping up, to stop war on Iraq. So – we
seem to have no predisposition to action. So –
we don’t know what we’re feeling. Or we
simply feel nothing. We’re num’b’.
(puts his box on, reaches out to hold Walter’s

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