Maybe it’s because I’m white. Maybe it’s being raised in the 90s during an overdrive time of in your face acceptance and the belief that anyone can do anything and don’t judge a book by its cover. Maybe it’s just my fear of pissing people off for using the wrong word.
But it was rough to crack open The Sunset Limited, a Cormac McCarthy play with two unnamed characters labeled only as White and Black.
(Quick synopsis: They are in Black’s tenement apartment after Black stopped White from jumping in front of the eponymous train. Black believes in God. White doesn’t.)
One particular stage direction hammered home my discomfort.
The black gets up.
Well, okay. McCarthy has been referencing their lines with merely White and Black. It’s kinda okay, right? Because I’m sure the white guy will be referenced in the same way.
The professor stands with his head lowered.
It’s hard to differentiate between my natural inclination to want to not whittle people down to just any one label and what McCarthy is clearly trying to make me feel.
Dude, it worked. I’m uncomfortable.
Which I presume is the point. McCarty specifically chose to omit character names for a reason. The two men quickly become caricatures. The white liberal professor with nothing to live for. The black criminal who heard the voice of God and is a true believer.
Or maybe more. A guardian angel sent down to protect the man contemplating suicide? A purgatory of some sort?
I think the caricature theory might hold the most water. Stereotypes are uncomfortable, yes. But by choosing to dance with stereotypes and go to the extremes, McCarthy is upping the ante. The audience/reader (more on that later) is forced to live in the extremes as well, no matter how difficult. The ultimate conversation – is there a God? – is difficult. Everything is difficult, according to much of McCarthy’s work, including merely being alive. Why mince words?