In Scene Nine of Normal Wehner asks the audience, “Do we bear monsters? Or do we create them?”
The plot provides easy support for those on the “nurture” end of the “nature vs. nurture” argument; it reinforces the belief that depraved behavior develops because of trauma early in life. Peter Kurten grew up in horrific circumstances that involved abuse of every kind; physical, verbal, emotional, and sexual. So it’s easy to believe that those experiences are at the root of his sick behavior.
But Wehner’s question pushes us a little further: As a society, do we bear responsibility for his crimes? There must have been neighbors in his building in Mulheim who at least suspected that all was not right in the one-room apartment that held 15 people. Are they responsible for the string of victims he left behind? I like to think of myself as a productive member of society, and I certainly don’t murder people or set buildings on fire. But every day I walk straight by people who are asking me for money for food. If one of those people goes back to a partner or parent, and is beaten for failing to collect enough money, do I bear part of the responsibility for that? If that same person goes on to hurt people in turn, as Kurten did, am I, as a member of the society that has failed to answer the call for help, to be held to account?
It is more comfortable to believe that Kurten would have turned out the way he did regardless of his history; that he was simply innately evil, an inexplicable aberration. This absolves us of responsibility, and of the unsettling possibility that you or I would be a monster, if our luck had gone that way. If Kurten was innately evil, then the rest of us – the ones who don’t kill for pleasure – must be innately good.
In playing Frau Kurten, the woman who chose to attach herself to this aberration, I had to consider why. I concluded that she had also suffered an abhorrent upbringing, though perhaps not as extreme as Kurten’s. As a damaged person who considers herself unworthy of love or any life within the boundaries of polite society, she has survived in its underbelly, and recognizes in Kurten her own broken self. He offers her escape from prostitution – the classic knight in shining armor, saving her – without asking her to be different or better than what she is.
The biggest challenge of this role for me is that Frau Kurten is always pretending. Her experience as a sex worker has honed her perception – she knows want you want, and becomes that person for your benefit. But what does she want? Somewhere in there, although it has been battered down deep inside, there is someone with her own personhood. Like any person, she wants to be happy. So she always has her own agenda. My job as an actor is to show the audience one thing, at the same time that I’m showing them that I’m showing the other character in the scene something else.
It’s a lot to ask an audience, to spend an hour walking the line between humanity and savagery – like coming face-to-face with yourself, but altered, as though what you thought was your own visage is just a mask that has become transparent. “Normal” forces us to recognize that, for whatever reason, deviance like Peter Kurten’s is well within the spectrum of human behavior. Perhaps the most unsettling possibility of all is, to quote Wehner once again, “You’re still a human being, Mr. Kurten. Whatever you’ve done.”
Review of Normal by John Stoltenberg.
Behind the Scenes at “Normal” Part 2: Brian McDermott: ‘Bow Ties and Other Knotty Problems’ by Brian McDermott.
Behind the Scenes at “Normal” Part 1: A Molotov Show without Blood? Behind the Grand Guignol Scenes of ‘Normal’ by Alex Zavistovich.