A man says he is Jesus Christ. Why does he do this? Does he really believe that he is the Saviour? What would happen if several persons, each claiming the same delusional identity, were confronted with one another?
Welcome to the theatre of personalities, where performers act the characters of people who take the roles of Christ. Welcome to the theatre of reenactment, where actors reenact the film based on a book about people who believe they are Christ. Welcome to the Rashomon of identities, where we stage the baseless nature of delusion and the flimsy foundations we use to construct our own identities.
In this theatre, everyone, including the viewers, has multiple identities. Everyone is in the business of counterfeiting many probable versions of selves. Where everyone, the audience included, tries to make their defective selves appear to others as competent personalities.
In the late 1950s, psychologist Milton Rokeach was gripped by an eccentric plan. He gathered three psychiatric patients, each with the delusion that they were Jesus Christ, to live together for two years in Ypsilanti State Hospital to see if their beliefs would change. The early meetings were stormy. “You oughta worship me, I’ll tell you that!” one of the Christs yelled. “I will not worship you! You’re a creature! You better live your own life and wake up to the facts!” another snapped back. “No two men are Jesus Christ. … I am the Good Lord!” the third interjected, barely concealing his anger.
(This may be the much more gripping prototype of Big Brother, although, in the modern version, everyone in the house deludedly believes themselves to be celebrities or interesting.)
Rokeach, aware of this, did not expect a miraculous cure. If tomorrow everyone treats you as if you had an electronic device in your head, there are ways and means you could use to demonstrate that they are wrong and establish the facts of the matter – a visit to the hospital perhaps. But what if everyone treats you as if your core self were fundamentally different than you believed it to be? Let’s say they thought you were an undercover agent – what could you show them to prove otherwise? From your perspective, the best evidence is the strength of your conviction. Your belief is your identity.
Frustrated by psychology’s focus on what he considered to be peripheral beliefs, like political opinions and social attitudes, Rokeach wanted to probe the limits of identity. He had been intrigued by stories of secret service agents who felt they had lost contact with their original identities and wondered if a man’s sense of self might be challenged in a controlled setting. Unusually for a psychologist, he found his answer in the Bible. There is only one son of God, says the good book, so anyone who believed himself to be Jesus would suffer a psychological affront by the very existence of another like him. This was the revelation that led Rokeach to orchestrate his meeting of the Messiahs and document their encounter in his extraordinary book from 1964, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti.
Another account of a meeting of the Messiahs comes from Sidney Rosen’s book My Voice Will Go With You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson. The renowned psychiatrist apparently set two delusional Christs in his ward arguing – only for one to gain insight into his madness, miraculously, after seeing something of himself in his companion. (“I’m saying the same things as that crazy fool is saying,” said one of the patients. “That must mean I’m crazy too.”)
The performance I Was an Elephant Once in Cambodia is not an adaptation of the books by Rokeach or Rosen, but uses the books as a springboard for the identity carnival.
Performance: Barca Baxant, Isabella Händler, Anna Mendelssohn, Anat Stainberg, Florian Tröbinger, Markus Zett; Filmcast: Thomas Crawley, Onur Poyraz, Peter Stamer, Charlotte Zorell
Video: Michael Strohmann
Set design: Paul Horn
Costumes: Lena Kvadrat/art point
Written and directed by Yosi Wanunu
Produced by Kornelia Kilga, Charlotte Zorell
Co-produced by Theater am Werk, Nov 28 – Dec 9, 2023, 7:30 pm (Tue – Sat)