I saw The 20th of November the other night, attended by an audience so sparse I felt a pang of sympathy for performer Sina Gilani, who smiled from the far end of the Chamber as we trickled in.
The play is a curious one, and not easy for a single performer to carry the way Gilani does. With admirable restraint, he enlivens a speech that never existed in this form—although 95% of the text is taken from the (real; deceased) protagonist’s found writings. Culled from blog posts, videos, and online forum comments, Swedish playwright Lars Norén collaged together a posthumous manifesto in the voice of 18-year-old Sebastian Bosse, who entered his former school on a late November day in 2006 and opened fire. The only fatality was his own—self-inflicted.
In 90 minutes, Sebastian repeats a lot of nihilistic, anti-capitalist ideas, blaming the media, inherited German guilt, his teachers, his peers, for what he is about to do. A true narcissist, his statements swing from profound self-loathing to aggrandizement mere moments apart. He claims to hate talking to people, and yet he’s chosen to spend his last hours of life doing just that—at least in Norén’s imagination.
In the midst of chaos, Gilani’s performance is nuanced and considered, calm and oddly charming. When he loses his temper, he sounds like a tantrum-throwing child. It highlights the fact that Sebastian Bosse was a thwarted child: sad, rejected, and vengeful. Rather than making him a monster, foaming at the mouth, Gilani renders him sane, intelligent, and in control of his words and actions. Spouting contradictions, Sebastian derides consumer culture and capitalism while lamenting his own social destitution, repeatedly saying that he will “make everyone pay.” As much as his language confronts us—the supposed complacent audience—he tips his hand again and again to show that he’s not so different from us. Guns, dynamite, and gas canisters are displayed with the pleasure of a child showing off his new toys.
My question was not why he chose to carry out such bloody revenge, but why Norén chose to make a drama of it. A play based on found or verbatim text is a thought experiment in real time, but The 20th of November is elliptical, ending where it began. Sitting in this ring of chairs, I was unable to make emotional or intellectual meaning out of what I was watching, and the event this play preceded.
Still, what I love about this show is that it is impossible to watch in a vacuum. Even though it is based on an event from ten years ago, The 20th of November resonates within the current slate of stories we share with each other, and what we compulsively focus on. I thought specifically of Dylann Roof, the man who entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, this summer, killing nine African American congregants. Shortly after he was named as a suspect, pictures of him circulated Twitter and Facebook with commentary and close-ups that proved his racist sympathies. Nine people dead, and his was the only face in clear view.
A villain is a great puzzle—a victim, less so. By studying villains, there is some feeling of power from afar. Sitting in the room with Sebastian, watching him show-and-tell his weapons, it’s hard not to feel privileged, reminding yourself that these are prop guns; that this young man speaking is just a talented actor, that in a short amount of time, you will walk freely from the theatre—unlike the spectre of Sebastian Bosse, forever repeating the 20th of November.