Accepting Death in The Unfortunates

By Shannon Stockwell 

The Unfortunates is now playing at The Strand Theater and closes April 10. Get tickets here!

In The Unfortunates, Big Joe goes from being utterly terrified of death to accepting it with bravery. For human beings, learning how to accept our own death is one of the most difficult things we can do—so difficult, in fact, that some believe we are completely incapable of it. Freud said, “It is impossible to imagine our own deaths.” But there are those who believe that accepting death is not only doable, but the key to living the happiest life possible: “We cannot live authentically and meaningfully without embracing death,” says psychologist Paul T. P. Wong.

(L-R): CJ (Christopher Livingston), Big Joe (Ian Merrigan), and Coughlin (Jon Beavers)
face their deaths in The Unfortunates. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Several theories have been proposed about the ways in which humans approach death. Psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified five stages of grief: denial, bargaining, depression, anger, and acceptance. In The Unfortunates, Big Joe goes through all of these stages: He denies his feelings of grief by flexing his big fists. He bargains for Rae’s life with Stack by betting on a game of craps to win the money to get her medicine. He goes through bouts of extreme depression. His anger comes through when he attacks the Rooks, and when he tries to kill the Doctor at the end of the play. As in Kübler-Ross’s theory, Joe’s journey finally ends in acceptance of death—his own as well as his friends’.

According to Wong, there are three different ways people can come to embrace death. “Approach Acceptance” is the belief that whatever comes after death will be pleasant—this is the religious approach, a belief in a joyful afterlife. There is also “Escape Acceptance,” which is the belief that, no matter what death is, it will be less painful than the life currently being lived. This is the form of acceptance associated with suicides. The third type, “Neutral Acceptance,” is rare. Neutral Acceptance is when a person simply accepts that death is the inevitable end of life. Wong identifies Neutral Acceptance as the ideal way in which to become comfortable with death.

The way to achieve Neutral Acceptance, Wong maintains, is “to focus on the immediate task and live a meaningful life. . . . When one has found something worth dying for, one is no longer afraid of death.” At the end of The Unfortunates, Rae echoes this when she tells Joe, “There was never a way to save me. Not forever. It’s about what we do with the time that we have.”

But what exactly is a meaningful life? The Unfortunates seems to say that the most you can do with your life is to love as much as you can. In response to the question—“Why do we love and how do we live / When we’re waiting to die?”—Joe says, simply, “Love is how we live when we’re dying.” And the answer to why we love while we’re waiting to die seems to be that . . . we just do. It’s the only thing that keeps us sane. 

To read more about the acceptance of death in The Unfortunates, click here to purchase a printed or digital copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. All proceeds go to our ACTsmart education programs, serving teachers and students throughout the Bay Area. 

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