Life Versus Death
Morris Panych’s Vigil is about life facing death. Grace is confronted by death. She is frail, spending her remaining time on her death bed. Kemp is not ready to die with Grace. He has arrived not only to humor Grace, but also to reveal himself as a mortal being who too would be facing death sooner or later. Kemp, facing the impending death of Grace, feels lifeless as well as he condemns almost everything and everybody he has known in his lifetime. He reveals himself as a ‘loser,’ in modern day slang for such individuals. Unhappy with just about everything, Kemp is perhaps spending time with Grace to remember the vanity of all. After all, most ordinary humans are prepared for the present life alone. They save up money, buy properties, and work at jobs to care for themselves in this lifetime. But then death comes as a shock, despite the fact that almost every individual is told about the inevitability of death at the time that he or she is living through childhood.
Athol Fugard’s Road to Mecca also addresses the inevitability of death. As in Vigil, there are two characters in Road to Mecca that stand in stark spotlight. Marius, a minister, would like Miss Helen to live in the Sunshine Home for the Aged. But, Miss Helen is an artist with the genius to explain herself out of any miserable situation. She has been making sculptors that face the East. She calls them all her Mecca. Her art is a kind of pilgrimage. However, she needs to explain her mind to others simply because she lives in human society, often defined by the maxim, ‘Man is a social animal.’ Miss Helen does not agree. She has made a sculpture of the Buddha as well. In Miss Helen’s mind, life is eternal. She realizes that there is ultimate peace beyond the madness of her opposition. If opposition is not looked upon as the enemy, it is intellectual differences that set Miss Helen apart from the rest. She is a gifted woman, and everybody is not as intelligent as the Buddha.
Throughout Vigil, the reader is made to come to terms with the fact that death cannot be defied, despite the fact that Panych’s writing is humorous. Kemp tells Grace, “I don’t want to talk about anything depressing.” After a brief pause, he adds, “Do you want to be cremated?” But, Grace cannot say anything that tells the reader about the freedom of her spirit while Kemp talks on and on. She has called her relative – the only relative she believes has survived – to help her come to an end. Thus, Kemp is like an angel of death for Grace. She has no way to tell him that death can be defied as he speaks his mind. She may only listen to Kemp, probably musing on the inevitability of her death as she listens to him going on and on about the misery of all that he has confronted. In the modern day slang, Kemp is telling Grace, ‘Life sucks, therefore it is perfectly alright to face lifelike death.’ This slang is essential to understand Kemp with. He is not very different from the drug dealers that use it. After all, he is seeing darkness all around him. Grace’s deathbed only confirms his beliefs about living life. Between the white noise, the reader hears Kemp repeat himself thus: ‘I knew that almost everything and everybody is miserable; look at Grace; it is certain that death confounds life as we know it.’
On the contrary, Miss Helen grants the reader a new sense of living life to the fullest. With her artistic freedom, she can decide for herself whether she wants to living in a nursing home or not. When others disagree, she can argue for herself. She has been raised on spirits that are not as dismal as Kemp. Miss Helen believes in a good life, despite the conditions that confront her. Even if everybody calls her an insane lady, Miss Helen knows that they are wrong. The reader can imagine the kinds of thoughts she had nurtured while creating a sculpture of Buddha, for example, or when she named her artwork her Mecca. She was contemplating peace and eternal life. Kemp, on the other hand, only goes on reminding Grace about the end of everything. Even if he were to say that he believes in life hereafter, the reader would find him impossible to believe, but only because his mind appears enveloped by an inescapable darkness. Death is like a black hole through Vigil. Road to Mecca, on the contrary, does not only show light at the end of the tunnel, but also enlightens the reader through the words of Miss Helen. She calls her artwork “a city of light and color more splendid than anything I ever imagined.” In spite of those that are not gifted with her sense of celebrating life, Miss Helen continues to occupy her place in her own paradise. Similar to the Buddha, but unlike Grace and Kemp, Miss Helen has confronted life and light in her own mind, even though those that do not think like she does call her demented. They cannot escape the darkness perhaps. They would like her to face the same end. Miss Helen, however, has thought things through. The fact that she had only one true living friend reveals that she wanted to keep her mind from being polluted by the darkness surrounding those people that have not seen Mecca in their backyards.
Both Vigil and Road to Mecca allow the reader to contemplate life and death. If life is dark, death is a black hole. When there is hope, however, as in the cases of Miss Helen and the Buddha – eternal life is expected. Both plays allow the reader to question his or her own beliefs about life and death. While Kemp reminds Grace about the vanity of everything in this lifetime; Miss Helen informs the minister about her own beliefs in living a life that is surrounded by light. Light is synonymous with knowledge. What would Miss Helen say to Kemp? – Of course, Miss Helen would not have anything to do with the likes of Kemp. She understands the misery that surrounds her in South Africa. She wants a better life for herself, and a superior life after death. With a great sense of the life giving creative spirit that may breathe life into her sculptures in the twinkling of an eye, Miss Helen is all the same capable of teaching Kemp the meaning of life. According to her, there is more life in her apparently lifeless sculptures than the likes of Kemp. Miss Helen, a creator of the Buddha, would have her way after all.