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'Loved the first act, hated the ending'


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The death and memorial service of Dan Hulbert inspires so many simultaneous feelings and impressions that it's a challenge to sort them out. Funerals can be contradictory experiences under normal circumstances, mixing the grief of loss with the pleasure of seeing people and the catharsis of shared experience. For me, the self-inflicted death of a friend and fellow theater critic is especially fraught, and I've been freaked out ever since Dan went missing.

Arriving with my wife Lane at Tuesday's memorial service at Covenant Presbyterian Church, I had trouble shaking the feeling that the event was less like a funeral than a theatrical opening night, only with sadness and circumspection replacing excitement and anticipation. We entered with the same people, many from the theater community or the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I routinely see at the premieres of plays, and on the way to our seats we were given programs (along with a handsome, tenderly compiled pamphlet of excerpts of Dan's writing). More than once, my hand sought my missing notebook, reflexively wanting to record some observation to report on later. I couldn't help but wonder if the service would begin with a speech pointing out the emergency exists and requesting that the "audience" turn off all electronic pagers.

Giving the first remarks ("Scripture sentences and prayers"), Dr. W. Stephen Goyer began with an image of Christ on the cross, then quoted from the last lines in King Lear: "The weight of this sad time we must obey / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say." As someone whose personal inclinations tilt toward the secular more than the religious, I was quite moved by the evocation of Shakespeare, and not just by the ache intrinsic to the familiar words themselves. For me, the introduction of artistic and literary responses to an occasion that usually focuses on the spiritual enriched the mourning experience, letting it work on levels that usually go untouched at funerals. Plus, it was a nice nod to Dan's profession.

Eulogies are invariably heartfelt and affecting, and Dan's were especially articulate, delivered by Dan's old Yale roommate Roger Wagner, his AJC colleague Howard Pousner and actor and artistic director Tom Key. Tom, who was first interviewed by Dan in Dallas in the early 1980s, told a story that at the time, Dan said to him, "I'm a little concerned -- I'm the only theater critic in town who doesn't wear a scarf." Such funny anecdotes genuinely let people celebrate a life, not just mourn a passing.

The speakers all pointed out how Dan, with his passion and advocacy for the arts and other subjects, essentially left the world a better place. Tom himself pointed out that Dan's work had never received a standing ovation or received flowers at a premiere, and reminded me of a column Dan had written, with a headline along the lines of "Save the Ovations for the Acting that Uplifts," arguing that automatic ovations tended to devalue the response. Dan's work, though, would be worthy of it; I always thought he was a marvelous writer and critic. For a moment, I wondered if Tom was going to invite us to rise and applaud him, and I have no doubt that we would have done exactly that, bidden or otherwise, had the circumstances of his death been different. I think everyone present would want to show support for Dan's life, but not for his leaving it. Dr. Vance S. Nesbit of Kirkwood Presbyterian search put it well when he said that his review of Dan's life would be "I loved the first act, but hated the ending," and that when he sees Dan in the next life, his first words would be that he's mad at him for what he did.

Lane and I were both glad he said that, as we're very angry that Dan could leave everyone, especially his son Mac, the way he did. I can't imagine what his family is going through -- when we greeted his wife Cathy, she said, "Dan threw us a curveball," which struck me as some truly admirable understatement.

But I can't stay angry long, as those feelings give way to profound bafflement and confusion, wondering just how Dan could have done what he did. Dan and I were friends without being very close, but right now I just want to ask him "What were you thinking?" I feel defeated when I try to answer that question on my own.

One of the most striking aspects of the eulogies was how rounded and complete an individual Dan was made out to be: not just an excellent writer and passionate advocate for the arts, but a husband, a loving father, an athlete (Howard joked that he was the only journalist he knew who was actually in good shape), a traveler, an elder in his church, a tireless volunteer for charitable causes, even a writer of poetry, with one of his poems, titled "Snows of Home," distributed following the service. His appears to have been as full and faceted a life as you could find -- which makes his choice to leave it even less answerable. I'm reminded of William Styron using the Milton quote "Darkness Visible" to title his memoir about his own depression: Dan must have perceived some darkness invisible to the rest of us, without being able to recognize the sources of light around him.

Looking at his life before the end, he seems to have set an ideal example for anyone: raising a son, participating in his church, advocating for the arts, speaking the truth. And in his example as a theater critic, he served as a de facto mentor to me. Writing for a daily newspaper can impose limitations that magazines and alternative weekly papers may not require (meeting deadlines, writing to space constrictions, being accessible to as many readers as possible), yet Dan's reviews and other stories were always erudite, insightful and measured -- they would deepen the experience of the material on which he commented. Rarely would I read one of his pieces about a show I had also covered and not think "I should have pointed that out."

The encouraging and complimentary words Dan would routinely give me would be all the more appreciated for being entirely voluntary. We'd see each other before a play or at intermission, or exchange e-mail missives, and he'd bring up some point I'd made or turn of phrase I'd long forgotten. (We'd never sit together, though, as he didn't want us critics to be open to charges of "collusion" from disgruntled theater people.) Once I seem to recall him complimenting my use of the word "hornswoggled." When I reviewed Steve Murray's Lost, I think my lead paragraph had something to do with plays involving imaginary characters; some week's later Dan saw me and mentioned that it was the kind of insight that I could build a scholarly essay around. Treating me like a peer, Dan helped me realize that even if I didn't make the same points that Dan did, my own observations and turns of phrase were no less valid.

Lane and I once had a pleasant dinner one summer evening with Dan and his wife Cathy before a Georgia Shakespeare Festival production. Now, of course, I wish I'd made more of an effort to socialize with Dan, or that I'd saved more of his e-mails. I remember a lively e-chat once about how South African playwright Athol Fugard was far more deserving of the Nobel Prize for Literature than Italy's Dario Fo. The only one I saved praises my piece on the Alliance Theater's "Shadowlands," at one point saying "The real test of a review is when the reader disagrees on a certain point ... and yet is able to grant the critic his own well-stated viewpoint without the readers' basic trust of the review being shaken." Probably the last communication I had with Dan came when I sent him some silly observation, and in his reply he commended my thoroughness in reviewing Synchronicity Performance Group's Hot 'n' Throbbing, saying that the length of my story made him "envy your extra inches -- so to speak." Which is another example of his sense of humor.

Thinking about the loss of Dan and trying to make sense of it reminds me of a poem I once read in the New Republic. I wish I could recall the author and the title, but some of the lines have stayed with me for years. It's essentially a three-sided conversation between the brain, the heart and the hand, and involves clinging to things without reason, being unable to let go despite what your conscious mind tells you. As I remember them, the first line goes something like "Brain says to hand: Release at my command." But the heart interferes, unable to relinquish something treasured: "Heart says to brain: I can't explain. I can't explain."

And that's the way this poem ends.


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