The Trouble With Icons

Let me start with a disclaimer: I have not read Harper Lee’s, “Go Set a Watchman.” I have every intention of reading it but will probably let the brouhaha die down before I crack the spine of my copy. I did not read “To Kill a Mockingbird” until I was an adult. I did not read much of anything until I was an adult. I was and am a very slow reader; my dyslexic nemesis sits atop my head and loves to trip my brain with linguistic landmines.

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch

I do not remember when I read “To Kill a Mockingbird” for the first time, but I do know when I read it the second time. In the spring of 2010, I had gone through a rigorous audition process for the role of Atticus in a play adaptation of the novel that Nashville Repertory Theatre would produce in the Fall. Rene Copeland, the artistic director of Nashville Repertory Theatre had pared the “Atticuses” down to nine, or so, for the final callback. It was an embarrassment of riches for Rene, and she could have cast any of the actors for the role.

Several weeks later I happened to be at a theatre event that Rene was also attending. She asked if I had read the novel before the audition. I confessed I had not, and she said something to the effect of, “Well, you’d better get on it, because I want you to play Atticus.”

Margaux Granath as Scout and Chip Arnold as Atticus

Margaux Granath as Scout and Chip Arnold as Atticus

I excused myself to go outside the theatre and call Kay, followed by calls to our daughters to share this exciting news. I was able to reach Kristin and tell her, but Lauren was unavailable, and I did not want to leave a voicemail. I was to see her in a day or two and would tell her at that time. We had scheduled a little Daddy/Daughter time, and I remember we were driving in the car when I dropped the “I got the role of Atticus Finch” bomb. Her reaction was immediate, no hesitation, no thought taken to formulate a response, just pure impulse: “Oh Daddy, I’m so excited. Atticus Finch is the father I always wanted.”

The second after the words sprang from her mouth was a moment of profound realization for both of us. Lauren knew she had said either the most insulting thing a child could say to their father, or it was the funniest thing that could be said regarding any paternal comparison. And for me, I knew I was about to square off with a quintessential American icon seared into the consciousness of our society. Five years later Lauren and I still laugh at her faux pas. But it is not easy for any actor who has played the role of Atticus for the stage to go up against the iconic Atticus portrayed in the film adaptation of the novel.

For a nation that suffers from amnesia on most subjects, the lawyer from Monroeville, Alabama, was an icon not easily forgotten or replaced. I remember one patron’s comment as he stopped me outside the stage door after a performance, “You out Gregory Pecked, Gregory Peck.” What in the world did that mean? It’s a mystery. The patron could have meant it as a compliment, but the truth cannot be denied: the image of Atticus Finch will forever be associated with a specific actor. He, the iconic Atticus, has his own stamp for heaven’s sake.

Atticus makes a stamp collection

Atticus makes a stamp collection

The trouble with icons is that they are first and last human beings prone to all things human, and whether these icons are fictional or real, they never set out, be they born of literary imagination or born of woman, to be icons. When a kid gets asked what they want to be when they grow up, the answer is never, “I want to be an icon.”

In the mind of the public, such recognition for being an icon carries with it the implicit expectation of a virtuous character. Family members and friends of the icon know all too well the fallacy of such a notion. When the spotlight is not on the icon, he/she must continue their daily, mundane routine of just being human, like the rest of us, and susceptible to those “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”

In reading the early press on “Go Set a Watchman,” Jean Louise returns home as an adult and is shocked to find that her hero of a father is a member of a local citizen’s group that could be characterized as little more than a benign brand of the KKK. How could this be? How could the man who stood against the entrenched racism of the times now, decades later, be possibly considered a bigot? Oh, the humanity.

Stain Glass images of Sophocles and Shakespeare

Stain Glass images of Sophocles and Shakespeare

Without having read the novel, I cannot comment further, but suffice it to say, we now have an icon with actual biases. I must reserve judgment as to whether or not that puts Atticus in the category of a bigot. It does make him, however, a genuine human being, and is that not much more desirable an aspiration than to be an icon? We mortals put our icons on pedestals and in stain glass and create mythologies around them. In each of her two novels, Harper Lee created a character that was and is authentic. My attempt in playing the role was a quest for authenticity, to be human, down to the last wart and shiny attribute. Being authentic, sans bigotry, of course, and sundry other character shortcomings, should be enough of an achievement for all us humans.