The Opposing Side; An Analysis of Placebo

In Andrew Vachss’ Placebo, readers are introduced to unnamed narrator. He has a “good” reputation in the community, and is commonly known as the “Janitor” or the “Repairman.” He repeatedly tells the audience that he knows “how to fix things.” Throughout the monologue, the stage gradually changes the setting from a construction to destruction at every successive image narrated. At the beginning, readers perceive the narrator as a caring person who simply wants to help others in order to redeem his own mistakes, but as the play progresses, it is slowly revealed the Janitor has underlying thirst for violence. The movement of the narrator’s good intentions into a thrilling suicidal mood is explained by Elinor Fuchs’ method highlighted in his article, EF’s Visit to a Small Planet, in which he asserts the importance of analyzing images in a play and how images propel the progression of the story and character development (7). The narrator’s change of character through the story is symbolized by the images. His transformation from the beginning to the end shows the opposing sides of the Janitor as they manifest.

The monologue begins with the narrator’s self-introduction where he admits that he is able to fix everything and make them work the way they are supposed to. A significant image is the attempt to help the dog that has been injured by a freak. The Janitor helps “Doberman” who is bleeding all over the place from a cut in its throat. He explains that he brought the puppy down the basement to fix him up” (Vachss 448). The readers have the immediate impression that the narrator has a kind hearted soul to help a hurt creature. But with a lightheartedness, the Janitor adds, “I took care of the freak” (Vachss 448). This following activity seems a good way to protect the dog; and as he fixes everything, the other characters like Mrs. Barnes and Tommy believes in him. However, “taking care of the freak” inferrs that the Janitor also created knife wounds on the freak to avenge the harm he had caused on the dog. Hurting an animal cannot justify the act of killing a person; the Janitor’s choice of physically damaging the “freak,” thus, reveals his lust for killing and violence. Since it is not explicitly stated, the audience does not have a reason to assume the actual behaviour of the Janitor until further evidence is displayed. But the image of knife wounds is the beginning where the audience starts to feel the oddity of the Janitor.

In the middle of the monologue, the janitor meets Tommy who is scared, and believes to see monsters every day. The narrator introduces the audience to an image of a metal box with a row of lights on the top and a toggle switch which he uses to cure his “patient.” A significant image that shows the turning point of the story is the appearance of Dr. English. When Tommy’s mom tells the teacher about the machine, he says it is fake. The Janitor explains that Dr. English had told her Mrs. Barnes that “the machine he made was a placebo, and Tommy would always need a therapy” (Vachss 449). Although he seems to not have been bothered by this statement, his subsequent actions proves otherwise. Mrs. Barnes’ call to inform Dr. English about the medicine makes the image even more alarming. The Janitor calls the school pretending to be State Disability Commission. Finding a lady, he asks information about the teacher; “I got her to tell me his full names, got her to talk. I know how things work” (Vachss 450). His persistence to find the truth could be mistaken by readers to be for the benefit of Tommy. However, it is suspicious that his interest emanates only when Mrs. Barnes shows his compassion and trust towards the teacher.

Finally, the end of the play shows a complete change in the character of the narrator. His failure to “fix” Tommy’s nightmare problem pushes the Janitor back to his original methods, which are violence and death. The Janitor creates a “machine that works” (Vachss 451) – two rubber balls connected by a piano wire. This image is simplistic but very powerful as it reveals the full transformation of the narrator’s character. After making the machine, the Janitor explains that “when it gets dark tonight, he’ll show Dr. English a machine that works” (Vachss 451). The audience is not privy to how rooted this is into the Janitor until this point where Vachss reveals the carefully crafted weapon at the end. For the most of the play the audience is given circumstantial evidence only, with a skeptical tone running throughout the narrative. However, when actual evidence is introduced at the end of the play, the audience’s change of the perception of the Janitor is inevitable.

In summary, the three images of the monologue converge to vividly explore the transformation the narrative’s character from “good” to worse. Fuchs states “look at the first image; now look at the last” (7). As such the first image represents the Janitor, the Fix-It Guy that had some dark history but helps others in need. The last image, however, represents the Janitor reducing himself to a mere criminal that is no better than those he goes after. The middle image transitions the primary idea of helping others to the last behavior of a monster. Through the images the audience was able to see the “construction and destruction” of the narrator (Fuchs 7). And by seeing this change, we can perceive the Janitor as a character that changed and possibly destructed himself at the end of the play.