The Weight of These Sad Times

The weight of these sad times we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

–– King Lear

 

When Queen Elizabeth I died in March, 1603, a plague was beginning to ravage London. By July a thousand were dying every week. A month later, the number was three thousand. By the end of the year, 15% of the city’s 200,000 inhabitants were dead. The epidemic would continue to ebb and flow in the city for the next few years.

The authorities did their best to enforce social distancing. Plays could only be performed when the death toll dropped below forty per week. Bear-baiting and other sports were banned. The infected were quarantined at home with guards sometimes posted at their doors. Caregivers who treated the sick had to carry red sticks in the streets so people could give them wide berth. Penalties for breaking quarantine were harsh: a whipping if you weren’t symptomatic, possible execution if you were. When people tried to wash away the red crosses marking the lintels of their infected houses, the Lord Mayor ordered the crosses to be painted with more indelible oil-based paints.

Dramatist and pamphleteer Thomas Dekker described the ordeal of being locked up in a house full of the dead and dying: “What an unmatchable torment were it for a man to be barred up every night in a vast silent charnel-house. . . Were not this an infernal prison?”[i] But such an eyewitness is rare. We have little firsthand reporting of what it was like to live with so much death.

Many plays were being written at this time, even with all the theater closings, but the plague was never their subject. Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro asks, “Was this because it was bad for business to remind playgoers packed into the theaters of the risks of transmitting disease or because a traumatized culture simply couldn’t deal with it?”[ii]

However, it seems no accident that Shakespeare wrote King Lear, his bleakest play, during the height of the epidemic, when the parish bells tolling across the street from his study were daily––sometimes hourly–– reminders of perpetual loss. The “weight of these sad times” was crushingly apparent in the play’s premiere before the royal court on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, 1606.

In the original story adapted by Shakespeare, Lear is restored to his throne and Cordelia lives. But when Shakespeare made it a tragedy, he went beyond the conventions of the genre, which tried to leave the audience with some sense of hope, as survivors made their exit into an implied future. But the very first version of King Lear concludes in utter negation. There is no exeunt into whatever comes next. “The play ends instead with the frozen tableau of the dead king holding his murdered daughter.”[iii]

The King James Version of the Bible, written around the same time as King Lear, begins with the making of the world ex nihilo, out of “nothing.” Shakespeare’s play supplies a grim counter thesis: the unmaking of the world. It begins with “Nothing can come out of nothing,” and ends with “Never. Never. Never. Never.” The word “no” is spoken over 120 times; “not” occurs twice that number. And around 60 of its words begin with “un-” (unfriended, unfortunate, unnatural, unmerciful, etc.). “Call it what you will––resistance, refusal, denial, rejection, repudiation––this insistent and almost apocalyptic negativity becomes a recurring drumbeat, the bass line of the play.”[iv]

The courtly audience, still reeling not only from the plague but also from the recent failed attempt to dynamite the royal family­­––and political stability––into oblivion, must have been deeply shaken by the play’s despair. A day earlier, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes had preached to the same court a Christmas homily on Christ’s light shining in the darkness (“Ever in dark times, who therefore most needed the light of comfort”[v]). But there were no such comfortable words in the royal theater on St. Stephen’s Day.

It did not take long for posterity to shape a happier text. Lear was granted the merciful delusion that Cordelia was still breathing when he himself died. The survivors were given their exeunt into some happy future, having learned useful lessons from Lear’s mistakes. And from 1631 until 1838, audiences were treated to a happy ending, with Lear surviving and a married Cordelia inheriting his throne.

The play’s darker themes were rediscovered by modernity. As critic Maynard Mack wrote in 1965, “After two world wars and Auschwitz, our sensibility is significantly more in touch than our grandparents’ was with the play’s jagged violence, its sadism, madness, and processional of deaths, its wild blends of levity and horror, selfishness and selflessness.”[vi]

In our own time of deadly contagion, how do we engage with the miasma of fear while the media death watch invades our awareness as incessantly as the tolling bells of Shakespeare’s London? Do we keep our eyes, like Lancelot Andrewes, fixed on the divine light flickering in the darkness, or do we plunge, like the author of King Lear, toward a cathartic immersion in the unmaking of the old “normal,” hoping to emerge on the other side purged and renewed?

Boccaccio, in response to history’s deadliest plague, the Black Death of the fourteenth century, proposed a third way: avoidance. His Decameron is a fictional tale of ten young people who flee plague-ridden Florence for the Tuscan countryside, where they wait out the epidemic with “a certain amount of exercise before the two daily meals, usually in the form of walks; music, songs, and dancing after meals; and of course a great deal of congenial conversation throughout,”[vii] Only good news was allowed to be shared, and competitive games that might provoke anxiety were forbidden (perhaps like giving up March Madness).

According to medieval scholar Glending Olson, Boccaccio’s fictional regimen echoed medical tracts from the plague period urging people to “keep your humors well-disposed by embracing ‘cheerfulness,’ by not occupying ‘your mind with death, passion, or anything likely to sadden or grieve you, but give your mind over to delightful and pleasing things’ and spend ‘your leisure in gardens with fragrant plants, vines, and willows, when they are flowering.’”[viii] Such pleasure, then, was not so much escapist as therapeutic, reducing stress and––hopefully––thereby boosting immunity.

Given the inescapable presence posed by this current pandemic in our mobile and wired world, the dream of a tranquil refuge seems remote and perhaps unjust. Though some may claim exemption by virtue of wealth or privilege, we’re all in this together. The heroic dedication of health care workers, the kindness and generosity of neighbors and loved ones, the creative responses by churches and communities to unprecedented challenges inspire us daily with countless examples of love, courage, resilience and sacrifice.

However, unlike most natural disasters or economic downturns, COVID-19 does not feel like a temporary setback in our accustomed pursuit of happiness. It seems more like the unmaking of a world which may never return. And in a global society of obscene inequality, spiritual poverty, and suicidal pollution, that may not be a bad thing. They say the birds are singing again in Wuhan.

As Christian philosopher Cristóbal Serrán-Pagán y Fuentes wonders, “Is this global virus another wake-up call for humans to work together and collaborate in shared common projects for the survival of our specie as a whole? . . . This is the kairos moment for spiritual rebirth and for choosing a new transformed way of life. Otherwise we make harmful choices, we fall back and continue to do more of the same absurd things that we have been doing. . .”[ix]

The pursuit of a more just and nourishing world would be a blessed and laudable outcome of this strange and apocalyptic journey we are engaged in. But is there an even deeper theological dimension to this crisis as well, returning us to face the “ground zero” where all endings and beginnings converge: the place of unmaking and making anew, the place where Lear and Cordelia die, and hope is impossibly born? The place where “Never. Never. Never. Never” is answered by the divine “Ever”?

We are creatures who die, sometimes in great numbers. The terms and limits of mortal life, where death is always near, are usually suppressed or forgotten in the dailiness of life. Earthly existence always seems so convincing, right up until the moment it vanishes. But now, as the death toll rises and systems careen toward collapse, nearly everything begins to feel fragile and evanescent.

How do we ground our radically unsettling new situation in a deep and fearless spirituality of faith, hope and love? My friend Bill Coats––priest, prophet and theologian––recently wrote, “our implied consent in Baptism was our willingness to live in the midst of the random freedom of Creation. Which is to say that death is everywhere and yet in its midst we live.”

We’ll follow this thread next time. Meanwhile, stay safe, and maybe stick with Boccaccio for now. Walk in a garden. Sing. Dance. Practice congenial conversation.

 

 

 

[i] Quoted in James Shapiro, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 23-24.

[ii] Ibid., 277.

[iii] Ibid., 303.

[iv] Ibid., 52. The statistics are from Shapiro as well.

[v] Lancelot Andrewes, “A Sermon Preached before the King’s Majesty, at Whitehall, on Wednesday, the Twenty-fifth of December, A.D. MDCVI. Being Christmas Day,” in Seventeen Sermons on the Nativity (reprint of original, Collingwood, Victoria, Australia: Triest Publishing, 2017), 20.

[vi] Maynard Mack, King Lear in Our Times (1965), quoted in Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare and Modern Culture (New York: Anchor Books, 2008), 268.

[vii] From Pampinea’s instructions to her friends in the Decameron, quoted in Glending Olson, Literature as Recreation in the Later Middle Ages (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1986), 180.

[viii] Olson, 175.

[ix] Passed along by peacemaking writer Jim Forest and cited in a March 13, 2020 blog post by Ryan Hall: https://paceebene.org/blog/2020/3/13/time-for-a-wake-up-call-in-response-to-the-coronavirus

 

The Virgin of Guadalupe

The welcoming Virgin above the portal of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles (sculpture by Robert Graham).

She is reaching out her arms tonight;
Lord, my poverty is real:
I pray roses shall rain down again
from Guadalupe on her hill.

Who am I to doubt these mysteries,
cured in centuries of blood and candle smoke?
I am the least of all your pilgrims here,
but I am most in need of hope.

 –– Tom Russell, “Guadalupe”

 

We entered the old adobe mission by starlight, hours before dawn. The church was packed with countless worshippers, celebrating mass for the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe. After the final blessing, we all kept our places, anticipating the mystery play to come––an Advent tradition performed by El Teatro Campesino, an acting troupe whose roots go back to the fields of central California. Founded by Luis Valdez (“Zoot Suit”) in the 1960s, they performed guerilla theater during protests by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, and over the years they have continued to develop community-based theater. Now, in the 18th-century church of San Juan Bautista, they were about to perform La Virgen del Tepeyac.

It began with a thunder of drums. Dozens of players in Aztec regalia danced up the aisle, casting huge shadows on the walls of the nave. But their celebration would soon give way to a darker theme: the subjugation of Mexico’s indigenous people by Spanish conquistadores and friars. Aztec costumes were replaced by peasant garb, Franciscan robes and Spanish armor, and the native people were baptized into a new faith––submitting to the grievous inequities of the culture that imposed it. As the play proceeded, the audience took the side of the oppressed, and waited anxiously for God to do the same.

Countless millions throughout the Americas know what happened next. In December of 1531, on a barren hill in a place called Guadalupe, the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego, an Aztec Christian convert. Speaking in his native language, she told him to deliver a message to the bishop: He must build a church not for the rich and powerful, but for the poor and the oppressed.

Juan Diego managed to get an audience with the prelate, but it did not go well. The message was absurd, and the messenger even more so. Would God choose a lowly peasant for divine revelation? Mary’s humble ambassador was quickly shown the exit. Nevertheless, spurred on by more visitations from the Virgin, Juan Diego pressed the message entrusted to him. Exasperated, the bishop demanded a miraculous proof, thinking that would end the matter.

In her final appearance, Mary told Juan Diego to return to that hill one more time. When he reached the summit, he found the barren ground covered with roses––in December! He gathered as many as his cloak could hold, and took them to the episcopal palace. When he poured the roses out at the feet of the astonished bishop, the Virgin’s image was revealed, imprinted on Juan Diego’s cloak.

The roses and the image were the stuff of miracles, but even more miraculous was the dignity accorded Juan Diego and all the indigenous poor by the Queen of Heaven. The story quickly spread, and the Virgin of Guadalupe became the patron saint of the Americas. The famous image of the brown-skinned mother of Jesus has become a ubiquitous sign of the God who raises up the poor and lowly, who works miracles in unexpected places.

On this feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, so many people in the Americas continue to suffer from the horrific cruelties of ruthless oppressors and unjust systems. Tragically, the United States government, polluted by white nationalism, has become one of the more notorious offenders. Juan Diego’s successors once again sit in darkness and the shadow of death. Let us pray that Guadalupe’s roses may rain down again upon the barren hills of a heartless world.

I saw El Teatro Campesino’s play twenty years ago, but its conclusion offered an image of grace which has never left me. When the play was over, the whole cast processed down the aisle, singing together as they walked. Actors who had played the oppressors went arm in arm with those who had played the peasants. The people who had been on opposite sides––the lions and lambs of a tragic history––now shared a joyful song, as if they were marching together into God’s redemptive future.

The great doors of the church swung open, and the light of the rising sun flooded into the dark interior like water through a bursting dam. Just outside, the cast turned and stopped, forming a corridor for the audience to pass through. As we made our way into the brilliance of morning, it seemed like the gate of heaven––all those shining brown faces, blessing us with smiles and singing.

And I thought: This is how history will end. Neither a bang nor a whimper, but a song.

 

Here is one of the Virgin’s appearances to Juan Diego in El Teatro Campesino’s La Virgen del Tepeyac.

The Village That Should Be

Morris dancers lead “Lord of the Dance” at the Puget Sound Christmas Revels (Photo: Puget Sound Revels)

“Everyone who ends up going to the Revels and loving it wants to say to the people who missed it, ‘You have got to see this!’ They don’t sit their friends down and try to explain this amazing thing. They just want them to experience it. And that’s why we all want to take people who haven’t been before. That’s why I started the Revels in Puget Sound. I wanted people to feel it, right to their core, because that’s where it ultimately touches us, and all the talking in the world about what is a Revels and what isn’t, or you’ll like this about it or this is how it’s woven together – it isn’t the same as experiencing it. What I do say to people is: it’s not a concert, it’s not a play, it’s a kaleidoscope of music and dance and drama that all create a sense of a celebrating community.”

–   Mary Lynn, Puget Sound Revels

 

Imagine yourself in a village square or a great hall in a culture where the community gathers every December to contradict the dark and the cold with high-spirited celebrations of life, warmth, and hope for renewal. Tuneful voices are raised to “joy, health, love and peace.” Dancers circle and leap their defiance of winter’s immobilizing spell. Playful mummers depict the dying of the old and the rising of the new. As you watch and listen, you find your own deepest impulses awakened and expressed, and before you know it, you too are singing and dancing along with everyone else.

Such elemental festivity is nearly impossible in the United States, where ritual traditions have been so fragmented, thinned and trivialized, and communal public life verges on extinction. But the Christmas Revels returns us to that celebrating village, that magically inclusive hall where the songs are sung and the dances are danced and the shadow of death is turned into morning.

When the late John Langstaff staged the first Christmas Revels in New York City in 1957, he was trying to recapture and share the communal joy of the caroling parties given by his music-loving family during his childhood. As he later wrote:

“My love of the carols and traditional music I grew up with eventually broadened into a fascination with folk material of every sort – rituals, music, dancing and drama. All have become essential elements in Revels. Revels’ focus on active audience involvement grew out of those same roots, and especially out of my awareness that few things bond people as powerfully as singing together.”

In 1971, Langstaff began to make the Revels an annual event in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and over the years it has spread to nine other American communities on the West and East coasts as well as Texas and Colorado. Here in the Northwest, the Christmas Revels has been celebrated in both Puget Sound and Portland since 1994.

Each local Revels group chooses its particular theme for the year. It might be medieval, Celtic, American (Appalachian, African-American, Shaker), Scandinavian, Victorian, or the Italian Renaissance.. At the local Revels I’ll be attending this week at Tacoma’s Rialto Theater near Seattle, the subject will be the storied pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago.

The Christmas Revels always imagines a world better than the one we know, where high and low, rich and poor, find the distinctions between them blurred or even subverted, as the commonness of a shared humanity blends strangers and adversaries into a harmonious whole. This vision of true community is implicit in the way that all classes, ages and types of people sing and dance together. But it is also revealed in the gentle mocking of anything that divides us. A king might learn wisdom from the lowly fool, or the rich might discover the poverty of their isolation from a world of sharing.

Such bridging of divides can be more than fictional. I remember a California Revels in 1990, at the end of the Cold War. Toward the close of the evening, an ensemble of Russian dancers joined hands with the American cast for a circle dance during the Shaker hymn, “I Will Bow and Be Simple.” I noted the rapt attention of the young children around me in the audience, and it struck me that the very first fact they were learning about Russians was that they were people who danced with us.

Traditional celebrations usually contain an element of chaos and “misrule,” unleashing the energies from which new possibilities are born. In sword dances, mummer’s plays, and traditional dances and games, the Revels are deeply playful. But even as you are entertained, you are reminded of your mortality––and your longing.

Solstice rituals have always included mock battles, where a symbolic figure dies and rises again, like the earth in its seasons or the sun in its celestial journey. No matter how comic, these contests speak powerfully to our own anxieties when the dark and the cold are upon us.

In one production, during the feasting and celebration of a medieval court, the king was confronted by an intruder. It was Death, in the form of a giant puppet made of dark translucent gauze. The antagonists crossed swords, and the king was defeated. Only the lowly royal Fool remained as the last line of defense between Life and Oblivion.

Following the King’s death, the Fool entered to find the royal throne occupied by a motionless skeleton. After some tentative stabs at interaction, the Fool took the skeleton in his arms and danced around the stage with it. The daring incongruity of this image was quite funny, but it was also breathtaking––life winning after all, not with weapons but with dancing. “I am the Dance and I still go on.”

Finally, the Fool danced into the wings with the skeleton, and when he returned, he carried the skull in his palm as a trophy, and Death’s disjointed bones were now harmless playthings held by the laughing children who followed after.

“Revels came out of human community in a way we all can feel,” says Mary Lynn, founder and producer of the Puget Sound Revels. “It came out of celebration, it came out of mourning, it came out of birth and death and hope, it came out of all the things that are part of our lives. No matter how different ‘the village’ is, we face all those things, in every time and place.”

Although the confrontation with darkness and death is a pivotal point in every Revels, allowing us ritually to release our anxieties about human fate in a time of darkness, the overall tone of a Revels is the very opposite of somber. Good cheer rules every performance. A fluid spectacle of characters, costumes and staging engages both mind and sense. The energy of dancers and mummers is irrepressible and often hilarious. And the music is the heart of Revels magic. Spanning a wide range of seasonal songs and instrumentals, it is always beautifully performed.

Sometimes there are stunning solo voices in a Revels performance, like Appalachian balladeer Jean Ritchie, or the Irish “sean-nos” singer Sean Williams. But the essence of Revels lies in the choruses of adults and children, whose harmonious diversity of voices images the very nature of community.

The audience is always invited to enter that community––not just as witnesses, but as participants. Singing is the principal bridge between spectators and cast. Everyone joins in on familiar carols and “Dona Nobis Pacem,” and the Revels finale is a stirring mass rendition of the “Sussex Mummers’ Carol,” whose lyrics pour seasonal blessing on everything in sight.

The miracle of Revels is that for a couple of hours an audience of strangers believe themselves to be part of something larger than their atomized private realities. They are ushered into a world of wonders, nourished by the food of human community, and sent back into the streets with smiling faces.

As Mary Lynn observes, Revels does something special to those who come: “Revels is about community, and feeling a part of that village on stage.” She is quick to point out that it’s not the village we live in now, nor is it a village from an idealized past. It’s a ritualized image of a human future, with the power to attract us toward a truer embodiment of community. “It’s the village that should be,” she says. “And at some point, you find yourself invited into that village, onto the stage.”

This point comes at the end of the first half of every Revels. A singer intones Sydney Carter’s song, “Lord of the Dance,” as white-clad Morris dancers, with their bells and red handkerchiefs, leap and dance around him. Meanwhile, other cast members move among the audience, inviting them to leave their seats for a line dance that goes up and down the aisles and spirals around the stage, as all repeat the chorus,

Dance, then, wherever you may be,
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.

It’s a moment that many of us live for each year. For a few minutes, cast and audience are utterly one, dancing, dancing, wherever we may be. My sister Marilyn, who introduced me to the Revels many years ago, always races downstairs from her balcony seat at the California Revels in order to join the dancers moving toward the stage. There are so many people on their feet for the dance, you never know if you’ll reach the stage before the music ends. Marilyn always calls me later to report on the success of her quest. “I wondered whether I would make it to the stage this year, now that I’m 80,” she told me yesterday. “But I did it!”

Susan Cooper wrote a poem called “The Shortest Day,” recited at every Revels. She imagines all the generations who preceded us, burning their “beseeching fires all night long to keep the year alive.” She hears their joyful voices echoing down from their time into ours:

All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
Welcome Yule!

Because the Revels are so unique, they are hard to describe. Most of the already initiated don’t even try. They merely tell their friends to trust them and come along. “You just have to experience it!” is the common cry. It’s like trying to tell someone what it’s like to be in love.

Debbie Birkey, a publicist for the Puget Sound event, moved and performed in local folk music circles for years without ever hearing of Revels. In the late nineties her husband took her to her first performance, and it was a revelation. “It’s incredible that I was here in Tacoma and this fabulous thing was going on and I didn’t know about it,” she says. “Then we came to the Revels and after about five minutes of being swept away, I turned to my husband and said, ‘These are my people!’ And it’s just swept me up ever since. So I’ve been in about eight or nine shows, and then I started helping with publicity. Here is this amazing thing going on in Tacoma and people don’t know about it, and I can’t imagine why that is. So I feel that it’s my mission to change that.”

Revels seems to inspire this kind of fervor. A typical audience will include some who were drawn by the publicity, but the majority are either loyal regulars who come year after year, or first-timers who have been dragged there by friends, because Revels is something you want to give to everyone you love.

Sharing Revels can be an obsession, and I myself confess to it. 2017 will mark my twenty-ninth Revels (10 in Oakland, 19 in Tacoma). I never go without bringing others along. And this year, as always, we will join hearts and hands and voices with all the other revelers, no longer strangers in “the village that should be.”

 

 

 

The Puget Sound Revels, focusing on the Camino de Santiago, has two remaining performances at the Rialto Theater in Tacoma, WA: December 19 & 20 at 7:30 p.m. While some of the nationwide Revels have completed their run, you can still get to performances in Portland (OR), Santa Barbara (CA) and Boulder (CO). For a list of all ten Revels sites: https://www.revels.org/revels-nationwide/

A version of this piece originally appeared in Victory Review, a Northwest folk music journal, in 2005.

The Temptation: A Gospel Play for Lent’s First Sunday

Duccio di Buoninsegna, The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, Maesta Altarpiece (c. 1307)

Duccio di Buoninsegna, The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, Maesta Altarpiece (c. 1307)

There are many ways to tell and experience our sacred stories. Sometimes those ancient texts cry out for the theatrical midrash of dramatized performance. This liturgical play was first performed as the gospel “reading” on the First Sunday of Lent, 1997, in front of the altar at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church on Whidbey Island, Washington.

The allusions to other biblical stories (Exodus, Peter’s rebuke, Gethsemane) in this account reflects the gospel’s own intertextuality: framing Jesus’ wilderness story as a redo of his ancestors’ flawed pilgrimage. This time around, Jesus would get it right, trusting God where his desert predecessors had doubted and rebelled.

Everyone in the congregation was given two stones to strike together as “Satan’s Theme” before each temptation. The choir functioned as the offstage chorus.

 

Fade in environmental AUDIO of desert sounds. JESUS enters, attentive to what is around him in this desert place. At center stage, facing out, he takes a deep breath and assumes a posture of prayer. .

CHORUS (offstage)

You are my beloved child. This day have I begotten you.

The people click stones together as SATAN enters to stand near Jesus.
Satan signals for silence.

SATAN (pointing to a cairn of stones):

If you really are God’s beloved child, command these stones to turn into bread.

Jesus contemplates the stones as a CRUCIFER enters, bearing a cross made out of two crossed sticks. An apple is suspended from each end of the crossarm. ADAM and EVE enter. They approach the fruit curiously but hesitate to pluck it.

SATAN

Go ahead. Eat. It won’t kill you. Just one bite, and you’ll be like God.
You’ll know everything.

They each take an apple and bite into it. The taste is bitter. They look at their apples in disgust, then drop them and look around anxiously, as if suddenly aware of being in a more dangerous world. They back away from the “tree,” then turn and run away. The crucifer exits and THREE ISRAELITES enter.

FIRST ISRAELITE

After God rescued us from slavery in Egypt, we wandered for so many years in the wilderness. The desert was hard and bitter, and despite everything God had done for us, we began to complain.

SECOND ISRAELITE

It was crazy to come out here. No food, no water, nothing but stones and thorns.
What were we thinking?

THIRD ISRAELITE

Milk and honey, man. Freedom. The Promised Land . . .  What a joke.
We should have stayed in Egypt. I can’t stop thinking about those fleshpots.

CHORUS (as Israelites exit)

They tested God in their hearts, demanding food for their craving.
They railed against God and said,
“Can God make a feast even in this wilderness?
“Yes, God struck rock and water gushed out,
but can God provide bread and meat to feed us?”
Hearing this, God’s anger was kindled,
for the people had no faith;
they did not trust God’s power to save.  [Psalm 78:18-22]

SATAN

If you are the Christ, no use pretending to be like everybody else.
Don’t be too proud to use your power. People expect it. They need it.
They don’t want a savior who’s weak like them, believe me.
Come on! Let’s see what you’re made of. Turn these stones into bread.

JESUS

Bread is a gift from God — and the work of many hands.
A person who needs nothing from anyone––ends up all alone.
I accept the lesson that hunger teaches.

SATAN

Well, if you’re going to save the world, you’ve got to keep your strength up.

JESUS

As long as anyone is hungry, I will be hungry.

SATAN (offering Jesus a stone)

Take. Eat.

JESUS (taking the stone)

 Human beings do not live by bread alone…
 (He puts the stone on the altar)
.… but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

The people click stones together. Satan produces a ladder, and gets Jesus to climb it.
Satan then signals for silence.

SATAN

If you are the Christ, throw yourself down from this pinnacle of the Temple.
For it is written, “God will command the angels to protect you;
they will bear you up in their arms, lest you dash your foot against a stone.”

JESUS

I will live without protection.
Where I’m going, angels can’t help.

PETER enters from the back of the congregation, making his way quickly to the ladder.

PETER

Let me through! Let me through!…
(reaching the foot of the ladder)
Rabbi! No! God forbid anything should happen to you.
You’ve got to get out of here. Go somewhere safe.

JESUS (looking down at Peter)

Get behind me, Satan! You’re blocking my way!
You don’t see the way God sees.

Peter continues to look up at Jesus for a few moments, then he drops his head and exits slowly, disconsolate, as Satan addresses Jesus.

SATAN

You know you’re headed for a fall, Jesus.
Aren’t you curious whether God’s going to catch you?
Come on! A little test flight — just to make sure. Jump…

Jesus lets go of the ladder, spreading arms wide as if about to fly — or be crucified.

CONGREGATION (led by Satan)

Jump!…Jump!…Jump!…. (continuing ad lib)

Jesus, as if awakened from a trance, drops his arms suddenly to clutch the ladder before he falls into space. The people stop shouting. Jesus descends carefully to the ground, and stands face to face with Satan.

JESUS

The Scriptures say, “Do not test God. Trust God.”

Jesus turns away from Satan to pray. The people click stones until Satan signals for silence. The ISRAELITES enter, all looking at their smartphones.

 FIRST ISRAELITE

Now when Moses did not come down from the mountain of God, the Israelites began to feel abandoned. So they melted down all their gold, and made themselves a new god, a god who would never leave them, a god who would always take care of them.

 SATAN

Come on, Jesus. I’m not your enemy. I know what people want. I know what you want.
I can give you anything you desire. Look.

Satan directs Jesus’ attention to a large screen displaying a montage of television commercials promising endless happiness and pleasure. The Israelites kneel before the images. Jesus glances at the screen, then turns his back to it. When the montage concludes, the Israelites stand up, pull out smartphones and exit, transfixed by their devices.  

SATAN

Jesus, how long are you going to stick with that two-bit operation of your father’s? Long hours, low pay, miserable working conditions, declining market share, insufficient capital. Am I right or am I right? It’s a dead end, pal. That’s not for you. You’re good, and you know it. You come and work for me, and I’ll guarantee you maximum exposure – worldwide markets, talk show, website, golden parachute… You can write your own ticket. Think of the good you could do with that kind of power. It’ll be fantastic, believe me.

Satan opens a bottle of champagne, fills a flute and offers it to Jesus.

Just say yes, and we’ll drink to your success.

An ANGEL enters holding a communion chalice. Jesus looks at the two different drinks before him, then turns to Satan and pushes aside his extended arm holding the flute.

JESUS

No. I serve God––and no one else!”

SATAN

Satan looks at Jesus a moment, then shrugs and drinks the champagne himself.

 We’ll meet again.

He exits. Jesus approaches the angel.

JESUS

Abba, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by.
Yet not my will, but yours be done.

The angel offers the chalice. Jesus accepts it, drinks deeply, then places it on the altar, kneeling before it. Then the angel gently brings Jesus to his feet and, with a comforting arm around his shoulders, leads him out. Desert sounds slowly fade out.

 

 

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Is the American Dream a Con Game?

L.A. Times TV Guide cover, June 2, 1968, two days before Robert Kennedy's assassination in Los Angeles (Jim Friedrich personal archive)

L.A. Times TV Guide cover, June 2, 1968, two days before Robert Kennedy’s assassination in Los Angeles (Jim Friedrich personal archive)

Oftener it falls, that this winged man, who will carry me into the heaven, whirls me into the clouds, then leaps and frisks about with me from cloud to cloud, still affirming that he is bound heavenward and I, being myself a novice, am slow in perceiving that he does not know the way into the heavens, and is merely bent that I should admire his skill to rise …

— Herman Melville, The Confidence Man

In Melville’s final novel, a ‘mysterious stranger’ boards a Mississippi riverboat on April Fools Day, initiating a series of scams upon the gullible passengers. Appearing in various guises, the stranger collects money for distant charities, solicits investments in get-rich-quick schemes, and sells miracle cures, all the while encouraging his marks to have confidence in the dream of better lives and a better world. He is the “winged man” who promises to carry them “heavenward.”

However, the marks soon learn that the hopes and dreams on offer are a total fraud. Melville describes the inevitable disillusion: “I tumble down again soon into my old nooks, and lead the life of exaggerations as before, and have lost the faith in the possibility of any guide who can lead me thither where I would be.”[i]

That riverboat still haunts the American imagination. We fall in love with dreams and schemes of better futures, better selves, a “life of exaggerations,” and invest our confidence in those who promise to deliver. This may work out for some, but more often there is the sting of disappointment, a sense of betrayal. As Greil Marcus has written, “America is a trap: its promises and dreams … are too much to live up to and too much to escape.”[ii]

Unattainable promises. Impossible dreams. The lonely crowd grows sullen, resentful, angry, like Nathanael West’s California dreamers in Day of the Locust (1939). Lured by the prospect of a New Eden out West, over the rainbow, they slave and save until they can afford to move to “the land of sunshine and oranges.”

Once there, they discover that sunshine isn’t enough. They get tired of oranges . . . Nothing happens. They don’t know what to do with their time . . . They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment . . . They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.[iii]

W. H. Auden described West’s novel as a parable “about a Kingdom of Hell whose ruler is not so much a Father of Lies as a Father of Wishes.”[iv] Either way, it’s a figure we all recognize: the Confidence Man, duping the suckers with his promise to make America great again. “Believe me. Believe me. It’s going to be terrific.”

And what happens when the dreamers tumble back to earth? Most of us muddle on as best we can, but in Stephen Sondheim’s darkly comic musical, Assassins[v], nine embittered and unbalanced Americans find a single target for their anger: the President of the United States. In a carnival of lost souls, a smirking barker (the Confidence Man in disguise!) doles out handguns like cotton candy to a new crop of eager marks. If you keep your goal in sight,” he sings, “you can climb to any height. Everybody’s got the right to their dreams.”

No job? Cupboard bare?
one room, no one there?
Hey, pal, don’t despair-
You wanna shoot a president?
c’mon and shoot a president…

John Wilkes Booth, Leon Czolgosz, Charles Guiteau, Squeaky Fromme, Sara Jane Moore, John Hinckley and a couple more broken dreamers line up to claim a gun as their means of grace and hope of glory.

And all you have to do
Is move your little finger,
Move your little finger and
You can change the world.

The climax takes us to Dallas, where the gang of murderous misfits pressures Lee Harvey Oswald to join their ranks and assuage their shared malady: “a desperate desire to reconcile intolerable feelings of impotence with an inflamed and malignant sense of entitlement.”[vi]

In the finale, all nine assassins come to the front of the stage, singing out with all the confident uplift we expect from our musicals:

Everybody’s got the right to some sunshine!
Not the sun, but maybe one of its beams.
Rich man, poor man, black or white,
Everybody gets a bite,
Everybody’s got the right
to their dreams……

The smiling cast stretches out the last word, “dreams,” for a full twelve seconds as they raise their guns high. The moment the music ends, they all fire at once, a deafening volley, and the stage goes black.

When Assassins premiered in 1990, it was not well received. It seemed too dark and crazy at the time. But when I saw a rare revival this month at Seattle’s ACT Theater, it somehow made perfect sense, so dark and crazy has America become in these latter days.

We all clapped and cheered, of course. It was a fabulous production. The cast was great. It wasn’t all grim. There was plenty of humor. And Sondheim’s songs! But I had tears in my eyes as well. As Jefferson said, “I tremble for my country…”

As the applause went on, I thought of Kierkegaard’s story of a theater which had caught fire backstage as the show was about to begin. The manager grabbed the first actor he found to step through the curtain and warn the audience to evacuate. That actor, alas, was dressed as a clown. “The theater is burning!” he cried. “You must leave immediately!” The audience roared with laughter at the clown’s performance. Such pathos! Such irony! The more he shouted and pleaded, the more they laughed, until they were all consumed by the flames.

 

 

 

[i] Herman Melville, The Confidence Man: His Masquerade in Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man, Uncollected Prose, Billy Budd, Sailor (New York: Library of America, 1984), 452

[ii] Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘N’ Roll Music (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1975), 22

[iii] Nathanael West, Day of the Locust (from my personal transcription in a 1968 commonplace journal, original page unknown)

[iv] Wikipedia reference: Barnard, Rita. “‘When You Wish Upon a Star’: Fantasy, Experience, and Mass Culture in Nathanael West” American Literature, Vol. 66, No. 2 (June 1994), pgs. 325-51

[v] 1990, music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman

[vi] John Weidman interview, quoted in Misha Berson’s Seattle Times review, March 9, 2016

The holy grail of cinema: Jacques Rivette’s “Out 1”

Emilie/Pauline (Bulle Ogier) in Jacques Rivette's Out 1 (1971)

Emilie/Pauline (Bulle Ogier) in Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 (1971)

We are all rehearsing parts of which we are as yet unaware (our roles). We slip into characters which we do not master (our attitudes and postures). We serve a conspiracy of which we are completely oblivious (our masks).

— Gilles Deleuze[i]

 

Last weekend I watched a nearly 13-hour film on the big screen at the Seattle Film Center. Jacques Rivette’s Out 1: Noli me tangere (1971) has been called the “holy grail of cinema” — made infinitely precious by the rarity of its appearance. Only in recent months have art-house screenings and a home video release[ii] made it accessible to wider veneration.

Critic B. Kite has written about this fabled film as an object of longing: “Out 1 grew in darkness, secret and seemingly made of secrets, and due to this unavailability … it joined that pantheon of broken and vanished objects [e.g., von Stroheim’s Greed or Brian Wilson’s Smile] … in which, even against our better judgment, we place some unspecified hope of a definitive experience, maybe a bit too good for the world, as indicated by the fact that they live in a half-light, next door to oblivion.”[iii]

As soon as I heard about the Seattle screening, I bought my ticket. A thirteen-hour movie? Can’t miss that! I have a penchant for immersive experiences, long-form retreats from everyday reality into alternative worlds. Among the most memorable were a 72-hour science-fiction film marathon, an all-night Epiphany liturgy in a circus tent, Peter Brook’s 11-hour staging of the Mahabharata, Masaki Koybayashi’s 10-hour film epic, The Human Condition, the 500-mile Camino de Santiago, and Christian Marclay’s 24-hour video, The Clock.

But unlike any of these, Out 1 is not so clearly shaped by a sense of plot or structure. It does not set out from a premise or question toward a place of arrival or resolution. Instead, it begins and ends in media res, adrift in a sea of occurrences and characters whose connections or meanings remain perpetually elusive.

There was no original script. Rivette, one of the most experimental of the French New Wave filmmakers, sought the same freedom as the Abstract Expressionist painters, whose process was largely free from the constraints of predetermined outcomes. His actors, provided with various situations, simply improvised their lines throughout the six weeks of shooting. Since much of the action takes place in the streets and cafes of Paris, the actors at times enlisted unsuspecting Parisians in their scenes.

The first hours feel like a documentary as two separate experimental theater companies engage in warm-up exercises, acting games and psychodrama designed to break down barriers, loosen inhibitions, and spark creativity. One exercise, bordering on hysteria, is shown in a single 45-minute shot as the hand-held camera moves restlessly among writhing, clamorous bodies. In a 13-hour film, you can do this sort of thing, and still have plenty of time left over to attend to the story.

However, if this film does have a story, it consists only of hints and speculations whose reality is always in doubt. Documentary and fiction, imagination and reality, the written and the improvised, are intertwined, inseparable, often indistinguishable.

Halfway through the film, a troubled loner named Colin, played by New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Leaud, begins to piece together fragments of Balzac and Lewis Carroll as if they are clues to a great conspiracy involving a secret society called The Thirteen, formed to subvert the social order with a radical utopian vision. But it may be that The Thirteen is no more than a long-dormant idea some of the other characters once dreamed but never enacted. When told that the object of his obsessive quest may be a hoax, Colin replies, “But that would mean that the magical, mysterious world I’ve been living in is nothing but illusion. And that,” he insists, “is impossible!”

To live in a world without underlying connections or purposeful ends is a bleak, even terrifying prospect, as Thomas Pynchon notes in Gravity’s Rainbow:

If there is something comforting-religious, if you want — about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.[iv]

Is there a middle way between the fictions of paranoia and the despair of anti-paranoia? Colin’s quest proves a dead end: there is nothing to find. He stops searching for answers and resumes his original persona as a (pretended) deaf-mute passing out envelopes at sidewalk cafes. Inside the envelopes are “messages of destiny” — pages ripped at random from paperback novels.

The two theater groups, meanwhile, are pursuing their own path toward meaning as they each grapple with a tragedy from Aeschylus. One of these, Prometheus Bound, provides a text perfectly descriptive of the obstacles to coherence in our personal and social narratives:

…they had eyes, but sight was meaningless;
Heard sounds but could not listen; all their length of life
They passed like shapes in dreams, confused and purposeless.

 In stealing fire from Zeus, Prometheus became humanity’s great benefactor, the bringer of light, technology and civilization. He would also be credited with securing us meaning, purpose, and future. But he paid the highest price for this gift. Chained to a rock in a ritual of perpetual sacrifice, he would be devoured and regenerated daily. His sacrificial suffering on behalf of humanity has drawn comparisons with Christ. And while Noli me tangere (“Touch me not”), may have been no more than Rivette’s joke about his film being something that few would ever see, its direct quote of the risen Savior (John 20:17) may be an intended link between Prometheus and Christ.

At the end of the film, Thomas (Michael Lonsdale), who assumes the role of Prometheus in his troupe’s improvisations on Aeschylus, lies forsaken on a beach, arms outspread in a crucifixion pose. After a time, he gets up and walks along the shore toward the rising sun. But this seems only a parody of resurrection. We sense no renewal, no passage to a place of transformation and new life. All the heaven-storming, psyche-delving exertions of the Aeschylus project have led precisely nowhere. Thomas has not been transposed into a higher key. He remains as “confused and purposeless” as ever.

But as we take our leave of him, after twelve hours and forty-one minutes, Thomas is still moving, not yet done, like the protagonist in Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable: “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

As the intrepid audience of eighteen men and four women exited the theater sometime after midnight, we were awarded with a button for our labors. I wore it proudly on the 2 a.m. ferry home.

New Wave button

The film ended as it began: in media res. It had not delivered us to a resting place of resolution or catharsis, but it would continue to haunt me in the days that followed. As the many online essays about the film attest, recovering from the experience may take some time. It’s not just that cinema’s magic carpet whisked me off to the Paris of 1970 for thirteen hours, or that the actors were infinitely watchable, or that Rivette’s audacious play with form was deeply fascinating.

What moved me most about Out 1 was its immense sympathy for the human condition as something more to be lived than solved. Comedy and tragedy, laughter and tears, are equally at home in Rivette’s film, as the actors rehearse “the parts of which we are as yet unaware” and “slip into characters which we do not master.”

 

Related post: Jacques Rivette’s “Around a Small Mountain”

 

 

 

 

[i] Gilles Deleuze, Cahiers du Cinema, no. 416, February 1989. Reprinted in Two Regimes of Madness (MIT Press, 2006): p. 355-8, and available online at http://www.jacques-rivette.com

[ii] Available from Carlotta Films

[iii] B. Kite, “Jacques Rivette and the Other Place,” Cinema Scope, no. 30 (Spring 2007), p. 12. The article, along with many other essays about the film, may be found at http://www.jacques-rivette.com

[iv] Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, p. 434

We are the singers of life, not of death

A Choir of Angels (detail), Simon Marmion, 1459

A Choir of Angels (detail), Simon Marmion, 1459

“The great truth that is too often forgotten is that it is in the nature of people to do good to one another.”

– Marilynne Robinson[i]

Gonna rise up, burning black holes in dark memories,
Gonna rise up, turning mistakes into gold.

– Eddie Vedder[ii]

One of my favorite stories by the naturalist Loren Eiseley recalls a moment of awakening. He was napping in a forest glade when a sudden commotion of birds roused him from sleep. They were circling a raven which clutched their small nestling in its beak. It was not only the nestling’s parents crying in protest. Birds of half a dozen other species also began to join in. “No one dared attack the raven. But they cried there in some instinctive common misery, the bereaved and the unbereaved. The glade filled with their soft rustling and their cries.” The raven sat unperturbed on its perch, a perfect symbol of pitiless mortality – “the bird of death,” Eiseley called it.

It was then I saw the judgment. It was the judgment of life against death … For in the midst of protest, [the birds] forgot the violence. There, in that clearing, the crystal note of a song sparrow lifted hesitantly in the hush. And finally, after painful fluttering, another took the song, and then another, the song passing from one bird to another, doubtfully at first, as though some evil thing were being slowly forgotten. Till suddenly they took heart and sang from many throats joyously together as birds are known to sing. They sang because life is sweet and sunlight beautiful. They sang under the brooding shadow of the raven. In simple truth they had forgotten the raven, for they were the singers of life, and not of death.[iii]

On Sunday night I experienced a similar miracle of transcendent exultation in a new musical at the Seattle Repertory Theater, Come From Away. A musical about 9/11 might sound like a dubious idea, but it succeeds brilliantly in turning the darkness into a song of unconquerable life and resilient spirit.

Like the birds in the glade, Come From Away shifts its focus away from the familiar 9/11 narrative of horror and death to tell a powerful counter-story in which the bonds of community and kindness prove stronger than the forces that divide and destroy. Like the utopian “no-places” of Renaissance romance – say the forest of Arden or Prospero’s island – the small town of Gander in New-Found-Land is on “the edge of the world,” a liminal space where both individuals and social groups, free from conventional and habitual constraints, can explore alternative ways of being and being-together.

An island town of 9000 people, Gander had once been a key refueling station for transatlantic flights, and its remote airport is still relied on for emergency situations. When all North American airspace was closed on 9/11, 38 planes were rerouted there, bringing nearly 7000 people who needed to be housed and fed for six days. The logistical challenges were enormous, but the emotional ones were even greater – so many people from different cultures, stranded far from home in those surreal days of uncertainty, shock and anxiety. Their planes had found a place to land, but what about their hearts?

Over those six days, remarkable bonds formed among both Newfoundlanders and passengers. It was an experience of love and goodness which none of them would ever forget. Ten years later, many of the “plane people” returned to Gander for an anniversary reunion to re-collect that extraordinary experiment in community. Two Canadian playwrights, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, went there as well, spending a month listening to thousands of stories. In four-hour interviews with hundreds of people, Sankoff and Hein compiled a remarkable record of the human spirit.

The play’s title is a Newfoundland colloquialism for “immigrant.” In a time when many are bashing immigrants as “them,” such a powerful reminder that we have all “come from away” feels like a well-timed gift of grace. As the Bible puts it, we are all strangers and pilgrims on this earth[iv], and the essential human project is the overcoming of fear and division to make connections and create community.

Sankoff and Hein were fascinated to learn that Newfoundland is where all the continents crashed together eons ago. “So, geologically,” they said, “there are pieces of Africa, Europe and America all right there. It’s this wonderful metaphor for the world coming together.”[v] The theologians say that we are made in the image of a God whose essence is relationality, and that human nature is most fully realized in communion. What happened in Gander was a test of that thesis.

The stories collected in 2011 were gradually consolidated into a coherent musical drama, with 12 actors representing nearly a hundred characters. There are no flawless heroes, exempt from the fears, frailties and foolishness common to all of us. There are no villains either. They are just people making their way through an unknown land without a map, exhibiting an innate desire to do good to one another. Both recognizable and sympathetic, these characters stood in for all of us, and what we might become.

And how brilliant to make it a musical. The driving Celtic rock score by a nine-piece onstage band was irresistible, and the songs made you want to shout and dance, even as tears streamed down your face. Beautifully crafted by Sankoff and Hein, the infectious music made us all believe in our common vocation as the singers of life against all odds.

In her book on the musical genre, Jane Feuer observes that “musicals are unparalleled in presenting a vision of human liberation … Part of the reason some of us love musicals so passionately is that they give us a glimpse of what it would be like to be free.” But she cautions that the genre can also fall into the trap of being about nothing more than its own energy. “In its endless reflexivity the musical can offer only itself, only entertainment, as its picture of utopia.” In such a case, the musical remains self-enclosed fantasy, untranslatable into daily reality.[vi]

But Come From Away, grounded in remembered stories of real goodness, offers something more than a temporary escape into fantasy. It proposes the richness of human community as an authentic prospect, however imperfectly realized in actual practice. The merging of Christian, Jewish and Muslim prayers into a single song was but one of many scenes in which the characters discovered that their best selves were grounded in the interrelatedness of mutual belonging.

And to the extent that this play manifested an ideal by which our failures to love one another might be measured and found wanting, it was not unlike liturgy. Neither theater nor liturgy are “real” life, but they can still exert a transformative power. Through symbol and metaphor, song and story, they can suggest a hypothetical alternative to our tired old stories of decline and fall, luring us toward a higher vision of human becoming. When we rose to our feet at play’s end for a prolonged ovation, we were not just thanking the company for a good time. We were, at least for the moment, subscribing to its vision. Whatever it was they showed us, we wanted to be part of it. As Marilynne Robinson puts it, human community is “a work of the imagination”[vii] – a life-giving story we tell as we strive to make it real, in ourselves and in our world.

When the house lights come up, we all go our separate ways, and the vision weakens in the glare of ordinary time. The same thing happens after a liturgy. Yet something of the dream remains. The intuition of a better way of being lodges deep within us, and over time, if properly nourished, it may produce real outcomes.

 

 

Related posts

 

Remember

No Place like Home

After Paris and Beirut, what kind of story shall we tell?

 

 

[i] Marilynne Robinson, “Imagination and Community,” in When I Was a Child I Read Books (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), 33

[ii] Eddie Vedder, “Rise”, from the film, Into the Wild (2007)

[iii] Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey (New York: Random House, 1957), 174-5

[iv] I Peter 2:11

[v] Interview with Shirley Fishman, Come From Away program notes (Seattle: Encore Arts Programs, Seattle Repertory Theater, Nov. 2015), 15

[vi] Jane Feuer, The Hollywood Musical (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1982), 84

[vii] Robinson, 29