Fourth of July

Eugene fireworks 2016 (1)

July 4th fireworks (Eugene, Oregon, 2016)

I love the Fourth of July. After beginning the day in the company of Charles Ives and Emily Dickinson, I will run a 5K, watch the ragtag town parade, take in some local baseball, gather with friends for croquet, barbecue and American folk tunes sung around an outdoor fire, and join the annual procession of neighbors to the end of our street for fireworks over the harbor. This in itself is enough to honor the day – life and community affirmed with our fellow citizens as we sound the resonant notes of tradition.

But the liturgist in me wonders if we might do something more consciously formative with our American holiday, as our forebears did. Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, the Fourth of July was an occasion not only to celebrate our ideals, but also to educate the public in the habitual virtues of public life by which those ideals might continue to be realized. A central part of this educative function was the Fourth of July oration, a long-winded address that recalled the great deeds of the past, tabulated the growth and progress achieved over the years, and exhorted the listener toward the same zeal for liberty and the common good that had inspired our founders.

The speakers all tried to tune their themes to the situation of their time. An oration given in 1838 before an abolitionist society noted the ironies of church bells and cannons sounding in celebration of liberty while in the same land could be heard the clanking of chains on the limbs of a million slaves. Another, given on the eve of World War I, called upon America to lead the way in the overthrow of war as an instrument of policy.

As a longtime lover of California’s mountains, I am especially fond of Thomas Starr King’s oration of 1860, delivered to the Episcopal Sunday School Mission Celebration in San Francisco, celebrating the fact that California had not seceded from the Union. “Thank heaven,” he declared, “there is no doubt of our geography. The Sacramento is an American river. The San Joaquin is not held by traitors. San Diego is an American port…” King then described the red alpenglow and azure shadows on the white glacier of Mt. Shasta as Nature’s emphatic salute to the Red, White and Blue!

The one thing these orations have in common is their assumption of a people, a public, who are committed to working together to implement the ideals that gave us birth. “We swear,” cried a young John Quincy Adams on July 4, 1793, “we swear by the precious memory of the sages who toiled and of the heroes who bled in her defense, that we will prove ourselves not unworthy of the prize which they so dearly purchased; that we will act as the faithful disciples of those who so magnanimously taught us the instructive lesson of republican virtue.”

In other words, keep your eyes on the prize. The watchwords of the Revolution – liberty and the common good – are powerful ideas. Even the most corrupt and cynical among us must still give them lip service if they aspire to political power. As Daniel Ellsberg once said, the best thing that you can say about the American people is that you have to lie to us.

The American experiment is not over. We no longer conduct it with the illusion that we are innocent of the old corruptions, that humanity’s darker impulses are somehow absent from the American heart. Holden Caulfield and Daisy Miller have grown older and wiser. And yet there are many among us who refuse to give up, who refuse to retreat from public life and the common good. There are many among us who continue to dream, continue to strive, continue to believe that we shall overcome, that “America the beautiful” is still a possibility.

I do not imagine that Americans will ever again submit to the custom of lengthy orations under a hot sun, but might there be other ways to mark the day with experiences, images and rituals which reconnect us with our ideals and with each other? I wouldn’t put any politicians on that planning committee, or preachers either. Instead, I would entrust the task to artists, musicians, poets and activists. My vote to head the enterprise would be the 8-year-old Hopi girl whose recurring daydream of a redeemed public life is recorded in Robert Coles’ The Spiritual Life of Children:

All the people are sitting in a circle, and they are brothers and sisters, everyone! That’s when all the spirits will dance and dance, and the stars will dance, and the sun and moon will dance and the birds will swoop down and they’ll dance, and all the people, everywhere, will stand up and dance, and then they’ll sit down again in a big circle, so huge you can’t see where it goes, or how far, if you’re standing on the mesa and looking into the horizon, and everyone is happy. No more fights. Fights are a sign that we have gotten lost, and forgotten our ancestors, and are in the worst trouble. When the day comes that we’re all holding hands in the big circle – no, not just us Hopis, everyone – then that’s what the word ‘good’ means…and the whole world will be good when we’re all in our big, big circle. We’re going around and around until we all get to be there!

After the play is over

I just saw King Lear at the National Theater of London – via an HD broadcast at a Seattle cinema. Directed by Sam Mendes, with Simon Russell Beale in the lead, it had some fresh approaches, with mixed success. But for all that worked or didn’t work for this playgoer, the power of the text remained intact, just as the validity of the mass is independent of the presider’s worthiness.

The play’s opening crisis turns on Cordelia’s refusal to join in her sisters’ ‘glib and oily’ flatteries of their father the king. Lear, sensing the imminent waning of his vitality and power, has an insatiable need for reassurance, but the one daughter who truly loves him refuses to play that hypocritical game. The filial bond, she insists, goes without saying. In fact, no words can do it justice. Better to remain silent than say something inadequate or inexact. If only she had compromised a bit, tossed some verbal meat to her famished parent, she might never have come ‘between the dragon and his wrath.’ But she is as proud and stubborn as her sire, and so the dysfunctional Lear family begins to implode, plunging the kingdom – and all sense of stable, coherent reality – into the abyss.

Clare Asquith, in her controversial book Shadowplay, finds Shakespeare’s dramas full of pro-Catholic allusions and references to the political and religious situation of his time. The figure of an unwise ruler offered a salutary warning to James I, whose stern policies of religious conformity endangered English unity; Lear’s need for his daughters’ professions of loyalty mirrored the judicial interrogations of suspect Catholics and Puritans; the virtuous Edgar’s flight into wilderness and disguise suggested the plight of the Jesuit priests preserving the persecuted old faith in secret hiding places. Mendes’ version contains its own timely references, from the waterboarding torture of Gloucester to the implicit diagnosis of Lear’s madness as Lewy dementia.

But if the play were only “contemporary,” whether for a seventeenth-century audience or a twenty-first, it would not have the same power to haunt and trouble us. King Lear, in Martin Esslin’s words, provides “an image of aging and death, the waning of powers, the slipping away of our hold on our environment.” These are universals of the human condition, the dark foundation upon which any spirituality must be constructed. But even when we try to salvage something from the wreckage (Did Lear learn and grow from his suffering? Does it matter that two good men, Edgar and Kent, outlived the tragedy to bear witness?), the apocalyptic storm on the heath, reducing all our certainties to ‘nothing’ (a word repeated many times throughout the play), continues to echo long after the curtain falls.

But in the National Theater broadcast, there was no time for the themes to resonate once the play was done. After Edgar’s mournful speech (“The weight of this sad time we must obey, / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say…”), the stage went black. But before we could even begin to measure the weight of tragedy, the London audience began to applaud, the lights came up again, and the players, now smiling, returned to the stage to take their bows. Their characters had vanished, replaced by the contemporary personalities of the actors themselves. Such hasty return to ordinary life felt unseemly. Could we not linger in Lear’s universe a moment longer, let the emotion begin to settle and subside before politely pretending we had not just been ripped apart by the howling storm of Shakespeare’s text?

When, years ago, I saw Theatre du Soleil’s legendary production of Richard II, such a transition was in fact provided, for which I have always been grateful. The French company had performed in whiteface, with costumes and ritualized movements drawn from Japan’s kabuki theater. The ceremonial strangeness of the production utterly removed us from any sense of the familiar or natural. If we were not actually transported to a medieval Neverland of ritual and transcendent constraints, it certainly felt like it. And after the play’s stunning, tragic conclusion, the company took care not to wake us too quickly from that dream.

They did it by remaining in character. The whiteface still veiled their personalities, as any kind of mask does. While wearing a mask, you are not yourself, but the role. And their whitened faces remained intense and unsmiling, even as the applause thundered our Amen to the experience they had given us. It was still Richard and Bolingbroke on that stage, not some modern imposters. Even their bows, formal and liturgical rather than personal and spontaneous, prolonged the sense of gravity.

Performing arts, like religious ritual, strive to take us somewhere else, to give us something we might not receive in any other way. But too little attention is given to the transitions between ordinary life and the concentrated/consecrated space of a performance, whether artistic or liturgical. How does the environment we enter help us prepare for what is to come? And when the “play” is over, is there a way to linger, absorb, and reflect before it melts into thin air? I once saw Zubin Mehta, after conducting an emotional performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony” (even the musicians were wiping their eyes) keep his arms raised for a full 20 seconds after the last notes subsided, finally lowering them ever so slowly, in order to preserve a proper silence just long enough. But most performances – and liturgies – simply end with a jump cut (no slow dissolve!) back into whatever we were calling reality. As though nothing had transpired. As though we had not been changed.

What if (as I witnessed after a screening of Robert Bresson’s heartbreaking Au Hasard Balthasar) an audience just sat in stunned silence, not talking or moving for several minutes? What if (as at every Sunday mass with the radiant monks and nuns of Paris’ St. Gervais) you arrived at church twenty minutes early to find a hundred people already there, engaged in silent prayer? What if (as is common after Holy Week liturgies) the congregation exited the church without a word, still wrapped in the mystery of divine presence?