Hope and Lies and the Power of Song

So.  There's a song I'll never hear in the same way again.

Summertime.  Wikipedia claims that it's "the most popular cover song in popular music," although the sourcing is a little suspect.  No matter.  It's certainly ubiquitous.  But I never realized how dark and bitter it really is.  When I saw it in context the other night, in the Washington National Opera's fabulous production at the Kennedy Center, it was transformed.

When Clara first sings it, near the beginning, it sounds like the lullaby that I've always thought it to be.  Of course it's not true.  Jake is certainly not rich and the living is far from easy.  But Clara herself may be pretty and it's a sweet thing to pretend for your child that life is more beautiful than you know it to be.

It's different when Clara sings it the second time.   Now she's desperate.  The hurricane is howling and Death seems to be knocking at the door.   This is no gentle lullaby now, it's an incantation.  If Clara can sing it strong enough, maybe she can keep Jake alive and protect her baby from the inevitable dark future.

It's no use.  And when Bess sings it to the baby in Act 3, the song is a deep and bitter lie.  The truth is that your daddy and momma are dead and the chances that you have for anything like an easy life are less than zero.  Bess knows what's in store for her own self.   Porgy's dedication won't be enough to save her.   She no longer believes that she'll be able to escape her own doom, even though she fights it for awhile longer.

And yet she sings the lies to the baby with a fierceness that brings me to tears.  Every word of the song is a lie and Bess knows it and yet she sings it as if she believes it entire.  She has nothing to offer, nothing to give, except this song, and she sings it as if it might somehow protect the baby from ending up in the life like hers.  It's one of the most wrenching things I've ever seen.

At the very end of the opera, Porgy heads to Chicago, determined to save Bess again.  One shudders to think of what awaits him there.  He doesn't stand a chance.  But he believes.

King Lear at the Shakespeare Theater

The actors came out for the curtain call.  Cordelia looked shell shocked, even though in her last scene she’d had nothing to do but lay there naked.   Goneril was still wiping the tears from her eyes, looking slightly stunned at the audience applauding, as if she couldn’t quite believe that it was, after all, just a play, and she was not really the nightmare she’d spent the last three hours becoming.  

We applauded and whooped.   The rest of the company stepped back then as Keach walked out.  We stood up and roared.  He smiled, and bowed to the audience, his face full of gratitude, as if to say, “We survived it again. All of us. Together.”  Then they all left the stage quickly, to go through whatever their individual rituals are, to reassure themselves that they are actors and privileged to be doing this work and that the real world is not as dark and hopeless as the world they try their best to create on stage night after night.  I was in the front row, a couple of seats right of center.  It’s not always my favorite spot to see a play, ‘cause I don’t quite get the full effect of the staging, but it’s the place to be if you want to see if any of the actors are faking.  They weren’t that night.

The scene is late 20th century Yugoslavia.  If it were staged in a traditional Elizabethan setting, you might be able to fool yourself into thinking that we're better than that now – that the horrific stupid cruelty and blindness was exaggerated by the playright.   But, no.  Bringing it into our time makes it clear that we still are those people.  Shakespeare was easier on us than we deserve.

Worst of all was the battle scene.   The stage is strewn with blasted rubble.  Overturned cars and piles of junk.  The sounds of battle rage offstage.  And then the women start dragging the bodies in, wrapped in bandages, like mummies.  We know they’re just props, made of paper and rags, but the way the actors drag them in, it's clear they're carrying the full weight of lost loved ones.  Then a man comes in dragging two small bodies.  That’s when I started crying.  They keep coming.  There will be no end to it.  Gloucester is dead on the stage now too, and Edgar has run off looking for revenge.   Two medics come out.  The only traces of nobility in this play seem to come from the nameless.  But they can't do anything more than pick up the bodies and throw them into the pit.  But the bodies keep coming.  The medics are exhausted and their faces are traumatized (we’ll see one of them later, in the last miserable killing scene, his wits gone with madness, dragging a teddy bear).  They throw Gloucester in the pit, and a couple more of the bandaged bodies, but then they leave the stage.  There are just too many.

I can well understand why the actors and the director and the designers and the crew want to sink their teeth into this stuff.  It’s magnificent.   And I kinda get why we want to watch it (although Lynn would have hated it).  Partly it's for the skill with which it's presented, of course, but mostly it's the way that art can enable us to face some of the dark truths about ourselves without making us go mad.

What I don’t understand is how somebody could write it.  He did a great job with those comedies and those history plays, and the earlier tragedies.  But what in the world must’ve been going on inside a man that he could write King Lear?

The Arrogance of Conquerors

I'm babbling into my phone as I practically stagger down the street...  "I'd say it was one of the best that I've ever seen...  Except that they've each been one of the best I've ever seen..."

Lynn is laughing as she listens to my exuberance, "You always say that..."

I've just left the Shakespeare Theater Company's performance of The Persians, and, as is always the case when I walk out of the Lansburgh Theater I'm feeling quite overwhelmed by what I've just been a part of.

I've never been much of a theater goer.  Because of Marian's love for Broadway musicals, I've seen quite a few of those in the last decade (both in New York and on the road).  On the few occasions when I've seen a "straight" play, done professionally, I've enjoyed it tremendously, but it's just not something that I generally make time for, or even think much about when I'm travelling and looking for things to do.  But a couple of years ago, as I was getting out of the shower, there was a story on NPR about a new production of Cyrano de Bergerac.  I first saw a tv version of the play when I was in my early teens and it had a profound effect on me.  I've seen every version I could (including Steve Martin's marvelous Roxanne), and read it several times.   So I perked up at the radio story and was thrilled to find, at the end of it, that they were talking about a production that was about to open in DC and that it would be playing while I was there on my next trip.  I immediately got online and ordered a ticket.

It was one of the deepest, richest artistic experiences I've ever had -- right up there with seeing Branford and Ellis at Blues Alley, or walking out of the Whistler retrospective a changed man...  Since then, whenever I'm going to be in DC I look to see if there's something playing at the Shakespeare Theater, and if so, I get a ticket.  Doesn't matter what the show is. 

So this time it was The Persians.  The very beginning of the western theater tradition.  2500 years old.  And absolutely contemporary.  Bob Mondello has an excellent review in the DC City Paper that really gets into the details of the production.   I was too busy being dazzled by the theatrical effects to be as analytical about it as Mondello, so I'm grateful to him for explaining some of the stagecraft that was being used to pound me into emotional submission.  When I read his description of that final heartbreaking moment between Xerxes and his mother I wept all over again.

The play is only 75 minutes long, without intermission.  So there's none of the build & release of tension that one expects in a modern play.  It's just build.  As I practically stumbled out of the theater wiping the tears from my face, I wasn't even sure why I was crying.  They sure weren't the sentimental movie tears that Lynn & Marian tease me about -- this was something much deeper, a complexity of emotions mixing sorrow and anger and fear and astonishment and empathy and horror.  Maybe standing up on my theater seat and howling would have been a more accurate expression of the pounding in my brain & chest. 

This production would be as powerful and moving even if we weren't seeing it played out in front of us in the news every day.  The parallels between the arrogance of the Persians and the blind hubris of my president and his crew of blinkered fanatics couldn't be clearer.  2500 years.  Our politicians learn nothing.

The scholars have a few theories on what Aeschylus was trying to do with this play -- risky business to do something like this in front of the Athenians only a few years after the real events took place.  The one I find most compelling is that Aeschylus was beginning to see in the Athenians the same arrogance to power & grandeur that had led Xerxes to overreach.  It was a warning.  He won first prize in the competition.  And the end of Athens played out just as he might have foretold.

I try to listen to the little imp on my shoulder who tugs at my ear and warns me of my own hubris.  I've learned to be grateful to it -- saved my ass more than once.  I might have to ask sometime if it knows whatever happened to W's imp.  Did he never get one, or did it just give up a long time ago?  When the hubris imps gather in the Cloud 9 bar on their days off, do they look down at W & Condi & Rumsfeld & Cheney and shake their little impish heads in wonder?  And maybe there's even a bit of admiration at how willfully blind & foolish those humans can be, even with all of the horrifying examples of their history laid out before them.