Self-Preservation During Dark Times

Opening scene from “Romeo and Juliet,” Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, Boston MA

What is the point of making beautiful things, or of cherishing the beauty of the past, when ugliness runs rampant? Those who work in the realm of the arts have been asking themselves that question in recent weeks. The election of Donald Trump, and the casual cruelty of his Presidency thus far, have precipitated a sense of crisis in that world, not least because Trump seems inclined to let the arts rot.

So begins a thoughtful rumination on the arts during dark times, written last February by the New Yorker’s music critic, Alex Ross.

Artists don’t necessarily agree on how best to proceed, and Ross highlights a range of those responses. At one end of the spectrum is Leonard Bernstein‘s reply to the assassination of John F. Kennedy: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” At the other end are those who believe that the “ordinary rituals” of making art must cease. Gwendolyn Brooks’s 1949 poem, “First Fight. Then Fiddle,” speaks to that:

Carry hate
In front of you and harmony behind.
Be deaf to music and to beauty blind.
Win war. Rise bloody, maybe not too late
For having first to civilize a space
Wherein to play your violin with grace.

Ross also quotes poet Wallace Stevens from his wartime essay, “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words:”

As a wave is a force and not the water of which it is composed, which is never the same, so nobility is a force and not the manifestations of which it is composed, which are never the same. Possibly this description of it as a force will do more than anything else I can have said about it to reconcile you to it…It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives.

I thought about the range of those responses last night as I watched Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s excellent production of Romeo and Juliet. This is the 22nd season of Free Shakespeare on the Common, and I think I have been to almost every production. I love theater and I love Shakespeare, which makes the decision an easy one. But for a lot of reasons, this summer tradition meant even more to me this year than it usually does. Yes, there were some dark times during the Bush era. But these days are worse. Less hopeful. More pernicious.

This play is embedded deeply in our cultural consciousness. Star-crossed lovers. The destructive nature of hate. The consequences of bad decision making. The failure of good intentions. Death of the young. There are several movie versions of this famous story. But as we know from studies done comparing comprehension from viewing live theater versus film, the former wins hands down. Something happens when you are there, in real time, with real performers. It’s a mystery I don’t even care to unpack. I am just so grateful that the something that happens, happens.

So there was something ritual-like and life-affirming for all of us to gather on the lawn on a summer night, to let the 400 year old syntax and meter of a master take us somewhere else. This year’s production made it easy to step out of 2017 and its many, many sorrows. Directed by Allegra Libonati, the pacing and flow of the production is very strong. (I was also very impressed by the clarity of the diction employed by EVERY performer. It made the experience of Shakespeare’s language much more satisfying to not have to strain to hear.) Gracyn Mix‘s Juliet is self-confident and clear, and I found her enchanting as well as believable. Kario Marcel (Mercutio) was a crowd favorite (and his vituperative delivery of those famous dying words, “A plague o’ both your houses!” brought our political morass to mind.) Fred Sullivan, Jr.‘s Lord Capulet is a fierce and volatile figure, the father you love to hate. Ramona Lisa Alexander‘s Nurse—a complicated character in this tale of woe—is played with big strokes. I think she pulls it off.

It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives. More than ever.

2 Replies to “Self-Preservation During Dark Times”

  1. Indeed. The “self preservation” is not just individual but the preservation of the whole of whatever it is “makes us human.” I just attended a performance of “Troilus & Cressida” and found so much in that “problem play” that resonates with contemporary moods and politics…the slave/fool Thersites with his abusive tongue and cynical view of both sides of the war sounds mighty familiar. Shakespeare amazes, even in his weaker plays. Plus, what is more moving and immediate than players on a stage in real time?

    1. “Players on a stage in real time”…I don’t know why it means so much to me, but it does. Thanks for this my smart and articulate friend.

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