“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.” Depending on your source, this originates with Hegel, Engels, or Marx, although it appears to be Marx who cites both of the others. Whatever, they all have the same idea, and they are referring to events from the French revolution through the following century. Have things changed?
My own question is, have they ever changed? Brilliant as Hegel/Marx/Engels were, I doubt they were the first to wonder, in the words of Pete Seeger, “When will they ever learn?” History is taught less in high school now, but I’m sure I never learned critical thinking from what I was taught in the 50’s. Robert McNamara referred to “the fog of war,” and I would submit that the fog of war has always been with us. We either don’t see, or we don’t remember, or we can’t bear to face it.
As a species, are we defective? Individual members of all species appear to learn from experience, to avoid what is dangerous. Their survival depends on it. Human children learn these things too: that you can’t breathe under water, that fire burns, that if you’re hungry you have to eat, that if you’re thirsty you have to drink. Those are pure survival things.
Later, children learn that if Daddy says “no” you’d better not do it, and if the teacher says “no” you’d better hide it, and if the law says “no” you’d better run. On the other hand, if religion says you should you should love one another, you show up when someone has an emergency, you give whatever you can, be it loving support or shelter or money. When the fires roared through the Santa Rosa area, the community rose up to help.
That’s on the personal and immediate community level. When we look at the tribal level and the larger aggregations, all bets are off. This is where tragedy and farce take the stage. Globally, there is a huge upsurge in support of authoritarian leaders. There are individuals leading the movements, but there is huge popular support. Humans have seen, time and time again, where this leads, but where are the effective alarm bells? And if they’re heard, then what? At the tribal level, the lesson “fire burns” doesn’t carry enough weight.
On the web, it’s an everyday thing that a given YouTube “goes viral.” The time has come where nuclear criticality is on the table. Can our species see the farce and laugh it off the stage? Can that go viral? Today on our way to sit in peace at the ocean, to drink in its vastness and accept our place in the family of things, Bob Dylan’s words were on the radio:
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well-hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.
Who’s the best actor? That’s not a question, of course, that affects the future of the human race, nor can it even be answered. Film acting is radically different from stage acting, not only in distance but in selection—the film actor is subject to the director’s and editor’s determination of which moments get saved and which get scrapped. Nor can we go back and review the stage work of Olivier in relation to Edmund Kean the way we can compare Philip Seymour Hoffman with Rudolph Valentino or Meryl Streep with Marjorie Main—should we ever want to.
Still, what’s the Web for if not to make outlandish statements? So I’ll say, unequivocally: Alec Guinness. Or, more modestly, let’s just say he was an extraordinary actor.
We’ve just been on a toot of watching Alec Guinness movies: The Lady Killers, The Horse’s Mouth, Kind Hearts & Coronets, The Man in the White Suit, and last night Tunes of Glory. Of course I’d seen others—Bridge on the River Kwai, the Star Wars stuff, etc.—but there’s something immensely rewarding about watching one actor play radically different roles, from buck-toothed psychopath to buzz-cut Scots officer to eight outlandish murder victims.
What distinguishes him? First off, his transformations draw our interest the way that Dickens can sketch a character in half a dozen words. But it extends to much more than a good makeup job and a different vocal placement or accent. People have different rhythms of thought, different degrees and tempi of response. People have a consistency within their inconsistencies, but what’s interesting about a dramatic character are the surprises, the changes of direction or intent or emotion that we wouldn’t have expected. Even in a broad farce like The Ladykillers, he’s the only one of the quintet of hoodlums who allows a complexity of character within his cartoonish madness.
In an interview he once said that he doesn’t have the character solid until he finds his walk. That’s evident not only in the contrast between Gulley Jimson’s dog-trot and Jock Sinclair’s ramrod swagger, but in his overall physicality. All too often, even with stage actors who’ve had extensive conservatory movement training, we see people acting from the head up, as if on TV, unless the role allows them to flip and flop like Frankenstein’s Creature. I can’t recall as shocking/moving effect as at the climax of Tunes of Glory, after an officers’ rivalry has resulted in a suicide, when Guinness (the victor) has a sudden breakdown that flings him against the wall in a cramp of grief, as if a toy soldier is snapped in two.
Auto mechanic, author, sheepherder, heart surgeon, actor—they come in all levels of skill. I have great appreciation of our craftsmen.
Recently I saw a play that dealt with the difficult issue of a sexual relationship between a very young girl (12) and a much older man (40), fifteen years after their one consensual consummated evening of love. They both remember it as love. Then things go wrong, she finds herself alone in the middle of the night and goes for help, and he surrenders himself to the arms of the law and endures a prison sentence. When his sentence is completed, he changes his name, relocates, and begins a new life. She has found herself jailed by “reputation” in her home town, a sentence with no reprieve.
The performance was followed by a talk-back, with the majority of responses either believing that his offense was a one-off and he was not a predator, or that he will be a repeat offender and is a slick manipulative liar. Very little was said about the feelings and actions of the girl who was twelve years old at the time, although her adult self has been powerful and passionate in speaking of her brief heady experience of having her “crush” reciprocated.
I found myself jolted back in time. After five years in the local country elementary school (I went straight into the second grade), my parents somehow got me enrolled in the town’s junior high school, nine miles from where we lived. It was disorienting but exciting: there was actually a library (good place to hide), and different classrooms for each subject. Science was my favorite class, and at the age of twelve I developed a massive crush on the tall bony redheaded science teacher.
Massive. I was obsessed, frantic, and found really inventive ways to suggest individual projects that would require personal attention. I found out where he lived and on Sundays I skipped Sunday school and hung out in his neighborhood until I had to zip back to the church to meet my ride home. Nobody knew.
I had no girl friends who could clue me in, my (adoptive) mom was nearly fifty when I was born and wasn’t exactly a role model for beginning to understand sex. Remembering this, I am profoundly grateful that I was blessed with coke-bottle glasses, braces, and a generally homely appearance; I wanted to be a predator but just didn’t have the chops.
So I sat quietly through most of the talk-back, and then chimed in: “I could have been that girl. When I was twelve, I chased a teacher madly and wasn’t pretty enough to get anywhere, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.” I could feel the atmosphere in the theatre clabber, like dropping vinegar into milk. Nobody wanted to see a twelve-year-old girl that way, not the character in the play or the 78-year-old actress sitting in the second row. I was thanked for my candor, there were a few more comments, and then we all went home.
I still remember.