I’ve had a very sweet Mother’s Day. A long lazy conversation with daughter and then with son, which covers all the bases available in real time. In my mind, a sweet hug with the mother who birthed me and said good-bye, and another to the beautiful woman who birthed Conrad. And a bittersweet salutation of respect and forgiveness for the mother who did her best to raise me. And a phone-machine message of love and distanced hugs to the lady who mothered the lovely young woman who has chosen to spend her life with our son, and if I were fluent in Italian, I’d have done likewise with the mother of our daughter’s excellent mate.
We did our usual Sunday picnic foray to the ocean, the mother of us all. Having seen “Octopus Teacher” has forever changed the way I look at that water. And on Saturday evening, I had an excellent preview to the coming day. Our poetry salon has continued in safe and distanced form, meeting ourdoors in the lovely gathering-place behind the local Episcopal church. We gather to share poetry from memory, and as of Thursday evening I had no clue what I could do that matched the suggested theme: Let’s Remake the World. Then inspiration struck. I sang the “ABC Song.”
Back in 1974 the two of us had made the decision to launch ourselves as a solo duo, so to speak, hiving off from the ensemble that had been our new life-blood since 1969. The time had come when there was a new world we needed to make. It wouldn’t be easy, but it was right, and it led to who we became and who we are now. Our first show as a duo opened that fall, a hectic event. The scheduled theatre had burned the night before opening, and we premiered a week later with our first touring gig. It was called “Song Stories,” being a mix of short sketches and original songs, something I could do without freaking an audience out, being seven months pregnant.
From today’s vantage point, these lyrics were pretty much on point about remaking the world. The best way to “get it” is to read it aloud to yourself.
IJKL, Mama, Mama, Mamamama
Wee-wee — XYZ
Apple, bacon, corn-dog, eat
Food, good, hot ice juice
Keep lettuce, more, no oatmeal
Pickles quick raisins soup
Tickles up vegetables what
Which where when who
Why why why? Water — XYZ
ABCD elephant FGHI junk
KLMN octopus PQRS thunk
(the elephant stepping on the junk)
UVW XY zoo
Angry bad clean dirty
Easy funny good
Hard idea, joking, killing
Love me, love me
Naughty old pity quiet
Real sad truth
Understanding vitamins, war — XYZ
Abstruse banal comatose dog
Enervated flatulent gratuitous hug
Interim jettison kickapoo leak
Manumitted nepotistic ossified punk
Quiddity reify salubrious tart
Undulating ululating varicose wart
Xebec yacal zygophyte
IJKL, Mama, Mama, Mamamama
Wee-wee — XYZ
I generally spend at least half an hour a day practicing genocide. I refer, of course, to weeding the garden. Some green things just don’t belong.
It’s not that I HATE weeds. True, I get pissed at the intransigence of stinky weed, sticky weed, thorny weed, ejaculation weed, etc. But I understand their imperative to survive and replenish the Earth, starting with our garden, and I don’t intend to demean their botanical dignity by disparaging nicknames: it’s just the easiest way to describe them.
But I do feel, in process of wielding my digger, that I’m tapping into a disturbing psycho-political dimension. I’m seeking to purify. It’s what I remember as a small child swatting flies outdoors on my grandparents’ porch or squashing a vagrant ant just because it’s there. It’s the Puritans purging sin. It’s the satisfaction of erasing the chalkboard. It’s patrolling the Web for any linguistic peccadillo. Call it hatred-lite.
Or maybe it needs another word. “Hate” is as slippery a word as “love.” It doesn’t really resemble hatred as we’ve come to think of it in melodramatic action movies, with Nazis grinding their teeth as their blood pressure soars and their kidneys erupt. It’s evoked endlessly to characterize cops, political parties, races, genders, movie reviewers, etc.
The assertion that Inuit languages have an inordinate number of words for “snow” has been largely disproven, but it might be productive to consider that as “hate” plays such a great role in our culture, we need to develop a wider range of words to distinguish its varieties: does it come fluttering down gently, gracing the trees, or blow with blizzard force?
It’s maybe a too-useful word. How much crime, violence, stupid speech or actions that arise apparently from “hate” are the direct result of fear, frustration, humiliation, a desire to tidy up the human race, or that maddening weakness of the playground wimp that magnetically attracts the bully’s fist? We’ve written quite a number of plays, sketches, and prose fiction involving very ugly behavior, but in none of them would I say that the ROOT CAUSE is “hate.” Certainly there are cultures that make it simpler to make the leap to violence, exclusion, etc., but I don’t believe that anyone is “taught to hate,” though we’re taught many things that may lead to it.
I say this only because we’re all looking for ways to mitigate the rampant violence and division in our culture, which makes it all the more urgent to pin down actual motives, not just the blanket phrase-of-the-day. These are just some of the inconvenient thoughts that flit through my head as I go forth to do my daily weeding.
I’m not in South Carolina any more.
I just finished a memoir draft revision of the chapter that chronicled 1966-68, our two years in Columbia, South Carolina, and celebrated again in memory the day when we crossed the state line en route to Milwaukee. Poor Columbia, it had the bad luck to have come right after three years in California, and I came in with a chip on my shoulder. Actually, a load of railroad ties. Many years later I came to understand the South much better and still have great fondness, but those two years—damn, they were weird.
It was the first life-experience after the seven years of unremitting labor that was Conrad’s chug toward the Ph.D. that would launch him into the real life of his academic career. Boom, goes the cannon, and then you land in Columbia. No theatre department there, just one man in the English department that directed plays and taught some acting classes. Now there was a second man.
It was a yeasty two years. We had a cadre of students who were nuts and fearless, who took the very strange stuff we gave them and helped create some of the most powerful and memorable theatre we’ve ever made. Nobody in Columbia gave an eff about plays unless they came from the community theatre, so we didn’t have an audience base to worry about. We weren’t much older than our student actors and we all hung out together in a local bar-cafe that had an underground room lined with aluminum foil. Drinking pitchers of beer inside a baked potato while singing blues and folk songs is a bonding experience.
It started on an agreeably rowdy basis with The Beggar’s Opera, a huge cast of street low-life performing the play that was later the model for The Threepenny Opera. I wrote catchy ditties that people could learn easily and we all had a ball. Next up was a grotesque 180, Woyzeck. The cast came along with us on a demented carnival ride of military abuse and dehumanization, and given what the US was doing in 1967, it wasn’t an abstraction. The next year was Hecuba, victorious Greeks and captive Trojan women all sweating out being marooned on a hot rocky island when the winds won’t blow. An acid reflection on our Asian war.
This was Columbia, South Carolina, and our chorus of slave women were clad in body stockings painted to make them more naked than naked. They wore heavy collars on their necks and were chained together in a line. The Greek soldiers wore armor fashioned from romex and fender-mender to put their ribcages on the outside. It was grotesque, surreal, and effective. Nobody said, “You can’t do that.”
I was overjoyed to leave, to get back to grocery stores that sold fresh produce, to buy cheap table wine that wasn’t Mogen David, to be in a city that showed foreign movies and a climate that didn’t grow moss on my dining room table. But what had been given to us was something we weren’t leaving. It was an experience of working, even if in a bubble, with people who would take risks, say damn the torpedoes, and make art.
I’m doing the layout for an anthology of our comedies, to be published in the fall. Three are in the commedia dell’arte tradition, two are solo shows, one a surreal satire, and one a piece that’s hard to justify its being called a comedy.
Which leads me to think, “What’s a comedy?” We’re lucky that Aristotle’s treatise on comedy was lost. His analysis of tragedy, though astute for the plays he analyzed, has stretched countless playwrights on the rack of theory. There’s no lack of philosophical speculation on the nature of laughter, but comedy has mostly been left to the comics.
For us, first of all, it’s writing truth. Comedy’s a nasty paring knife that cuts deep in your thumb at the slightest bobble. It’s often dismissed as “entertainment,” though franchise movies with loads of blood and exploding heads also claim that title. We might say it’s any play where we get some laughs and the characters don’t die. Or better to say, perhaps, that it ends before they die, since we all tend to die.
Surely it involves laughter. With most comedies I’ve seen, it’s laughter at recognition, laughter at dilemma, laughter at embarrassment, laughter at surprise. In many eras, folks die at the end of tragedies; in comedies, they get married. But endings rarely raise much emotion: the fun is in getting there. And maybe comedy is more truthful than other genres in allowing—even depending on—incongruity. With judicious excision of a few monologues, HAMLET could be staged as a rollicking farce. Comedy depends on frustrated obsession, and that play teems with it. Remove our empathy with the hero, and his drive is absurd.
But unless you have a paid claque—a theatrical tradition for centuries, equivalent to the TV laugh-track—it depends on connection with your audience. We’ve had the experience of having a comedy hit in our repertory for many years once hit a stone wall, not a laugh. The danger factor—the prospect of sensing that Dr. Flop is on his way—is as essential to comedy as to the trapeze act.
We sometimes laugh at stuff that’s merely silly, but it won’t sustain. When Arlecchino tries to eat his own arm, his hunger must be real to us, as must the pain. When Pantalone fails a dozen attempts to kill himself, we need to believe both in his need to do it and in his embarrassment at failure. Of course we know it’s pretend—that allows it to be funny—but it corresponds to feelings we know.
Chekhov termed his plays comedies, though they contain suicide, lost love, thwarted ambition, wasted lives, and the occasional misguided director tries to “lighten” them with silly business or exaggerated characters. Indeed, when we see the word comedy, we’re primed to expect something light, escapist, and overblown. We’re much more familiar with dark comedy than in earlier days, but the theatregoer still asks, instinctively, how dark is dark? To our minds, the defining issue isn’t even the distinction that all characters survive at the end. Konstantin Treplev doesn’t, Tuzenbach doesn’t, and though Malvolio survives his humiliation, it’s as thorough as Shylock’s comeuppance. Rather, in our minds it involves a degree of objectivity in the face of obsession.
In one of our plays, a physician is obsessed with his profession to the point of farcical nightmare. His world demands this obsession, even as it sets up barriers against it. In the best comedy, there’s often a moment when the central character feels, I’m in a comedy! I shouldn’t be in a comedy! Our doctor comes back to that repeatedly, and comedy depends on that moment. Every vessel of truth has its outrigger of blunt objectivity, and comedy is merciless.
original sin vs. original blessing
paranoia vs pronoia
evil by nature vs decent by nature
The litany of human awfulness has been getting to me. I haven’t been quite to the point of cutting off Facebook and the news, but close. Close. It’s been helpful that good initiatives have been coming out of DC, but not at all helpful that the goopers are standing fast in their resolve to oppose everything. Gaah. Yuck. Phooey.
And suddenly I started reading a book sent to me for my birthday. It’s a BIG book and I was not in shape to start it, even though it was sent by one of my dearest lifetime friends—until now. And within two pages, something in my heart and brain went “tilt” and my brain opened up like a wide-screen zoom. I remembered two other writers who have consistently asserted the same premise: humanity is by nature essentially decent and caring.
Years ago we interviewed Matthew Fox for our radio series, “Hitchhiking Off the Map.” He had proposed the concept of “original blessing” rather than “original sin” and his church took considerable exception to that concept. He was a priest in the Dominican Order. Joseph Ratzinger of Opus Dei was a cardinal, and he forbade Fox to teach or lecture for a year. After the ban was lifted, Fox said, “As I was saying…” and went right on. One of his books, of which there are many, is Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality.
Rob Brezhny has been a great spirit-lifter for me, many times posting an exuberant joyous contribution to Facebook when I most needed it. His excellent book, Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia, is subtitled “How the Whole World Is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings.” He is so magnetic and smart that he disarms my automatic rejection machine before I can begin to rev it up.
And my new fat book? Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman. One of his opening shots across the bow of “Humans Suck” is his account of a real Lord of the Flies event. William Golding hit it big with his novel and it became almost a textbook for the veneer theory, which states that there is a thin level of civilization restraining our true natures as destructive beasts. Bregman began to wonder if there had ever been a real-life event that stranded schoolboys on a deserted island. He found one from 1966, telling the tale of six boys, aged thirteen to sixteen, who had been marooned for more than a year. By the time they were found, they had set up a commune with food garden, tree-trunk barrels to collect rainwater, a badminton court (!), chicken pens, and a fire that they never allowed to go out. When a physician finally evaluated them, they were in peak physical condition.
The writer describes the placebo effect, in which believing something will make you better often has that effect totally aside from literal causation. Then he proposes that there is also a nocebo effect, wherein something can cause harm just because it is believed to do so. He then suggests that our grim view of humanity is a nocebo.
Sure. Right. Anticipating this response, he lays out well-documented chapter and verse about how cynicism can claim that it is always right. By and large people are likely to assume that their family, friends, and neighbors are not dastardly, and would be likely to offer help in an emergency. It is when looking to others whom we only know through the news that the cynicism kicks in.
This is not an airy-fairy book. It is meticulously documented and footnoted and provides real research and real stories. It will take me a while to finish it, but I will. And Bregman has teamed up in my mind with Matthew Fox and Rob Brezhny to lift my ragged spirits.