Bernard and Ellen teach poetry – specifically, William Blake. In fact, Bernard pretty much just teaches the poem “Infant Joy.” Today is their last class because last night, at twilight, they had sex on the lawn in full view of all of the dorms, which means all of the students, which means all of the students’ cell phone cameras. Today, they can apologize and maybe they’ll save their jobs. But President Dean is pretty pissed, so their apologies had better be good.
That’s the set-up for Mickle Maher’s There is a Happiness That Morning Is, showing through next week, May 22 at the D.C.A. in a Theater Oobleck production. I will begin my review with the following sentiment: You should go and see this show.
There aren’t many writers who can pull off laughter and grief at the same time – previously, my only real encounter was with Kevin Kling’s The Ice Fishing Play at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis. What starts off hilariously in Happiness, a pair of slightly overlapping lectures from Bernard and Ellen to their respective classes on two very different poems from Blake, grows progressively funnier until a tragic turn, at which point Bernard and Ellen, finally face to face in the same time, arrive at an impasse. And that arrival that looks like a deus ex machina? It doesn’t really work out the way most of those writing strategies do.
Performers Colm O’Reilly, Diana Slickman, and Kirk Anderson render their characters with depth, heart, and an utter lack of grace. They are raw, flawed, often but not always likeable people who are suffering at the hands of everything they thought they loved – poetry, each other, and love itself. It’s not a script that is, at turns, heart-warming and bitter, full of love and tragedy. It begins that way, sure, but as the story grows, those things come together and love and bitterness walk in lock-step.
AND MAHER WROTE IT IN FREAKING RHYMING COUPLETS!
Not only rhyming couplets, he still manages to lace in a good deal of profanity, along with the assertion that “You’re behaving like a dick, generally.” The stylistic choice of the writing does not influence the masterful performances. The performers speak their poetic cadences without attention to a rhyme scheme. Theater Oobleck creates the kind of performance that makes me love theater – which is not surprising, perhaps – and that makes me want to love poetry. Which is.
If you have the chance to see this show and you do not see this show, your soul will grow sad and embittered. Sorry, but it’s true. And you won’t even know why.
When I was teaching Freshman Comp at Carroll University, I asked my class how they felt about picking up the anthology of essays I had required them to purchase for the class. I had a good enough rapport with them that I was rewarded with heartfelt groans of despair and disgust. You don’t like reading, I pursued. Hems and haws, lots of “sometimes.” Do you mind reading your text messages? (Chelsea, put your phone away.) They were surprised at the thought, that texting was reading. You look forward to one, but not the other. Part of this is just what you expect. Adjust your expectations and the experience won’t be so onerous.
I don’t know if that helped them with my assignments, but I hope that it helped them in their later years at school.
First Ladies is an opaque play by the Austrian writer Werner Schwab, which I saw this past weekend at Trap Door Theatre. The production was very, very good. In spite of this, my friend and I, theater pros that we are, having each studied in college and worked in the industry for 20ish years, we didn’t really get it. But we agreed that Trap Door had put on a hell of a show.
I saw A Serious Man with three other people, all of whom work in the film business and all of whom really like the Coen brothers. We all agreed that it was a beautifully realized movie, but none of could make heads or tails of it. Did we not have enough background? If we’d been raised Jewish or educated in Judaism, would we have made sense of the story? Didn’t get it = didn’t like it.
This past weekend was the six month anniversary of my friend Anthony’s death. Coincidentally, I came across the book review linked at the top – in which the reviewer wonders why we write about grief.
This afternoon I read Lore Segal’s “The Ice Worm” in the April, ’11 issue of Harper’s, which is a wonderfully executed story about a sudden horrible event. I understood it, I appreciated it, and I wondered why someone tells a story of despair, for that is how I read it.
The last link up there, that’s Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, singing a rockin’ song with punchy lyrics, but whose overall meaning I don’t think about.
A question that I used to pose to my students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, one that I didn’t have an answer to, was this: why do we fret about meaning in film and theater and not in songs? Why do I dwell on First Ladies and A Serious Man, but not “Woke up near Chelsea”? Why can I go a different direction entirely with prose, and simply admire the craft of Lore Segal’s writing?
More to the point, why can’t I simply admire the craft of the film? Why don’t I fret about what the song means?
There’s something about the form that makes me hung up on interpretation – not how I should interpret it, because I don’t think about how. I simply leave the theater and say, wow, what was that about? Obviously, I can appreciate the craft of the play, but that’s only a stopping point. My goal for it, for the film, is the meaning.
I’d be grateful if you had any insights or similar takes.
I am not currently related to anyone serving in the U.S. armed forces, although that will change in a year when my niece marries her fella.
During World War II, 8.6% of the US population served in the military. Now it’s 0.5%. In other words, it’s about 17 times less likely that you know someone who’s actively serving.
My experience of wars – Afghanistan and Iraq; the state of violence that is Libya; the state of threatening non-violence that is North Korea; and of the difficulty and deaths that occur in training that the public doesn’t hear about generally – all this, for me, is entirely mediated. Television, radio, internet. That’s it. I understand these experiences and individual lives intellectually and even then from a long, long remove. That includes the Army’s “Army of One” and the Marines’ “The Few The Proud” media campaigns, by the way, along with every platitude-filled politician who ever uttered the phrase “the ultimate sacrifice.” Most politicians, like most Americans, understand these experiences the way that I do – through someone else’s words.
Two weeks ago I saw The National Scottish Theatre’s production of Black Watch, and last week convinced two other people to go and see it. The script is based on interviews with soldiers who were members of the Scottish regiment, The Black Watch, and served in Iraq. It premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2006 or 07. With very minimal use of physical theatrical devises (a tricked-out pool table, some scaffolding, a one-time use of flying harnesses) and extensive use of physical staging and sound, the company focuses on the world of soldiers – these soldiers – and not on the immediacy of this war. This war was only the last battle that the Black Watch fought in, as they make clear from their history of the company and the present of the company.
The soldiers spend a lot of time being bored. They resent that most people already have their minds made up about the kind of people who go into the army. One particularly short-fused soldier shouldn’t have gone back for a second tour, one man explains to their interviewer after their third tour; he resigned, but they lost his paperwork. That’s what they do, he says, they lose your paperwork. They’re all a little broken from their experiences.
It is not a performance about the horrors of killing. It’s much more about the difficulties of surviving – not just the enemy, but the people who are your fellow citizens to some degree. The final minutes of the show manage to be horrifying and beautiful at the same time, a relentless Gallipoli of marching. And at the end, all I could think was that this was the closest I come to war. This and Doonesbury, when I character I know and casually care about loses a limb.
I wonder how well this production speaks to soldiers. I wonder how many of us in the audience has even second-hand experience with the wars, a family member or a friend. It’s not that I’m not grateful to be spared the experience – I am – but I suspect that if more of us knew what it was to serve in the military, then we’d think harder and plan longer before puffing our chests out.
Does that mean we wouldn’t have gone into Afghanistan, Iraq, the Koreas, Libya, or Grenada? No, I’m not suggesting that. We might still come to the same conclusion. I’m suggesting that, as a country, we’re disconnected from the people we ask to fight our battles.
All 11 parts of the Black Watch are available on YouTube. Here’s the link to part 1. Heavy accents and no subtitles, so strap yourselves in.
Update: I’ve got proper numbers now for how many people did and do serve in the military, so the 2nd paragraph is changed. These stats come from the May 2011 issue of Harper’s, in the index (p.15). For the 8.6%, they cite the U.S Army Center of Military History; and for the 0.5%, the U.S. Department of Defense (p.82). I don’t have hyperlinks for either, or for the index itself.