"Margaret greeted her lord with peculiar tenderness on the morrow. Mature as he was, she might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man. With it love is born, and alights on the highest curve, glowing against the grey, sober against the fire....
It did not seem so difficult. She need trouble him with no gift of her own. She would only point out the salvation that was latent in his own soul, and in the soul of every man. Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die." —E. M. Forster, Howard's End, 1910
On Saturday evening, I decided that I would take a long bike ride on Sunday. There's a path called the Bayshore Bikeway here, about thirty miles long -- it starts in downtown San Diego on the harbor, winds down the coast almost till Mexico, then turns back northward up the skinny isthmus that connects the mainland with Coronado, an almost island that's mostly beaches, shops, pretty homes for people who want to live among palm trees year-round, and a naval base. It had been an up and down week. I was feeling lonely and missing Brooklyn. I was looking forward to riding, just moving my body in the open air, for a good long stretch.
Then I awoke on Sunday morning and witnessed, through the tiny screen of my phone, the horror that had unfolded 2500 miles away in the wee hours of the morning, the fifty lives that had been taken in a place meant for dancing while I watched The Wire and prepared for sleep in an attic in San Diego. I lay in my bed and watched my Facebook feed swell with the same cries of grief and shock and rage, the same offerings of prayers and reflection, the same calls to action, the same arguments, the same pain. The same, but worse. Every time, worse. I remembered lying in my bed almost exactly two years ago, physically sick with mono and soul-sick over the mounting violence in Ferguson, Missouri. I felt hopeless and stupid, heavy with inaction and uncertainty. I felt it two summers ago and I felt it yesterday. I decided I would still ride. It was a beautiful day. Nature, in her unfeeling way, had taken no notice of tragedy.
I rode down the coast and around the bay, losing my way only one or two times, circling back, passing under highways and by boggy nature preserves where every now and again a white heron stood poking around in the muck. I knew my back and arms were getting sunburned and I secretly enjoyed the feeling. I rode and I thought, and the thoughts were sometimes large and sometimes very small. I found myself remembering almost ten years back -- to April 2007 -- when I was a junior in college and attempting to mount a touchingly, foolishly large production of Peter Barnes' Red Noses -- and when a senior at Virginia Tech, two hours from my hometown, committed the most deadly mass shooting in American history. Until yesterday.
Red Noses is a beautiful, sprawling mess of a play. It's too long, too wordy, and has too many characters. It's anarchic and wild and imperfect, and I love it just as much today as I did ten years ago. It takes place in France during the Black Plague. A monk named Father Flote prays for some means to address the horrible suffering around him -- and decides that God has answered his prayer by telling him to make the sick and dying laugh. He forms a pathetic, ragtag troupe of clowns -- a blind juggler, two one-legged tap dancers, a stuttering stand-up comic, a sex-crazy nun, a murdering brigand who's good with a paintbrush -- and starts to travel the blighted countryside, preaching joy, laughter, and love.
Which, of course, will not do. Love quickly becomes heresy when the law -- and religion -- of the land is control. "Every jest should be a small revolution," says Flote, and he soon has a revolution on his hands indeed. The Pope that initially sanctioned Flote's troupe of Red Noses (hoping they would prove to be nothing but bread and circuses) sees that he has opened the gates to laughter, which leads to a realization of authority's hollowness, and to hope, which leads to a will for change. The Noses must be stopped.
And they are stopped. Of course they're stopped. They are few against legion. The sick, the lame, the old, and the socially misfit against the powerful. Not a single red-nosed jester survives Barnes' play. They are all mowed down by crossbow fire, while declaring their freedom and their love -- while dancing.
The night before we were supposed to go into tech for our Red Noses, thirty-two people were shot in Blacksburg. I came into the theater to find that the head of production had locked up our weapons (daggers, broadswords, etc). The Dean of Undergraduate Affairs had declared that in response to the tragedy, all weapons would be banned in student theatrical productions -- out of respect for those that might be grieving and upset by seeing these props on stage.
My livid twenty-one year old response to these events is well documented. Just Google "Yale stage weapons ban", or take a look at this old chestnut. I was appalled -- and I was also a little bit insane, because I definitely remember ending up in the Dean's office, seething at her that she didn't understand the purpose of art, and then punching the walls repeatedly in the bathroom down the hall.
And as I rode my bike around the San Diego bay, I realized... I'm still appalled. Perhaps now I would be less likely to storm down the doors of a Yale Dean's office (perhaps, I can't really say), but I am still baffled at the way in which our responses to these horrific acts often embody a desire to avoid rather than to address. After my bike ride yesterday, I would learn that the Hamilton cast had decided not to use prop muskets in its number at the Tonys -- for the exact same reason Dean Betty Trachtenberg gave ten years ago for locking up our broadswords. I have no issue with the Hamilton company's decision -- of course not -- but I can't help shaking my head... Are we so afraid to see a gun or a sword on stage, in a land of storytelling, and yet so unwilling -- throughout ten years of death after death after death -- to see fewer guns in our streets, in our homes, in our real lives? We rush to make sure no one suffers from trigger warnings, yet cannot take our fingers off the actual triggers. We bicker and we pontificate and we cite the articles that support what we already believe, and the powerful remain powerful, the weapons remain accessible, and people are still killed. Children are killed. Movie-goers are killed. College students are killed. Black people are killed. Queer people are killed. People are killed in places where they went to be safe, to be loved, to dance.
Fuck our Puritan origins.
Fuck the half-story that this country was founded by those fleeing persecution, when the other half shows that they fled partly out of a desire to be able to inflict persection themselves. Fuck the fear and the shame that lie deep in the heart of this nation and that are undoubtedly the parents of its hatred.
I don't believe in God as such, but I do believe in this:
TOULON: Flote, you're preaching vile equality and love again... How do you know God is interested in our laughter and joy? Perhaps He wants our tears and suffering? I know He wants our tears and suffering. I stand with one foot in Heaven and the other gloriously in the abyss. Compromise is for the weak, concessions for cowards. I never yield or compromise. I obey. Obedience is the first vow of relgiion. Our task shouldn't be to make them smile, make them sleep easier in their beds, but to make them tremble. The link between God and man, man and man, is fear. God wants to be feared no loved. Make them bow down and tremble.
FLOTE: If that is life, I don't want it. I'll go through it as a stranger, curl up and die. If that is man, what's the good of saving him? But he is more and God is more. He can be moved by joy as well as tears... We'll sing, dance and tell funny tales and all around us people will laugh and up there in Paradise the saints will interrupt their endless hosanas and laugh too. And the angels will forget their nocturnal missions and flutter their wings and chuckle the while. And the Judges of the Last Judgment will have to stop their judging for they will be chortling with glee. And the Supreme Judge himself will turn asdie from sad pleas and soul-breaking prayers to hear the unfamiliar sound of joy, and, perhaps, He will forget His wrath, hearing His people praise Him in laughter.
Every jest is a small revolution.
And so should every play be.
When I feel hopeless, useless, effectless, small -- I try to remember that I have chosen a life of telling stories. Of singing and dancing and funny tales. And that is not nothing. It is not nothing to long to create -- to be driven by a desire to make -- when the world is so full of destruction. To steal yet more words from my hero, E. M. Forster, "One can, at all events, show one's own little light here, one's own poor little trembling flame, with the knowledge that it is not the only light that is shining in the darkness, and not the only one which the darkness does not comprehend" (from What I Believe, one of my secular sacred texts, especially in times of almost-despair).
You are not the only light shining in the darkness, and not the only one which the darkness does not comprehend.
This, to me, is theater's entire reason for being. To say this to a room full of people, breathing and listening together. It is the only artform that must be experienced communally. With every play, we practice existing in a space with our fellow humans. If we are the makers, we practice building something together, and if we are the audience, we practice witnessing together. On other days, I may rant about the commercial theater, the regional theater, the accepted mode of production in this country, the underpayment, the overpricing, the sheer unending frustration of it all -- but not today. Today I think I am lucky, and I think that I have a job to do. And I don't care whether it's The Lion King or Castellucci's latest avant-garde extravaganza or The Best Christmas Pageant Ever at Podunk Community Theater. No matter where, no matter what, our job is to put more empathy into the world. To change a room full of strangers into a group that has shared an experience, that has common ground to start from. To connect.
Only connect! Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.
I have never watched the Tonys until last night. Again, I readily admit that my usual aversion for awards and "the industry" kept me away. But last night I watched, and as Lin-Manuel Miranda broke into that sonnet -- and as the camera cut to his face, so full of genuine joy and care, every time one of his fellow company members was honored -- I thought to myself: Thank you, Universe, for this human. And thank you, Industry-and-awards-machine-that-usually-makes-me-so-uncomfortable, for serving, in this instance, a truly important purpose: for giving this person a place to speak, for letting his voice be heard.
Because the truth is that Hamilton is a miracle not entirely because of its own (many) merits -- but because it's infused with this person's spirit. It was clearly created by this fount of boundless enthusiasm, generosity, curiosity, joy, hopefulness, and love. It vibrates with these things. That's why I say, to the persistent if outnumbered nay-sayers, to the pedants and the nitpickers and the people whose favorite word is "problematic": PULL OUT A CHAIR AND HAVE A DAMN SEAT. You don't have to like the show, but recognize what a gift our little, frustrated theater world has been given in its creator. The world is full of the jaded. We need the enthusiastic. The world is full of the critical. We need the creative. And the world is full of hate. We need those that are full of love.
At the end of my bike ride, I found myself on the shore of Coronado near the ferry dock, looking across at the city. I locked my bike to a fence and shimmied into a bathing suit underneath my towel, then lay down on the sand in the evening sun. As I lay there, I looked down the beach a little ways to see two young men, both in jeans, both in sky blue shirts. They held each other and laughed, kissing and adjusting their positions playfully for a photographer with an Australian accent that was capturing them against the San Diego skyline. I think they were engagement photos.
And I just watched them for a while. Here they were, on a beach, in love, while the world went on and the news began to report the identities of the dead. And they were more powerful than any hatred or any fear.
June 13, 2016