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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Always Good News -- Something New from Wendell Berry

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Look Out Above For What's Coming Down!

When I was in high school, about 14 or 15 years old, I went on my first date that was not a double date with some boy’s father or mother doing the driving, and the evening should have been memorable for that reason. The boy who asked me out had his driver’s license and picked me up at home, all by himself, after my parents gave permission because the boy and his family were members of the church we attended. Wouldn’t you think I would remember what I wore and what kind of car the boy drove, if we went out for ice cream after the main event and, if so, where? But I don’t recall any of that, because the main event was a stage play and that evening the first time I ever saw live actors on a stage. I I was powerfully stage-struck!

“The Curious Savage” is a gentle comedy with a quiet message and a touching conclusion. Other inmates of the cozy insane asylum where the main character is committed for the period covered by the play cannot tell her in so many words that they love her, but each of them has some indirect means of expression, and she understands them all. I still remember that she is told by one of them, in the last scene, to carry an umbrella, in case of rain. Hardly King Lear, but it moved me deeply.

The performers were high school students, mostly juniors and seniors. This was not a professional production, by any means. Nevertheless, as the final curtain fell, after the cast took their bows, I sat transfixed, unwilling to acknowledge that the magic spell had come to a close.

Inspired, I soon began to try out for one-act plays and to discover the intoxicating world of backstage. The focus of that monumental, hundred-year-old, three-story, limestone-block castle of a school, two or three blocks long, a school with tall Gothic doors and inner stairways of solid marble -- the focus for me became the auditorium with its heavy proscenium curtain, orchestra pit, onstage trap door in the floor and soaring space above for flying rigs. The smallest bit part sufficed to fuel my dreams or, failing that, a place on the props crew.

My theatre love persisted, and in my senior year our cast of “El Camino Real” (I played the old gypsy, mother of Esmeralda) climbed successive levels of competition to first place in the state of Illinois. Heady stuff! I then began a checkered undergraduate career -- three schools, three or four successive majors before graduation 20 years later -- in speech and theatre at the University of Illinois. “Read plays!” urged professors of acting classes. Fine! I would read plays! No one needed to twist my arm to make that happen! There were also technical classes, such as costume design, and challenging beginning work in directing. All the world may be a stage, but it’s just as true that the stage itself, wherever it is, is its own world, with its own language, traditions, and a history going back at least to ancient Greece. And I loved every aspect of it.

I’m getting to my point, truly I am. If I were younger, I would have gotten to it sooner, but at my age memories take up more and more of my conscious mental life.

Look up the phrase deus ex machina, if it is unfamiliar to you. The idea dates back to those early Greek and Roman dramatists and had originally a material reference. Even that long ago, you see, staging (think “production values”) was sometimes elaborate and complex. For example, marvelous machinery could bring a “god” down, unexpectedly, from on high, to thrill an audience and resolve dramatic action. Like all special effects, however, after a while it was no longer surprising and began to be seen instead as rather a cheap trick. Was the playwright unable to wrap up his plot no other way? Too bad!

As audiences, along with critics,  became more and more sophisticated, the term deus ex machina came to be more generally applied, as it is today, to any last-minute introduction of a new, often unconvincing character or development brought in near a story’s end to bring an otherwise hopeless mess to a tidy conclusion. Moderns use the phrase in literature discussions as well as in drama, and film criticism in our household is particularly scathing when we feel a scriptwriter or director has resorted to a deus ex machina resolution.

I approach my point ever more closely.

The now-familiar insomnia, waking not from but into a nightmare, recognizing inevitability but being unable to believe completely in what is clearly coming down the tracks – the overwhelming experience of the last two months and more – waking, that is, into a new world that has become frighteningly unreal, I thought in the dark of one recent morning of the deus ex machina, and my first thought was, isn’t that just what we need? There is no other way out, is there? We humans have made a horrid, irresolvable mess on our world stage, and no playwright on earth, no team of the wisest of world leaders can possible sort us out at this late stage. Not in my lifetime, surely.

Quickly, however, a second thought followed: wasn’t it precisely the irresponsible longing for outside rescue . . . combined with the emergence of someone claiming to possess the godlike powers of a world rescuer . . . combined with a fearful audience desperately willing to believe, desperately longing . . . that brought us to this state?

No, we should not wish for it, and we should not allow the cheap trick to be put over on us. There is no way around this mess other than through it, and through it we must slog, one foot in front of the other.

Do you need a weatherman to tell you there will be storms ahead? Take an umbrella. Someone else is sure to need it if you don’t.