Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Tree by Daniel Kitson and Tim Key

When I went to the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green a few years ago, we drove into London and I become incensed watching the pedestrians because apparently everyone had received a memo about wearing topknots and I never got the memo. There I was with my blow-dried hair looking at old doll houses in an old train station, excruciatingly without a topknot. I was 45. I guess 45 is when you stop getting the memos.

I can report from last night at the Old Vic that the memo this year required a combination of dark-rimmed glasses and excruciatingly vitamin D-deficient skin for any gender. Transclucent levels of pale. But men, chin to collar bone, need to look like Montana separatists who spent the winter cleaning their guns and shooting antelope. 

No one's beard is longer than Daniel Kitson's. I don't know how long he has been growing it, I have never seen him live before. He is a phenomenon. His shows famously sell out in a heartbeat. In ten years of him at the Edinburgh Fringe I have never managed to get tickets. But my friend E managed for Tree. 

There is a tree in the play, Daniel is hidden up the tree for the play, hard to see. Underneath the tree a man in a hurry appears with a picnic. They begin to talk. It is easy to be bored with two characters revealing their backstories in anecdotes but this was done with a charm and a mindfulness. They snuck up on the audience, it seemed so innocuous at first, an English eccentric who lives in a tree and a man planning a picnic. Amusing enough, maybe a bit boring at parts -  I mean, are there no confident romantics on this entire island? Does every British man have to have this Hugh Grant-style emotional incapacity/slapstick/acute embarrassment? 

But then in the last twenty minutes of the play something happens, and the parallels between the characters emerge, not at all in a didactic way, in a quietly amazing way. In a subtle way the parallels expand to us, sitting in the audience, staring up at the tree to get a glimpse of the recluse. Our choices are indicted or at least reviewed. What are you committed to and why? How much of it is inertia or is shaped by the world around you? How does  your commitment matter? Do you tell yourself the truth when you answer those questions? 

Gently Kitson questions, and his long beard almost seems a disguise, because how could someone with so much insight care about the memo? 


Monday, December 8, 2014

my perverse obsession

I mean really. Probably once a day I get invited via social media to join the beginning of the peaceful revolution. An invitation to an Occupation, the launch of a political party, a global conference call. A people's assembly. Or a link to a blog post exactly like the ones I was writing three years ago in October 2011. Bloated with optimism, newly enlightened, burning with anger, intent on success.

I love these beautiful actions. I even love the blog posts, even as I slightly cringe at the arrogance required to stand up. Critical mass is not building though, not fast enough. Activists are not organized like say the Evangelical Christians. I heard recently from this consultant that businesses now study Evangelicals because they are so good at training and promoting leaders. In this manner, activists could really use their company and insight. And actually, I think not only in this manner. And that ladies and gentlemen is my perverse obsession. This infernal, unshakeable blight upon my writing, this hopeless certainty. Please wring your hands with me, I am quite overwrought.

No, it's that I can't shake this idea that the ills of the world could be cured if the activists and the Christians united. Formed an alliance. All my previous attempts have abjectly failed, I mean really, it's like they're fending off a lunatic. On both sides.

And yet it remains my perverse obsession. Especially now at Christmas it haunts me, in the darkness, as I think about what is holy, what is sacred. In case you were wondering, the tree is winning over the nativity this year. My Christmas songs are on my ipod and while I was cooking Sunday supper yesterday I got really super mad when O Holy Night got to the third verse:

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love, and His gospel is peace.
Chains He shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in His name, all oppression shall cease.

You might know as a blog reader how I come out on the whole Peace on Earth thing. We really accept an astonishing amount of war for a people who worship a god of peace and it George-Carlin-Style pisses me off. It's the silence around peace: where are the advocates? Where are the candidates? Call me old-fashioned, but if you really wanted peace couldn't you just stop fighting? (quote, Dr. Who, The Doctor's Daughter (2008))

And how about the oppression? We're not doing so great on that either. Who can escape the ugly truths surfacing about the police? How many Syrians? How many Ukranians? How many petty tyrants made possible by neo-liberal support can we name?

I was very grumpy until the Spectorette's version of Frosty the Snowman came out and I thought about that girl band, those poor impressionable girls controlled by Phil Spector and how oppression and darkness are all around us, even at Christmas. The truth is forces for good could be gathering and falling into place, there will always be darkness to see and I am free to step into lighter moments, as I amuse myself with the ludicrous painfulness of life. How I get so worked up over everything. So then I make a dinner and cuddle a child, read a story, make a lunch, draft a contract, tinker with a play. And I am fine. Until my perverse obsession takes me again. And then I can't breathe.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Sleepless Ones

The Sleepless Ones

What if all the people
who could not sleep
at two or three or four
in the morning
left their houses
and went to the parks
what if hundreds, thousands,
millions
went in their solitude
like a stream
and each told their story
what if there were
old women
fearful if they slept
they would die
and young women
unable to conceive
and husbands
having affairs
and children
fearful of failing
and fathers
worried about paying bills
and men
having business troubles
and women unlucky in love
and those that were in physical
pain
and those who were guilty
what if they all left their houses
like a stream
and the moon
illuminated their way and
they came, each one
to tell their stories
would these be the more troubled
of humanity
or would these be
the more passionate of this world
or those who need to create to live
or would these be
the lonely
ones
and I ask you
if they all came to the parks
at night
and told their stories
would the sun on rising
be more radiant and
again I ask you
would they embrace

~ Lawrence Tirnauer

Thursday, October 16, 2014

When Great Trees Fall by Maya Angelou

When Great Trees Fall

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.


When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.


When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
examines,
gnaws on kind words
unsaid,
promised walks
never taken.
Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
nurture,
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance,fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignoranceof
dark, cold
caves.


And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

― Maya Angelou

posted in loving memory of Mark Kuller who died early this morning.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Ballyturk

Having this past season read reviews of Bill Clinton Hercules, my play in the Edinburgh Fringe, I am slightly more reluctant to write one.  The BCH reviews seemed to me to say more about the reviewer than the play. What the hell though? It's my blog. It's all supposed to be about me anyhow.

On Friday I saw Enda Walsh's new play at the National, Ballyturk. I felt like I was at the premier of Hamlet. It is a particular and peculiar masterpiece.  So I'm a big fan of Walsh.  Walworth Farce, Penelope, New Electric Ballroom... I am full of wonder at his ability to plumb the limitations of our psyches, see what we are in new ways and show us in his plays.  Damn these Irish playwrights with their wisdom and charm.

Audiences typically applaud heartily at his plays and then turn around to each other and say, what the hell just happened? What does it all mean? What was that blue stuff? It's always hard to exit a Walsh play in a timely manner because people are clumped together excitedly talking.

You can read my review of his Misterman here .

Ballyturk. Spoiler alert.  Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi are in a giant studio apartment/womb/locus of consciousness/monad. They are nameless and they may be two parts of the same person. Or one may be a character created by the other.  Maybe the superego and the ego. The more intensely physical of the two has fits. They are, like all Walsh's characters, and indeed like all of us, are trapped in a narrative - they spend their days playing games involving the people of the town of Ballyturk.

One day Cillian catches a fly, joyful of evidence of an external world. One wall of their studio falls and Stephen Rea appears. He has this monologue about the relationship of his left hand to his right hand that will be a staple of every audition in London very shortly I am sure. Rea may be the fly. He may be authority. He may be reality outside the mind. .  He speaks pure poetry about the magnificence of the outside world heralded by the fly. Life in all its magnificence, he says, demands only one thing, a death. He demands that one of them join him outside. The rest of the play flows from that demand.

The play is shot through with a kind of nostalgia, but nostalgia almost like a high speed train running through the neural networks of the play. Power ballads play from the 80's. Yaz. (Upstairs at Erics was such a staple of my existence in the 80's) The nameless men dance. Rea croons. The recontructions of Ballyturk are Vaudeville.  There is yelling and fear and frustration. Murphy bangs his head bloody against a wall.

Mysterious and primal. In Misterman Walsh has Murphy so steeped in his own version of reality that the sound of people trying to speak to him is distorted. In Ballyturk we get to see inside that reality. It's almost like Beckett's play Not I (which I saw at Cambridge Arts) - it's like being inside someone's mind.

People take refuge in stories, right? They escape into a movie. And that's one level. But when I say Walsh's characters are trapped in a narrative I am being trite and annoying because really, the characters escape there too. They like it there. It is what they know. It must go on. We of course have these narratives too: I am a doctor, a teacher, a mom, a drunk, a loser, a Christian, a Conservative, a Jew. I live in a democracy. America is the best country. My children's safety demands my constant vigilance. It's necessary that air travel is the way it is. The world is basically fair. The world is governed by the rule of law. It is the human condition to have these narratives. It is the work of the very best playwrights to point out how these narratives trap you even as they keep you safe, how they are wrong or incomplete.

Walsh was always up there with McDonagh and McGuiness and now I feel like he's up there with Stoppard.

In my review of Misterman I complain bitterly that Walsh's comparatively least compelling play got a big standing ovation at the National. When I saw Ballyturk on Friday, it was sold out, but no one stood up. No one stood up for the better play. Sometimes that is how it is.
 

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Wheaton College 25th Anniversary

This weekend the Wheaton College Class of 1989 is celebrating its 25th anniversary and I am in rainy Cambridge shuffling kids to Kung Fu and trying to help with Latin homework. I am not in Wheaton Illinois. But I just heard the Homecoming Chapel address, and it was given by an old flame. A man now a Bishop of a segment of the Anglican Church in America, Stewart Ruch.

He told a narrative of sin and redemption in his still charming style.  When he and I arrived on campus twenty-five years ago we were hungry to learn and grow and we both - separately, because we didn't meet right away - recoiled at the simplistic culture and specific nature of worshipping Jesus we found on campus. In Stewart's testimony in chapel, this was his sin. See, his chapel address/life narrative wasn't the usual old-fashioned unfolding of (1) drinking/gambling/slutting it up (sin) (2) finding Jesus and repenting (3) happiness and recruiting for Jesus (4) asking for money. This was much more sophisticated, as befits a mind like Stewart's. His sin was that he did not embrace the simplistic, particular nature of Christianity.  He employed his critical faculty. He wrestled with truth, and truth was hard to find. It required great energy and great struggle and it made him raw. That was what he did wrong. And as in every good testimonial, it made him very unhappy. He used the word despair. And twice he repeated the soul-crushing, hell-inducing insight that both the church and places like Wheaton are by their very nature "utterly and intrinsically fractured and broken".

Of course the end of the story was that he was set straight by his elders, told that his insights into human institutions and quest for the truth and other such intellectual things meant nothing to Jesus, Jesus merely requires your blind faith. Stewart was seeing and now he is blind and he lives in the presence of God, well into stages three and four.

Well, over here in East Anglia I am still in that sinner stage. I am still raw. It simultaneously sucks and is more fun living in that difficult terrain of being uncomfortable and uncertain all the time. I seek truth and enlightenment, and for that I have to learn things and change, and change means I leave my comfort zone and that means I am not comfortable. But if I accept each moment with love, love of myself and acceptance instead of judgment, I can grow, I can learn through the pain of the discomfort and sometimes it is totally fun. Plus I think I'm getting smarter. Not smarter, exactly, but more capable of real love, love that is found in ourselves instead of sourced in an external God named Jesus. So if you are thinking of becoming an anti-intelllectual in the wake of Stewart's somewhat (sorry) pre-Fascist speech, I write to ask you to think again.

I believe it is preferable, if you are strong enough as a human (a human who may or may not be in service to Christ, (may we please leave that as an open question?)), to stay in that place of uncertainty. 

I want to defend the sin that Stewart repents so strongly of. That period of decadence was actually kind of fun, not that decadent, and good for our humanity.  And we were developing a critical faculty, a faculty I value and will defend. It is true that all our human institutions are "utterly and intrinsically fractured and broken" and I think responding to this truth by telling yourself to stop thinking and just submit is not good.

The more I employed my critical faculty, the less I could believe in the particular claims of Christianity. I was the student in the New Testament class raising my hand every five minutes asking what would happen to all of the Muslims under strict Christian doctrine. It took me to a terribly sad period of mourning.I think a living relationship with God is something that I have. And yes, life is still uncomfortable. But this lifetime of devotion to truth has brought me closer to it than I think Stewart is now. So I'll put my testimony out there too. (I thought it was so interesting that when Stewart was testifying about the depths of his moral depravity he said he was a fan of anarchy. I'll get to that later.)

Wheaton College in the mid-Eighties had an intellectually lively and artistically vibrant community. I loved learning there. Hanging around with Stewart was the best. It was intense. In retrospect we were tortured souls but we were really alive. Pushing through those literature and philosophy, theology and physics classes and thinking so hard about what was the core, what was the core of what we believed. And we fell in love with the greats, with Joe McClatchey, with high church action... Frederick Buechner was on campus that Fall; his subtle and intensely human Christianity and wisdom drew us both in. Funny. After Stewart's talk I recalled Leo Bebb.

Around the end of the nineties I became more and more aware of the fact that what I believed was just and true and loving in the world and Christian doctrine had drifted apart. Not completely. I still went to Episcopal churches.

When I went to law school I taught Sunday school at the church Governor Weld attended. I didn't know the Governor was at church until a series of oddly specific Prayers of the People were uttered ("and when Bill 5422 passes the Governor's desk this week, we pray oh Lord that you give him the wisdom to sign it").

I wrote my law school thesis on the verse from Luke- "Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you do not lift a finger to ease them." My thesis was that religiously motivated political involvement is an inescapable phenomenon. Evangelicals want to be in politics. There is no point telling Christians that the liberal humanist philosophy in our Constitution does not want them to pass laws in accordance with their doctrines. So a better strategy - the one that worked for me - was to look at the heart of Christianity and see whether that heart would be better served by ensuring freedom. Freedom to choose or reject Christianity. For certainly Stewart would agree that a coerced Christianity is not a true Christianity. Wouldn't you, Stewart? So the laws must find us free to fail. To not hear when Jesus stands at the door and knocks. There is nothing less than a theological justification - Jesus's own justification - for civil rights laws. The sacred space of the human heart and the human self must be autonomously given, and those choices should be honored and respected by the government (evidence on this point runs more along Antigone lines).

I make this digression because Stewart's church is somewhat famously anti-gay and I wonder what he would say about this point. One man's cloak of certainty about Jesus is another man's burden hard to bear. See, e.g., the stories of OneWheaton.

I don't write to challenge Stewart's doctrine on the point of LGBTA people particularly - I guess I wrote to challenge the whole philosophical underpinnings that got him there. I challenge the certainty. I challenge the set-up in Stewart's talk - the solipsistic assumption that those who disagree with him are denying the one truth. There are many truths that must work together.

My Christianity fell away in 2001 and I mourned. I really grieved. I missed the unfolding Christianity of the mid-Eighties -what Stewart referred to as his decadent period. (Consistently in my life there are two themes in conversations (1) I never thought of it that way before and (2) the time I was living/working/friends with you was a decadent period.) It sounds completely douchey to say this but my search for truth continued and was amplified by the birth of my children. .

That doesn't mean - well, I don't know what that means. When I was at the steps of St. Paul for Occupy it was like what I imagined the early church was like. An undeniable reality, just like when people laid hands on Stewart in his talk. But my reality makes more things sacred, our bodies and our earth, our governments. And for that I will stay raw and even listen to the anarchists. And the responsibility for revolution is something that I feel now. Because I think Jesus would want us to do something about the fact that our institutions are utterly and intrinsically fractured and broken

And that's where I am going to leave my testimony.