Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Garden of Song and Story: Sondheim's 'Into the Woods'

            We want to pay heed to the lyrics in Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods." (A new film version of this musical with a strong cast and imaginative cinematography opened recently; we saw it last weekend.) The words go by very fast, and are often very clever. They don't paint billboards of truth, but drop their pearls of wisdom like breadcrumbs scattered by lost children. We want to find them, these crumbled pathmarks, to retrace our journey and discover where we've been.
            The play is built from some of our best known folk or "fairy" tales (few fairies in these, though), a common treasury of childhood's cautionary tales. We never leave these stories behind, evidently, though I would have said their interpretive possibilities were used up decades ago. The little girl in the red cloak is threatened by a character called a 'wolf' -- well, of course. "Hey Little Red Riding Hood," the song goes, "you sure are looking good..." Any fable including a seductive-scary male animal, a lot of inter-generational eating up, and some cutting out at the end has 'Freudian game time' written all over it. It's a consuming scenario.
            Sondheim might have started out with "Little Red," and then as the depth psychologists did, noticed that some patterns ran across many of the old tales. Rapunzel is locked up in a tower where no one can get at her, yet her hair gives access. It's sexually attractive power draws princes; it's a way up the tower and into the picture. In "Into the Woods," the witch who is her mother -- a phrase eager young boyfriends might widely apply -- keeps Rapunzel locked up in a tower to protect her from the world because, obviously, the world is a dangerous place.
            But that's where you have to go, the life inside us tells us, if in fact you desire to have the range of experiences we have lately come to call "a life." There are a lot of towers out there and a lot of people staying locked up in them. And, sure, some parents do want to keep their children safe from harm at all costs; and a few like Meryl Streep's deliciously heartless and self-involved witch in the movie must be given a cold shoulder shove-off if you're ever going to escape from that tower. This story's witch eventually goes up in smoke, but we know in reality none of these characters is easy to get rid of: no smoke, no special effects, no Hollywood endings: everyone just gets older.
            Giants are found in these "Woods" as well. Men used to call the lure of a potentially cataclysmic confrontation "seeing the elephant." Going to war is one way of seeing the elephant. As with exploring parts unknown, pursuing adventures that offer rewards but pose serious risks, running away to sea, almost anyone can go -- but not everyone is coming back. Women had a harder time running off after adventure -- in "Into the Woods" the baker keeps trying to send his more competent wife home -- but sex, childbirth, and child-raising often prove dangerous enough in themselves. The Baker's Wife persists and wins recognition from her husband of her right to share in the challenge of lifting the witch's curse that has left her barren. But after she conceives, births, and mothers her infant in comically short order (a few swift cuts in the magical universe of film), the Wife also has a quick fling with a prince -- who offers this apogee of ironic self-assessment: "I was raised to be charming, not sincere" -- and proceeds to pay a very steep price for stepping off the straight and narrow.
            So does the mother of Jack (of "Beanstalk" fame), whose determination to protect her offspring is expressed in belittling what he cares about and telling him what he cannot do. Jack's encounter with "the woods" of the world shows him quite capable of stealing from giants (though why exactly does anyone want a giant's harp?). But his adventure also brings the wrath of the giant down on the community.
            And then of course there is Cinderella, who discovers she doesn't really want a "prince"; what she wants is an escape from oppressive domesticity, the household servant role in which so many girls find themselves slotted by circumstances in the so-called real world. Her self-assessment is also on the mark: "My father's house was hell," she tells the prince, "your house was heaven. I want something in between."
            Yet, at the end, after all the sex-and-stranger danger, witchery, monsters, and cautionary turns of plot, the show is most centrally about parents and children. When the tumult of so many forays "into the woods" with its liberating and dangerous encounters, twists and turns of plot clearly representative of our own journey into the "wilderness" of time, place and humankind's terrible freedom, we are left with a man and three young survivors seeking to comfort a baby. They sing "Children Will Listen":   
            How do you say to your child in the night?
Nothing's all black, but then nothing's all white
How do you say it will all be all right
When you know that it might not be true?
What do you do?
Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see and learn
Children may not obey, but children will listen
Children will look to you for which way to turn
To learn what to be
Careful before you say "Listen to me"
Children will listen
Careful the wish you make
Wishes are children
Careful the path they take
Wishes come true, not free
Careful the spell you cast
Not just on children
Sometimes a spell may last
Past what you can see
And turn against you
Careful the tale you tell
That is the spell
Children will listen
How do you say to a child who's in flight
"Don't slip away and I won't hold so tight"
What can you say that no matter how slight
Won't be misunderstood.
What do you leave to your child when you're dead?
Only whatever you put in its head
Things that you're mother and father had said
Which were left to them too
Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful you do them too
Children will see
And learn
Guide them, but step away
Children will glisten
Tamper with what is true
And children will turn
If just to be free
Careful before you say
"Listen to me"
Children will listen ...

            Sondheim's "Into the Woods" uses the tropes of these depth psychology-fraught folk tales to ask the questions human beings still need to ask themselves. How do you say to anyone "it will be all right" when you know that it may very well not? And sometimes even when you know it won't be (certainly not all right), saying that it will be may still be the best course.
            And yet there is also, as both the lyrics of "Children Will Listen" and the events of the story demonstrate, a danger in holding on too tight. When it comes to songs and lyrics by Sondheim, audiences should listen too.

Monday, December 22, 2014

God Bless Us Every One: Dickens Personified in a Single Performer

            I haven't been much attracted the various theatrical and cinematic versions of "A Christmas Carol" available in recent years. They seemed overly commercial. Appealing to our desire for the meaning of this holiday at the one time of year when it's socially acceptable to embrace this sort of talk: charity, concern for the less fortunate, smile on your brother. Since we're going to be buying all this stuff, the popular logic seemed to run, it would be good if it were all sort of part of some larger something or other. Or at least paid lip service to it.
            The problem, or maybe my problem, with this sort of approach to "A Christmas Carol" is we haven't been enough attention to the language. Dickens wrote a story, to be read. He didn't write a movie, and though a very theatrical writer -- and a theater lover himself; whose first creative ventures were for the theater -- he found his natural outlet as a storyteller who 
wrote masterful prose. The Carol is long narrative fiction (or tale, fable, allegory, romance, or as we say today, "a novella") of some ninety printed pages, written to be read on a page.
            Now Dickens himself liked to "enact" his fiction in an oral medium: a dramatic reading dramatically enacted by himself. He would stand on stage at a podium and deliver an expressive reading of his works -- doing the voices of the different characters, their accents, their speech patterns, their gestures.
            He wrote his stories this way, with a sense perhaps that his tales would 'play' in the theater of the mind. It's why stories, particularly the best of them, remain so vivid.
            I have a new respect for the story, generally regarded as Dickens's most popular work, after seeing a one-man performance by actor Neil McGarry in a small room in Plymouth last weekend that relied not on fancy costumes, props, special effects, or the "visuals" of any sort but on the actor's fast-paced, expressive, and superbly alert delivery of the author's language.
            It goes like this:
            The actor's voice narrates the tale: "Oh!  But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind- stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!"  McGarry stiffens his posture, tightens his brow, squeezes Scrooge's ledger in his closed fist.
            "Once upon a time," the actor's voice tells us, "of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve -- old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house. " McGarry sits; busy, upright, rigid. "... he could hear the people in the court outside go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them." And somehow McGarry is also wheezing back and forth outside the counting house, beating his breast to warm himself, stamping his feet.  
            "Scrooge had a very small fire, but the clerk's fire was so very much smaller that it looked like one coal," the actor narrates. "...Wherefore the clerk put on his white comforter, and tried to warm himself at the candle; in which effort, not being a man of a strong imagination, he failed." McGarry wraps a scarf around his neck, tenses above the imaginarily miniscule fire, fails to appear any warmer.
            "'A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!'" cried a cheerful voice," the actor narrates. "It was the voice of Scrooge's nephew." McGarry is a nephew, a younger man, looser of limbs, cheerful of mien, a light heart in his voice. "Bah!" said Scrooge, "Humbug!" McGarry is quickly Scrooge once more, short-sighted, tight-fisted, barely a glance for his big-hearted nephew. And an instant later he goes back to being the nephew.
            ... Somehow McGarry keeps this up for much of the ninety pages of original text in a delivery of the full scope of Dickens's vivid, expansive narrative that doesn't leave much out. The story never drags or loses its force or focus. Neither does McGarry's performance.
           This one-man production does not rely on big, melodramatic moments or surprise revelations. We see the character of Ebenezer Scrooge changing as Dickens meant him to be seen: shaken by the shackled specter of his deceased partner Marley. The story's resolution has already been planted by the impact of this first visitation: the truth that Scrooge must change from the heartless, self-satisfied misanthrope who chases away those who might bring him a drop of the happiness of human contact he no longer knows can exist, but does exist for most people, and for the lack of which he is dying inside.
           The encounters with the three successive ghosts each take a piece out of his self-protective armor.
            The hardest moment, the most emotionally horrifying moment in the tale comes when Scrooge is confronted with the image of a newly dead corpse. No one keeps watch on or "wakes" the deceased, no one appears moved or in any way concerned by his loss, his remains are dishonored by the gravediggers who steal his clothes, news of his passing is greeted with cruel barbs by strangers who know him merely by reputation. The vision of the death of a human being which means nothing to anyone alive strikes the spectator -- Scrooge, led by the spirit of Christmas yet to come -- as a horror he begs the spirit to free him from. It's the moment an unfeeling miser has become a human being again. If you can hurt, you're alive.
            McGarry's energetic, dramatized recitation of the prose -- including the humor, the byplay, the color, the exaggerated happiness of ordinary interactions among those who cherish one another: a dance, a festive meal, a friendly joke -- reveals the life in the morality play, still alive 170 years after it was written.
            It shouldn't be a cliche this story, something you have to see or pay attention to every Christmas "season." "A Christmas Carol" has been overdressed. Peel away the accretions, and the life of the story is still fresh. It's there in the vital flow of the language, a 'meaning' there for all seasons. The joy of life is communal. God bless us every one.  

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Festival of Lessons and Carols: Back to the First Garden

            The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is a Church of England Christmas Eve service that began at Cambridge University's King's College Chapel in 1918, was first broadcast over the radio in 1928, and still draws millions of listeners around the world each year. The basic design, the reading of a Biblical "lesson" followed by a carol, has been copied widely in the Anglican church family, including American's Episcopalian churches. I've heard broadcasts of "Lessons and Carols" a couple of times on Christmas Eve, though  I don't know if I've ever heard the full-bore Cambridge version. At King's College Chapel the readings are always the same, coming from both the 'old' and 'new' testaments, while the carols vary from year to year. American houses of worship tend to trim the pattern down some.
            We heard an "Advent Festival of Lessons and Carols" last Sunday at a local church, St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Mass., where the number of lessons was reduced to six, followed by sets of two carols: one more challenging piece of music sung by the chorus alone, followed by a hymn-book carol sung by the whole congregation. I walked away thinking there's still a lot of life left in this traditional service and that the basic format allows for a lot of creativity.
            The choral music, most of it new to me, was great. After the first reading (from Genesis) the church chorus offered "Creator Alme Siderum" ("Creator of the Starry Skies") by 16th century composer Michael Preatorius with Latin lyrics followed by English translations.The second choral work, a modern setting by Peter Warlock of a medieval text: "Adam lay ybounden," was familiar to me because Sting included it on a recent album, one of my favorite contemporary Christmas albums. The work has a haunting melody for a theme described as: "Adam and Eve rebel and are cast out of the Garden of Eden."
            I know how they feel. I call it 'winter.'
            The other pieces sung by the church chorus were all settings by 20th century composers: Paul Manz ("E'en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come"), Vaughan Williams ("This is the Truth Sent from Above"), Elizabeth Poston, and Paul Hadley.
            While unfamiliar, the works were beautiful and accessible on first hearing. Lyrics came from earlier centuries, such as this verse from Poston's 'Jesus Christ the Apple Tree': "This fruit doth make my soul to thrive/ It keeps my dying faith alive; /Which makes my soul in hast to be/ With Jesus Christ the apple tree."
           Comparing Christ to the apple tree may be a little unfashionable, but when it comes to old, weirdly puzzling stuff, nothing can beat what you're liable to find in the Bible. The end of the second book of Genesis (the service's first reading) concludes with these shockers, following upon God's production of a 'helpmeet' for Adam via bone surgery: "That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh."
            Uh, what father and mother? We're hearing the creation story with Adam as central figure, and I really can't recall any mention of Mom and Pop (not surprising perhaps since Adam, we are told, was compounded of dust). We then hear: "Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame." Why should they have? The sentence implies that a concept of 'shame' pre-existed the creation of human beings. It's as if they were created to illustrate it.
            Then we come to that second reading (the aforementioned "Adam and Eve rebel and are cast out of the Garden of Eden"). If this isn't entrapment, I don't know what it is. God creates the tree of knowledge, an attractive nuisance for sure, and says "that's the best one, so don't touch it." Once Adam discovers by sad experience why the tree is special, he knows he has to hide. What 'knowledge' turns out to be is knowing that one is naked -- perhaps a way of distinguishing humans as essentially different from the animals, who never have to decide what to wear in the morning. When Adam tells God why he's hiding (“I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid”), God is on to him like a dog on a bone. 'Ah ha, [my own translation] you must have eaten from the tree I told you stay away from. That's the truth, here's the consequence: banishment, mortality, labor, pain.' A little steep?
            Luke's account of the annunciation of God's plan for Mary (Luke 1:26-56, the sixth and final lesson in this version of the service) raises tricky moral and epistemological questions as well. Told of her destiny by the angel, Mary responds, “How will this be since I am a virgin?” The angel's answer, as we read in the New Standard Revision: “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you." In the translation read at the service the verb "overcome" is used for both these encounters, more squarely raising the question of Mary's consent. Would 'no' mean 'no' to the divinity?
          These ancient texts may leave us with a little more second-guessing than the "Lessons and Carols" services have intended to provoke. But both words, and music, and especially putting the two so closely together, provide a rich experience. It's one that I will happily put under the memory tree this Christmas.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Protest With Care; the Garden of Discretion

            It's hard to know what to do when you know you want to protest, but you don't know where the demonstration is going and you don't want to get arrested.
            Saturday, taking part in a national movement, organizers (to use the word loosely) called for a protest in front of the Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston to call for greater accountability from police departments nationwide in the light of two recent cases in which police officers were not charged with a crime after shooting a young unarmed black man in one instance and choking another man to death in the course of making an arrest of a black man on a trivial matter.
            Some other high-profile police shootings: Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old shot dead by police in Cleveland in November; Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old shot dead in Brooklyn last month; Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old shot dead by a neighborhood watch leader in 2012 in Florida; and Amadou Diallo, who was shot 41 times by New York police officers in 1999.         
            It's hard to look at the larger pattern here and then say, OK, I'm good with doing nothing, if doing nothing means business as usual. So when we found out about the Boston demonstration, we decided to put in an appearance if only to add to the number count and to suggest that people who look like us are upset by these cases as well as the younger demographic.
            Because I had a morning meeting located in the other direction, however, we got a late start and by the time we made it to the Statehouse, the protest was long gone from there and headed in an unknown direction. Anne and I did find a small affinity group of younger people, equally late and lost, working their smart phones to try to find the latest postings from demonstrators on their whereabouts.
            "Here it is," said a woman, who had been checking on a Facebook group postings. "They're headed to a spot near the Science Museum."
            We may have been the only people not searching through a device, but we were also the only ones who knew where the Science Museum was and how to get there on the T. We walked back to the Park Street subway station and took the Green Line a couple of stops. When we got off at the above-ground station, all we could see were long lines, rank on rank, of yellow-coated State Police.
            It appeared that every Massachusetts state policeman was earning overtime from this demonstration. Their presence below us closing off a roadway and lining the banks of the Charles River did suggest that we were close to the protestors' destination. We walked down from the station, crossed a street near a usually busy intersection now strangely empty of anything but police and police vehicles. We passed through the security line along the river bank, assuming the personnae of ordinary, relatively respectable-looking white couple, after a brief, pleasant interaction with an officer.
            "All right if we go through here?"
            "Sure. But you should know there's a big group coming this way."
            We made thanks-for-the-warning noises, slipped past and joined the big group. The demonstrators' number was estimated at a thousand in news reports, but I don't think it was that high by the time they arrived at the front entrance of the Suffolk County jail, the target for the chanting, sign-holding, and short-speech-making devolving into more chants that followed.
            A row of black-clad policeman stood in front of the County building. The chant and arm-waving I felt best about joining in on was "Hands Up, Don't Shoot!" At least I knew what that was about. Signs held high in the crowd offered other comments: "I Can't Breathe" and "Black Lives Matter."
            Other marches took place Saturday, a large national march in Washington, DC on Saturday; and a much larger city demonstration in New York City, a much larger city than Boston. But Boston led the international news coverage of the day's protests because we ended up with "21 arrests."
            I knew from news coverage of the public reaction to the Ferguson and New York City grand jury decisions that one of the chief tactics of the protestors is to disrupt traffic on major highways. That had happened briefly in Boston the night of the Brown decision, and more significantly in New York and in other places.
            We also knew that while that the road in front of the jail has little traffic, we were not far from Storrow Drive, a major road, and the busy highway intersection known as Leverett Circle. The rationale behind stopping traffic, if I understand it, is to make ordinary people stop and pay attention to something that ordinarily doesn't affect him:
            Read our signs. Feel our pain. Ignoring this is not OK.
            This approach reminds me of the old Sixties slogan: If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.
            It's a more aggressive demonstration tactic than those of the usual protest march, such as the one on climate change we attended a couple of months ago in October. These marches try to assemble large numbers of people to draw public and media attention to a particular point of view on a big issue. Demonstrators exercise free speech and the right of public assembly -- stopping traffic does those things too, but also gets in your face.
            So I'm not opposed to this tactic, but it strikes me as a more youthful game than I'm ready to play, and I don't want to end up getting arrested for something out of my league.
            So, when people got tired of venting in front of the jail, it seemed to us that the next place to go would be the highway. The police clearly knew that as well. And that's why hundreds of officers were forming a thick line barring the way to Storrow Drive and lining up a vehicle barricade as well.
            We sensed the vibe getting heavier. Some police officers were moving our way as well, getting between us and the river. And when the large vehicle pulled up with the words "Prisoner Transport" lettered plainly on the side, we thought it was time to take a walk in the other direction (on "the mild side," so to speak).  
            What did happen, as I read afterwards, was that some demonstrators urged people to push against the police line. When the police told them not to push on their line, and they didn't stop, they began to arrest a few, 21 in total according to the cops.
            Getting arrested seems to me a high price to pay, in discomfort, time, and possibly even money. On the other hand, it does get attention. Boston's arrests led the news coverage, even without our cautious assistance. And that may be the point.