Obligatory bad theatre

I don’t know why it is that every major life event for individuals and institutions all require the performance of really bad theatre. Oh, I do sort of get it–rites of passage are culturally universal–but what isn’t clear is why the ceremonials have to be so ridiculous. Because they really are.

What prompted this was an university-wide email my wife received about today’s coronation inauguration ceremony for the new BYU President, Kevin Worthen. The memo directed everyone’s attention to the exquisite symbolism of the event, culminating in President Worthen’s being invested with the crown scepter medallion, which got hung around his neck like an Olympic medal. The actual draping of the bauble was done by his wife, a nice touch. Except, as my wife pointed out, the memo didn’t specify that it would be done by his wife, but by his (gender-neutral) ‘spouse.’ This, of course, opens up the possibility of a future female President of BYU, something that will never, ever, not in a million years ever happen.  Which we all know. So having the wife do the trinket-dispensing isn’t actually a nod to gender equality at all. The BYU President selection process is, well, seems to be, well, actually nobody knows anything about it at all, transparency being a virtue with which BYU has had little difficulty in abandoning. But whatever process they use, it’s never going to result in a woman President, and everyone knows it.

(I see no evidence, BTW, that BYU’s non-transparent, entirely secretive search process ends up with radically worse university presidents than the far more inclusive and open processes in place at other universities.  I can’t think of any more comically inept group of individuals in American life, except for the House of Representatives, than university presidents.  When I point out the the leadership of the hopeless, idiotic, sensationally hypocritical NCAA comes entirely from university Presidents, I think my point is proved.)

I’m sorry, I’m sure it was a solemn occasion.  I’m especially imagining the long walk off-stage by former President Cecil Samuelson, measured steps, to a drum roll, pausing briefly under a basketball standard, waving goodbye a la Nixon on the helicopter, then off into the darkness, followed by a moment of silence, and a single echoing gunshot.  And then from the rafters, drifting quietly down, the ashes of his now cremated season basketball tickets.  (I think probably they didn’t actually shoot him.)

No, I’m imagining a ceremony entirely risible, because most ceremonials are like that, fantastic exercises in laughter-suppression.  My all-time favorite is one my oldest son’s school did when he finished 1st grade.  All us parents were invited to the school, to attend ‘an important event.’  We showed up, and watched as our children were given identical certificates of ‘anticipated achievement.’  The kids were all lined up, and we parents were invited to contemplate the wonderful things these six-year olds were going to do.  And, you know, that’s a lovely thought. I’m sorry now I found it hilarious.  But come on: a certificate of ‘anticipated achievement?’ Seriously?

When I was in Boy Scouts, we had award-ceremony-things all the time. We’d get merit badges, and there’d be this whole event, and then we’d get an itty-bitty little tiny pin, which we were supposed to pin on our Mom’s blouses. This was not a bad idea, actually, since the earning of merit badges was always a two part process–the kid did the work, the Mom did the nagging.  The pinning part, though required a mastery of fine motor skills of which of I was entirely incapable; I think I stuck my poor Mom with the pin for every one of my 21 merit badges, then once again when I got my Eagle. Plus it had that horrifying ‘pinning the corsage on your prom date’ horrifying proximity to, uh, female chest areas vibe. Not cool.

When my kids were in grade school in Utah, we had this annual event called the Patriotic Program. OMG it was horrible. Every grade in the school had to take its turn and stand up on risers and bellow tunelessly these pop-country songs about America. “Oh I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free!” they’d holler at us like zombies, under the gimlet eye of the school music teacher, who was 179 years old and absolutely looked like someone you did NOT want to mess with. I didn’t know there were that many pop-country songs about America, all sounding alike. And meanwhile, we were treated to a slide show, usual stuff, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone and Yosemite and Lincoln Memorial and Bush on that aircraft carrier: Mission Accomplished. (I couldn’t help notice than after Bush left office, the slide show did not feature images of the next guy.  Wonder why that is?)  My wife and I resorted to all manner of deviousness rigging the ‘which parent has to go this year’ sweepstakes. I’m a theatre guy; I was lucky. I often had rehearsal that night.

Without question, though, the most tedious, endless, comical, absolutely obligatory rite-of-passage American ceremonial has to be a high school graduation. There’s the long wait while all the kids file into the college gym where they hold the thing. There are the endless awful speeches, full of false optimism and boosterism. Then we have to wait all over again while every single kid goes up there and gets his diploma. it never takes fewer than nine hours to get through, and the only part that interests you–your kid getting his/her diploma–takes eight seconds. I’ve been through it four times. That’s fifty seven hours (I’m bad at math, sue me) of my life I’m never getting back.

There are tons of things like that. For a long time, my wife and I made extra cash singing at funerals and weddings. Funerals were way more fun. For one thing, you sing better music at funerals.  The families don’t usually want tacky love songs at funerals; they want Bach.  For another, the person being honored wasn’t likely to complain about the song selection and performances. Brides (and Brides’ Mothers) were less reticent about pointing out the specific ways in which our performances had Ruined Her Special Day. But funerals were relaxing. Peaceful.

I’m already making plans for my own funeral, and I don’t doubt that it’ll end up being as tacky as most people’s funerals are. The fact is, human beings crave ceremonial. We want to recognize achievement by making a public fuss. The fact that the theatre we perform is often hilarious is just part of being human. We’re ridiculous creatures, we human beings, and never more so than when we’re being solemn.

Sunday Thoughts

Yesterday, I went to Church with my boot on, having broken my foot.  The choir was singing, and my wife is the choir director.  High councilmen spoke, and as is often the case, my mind wandered.  So a wander-y post; please forgive.  There’s always a chance it will lead somewhere interesting.

The subject the speakers had been asked to address was ‘reverence,’ and as usual, the speakers emphasized that reverence isn’t just a matter of keeping small children from disturbing the meeting.  In fact, for the most part, the parents of small children in our ward are particularly punctilious about taking obstreperous infants out to the lobby.  But our speaker (a man for whom I have a particular fondness, because he’s from Kentucky, and speaks with the soft burr of a Kentucky accent, so familiar to this Hoosier boy) began speaking of reverence in lots of other settings; the music we listen to, the popular culture we consume, the clothing choices of young men and (especially) young women on dates.  We show reverence for Heavenly Father by eschewing hip-hop, by avoiding ‘certain movies,’ by dressing modestly; that seemed central to his thesis.  Rebutting it in my mind, I thought: ah, Ecclesiastes, “to every thing there is a season and a purpose under heaven.” And modesty standards are ephemeral/cultural/patriarchal/anachronistic, not transcendent/eternal/reverent.  And what of irreverence?  What of comedy?  “A time to weep, and a time to laugh.”

But my wife had been thoughtful ever since the passing of the sacrament.  From time to time, we pass notes in Church.  We try to do it reverently, or at least, secretively, and I love it, love communicating with her in these tiny notes scribbled in the margins of the program.  “Why,” she asked, “is the sacrament a two-part ordinance?  Why body AND blood, bread AND water?”  “Because that’s what Jesus instituted, at the Last Supper.”  “But why?” she asked.  “Why should we remember both the body and the blood?  Could it be because our bodies can survive lots of difficulties, but not the loss of blood?”  I wondered about this.  “Perhaps because Christ’s atonement was meant to overcome both pain (body) and death (blood)?”  Could that be it?

The Last Supper is described in all four gospels, but as with many incidents, is more elaborately told in John; it gets four chapters in John.  But John does not really mention the Supper itself; most of it is given to what must have been his last great sermon to the Twelve, a great dissertation on discipleship.  ‘Body and Blood’ aren’t mentioned, but the whole talk is full of dualisms: Jesus as ‘true vine’ and Father as ‘wine dresser’ for example, ‘servants’ who are also ‘friends.’

So perhaps our speculation isn’t scripturally based.  I still think my wife’s on to something profound. The sacrament celebrates Christ’s victory over pain and death, both.  We don’t just resurrect, we recover.  We overcome too.

And that’s something to cope with reverently.  We finished our note: the high councilman sat down, we headed up to sing.  But on our way up to the stand, my knee gave out a little.  I had to gimp my way up, then stand awkwardly while catching my breath enough to sing.  The song we sang was lovely, and the arrangement my wife had made for it emphasized the text in beautiful ways.  And I thought about pain, and the overcoming of pain, the part of the sacrament service (maybe) relating to bread, the body.  The beauty of music is enhanced by the difficulty of learning it.  The real dualism isn’t pain and death, but pain and joy, neither of which can be experienced without each other.

And another way to overcome pain, another way of coping with the endless struggles of human existence really is comedy, it really is irreverence.  That’s why people in power can’t really be very funny, unless they’re also self-deprecating.  A joke by a white supremacist about silly black people isn’t funny.  A joke by a black comedian about his own people can be.  Humor exists to afflict the comfortable, as well as to comfort the afflicted.  That’s also why the atonement was given us; that’s what Jesus meant by ‘inasmuch as you have done it unto one of least of these, my brethren.’ Did Jesus want us to laugh?

(And the single most reverent event I have attended was a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass at Indiana University.  With rock music, and bad language, and a priest blaspheming.  And a child leading us towards atonement, and peace.  And there’s holiness in great comedy, there’s God in the details of theatrical performance, however secular.  I feel God’s presence, listening to Bach, to the Beatles, to Tupac, to Arcade Fire.  To every season there is a time.)

Also over the weekend, I re-read Anne Wroe’s spectacular Pilate: Biography of an Invented Man.  In the medieval passion plays and cycle plays, Pilate was always a leading character, and a comedic one.  A ranter and a drunk, he’d lay about him with a club, shouting curses to Mahmoud (Mohammed, and who cares about anachronism!).  Pilate was, as governor of occupying forces, the most powerful man in Palestine; Jesus as powerless as it was possible to be.  But, especially in John, the tables are turned on Pilate.  His conversation with Jesus is just strange enough to be plausible–Pilate asking what he must have thought were utterly straightforward questions (“where are you from?”) and Jesus giving answers as baffling as they were provocative. (Funny?  On purpose?  Comedic?) Because Jesus knew from the beginning that his body and blood had to be forfeit; he had to be killed, and in a specific way, and this Roman administrator had to order it.  But Pilate was just unsettled enough to see, with perhaps some genuine insight, how wrong his own role would have to be.  He nearly overcame his own limitations; three times, he declared that he could find no fault in this man.  But ultimately, his own weaknesses reasserted themselves.  And, finally, he affixed his seal to an order, and then ordered a basin, and washed his hands.

He did it because he was afraid.  He did it because he knew how Emperor Tiberius (pedophile and murderer and a Roman God, a vicious tyrant, and also believed to be divine) treated the bodies and blood of men under his command who did not handle the affairs of Rome perfectly.

So we all have the same choice Pilate had, the choice to behave courageously or cravenly, bow to authority or (at times, when prompted to) mock it.  And we’ll suffer either way, and die whatever we choose.  But we can honor that body and that blood, by the choices we make. But we have to make those choices.  And not let our culture, whatever it might be, dictate them for us.

Frozen: Movie Review (belated)

Back when our kids were little, my wife and I were constantly on the lookout for movies like Frozen: kid-friendly movies with some good songs and sorta funny comic bits.  We would have seen the movie in theaters the first week it was released, and we would have purchased the VHS tape of it, and the kids would have watched it over and over.  At that level, Frozen‘s not bad.

But we’re older, and our kids are moved out, mostly, and though this movie has been out for months, I hadn’t seen it until today, on Netflix.  I probably wouldn’t have reviewed it, except that I’d heard from lots of people that I ought to see it.  And I found it disappointing.

Let me start here: it does not compare with the best of the Disney animated musicals.  Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin, different as they were in approach and style, were nonetheless movies with as much to offer adults as children.  They were movies we loved.  The songs were terrific, the animation beautiful, the comedic moments genuinely funny, the characters rich and compelling.  It’s at the ‘grown-up appeal’ level that Frozen fails.  It has essentially one character we care about, and basically one good song.  Most of the songs, in fact, don’t advance the story much at all, but are in the movie as filler.  It’s got fifty minutes worth of story, which it pads out to one hundred minutes.  Odder still, the protagonist of the story doesn’t get the one good song.  She has, I don’t remember, two, three, four songs, all of them forgettable.

In case you just arrived from Mars, it’s about two sisters, Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel). Elsa is cursed with the power to turn things to ice.  Anna is happy and carefree and uncursed.  After a near-death experience, where Elsa accidentally zaps Anna, the parents decide to keep them apart forever, without ever once explaining why.  Despite a childhood of such dreadful deprivation, Anna grows up to be a delightful young woman, open and loving and kind.  Elsa grows up fearful.  On the occasion of Elsa’s coronation (the parents having died in a shipwreck, because this is Disney where all children are near-orphans), she zaps the entire kingdom, then, horrified, runs off into the mountains. She sings “Let it go,” a terrific song that you’ve probably heard a million times by now.  She builds herself an ice palace, and resolves to live there.  She’s also not the main character in the story.

The protagonist is Anna.  She falls in love with a handsome prince, then turns the kingdom over to him so she can look for and find and entreat her sister, to get her to de-ice-ify the kingdom.  That quest takes up most of the rest of the movie.

On the way, Anna meets another dude, Kristoff, playing the role of hypotenuse with her and her handsome-prince fiancee.  She meets Kristoff’s pet reindeer.  She meets a comic snowman, Olaf, who gets a “Once there was a snowman” hilarious song about how awesome heat would be.  She meets various rock people friends of his, who sing a ‘Matchmaker’ type song about her and him.  She fights off a snow monster. It’s all padding. Most of the songs in the show are like that; they’re in the movie as filler.  Instead of songs that drive the action forward, they’re songs that distract us from it.  We’re supposed to be thinking ‘ah, what a cute song by the snowman guy’ instead of ‘why aren’t you busy finding your sister?’

Again, for an audience of children, this probably all works fine.  The little snowman is cute.  His song is funny.  But the best Disney animated musicals work because they’re also good musicals (as any trip to Broadway today will confirm).  This show would close in Philadelphia.

I didn’t hate it.  I loved the Anna character.  She’s brave and she’s loving and she’s charmingly awkward about it all.  And if folks insist on a Disney show having a message, this one is all about how ‘true love involves sacrifice,’ which was lovely.  Nice to see a Disney film that mocks the ‘true love’s kiss’ tradition invented by, well, Disney.  It also, refreshingly, points out that ‘love at first sight’ is silly.  And that true love can be between sisters.  And while “Let it go” is a lovely song about female empowerment, that idea is promptly undercut by the rest of the plot, and is sung by a character that we otherwise don’t like very much, who isn’t even in most of the movie.  I just wish Frozen were a better, more memorable movie, more character-driven, more fun.  But, as I say, my kids would have liked it, and probably yours will too.

Much Ado about . . . zombies?

Once upon a time, there was a big theater in a medium sized town.  And the people who ran that theater thought that, in addition to Foreigner and Beach Boys concerts, and Miss Provo beauty pageants, it might be nice to perform some actual honest-to-goodness plays.  And so they did ask the general public what they would like to see, and some wag waggishly suggested that Shakespeare’s great comedy, Much Ado About Nothing might be improved by the addition of zombies. And the Halloween slot did beckon. And many many other people on-line saw this suggestion, and said to their own personal Siri-person things like ‘ooo’ and ‘ah,’ and ‘awesome.’  And then the theater management rubbed their chins thoughtfully, and said ‘hmm.’  And then some sensible person said, ‘wait!  Someone has to direct.  What directors do we know who are crazy enough to want to do this?’

And behold, my phone did ring.

I really dig zombies.  I think the very idea of zombies is creepy and scary and sick and funny, and those are all words I like very much.  I’ve liked zombies ever since I was in high school, and I read a column in the local newspaper by, I’m pretty sure, George F. Will (yes, he was bloviating even way back then), in which he described a movie, a film that had been released some years earlier but was now being re-released, called The Night of the Living Dead.  He said it was the kind of movie that signaled the end of civilization as we knew it, that it was so extreme, so horrific in its violence and so nihilistic in its attitude towards that violence that it simply should never have been made, and certainly never released, and absolutely never seen by teens or children.  I think I was fifteen or sixteen, and instantly knew this was a must-see movie, and went with a friend, and it was amazing.  Terrifying and funny and best of all, forbidden.  (A few years later, a talk in Church said similar things about The Exorcist, that under no circumstances whatever should LDS teens see this movie. Saw it the next night, and loved how scary it was. Walked home afterwards, and every tree was haunted, and every dog possessed.)

So, I love zombies.  Love the old George A. Romero Night of the Living Dead zombies, shambling and moaning and eating brains.  Love the newer zombies, the hard-to-kill Olympic sprinter zombies of 28 Days Later, the virus-hits-in-seconds wall-scrambling zombies of WW Z, the lonely and bewildered (and romantically inclined) zombies of Warm Bodies. I even liked the rotting Nazi zombies of Dead Snow, a fairly terrible Norwegian zombie movie of five years ago.  The movie wasn’t very good, but the zombies were very scary.  My niece, Marilyn, was even in a zombie movie a couple of years ago; titled (if memory serves) The Undeadening. It never got theatrically released, but hit the link–it’s got a trailer!

But sadly, Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is lamentably deficient in references to zombies. Not just that play, but his entire oeuvre has hardly any actual zombie characters.  Ghosts, oh, heck yeah. Shakespeare never met a ghost he didn’t like. And I suppose you could always turn his ghosts into zombies.  But there aren’t even ghosts in Much Ado.

And I love Much Ado.  It’s a genuinely brilliant comedy, one of the best comedies ever written by anyone.  So why mess with it?  Why impose on a brilliant comedy some conceit like zombies?  Why take a timeless classic and reduce it to pop culture memes.  In other words, how do we avoid just doing a production of Much Ado with a bunch of zombies shambling pointlessly about on the periphery?

It’s no good saying ‘because this is what we do, because this is current and new, because this kind of updating is how people do Shakespeare nowadays.’  A bad idea doesn’t become a good idea just by being current.

No, this is only worth doing if adding zombies somehow clarifies and illuminates the text.  I’m not interested in just tossing zombies into a Shakespeare comedy because, hey, that’s the gig.  I respect Shakespeare too much, I respect Much Ado too much,  heck, I respect zombies too much, to do that.

Much Ado is a great love story, the story of two bright and lonely and wounded people, Beatrice and Benedick, both of whom have renounced love forever, who nonetheless find each other.  But it’s also about Claudio and Hero, two lovers poisoned by slander and gossip and the nasty political machinations of Keanu Reeves Don John.  It’s about life and romance and taking a chance on love again.  But death is a constant presence; Hero’s (faked) death and Claudio’s (threatened) death at Benedick’s hand.  And under all that is war.  The characters are soldiers, men who have seen death first-hand, and are now embracing the sweet celebration of life that love represents.

Zombies represent death.  In fact, zombies represent the ever-present human fear of death, a terror that follows when the dead rot in their graves, but still won’t quite stay dead.  And they crave . . . brains, the site and source of human personality, of consciousness itself, of what we call the soul.  If vampires are the undead, zombies are the unalive, the anti-alive.  They’re sheer malevolence, unreasoning evil.  They work really well for Don John.

So that’s what our production attempts, to explore that dynamic: love/life (Beatrice and Benedick), vs. hate/death (Don John/zombies).  And trapped in the middle are Claudio and Hero, the innocent victims, trapped between life and death, love and hatred.  We’re cutting down most of Claudio’s lines.  He’s been infected by the virus, is losing the ability to speak.  But he can fight it.  Hero makes him want to fight it.  Benedick is likewise torn, between killing the zombie and restoring the friend.

A terrific writer named Becky Baker has been doing the adaptation, having combed all of Shakespeare to find every even vaguely zombie-sounding line.  I love what she’s doing with the script.  She’s bright and talented and unafraid–everything I like in a writer.  And as we talked about a setting for this version of Much Ado, I kept thinking it might work if we set it in some version of Victorian society, a society absolutely saturated by the fear of death.  But it’s a fictional world, obviously, not Shakespeare’s Messina, but some approximation of reality.  (The ‘war’ they’re all returning from, for example, is a war against zombies).

So we’re going steam-punk with it.

The Covey Center designers are having a ball with it, and the design is going to be spectacular.  We have original music, being composed even as we speak, for Shakespeare’s poems.  (Balthazar, the minstrel, is the first zombie infected).  We haven’t cast yet, and won’t until September–actors, it’s going to be lots of fun, so brush up your monologues!

And tickets are already on sale; here’s the link.

I really think it’s going to be fun. And if you’re going to be in Provo around Halloween, come see us!  Zombies, and Much Ado!  What could possibly go wrong?

 

 

Censorship

My daughter and I had a great time Saturday night at Plan B Theatre’s celebration of the First Amendment, And The Banned Played On.  Various local politicians and Salt Lake celebrities read excerpts from favorite children’s books that have been banned somewhere or another.  Dangerous, subversive, pornographic works, intended to destroy the morals of America’s Youth.  Like Charlotte’s Web.  And Winnie the Pooh.  And The Giving Tree.  And Green Eggs and Ham.  And Where the Wild Things Are.  And The Wizard of Oz.  You know.  Books by commies.

It made for a deliciously entertaining evening, and I couldn’t possibly do a better job of reviewing it than this lovely piece by my friend Les Roka.  But my daughter and I had a wonderful conversation about it in the car on the way home, and it led to this thought.

Isn’t censorship the single most foolish human endeavor ever?  I mean, for some reason people keep doing it.  It’s culturally universal.  All the books listed above were banned somewhere in the United States, and we’ve got a First Amendment.  Most civilizations have practiced some form of it historically.  But isn’t the failure rate essentially 100 percent?  Isn’t the inevitable result of censorship this: that later generations look back at those doing the censoring as complete and total idiots?

Now, of course there are times censorship works fine, if the goal is to destroy books and the knowledge and wisdom found in them.  If, when you burn down the library of Alexandria, you destroy priceless copies of books now lost to mankind, you have to say the book burners won. Just in terms of my field,  dramatic literature, the losses are devastating: Sophocles wrote 123 plays–7 have survived.  Aeschylus wrote 90; again, we have 7 today.  For Euripides, the count is 18 of 92.  Saddest of all is Menander, who wrote over 100 plays, of which only the Dyskolos remains.

But when we think of burned manuscripts, destructive fires in the libraries that collected them, our reaction is sadness and anger.  ‘What a shame,’ we think.  ‘What dolts,’ we think, ‘to have destroyed or neglected so much of our historical legacy.’  Basically nobody thinks ‘boy, those generations of censors did good work.’

As my daughter and I drove home on Saturday, we talked about some of the celebrated censorship cases in American history; over Lady Chatterley’s Lover, over The Tropic of Cancer, over Howl.  Do you know the name David Kirk?  He was a literature professor at SFSU who testified that Allen Ginsburg’s Howl was a work utterly lacking in literary merit.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night. . . .

I did that from memory.  I can cite a lot of it from memory.  In the 2010 movie about the Howl trial, Jeff Daniels plays Kirk in a performance that’s a comedic masterpiece.  That’s how we think of David Kirk nowadays.  A joke.

Probably best to define our terms.  Obviously no library can purchase every book, and library boards have the difficult task of deciding where to spend limited resources.  That’s why a literary canon is helpful, and also why it’s ever expanding. I’m playwright in residence at a local theatre company; they have to make tough decisions every year about which plays to produce.  If they look at 20 plays and decide to produce 5 of them, they haven’t censored 15 plays.  That’s not censorship.

I know another local theatre company, an exceptionally good one, that basically only produces small musicals and small-cast comedies.  That’s their niche.  And they do great work.  That doesn’t mean they’re ‘censoring’ larger cast musicals, or large cast dramas.  They know their audience, and they produce plays that audience wants to see.  Publishers can’t publish everything, theatres can’t produce everything, libraries have limited shelf space.

No, censorship, as I’m using the term, involves bowing to pressure.  It’s when a library or school or bookstore is pressured to not carry a book, or, having carried it, to remove it from their shelves.  It’s when a theatre company decides to cut that word or that speech or that gesture from a play they’ve agreed to present, or when the author of some book is threatened because of something he or she has written.  If a professor publishes a controversial book, s/he has to be able to rely on the university where s/he teaches to have her/his back.  That’s why tenure and academic freedom are so essential, and why any university that doesn’t have real tenure or doesn’t strongly support academic freedom shouldn’t be accredited.

As a private citizen, if another citizen says something I disagree strenuously with, and I state my disagreement strongly, that’s not censorship.  I’m uncomfortable with campaigns to fire someone, or to boycott a product based on something someone said.  I like robust debate in a democracy.  And I think that censorship is by no means limited to conservatives.  The punishment of politically incorrect speech is as distasteful to me as any other kind of censorship.

I have been censored, and, sad to admit, I have acted as a censor.  Back when I was a college professor, I was very occasionally called upon to see a student-directed theatre production, to see if there was anything in it that might offend our audience’s sensibilities.  I found it a profoundly distasteful task, but I did it, mostly because I know most of my colleagues hated doing it as much as I did, and it seemed selfish to me to refuse to do a disagreeable job that might otherwise have to be done by a friend.

What I hated about it was this: when you act as a censor, when you’re there to censor a play production, you watch it differently than you ordinarily do.  You can’t just enjoy it.  You’re there to look for things to be offended by.  You’re watching it from the perspective of someone who gets offended by stuff, whatever, language or subject matter or something.  And that’s a horrible way to watch a play.

Censor-watching isn’t the same thing as criticism. On this blog, I do a lot of criticism, of plays and movies and books.  Criticism is a healthy thing, and a positive thing.  When you criticize a work of art, you’re trying to look beneath the surface, trying to figure out what’s really going on, or at least what appears to be going on.  When I see a play written or directed by a friend, I want to do that friend the respect of taking their work seriously, to really interrogate it, to really break it down.

But censorship is inherently shallow.  Censorship is when you count the number of swear words.  Censors look to be offended; they’re trying to be offended.  A critic offers the artist the compliment of suspending disbelief.  The censor can’t be bothered to work that hard.  The censor doesn’t want to share in experiencing the central act of art; to bear testimony, to lose ourselves in a story and a world, to feel compassion for another damaged and lost soul.  The censor instead wants to bask in the warm glow of self-righteousness.

Censorship judges.  Censors don’t get Matthew 7:1-5.  Censors can’t get past the mote in the brother’s eye.  Censors are blinded by the beam.

 

 

The politics of boredom

Politics is power, and political power can be exercised to accomplish many things, for good and ill.  But sometimes power can just be exercised, like a muscle.  It’s said that Caligula, at a banquet, suddenly began laughing.  His table companion nervously asked what the emperor found amusing, and Caligula is said to have responded, ‘I was thinking how funny it would be to stab you right now.  Nobody could stop me.  I can do anything, to anyone.’  Bet it made for a nervous meal.

And sometimes dictators use their power to bore.  It’s a constant in history; long tirades by tyrants.  We’ve read in recent months of Kim Jung Aun’s murder of his uncle; the detail that explains it is, apparently, that the uncle had the temerity to look bored during an endless speech by that preposterous young despot.  Hitler, of course, was famous for his speechifying.  His last days, languishing in the bunker, he ate chocolate cake for every meal, and he harangued his remaining staff for hours, long lectures on his own greatness and Germany’s glorious future, after the current minor crisis (the war he’d already lost) was over. Stalin’s speeches for the Presidium lasted most of the day, and at the end, had to be endlessly applauded–the first person who stopped clapping could be shot–and often was.  Mao Zedong’s screeching dogmatic tirades were so tedious–and so faithfully copied by his underlings–that being forced to listen to a political speech was a particularly feared form of torture during the Cultural Revolution.  Fidel Castro was probably the champion; his speeches, required listening on state radio, could go on for days.  Cubans braved sharks to escape them.  As the great Albert Camus put it, in The Rebel “tyrants conduct monologues above a million solitudes.”

I thought about this today, while watching Rachel Maddow’s show.  She described a press conference recently given by Vladimir Putin that lasted for four hours.  Now, a four hour disquisition is the work of a piker; Mussolini, at the four hour mark, was just getting warmed up.  But then Putin is pretty tinpot, as dictators go.  His actions in Ukraine are provocative, to be sure.  But this isn’t the Cold War, and he’s no Lenin, or even Peter the Great. And Ukraine’s government epitomizes dysfunction.  In any event, I think his acts call for a tempered American/EU response, for diplomacy over sabre-rattling, and sanctions over any armed response.  He’s a four hour monologue guy; that’s all. A lightweight.  Let’s not overreact.  This isn’t Munich, and President Obama’s no Neville Chamberlain.  How can I be sure Putin’s not much of a threat?  He stopped after four hours.

But the larger question is an interesting one; how often despots exercise the power to bore.  Why do so many big corporations have ‘retreats,’ and hire ‘motivational speakers,’ and subject their employees to brain-numbing seminars and presentations?  Why do academics spend endless hours creating ‘mission statements,’ or ‘assessment objectives?’ Because administrators can force them to.  Because it’s a way to maintain the power structure, make sure everyone understands their place in the world.  Why is so much of school boring?  Because bored kids tend to be tractable.  It’s enervating, boredom; it’s soul-draining.  It takes away your will to live.

Boring people is a form of aggression, is it not?  Because boredom is a kind of death; your brain deprived of stimulus, your soul not fed, but starved. John D. McDonald had a lovely definition of a bore: some who deprives you of solitude without providing you with company.  Great conversation is life-affirming.  Boredom is the opposite. That’s why I always need a nap after Church on Sundays.  Fighting boredom is exhausting.

And yet, theologically, Mormonism actually does incorporate an opposition to boredom into its theology.  What?  And I know what you’re thinking; that sacrament meetings are the very definition of boring, the absolute epitome of this thing I profess to despise.  And that’s true; Church can be boring. I have two personal remedies.  One is that my wife and I pass notes back and forth during the meeting.  One antidote for boredom is snark.  And failing that, one can always just fall asleep.

But theologically?  What is eternal progression but a recognition of the negative power of boredom?  I think of the standard Protestant or Catholic heaven.  An eternity spent singing praises to God, right?  I love choral music; I met my wife singing in a choir, and singing together has been one of the great pleasures of our marriage.  And I love rehearsing great choral music.  I love the mental exercise of it. But an eternity spent doing nothing else?  No thanks.

I’m a theatre guy, and my greatest fear is that something I write or direct might be boring to an audience.  It’s an awful thought.  As a director, I’m actually in a position of authority over an audience, albeit a limited, voluntary one.  I’m responsible for entertaining all those people, it’s my job, it’s my task to allow them to pass two hours of their lives agreeably.  All those people, all those living souls. What if the play is boring?  What if two minutes pass (an eternity!), or even ten seconds, with a scene change or a blackout; two minutes or ten seconds in which nobody is being entertained!  Unsupportable; cannot be allowed.  So I do whatever I possibly can to pump up the energy.  I don’t care if people are offended.  Offended people are feeling something.  What I cannot live with is the idea that they might be bored.

In fact, the idea of eternity is a frightening one.  So you read every book ever written.  You read them all repeatedly, until you’ve got them memorized. You listen to every piece of music ever written, again until you’ve committed them to memory.  Likewise every painting, every sculpture, every play, every movie. Then what?  It’s quite terrifying.  And an eternity spent fighting boredom?  Frankly, there’s only one word for it. Hell.

(And really, those horrible Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” versions of hell, what with all the flaying and burning and torment, wouldn’t that really be preferable to a hell spent being bored?  Wouldn’t it at least stay interesting, to wonder what body part the demons were going to work on next, to compare the exquisiteness of various kinds of tortures?  Wouldn’t boredom be worse than that?)

But if we believe in eternity, we must also believe in eternal progress; we must believe that just as existence is never-ending, so is the ability to learn, to grow, to improve, to develop. So at death, either consciousness ends, either the entity that was ‘me’ ceases to exist.  Or it, me, I, us, we, me gets to continue.  And goes to either heaven or hell.  And hell is boredom.  So heaven has to be a place of eternal growth and learning.  It’s really that simple.

And so the most brutal dictators in history, essentially insecure as all such tyrants must be, have to keep proving it, how powerful they, how few limits exist for them. One way to do it is to kill.  Another is to torture.  And a third is to bore.  Know this: unrighteous dominion does exist.  How can you know when it’s being practiced?  It’s excessively boring.

A Provo playwright

Sunday was the closing performance of 3, the final play in Plan B Theatre Company’s Season of Eric.  Or perhaps I should put it #seasonoferic, social media being all the rage these days.  I already wrote from the heart about this marvelous year.  But last night we had a staged reading of the first draft of another new play.  And so it continues.

The new play is about 11th century papal politics, and right now, it isn’t very good.  This often happens.  Plays aren’t so much written as re-written, and this piece needs a lot of work.  Frankly, hearing the reading, I thought the middle third of the play was just flat boring.  This is not a good quality in a dramatic entertainment.  But the core is solid, the characters work, and all the problems are fixable.  So onward.

I’ve been writing plays, and getting them produced, for 36 years now.  I’m fifty seven years old; I turn fifty eight on Thursday.  And for most of that time, I was living and working in Provo, Utah.  There’s a general tendency for people in Salt Lake to think of Provo as backward, reactionary, conservative, old-fashioned, out of touch.  Hicksville.  All these criticisms/impressions are entirely correct; exceedingly well founded.  I live in Provo because for many years, I taught at BYU; my house is ten minutes from the campus where I worked.  It’s now ten minutes from the campus where my wife works.  I live in Provo as a matter of convenience and necessity.

And yet, I sort of love it.  It’s become home in the most personal sense of that word.  There are many aspects of Mormon culture that drive me bananas. But my ward is characterized by kindness, and my neighborhood is both nurturing and pleasingly eccentric.

Until recently, for example, we had one family in our ward that had these huge dogs; Newfoundlands.  The dogs were trained as therapy dogs, and our friends routinely took them to children’s wards in hospitals to interact with sick kids.  When my daughter was ten, she had to have surgery, a serious back condition, and our friends came to see her in the hospital, and brought their dog.  It was astonishing, to see how that visit transformed my daughter.  We’d see our friends walk the dogs down the street, and it was almost comical; the dogs looked more like bears than canines.  But they were endlessly gentle, the dogs.  I’m still moved when I think of our friends and their hundreds of visits to hospitals, and these huge dogs bringing joy to the lives of sick children.

There’s another family in our ward; good friends as well, from South Africa. And the husband is very active in local politics.  He is, of course, a staunch Republican.  But he could not possibly be more respectful of my heterodox Democratic stance.  He does tease me from time to time about it, but I tease him right back; we’re friends, in every sense that could possibly matter.  And I know he puts in countless hours working with city government on issues that affect our neighborhood.  Puts me to shame, to be honest.

I honestly think that living in Provo has made me a better playwright.  Such is the power of confirmation bias that all of tend to think tribally. And if our political tribe is ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ then we tend to think of ideas from the ‘left’ as self-evidently true and valuable and ideas from the ‘right’ as deluded or mistaken or perhaps even actively malicious.  But I have two tribes now.  One is my Salt Lake tribe, the family of actors and designers and theatre professionals who try,as best we can, to do some good theatre from time to time.

But my other tribe is in Provo, in my ward, where people try to raise their families and do their home teaching and find fulfillment in callings and service.

And bad playwriting is polarized, bad playwriting is all about heros and villains and people who are Right in opposition to people who are Wrong.  I’ve done it myself, and been embarrassed afterwards.  I don’t want to write that way, any more than I want to live that way.  I want to honor the best of both my tribes.  I’m Salt Lake and Provo.  A pretty conventional progressive and a Mormon high priest.  Both/and.

The power of bad reviews

I’ve had a play running in Salt Lake City for a couple of weeks now, and we’ve gotten lots of reviews.  Really really really positive reviews.  It’s really gratifying, to get good reviews, and especially when they’re from people I respect and think of as particularly astute.  I’ve had a season of my work in production in Salt Lake this year, and all the shows got great reviews.  I’m like anyone else; I enjoy being praised for my work.  I like it a lot.

But I got to thinking about reviews, and what they mean in terms of box office.  And I think that while a good review may help sell tickets, they’re probably a fairly negligible factor.  I think bad reviews can hurt ticket sales.  What happens to me occasionally is that I’ll see a preview for a movie and think ‘that looks interesting.  I’d like to see that.’  And I’ll talk it up to my wife, and we’ll make plans to see it.  And then I’ll check Rottentomatoes.com, and see that it’s gotten a 20% positive rating.  And I’ll read a few reviews.  And rethink my plans.  By the same token, if there’s a movie I never would have imagined liking, but it gets tremendous reviews, I may change my mind.  That happened recently, for example, with The Lego Movie.  I would never in a million years go to see something called The Lego Movie, but it got fabulous reviews, great word-of-mouth from friends, and we finally saw it and loved it.  So that happens.

But there’s a certain kind of bad review that’s probably better for box office than any good review ever could be.  I was thinking about this recently in relation to Ibsen.  My Dad asked me to write something up about Ibsen for the Sons of Norway, and I did, but I got to thinking about Ibsen’s play Ghosts (which I have translated and directed, and which I absolutely love).  When the Independent Theatre in London produced the play in 1890, it got gloriously awful reviews.  George Bernard Shaw, who was involved with the production, later gathered some of the worst reviews and published them in his Quintessence of Ibsenism. The play was  “an open drain”; “a dirty act done publically”; “a loathesome sore unbandaged”; a “mass of vulgarity, egotism, coarseness and absurdity.”  Ibsen himself was described as “a crazy fanatic”; “Ugly, nasty and dull”;  “A gloomy sort of ghoul, bend on groping for horrors by night, and blinking like a stupid old own when the warm sunlight of the best of life dances into his wrinkled eyes.” And Ibsen’s admirers were described as “lovers of prurience and dabblers in impropriety, eager to gratify their illicit tastes under the pretense of art.”  “Effeminate men and male women.”  “Muck-ferreting dogs”.  And (this is my personal favorite), “ninety-seven percent of the people who go to see Ghosts are nasty-minded people who find the discussion of nasty subjects to their taste in exact proportion to their nastiness.”  Of course, all those negative reviews did nothing except make Ghosts the hottest ticket in town.  And people who saw the play saw a powerful, somber tragedy, and a magnificent portrayal of one of the great female characters in theatre history, Mrs. Alving.

Those Ghosts reviews were so extreme, so over-the-top, that people correctly recognized that something else was going on with that show.  It was a cultural event.  Every critic in London had to go see it, and had to condemn it in the strongest possible terms, because otherwise they might be thought of as ‘not up-to-date,’ but also as ‘not moral.’  You had to see it, and you had to blast it; it was just essential to do both.  And of course, now, looked at through the lens of history, all those earnest critics look ridiculous.  ‘Please.  It’s Ghosts.  What’s your deal?’ 

I think the same dynamic is at play with Obamacare.  Conservatives hate the Affordable Care Act. Hate it. The House has voted to repeal it, like, forty times.  And it’s like they’ve been competing to see who can denounce Obamacare in the strongest terms. A future Shaw is going to have a jolly old time assembling a compilation album.  ‘Worse than the Holocaust.’  ‘Calculated to destroy America.’  ‘Worse than slavery.’   It’s pretty hilarious.

Meanwhile, over seven million people have enrolled in the ACA exchanges, and many more have signed up for the Medicaid expansion.  And I have to think a lot of younger people looked at the overblown rhetoric opposing Obamacare and thought ‘okay, that’s nuts.  What’s going on?  I’m going to find out for myself.’

I thought about this, as well, in relation to conservative reviews I’ve read of Darren Aronovsky’s Noah film.  ‘A gratuitous insult to Christianity!’  Well, no, it’s not.  It’s a film, and a darn good one.  I think the negative reviews were, again, so extreme, all they did was make people want to see it.

So this weekend, Ordain Women is planning to go to Temple Square, and politely request tickets for the Priesthood session. Their requests will be refused, and they will calmly and reasonably step away.  It’s a protest, of course, but a very mild one.

But I’ve seen the response on social media to Ordain Women.  Ferocious.  Even violent.  A lot of it has a ‘what do those dizzy dames want?’ kind of vibe, only in many cases much more strongly expressed.

And I think it’s going to backfire.  I think that when people actually meet the women involved in OW, they’ll be shocked to see that they’re reasonable, thoughtful, smart, funny women.  I know quite a few OW members, and I’ve never met one I didn’t like, immensely.  I think it’s pretty obvious that the letter from the Church’s PR department, essentially inviting OW members to quietly sit themselves in the back of the bus (or more accurately, actually outside the bus on the pavement), was, uh, tactically unsound.  I think that when people meet Ordain Women women, they’ll like ‘em.  And when they listen to what they have to say, they’ll be even more impressed.

I think so far that OW have gotten some over-the-top bad reviews.  And, historically, that tactic really doesn’t work very well.

 

High school theatre

My wife reminded me last night that it’s been a week since I blogged.  Indeed it has, though for good reasons; I’ve been up against some deadlines on other projects.  But I’m back today, and glad to be.

Yesterday, I went to Herriman High School to judge the Region Four One-act play competition.  I was one of three judges, deciding which shows and which actors would advance to the state competition.  It was a fun day.  ‘One-act’ suggests a short play, forty minutes (or so) in length, but some of the plays we saw were cuttings from much longer plays; what my wife calls ‘the Cliff Notes version.’  So one high school did Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.  Not just forty five minutes of the play, but the whole play condensed to forty five minutes.

When I saw that I was going to be seeing a high school production of The Crucible, my first reaction was ‘someone shoot me in the head right now.’  This is not because I dislike Miller’s great play.  I love The Crucible, and grew to love it even more after playing Giles Corey (“More weight!”) in a good production.  But it’s a grown-up play, a play about politics and adultery and fanaticism and the way people lie to hide their own weaknesses.  And the characters are all, well, grown-ups.  Would high school kids be able to convey all that?  I needn’t have worried; the kids did it beautifully. Some projection problems (some of the kids’ voices weren’t strong enough to handle a big space), but strong emotional content, and an intelligently conceived production.

We were asked to rate the shows Superior, Exceptional, Good and Fine, with a strong suggestion from the Region supervisors that it would be seriously uncool of us to give any show a Fine.  They needn’t have worried; I gave six of the seven shows Superior ratings, softy that I am.  And yet, my two fellow judges were equally prodigal; the shows really were that good.

Some of the show choices were interesting.  One high school did a terrific job with Christopher Durang’s Wanda’s Visit.  Durang’s a wonderful comic playwright, who builds his plays around cartoon monsters–Sister Mary Ignatius in Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All to You, the Doctor in Beyond Therapy, the parents in Baby with the Bathwater.  Mostly he writes them for performance by his Yale BFF, Sigourney Weaver.  Anyway, Wanda’s Visit is outrageous; a nice WASP couple, Jim and Marsha, is visited by the husband’s former girlfriend, who is, as I say, monstrous, a completely horrible human being. Much of the comedy comes from Marsha, the wife, trying to stay polite while this awful woman destroys her home.  The girl who played Marsha was tremendous, absolutely great; disciplined, focused, and very very funny.  And the girl who played Wanda was terrific too.  I liked the show very much, while also aware that actors at this level don’t yet have the experience to capture every nuance of this kind of savage comedy.

An even stranger choice was the high school who performed David Henry Hwang’s The Sound of a Voice.  It’s a Japanese ghost story, about a mysterious woman who runs what appears to be an inn, but an inn from which visitors never ever escape. Turns out, she’s a witch, a lonely-but-deadly seductress. It’s a quiet play, with many short scenes, just two actors, very rooted in Japanese culture. The girl who played the witch was wonderful, elderly and hobbling in the earlier scenes, and then growing increasingly youthful and dangerous as the play progressed.  It was a trifle slow-paced, and I could sense a little high school restlessness in the audience as it progressed.  But I thought it was splendid.  Such a risky choice–what you’re risking is boredom–and such beautifully subtle work from the kids.

We were supposed to choose a single winner, and my fellow judges and I were torn between two plays that were actually very similar.  Several high schools chose to do big cast, monologue heavy shows, like Jack Hilton Cunningham’s Women and War. It’s just a series of monologues about the experiences of American women in wars fought from WWI to Afghanistan.  I get why it would be a popular choice–lots of parts for girls, and a chance to do good ensemble work.  It was interesting to me, though, how a show like Women and War could still have a single outstanding performance. Everyone was good, but one girl, playing a veteran of Afghanistan, was really sensational–matter-of-fact, non-melodramatic, completely grounded and emotionally devastating.

Another somewhat similar show (large cast, monologue-heavy, good parts for lots of kids), was Moises Kaufman’s The Laramie Project, about the murder trial and community impact of Matthew Shepherd’s brutal death.  It was beautifully directed, nicely acted, and I found it very moving; we eventually gave it first place in our rankings. Utah is a very conservative state, and I was delighted to see a high school willing to tackle that difficult a play, dealing with such sensitive subject matter.  Well done.

Overall, though, the entire experience was, well, uplifting.  We hear a lot about a current ‘crisis in education.’  About the challenges facing today’s youth.  About how tough life can be for this generation of teenagers.  And yet, all across America, kids are being taught by dedicated teachers. All across America, kids are trying out for the school play, and making friends the best possible way, by working hard together on a project all of you care about and consider important.  And teachers put in long long hours in rehearsals, building sets, coaching kids.

And of course, it’s not just high school theatre that’s wonderful and character building and educational and immensely important and valuable.  Kids are playing high school sports, tennis and volleyball and basketball and yes, even football, and good men and women are coaching and refereeing and administering, and other kids are joining the chess club or the math club or working on the school paper or raising cattle in 4H or working with Scouts or Explorers.  And kids are learning and growing and caring about good causes.

High school can be full of wonder and joy.  It can also be horrible.  But good people, caring grown-ups are busy at work every day, badly underpaid and under-appreciated, to help as many kids as possible to have great experiences, and minimize the bad ones.

My high school drama teacher changed my life.  Mary Forester, her name was, and she absolutely altered the course of my life.  I am who I am today, in very large measure, because she gave her life to building a great high school drama program.  So yesterday, in the tiniest possible way, I tried to give back just a little to that larger cause.

American education does face serious challenges.  But what I saw yesterday was something wonderful–a company of caring adults leading terrific kids to perform, to do something really hard really well. At the end of the day, I was completely exhausted.  But I’m not sure when I’ve felt better.

Opening Night: Clearing Bombs

Opening night. Normally a time for nerves, for anxiety, for all kinds of personal crazy.  Superstitious rituals, trying to remember shows that bombed, and what omens presaged disaster. But last night, I was calm, as my wife steered our car out the driveway and down the street.  And perfectly cool five minutes later, when she turned the car around and went home, because I’d left our tickets on the kitchen table.  And absolutely collected, when, for the second time, we headed off north. And even pretty mellow when I arrived at the theater, and realized I’d gotten the time wrong, and we were way way early.

So maybe I was a smidge nervous.

Wednesday night, we had a preview performance, attended by many friends from Sunstone.  And one audience member said he was anticipating an evening about as exciting as a night spent watching bread dough rise.  Because Clearing Bombs is a play about macroeconomics.  And the track record for plays in which two guys in suits spend ninety minutes arguing economic theory is . . . actually, I don’t think there are any other plays that do this.  Never heard of any, at least.  But the prospect of it must seem pretty grim.

But that’s what I’d written.  In 1942, John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich August Hayek spent a summer night on the roof of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, protecting the building from German incendiary bombs.  That fact, basically one sentence in Nicholas Wapshott’s book Keynes Hayek, had absolutely captivated me when I read it three years ago, and I’d turned it into a play, heaven knows why.  Another audience member suggested that Clearing Bombs isn’t a particularly compelling or accurate title; I pointed out that my original title was Keynes and Hayek Argue on a Roof, so Clearing Bombs was a big improvement.

But here’s the thing: this is probably really egotistical of me, but I do actually think the play works.  It was never my intention to write an economics lecture.  I’m a playwright–I wanted to write an effective drama.  I wanted to write a play that would engage an audience for an evening, that would be thought-provoking and emotionally wrenching, that would entertain.  And, my gosh, I had wonderful actors: Mark Fossen, Jay Perry and Kirt Bateman can act in anything and everything I write for the rest of my life, as far as I’m concerned.  And boy was the scenic design, by Randy Rassmussen minimal and spare and evocative and great.  And Phillip Lowe’s costumes perfectly captured the age and the characters.  And Jesse Portillo’s lighting design is mysterious and quietly powerful.

And Cheryl Cluff’s sound design was simple perfection.  Okay, so, two links to the sound: this, from the pre-show music; quite possibly the sickest song from the 40s.  (And yes, I do know that Eminem has a “Run Rabbit Run” song too; which also works for my show, actually).  And, again from the pre-show music: this gem. The song is Vera Lynn, but the imagery is from Dr. Strangelove; the final bomb montage. I’m completely serious: Cheryl Cluff is a genius.

So I had great support.  Great cast, great team of designers, world’s greatest stage manager, Jen Freed.  None of that guarantees that the play will work. I directed it; if it fails I have no one to blame but myself.  But I do think it works, and after last night, I think it works even more. As one very kind elderly woman told me as she left the theater, “it’s better than Downton Abbey!”  High praise indeed!

But if it works, and I do think it might, it works because ideas matter.  Because we human beings, irrational and emotional and arbitrary and prejudiced and foolish and biased and culturally blinkered though we are, are sometimes, every once in awhile, capable of thinking at a very high level, and expressing quite profound ideas in prose that crackles.  And ideas can change the world.  And Keynes and Hayek were thinkers on that level.

In the 1940s, everything seemed to be in flux, and it seemed impossible to imagine what the outcome might be.  Two great totalitarian ideologies, Hitler’s National Socialism and Lenin/Stalin’s Communism were literally slugging it out to the death.  Of the 70 million deaths caused directly by World War Two, 30 million of them took place in the fighting on the Eastern front, many of them civilian deaths.  Unimaginable slaughter outside Stalingrad, unendurable suffering in the death camps in Poland and Eastern Europe.

To many in the West, the events of the 30s, including the world-wide economic catastrophe we call the Great Depression sent a clear message: capitalism was doomed.  Market economies could not provide for even the most basic of necessities.  Winston Churchill gave a focus to British energies–the task at hand was to defeat Hitler.  Do that first, and we’ll sort out the rest of our problems afterwards.  Excise that evil, and let’s see what good might result.

Keynes’ great insight, in the midst of the horror and bloodshed of war, was to embrace irrationality. What is money? he theorized.  A necessary convention. It didn’t need to rest on any foundation, it didn’t need to rely on anything.  It’s a convenient fiction, a game we all play, and embue with a meaning it actually lacks.  So we can pump ‘money’ into an economy and if we do. we’ll create something tangible–prosperous businesses and households. At Bretton Woods in ’44, Keynes even proposed a new currency: the ‘bancor’. Close enough to ‘bitcoin’, I think.

But if money is nothing, if ‘money’ describes nothing tangible, then what’s to prevent unscrupulous governments from manipulating currency (as Hayek had seen Austria do), and quietly use a central bank and economic planning commissions to seize power?  And so Hayek sounded an alarm. He tried to resurrect a ghost that Keynes thought he’d exorcised; he tried to re-constitute laissez-faire.

Keynes thought investors were crazy, full of ‘wild animal spirits’ and that that was a good thing, very much to be encouraged. (Part of me wonders how Keynes would have responded to the drug-fueled, excessive, exuberant, misanthropic animal spirits on display in The Wolf of Wall Street).  Hayek thought monopolies and trusts and the super-rich would still be sufficently guided by enlightened self-interest to allow wealth to trickle-down, and that anyway regulating their businesses was the first step towards tyranny.  But Hayek believed that, because he’d seen it; the spectre of Hitler shadowed his thought.  Both men were trying to figure out what could or should come next, when the shooting stopped and the blood soaked fields of German and Poland and France and Russia and Austria finally found rest.

What did result was something neither of them really anticipated and neither would really have quite approved of; the ramshackle, jury-rigged, inefficient, fabulously productive combination state; half free markets and half socialist.  The modern social welfare state, as found (with small but significant differences) in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, France, Poland, Great Britain, Canada, The Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, and the list continues. A kind of state without progenitors or theorists, one that just happened, delivered by parliamentary governments, and still resisted in the US, because of the built-in and intentional inefficiencies of our Constitutional checks and balances, which always will give conservatism (caution, prudence, patience, leery fearfulness) a political advantage.

But what Keynes and Hayek did achieve was remarkable. They defined what the issues would be for the next seventy years.  They, together, wrote the agenda.  And since politics is really just economics dressed up with balloons and parades and brass bands and slogans, they remain at the center of our political debates even now.

I lucked into a great subject for drama.  I lucked into the perfect producing entity, the perfect design team, and the perfect cast, to carry it out.  If the play works, it’s more by luck than design.  But we playwrights have to embrace good fortune when it comes our way. Dionysus is, and always was, an untrustworthy deity.