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Monday, May 4, 2009

something more

I have been reading the writings of Jane Addams, a founder of the Settlement House movement. She wrote a hundred years ago at a time when she felt our modern cities were dominated by the factories, run by the engines of the economy, when people’s primary value was their utility – how as laborers and consumers they kept the machine going, and how blind she felt the city’s leaders were to any other aspect, need or hunger of its citizens.

And she wrote of how young people, naturally – generation after generation, persist in dreaming of a larger future for themselves, how they revolt against the idea that what is dished up to them as reality is all there is.

Because of this, she says, all of us – the entire society – rely upon its youth to reassure us as to life’s charm and joy. This is what the spirit of youth is, this is what it delivers. And if a society dismantles, oppresses and overcomes the insistence of its young people that life be more than the daily round, then society succeeds in killing off the source of its own hopefulness.

Jane finds the spirit of youth in young people, and happily for us, she finds it in artists, whom she calls perpetually youthful, and, finally, thank goodness, she relents and admits that the spirit of youth can, with luck and the right circumstances, survive in a few of us older ones.

This weekend I saw the utube video of Susan Boyle, the 48 year old Scotswoman who courageously put herself through the ordeal of appearing on ‘Britain’s Got Talent’, a kind of American Idol competition complete with Simon as one of the judges. Without a smidge of fashion, heavy-browed, square and dowdy, she went on that stage where she was sneered at by both judges and audience. Though she stood tall and smiled, in a lion’s den like that she looked wildly vulnerable and completely out of context. They booed the simple fact of her age, were ready to crush her pretensions in asking for their listening ear --- and then she sang. Jaws dropped. People rose to their feet. In the past week, 20 million people have viewed that utube video – a seven minute story that has made me weep three times. And I’m not alone.

It is rare that the spirit of youth survives in the kind of life Susan Boyle has led, yet some stubborn hope of finding more than she had been offered still held on after a lifetime of shyness, of caring for her mother, of the quiet paths of her own daily round.

I thank every young person that has ever performed at Downtown Art over the past twelve years, including, of course, every actor and musician on this stage tonight. In them I have found beauty, hope, and joy at times when I couldn’t find it anywhere else. Who they are and what they set themselves to do – how they come out nightly to show something about what is in all of us - moves me in ways I can’t articulate….but I can feel.

why the Illyrians can't see clearly

Shakespeare enjoyed theatricality. I’m quite sure of that. One of the ways he shows his love for the colorful is in his choice of places – places quite foreign to the playgoers of his time – much more foreign than any part of the world is now to a culture that has film, photography, and airplanes. And he was interested in mythology and fable – in raising images, free associations in the minds of his listeners through the evocation of what was far away, long ago, dimly remembered.

Twelfth Night takes place in Illyria – which was indeed a real place in the ancient world. The coast of the Adriatic Sea – the Balkan peninsula – the Dalmation coast. An Eastern world, a seascape with a history of warfare and pirates, a part of the world that 200 years before Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night had been adopted by the Romani people, that travelling culture we call gypsies. (On a side note, gypsies and artists have a long association, share a common history of itinerant wandering, of being outside the bounds of established society – the French even dubbed the artist world Bohemia because of its gypsy affinities.)

And into this Illyrian world, a pair of twins are dropped, borne there upon a terrible storm against their will. Viola and Sebastian are from Messaline, which I cannot find anywhere in the world or even in mythology. They are well born, well educated, and orphaned since they were thirteen years old. They are not Illyrian – they are strangers in a strange land.

One of the ongoing puzzles of Twelfth Night is this: why can’t anyone tell Viola and Sebastian apart? Being brother and sister, they are fraternal twins, so not identical. Not identical. Yet no Illyrian can tell them apart. What prevents the Illyrians from seeing clearly?

Twelfth Night is filled with a kind of blindness. People project images of what they want to see on to others, longing makes them see what they want to see rather than what is true. Orsino is mistaken in Olivia, Olivia mistaken in Viola, Malvolio unable to see the truth, Andrew relies on the unreliable Toby to tell him what lies beyond the surface. And no one can tell those twins apart.

Blindness takes hold for different reasons, I think. Love and infatuation deliver it, longing and ambition give it a handhold for sure, but there is another cause as well. Difference. Culture, our own culture, can make it hard for us to see and understand people from another. We can be so struck by their difference, their external difference, that we cannot see clearly into the true nature of their minds and hearts. It’s my feeling that Shakespeare wanted to create a deep clash of cultures when he landed Viola and Sebastian into Illyria. Wanted them to be very different, apparently different… attractive to the Illyrians in their exotic difference, so attractive in their newness that they rouse passionate devotion from several Illyrians, but… also so different that the Illyrians cannot read them clearly, cannot see far beyond their clothing and manner, cannot distinguish them from each other.

Viola and Sebastian are not identical twins. They are however new. They are different. They dress in their own way, speak with their own language. And in order to see them, distinguish them, in order perceive the individual in each, we have to build our capacity to see beyond the assumptions of our own world, beyond the blindnesses of culture and habit, we have to look carefully, thoughtfully, with all the capacities of our mind and heart.

surprising ourselves

Great plays do more than tell a great story – they illuminate something about human nature. In the midst of entertaining and surprising us, they give us the chance to reflect on what it is to be human. What we are made of, what we are capable of…

In Twelfth Night, people do surprising things… make surprising choices. Why does Orsino, powerful and in his prime, not woo Olivia himself.. but send messenger after messenger instead? Why does Viola, after surviving a devastating shipwreck, not seek help to get back to home and safety.. but rather stay in a strange country and disguise herself as her lost brother? Why does Olivia turn instantaneously from an extreme form of mourning for her brother to almost giddy infatuation? And what prompts Malvolio, whose dignity is everything to him, to willingly put on those awful yellow stockings?

You can decide that .. well, that’s just the way the playwright is trying to be funny, to tell a story. It’s not real. In other words, you can dismiss the entire play as improbable fiction. But, if instead, you are convinced that Shakespeare had more to him and that it’s worth digging deeper in hopes of understanding something that he seemed to understand about the human heart .. then you have to keep looking for the answers to these questions.

This is the joy of directing, of course. Digging into these questions and many, many more besides and attempting to answer them through how you work with the actors to shape the play.

There is a longing that pervades Twelfth Night. Its people long for transformation – they don’t want to stay in their grief if new love can deliver them from it, they have powerful desires for their lives to be changed entirely. Ruling Illyria is suddenly no longer enough for Orsino – he wants to know love and the powerlessness of love, being alive is not enough for Viola – she wants to keep her brother alive, too, and she wants a new love to give a reason for life, a noble grief turns out to not near enough for Olivia who reveals that we might be most susceptible to infatuation during the darkest moments of our lives, and Malvolio’s ambition, which he has nurtured with constant fantasy, conquers every other bit of good sense in him. They have unquenchable longings which they insist upon pursuing against all good judgment and prudence.

And this is a truth of the human heart. Shakespeare while letting us laugh and shake our heads at his story, still has it right. Our longings take hold of us and some go so deep that we cannot shake them off, they grip us and bother us until in a desperate desire to be free of them, we finally ignore all the voices of caution and do surprising things. Very surprising things. Come what may.