What is moving us now in this strange historical moment of lies and spectacle? What art speaks when kids are caged at the border and families get shot as they shop for back-to-school supplies at a Walmart? An American resident who is a journalist who gets murdered and dismembered in an embassy?
What can get through our general sense of numbness, our willed indifference? Our sense of utter exhaustion?
Well, the unreal does. What is not real penetrates those defenses. Fictionality and over the top fictionality at that, frees up. This is all pretend, we think. Ok, I can relax.
I’ve been thinking about the power of the unreal a lot as I consider my own love of magical realism – the writing that inhabits the border between realism and fantasy – and as I look back over the stellar 2019 season of the Whidbey Island Shakespeare Festival which favored highly “unrealistic” plays.
Wait, isn’t unrealistic bad?
No. Remember “realism” is an artistic movement that grabs hold of 19th century Europe and America and is still arguably a powerful way of making paintings, visual art, stories in tv, movies and in print. But realism isn’t the only way to tell a story.
Dante, the medieval/Renaissance poet, like many writers of the period, was attracted to allegory, a story in which everything symbolizes something else. The Inferno is an allegory in the form of the poet’s fantastical voyage to Hell with subsequent books taking him to Purgatory, and Heaven – all of which symbolizes the soul’s journey towards Christian perfection. In other words, Dante makes the spiritual physically manifest to us. He literally goes to hell for a tour, then goes up from there. The sins are all rendered as literal physical things, for which there are appropriate punishments.
Shakespeare was also attracted to non-realism, as the two offerings from the festival this year demonstrate.
The first play, A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, mixes Greek mythology with fairies and sprites (which come from British folklore), and gives us a comical mish-mash of characters, playing tricks on each other and transforming one beleaguered man into a funny monster. Mixed into THAT, is an amateur theatre group who decide to put on their own version of a Roman story drawn from Ovid: the tragic story of Pyramus and Thisbe (which, by the way, clearly prefigures the story of Romeo and Juliet!). ISF gave their production a magical realism touch by having Theseus and his bride, pull up in a golf cart with their golf clubs, and putting some of the fairies on bicycles. Gabriel Garcia Marquez can tell you that when the real gets mushed up with the unreal, the result is freedom. We as watchers/readers are opened up from the constraints of our normal world, and we can feel differently and we can feel more.
I experienced this very thing when I was watching the play. In the play within a play, a very silly young man in a truly terrible blonde wig has to pretend to be the young woman, Thisbe. The character is a terrible actor. But when the very talented real actor, plays that boy playing Thisbe looking over the pretend dead body of Pyramus, I cried. I cried because I thought about all the people who have died this summer, at the border, in cages, in the street, in the Walmart. I was freed up to cry for them, because art does this – opens up our emotions – so we can cry for everybody.
I was this open, because I had laughed so much earlier. The story is SO silly, and the guys who want to be actors are so untalented, but still they are so enthusiastic, and passionate about their play. BECAUSE I laughed first I could cry more later.
Something similar happened watching the wonderful production of Bryan Burch’s theatrical adaptation of Mary Jo Bang’s translation of the Inferno. I had laughed at Cartman, the SOUTH PARK cartoon character who — fittingly – is in hell, and the other nasty people who are there, including climate deniers. But at the end, when Dante looks out into the audience and says “I see beautiful things,” I cried then too, thinking of the hellish place we are in right now, and how much of a certain kind of vision and hope it takes to be able to look at the world we are in, and say “I see beautiful things.” But that’s the only way out of Hell, the play seems to be telling us. That’s a complicated lesson.
This feeling can happen in reverse as well. ISF chose as its third offering, a play that I had never seen done before on stage. The Winter’s Tale has a fairy-tale like element to it. The wrongfully accused queen doesn’t die, but is turned – apparently – into a statue, who is then brought back to life by one of the advisors to the court. The play, which goes from dark tragedy to pastoral comedy and then to magic… moves us because the queen is restored to her daughter and to the court.
But it’s not a completely happy ending. The queen’s son is not restored. That first child dies, and remains dead. The ISF production has his spirit standing there at the end of the play… a person who is irremediably lost, as the beloved dead ARE. We cannot bring them back. This is of course not realistic. This is not how realism works. But that’s why it’s so impactful.
When I think of the burned trees on the Amazon, the lost victims in the storm in the Bahamas, and the many many tragedies that we are enduring currently in our country and in our world, I am touched and impressed by the ability of the unreal to open us up beyond apathy. The heat of the physically real unfolding as pretend before us in real time, in the company of other people makes live performance in general more important to us than ever at this difficult moment. It wakes us up. We can weep and like, Dante, perhaps, still see beautiful things.
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