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Monday, February 9, 2015

Dramaturg Notes- Sunset Limited

by Josh Holcomb
Woe to the bloody city- Nahum 3:1

When, in “The Sunset Limited,” God sends the character Black, like Jonah to Ninevah, to be his brother’s keeper in New York City, Cormac McCarthy is invoking traditions both biblical and American. The development-- and therefore loss-- of the frontier was a common theme in Western literature even before historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” formalized its position. Turner posited that the presence of a frontier has contributed more to the formation of the American character than any other factor. With its closing, something basic is lost, and we have been trying ever since to recover it.

The landscape of Western literature is strewn with heroes who, by making the frontier safe for civilization, lose their own place in it. Shane epitomizes the frontiersman riding into the sunset, but only a short time later the cold fact of the Pacific ocean eliminates that option. “Where from here?” ask the Pacific Northwesterners in Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. Sailor Song tries to answer “Alaska,” but that answer is unsatisfactory. “Space” says Star Trek, but space remains un-colonized and the few feeble attempts at exploration are characterized by massive government projects-- a far cry from the rugged individuals striking out on their own who opened up the American frontier. The father in Walter Van Tilberg Clark’s The Track of the Cat thinks that because his sons haven’t gone off to carve their own ranches from the wilderness, they lack character. But the harsh truth is, there are no unclaimed box canyons left for them. The protagonist only achieves even the possibility of adulthood when his brothers are killed, leaving him sole heir. Men who once rode into the sunset like Shane, instead, like Tom Doniphon in “The Man who Shot Liberty Valance,” end up street alcoholics in the emerging cities.

But if an objection to cities is a prevalent theme in Western American literature, it positively dominates the Bible. The Tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, Noah’s flood, all stories about god destroying cities that have become too overbuilt and prosperous. In the story of Cain and Abel, god prefers the sacrifice of the nomadic herdsman to that of the sedentary farmer. Goliath is a giant in armor; this implies farms, mines, smelters and forges. Surely he is the product of a city. David kills him with a sling, the weapon of a shepherd.

If you ever took a course in Bible as literature, you were likely told that the dominant theme is the cyclical nature of the covenant between God and Israel. The covenant gets broken, the covenant gets renewed. Yet even this pattern reflects God’s aversion to cities. Over and over, a prophet is sent to a city. Amos, the oldest book in the Bible, typifies the warnings:
Your wife shall be a harlot in the city, and your sons and daughters shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parceled out by line.
Amos 7:17
Note that having all the land measured, divided, owned, is considered a curse. And when, after each destruction has run its course, and the cities laid waste, God at last relents and allows the covenant to be renewed, the language of that renewal almost inevitably shows him to be a God of nomads. Consider  Hosea 10:9 “I am the Lord your God from the land of Egypt; I will again make you dwell in tents as in the days of the appointed feast.” Or Isaiah 32:16 “Then justice will dwell in the wilderness.”

Of recent years the theme of the closing of the American frontier has sometimes risen to biblical proportions, not just the valleys choked with cabbages and people, but the entire earth laid desolate. McCarthy’s The Road takes place in a landscape devoid of life, save for a few humans eating each other because there is nothing else left to eat. Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, a novel normally classified as science fiction, but with strong Western themes, is set in the wilderness of Utah between two nuclear wars. It ends with a priest standing in the doorway of a spaceship, beating the dust from his sandals before leaving the Earth forever. This invocation of Acts suggests the entire earth has become one city that has rejected the word of God.

By biblical standards, the Earth has indeed become one city, its farms and mines and oilfields all feeding the beast. Capitalism, the idolization of greed, has proven very successful at developing resources. However, another term for “developing” is “using up.” We don’t have to look up very far from our own struggles of acquisition to see the way we are using up our planet: we’re not just running out of oil, but out of trees, land, air and water. There is little wilderness left in which to prepare the way of the Lord. Whether you read the Bible as historical fact or allegorical truth, or reject it completely, few of us can now believe that our current society will last much longer. Unlike biblical prophets, Black doesn’t have to convince White that his path leads to destruction. White is fully persuaded of that. Instead, Black’s task is to show that there could yet be some other outcome.

This also seems to be the task McCarthy has set for himself. “The Sunset Limited” appears to tell, in black and white, McCarthy’s frustration that it is easier to communicate the collapse of civilization (White’s worldview), than how to avert it (Black’s worldview). And he’s right. Apparently Mr. McCarthy has been writing messages of Christian hope right along. But which of us comes away from Blood Meridian comforted by the knowledge that God watches over us, or from The Road hopeful that the boy’s spirit will break the endless iterations of mindless growth and inevitable collapse. It’s a hard message to hear, but we’d better start listening.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Why Sunset Limited?

I often ask why. Why not, why me, why now, why, god why? Sometimes, this is self-indulgent pity-party ranting. But sometimes, it leads me to the heart of something that has been bothering me. When I attend theatre, I subject it to the same line of questioning. Why this play? Why now? Why should I care?

Too often, the answer is money- this play is being performed because the theatre desperately needs money and this play is a vehicle to obtain the necessary funds. This is reasonable on some level; I don’t want to see any more arts staff out of the few jobs that are available. But it’s not an answer that fulfills my desire to participate in quality art. Plays produced for the money often rely on spectacle and that’s just not what interests me.

That’s not to say that good art cannot or should not make money. Some of the best shows I’ve seen in the last few years have been at the Seattle Repertory Theatre and they have a huge budget. I am, however, tired of sitting through productions where I feel that the commercial transaction I made in purchasing a ticket is more important to the theater than the production in front of me. Tired too, of plots with no relevance to me, or those plays which actively talk down to me as a woman, a poor person, or someone looking for quality art. I am deeply tired of shows that are over-produced because they are easy and audiences love them. Ahem, Christmas shows, anyone?

To be completely fair, I must subject my own shows to the rigors of questioning and scorn that I am poised to heap on the hard work of others. Why Sunset Limited? Why now? And why should you care? I will confess, I tried and failed to read Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy’s critically acclaimed novel. It was extremely masculine to the degree that I felt there was no point of entry for a female reader. But I loved the movie version of his novel The Road, because it told a story I cared about. What happens to ordinary people when the world collapses around them?

If The Road asks that question on the scale of society, Sunset Limited asks that question of two individual men. One man (Black) was almost killed in a prison fight; he chose to spread the word of god in the hopes of saving people before they were subjected to a similar fate. Another man (White) becomes slowly disillusioned with his life, and the impact that intellectual reasoning has on his soul. He attempts to end his suffering through suicide. But if these options weigh down opposite ends of the scale, the debate that rages in the middle is one that impacts everyone in our society. What is the value of ministering to the poor? What is the value of an education? Is religion a weakness or a calling?

I have seen story after story in the news about religious fanaticism. At the same time, religion is considered an impolite topic of discussion. Limiting our discussion of religion out of fear of fanaticism allows fear and division to flourish. Ignoring racism accomplishes the same task. Sunset Limited brings these topics into the open and creates dialogue- the first step to understanding a problem is to acknowledge its existence.

It’s so easy to plan for the worst, gather your guns and guard yourself and selected loved ones against the oncoming horde. But that horde is not faceless and nameless- they are someone’s sisters, mothers, husbands, friends. So you can build a fiefdom and spend all of your time and energy defending it. Or you can change the world so that you don’t need a fiefdom to begin with. What will make your neighbor seem less scary? What will make your neighborhood more safe? Reaching out and starting a conversation is a good first step. 

If this production of Sunset Limited starts that conversation, then it has done its artistic job of holding a mirror to society and asking- is this who we are? Is this where we want to go? That is why this play is important to me; because it asks difficult questions in a meaningful way about relevant issues. This production will entertain you, but you will not leave empty minded.