Why do we tell a story, when we know the end will be sad? Fate? The blues? Catharsis? Hope?
Thirty-five years ago, I came across a copy of Will and Ariel Durant’s eleven volume text, The Story of Civilization, in a used bookstore in Seattle, Washington. At that point in my zealous youth I did not have the $95 to purchase it. I have seen only one full collection since, on a friend’s bookshelf. But, I thought it would be rude to request that he put it in his will for me, then die, so that I could read the books. In one weekend, I came across the third set in my lifetime, had $75 to purchase it, and saw Carousel at Arena Stage and Henry VI, Part 2 at the Blackfriar Theatre the next day. Fate?
Will Durant (1885-1981) set out in the 1920’s to write a history of the 19th century. However, in setting out the sequence of events, he found that he must first explain their origins in prior historical events. The 18th century pointed back to the 17th century which was built on the 16th century, etc. He revised his project and began, at the beginning of known history.
The first volume of his series, Our Oriental Heritage, was published in 1935. He continued his life work, publishing volume 11, The Age of Napoleon, in 1975. Imagine a project that spanned 50 years of research and writing (and you thought that my series on Building a Roman Church or The frescoes of Paul was extended… I would only be flattered to be at the base of the pedestal of some of the historians whom I admire).
But, history is full of triumph and tragedy. Ultimately, the glories of those triumphs are brought down by the sadness of human error, neglect, or arrogance. Why would I yearn for thirty-five years to read thousands of pages of sadness? Had Durant continued to write about the remainder of the 19th century and 20th centuries, that sadness might turn to horror with our world wars and displacement of people around the world.
If I mentioned going to a musical by Rodgers and Hammersteins, you would probably get warm-fuzzies to chills up-and-down your spine. Their musical, Carousel, has some good, hummable tunes that we remember as exuberant show-stoppers. They include the boy-meets-girl and true-love themes which prevailed in the mid-20th century and which we so want to believe. But, the tale is actually about how unable we are to express that love and fulfill the promises one the girl-has-got-the-guy.
Nicholas Rodriguez is the heart-throb Billy Bigelow who could woe any gal riding Mrs. Mullin’s (E. Faye Butler) carousel in the little, Maine town one summer. He does not so much as catch, but is caught by the unassuming, plain, mill worker, Julie Jordan, so delightfully and honestly played by Betsy Morgan. Their love is deep but unexplained and unstated. No, they refuse to state their love for each other, even though they lose their jobs to marry (the work places are more concerned about their reputations than the lives of their workers). In contrast, Julie’s friend and co-worker, Carrie Pipperidge (Kate Rockwell) is courted properly by her beau Enoch Snow (Kurt Boehm).
The carousel turns ’round to the lights and tune of the organ, each pair riding their own horse. But, even with the delightful singing and dancing of the ensemble members and June busting-out-all-over, there is the questions of why do we tell a story that we know will end up sad.
Only after Billy turns desperately to steal and dies, does Julie have a chance to mourn the love she never shared out-loud. Only in the afterlife (theology aside for now), does Billy have a chance to meet his daughter, so much the passion and danger that he lived, and put a voice to the world he swore he could not say, except hypothetically if-he-loved-her. Maybe these guide us to find those words while we can.
Shakespeare’s history plays are not the place you expect to find love stories. The ascension of kings and descent of the wrong blood-lines are mostly about power and wars. Henry VI, Part 2 meets all your board-sword and execution needs. But, it has as powerful a message about love as Carousel. At the end of Henry VI, Part 1, the English defeat the French. Margaret of Anjou marries Henry VI to join the nations.
But, royal marriages are about position and duty. Though affectionate with Henry VI (Christopher Johnston), Queen Margaret’s (Allison Glenzer) heart is with her lover, the Duke of Suffolk (Patrick Earl).
Henry VI complicates their personal affairs with affairs of state, when he disposes the Duke of York (John Harrell) and presents his French territories to various royalty from the House of Lancaster. The War of the Roses (the House of Lancaster versus the House of York) ensues, with all those broad swords and executions.
Of course, Margaret will be left on stage bereft of her love, whose head is one of many delivered and raised on pikes along London Bridge. We in the audience are left with two fates, either those of the royalty whose head will roll, or that of the commoners who blindly follow Jack Cade, who leads a failed revolts with “Down with them All”.
Reading world history points primarily to civilization’s eventual cycles of rise-and-fall. Gained knowledge only fuels potential anxiety about where we are and will be on that carousel of history. The personal tragedies of kings and queens gives us little assurance that we will not be drawn into their plots and plots against them. Unspoken love is the only the course that we might change, but we must find the words and gesture that convey those thoughts.
Mid-way through the tear-jerking scenes of Carousel, the elderly man next to me leaned over and whispered, “You not the only one here crying”. As we left, I noticed that he walked hesitantly and requested his walker. I offered my hand, then put my arm around his waist to assist him those extra strides to cross the aisle. Upon securing his balance with his Rolator, we smiled and said farewell. Expressions of love are usually not accompanied by orchestras or crowns.