Discover more from Gideon's Substack
A tale of two trips to the theater
Earlier this evening, I had a theater experience that I can only describe as redemptive. I don’t think I was redeemed—I’m far too determinedly cussed for that—but my faith in theater might have been.
The show was Oratorio For Living Things by Heather Christian, which is being presented by Ars Nova at Greenwich House through May 15th. The entirely sung work, partly in Latin and partly in English, doesn’t have a conventional narrative of any kind, to the point where I’m don’t think it’s correct to describe it as drama. If it is still theater, that’s because I don’t think it could work its wonder any way but as a live performance, ideally as performed here, with the audience and performers surrounding and interpenetrating each other’s spaces, the music suffusing all. And the music was extraordinary, reminiscent in different ways of Laurie Anderson and Toby Twining, Handel and Carl Orff (to whom the piece is dedicated, along with Carl Sagan and Carlo Rovelli).
It does have an emotional arc, though—of biblical proportions, in fact. It begins with cosmic genesis, with the contraction and confinement of being into form, structures like galaxies, stars, planets; the emergence of life, the photosynthetic capture of solar energy into earth’s terrestrial system; of sexual reproduction and its recombinations that turbo-charge evolution, birthing a biosphere that tends toward ever-greater complexity and sophistication. The performers ritually enact this process of creation and evolution through song. Then, just as in the Bible, we zoom in from to the tiniest human scale, as the performers recount in snippets of overlapping monologues the indelible memories that shaped their lives. Snippets are all one can possibly catch, but that’s all you need to absorb the impression that human lives are defined by precisely this specificity of moment, something that happened once, to an individual, uniquely. I locked eyes with one of the performers—it happened twice, actually—and it felt like she was singing, telling her story, just to me, like this was one of those moments.
And then the music reminded me that in another sense that is not what happened at all; these moments are just fragments of time that can be sorted, categorized, your own life broken down and then absorbed into a vast cosmic sweep. As the piece zooms out again to cosmic time, everything we feel is essential, everything that makes us human beings dissolves into our constituent elements, themselves the product of celestial explosions. We’re left with the injunction to consider ourselves as being in the middle of things without being at their center, the middle in the sense of being neither the beginning nor the end, time stretching out in incomparable vastness before and after, following laws that we ought not, cannot follow, but must honor nonetheless for their sheer awesomeness. It felt, honestly, like a kinder, gentler voice from the whirlwind that spoke to Job, and I felt humbled.
I’m especially glad to have seen it because a few days earlier I saw a performance of the new Broadway musical, Paradise Square, that depressed me to no end precisely because it neglected both those specific, unique and individual moments that define a character in favor of melodramatic clichés, and preferred shallow emotional manipulation to real emotional sweep. The musical wants to say something revisionist about New York’s Five Points, the rough neighborhood depicted in Martin Scorsese’s film, Gangs of New York, to argue that it was a brief shining example of racial and sexual egalitarianism destroyed by cynical men of wealth and power. But it’s obviously terrified of actual reality; the Five Points depicted is a concatenation of contemporary progressive prejudices and nothing more. And that’s why I suspect it will be a hit: though the story makes little dramatic sense, the writing witlessly on-the-nose, and the music serviceable at best, it panders relentlessly to the audience, and on the night I was there the audience rewarded it enthusiastically.
Even in my gloomy state, though, I have to acknowledge that the dancing was beautiful and drew me out of my funk sufficiently to make me wish that it had been a ballet rather than a musical. Without words getting in the way, the story might have carried, and if the music had been consistently written to fit the dancing rather than some conception of what musical theater music is supposed to sound like, I suspect it would have been more powerful and more memorable as well.
I had nothing at The Week this week, and nothing at any other outlets, so just two pieces on this Substack to point back to:
A lengthy piece about linguistic pragmatism, sandwiches, and the meaning of the word “woman.” I’ve been meaning to write something along these lines for a long time now, and I’m glad I finally got it out.
A shorter piece about the war in Ukraine and how I don’t think anyone is going to “win”—indeed, how I feel like a focus on watching it like a sporting event is inaccurate in addition to being kind of gross.
I only want to add that, precisely because I am not watching the awful news from Ukraine like a sporting event, I’m not at all rooting for the kind of stalemate that I think remains quite likely, notwithstanding the fact that Russia has been retreating from the area around Kyiv or the fact that in the course of their withdrawal evidence has been emerging of possible serious war crimes. I try not to write propaganda, in part because I don’t like to read it. I am aware, however, that these preferences on my part are far from universal.