Walled Against the World

Edward Hopper, Stairway at 48 Rue de Lille Paris

Both of the plays in A Minor Miracle 1 involve characters who have deliberately withdrawn from society.  In The Dwarfs Are for the Dwarfs, the dwarves of Narnia have seceded as a consequence of disenchantment:  a vision in which they once placed their faith was revealed to be false.  In St. Matthew’s Fair, an aging man has withdrawn behind his window blinds to relive, forever, a vision of loveliness and hope.  I suspect that this pairing is coincidental–that these plays were chosen first among those constituting A Minor Cycle for practical rather than thematic reasons–but I like the serendipity of offering these two pieces in juxtaposition at a moment that is both the autumn of the calendar year and the beginning of a new Theatre of Yugen season.

Without winter, there can be no spring.  Without questions, there can be no answers.

Strange place for a barn door!

In The Last Battle, the final volume of the Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis depicts a world in the throes of an Armageddon-like conflict and makes quite clear that the dwarves are wrong in their decision, that they are refusing salvation.  Aslan, the lion-god of Narnia, lays a feast before them in the stable, yet they believe that they are eating hay and drinking water from a trough meant for livestock.  As Aslan explains to the ever faithful Lucy Pevensie:

“You see, they will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”

But Greg Giovanni’s text gives us the liberty of our own interpretation.  We can decide whether to identify with the dwarves, to laugh at them or grieve for them, and whether Lucy, who exhorts the dwarves to belief, is a wisdom figure or a ninny.

Edward Hopper, Pennsylvania Coal Town

Similarly, in St. Matthew’s Fair, we can decide for ourselves whether the nostalgic lover has ensconced himself in a prison or a paradise, whether he has lived a life of beauty, of desolation, or of beautiful desolation.  The children of the village call him Mr. Shadow:

“That is because they only see my silhouette against these shades—forever drawn against the light, closed on this earth.” 

For the most part, Western literature and culture privilege engagement with the world.  In fairy tales, a young man sets forth to seek his fortune, bearing with him a sack of oat cakes and the advice of his mother or a tutelary animal or an old crone with magical powers.  In medieval romance, the knight rides into the forest in search of challenges, courting danger and achieving renown.  Voltaire’s Candide leaves his master’s garden only because he is expelled from it and creates a garden of his own at the end of that story, but it is his journey through a troublous world that turns him from a simpleton into a kind of sage.  And in the Western popular imagination, our terror of death as the ultimate exile is assuaged by narratives in which we will enjoy a social existence, reuniting with friends and family, in the world beyond.

The grieving mother in the Noh play Sumidagawa

Eastern culture, under Buddhist influence, formally valorizes detachment, even in the thick of experience.  The world is illusion, after all.  Yet Japanese literature, old and new, also romanticizes attachment.  In The Tale of Genji, the hero often claims that he wishes he could retreat to a cloister, but such protestations seem incredible, given his predilections, and thus there is real pathos when he does recede almost entirely after the death of Murasaki, the one woman (of many) who meant most to him.  Ghosts in Noh are sympathetic because of their burdens, the memories that tie them to the world, and in the modern Japanese movie After Life (1998, directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda), each newly deceased person is helped to choose a single cherished memory on which to be focused for all eternity.

In these weeks before Sorya! I invite you to revisit the stories and songs of your youth and consider how their echoes continue to resonate in your adult life.  Here is a favorite from my own store of literary recollections, first encountered when I was in my teens and brought to mind by St. Matthews’s Fair:


And here are two very different musical versions, one by Donovan and one by Richie Havens:



December 2012 update:  The production of A Minor Cycle does not include the play The Dwarfs Are for the Dwarfs.  Instead it includes Gramarye, which is based on a different episode in the Chronicles of Narnia.

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