Posted in Literature

This Land is Your Town, This Play is Our Town

This plug is shameless, so get over it.

If you keep up with my life on any form of social media, then you’ll know that right now, I am in the middle of tech week for a production of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer prize-winning play, Our Town. So this week, I decided to give you a sort of “sneak peak, background, behind-the-scenes” look at what makes this play so groundbreaking and unique.

First of all, though I hate to borrow such a cliche line: it’s not like other plays. There are no props. No discernible set pieces. Every movement is pantomimed on stage in real time. The play itself is narrated by the “stage manager,” who directly addresses both the audience and the characters without changing the course of the story.

Post-modern art: where very little is “real.”

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But here’s what happens: in a play without sets or props, the audience can focus on the behavior of the characters. At least in my experience, this technique is less about “creating truth” and more about stripping away the unnecessary details so that only the heart of the story remains.

Our Town is the story of a Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire an the people who live there. Most of the play specifically focuses on two families who live as next-door neighbors: the Gibbs and the Webbs. Each of the three acts represents one day in the lives of these people, spread over a number of years; each one also offers a new perspective on what it means to be alive.

What’s amazing is how even though the play technically takes place at the turn of the twentieth century, the events and themes of each act still resonate today. It shows how every person, from the beginning of time, has felt the same wants, fears, and longings, even if we express them in different ways today.

For example, I play Mrs. Gibbs. There’s something surreal about walking on stage as a single 22 year-old college student expected to play a woman in her mid-thirties with two nearly-grown children and a husband and house of her own. In terms of emotional complexity, I would say that this has been one of the most interesting roles I’ve had to date.

Including the time I was a radio.

You heard me.

Just. A. Radio.

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In any case, what inspire me the most is knowing that every time I walk on stage, I am representing someone from the past. More than that, I am representing someone who very well could have been me, or even one of my ancestors, which is a powerful thing.

I don’t pretend to come from any form of “interesting stock.” Let’s face it, in an area populated by the descendants of Dutch, German, and Polish immigrants, most of our histories sound the same, and mine is no exception. But I do think that each family, even the uninteresting ones, have their own stories and legacies handed down that make them more unique.

In my family, we come from farmers. Earlier this year, my mom pointed out at a family dinner that maybe this is why she loves to garden, why we might feel a stronger “connection” to the country and the earth. My grandmother’s family came from cotton pickers in Arkansas; my grandfather’s family were Swiss farmers from Pennsylvania. To say that farming is “in my blood” might be an understatement.

So when Mrs. Gibbs walks onstage to feed her chickens, I think about the women my family who did the same. She pumps water into her sink; I wonder what their sinks would have looked like. I watch my “children” go off to school and think of how much education they received, or if they liked school as much I did.

Their days and our days are not so far removed. Their struggles are our struggles. Their fears are our fears. These are, in fact, the ties that bind. Though we live in the future, and we know how the story ends, we can still look back and see ourselves in the people how they lived, how they loved, and how they died.

Come and see me at Cornerstone University’s production of Our Town on March 31 and April 1. I promise you’ll have a good time. And you won’t cry.

Much.

Posted in Literature

Romance, Schmomance: Let’s Talk about Paganism!

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Believe it or not, the greatest romance ever written was not James Cameron’s Titanic.

I know, it comes as a shock to me, too. But in light of the quickly approaching holiday(Saint Valentine, you card-selling sell-out), I wanted to take a closer look at one of my favorite love stories of all time: Til We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis.

If you know anything about literature, then you know who Lewis was. A member of the Oxford Inklings, Lewis is best known for his nonfiction works, along with a few fantastical books like The Screwtape Letters and, of course, The Chronicles of Narnia.

Til We Have Faces was Lewis’s last novel. He wrote it in conjunction with his wife, which makes sense given the amount of insight the book gives into the main female character, Orual, which was lacking in all of Lewis’s previous books(Don’t forget, this is the man who kicked Susan out of Narnia and cited “lipstick and pantyhose” as the central offenders). In fact, it is these same insights that lend the book the depth and maturity it needs to transform from a good story into a legendary one.

Orual, as the story goes, is a princess in a fictional kingdom, close to the Grecian coast. Her life revolves around her younger sister, Istra, whom she calls Psyche, and who is as beautiful as she is ugly. After a variety of plagues hit the country, the kingdom’s high priest demands a member of the royal family be sacrificed: Psyche.

Orual isn’t able to save her sister from her fate, that of being left for dead for the god of the mountain, the son of a pagan goddess named Ungit. When she goes to recover to her sister’s body, however, she discovers that things aren’t what they seem.

This story, while original, is trapped in two contrasting concepts. The majority of the plot is based upon the Greek myth of Cupid(yes, the diapered baby-god of love) and Psyche. But at the same time, it doesn’t take a genius to recognize that by the end of the story, Lewis has transformed their love story into, as previously stated, the greatest love story of all time: the love between God and his church.

I read this book for the first time back in high school. It’s not what I would call an “easy read,” although the writing itself is easy to follow. But the narrative is so full of symbolism that it was difficult, and still is, to some extents, to figure out exactly what Lewis is talking about sometimes.

Some things are simple. Cupid, the God of the mountain, represents Christ. Psyche, his bride, represents God’s chosen people. Orual, as the narrator, is a person who has not yet been redeemed, who tries to live her life by means of her own wisdom, strength, and power, forsaking the gods in the name of her own glory. But there is one character who I’ve always been confused by, who has never made much sense: Ungit, the mother of pagan gods.

Ungit is not a real person. She is represented in the temple by a black, faceless rock, smoothed to near-perfection. Her priests offer sacrifices that even Orual finds disturbing; her followers are depicted as bloodthirsty, heartless, and cruel.

But Ungit is also the mother of Cupid, the story’s Christ-figure. How can a reader reconcile the very picture of paganism with that of a loving and merciful God?

I found my answer in an unexpected place. This past May, I visited an Anglican church in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where C.S. Lewis’s grandfather had been the rector. The building itself is beautiful, and as I sat through the liturgy of one of its Sunday morning services, the answer to the question of Ungit suddenly came to me.

It was in the rituals. It was in the dark, almost spooky confines of the sanctuary. There is something about old churches that whispers holy, that condemns all who come to the altar unclean. Lewis, who was baptized as a baby in that very church, would have known how it felt to be surrounded by such a legalistic, almost formulaic, type of worship.

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Sunday morning sunlight streams through the windows donated by C.S. Lewis and his brother at their grandfather’s church, St. Andrew’s Church in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

You see, Ungit isn’t Satan, but she isn’t God, either. She represents the covenant of the Old Testament, with its laws written in blood. She is ritualism, legalism, the idea that man could earn their salvation based solely on what they had to offer.

And it would never be enough.

That’s what defines the entire book, and really, that’s what defines the romantic experience of human relationships. This is the hard truth: no matter who you love, they will never be enough – as long as you expect them to be perfect.

To love someone is to forgive them. It’s in every love story from here to a thousand years ago, but the rest of society seems to forget about that.

This Valentine’s Day, don’t buy someone a card unless you really mean it, and maybe not even then. Reach out, instead, to someone you haven’t seen, maybe even to someone you’ve wronged. Because here’s the thing: this is what separates us from the pagans.

Not the ability to love – the ability to forgive.