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Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Life’s A Stage–Acting Out Poorly Written Parts In A Comic Farce

Graham Greene’s The Comedians, a book about moral choice, diffidence, responsibility, and failure, is also about playing roles that have been written for us.  We are unwilling and unwitting actors less driven by personal interest or ambition and more by predictability.  We are fathers and priests catalogued in a theatrical library, available for all, indistinguishable from all the other cards in the file but for a few inconsistencies.  We may be good priests or bad, indifferent fathers, without ambition or with too much, fearful or foolhardy; but our parts have all been staged long ago, repeatedly, and with little variation.

Image result for images greene book the comedians

Greene is not a nihilist.  His characters are not indifferent, amoral determinists.  In fact they all struggle with the dramatization of their lives.  The whisky priest nor the policeman can never escape the fate of belief.  Lovers are condemned to love intemperately, to misunderstand their lovers’ intentions, and to learn lessons they should have learned years ago.   The owner of the Trianon in Port-au-Prince in the worst times of Papa Doc is no different.  He inherited his hotel from an indifferent mother, prospered when times were good, when it was filled with Europe and America’s best and brightest; unable to give it up and to leave the country which, for all its violence and savagery, had a hold on him. He was destined to play the role of fatalist but never a convincing one. At first he took his love affair with the Ambassador’s wife as a matter of course, unconcerned by her husband, her demanding son, or her own sense of responsibility to them both.  He had desultory friendships with Haitians, commiserated with their struggle against Duvalier, but continued to run his empty hotel as a necessary legacy of his indifference.  Later his complaisance frayed.  He became jealous of his lover and spiteful of her son.  Thanks to two new guests at his hotel – a vegetarian couple, the husband the former Presidential candidate; and a fraud – he could no longer play the part of disengaged observer. 

Image result for images hotel oloffson haiti

Yet his new morality was only a characterization.  He was the same actor but given different lines and a different plot.  He had no more courage nor conviction than before but was far more appreciative of it in others.  The rebellion against Papa Doc was part melodrama, part heroism – a ragtag bunch of twelve dissidents led by a poseur and coward against an implacable dictator and his thugs – but irresistible.  Not because of belief in the rightness of their cause or the possibility of victory but because he was drawn in.  He could not do otherwise.  The new play had been written.

Greene’s characters all resemble Brown – they are complaisant if not indifferent; dissatisfied with their lives but unwilling or unable to change them; all victims of circumstance which force moral choice.  Even Greene’s most complex and unique character – Pinky in Brighton Rock, a hoodlum, killer, and devout Catholic accept the roles laid out for him, is troubled by doubt but too responsible to playwright and director to alter them.  ‘Greeneland’ is not only the underworld, the jungle, bombed-out London, or a leper colony – alien landscapes which provide the backdrop and scenery for moral dilemma; it is the land of moral dilemma.

In The Honorary Consul Dr. Plarr, a Paraguayan refugee in a time of dictatorship finds himself a player in an absurd farce.  Charley Fortnum, Britain’s Honorary Consul is mistakenly kidnapped by Paraguayan rebels who want to force the General to release important prisoners.  Their target was to be the American Ambassador but instead they took Fortnum, a simple, alcoholic, weak man with no authority, no status, and few responsibilities.   It is laughable if it weren’t sorry; and Plarr cannot help but get involved.  If the kidnapping had followed a prescribed plot – angry, righteous dissidents who have risked their lives to force political change – Plarr might have stayed on the sidelines, an observer of a drama which would have a predictable outcome.  Because the drama is farce, because Fortum is not strong but a caricature of all that is comedy, and because the rebels – like those in The Comedians – are disorganized, amateur, and naïve but hopelessly courageous, Plarr becomes involved. 

Image result for images greene book the honorary consul

Greene was right – life itself is a farce.  Ivan’s Devil (The Brothers Karamazov) understands this perfectly.  Life is melodrama taken seriously when it is no more than a badly-written play; and as such he can’t help by rearranging the lines, plotting mischief, and amusing himself.

So against the grain I serve to produce events and do what's irrational because I am commanded to. For all their indisputable intelligence, men take this farce as something serious, and that is their tragedy. They suffer, of course ... but then they live, they live a real life, not a fantastic one, for suffering is life. Without suffering what would be the pleasure of it? It would be transformed into an endless church service; it would be holy, but tedious.

The Devil not only admits suffering but suggests that without it, life would be boring, uninspiring, and inconsequential.  Nothing could have been better than the Fall and his role in it.   Greene is far more circumspect.  Suffering is part of a small tragedy within a larger farce.  In Papa Doc’s Haiti there is no way to avoid the tragedy; but most end up with roles in the farce.

Image result for images ivan's devil karamazov

We have all wondered how we have come to play such predictable roles.  All fathers resemble each other so consistently over time that the melodrama must have been written a millennia ago – or all politicians, priests, lawyers, and financiers.  The scene changes, but the actors and the script do not. 

Shakespeare’s plays have been ‘modernized’ over the years.  The Merchant of Venice was staged in the Lower East Side, Little Italy, and the North Shore of Long Island – caricatures of class and ethnicity.  The venues for his Comedies change every generation as directors and producers try to make them more ‘accessible’.  Yet, unless these same directors distort, edit, or remove Shakespeare’s poetry, the characters are the same. Nothing has changed except backdrop, lighting, scenery and staging.

Most lives are like that – unchangeable, predictable, ultimately melodramatic characters placed in diverse settings.  Shakespeare’s Histories were, despite their tragedy, farces – the same inevitable playing out of human nature occurred with every king from John to Henry VIII.  Their motivations and impulses were exactly the same.  Only the play itself was different.

Therein lies the irony.  As Konstantin Levin remarked in Anna Karenina, how cruel a fate to be created with wit, intelligence, humor, talent, and ambition; only to live a few short decades and then be consigned for all eternity in the cold, hard ground of the steppes; but still endlessly optimistic, idealistic, and committed to a good life.   We are all caught between God’s great irony and the Devil’s farce.  In either case, the sooner we realize the folly of both the better.  We may never be Nietzschean Supermen, ubermensch beyond good and evil; nor are we necessarily defeatists who, aware of life’s throw of the dice, simply muddle through.  Predictability is no damper to our endless enthusiasm.  We would rather be on stage in a comic farce than not on it at all.

Eastern religions have understood existential irony better than most.  The world is illusion say Hindus – only a distraction from the only purpose of life, the progressive evolution to enlightenment – and acceptance of position, status, and fate is the best way to move on.  The Buddhist Middle Way is a more secular approach.  Passion, ambition, and desire are simply not worth it.

T.S. Eliot was unduly pessimistic.

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper

Image result for images t.s. eliot the hollow men

Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich much more realistic when he at the moment of his death lost all fear of dying.  So that’s all there is? he thought as he lay dying.  Another overworked melodrama.

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