"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

The Best Of Times, The Worst Of Times–Families, The Crucibles Of Immaturity

Edward Albee once said that families were the crucibles of maturity.  Despite their jealousies, rivalries, plots, and resentments, we would never grow up, never outgrow our childish demands, adolescent rebellion, and lifelong dependencies without them.  

In perhaps his best-known play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf George and Martha ‘flay each other to the bone’ laying bare layer after layer of suspicion, sexual insecurity, personal fantasy, and desperation.  At the end of the play, exhausted, spent, and without the will to continue, they agree to go on together.  They have done and seen the worst, have so exposed each other there can be no more deception or duplicity.

Image result for imagtes george and martha whos afraid

It is as happy an ending as Albee can imagine, but one wonders if such brutality, such emotional savagery cannot but take an irremediable toll.  Their drunken perverse bacchanal may have been the only way for George and Martha to face the truth about their marriage and each other, but on the morning after they would still be the same old George and Martha, faced with the same bitterness and hatred as before.

So the more reasonable lesson to be drawn from the play is not that marriage and families are the crucibles of maturity, they are just the opposite – crucibles of immaturity, confines of intolerance and innate, permanent passions of intended destruction.

‘Hell is other people’, Sartre says in No Exit.  His characters are as confined by circumstance as George and Martha.  There is no way out of a situation in which they must deal with each other.  There is no room for understanding, compassion, or just getting along.  Human nature – aggressive, territorial, defensive, and willful – cannot be ignored.  In all its raw, survivalist mode, it is shown for what it is, a destructive force.  It might be the engine for opportunity, empire, and civilization when expressed by thousands of emperors, kings, and shoguns, but when it is confined it can only result in irreparable harm.

No Exit" (Jean-Paul Sartre) – Stadttheater Gießen 1998 - Helmut Barz -  Communications Worker

Tennessee Williams’ character Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof expresses hopefulness after a round of deception, futility, and fantasy have left him and his wife Maggie as flayed and exposed as George and Martha.  She has been immoral, deceitful, and emotionally murderous; and he, crippled by guilt has lost his will; and both are caught up in the power politics of a rich Mississippi grandee.  If it could only be so, Brick says in the last lines of the play, expressing the idea that Maggie actually does love him and that they have a happy future.  The playgoer knows differently,  There is no way that such an epiphany can either be true or lasting.  On the morning after, nothing will have changed.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – Golden Age Cinema and Bar

Lillian Hellman’s Little Foxes is a play about family greed, ambition, and rivalry.  It is an unalloyed portrayal of the selfish, self-destructive nature of families.  A familiar story, painful in its brutal honesty, and a cautionary tale for all.

Tolstoy said, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, and went on in Anna Karenina to chronicle what readers know to be the truth – the variations of family unhappiness are limitless, but there is a consistency to the unhappiness, the fundamental suspicions, deceit, and duplicity that never change or disappear.

So it is no surprise that the Fletcher family came apart despite decades of seeming harmony and an uncommon mutual respect.  The brothers and sisters loved their parents and would do anything for them.  The parents were their idols, perfect in every way – dutiful, responsible, caring, and fair disciplinarians.  

Arnold was a successful professor of classics at a small New England college, Betty was an amateur artist, respected and admired for her pluck if not talent.  The children not surprisingly grew up to be successful in business, medicine, and law.  They saw each other often, travelling from Boston and New York to the family homestead to be together as a family.

The Fletchers gave everyone hope.  Albee, Williams, Sartre, and Tolstoy were simply fabulists, picking on the worst of human behavior to make a point. Marriages, given the Fletcher example, could be happy, loving affairs far removed from the emotional villainy of fiction.  If there were such families as the Fletchers, then all families had the same seeds of love and moderation within them.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a relative” goes the old vaudevillian line.  Death has a way of upsetting all apple carts in the most devilish ways.  Cecelia Grant was the eldest daughter of the Philadelphia Grants, a family of inherited wealth and position.  Like many families living high on private incomes, the Grants were not one of rectitude or model behavior, but it still was a surprise how Cecelia coddled up to her dying uncle, convinced him to change his will, giving her millions and the proprietorship of his Main Line estate, encouraged his suicide and stood elegantly in black, tearful behind a Victorian veil at his graveside.

The Blacks were a working class family living in a small, Appalachian steel town in eastern Ohio.  Johnny Black worked in the mill all his life, made little but was able to provide for his wife and three children.  He played no favorites and helped them all to college.  They were moderately successful, never wealthy or socially prominent, married within the same lower middle class society from which they came, and led reasonable although uninstructive lives.  

The middle child, Alva, lived close to her parents, and saw to it that they were never alone on Thanksgiving and had enough coal for the furnace.  As she saw her father declining after a punishing stroke, she upped her efforts and was at the house most days.  Her father, by this time far gone, still had enough thought and energy to reward his daughter.  She convinced him to change his will, giving her everything and cutting her two siblings completely out of the picture.

Image result for images old chilicothe ohio steel mill

In one fell swoop, what had been a reasonably intact, caring family, was broken apart.  It wasn’t so much the money – the Blacks had but a pittance compared to the Grants– but the principle of the thing.  How could she have duped their father and cheated them so rudely?

The same scenario had been written for the Fletchers.  Annie was the closest to her parents, continuing and nurturing a dependency which continued well into middle age.  Her siblings were still attached to the parents, but had struck out on their own very early in life.  They were solicitous and attentive, but distant. Annie could never cut the childhood ties which so bound to her parents, and in their old age she became even more dependent on them.

Although they came to depend on her for managing the house, the finances, and the help, it was she who was dependent.  She would be totally and irremediably alone when they died.

When the second parent died and the will was read, all went to the eldest sister.  In a far-reaching power of attorney, she was responsible for the old folks’ investments, their house in eastern Connecticut and their cottage on Cape Cod.  She consulted her accountant, financial advisor, and real estate agent, and sold all holdings, properties, and equities.  

She was careful to assure a fair and equitable distribution of profits among the siblings, and no one was to be favored; but for her sister it was an irresponsible fire sale, a betrayal of trust, and a scattering of all the treasured memories of her past.  Well into old age she refused any reconciliation with her siblings, and even breathing her last in a nursing home, never once mentioned them.

The story of the Fletchers, like those families in the plays of Albee, Williams, and Sartre, is about dependency and the hermetic nature of families which either nurtures it or provokes a violent reaction against it.

Maggie the Cat sought dependency and shelter in the shadow of Big Daddy, but in a venal, self-serving way.  Brick was dependent on Maggie and her fierce resolution, but resentful of it.  Tolstoy introduced sex into the mix and guaranteed a familiar melodrama of jealousy, deceit, and a playing out of the most fundamental impulses of human nature. 

George and Martha were inextricably tied to each other and wouldn’t unleash themselves even if they could.  Their emotional dependency, as destructive and corrosive as it was, was fundamental to their relationship, and in the mind of Albee, all relationships.

Image result for images big daddy pollitt can on a hot tin

Both Williams and Albee expressed hope at the end of their plays. If it only were so, says Brick.  Let’s begin again, says George.  Yet these endings were almost inevitable Hollywood scenarios (both plays were turned into successful movies).  It is hard to believe that either couple would become Romeo and Juliet.

Shakespeare of course was no fan of marriage, and only The Taming of the Shrew was a depiction of a good, balanced, and loving relationship.

Perhaps Albee was right in one respect – marriage and families show us the worst that human nature has to offer, and we are better off understanding its ineluctable role in human behavior before it is too late.

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