Singing Your Own Song

We went to see a world premier play at the Milwaukee Rep last night: American Song by Joanna Murray-Smith. It was beautifully written and moving, and performed by only one actor, the talented James Devita, whose career I have been following since we were both students in Milwaukee. It was a powerful theatrical experience about which I have only one quibble. But this is not a theatrical review blog, and what matters is that you should go, if you can. You will weep.

But what actually came away with me on the deepest level, former English major that I am, was the long and loving reference to Walt Whitman.

This sounds a little silly, but I had forgotten about Walt Whitman.

I grew up reading Walt Whitman, often, and with gradually increasing understanding. At first I just loved the rhythms of the poetry. I was carried along by his passion. Then I fell in love with what it was.

I am annoyed by people who ask: “What is the poet trying to say?” My slightly irritable answer is: He’s not trying to say anything. He’s saying it. The poem is what he says.

And this is why imbuing a message in art which is not intrinsically involved in the art itself can be dangerous. But Whitman was not delivering a message. He was writing poetry. The poetry IS the message. At least it is, if it’s done well.

I taught Whitman’s poetry as a high school American Lit teacher. And even now, I am a great–possibly overly-enthused–re-reader of many things. But Walt Whitman has not entered my thoughts for too many years now, and last night I re-encountered him with a fresh heart.

The play quotes a line from Leaves of Grass, in which the songs of people in different lives sing out in their own voices to make the joyous melody of freedom, of individual value and dignity: Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else…singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs. I loved that Murray-Smith celebrated that celebration of America.

Pali, the poetry-writing ferry captain in my books, is a man who sings songs, whose work vibrates with a unique and beautiful voice. The question is: whose voice is it?

I love this question more than any of the others. The mysteries of life delight me.


Hard Choices

My gift to my husband this year was a series of tickets to plays. Our first was this past Saturday, the Milwaukee Rep’s Of Mice and Men. Since this was my husband’s gift, the choice was made to please him, because this is most definitively not my kind of story.

So, embarrassing fact: I was an English major, and I read a lot, as you might imagine (And I should also point out that I am of an age in which English majors actually read literature. No, seriously. It was something that was required.), but somehow, I had managed my whole life never to read Of Mice and Men. I suppose we all have gaps in our educations, but this was an intentional one. I knew instinctively that I would feel bad reading this book, and I hate feeling bad. In fact, I spend a great deal of effort and energy working on feeling good. I knew vaguely that Lennie was mentally challenged, but I was content to leave my information level there.

So (spoiler alert, for those of you whose education gaps are similar) when they shot the dog in the first act, I had a pretty clear idea of where we were headed. Recognizing foreshadowing is an English major thing. My husband, who watched me uneasily out of the corner of his eye pretty much during the entire play, said later that he was fully prepared for me to break out in noisy sobs when they killed the dog. He was holding his breath about what might happen at the end. To me, I mean, not to the characters. He, literate, cultured, and urbane creature that he is, had actually read the book.

Curiously, I was utterly dry-eyed throughout the entire play. This is not typical of me, since, as my family never lets me forget,  I cried at the end of the sailboat race in Stuart Little. But I have been thinking about the story for three days now.

I have been wondering about George; wondering about the choice he made. Could he come to terms later with the relief he must have felt? Could he forgive himself for what he did, even though he did it to spare his friend pain and terror? Did he go on to fulfill the dream he had carried so long in his wanderings? If so, was he able to find joy in it? Or was it poison-filled?

And isn’t living with your choices–without regret–a difficult thing? Or is regret the right thing? Do our souls require it?

If you live nearby and have not seen the Milwaukee Rep’s performance, you should go. The actor who plays Lennie, Scott Greer, is exceptional.