Listening to the stones

detail-for-blog

In September I called this piece Stone Songs. It hung around our house, sounding more like a guttural chant than a song. It was really about patterns, debris, water-polished stones in a stream. Now it’s renamed Streambed and described this way for my entry in the 2017 North Carolina Artists Exhibition sponsored by the Raleigh Fine Arts Society:

Streambed expresses a world full of life
even when it may seem most silent,
mysterious even when it might seem most ordinary.

It was accepted in the show, opening in March. They informed me that “a total of 607 artworks by 353 artists from 105 cities and towns in North Carolina were submitted for consideration this year.  After much deliberation, 72 pieces were selected by our juror, Michael Rooks, Wieland Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the High Museum in Atlanta.” Maybe it pays to listen. —Pat

The Song of the Hole in the Sky

lines written for the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump
January 20, 2017

Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no truths:
That’s a motto I’ve tried to live by.
But up yonder there’s a hole in the sky;
And you want to hear how it got there.

I’ll tell you now—but don’t expect
The truth to put you easy.
It’s a tale with neither reason nor rhyme,
And never a moral worth learning.

Up on that cliff—see that rubble and glass?
It used to be a lighthouse.
We villagers built her to keep ships safe,
And we took our turns as her keepers.

Don’t take me wrong—we weren’t good souls,
Nor generous nor kindly.
But we took our turns and shared her light,
And her beam shone bright and ample.

Walking one morning where we walk now,
I saw a gang of sailors
Crowding high by the lighthouse rail,
Smashing her windows to pieces.

I stood on this beach and gaped and stared,
Not thinking how to stop them.
I called out loud to ask them why,
And this is what they told me:

“This house is a whore who pays no mind
To what kind of man gets her favors.
This house is a whore who shines her beam
Alike on the good and the wicked.”

“This house is no whore—just a thing,” I said.
“She’s made of rocks and mortar
And means no love, and means no hate.”
That put them in a fury:

“You’ve been to school and read your books
And think you’re better and wiser;
But you’ve not spent your life at sea
So hold your tongue, old lubber.

“Unless you’ve spent your life at sea,
You’ve never had to suffer;
You’ve never been jilted or hurt or wronged,
So hold your tongue, old lubber.

“You owe us your all—your food and your drink,
Your every joy and pleasure,
The love by your side, your child, your abode,
Your every breath and heartbeat.

“We freeze and roast and puke and drown
So you can sleep in satin;
Our arms grow hard and hands burn raw
To keep yours soft and wanton.”

The sailors pulled her lantern loose
And threw it over the railing.
It hit the ground right where you stand,
And smashed into pitiless splinters.

“But the rocks on this cape are sharp,” I said,
“And hidden away at nighttime.
Or don’t you believe in rocks at all?
Don’t you believe in darkness?”

“We believe whatever we choose,” they said.
“And you’d best believe what we do.
We’ve a right to whatever truth we like,
And you’ve got no right to say different.

“The polestar’s got nothing to do with north;
Just choose some gull to follow.
Poxes and scabs don’t come from whores,
But from your books and learning.

“To calm a squall, just whistle a tune;
For a waterspout, snap your fingers.
An iceberg melts with the wink of an eye;
Stir up a fair wind by dancing.

“We’ve been to the edge of this flat world;
Believe it because we say so.
We’ve seen where the ocean drops into space;
Don’t dare to call us liars.”

By then the sailors were smashing the walls
To rubble with their sledgehammers.
As they climbed down the spiraling way,
They ripped up the steps behind them.

“But how will you fare without the light?”
I asked them all. “You’ll surely
Lose your way, steering wild and blind;
You’ll break on these rocks and perish.”

“The light’s no good, it hurts our eyes,
It softens us, makes us feeble.
When we’re not cursed by that blinding glare,
The dark will surely guide us.

“The dark will be true, the dark will stand fast;
The dark never sleeps on duty;
Sailing this way, we’ll look out for the dark;
The dark will lead and we’ll follow.”

They finished their work and left this place
A pile of glass and rubble.
There’s a hole in the sky where the light once shone;
Sailors now use it to steer by.

Is the darkness true? Who am I to say?
The sailors said to believe them.
I’ve never sailed, don’t know what they know;
I’m just a foolish old lubber.

And yet I’ve slaved hard for my food and my drink,
My every joy and pleasure,
The love by my side, my child, my abode,
My every breath and heartbeat.

My heart has been broke and trod underfoot;
I’ve starved, and I’ve been cheated.
Through rotting teeth in its naked skull,
This world tells its lies forever.

And I’m sick of it all, my heart clenches with rage
At legions of apes and hyenas.
But how could I know what those sailors knew?
I’m only a foolish old lubber.

For the dark is strong, the dark stands fast,
And sailors faithfully follow;
And the hulls pile up on these sharp rocks,
And the salt air stinks to heaven.

The hulls pile up on these sharp rocks,
Chewed at by gulls and vermin;
The teeth of the surf bite fast and hard,
And the salt air stinks to heaven.

You and me, we’ve been to school,
We’re deep in books and learning.
The better, I guess, for the work we do now.
But why do you stand there staring?

There’s dead on the beach, more washing in,
And not a corpse fit to bury,
Nor sand enough in this whole wide world;
Keep stacking them high for burning.

© 2016, PlaysOnIdeas

st-george-lighthouse

Cape St. George Lighthouse, Jervis Bay Village, Australia

… a subtle energy …

stone-songs-150-contrast

Wim and I both write—for a living and for the joy of it. From time to time I go nonverbal, back to my roots in visual art. These works spring from their own stories and communicate their own messages only partly expressible in words.

ssdetailThis recently finished fiber piece, Stone Songs, is an appreciation of a natural world full of life even when it may seem most arid and still.

Living in the country long ago, I learned that a forest is as much intervals as trees, nature is as much life force as forms, and in empty spaces a subtle energy comes into being.

—Pat

… Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness …

The word happiness shows up a lot in my award-winning new play The Shackles of Liberty. This isn’t surprising, considering that one of its characters wrote some famous words about it.

For almost two and a half centuries, “the Pursuit of Happiness” has been a treasured ideal of American life. We’re so used to the words that we’ve forgotten what they meant in 1776. At the time, some people thought that the very notion of an inalienable right to the Pursuit of Happiness was downright ludicrous. An anonymous British writer let fly with this burst of ridicule

Did any mortal alive hear of taking a pursuit of happiness from a man? What they possibly can mean by these words, I own is beyond comprehension. A man may take from me a horse or a cow … but how that can be taken from me, or alienated, which I have not, must be left for the solution of some unborn Oedipus.

Jefferson’s intellectual hero John Locke wrote about the natural rights to Life, Liberty, and Property. In borrowing Locke’s phrase, why did Jefferson change a seemingly brass-tacks concept like Property to something vague and fuzzy like the Pursuit of Happiness?

The truth was that the concept of happiness was hardly vague or fuzzy at all in the late eighteenth century. It was as palpably meaningful as life and liberty. In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke himself called the Pursuit of Happiness “our greatest good” which “our desires always follow.”

Declaration_of_the_Rights_of_Man_and_of_the_Citizen_in_1789

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, 1789

Jefferson believed that the perpetuation of happiness was a fundamental purpose of government. In my play, Jefferson proposes this idea to a delegation of French Patriots while helping them draft the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789 …

May we not seize this opportunity to enshrine le bonheur, la félicité, happiness not merely of the one but of the many, the greatest happiness for the greatest number, as the first law of government? Happiness as a widening spiral, an ever-expanding sphere, a blessed contagion, infecting all of the body politic?

Happiness also figured into the science of Jefferson’s time. Although he didn’t write anything about evolution that I know of, I’d be very surprised if he never gave any serious thought to it, at least later in his life.

Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species wouldn’t be published until 33 years after Jefferson’s death. Even so, the idea of evolution was already in the air. In 1809, the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck formulated a theory of evolution that held sway until it was superseded by Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection in 1859.

But Jefferson was more likely to be aware of the evolutionary ideas of Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin. An almost unbelievably brilliant polymath, Erasmus Darwin was a friend of Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson’s mentor William Small. He started writing about evolution in 1789, the year in which The Shackles of Liberty takes place.

Happiness had special meaning to Erasmus Darwin. As his biographer Desmond King-Hele put it, his theory of evolution was in some ways a theory of “the survival of the happiest” …

Darwin believed that all creatures and plants enjoy life, with the most complex animals having the greatest capacity for enjoyment. When a creature dies, often because it is no longer capable of happiness, it gives pleasure to a myriad of smaller creatures, so that the sum of happiness is maintained, or increased.

For a time, Erasmus Darwin was considered the greatest living English poet. So I think it quite possible that Jefferson read his posthumously-published poetic masterpiece The Temple of Nature. If so, he surely relished its soaring lines about the Pursuit of Happiness …

Shout round the globe, how Reproduction strives
With vanquish’d Death—and Happiness survives;
How Life increasing peoples every clime,
And young renascent Nature conquers Time.

(The Shackles of Liberty is the winner this year’s Southern Playwrights Competitionsponsored by Jacksonville State University.)

 

Sally, Maria, Patsy, and Tom …

Why did I write a play set in Paris more than two hundred years ago?

It’s something of a cliché that Thomas Jefferson is just about the most contradictory figure in American history. In his Declaration of Independence, he articulated the very founding ideals of a new nation—the “self-evident” truth “that all men are created equal” and were “endowed” with the “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And yet the writer of these eloquent words was a lifelong slave owner.

I started working on The Shackles of Liberty during the 1970s, when I read Fawn M. Brodie’s biography Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. Before the appearance of Brodie’s book, the story of Jefferson’s lifelong relationship with his slave Sally Hemings had been a nagging rumor that few historians took seriously. The evidence Brodie presented was groundbreaking—and extremely controversial.

When I first cracked the book open, I immediately came across a story told by Sally’s son Madison Hemings about his mother’s relationship with Jefferson. It began in 1789, when Jefferson was in Paris serving as America’s Ambassador to France:

… [D]uring that time my mother became Mr Jefferson’s concubine, and when he was called home she was enciente by him. He desired to bring my mother back to Virginia with him but she demurred. She was just beginning to understand the French language well, and in France she was free, while if she returned to Virginia she would be re-enslaved. She refused to return with him.

I was instantly hooked on the Story. I imagined the extraordinary scene. Sixteen-year-old Sally, three quarters white and the half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife, Martha, stood face to face with her 46-year-old master to demand her freedom. For a stunning moment, this courageous young woman demanded complete equality with one of the most powerful and influential men in the world. Then came the bargaining as described by Madison Hemings …

To induce her to do so he promised her extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years. In consequence of his promises, on which she implicitly relied, she returned with him to Virginia. Soon after their arrival, she gave birth to a child, of whom Thomas Jefferson was the father.

I knew right away that I had to write a play that culminated in Sally’s fateful bargain. In my mind’s ear, I started hearing fragments of dialogue:

SALLY: You won’t free me, free our child.
THOMAS: No.
SALLY: Little by little, not right away, over lots of years.
THOMAS: I can’t.
SALLY: Teach him. Things you know how to do. Fiddling, cutting stone, working with wood.
THOMAS: Impossible.

As I read Brodie’s book (and many years later,  Annette Gordon-Reed’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family), the story grew richer and richer, and Jefferson’s contradictions grew ever more troubling. While Jefferson could at least conceive of the emancipation of African-Americans, the same was not true of women. In Paris, he was shocked by the power and assertiveness of European women,

some on foot, some on horses, & some in carriages hunting pleasure in the streets, in routs & assemblies, and forgetting that they have left it behind them in their nurseries …

How different were these independent women from the docile ladies he had left behind in America? To him it was “a comparison of Amazons and Angels.”

Martha_Jefferson_Randolph_portrait

Martha Jefferson Randolph

Not surprisingly, Jefferson was something of a despot to his two daughters, albeit a loving one. In 1783, he wrote these explicit instructions to his eleven-year-old daughter, Martha:

I do not wish you to be gaily clothed at this time of life, but what you wear should be fine of its kind. But above all things and at all times let your clothes be clean, whole, and properly put on. … Nothing is so disgusting to our sex as a want of cleanliness and delicacy in yours.

Slaves, women, and children. They all shared a strange place in Jefferson’s mind. And he had crises with all three during his years in Paris.

Maria_Cosway

Self-portrait of Maria Cosway

For one thing, he fell in love with the brilliant European painter Maria Cosway, a woman with talents, thoughts, and ambitions that were very much her own. Beautiful, charming, and diminutive, she nevertheless had something of the European Amazon about her.

Meanwhile, Jefferson’s daughter Martha, better known at the time as “Patsy,” was studying in a Parisian convent school. Imagine her anti-clerical father’s shock when she announced that she wanted to become a nun!

Finally, there was Sally, whose voice kept calling out to me about freedom and hope …

It’s awful, hope—like drowning. Or not drowning, but getting held under, and you can’t guess how deep. And you’ve got to hold your breath, and your lungs are busting, and you can’t keep it in long, but you know when you let out the air, you’ll only have water to breathe in again. Hope’s just this—long—holding in of something you know you can’t keep.

So there they were—Jefferson and three women, who together somehow embodied the conflict and contradictions that we all live with today. Appropriately the backdrop of the play was Paris in 1789—the dawning of the French Revolution. In those days of precarious hope, Jefferson’s words about liberty and equality hung in the Parisian air.

 

(The Shackles of Liberty is the winner this year’s Southern Playwrights Competition, sponsored by Jacksonville State University.)

The Shackles of Liberty

230px-Us_declaration_independencePat and I are excited! My full-length play The Shackles of Liberty has won this year’s Southern Playwrights Competition. The Jacksonville State University Department of Drama will present it as part of its 2016-2017 season. It’s a wonderful honor.

The Shackles of Liberty is a fictionalized account of Thomas Jefferson’s last day in Paris in 1789. It focuses on his relationships with three women—his European lover Maria Cosway, his older daughter Martha (“Patsy”), and his young slave mistress Sally Hemings.

I hope I’ve written a play about today and the America we live in. A century and a half after slavery ended, we still need to be reminded that “Black Lives Matter.” A little less than a hundred years after women gained the right to vote, the fight for gender equality is far from over. And not to sound pessimistic, but it seems to me parents and children will always be at odds about one thing or another.

These are a few of the issues I’ve tried to explore in The Shackles of Liberty. I am grateful to Jacksonville State University for the opportunity to bring this play to life in the theater!

THAT Soliloquy — Is It About Suicide?

“To be, or not to be—that is the question …”

… but what is the question, really? What is Hamlet actually talking about? I was pretty slow as a teenager, so when I asked a high school English teacher this question, of course he told me, as teachers always do …

Hamlet is contemplating suicide.”

The trouble was, I couldn’t quite make sense of it. Yes, I understood what all the words meant—that “quietus” was a settlement of a debt, a “bare bodkin” was a dagger, “fardels” were burdens or loads, the “undiscover’d country” was death, and all the rest of it.

First Folio, 1623

First Folio, 1623

But wasn’t taking “arms against a sea of troubles” a rather odd way of describing suicide? And what about those “enterprises of great pitch and moment” that “lose the name of action” that Hamlet talks about at the end? Surely, I suggested, Hamlet wasn’t talking about suicide there.

I succeeded only in convincing my English teacher that I was a great deal dumber than he already knew me to be. And who was I to argue? I let the matter rest for a long time.

It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered the 1982 Arden edition of Hamlet, edited by the late Shakespeare scholar Harold Jenkins. Thirty years in the making, it was so exhaustively (and exhaustingly) annotated that Jenkins couldn’t fit all of his annotations on the pages of the text itself; he added another 150 pages of notes at the end. It was a dream for a Shakespeare geek like me. I devoured every word.

And when I got to that all-too-famous soliloquy of Act III, scene i, I was in for a special treat. The speech was annotated first with about a page and a half of footnotes, then with another eight and a half pages of endnotes—a total of around 10 pages of annotation altogether.

To my delight, I found that Jenkins devoted most of those notes to proving my high school teacher (and just about everybody else) wrong …

It is impossible … to say that Hamlet ever contemplates suicide for himself or regards it as a likely choice for any man.

For one thing, this is the only soliloquy of Hamlet’s (out of seven in all) that never once uses first person singular pronouns like “I” and “me.” Nor does he mention his father’s murder, his uncle’s usurpation, his mother’s remarriage, or anything else having to do with the story of the play. Hamlet isn’t talking about his own specific situation at all, but about what life is like for all of us.

And his “question,” as Jenkins sums it up, is simply, “Is life worth living?” Hamlet goes on to give us a lot of reasons why life might not be …

… the whips and scorns of time,
Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of dispriz’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’unworthy takes …

And of course, right then Hamlet does mention the possibility of suicide—after all, one could always do oneself in with a “bare bodkin.” But according to Jenkins,

this is a rhetorical question, which already presupposes its answer, a hypothetical question brought in only to be dismissed.

It’s the same with just about any positive action we might take. We don’t wind up doing much of anything about life’s “sea of troubles.”

And according to Jenkins, that “sea” is a richer image than we may have realized:

Edwin Both as Hamlet, ca. 1870

Edwin Booth as Hamlet, ca. 1870

The metaphor appears to be based upon well-known instances, notably that of the Celts, who, as described by various ancient authors, rather than show fear by flight, would draw their swords and throw themselves into the tides as though to terrify them.

A desperate and futile gesture, certainly. You could even call it suicidal, since it’s surely not going to end well. But suicide isn’t really the point. It’s about doing something—anything—against the manifold torments of existence. It’s also about accepting the fact that you’re doomed to lose—or at the very least to die in the attempt. Hamlet learns this bitter truth himself at the end of the play.

Most of us don’t dare undertake any such endeavor, in no small part due to our fear of the “undiscover’d country” of death …

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.

As Jenkins puts it,

we come to the end of life’s “troubles” not when we put an end to them but when they put an end to us.