Wednesday, November 7, 2018

1776 and All That

As fortune would have it, I am on stage this week conducting a concert production of 1776. It's intended as a celebration of the 25th anniversary of our local theater where, 25 years ago, the first production was 1776. I was musical director for that production, affectionately remembered as the show that ate my summer (we were scheduled to open on a date based on the contractor's predicted completion date-- when that date turned out to be optimistic, we had to keep the show fresh and alive for another month or so).

Even if you're not a musical theater fan, you may vaguely remember seeing the film version in a high school history class and watching Mr. Feeney help launch the country with the Declaration of Independence.

For what is essentially a musical comedy, the show paints a scruffy picture of the launch. The founding fathers are not noble or super-human, nor are they united in their vision of what do. John Adams is a pain the ass, and the Continental Congress is a bunch of hot grumpy guys who just want to go home. The show does perpetuate the tradition of whitewashing Thomas Jefferson, who besides being one more type of racist gawdawful slave owner and abuser, seems in many historical accounts to have been a weasely, emotionally disengaged shit. The Declaration is adopted not because of an act of bravery, but because of cowardice, the deciding vote cast by a man who doesn't want to stand out. And the show underlines, in its rawest, most brutal moment, how our founding fathers cemented a devil's deal with slavery into our very foundation. What would have happened, I wonder if the slave-dealing states had let the slaveholding states walk away and gone on without them.

There are things we have never gotten right as a country, and times that the tension between freedom and evil (can you be free if you aren't free to do wrong) has led to some bad, ugly stuff. And our national disinterest in nuance and complexity get in the way of looking at our own history-- don't tell me all this complicated stuff, just tell me the good guys and bad guys. When a hollow cartoon like Trump comes along, he plays to many of our weaknesses, and not just the obvious ones.

It reminds me that among all the lists of standards and educational goals, we almost never find "wrestles inconclusively with complicated pictures of human behavior." When we call for critical thinking, we still too often mean "able to distinguish evil bad guys from wonderful good guys."

We are all the villains of somebody else's story, but rarely our own. People suck, except when they don't. We don't talk nearly enough in education about how to navigate the complexities of being human and being in a world with other humans. We certainly don't get there by talking about literature only in terms of what reading skills we acquire by reading a work (or excerpts of it). These are the things I think about as I flap my arms in front imperfect people trying to give life to imperfect portrayals of real life imperfect people.

The flaws and mixes come in degrees; some are twisted in small and subtle ways, and some are towering messes, tangled beyond the point of functioning. Some spend their lives trying to become less tangled and messy, while some try to pretend they are just fine, tying more nots and twists in the process.

We like things simple and neat and clear, and sometimes, when you cut to the bone, things really are that simple at their core. But life is also about all the layers we put on top of those bare bones, and sometimes that's far more complicated than we like. Our country is founded n magnificent ideas and terrible sins, and we keep struggling with how to tell that story, keep struggling over the distance of decades and centuries.

Our theater is the result of many peoples' vision and in particularly the generosity of one guy who wanted to make his old home town better. The concert celebrates 25 years of local people volunteering and striving to create moments of art and beauty stretched across the full breadth of human experience. It's a thing we can all do. We can strive to make better the world in front of us, or we can turn away in fear-- and maybe still stumble into critical moments.

Life in the world is so terribly and beautifully made, and we have so little time to make something of it. How to be human, how to be in the world-- these are the things we try to grasp, even when we don't understand the shape of what we're grappling with. What standardized tests and microcompetencies aimed at vocational employability have to do with the big questions-- well, let's just say that modern ed reform has us poking at gnats when we should be trying to wrap our arms around the world. We think small, and we cheat our students.

The other emotionally charged song seems like a side note to the story of the Declaration. It's a song that tells the story of a young soldier, barely more than a boy, lying wounded in the grass, calling for his mother as he slowly dies. While adults wrestle with other issues, children's lives drain slowly away.

It's a rough week. We are suffering through some of the worst people to hold office in this country in 242 years. But they're a symptom of problems we've had all along. We can do better.

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