The level of taste flaunted by America’s upper caste at the bubble’s height had less in common with the Medicis than, say, Uday and Qusay Hussein.
That is perhaps the most delicious line from Frank Rich's pointed column today, entitled Some Things Don’t Change in Grover’s Corners But his snark is not as important as his insight. He begins his piece like this:
"WHEREVER you come near the human race, there’s layers and layers of nonsense," says the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s "Our Town." Those words were first heard by New York audiences in February 1938, as America continued to reel from hard times.
And Rich reminds us immediately that in 1938 our nation was reeling, the auto industry in dire straights, and FDR had the gall to do large scale public works to put people back to work. Sound familiar?
"Our Town" carries a particular meaning for me. Rich notes that due to its large cast and minimal scenary requirements it is the play most often done in schools. So it was at Mamaroneck High School during my time there. My part was small, Wally, the younger brother of the heroine. I was on stage in all three acts, but with only one line, in the first act: "Aw, Ma! By ten o’clock I got to know all about Canada!" In the second act I was at the wedding. And I was on stage for the entire third act.
As one of the dead in the cemetery. That graveyard plays a role in in Rich's column. Not the part where the Stage Manager, the organizing and narrating character of the play, mentions that I (Wally) died of a burst appendix on a camping trip. No, read this:
At the director David Cromer’s shattering rendition of the play now running in Greenwich Village, it’s impossible not to be moved by that Act III passage where the Stage Manager comes upon the graves of Civil War veterans in the town cemetery. "New Hampshire boys," he says, "had a notion that the Union ought to be kept together, though they’d never seen more than 50 miles of it themselves. All they knew was the name, friends — the United States of America. The United States of America. And they went and died about it."
In the sentence before that passage Rich opines
Once again its astringent distillation of life and death in the fictional early-20th-century town of Grover’s Corners, N.H., is desperately needed to help strip away "layers and layers of nonsense" so Americans can remember who we are — and how lost we got in the boom before our bust.
For those who might not know, Rich long served as the drama critic for the Ny Times, which may be why he chooses to use an emblematic American play to help us understand our current situation. He tells us that Wilder was not nostalgic or sentimental, that Grover's Corner had ordinary people, not saints, a range, a mix.
But when the narrator evokes a common national good and purpose — unfurling our country’s full name in the rhetorical manner also favored by our current president — you feel the graveyard’s chill wind. It’s a trace memory of an American faith we soiled and buried with all our own nonsense in the first decade of our new century.
Rich illustrates this with the recent letter Warren Buffett sent his shareholders, in which the Sage of Omaha described the recent performance of Berkshire Hathaway in terms derived from venereal disease - it is not whom you sleep with, but whom they slept with. Rich furthers this metaphor by noting that our government is "rewarding the most promiscuous carrier of them all" in AIG, "precisely because it can’t be disentangled from all the careless (and unidentified) trading partners sharing its infection. " Rich uses the losses suffered personally by Eli Wiesel and by his foundation trhough Bernie Madoff to illustrate how far we had lost moral compass.
There are many more illustrations in the piece. You can read them at your leisure. I want to return to the cemetary.
In some ways I feel as if I am back in that third act. In a sense I have died just as much did my character in that play. Oh, it is not that I have lost a job or am yet in danger of losing my house, although our household finances are quite dire right now. Rather, it is a product of my age. I am the child of parents who lived through the Great Depression, my parents graduating from Cornell in 1932 and 1934. I and too many of my generation seemed to have died to the lessons our parents learned about economic caution. Our entire nation seems to have thought that - mirabile dictu - the economy would expand indefinitely, house and stock prices would continue to increase, the downside of the business cycle was repealed forever.
During the third act Wally sits on stage, with the other deceased of Grover's Corners. We sit in silent witness, almost as a nonspeaking Greek Chorus. The world unfolds before us, with Emily's foolish attempt to go back to the past, only to learn that she cannot really relive it. We watched that. And now? I and others sit here and watch some attempting to go back to a past that never was, some ideal of Republican policy perhaps? Do they not realize that the bubble and boom was never fully real, it was illusory, fueled by an insatiable greed that sucked all into a destructive whirlwind that dashed the hopes and dreams of millions of others. Even in the supposed boom of the past administration most did not benefit, as the focus of our economics and our politics became ever further removed from the ordinary folks of this nation, those who lived perhaps not in a mythical Grover's Corner, but in far too many neighborhoods that were already being torn apart before the bubble burst. They, too, found themselves sitting on the stage of our nation, without voice, only able offer witness through their silence and their unchanging countenances. They were not heard, and most remained as unaware of their presence as they are of the spirits in the many graveyards, real and metaphorical, across this nation. Some are towns and neighborhoods that have been destroyed economically, with stores and homes emptied and abandoned. These too serve as silent and unmoving witnesses.
Rich writes that the remnants of the recent orgy of decadence and bad taste of the past decade are useful in that they remind us of how aberrant that time was, how unAmerican, how not normal. And he concludes thus:
The true American faith endures in "Our Town." The key word in its title is the collective "our," just as "united" is the resonant note hit by the new president when saying the full name of the country. The notion that Americans must all rise and fall together is the ideal we still yearn to reclaim, and that a majority voted for in November. But how we get there from this economic graveyard is a challenge rapidly rivaling the one that faced Wilder’s audience in that dark late winter of 1938.
It was a challenge, especially for me, to sit on that stage silently for the entire third act. I suppose when the play was first performed many in the audience paid as much attention to those of us who were dead as it did to the characters speaking and moving - after all, eventually Emily would sit down and join us. And yes, it was a challenge for that audience, almost a decade into the Great Depression, to see a path other than what that graveyard might represent. And yet, and yet . . . somehow the spirit of the American people was never fully exhausted. As it is not exhausted now, perhaps a year into our recession, with a worldwide depression not an unrealistic possibility.
Great drama, like great poetry or fiction, can take us beyond the limits of our own immediate existence. Sometimes it can elevate us, at others it can challenge us. We can find exhilaration or enervation. It can take us out of ourselves or bring us back to our very roots. I have watched the play "Our Town" differently since I appeared in it during my early teens. Rich's use of it as a lens through which to view our current imbroglio reminds me that there is a part of me, and I suspect of many, that is torn by the play. One part of me wants to be the Stage Manager, who narrates, who explains, because he understands. Part of me wishes even for a moment, however painful, that like Emily Webb I could go back to some time in the past. And then I remember what that experience was like for her. And then I wonder further - is Wilder on to something, will we at some point not totally cease to be, but be like Wally and the others, seated and able to see and hear all, but not speak or act?
For too long, for much of the past decade, too many of us have been like I was during Act III. We were like Wally, unseen and unable to make our voices heard by those acting around us. By choice, whether ours or those designated to act, we were mute, passive.
I acted in the play. At the end I was able to get out of my seat on stage, take my bow for my minimal role, and get on with my normal life.
I think that Act III is now over. It is time for all the Wallys, all the others in that graveyard on stage, to get up.
I take a different lesson from Rich's column. It is time for the ordinary, good and caring people of all the Grover's Corners to get up and be heard. The play is over. It is time for us to get back to living.