Friday, January 10, 2014

The Winter Play

Wenceslas Square, Prauge, during the 1968 anti-Soviet uprising

First blog of 2014!

For the past several nights, my subconscious has been bubbling up old images and feelings of all the theater work I did in college.  It finally hit me early this morning after another brainwave performance why this was.

Winter primary season is always my busiest time.  One friend joked to me the other day, "Don't you only work two months every two years?"  It is a very stressful, intense but productive time of packed days and late nights followed by heavy but short sleep.  Joe Klein in Primary Colors describes these types of elections through one of the characters as there being "sleep, but no rest."

The workload and rhythms are strikingly similar to putting on a play.  I talk about this in an interview I recently gave to a career blog.  The muscle memory of my theater days has likely frothed back up due to a unique confluence of thoughts, themes, workload and...cold weather!  In particular, the deja'vu of a play I ran the light board for during the winter of 1991 comes to mind, Larry Shue's Wenceslas Square.

Briefly, Wenceslas Square is a simple arc of scenes about a theater professor from Indiana who returns to Prague a few years after the 1968 uprising against the Soviet Union in the hopes of finishing a book about the city's vibrant, counter-establishment drama community that subtly led the protests against Moscow previously.  Sadly, the professor goes about visiting his old, fellow dramatists only to discover they've either been forced into semi-exile or have become a part of the very propaganda-dishing establishment they tried to subvert.  The story is a serene yet tragic examination not necessarily of just tyranny or revolution but of what fear does to people, and whether or not those with the strongest convictions really have the courage to change and sacrifice.  The play ends with the professor and his student assistant sitting in the famous Square of Prague contemplating whether or not he still has something to write.

What makes the play great is its double-theme about dealing with government authority through story-telling. The actual Wenceslas Square in Prague is named for the early Medieval and canonized king named Wenceslas I, who is very much a Santa Claus-like figure.  His legend is that he came down from his position and braved the harsh winter to help the poor, and that when his protege faltered in the weather, Wenceslas instructed him to follow by stepping exactly where he stepped in the snow.  It's the old footsteps aphorism about being carried by God.

But whereas the fabled king was brave and undaunted in his mission, the professor in the play isn't so sure of himself, especially after he witnesses renewed communist oppression and the weakness of his once-admired friends.  Most troubling to the professor was when he got accosted in a Prague alley by one of the old dramatists who has lost his mind.  What seemed to shake the professor deepest was how the Madman's ideals drove him into insanity once the Soviets had denied him his outlet.  It was this core fear that the professor had to confront.

It's also the subconscious fear that all of us who work in politics for the greater good and in defense of our freedom must deal with.  Are we afraid of truly losing our liberty -- or of just losing our outlet?  In my opinion, most of what animates our country's political discourse today - across the spectrum - is the latter.  Many of us have decided that being heard is more important than what we say.  I am certainly guilty of this.  True liberty lies in the ability to recognize that freedom is a gift from God, empowered by God, and does not need anything external to thrive in a person's soul.  True, speaking out is a natural fruit of this inner freedom, but not if the speaking out is driven by the same fear of losing the ability to do so.  This is the freedom that I want to defend.

But the minute I drift into the dark side of defending form over content, I find myself in a nightmare of anxiety.  Worse, if I am successful in defending that form over freedom by means of fear, I find myself in, to quote another playwright, "the winter of my discontent."  And it didn't go well for that guy.