Good Art, Good Grief

“Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our own behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense.”

—Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

Like an old friend, Gilead has welcomed me with open arms since I started rereading it just over a month ago.  Indeed, until a few days ago, the above quote struck me as mildly fascinating, but pale in comparison with all the passages that focused on the inextricable bonds between heaven and earth. When one is obsessed with the mysteries of immortality, I suppose, inquiries into the nature of earthly existence hardly ignite the intellect.

Besides, theatrical matters of a more literal sort had already consumed more than enough mental energy. Before hearing the news of my friend’s death, I’d agreed to help helm my church’s Easter play. After returning home to grieve, though, I kept wondering if there was some way to bow out and focus my attention on more important things—you know, like moping.

Eventually, I realized moping was the least productive of my options, and threw myself into writing and directing when I returned. Thanks to a shortage of available actors, I found myself cast in my own play, in the role of an apostate disciple who, at the foot of Christ’s crucifixion, confronts a loyal disciple who has been healed of blindness. Personal crises aside, I couldn’t get into the role; in fact, the character seemed to me a major flaw, a cipher that skirted dangerously close to the “murderous Jew” that so tragically populates the history of Passion plays. Even on Easter Sunday, as we donned our makeup and costumes, I’d come to grudgingly accept the character as a blemish we writers had overlooked, a problem beyond the reach of my limited acting skills.

When I assumed my position behind the curtain, though, something was changing within me, without my consent or control. As I meditated on my character in the backstage darkness, the enormity of the events we were depicting became inseparable, in my mind, from the enormity of what my friend had faced on that frozen lake. With every line I spoke over the course of the evening, all the emotional progress I’d made over the past few weeks seemed to slip away. When the time came for me to deliver my climactic monologue, it was as if the near-stereotype I’d bemoaned had come to violent life, possessed by the Lucas who, a month and a half ago, spent an entire day cursing God on his knees. I opened my mouth to speak and spat out the following ad-lib, not sure and not caring whether I was speaking as my character or as myself:

“Look, you have eyes, don’t you? You talk about them so much…well, look at him. Look at the blood and sweat dripping down his face, look at the flesh hanging from his ribcage, look at the life being sucked out of his body with every breath he expels…does this look like the Messiah?”

My cowriter, who was also onstage that night, told me later that he was nearly startled out of character, so raw and enraged was my delivery. Also, I think it’s safe to say that I didn’t exactly endear myself to the small children who were sitting in the front row. I don’t claim to be a De Niro, or even a poor man’s De Niro, but that night I definitely attained a new level of insight into acting.

Literary types often define a metaphor as consisting of two parts: the ‘tenor,’ the idea illustrated by the metaphor, and the ‘vehicle,’ the image that embodies the tenor. In that moment, the tenor and vehicle of Calvin’s metaphor seemed to merge into one. Indeed, becoming an artist of my character’s behavior was the ultimate culmination of my decision to be, as it were, an artist of my own behavior: to bring the full brunt of my grief right to God’s doorstep instead of denying it expression, and then to persevere in my commitments to the Church.

And I realize now that the intuition with which I ad-libbed those lines – the intuition with which I finally embodied my character – was not analogous to, but of a piece with, the faith with which I have learned to pray, “Thy will be done.”

In the last email she ever wrote to me, my friend concluded with these words: “My friend said something to me before about how difficult it is to try and live life with your whole heart. But what a beautiful way to strive to live.” It’s not a bad goal for an actor, either. And so I pray, in life as in art, to give a bravura performance.

By Lucas Kwong, Image Journal

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