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Frederick P. Tollini, S.J.September 23, 2000

In several serious dramas on Broadway this summer, the good (or bad) angel of uncertainty bedeviled many a leading man. Ambiguity and ambivalence plagued them in at least four plays. From Arthur Miller’s updated salesman in The Ride Down Mount Morgan to Tom Stoppard’s fortyish playwright in The Real Thing, dramatic leads struggled with the question of what is really right and what can be rightfully called real. Ghosts of dead scientists in Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen manipulated abstract paradigms from physics to ascertain responsibility for the nuclear holocaust; and a cool priest straddled the dizzy chasm between dogma and compassion in a new play by Bill C. Davis called Avow.

Fifty years ago, people had no difficulty identifying with the plight of Arthur Miller’s tragic figure of the common man. Willy Loman represented many who saw the American Dream clearly but failed to reach it. Like a tragic hero, Willy Loman expiated his folly before the laws of our economic system; he truly believed his life insurance policy would spring into life with his death. His suicide was based on a belief in fiscal destiny, or in the fact that as a husband, father and salesman he had failed in a context of clearly defined ideals. There were no doubts in the hero’s mind; the irony consisted in others’ knowing his grandiosity counted for nothing.

Miller’s protagonist in The Ride Down Mount Morgan is very different. Unlike Loman, Lyman Felt (Patrick Stewart) did not kill himself. He may, however, have tried. Felt drove his car down the forbidding road on Mount Morgan in a blizzard one night and totaled it, almost killing himself. With no religious faith other than his father’s shopkeeper advice, Trust none; forgive none, his faith has been in himself. From his semiconscious monologue on his hospital bed, we gather he is both famous and richachievements Willy envied but never attained. A liberal Jewish insurance C.E.O., Felt boasts of having raised at least 47 African Americans to executive positions and has fathered two childrena girl, Bessie (Shannon Burkett), and a boy, Benjamin, who does not appear in the play. One is Episcopal, the other Jewish. He also has two wives, the mothers of these children: Theo (Frances Conroy), a minister’s daughter, and Leah (Katy Silverstone), also an insurance agent. The play ignites when the two, unaware of their co-equal marital status, come to visit him in the hospital and receive the shock of their lives. In a society that condones only sequential polygamy, their husband is that discomfiting anachronisma bigamist.

This is not because of lust, he argues, but because he has the potential to embrace, to love, to cherish and provide bountifully for both wives; he wants them boththe Protestant virgin and the good Jewish wifebecause he cannot bring himself to decide to divorce one or reject the other. He can’t bear the thought of hurting either one, and, besides, each satisfies different emotional and spiritual needs.

His wife in New York City offers him security, a loving daughter, respect and boredom. His wife in upstate Elmyra, N.Y., offers, besides boredom, a paradise of sexual delight and has delivered him a son, Benjamin, who symbolizes for him the love, duties and possibilities a Jewish father ought to have. Why should I be condemned? he cries out in anguish when all desert him; after all, he was only following his desires!

Yes, but at what cost! The two hours of drama that revolve around his bed explore the anguish, fear, fatuous dreams and guilt that flow from his indecision, from his refusal to choose. Lyman’s longtime friend and lawyer, Tom (John C. Vennema), argues that in trying to have all, Lyman has destroyed four lives, two families, his reputation andmost tragically comic of allhis business. As a study in moral ambiguity and ambivalence, this play is possibly more suited to today’s shifting sands of moral values and convictions than the established mores of Death of a Salesman. Though society says we may have it all, it is clear we often should not. We still must ask whether ethics is based only on individual desires and rights, or also on the effects of our actions.

Yet one senses we cannot dismiss Lyman’s grandiosity with a simple appeal to moral codes. In a sense, his question, Who condemns me? recalls Christ addressing the woman taken in adultery: Does no one condemn thee? Then neither will I. Lyman Felt’s sin is narcissistic and excessive; but the force of his desires expresses a profound human need. On Willy Loman, his friend and neighbor, Charlie passed a final judgment: Nobody dast blame this man. Arthur Miller ends his modern Everyman with a more curious blessing. When others leave Lyman’s hospital room, the African-American nurse stays. She had earlier felt the barb of his racism, but when he reaches out to her for conversation, no matter how boring, she haltingly talks about little things in her life like buying sneakers for her son. She starts to leave but stops to place on his cheek one kiss.

We desire absolution for guilt and seek certitude about the morality of our decisions. In examining this question, Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen purports to dramatize the meeting in 1941 of Niels Bohr (Philip Bosco) and Werner Heisenberg (Michael Cumpsty). Both men were pioneers in nuclear physics. Heisenberg had formulated the uncertainty principle, which stated that the more you know about the position of particles, the less you know about their velocity, and vice versa. Neils Bohr had related both particle and wave theories to understanding the nature of the atom by his complementarity principle. At the time of their meeting Heisenberg was working on the development of the nuclear bomb for Germany; Bohr was living in occupied Denmark, a clear enemy of Hitler and suspicious of his former student, who was coming to visit him after many years of separation.

As Frayn explains in his postscript to the published edition of the play, the meeting between the two scientists actually took place. What its purpose was, and what was said remain unknown. He examines what might have provoked this meeting. Was it simply to renew friendship, to discuss the future of nuclear science, to obtain assurance from the master, Bohr, that Heisenberg’s current work was heading in the right direction? Or was it to ascertain whether the Allies were working on the bomb? In any event, the supposed conversation leads the two scientists, under the prodding of Bohr’s wife (Blair Brown), to discuss the morality and responsibility of being involved in building bombs for Hitler, the Allies or anyone else. It emerges that the cool and calculating Heisenbergthe bad guy in the equationdid not in fact cause deaths. He failed to calculate costs correctly and never built the German bomb. The good guy, Niels Bohr, on the other hand, with his beliefs in the nobility of science and humanity, helped to build the Hiroshima bomb.

But is either man guilty? A web of motives and circumstances formed their decisions. But the threads become so tangled and frayed, that the morality of their decisions cannot be determined. The principles of both scientists descend with a cloudy blessing on their tortured reflections. We stand on the two-edged sword of choice and contingency. The uncertainty principle states that quasi-infinite perspectives of the same phenomenon still yield points of unknowability and calls for human choice as a norm for determining reality. Bohr exclaims, with the joy of a Renaissance explorer, that physics has returned the responsibility for reality to the mind and heart of man who determines, or rather chooses, what is to be real. Heisenberg shrugs that the merest chance, the coming together in complementarity of accidental circumstances, can determine a course of events with possibly profound moral effect. He attributes his survival to a thoughtless action, like the instinctive move of a skier, when he displayed a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes to a Gestapo officer, who accepted the Luckies instead of shooting him. Therefore, combining a whole set of contingent perspectives creates a course of action that seems just, though we can never be sure. We never know all our motives or all the contingencies surrounding them; that is the human condition.

A similar moral dilemma forms the center of Avow, a new play by Bill C. Davis. Like his earlier Mass Appeal, the play takes place in a church rectory; but the set doubles as a gay couple’s apartment. This ambivalence illustrates the conflict young Father Raymond (Alan Campbell) faces when asked to marry Tom (Scott Ferrari) and Brian (Christopher Seizer). He deftly handles the dilemma with compassionate refusal and even creates doubts in Tom’s mind about the relationship’s morality. Then Raymond encounters Brian’s angry sister, Irene (Sarah Knowlton). She is an attractive, unmarried, pregnant pianist who is counting on the gay couple to marry and adopt her child. She not only resents the injustice of Raymond’s refusal to marry them, but finds herself strangely attracted to himas he is to her. The focus of the play shifts from his original dilemma to conflicts within the two couples: the two men are separated by Tom’s scruples, and the lonely celibate is drawn to the child-carrying musician.

In this brittle scenario, the play becomes an overview of Catholic contradictions and compromises. Davis tweaks with an insider’s skill and gives all, the old and the young, a chance to voice their views. Father Nash (Reathel Bean)the clerical Dutch uncle every curate needscounsels patience as Raymond struggles with his vocation. In the confessional, he prods Brian’s distressed and dithering mom, Rose (Jane Powell), into tolerance. The pious housekeeper, Julie (Kathleen Doyle), grudgingly voices her opposition that priests are special and shouldn’t marry, while Irene fulminates with chthonic resentment against a man who does not consider himself worthy of love. The plot heads for the finish line when Brian strips to his shorts for what, in any traditional comedy, would be a seduction scene. In their (inoffensive) reconciliation, the two men create a sensitive and fun relationship that is recognizable, if not acceptable, to everyone.

Father Raymond breaks the stalemate with Irene when he gets fed up with celibate loneliness and goes to spend a night (chastely) with her. Converted to compassion over legalism, he announces the gay couple’s banns in church. The child is born to his two uncles and grandma, and the priest and the woman are left in a state of suspended exhilaration. Though the comedy maneuvers us to root for the gay team, the original problem is not solved, unless by some general absolution that says, This is the only way to be human. Regarding what the church or any other institution believes, Irene simply comments, Who cares? Maybe those who are seriously caught in the dilemma still do.

In Tom Stoppard’s self-possessed cosmos of intellectual badinage, it is refreshing to sight stars that, despite their orbit in a professedly amoral universe, nonetheless move us with compassion. The Real Thing goes beyond the other plays in examining life’s ambiguity and looks for the reality that inhabits words both on stage and in life. Basically, it asks how we know love is the real thing. Not a bad question for a play that opens like a soap opera about swapping spouses among those we label theater people.

In the first scene, Max (Nigel Lindsay) and Charlotte (Sarah Woodward) watch as their marriage collapses like a house of cards; but in the second scene we learn that it was just a scene in a play called precisely that, House of Cards, written by Charlotte’s husband, Henry (Stephen Dillane). But their marriage is really ending because Henry is in love with Max’s wife, Annie (Jennifer Ehle); by the end of the act, they are live-in lovers. In Act Two Annie and Henry have been married two years, and the search for the real thing continues. Henry tells his (and Charlotte’s) teenage daughter Debbie (Charlotte Parry) that carnal knowledge, as the Bible calls it, is rightly named; lovers know each other and give to each other far beyond what words can say.

Words define, but only partially reveal. To Charlotte marriage is a bargain, with sex either thrown in or enjoyed outside. To Annie it is an adventure without remorse in mutual trust, support and affection. To Henry, who is subsequently described as the last living romantic, it is a commitment that involves misunderstanding, jealousy and pain. For all, marriage is a process of learning to live with its failure, its ambiguities and renewal. In the context of these definitions, the real thing may be discovered.

Their life in theater illustrates the ambivalence. Annie’s acting career takes her to Glasgow, where she has an affair with an actor, Billy (Oscar Pierce). But, as they perform onstage, one is not sure whether this is meant to be real or is simply their performance as incestuous lovers in Ford’s Tis Pity She’s a Whore. When she returns to Henry in London, the scene mirrors the opening of House of Cards: the wife returns home to a suspicious husband. But Henry and Annie, unlike the theatrical lovers of Act One, hammer out the difference. They learn commitment means accepting life’s ambiguities, ambivalencesand even infidelities.

But the characters in this play will never accept the ambiguity of language. The comic side of this drama involves a Scots terrorist named Brodie (Joshua Henderson), whose offense of burning a funeral wreath on a war memorial is far outweighed by his mishandling of the English language.

Annielike many actors who seek relevance through political activismis currently involved in the cause to free him from prison. Henry resentfully ghostwrites a bad play she puts on for the Scotsman’s benefit. Brodie is singularly ungratefulbesides being inarticulateand the bickering about words and meaning reaches a climax when Annie smashes a bowl of dip in the lout’s face. A classic pie-in-the-face ending to a domestic farcethat was a near-tragedy.

Why are we entertained by uncertainty? Does it describe our present state more accurately than the clear values of, say, a few years ago? Or are we intrigued by people who have solved life’s problems as tentatively as we have? No doubt we identify with the ambivalence and ambiguity in our own decisions and commitments. It is a well-worn adage that serious drama ought to be on the cutting edge. To reverse the metaphor, these four plays prune theater down to its basics: words and actions that force us to ask what is to be said about life.

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