Something’s wrong somewhere.
— Clifford Odets (Golden Boy, 1937)
Something’s wrong somewhere.
— William Saroyan (My Heart’s in the Highlands, 1939)
It’s unlikely that Michelle or Barack Obama have read or given much thought to American playwrights Clifford Odets and William Saroyan. Both men found their soaring voices during the Great Depression—great grand-daddy of the “Great Recession.” (Frankly, I prefer to call it what it is, “Great Depression II.”) Then, as now, it took gutsy artists to cut through the rich-slime world of Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers Hollywood fantasies, to announce that the Emperor and Empress were wearing nothing but their vanity.
Perhaps it was easier then! Americans still read and the informed and urbane actually went to see plays with bite and social relevance. There was a labor movement, and men would stand up in their union halls and they learned how to hone their truths with hard-edged words about “bosses” and “the working man.” Women would read Hans Christian Andersen’s fables to their kids, and teach their children frugality and compassion for the less fortunate. They told the old stories–folk tales about right and wrong, monsters, and decency. Poets like Edna St. Vincent Millay took up the cause of Sacco and Vanzetti when they were scape-goated as anarchists. One of the most popular men in the country was Will Rogers, who would spin his lasso over the floor, and wryly comment that he only believed what he read in the papers—and everyone knew that meant he didn’t believe a word of it—and neither should they!
No one twirls the lasso anymore; Americans may be the most de-contextualized people on the planet. About a month ago I caught a TV glimpse of Mother Michelle down on a beach on the oil-slicked Gulf of Mexico, urging her countrymen to come on down: enjoy the water, gulp the gumbo, support the economy! A couple of weeks later, there she is in low-cut evening wear—nice cleavage, First Lady!–trying to out-cougar Naomi Campbell! Seems there’s a gala at the White House, starring billionaire beetle, Paul McCartney. Flash-forward a couple of weeks, and there she is with 10-year-old Sasha at the most expensive hotel in Spain. Word is the First Family is picking up the tab for their “personal expenses,” but tax-payers are out at least $375,000 for fuel for Air Force 2, expenses for accompanying Secret Service, staff, etc. (A mere $6500 per night for the hotel—not counting room service!)
Hey, what’s a lousy $375,000 these days?—chump-change for a little mom-daughter bonding. Ask the unemployed oyster-shuckers on the Gulf Coast what it’s worth. Ask Mr. and Mrs. Dispossessed American, losing their house to the bailed-out banks.
Just don’t ask the Clintons. Apparently, they’ve no problem shucking $2,000,000 for daughter Chelsea’s wedding. Remember when Hillary’s failed presidential bid ran up a huge debt? The Dems boo-hooed: Help poor Hillary pay back her stiletto-heeled dupes! Remember the Haiti earthquake of 6 months ago? There was Bill and new pal, George Warmonger Bush, doing their soft-shoe routine in the rubble of Port-Au-Prince, holding out their hats for American kids to send their pennies to the starving kids of Haiti.
Last I heard, there’s still a lot of starving kids in Haiti, and a whole lot more of them in Iraq since the American invasion and occupation. How many kids could $2,000,000 feed?
Moscow is choking, Pakistan is drowning, Gaza is withering, war clouds gather over Iran and Korea… dead zones in the oceans… but, rejoice! Chelsea has married her investment banker!
Something’s wrong somewhere!
Nine years after 9/11, and no one has bothered to build scale models of the twin towers and shoot scale-model jets into them to show how such a free-fall collapse could or could not have occurred! We’re lost in the spin machines, “science” and “truth” serve the state and money, and we can laugh with Bush over missing weapons of mass destruction—and missing limbs on Iraqi kids!
We have no context for the hurrying images of our post-modern, technological existence: merely a fading mythological memory of Herculean heroes—Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln—all of whom, on closer inspection, had feet of clay. The long-sustaining, post-war vision of the future—the dream of a brave and independent people creating lives of fulfillment and security—recedes as we approach, and we find ourselves in a hell-hall of mirrors with nothing but distorted images of corrugated figures of “the working man,” “blue-collar,” “professionals,” “progressives,” “conservatives,” “man,” “woman”—and looming over all, like gods, giants and the Biblical Nephilim—our “celebrities,” the Colossi of fame and fortune whom we love and fear and worship, for they possess the power of life and death.
Perhaps if we had a literary history, perhaps if we were still a people who read and thought, and supported activist theater… perhaps then we would be a people who could learn and grow in maturity and depth of vision. Then we might understand plays like Odets’ and Saroyan’s, and Eugene O’Neil’s The Hairy Ape—poem-dramas about the dignity, even heroism, of “the little people.” Then we might be wide-angle people with some comprehension of the breadth of human history; even our own–short, blood-drenched, and syncopated with acts of courage. We could meet and tell each other our stories. We’d gear our education, and evaluate it, not on the sham of No Kid Left Behind programs, and the equal sham and shame of Bush-era test-oriented “teaching,” but on how well we told our stories, how well we acted under pressure; and the core, humane values we shared.
But we have no literary sense of ourselves. We do not see the great plays of the past acted on our wide-screen HDTVs, with their endless sports, killings, canned-laughter, packaged news and commentaries, unreality shows. We have Law and Order re-runs and spin-offs to teach us of the dangers of our streets and our sole salvation in the surrendering of self to official—and, increasingly officious and intrusive—authority. Mindless sitcoms demean life and trivialize the struggles of the “common folk” (actually, the majority). We no longer know how to talk to one another, to hear the simple eloquence of truth and moral character. We’re a nation of pretense—hollow men and women, parading like mannequins in the malls of our children’s nightmares.
I know that the past can acquire rosy hues. I don’t bemoan any loss of the worst of it—the waste, ignorance and abuse. But… what cataracts have we grown that we can’t even see through the glitterati who possess and oppress us now?