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A City that will not Scare

By Helen M. Whall

Helen M. WhallI teach Robert Lowell's poem, "Skunk Hour," about a third of the way into my first-year literature class. That's just about when 18-year-olds, having received their first College grades, may have caught a faint whiff of disillusionment, making Lowell's poem a bit more accessible to them. At the end of "Skunk Hour," we learn the speaker is standing on his back porch. There, in the late autumn of "Nautilus Island," he has been reflecting on the island's decline and his own preference for an earlier, more idealistic era. But in those last two stanzas, he watches as a "mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail." His tone shifts when he declares, "She jabs her wedge head in a cup / of sour cream, drops here ostrich tail, / and will not scare." The skunk has learned how to thrive on the refuse of our world. Maybe the speaker can, too. My students add "epiphany" to their vocabulary. They will use it often throughout their college years.

I had an epiphany of my own back in April while attending the annual Renaissance Society of America Conference, held this year in New York City. I learned that the young for whom I have feared so much in recent years have learned to make the best of the scraps my generation has left them. That realization came to me as I experienced New York for the first time since 9-11.

The Conference was fine, as academic conferences go. Better than most, actually. But it was the "free" nights in New York that made an expensive trip worthwhile. At Holy Cross, I mostly teach Shakespeare and Renaissance drama, though I also offer the occasional drama survey. As I pass into my anecdotage, I wryly watch as repeat students nudge each other in anticipation of my "what's the matter with theater today" speech. Next time I teach such a course, I think I can drop that sermon. Because now, representatives of my former students have found a way to recycle the remnants of tradition and modernity. Inspired by New York itself, young playwrights, like the true life residents of a much bruised city, "will not scare." Finally, there is a bridge generation between my own and the one I teach. Scared though I sometimes am, I left New York with a sense of hope.

Theater tickets remain far too expensive, so I sent my husband to secure "twofers" at the Times Square Ticketbox. While waiting in line, he tells me he was startled to encounter actors from the chorus of big budget musicals like Wonderful Town and Gypsy working the crowd, inviting tourists to help keep their shows running and themselves employed. These actors will not return to waiting tables without putting up a fight. They have instead adapted to the realities of our sagging economy. Impressed though John was with their tenacity, he nevertheless opted for new productions set in a new New York.

First, we saw Avenue Q. I laughed with delight as puppets and people challenged the notion of what could be done on stage as well as in life. Always the professor, I wondered if the authors were inspired by Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair, wherein a puppet lifts her skirts to silence a protesting Puritan. (Puppets don't have "offending" sexual organs). But that was a flickering thought. I quickly surrendered myself to the team of Lopez, Marx and Whitty, young men who have composed an uncynical musical for a generation forced to "lower its expectations." But these writers have not lowered their expectations either of art or of truly decent human behavior. They may mock the form they master, but they also celebrate the values of tolerance and compassion which my former students learned on Sesame Street.

Avenue Q is, finally, an old-fashioned musical. Boy meets girl, obstacles separate them, boy gets girl. But so does boy get boy. And both puppets and humans learn to tell the difference between monsters and monstrous action. The chorus sings that everyone is "just a little bit racist." We need to let the small stuff slide so we can fight for the big stuff like equal opportunity. Funny and wise, Avenue Q insists that we accept all our neighbors on one very long New York block.

Those long New York crosstown blocks can pose a challenge to non-puppet people on a rainy night. On evening two, finally aware that we would never flag down a cab, my husband and I climbed into a bicycle rickshaw. We did so with some trepidation. I mean, seriously, Manhattan is not sedate Charleston, South Carolina, where first we tried out such old-fashioned, newfangled transportation. But still buoyed by the youthfulness of Avenue Q, we decided to risk our aging bones to the skills of one very lean woman and her bicycle built for three.

We headed off to see Match, written by the 30-something Stephen Belber, performed by the gracefully aging Frank Langella and the youngish Jane Adams and Ray Liotta. Our rickshaw driver, who must have the calves of a highland dancer, swerved in and out of traffic as she pedaled us toward Broadway. We talked about her current job and how hard it was to make a living in The City. She knew all of the shows and thanked us for catching Match while it was only in previews. I have a suspicion that our stalwart driver is an aspiring actor living off the constant traffic jams that clog Manhattan. I didn't ask; she and l clearly knew the boundary lines that separate public from private discourse. She got us to the Plymouth Theater well before curtain time.
Just as Avenue Q has found a way to sing in and about the 21st century, Match finds its way back to the humanity of realistic drama. Only now that reality centers on a sweet, funny man who teaches classical dance at Juilliard. Sixty-two-year-old Toby has let his career as dancer, then as choreographer for operas consume his days, even though he has savored every moment of his life. But now he finds himself alone, living in Inwood, an "affordable" neighborhood only 45 minutes from anywhere! (Real New Yorkers in the crowd helped cue out-of-towners to New York inside jokes).

Warm and funny, like the musical playing next door, Match brings together two generations and reveals our need for each other, no matter how different we might first seem to be. But there must be clear rules of engagement. Toby, despite his promiscuous youth, has had no sexual contact in six years because he "refuses to touch" his students. Mike, the young cop from Seattle who comes to call with his wife, at first seems blunt, bigoted, even brutal. But he both learns and shows us the difference between truth and honesty. He forces Toby to take "responsibility" for his life and what that life has cost others. Meanwhile, he takes from Toby the joy of finding connections, even, or especially, those that transcend blood. This play, too, is finally a very old-fashioned drama. It's hardly King Lear, but like Lopez and company (and Lowell's skunk), Belber has licked the rich cream out of thrown-away containers.

On Saturday, we let city buses take us to the Met and Madama Butterfly. Even this old opera took on new resonance. The Met played it straight, allowing the audience to hear a newer, public sadness that time has added to the libretto. Cio Cio San and B.F. Pinkerton forever court in a beautiful world, a world called Nagasaki. B. F. Pinkerton forever proclaims the superiority of America. And, inevitably, Madama Butterfly ends in betrayal and death. But there is beautiful music that assures Cio Cio San's story will always be told.
Afterwards, we could hail neither cab nor rickshaw, and it was too cold to retrace our bus route. We eventually "contracted" with one of the questionable limousine drivers who now trawl for tourists between assignments. Our driver entertained us with stories about chauffeuring baseball players. As did our rickshaw driver, he also shared his mixed feelings about the upcoming Republican Convention. But he, too, had found a way to thrive because of difficult circumstances and refused to scare.

Over our four days in the City, I had talked to dozens of ordinary New Yorkers who spoke in the dialects of a world. I learned to retrain my ear in order to understand them. What I heard was a repeated refrain. Counter-workers and bellmen and cabbies talked about "their" city and the last few, rough years. What I heard is that in New York, everyone may be "a little bit racist" as well as a little bit outrageous. But New Yorkers, given a chance, are also kind. And of a kind. Whereas a person has to be third-generation to claim native status in most American towns, a New Yorker need only adapt to that big city's ways in order to become a New Yorker.
My epiphany was provoked not by any one play or memories of a poem. It was granted by the city itself. Over four days, I came to see that New York is also Every American's city. It is a place of courage and vitality and compassion—as well as of cons and bluffs. It is a city whose people have found a way to recycle pain and loss into art, even if that art is, for most, the one known as daily living. What is happening in New York can happen anywhere. I left New York ready to teach the young again, relieved to know that they had a future after all. And that I still had work to do.

Helen M. Whall is an associate professor of English at the College.

 

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