Hiding in Plain Sight
January 30, 2020 (1,328 words)
I’ve managed to reach retirement age without ever coming in contact with To Kill a Mockingbird. Not the book that was published in 1960 and won the Pulitzer Prize. And not the movie adaptation that came out in 1962, and won Gregory Peck an Academy Award for best actor.
When Adam Sorkin wrote a new play that opened on Broadway in December 2018, based on Harper Lee’s famous book, I still wasn’t tempted.
But this month I had a hankering to see a show, and I’m partial to drama, so Mr. Sorkin’s play – a certified hit that’s still going strong on the Great White Way, one year later – is sort of the only game in town right now for people like me.
I’m really glad I went. There are poignant moments at every turn, and the performers never miss a beat or strike a false note. The entire cast does a first-rate job. Their truth-telling gently strums our exposed heart strings. When that happens there is nothing better than live theater, I do declare.
Even having no familiarity with the source material, which is set in Alabama circa 1936, one can sort of tell where the playwright tweaked a few things to help the proceedings unfold more smoothly for a contemporary audience. But that’s okay, since every one of those tweaks feels right.
One of the adjustments is how the kids in this play are much older than what they are portrayed as being in either the book or the movie. They sort of have to be, in order to pull off the dialogue and plot-forwarding they are assigned.
That’s especially true of the character of “Scout,” the de-facto narrator of the piece and daughter of the star of this adaptation, a small town lawyer by the name of Atticus Finch. The audience can tell she is “her father’s daughter,” and since she has been reimagined as someone closer in age to my own daughter, well, I was on tenterhooks throughout.
Another warhorse I have studiously avoided is the movie Howards End, which came out in 1992 and is based on the E.M. Forster novel published in 1910. It’s the third such E.M. Forster film adaptation by Merchant Ivory Productions, a team consisting of screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, director James Ivory, and producer Ismail Merchant.
It received nine Academy Award nominations, including for best picture, and won the award for best actress and best screenplay.
This one’s been on my Netflix cue for months now, but I kept dutifully scrolling past it without a qualm. Until the other night, when I found myself in the mood for a slow-moving period piece that would no doubt be good for me, like castor oil.
Surprise. Not only is the movie beautiful in every detail, it’s also a compelling story of class relations in turn of the century Britain. I guess I didn’t realize E.M. Forester had it in him. Shame on me.
It’s billed as a “romantic drama” and succeeds nicely on those terms. It’s also quietly evocative of the natural beauty to be found outside the big city, at the country estate that gives the movie its title. And, as one critic states, it’s an “intricate tale of love, hope, and cruelty, (in which) three families from different backgrounds find themselves intertwined in a complicated plot that will grip older kids and parents alike.”
I was especially drawn to the class relations and cruelty part of the story, which is folded seamlessly into the drama. It might be of secondary importance to many, but it’s what makes the entire piece so compelling to me.
Without wanting to spoil it for anyone, a wealthy businessman causally tells two free-spirited and unmarried sisters (Margaret and Helen) that the insurance firm where a young clerk of their serendipitous acquaintance works is headed for bankruptcy.
The wealthy businessman then authoritatively stresses to these youngish old maids if they really care for their protégé they should advise him to leave his post at once, since it’s easier to find a new job while currently employed.
The young clerk eventually takes the sisters’ advice, having no idea where that advice came from. But his new position is for a reduced salary, making him even poorer than he was at the start. Then his new company down-sizes and he is let go, leaving him destitute.
We see him applying at various firms and being turned away cold. At one point he tells one of the sisters, now his primary benefactor, “You can’t get a job if you don’t already have one. People look at you (when applying) as if you stole something.”
When in the course of events the plight of the clerk is brought to the attention of the wealthy businessman, he waves off any responsibility for the young man’s fate. “My dear Helen, I feel for your clerk, I really do. But it’s all part of the battle of life.”
Helen is incredulous: “The battle of life? A man who had little money now has less.”
The wealthy businessman is unmoved. “Come, come. No one is to blame. Helen, a word of advice: Don’t take a sentimental attitude towards the poor. The poor are the poor. One is sorry for them, but there it is.”
Now I don’t know if this social commentary line of storytelling is pure E.M. Forester, or a combination of Forester and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Either way, it’s bracing to see it be so integral to the plot.
There is illumination into life’s many vagaries to be found all around us, if only we are willing to take note. One thing preventing us from noticing more often may be our pre-occupation with entertainment.
We rightly enjoy our entertainments as a welcome release. Their spectacle dazzles and easily distracts us.
While art must have an element of spectacle to attract our attention, its benefits are more sublime.
Going to see a production of To Kill a Mockingbird is different than visiting an amusement park or attending a sporting event.
Art reveals things to us we may have overlooked, or perhaps forgotten in the course of our persistent strivings. These revelations serve to make us more human, better humans.
At the same time, we who are only part-time patrons of the arts must guard against being mindless consumers of a given art form, fixating on the personality of the individuals who create the art we get attracted to, and missing the underlying lesson.
It’s not enough, for instance, for the casual fan to indulge in a sort of bland hero-worship of an artist – in this case, the likes of Harper Lee or Adam Sorkin or E.M. Forster or Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.
Yes, they are talented people capable of creating captivating dramas brimming with piercing insights. Yes, their powers of observation may run to the exceptional. But they are not oracles.
We are all made of the same stuff. Artistic types have the same dimensions, senses, affections, and passions as the rest of us. They are subject to the same level of stress and emotional turmoil and moments of doubt as we all are.
The proper orientation is to receive what the artist offers and be grateful for the illumination he or she provides. But realize we have a responsibility to take these insights back home with us, and work them into our own daily routines, with the people we rub elbows with every day.
The secret of this life is that we are all lead characters in our own personal drama, charged with being the best human we can be. The objective is to express our shared humanity in the purest form possible, so that it’s unmistakable to those around us.
This is true even though most of us will never escape our relative anonymity. The practice of virtue is largely a one-on-one proposition, and does not require a wide audience to thrive.
Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
January 30, 2020