January 27, 2010 Volume 3 Issue 2
. . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .
By Norman Jones
A few weeks ago some of my theatre students lived with the same horror that their roommate—a Haitian—was experiencing: he had not heard from his family since the earthquake and his anxiety quickly became theirs. Many buildings in his hometown had collapsed and the event suddenly had new implications for the play we’d been devising together since early January. The topic? Uncertainty.
I’d chosen the topic well over a year ago because I’d begun to notice an emerging trend in theatre, especially since the September 11 attacks nine years ago. I saw an increase in the production of tragicomedies and absurdist dramas, those types of plays that were neither funny nor tragic but simply unresolved. No resolution, no redemption, no happy ending—or any ending for that matter, at least in the traditional sense. These plays had rarely been staged in the decade before that infamous fall day. But since then, more productions, for instance, of existential plays like Waiting for Godot seemed to be taking on a new and somewhat dark life.
Theatre—like all art—is one way people attempt to make sense of their lives. And certainly these latest tragicomedies offer audiences an opportunity to commiserate with others; a shared dissatisfaction with how the events of collective life have transpired. My students have even begun reflecting this attitude, engaging for the first time in my twenty-year teaching career with Beckett and Chekhov as their ‘favorite’ playwrights.
Have these horrendous events knocked the wind out of our American sense of security? Certainly September 11—and subsequent attacks—has revealed a new vulnerability, and with it, a new set of questions, launching what I think has become the current theme of our broader culture, uncertainty.
How then do we share such doubts? Or how do we confront them at all? It’s tempting to simply state the title of our original production and leave it at that: I Don’t Know, I Just Don’t Know. However, it may be helpful to unpack the term ‘uncertainty’ by employing a few theatre devising techniques in an attempt to redefine it.
In our daily decision-making processes, we confront questions. Where are my car keys? Who shall I marry? Why did this happen? We either wrestle with these questions and tackle them head on (we find the keys) or we become so frantic we stay paralyzed and resigned. Much of what we live in is a tension between the real and the surreal, the mortal and the immortal, the spiritual and the physical.
So some of the answers we come up with might seem certain but I wonder how many are actually counterfeits. I write on my Facebook page and think I’m engaging in a relationship with others. I deposit my money into a bank and think it’s safe. In our effort to avoid confronting the uncertainty, we allow time to make the decision for us. Attempting to define our certainties becomes a mix of uncertainties.
Put another way, our uncertainty may be redefined as mystery. In fact, faith is often described as the mystery of a Reality bigger than ourselves, the grandness of a God humans cannot fully understand, or he would hardly be God. Yet if we embrace such a sense of mystery, we may come to a place of ironic beauty and peace. Resolution. Comedy even.
Albert Einstein recognized this truth when he said: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.”
But where is the beauty when a plane collides into a building? Or when the earth groans and cracks? Or more closely to home, when our health starts to fail? What then do we believe?
For me, as one who has a degenerative eye disease known as Retinitis Pigmentosa, I have come to understand that the greatest certainty in my life—the God of Scripture—is also my greatest uncertainty. I have questions. And while the very tenants of the faith seem both impossible and absurd, I therefore stake my life on them. As the medieval theologian Tertullian wrote, “I believe it because it is absurd.”
This is what defines both comedy and mystery. The playwright Christopher Fry said, “comedy is an escape not from truth but from despair. Comedy is a narrow escape into faith.”
What would seem impossible becomes possible. The world’s events might not make sense but the questions and the beauty that can emerge as a result keep us moving toward others, toward honesty and service, coming along side those in need like the people in Haiti. That is one thing of which I’m certain.
Norman Jones, associate professor of theatre arts at Gordon College, is the director of the original show, “I Don’t Know, I Just Don’t Know” which runs from January 29, 2010–February 6, 2010. He and his wife Jean Sbarra Jones live in Salem, MA.