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Wonderland Un-Eclipsed (Or, the Best Play I’ve Seen in Years)

“‘In vain,’ I cried, ‘though you too touch
The new time’s desecrating hand,
Through all the noises of a town
I hear the heart of fairyland.’”-GK Chesterton

Last night, I was privileged to enter into fairyland in the heart of New Orleans. Indeed, every New Orleanian knows innately that fairyland’s borders lie right around eachcorner. The scent of a nearby crawfish boil or the strains of jazz carried by the winds of our city keep us ever in proximity to that child-like land of milk and honey. Yet, last night, in the middle of City Park, the sheerness of the veil was illuminated and, like a scrim on stage, revealed the heart of the child that lies in each one of us.

The play was “Alice in Wonderland” and it was staged (if ‘staged’ is even the right word: a whole garden is used as the acting space) by the formidable artists at the nolaproject theatre troupe ( Complete with the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, the Queen’s Croquet, a disappearing-reappearing Cheshire Cat and the countless other characters, Wonderland was re-created in the NOMA Sculpture garden. It was a “choose your own adventure” style performance, where audience members pick their guide when they purchase their ticket. You could run with the Red Queen, prattle along with Alice or watch the Mad Hatter and Co. re-enact the whole story from the comfort of the Tea Party.

Now that you know the facts, you must be made aware of the more essential information: the nonsense. It is timed to coincide with the sunset, so the play begins in daylight, passes through twilight and ends in almost darkness. The statues in the NOMA garden, including a few token Rodins and Renoirs, are poked fun at and even made into characters. The young adult cast does more cartwheels, somersault, singing and fighting than occurs at your average kindergarten recess. Finally though, and most significantly, the lines of Lewis Carroll are delivered flawlessly in casual, if not flawless, British dialects. All these elements are sown together by the outdoor location, which provides punctuations of bird songs, wind, cloud and crunch as one steps across the grass to reach the different sets. So intoxicating and inviting is the experience that there moments of almost somatic surrender. I have never in my waking life questioned whether I was truly dreaming or just daydreaming until last night’s production. It was like the last chapter of the “Man Who Was Thursday” brought to life. (If you have not read GKC’s masterpiece, you need to drop what you’re reading and read it now).

Now that you have the nonsense, you should be made aware of the substance. This staging of Alice in Wonderland has, at it’s foundation, the same essential message (I won’t call it a “lesson” or “moral” for those words are just not silly enough!) that Chesterton makes at the end of “The Ethics of Elfland.” The message is, to quote the Mad Hatter, “that the world needs less facts and more mystery.” Children are often right, and adults are often dead wrong, when approaching the question “Why?” A child is comfortable waiting for the story to unfold, whereas the impatient adult wants the answer right away. Alice is happy to travel through Elfland for hours. Tedious and terrible adults can barely stand the place for a few minutes. Yet, humanity needs Wonderland, for a land without wonder is hardly worth fighting for, much less living in. God looked into the Abyss and said “Let there be light!,” there by conquering in one Word forever the darkness of a mere dark fact.

The veil of fact was held up to the light last night and what shone through was the Divine spark dwelling in actors and audience alike. We are all children playing in the Garden, even if most of the time we are acting like naughty children who have spoiled the Trees. The message at the end of the tale (for, again, it was neither a lesson nor a moral) is that learning to say sorry in the right way and learning to share your talents with God and others are the ends we must pursue. It is a message that every child of the Father must learn. Sometimes, nonsense is a better teacher of these truths than all the facts in the world. In a society increasingly organized by economy, bureaucracy and efficiency, I am tempted to change that “sometimes” to “most of the time.” Instead, I will leave you with this paraphrase of the play’s penultimate line; “I am sorry for being selfish. I am not sorry for being imperfect, but I will try, in both cases, to be better in the future.” Wonderland can and does bring us this message. Just remember that the border between here and Wonderland is paper thin…

Misérables Without Christ

I very rarely decry my public school education. I value the experiences it gave me, the lessons it taught me and the affection it showed me: and all that for free. But as I have grown more and more into the adult world, I am amazed at just how much it left out in leaving out God. And while it is true that I was never persecuted for my faith (as current public school students are beginning to be) it is an unfortunate fact that God was never invited to the party. Much of my post-compulsory education has been the gradual realization that God is indeed everywhere, even academically. Every great thinker spoke on Him, either to search for Him, embrace Him or deny Him. It is only our current age that chooses to ignore Him entirely.

The latest example in my own pilgrim’s progress has been the reading of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables . Growing up a theatre kid, I was well acquainted with the characters, the plot and the themes of Les Mis. I have heard the songs, seen the play and reflected on the show many times. Yet, even when enjoying the haunting Castle of Cosette or the On My Own of Eponine, it always seemed like there was something substantial missing from the stage rendition. The music made it emotional, the backdrop of the French Revolution made it epic, but still something was lacking. It felt like they had left out some important character or neglected some important plot point in the story arc. I cannot explain precisely why I felt this way: I only know that I had this sneaking suspicion that something significant had been abridged from the tale. When I read the novel recently, I found out that all of my suspicions were true. The Broadway version does indeed leave out an event, a character, a plot point and a moral. The politically correct script writers left out God.

Hugo’s original version is not the epic-melodrama that Americans are familiar with. It was, rather, an epic story of conversion. With chapters entitled things like “Christus nos liberavit” and a whole section of the book dedication to the Bishop of D— who grants absolution to Jean Valjean, Les Mis reads more like St. Augustine’s Confessions than it does The Phantom of the Opera, that other famous French melodrama. Yet, because of the watered down Broadway musical version, most people associate it with the latter rather than the former.

Here are just a few things I have learned:

1) The Bishop of D—, only a minor character in the musical, is actually a major character at the outset of the book. He is presented at the perfect, saintly Christian. Nearly 10% of the story is written with him as the guiding figure. When he dies, Jean Valjean goes into mourning much to the scandal of the town.

2) Jean Valjean is a devout Catholic. He attends Mass every Sunday and every funeral during the week. He employs nuns in his house. He prays for extended periods. In fact, when Fantine is rescued by him, she immediately falls for him because of his sanctity and prayer.

3) Christ is often referenced as the only true solution to “the miserableness.” Hugo returns again and again to the efficacy of the Gospel and Christian charity as the best and brightest hope for the poor.

4) In contrast, a character’s distance from the Christ usually works to indicate their level of enmity toward the heroes. For example, when Fantine is ratted out by a town gossip, Hugo goes out of his way to point out that this spinster was the widow of an apostate monk. He makes certain the his audience associates her distance from the church with her scheming and trouble making.

5) As any fan of the play would tell you, forgiveness and redemption are recurring themes in the plot. However, in Hugo’s original version, it is a specifically Christian forgiveness. Characters often frame their reconciliation with each other within the larger frame of their reconciliation with God. And before anyone argues that this is due to the cultural context, remember well that Christian reconciliation was NOT one of the priorities of Enlightenment-Era French society. Rather than imitating any popular movement of the time, Hugo was in fact making certain the both his contemporaries and all future readers should be surprised by the mention of Christ’s forgiving love.

Now that I have read the original Christ-inclusive version of Les Misérables , it has quickly become one of my favorite books. It’s wisdom and wit concerning institutionalized injustice and the plight of the poor is as valuable today as it was a century-and-a-half ago. Hugo’s point is clear: until men learn to love each other as God intended (and with the help of his grace), poverty will continue to be a blight upon our race, overshadowing all our supposed “progress” and “revolution.” As he said so well in his short Preface to the novel;

“So long as there shall exist, by virtue of law and custom, decrees of damnation pronounced by society, artificially creating hells amid the civilization of earth, and adding the element of human fate to divine destiny…books of the nature of Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use.”

The Top Ten Books Read in 2012, #7

I picked up #7 in Audible because frankly, I love William Shakespeare. I’ve read Shakespeare bios before, but this seemed so comprehensive. Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare covers it all and not just with hearsay. You can tell by the documentary evidence that he researched well this man’s life, a feat that is remarkable for there is little documentation on the world’s greatest playwright. 
Ackroyd wrote in a style that was both easily accessible to the lay reader while still being for the scholar a good source of biographical material on the enigmatic writer. He makes a lot of references to the plays using them as fodder for his thought.
Because Ackroyd is so thorough the audiobook clocked in at about nineteen hours of listening time. Needless to say, that was a lot of rides in the car, but the narrator, Simon Vance, is one of my favorite, so I didn’t mind.
If you enjoy Shakespeare, you would definitely enjoy this book.