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Possessed by the Past
“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” So says Stephen Dedalus, in the second chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses, in an attempt to avoid his conservative schoolmaster employer’s oppressive (and anti-Semitic) theologizing. The history from which he longs to awake is one of national subjection to the British crown and the Roman church. But it reflects as well a consciousness that resistance to this condition itself can summon nightmares. Dedalus’s personal history revolves around a nightmare of resistance: he is haunted by the ghost of his mother, who died begging him to pray for her, which he conscientiously refused to do. The chapter begins with his teaching his students about Pyrrhus, and the Greek general’s victory could be his mental template for history itself: any apparent triumph will prove disastrous for the victor as much as for the vanquished.
This is not, to put it bluntly, the way Americans have typically approached history. When we are not declaring that it is bunk, Americans have frequently claimed to be exempt from history’s laws, and have even declared it our national mission to bring history to a happy conclusion—something that, thirty years ago, we flattered ourselves that we had in fact done. If history was a nightmare, then to be an American was to wake up. While dissenting voices have long called for us to learn from history’s lessons, and to have a greater appreciation of the contingencies and calamities of the history we made on this continent, to describe our history as a nightmare would have seemed foreign to most Americans only a few years ago.
That may no longer be the case. As our politics has grown increasingly apocalyptic in tone, our understanding of history has grown more nightmarish. From the “woke” left comes the charge that 1619, the arrival of the first slaves in Virginia, was the true founding of America, our history from that point onward an extended effort to deny and compound our original sin. From the right, meanwhile, comes the suspicion that the liberal political order that defined our nation from its inception also planted the seeds of degeneracy and decay, and that by now we may have sunk so far into the quicksand on which we were founded that the best hope for concerned citizens might be to secede from national life and build communities able to survive a coming dark age.
How might that change shape art informed by a historical consciousness? I found myself confronted by that question attending three very different works of narrative art, taking three distinctive yet contemporary tacks as they approach a history whose nightmares have begun to invade our waking days.
To be “woke” is not to wake from the nightmare of history, but to be awakened to the nightmare, to an understanding that the nightmare is real, while our happier self-conception is only a dream. If that is correct, then Slave Play, by Jeremy O. Harris, playing on Broadway through January 19, is a landmark example of “woke” art. It is exceptional not only because of the quality of the work but also because it fully embraces the cul-de-sac that this understanding of our nation leaves one in, rather than fantasizing a way out.
Slave Play begins on what appears to be an antebellum Southern plantation, where a black female house slave (Joaquina Kalukango) breaks from sweeping the floor to dance to Rihanna’s “Work.” A white overseer (Paul Alexander Nolan) comes in, and the dialogue that commences has the stiltedly suggestive quality of pornography. He complains about the slave’s laziness, and, when she protests that the floor is clean enough to eat off, he throws a melon to the floor and demands she eat it, which she does, moaning with delight. We segue into another, even more lurid scenario, one involving the plantation’s mistress (Annie McNamara) and a male house slave (Sullivan Jones) whom she is determined to seduce, followed by a third scenario involving two men, a black slave (Ato Blankson-Wood) who oversees the work of a white indentured servant (James Cusati-Moyer), whom he commands to literally lick his boots.
These scenes run toward parallel climaxes, sexual and dramatic, until the slave in the first scenario demands that the white overseer call her by a racial epithet in the middle of intercourse. Suddenly, he backs away and cries out, “Starbucks!”—a “safe word.” The three couples disappear backstage, and two white-lab-coated women (Chalia La Tour and Irene Sofia Lucio) emerge to set out chairs for the three couples—now in civilian clothes—to sit in for their next session.
What we had been watching, it turns out, was an experimental therapeutic role-play designed to help black partners in interracial relationships reconnect with white partners from whom they have become sexually and romantically estranged. Act II is the talking portion of the therapy, where they will “process” what took place in the sexual role-play.
When I first saw the play in its off-Broadway run, I was both surprised and delighted by this turn. The role-play scenarios were obviously not to be taken at face value, but I wasn’t sure how they should be taken; the revelation of what was actually going on struck me as both a great joke with ample satiric possibilities and exciting in its own right if (like me) you find the psychodynamics of romantic couples intrinsically fascinating. And while the play tries to have it both ways—it takes the experiment’s premise quite seriously but also heartily sends up both our therapy-sodden culture and the Afro-pessimism that undergirds this particular therapeutic practice—this turns out to be an effective strategy for keeping the audience invested in what is, ultimately, a somewhat static drama.
It is static in part because that is the nature of therapy, in which character is revealed not through action but through the artifice of self-overhearing, but also because the play doesn’t invest in the full humanity of all eight of its characters. The second couple, Alana and Phillip, have an extravagant backstory (they met when the woman’s former husband hired her now-partner to have sex with her while he watched) that, remarkably, neither seems to have thought about or discussed much, while the gay couple, Gary and Dustin, are obsessed with the minutiae of racial identity in a way that is hard to imagine anyone sustaining outside a university setting. Revelations emerge about the black partners’ understandings of their own identities, the ways in which they have lived their lives masked to themselves, but they would be far more moving if they came from more substantially realized characters.
Instead, the only ones who feel fully real are the couple we began with, Kaneisha and Jim—she quietly furious that he broke off their role-play when it was finally working for her, he angrily convinced that the whole process of the therapy was destroying their relationship rather than restoring it. We follow them home for Act III, where Kaneisha finally tells Jim in so many words what was going wrong with their relationship: she had finally come to see him as white, and that poisoned everything.
Jim is British, you see, and when they met he read to her as foreign, and therefore not a part of her world, not implicated by her perceptions of black and white. But over time this changed, and now, when she saw him, she couldn’t help but feel the eyes of her ancestors upon her, accusing her of sleeping with the demonic enemy. Jim listens, finally; a great deal of time in Act II was spent demonstrating that the white partners in these couples are far too willing to speak to, for, and over their black partners than to listen. He takes in what she is saying without anger and defensiveness, until he finally bursts forth in the character of the overseer from the top of the play. Sneering, he forces Kaneisha onto the bed and penetrates her brutally, until she screams out, “Starbucks!” At which point he collapses, weeping, while she composes herself, and concludes the play with, “Thank you for listening.”
How are we supposed to take this conclusion? What Jim has done in the end is not simply listen to and acknowledge her feelings but respond to them—presumably in the way he felt she wanted him to, finishing what he could or would not finish in Act I. I saw the play twice, first off Broadway at the New York Theater Workshop, then on Broadway, and the line played very differently in the two productions. (The Broadway production was more emphatic throughout about telegraphing to the audience how it should respond, perhaps because the actors had to play to the balcony seats but perhaps also because the director had less trust in a Broadway audience. Whatever the reason, I preferred the relative subtlety of the off-Broadway version.) The first time, it felt like a possible new beginning: now that she knew Jim was listening, Kaneisha was ready to explore whether and how they could repair their relationship. On Broadway, it felt more like an ending: you finally listened, and now we both know that we have no future together.
But in either case, Jim is left weeping. If what Jim does in Act III is what Kaneisha needs in order to be erotically and romantically engaged, then it seems unlikely he will be able to give it to her. Sexual incompatibility is far from unheard of among couples of all races, including couples who once enjoyed mutually satisfying sex lives; there’s no guarantee that understanding the problem will solve it. Even if this is supposed to be a breakthrough for them as a couple, we can’t yet know what kind of breakthrough it might be.
Neither is it clear what this catharsis (if it is one) has purged. The conviction that the history we carry is what stands in the way of intimacy isn’t necessarily false (plenty of therapists would indeed start with personal history in looking for the root of such problems), but history by definition cannot be changed, only our relationship to it. What has changed here, though, is not Kaneisha’s relationship to history—which would indeed require Jim to listen to her, and accept her feelings—but Jim’s willingness to enter into her relationship with history, and facilitate her reenactment of that history upon her. That feels less like a road to healing than an agreement to share and love the wound. But it also feels like a bridge too far to read the end as tragic, and the play as aiming to purge the audience of that barren desire.
If Slave Play depicts a community so haunted by the past that even loving couples cannot see each other as individuals but only as exemplars of their race, Heroes of the Fourth Turning depicts a community in such dread of the future that they can only tame it by thinking in archetypes.
The title of the play is a reference to William Strauss and Neil Howe’s theory of generational cycles in American history. Per the theory, each cycle of eighty to one hundred years encompasses four “turnings” corresponding to four generations: from a “high” in which institutions are strong and society is confidently conformist, through an “awakening” period of renascent individualism and creativity and then an “unraveling” period of institutional decay, to a period of “crisis” during which heroes are made who lead society to a new “high.” The four young people at the play’s center are the possible heroes of the coming fourth turning, which must be coming because their world, as they see it, is deep in the throes of crisis, signified by the near darkness in which the stage is sunk for the entire play, lit only by the last shreds of twilight from behind a mountain, and from the side by the light from inside a house we never enter.
If that sounds like a lot of theory with which to freight a drama, well, the audience is appropriately warned. The author, Will Arbery, was raised in a highly political and intellectual conservative Catholic home, the son of academics who taught at a remote Catholic college in Wyoming, and he has set his play among four of his fellow graduates—Justin, Emily, Kevin and Teresa—who have gathered to congratulate one of their former teachers, Gina (who is also Emily’s mother), on her accession to the college’s presidency. Being who they are, and educated as they have been, much of the play consists of their arguments among themselves, about what it means to be a conservative Catholic in America today, how they are supposed to live their lives, lives they have been taught must be lived purposively to be worth living.
As any good reader of Chekhov or Wilde could tell you, when characters talk about ideas, the ideas are not what matters. (One wishes sometimes that Shaw and Tony Kushner had understood that better.) Even when they mean what they say, that only means that they do not know why they are saying it, and the why is what the scene is really about. I watched Heroes in very much that spirit. I let their arguments—about whether they need to fight dirty and ally with ugliness to defeat the hated liberals or retreat into the Benedict Option, whether someone who volunteered for Planned Parenthood could be considered a good person or must be anathematized as evil, and so forth—wash over me, while I listened for who these people actually are.
The four characters represent, to some degree, four different dispositions. Teresa (Zoë Winters), who speaks almost continually and in perfectly composed paragraphs, has become a professional conservative provocateur, an Ann Coulter wannabe. She is the one who cites Strauss and Howe’s theory, and her entire being is oriented toward battle, turning outward in joyful fury to avoid ever looking within. Her opposite, Kevin (John Zdrojeski), a “soy boy” as she mockingly calls him, is a whiny child-man convinced, as she is, that the answers to his misery lie outside in some change in circumstances—a job, a girlfriend—that would rescue him from his loathed self. But loathing himself as he does, he has no belief in his power to effect such a change.
Justin (Jeb Kreager), much older than the other three, is a veteran who returned to school after his military service and is burdened by his passions. The first thing we see him do, before a word is spoken, is kill a deer; as he prepares to skin it, his hand shakes so badly that he cannot proceed. He was once married but is now divorced; he had a romantic entanglement with Teresa while a student, a violation of school rules for which he was surprised to be forgiven, but for which he has never forgiven himself; and now he loves Emily. This is a man who can love but who cannot trust that feeling, and is contemplating entering a monastery in order to escape it.
Finally, Emily (Julia McDermott), the daughter of the new president, is the only one of the four who truly seems to know herself and not to be in flight from it. So Arbery, as if to test her righteousness, has struck her with a Job-like affliction, a case of Lyme disease that wracks her with pain so crippling that she has had to retreat home to the care of a mother who distrusts weakness and frailty, and suspects her of malingering. Emily is the only one of the four—of the five, including her witheringly judgmental mother—to show compassion, and she shows it for everyone. But when she finally speaks from the depths of her own experience, what emerges is a blasphemous howl of pain.
New York audiences have read the play as a window into Arbery’s unfamiliar world, and he clearly intends it to be that. But while it is not an exposé by any means, neither is it a proper portrait. I discussed the play with a conservative Catholic friend who moves in some of the same circles, and what struck him about it was how demographically unrepresentative it was of that world. Many of the graduates of a school like the one in the play would have married in or just out of college. By their mid to late twenties, many would already have a child or two. Promoting and sustaining a life oriented around marriage and children is a large part of the purpose of such organizations. Why represent it by four figures who for various reasons had fallen off that path?
His suspicion was that, as the author himself was still unmarried (and had left that world), he picked figures that felt more representative to him of his experience—or that a secular New York audience might better relate to. But I see his choice differently. From the beginning of the play, we know that her former students have thrown Gina a party, but that she is very late in arriving, and everyone but these four have left. These are the left behind, the ones who cannot move on, take what the school has given them into the world and build lives. Arbery chose to focus on four broken, lost souls, arguing in the darkness, dreaming of being heroes, waiting for a leader whose message will be only disappointment. Their religious and political commitments are all about having a place, in space and in time, where they belong. And they have none.
Arbery’s subtle but ferocious indictment of the Christianity of this school, and the world it aims to build, is not that these are the kind of people such a place would produce, but that these are the kind of people it cannot help. I cannot help but see that indictment as closely related to the title, their desperate search for a place in history being related to their inability to find a footing, and meaning, in the present moment.
To be haunted by history is ultimately to be haunted by phantoms of our own creation. Windows on the past turn into mirrors in which we see ourselves, our present concerns, reflected. That is why we looked in the first place. Likewise, when we tell stories about the past, we are most often talking to ourselves about ourselves, making of the past what we need it to be useful in the present. Increasingly, we seek to make a virtue of this natural tendency to anachronism, and simply recast the past culturally, ideologically and linguistically, as Lin Manuel Miranda did in his hit Broadway musical, Hamilton.
There’s something to be said for that approach to binding past and present; Hamilton certainly deserves its accolades. But if this is the way the tide is going, then there’s special value for us in artists who swim against it, who use modern forms to show us the strangeness of the past and thus refresh our nightmares with something once familiar but now eerily foreign.
Robert Eggers’s first film, The Witch, did precisely that. Based on seventeenth-century New England folktales, it was in many ways a traditional horror film, with numerous elements familiar from the genre and copious references to classics like The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby. But the film refused to cater to contemporary concerns or sensibilities. The witch that torments the isolated Puritan family is a solitary old woman, but the film doesn’t treat her as a meaningful symbol, from a feminist or any other modern perspective. She is radical evil incarnate, an evil that finds purchase in entirely normal human frailty: in the husband’s pride in his own rectitude, the wife’s pain at losing a child, the son’s just-awakening adolescence, even the littlest children’s sense of imagination and play. And once active, the family cannot defeat it by courage or cunning, or even prayer; their earthly salvation is beyond human capacity to achieve. The story, which would ring terrible and true to a convinced Calvinist, to a modern audience might be irritatingly pre-psychological. The Witch is, in other words, the horror film that seventeenth-century Puritans might have made if they somehow had access to contemporary film technology and knowledge of film history.
In his newest film, The Lighthouse, which he wrote with his brother, Max, Eggers has gone further. He has put the present back in the past, to tell a story of what it is like to be locked up with someone strange and ultimately unknowable. It is both a period horror film akin to his previous outing, true to the spirit of its times, and a reflection on what it is like to wrestle with such a project.
The premise of The Lighthouse couldn’t be simpler. Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) arrives on an island off the coast of New England where he will live for the next several weeks, assisting Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) in tending the lighthouse of the title. At first their relationship is straightforward: Winslow is just interested in earning his pay and getting off the rock in one piece; Wake wants to make sure Winslow does his job and knows his place—and, specifically, never dares to approach the lamp of the lighthouse itself. But just before Winslow is due to be relieved, the weather changes. Storms prevent any boat from landing, and weeks stretch into uncountable months as the two men’s relationship deteriorates into a struggle for dominance, and Winslow specifically battles to maintain his identity and basic sanity.
The characters and the scenario are deeply indebted to Melville and Poe, with Lovecraft lurking in the shadows, and in that sense the film feels like another period piece aiming at spiritual fidelity to the past. And there is something profound but obscure at stake in their contest. The devouring light of the lamp, which Wake doesn’t just tend but bathes in ecstatically, is a metaphor that has burst its bounds, ranging beyond the divine or diabolical. Winslow’s own furtive worship is both pagan and pedestrian: he carries with him a tiny crude totem of a mermaid, which he masturbates to, until dreams of kelp-wrapped beauties begin to invade his waking hours.
Yet, as the film went on, I began to suspect that this was a more self-conscious effort than The Witch, and that this self-consciousness had something to do with what the Eggers brothers were up to. My first clue was the film’s language. Wake is a crotchety old salt, with a baroquely literary feel to his plainest speech, rising to truly operatic heights at points, such as a Deuteronomy-worthy curse prompted by an insult to his cooking. Winslow, when he speaks at all, is curt and blunt—befitting a character with a past to hide, as Winslow does. But as the weeks wear on, Winslow begins to question Wake’s own authenticity, to wonder whether he is a parody of the character he seems to be, while his own language slips occasionally (and amusingly) into what could pass for contemporary vernacular. Even as he retains all his human pettiness, Wake burgeons into a demonic or demi-divine antagonist for Winslow, gaslighting him about how long they’ve been on the island, luring him into revealing his own dark secrets, and, in one surreal sequence, turning into a figure of Triton wrestling Winslow into submission.
All of this could simply be the consequence of Winslow’s madness—but who is Winslow, and why does his madness matter? Much has been made of the mythological overtones of the film—Wake as a version of Proteus, the changeable sea god, Winslow as a version of Prometheus, on a quest for the knowledge of fire—but this sheds less light than one might hope. In the end, I came to see Winslow as a figure of Eggers himself, Wake of the past and its stories that Eggers sought to infuse with light (literally, by turning them into film). Holed up with old tales for weeks that stretch into months, laboring at a grueling unfamiliar task, asked to believe things you find incredible, assailed by a language that should display an authentic period eloquence (but does it, or has it become a parody of itself?), most of all, having to suppress your actual identity while you wait, and wait, and wait for the moment of enlightenment that never comes—how surprising is it that a writer on such an assignment would find himself turning progressively into Jack Torrance?
That doesn’t mean that The Lighthouse is a solipsistic film, referring only to the process of its own creation. On the contrary: the film is a caution for all of us who feel trapped with dead spirits of the past that obscure the faces of the living, or who fancy ourselves keepers of a transcendent light that must be kept burning even as the storms wash all our preparations into the sea. ♦
Noah Millman is a filmmaker and a columnist for The Week.
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