I just saw Mickle Maher’s new play, “There Is A Happiness That Morning Is,” about two professors of William Blake’s poetry, one who more or less embodies the Songs of Innocence and one the Songs of Experience, who have been caught in flagrante delicto en plein air (God I love my Romance languages) by the President of the college and have to deal with the consequences. It was a lovely ninety minutes.
I first saw a show by Maher last year, when I was effectively demolished by “An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening” in the basement at the Chopin theatre. I was absolutely astonished by Maher’s facility with language, imagery, humor, connection, and most of all his completely honest and naked depiction of the human mind coming up against death. I left that show feeling like a wild animal, like I was seeing the world through drunken but strangely clear eyes and that everything had morphed into unfamiliar angles. It can be tough to outshine that kind of experience, and this show didn’t quite, but still managed to move me and to confirm Maher’s mastery of the things I liked most about “Apology.”
We always experience theatre through the lens of our lives and our current preoccupations. It’s like reading a book–“War and Peace” is not the same book when you read it in high school as when you read it as a forty-year-old parent. Or, it is, but not to you. What you get from it, what it reflects to you, is different. (Note: I have not read “War and Peace,” but I thought it was a more sophisticated choice than “Harry Potter.”)
I find, in seeing plays, that what I am most immediately moved by is what touches me personally, the bits that resonate the most with my life and especially with my current imaginative and emotional life. The parts of “Next to Normal” that get me are the battles with an unseen mental enemy and the worries of a daughter that she’ll end up with the mental illness of her mother. These are issues I’ve faced. Other people resonate with the part of the husband trying to hold the pieces together. I cry at “The Phantom of the Opera” because I was born with a sort of facial deformity that, had I lived before my time, may not have been fixed. (A hemangioma, if you’re wondering. A sort of benign tumor of blood vessels perched on my nose. Not serious, and often they go away around age twelve, but I had my share of old European ladies who made the evil eye sign against my infant self.) I could have had to live as a freak, and so it’s the Phantom who gets my love and empathy.
What this means is that each play we see is an exploration, not only of a new place and time and group of humans, but of ourselves. Yes, I am aware of how schmaltzy that sounds. What I’m getting at is that Maher’s plays remind me of how theatrical, grandiose, and even melodramatic life can be. I wouldn’t have recognized this the way I do now a year and a half ago. It took my own near-nervous breakdown, because that’s what early last year was, for me to realize just how natural it actually is for someone to smash everything in a room, howl at the sky, knock her head against a wall. I never got quite to that point, but often it was the thinnest thread of restraint that kept me from it. We’re full of crazy. It’s the veneer of rationality and normalcy that’s the tenuous part. Alone, in my room, I do crazy things all of the time. And in a play, when you’re seeing lives at the point at which the stakes are as high as they can be, there’s nothing more natural than breaking the bounds of normal physical behavior.
I also had a thought about what I want from life. Here were two characters, both very intelligent, professors trying to examine but also fully live their lives and Blake’s poetry. That’s a path I have been tempted to take, and may well take at some point. I love the extensive thought, analysis, moments of epiphany, excitement in discovery and insight that can be found in intellectualism and academia. But I want to use the insights that those tools can give to make something worthy of study and contemplation in itself, not just another paper pointing out how someone else did so. I want to use my analysis skills to move and not just to impress or clarify someone else’s point.
Looking at my own personality, I have to be aware that jumping into academia and a teaching position would run the very real risk of filling my head with the analytic and speculative without necessarily leaving room or space for the creative. I need my down-time, and if I don’t get it everything, even the most fun commitments, feels like work. It of course depends on the field of study and teaching, but overstimulation is a danger I know myself to be susceptible to. I can get a million little tasks done in a day, but none of them are going to be brilliantly creative. That’s not how I work, not so far.
Anyway, most of this is just for me to have articulated somewhere. You can buy Maher’s work at hopeandnonthings.com, and I’m going to do so soon. (Although really–check or money order?) Don’t try Amazon unless you want to pay $104 for what you can get for $11.50. Good night, sweet princes and princesses, and flights of angels leave you alone because you ain’t dead yet.