Archive for May 14th, 2014

Stanford performs Priestley’s play about the 1%. That’s us.

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014
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Weston Gaylord. Ethan Gotlieb Wilcox. and Kiki Bagger

It all comes together: Weston Gaylord and Jim Carpenter in “An Inspector Calls”

When I heard that Stanford Repertory Theater was about to present a new production of J.B. Priestley‘s “An Inspector Calls” (beginning May 15 and continuing to May 24), I rifled through several rooms of books to see if I could find my beat-up Penguin edition of the 1945 play. I vaguely remember having loaned the volume to … someone.  I would feel more moral indignation if a few of other people’s volumes hadn’t drifted into my own library. And that is precisely to the point. More on that later.

priestley2

Come back. I miss you.

According to Director Rush Rehm, this particular play is “an ideal way to confront our community with the responsibilities of privilege, and to expose how wealth and privilege breed an abiding complacency. For all the so-called ‘liberal guilt,’ many of us refuse as a matter of course to admit the role we play in the injustice and suffering of others. Priestley’s play explores individual guilt, to be sure, but his most devastating critique lies in the systematic way privilege builds a wall with the wider world, and the consequences of our privilege on others.”

“I hope audiences are intrigued, surprised, moved, and ultimately motivated to think harder about the ethics of wealth and privilege. The play works a kind of magic built on mystery, and as we’re discovering in rehearsal, it explores real human behavior. The characters are anything but cardboard, and in their strategies of self-defense and denial, we see ourselves at work. It’s so timely, and so now, and (although set in England 100 years ago), it is so about us. Silicon Valley, Stanford, most of us will recognize a version of ourselves on stage.”

I was intrigued by the play when I first read it decades ago, but for another reason.  It’s one of Priestley’s “Time Plays,” influenced by writer P.D. Ouspensky (1878-1947) and the Irish aeronautical engineer J.W. Dunne (1875–1949), who (according to Wikipedia) “proposed that our experience of time as linear was an illusion brought about by human consciousness. He argued that past, present and future were continuous in a higher-dimensional reality and only experienced sequentially because of our mental perception of them. He went further, proposing an infinite regress of higher time dimensions inhabited by the conscious observer, which he called ‘serial time.'” The others plays in the Penguin edition that had Priestley’s portrait on the cover (see above left) were “Time and the Conways,” “I Have Been Here Before,” and “The Linden Tree.” There were others – “A Dangerous Corner,” “The Long Mirror,” “Johnson Over Jordan.”  In these plays, time suspends or reverses itself, repeats itself endlessly in a Nietzschean eternal recurrence, or else it stays forever in deep-sixed treasure chests that can be retrieved at will, or not. (If you have seen Groundhog Day, you get the general idea.)

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It’s all still here. Now.

“My theory, partly, is that I consider him a religious man,” his son Tom Priestley told the Cambridge News, “although he wasn’t party to any particular faith. He believed there was another side to life beyond getting up, going to work and doing the shopping. And at a time when science was very much coming to the fore I think he find the theories about time gave him, let’s say, a new look at life.

“It suddenly seemed a different way of explaining things. And again, I think bearing in mind the horror of his experiences during the First World War, and his affection for the Edwardian time, if you believe that time is not just a straight line that passes, then the good times are still there.” That, anyway, is part of the idea behind Time and the Conways.

Priestley considered himself a socialist and a man of the people, and I suspect he might have gone for an interpretation of  An Inspector Calls that focuses on privilege and deep pockets. But I think wealth merely serves as an avenue to agency – a sort of magnifying glass for everything in you already. People with more agency generally have more power to do good or evil. That’s why Shakespeare usually wrote about kings and not about shoemakers or chicken-pluckers. The “evils” committed by the Edwardian North Midlands family in this play include a furtive affair, the unfair dismissal of a worker, a nasty snub, snapping at a sales clerk – can any of us claim to be wholly innocent of any permutation of these?  Not, from what I’ve seen at Stanford – or anywhere else. It’s so easy to project these human failings onto the evil “Other.”

sammiesI have the same reservations with the well-heeled protesters of the Occupy Movement. The real question is not what the “Other” should be doing to help, however just that might be, but what have I, personally, done to relieve human suffering? Not by making angry posts on Facebook or indulging in coffee-break rants – but with my own handy-pandies?  And that is something Rush Rehm and I had a memorable conversation about, oh, about 7 years ago. (I remember reading once that rock star Michelle Philips made sammies for the homeless in Los Angeles. Now that’s a mensch.) We could all afford to walk a bit more humbly in the world … and speaking for myself, I have a lot to be humble about.

It’s not a matter of letting heartless zillionaires off any hook, but rather the simple recognition that I have a much greater control over my own choices than I do over the choices of other people – and that my heart could use a little work, too. And focusing one’s rage and, frankly, hatred on the “Other” can so often be a self-righteous mask for that 4-letter word I’ve written about before: envy. I find that the rich resent the über-rich more than the poor do. I live in a city where houses sell for between $1 and $2 million, where 20- and 30-something Silicon Valley billionaires ride $20,000 bikes. And yet the anger towards the über-rich seems more passionate here than in the Latino districts of nearby Redwood City. Someone wrote on a friend’s Facebook thread yesterday, “Once the technology has been perfected and everything can be accomplished by robots and the resources are in their grubby hands, the 1% will leave us all high and dry.” Well, here we are. This is the place where that technology comes from.

globalrichlistIn these “time plays,” Priestley offers us a little foray into time. Let me offer one into space. Check out where you own income puts you on the worldwide scale – here.  Shocker: you’re probably in the top 1%.