February has come and gone and we are nearing the Ides of March. With February’s departure, peace in Europe also skipped town. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine abruptly changed the atmosphere of life in Paris. Yes, the reverberations are felt even this far away from the shrieks of artillery and human agony. Dinner conversations now are dominated by discussions of Putin’s mental stability and conflicting scenarios of Europe’s future in the next months (or years) in the shadow of another maniacal tyrant. Are we prepared for the sacrifices that will have to be made if the war escalates and extends beyond the borders of Ukraine? Do we have an escape plan, a plan B? Have we reviewed the protocols for nuclear disaster? Iodine pills on hand? Really? We’re going to go there? The matters of war and its repercussions were not a part of our retirement plans. And I’m sure they were not woven into the retirement dreams of most Ukrainians either. But here we are…
Since our arrival in France, I have become somewhat obsessed with the history of European bloodshed confronting me daily in the monuments, architecture, and street names of the city. I have watched a number of documentaries and films concerning World War II, in particular. Each time I vicariously enter the real or imagined conflicts among Europe’s various cultures, I wonder at the magnitude of destruction and horror that has been so much a part of this continent. But then the Beacon Journal, Akron’s daily newspaper, arrives in my computer’s inbox and I’m reminded of the outrageous violence that permeates life in the USA: police brutality, serial killers, domestic abuse, civil rights violations, rape, and random cruelty. Can we forget the American continent’s history of genocide, slavery, racism, and continuing oppression of workers, outsiders, and the unfortunate? Sometimes it seems so futile to try to fight against humanity’s tendency towards savagery. There is no escape plan. There never has been.
Recently, American Theatre magazine asked on its Facebook page: Do you believe that theatre can change the world? I spent a good many of my (soon to be) 67 years making and doing theatre. I never thought that theatre could change the world. But I knew that it could change me and could (maybe) change some of the people working with me or those experiencing the rehearsals and performances with me. Now that I am taking a sabbatical from theatre (the first in over 50 years), I let my imagination wander and sometimes naively think that perhaps I was the boy with his finger in the dike. When I stop doing theatre, the world is inundated with evil. Of course, that’s ridiculous (and oh so arrogant) but, damn it, what can we do?
I guess this musing is really about dread. At the beginning of the year, as I went about my daily tasks, I realized that I was just about rid of the sense of dread that I had been living with for so long. The responsibilities of running a non-profit theatre, seeking funding, constantly defending one’s existence, along with my job as a university professor, the onus of reading thesis after thesis, preparing classes, and justifying one’s existence to inept administrators—all of this created a heavy burden, which was offset by the waves of creativity, stimulating collaborators, and joyous theatre practice that formed the foundation of my professional and personal life. But, even after moving to Paris, there was a residual dread from the weight of that burden that stayed with me and I was only just beginning to experience real levity again, when war reared its ugly head. And the dread has returned…
…in the form of Poutine (as the French spell and pronounce Putin’s name). Poutine. I can’t help picturing, every time I hear his name, a giant plate of greasy frites (French fries) topped with thick, disgusting gravy and cheese curds. A vomitous Canadian concoction.
Except when it’s good, it’s really, really good. And now, I’m going to borrow (and completely change) an image from Spalding Gray’s brilliant monologue, Swimming to Cambodia: While seated at a lovely dinner table, I see this mound of brown, dung-like muck in front of me and I calmly place my arm beside it and slowly sweep the bubbling morass crashing to the floor. I straighten my sleeves, place my napkin in my lap, and reach for my glass of fine French wine.
No more dread.