Aren’t they waitin’ for the eternal part in them to come out – clear?
-- Thornton Wilder, Our Town
Look you: the stars shine still.
-- John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi
“Tormentor” is a theatrical term. On the pictorial stage a tormentor is a “substantial wing,” curtain or panel, whose purpose is “to mask [another theatrical term] the off stage edges of the setting.” It hides things that are not to be seen – things obscene – so that the important thing can be seen for what it is, or rather, for what it seems to be when the obscene is concealed. To the players however, the obscene is revealed. That is the difference between players and audience. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, said the wizard; Dorothy and her party were caught in an untenable position.
Two tormentors, Bosola the stage manager and a nameless Stage Manager, hide and reveal the obscene on platforms separated by three centuries and a rupture of stagecraft. In the graveyard of Grover’s Corners, the dead wait under the stars for “something important and great.” The Stage Manager hides then reveals the obscene indifference of Emily’s recent life, the earth-part that “burns away, burns out” on the hill. Webster’s tormented duchess longs for her grave, accounts this world a tedious theatre and plays a part in’t against her will. Bosola, staging obscene shows of deceit to break her soul, offers in consolation the painted truth above their heads. She curses the stars, though her true and ironic curse has “a great way to go” to hit the mark.
The stars are distant; in the medieval world they will not change, and in the modern world we cannot change them. Webster’s stars were what they were; constant as the painted heavens of his stage, they judged the histrionic duplicities below. Though Wilder’s stars are on voyage to their death, the archaic light that tells their epic takes eons to arrive. Lives explode and burn out while starlight falls at timeless leisure.
The brute sacrality of ordinary life is obscene to us. We cannot bear it. Its light alone would break us. Too much glory in “coffee and new-ironed dresses,” so we throw over them a veil of ignorance. That’s the scandal of Our Town – Incarnation denied by simple people, by those who stay where “things don’t change much.” The Town – Disney’s as well as Wilder’s town – is the American symbol of what stays put when we abandon our mothers and fathers. Unwilling to have our business known by those who would keep us in our place, we leave for the City, where we put on new costumes and audition for new characters. All the while we trust the people we rejected to preserve the shrine of our true and original selves, marking our progress and its direction, measuring our skill in new impersonations. But when, like Emily, we return to relive our truth, we find that they – and we when we were one of them – have betrayed that trust. All is shrunken, extinguished. What did you expect? Who do you think you are?
The City – that’s where Webster lived. A Renaissance city, place of no origins, where the very idea of essence is plucked from the firmament. That’s the scandal of Malfi – Incarnation contradicted by complicated people, by those who change on a breeze and forget their last pose. The City is the symbol of reinvention, and of possibilities not imagined yesterday. From his place a little lower than the angels, the city man sees alternatives. Enlightenment is born here, and its matching melancholia. We learn that power lacks divine right: “Search the heads of the greatest rivers in the world, you shall find them but bubbles of water.” One stream is as good as another. Bosola sees through masks but cannot find his face in the mirror. Who does he think he is? He comes to himself only after, in one of his roles, he has killed what he most admired.
Ordinary and extraordinary: both conceal the Incarnation. Stability and flux. Sincerity and Performance. As Is and As If. Each by turns is obscene. The Image of God will not rest on either side of these great divisions. O no, it’s not so simple, so boring as that. We must be good, and we must be true. Goodness can hold me together, and truth, though it makes me free, can break me. Sub specie aeternitatis there are no guarantees. The stars “shine still,” doing “their old, old criss-cross.”