Thursday, 13 August 2009

When the statue moves

There are a few moments in film, opera and drama that always move me to tears. In Casablanca it's the bit where the Nazis are singing round the piano and Victor Laszlo tells the band to play the "Marseillaise". As the customers in Rick's Bar stand to sing and drown out the Nazis, I feel the familiar lump in my throat.

Resistance moves me. So does reconciliation - often the moment when parent and child are reunited. When, at the end of The Railway Children, Roberta finally cries out "Oh! My Daddy, my Daddy!" once again I'm moved to tears. The same happens with the less well-known reunion between father and daughter in Shakespeare's Pericles when the father summons up the sea metaphors to express his joy at seeing his sea-born daughter Marina:

"Give me a gash, put me to present pain;
Lest this great sea of joys rushing upon me
O'erbear the shores of my mortality,
And drown me with their sweetness."

There's another kind of reconciliation that affects me at the end of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro when the Count asks the Countess for forgiveness and she, in the most heartbreakingly sweet music of the opera agrees. In the reality of the 18th century, she doesn't have much choice. Beaumarchais' third Figaro play, La Mere Coupable, takes a more cynical view of the characters while Mozart's own music in the final chorus seems to anticipate the greater cynicism of Cosi fan Tutte.

But the betrayal the Countess forgives is nothing to the forgiveness shown by Hermione at the end of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale. Hermione cannot regain all that her husband's cruelty took from her. She has lost her small son for ever and has spent sixteen years in isolation, uncertain whether the baby stolen from her has survived. Her husband's guilt and suffering may be clear but he's still far from perfect as his reaction to Perdita and Florizel's romance makes plain. Yet when he stands before what he believes to be the statue of his dead wife, the audience usually holds its breath, willing the miracle that will bring forgiveness and reconciliation. And so, after long stillness, music sounds, the statue moves and the living woman reunited with husband and daughter.

This ideal of forgiveness despite deep wrong runs through many of Shakespeare's plays. In Measure for Measure, the would-be nun Isabella believes her brother has been executed on the orders of Angelo and still, at the pleading of Angelo's new wife, kneels to beg for mercy on his behalf. At least in Measure for Measure, the audience knows that Isabella's brother is still alive - but there is very little to be said in Angelo's favour. The most Isabella can say on his behalf is that he used the law to kill her brother and that he failed in his intention to rape her. When I find myself in tears at this point, it is not because I feel much sympathy for Angelo, or even his new wife who is never quite convincing as a character.

What moves me to tears is the generosity of those who forgive, despite their pain. It's an impossible, even risky act. In Hermione's case, it seems to be brought about by love but Isabella acts on the appeal from a woman who has helped her, sustained by the belief that mercy is better than the fierce justice that kills.

Forgiveness seems a long way from the public mood at present. I went to a school that required me to attend church regularly so I absorbed the words of the General Confession from the Prayer Book: "We have erred and strayed from thy ways, like lost sheep, We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, We have offended against thy holy laws, We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done, And there is no health in us: But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders; Spare thou them, O God, which confess their fault, Restore thou them that are penitent ...." This may seem like too much abasement but at least it united members of the congregation in the understanding that they required forgiveness as much as anyone else.

I wouldn't claim that Christians have a good record in offering forgiveness - history shows that many Christians in power have been smug, punitive, violent, racist and vicious. But that sense of the value of forgiveness, which comes from passages in the Gospels rather than the actions of so-called Christians, may have been lost for good. The rhetoric of justice - which is even harder to achieve - seems to have replaced any sense of the beauty of mercy and reconciliation. For me, forgiveness deals with the reality of fallible human people who don't seem able to avoid hurting one another but who are still capable of great love.

Future generations may still be moved by the singing of the "Marseillaise" in
Casablanca. Resistance to wrong will still be necessary. Roberta's cry as she realises her father is free will still be potent because his release from prison is a matter of justice and his restoration to his family a vindication of their faith and love.

But what about the works where flawed and unworthy human beings are nonetheless loved and forgiven. Will future audiences have any sense of why those passages from Mozart and Shakespeare move me to tears?


Anonymous said...

Who knows, if we could talk to Hermione and ask her more about herself, maybe she would sound a little like this, not seeing herself as special at all, just having other things on her mind than revenge.

Rabelais said...

That's a fascinating post. It makes me want to go back and re-read A Winter's Tale.

And your comments about reconciliation bring to mind a television documentary screened over here in Northern Ireland last week, called The Honeymooners.

An eminent behavioural psychologist studies footage of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness together when they were First and Deputy First Ministers respectively.

Paisley and McGuinness were for decades implacable foes but what the psychologist highlights in the programme is the genuine regard and chemistry that seemed to exist between the two men during their time in office together - their body language, the way they laughed together, topped and tailed each others jokes and comments before the media with comfortable ease is extra-ordinary. But there is one scene in particular which I find very moving - and I have to confess that being a bit of a hard-headed Leftist with grave reservations about the current political settlement in Northern Ireland I don't well-up easily. Its a scene were Paisley and McGuinness are in the USA. Paisley is surrounded by young Democratic Unionist Party apparatchiks. all looking self-important and busy. As the group approach a set of steep steps McGuinness takes the older, ailing Paisley by the elbow and helps him to negotiate his way down the steps safely. As the psychologist pointed out in the documentary, despite being surround by young party allies who are apparently supposed to be looking out for their elderly leader, it is McGuinness whose hand is on Paisley's arm guiding him with care down the steps. It's a small thing, a fleeting moment. But seen in the context of decades of violence and acrimony, it's absolutely breath taking.

Anonymous said...

roberta gets me every time too, and the way you describe forgiveness is painfully accurate.

Kathz said...

Thanks for these useful comments. I think it was cide-hamete's link that brought to mind a poem of Auden I particularly like, his 1940 elegy for the exiled German poet, playwright and political activist Ernst Toller. The line is "Lest they should learn without suffering how to forgive" - a strange line but one which seems to suggest that forgiveness isn't the simple matter that it seems when we tell children to say "sorry" and make up.

In response to Rabelais, I didn't see the documentary you mentioned but did notice how the extremists on both sides in Northern Ireland found they had much more in common with one another than with the well-meaning politicians and diligent bureaucrats had with one another. It's perhaps not so surprising that this includes an awareness of human weakness - and even instinctive humanity.

We live in a world in which there's a lot of pressure to divide the human race into three categories: the monsters, the innocents, and the rest of us who share common sense. But one of the hardest things to deal with - and at the moment most politicians and newspapers try to evade this - is the way in which even people who do monstrous things also share a common humanity with the rest of us. And the elevation of innocence is also dangerous, especially in the cliché "innocent victims," because it suggests that imperfection (or human fallibility) might invalidate people's right to sympathy or justice.