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?