By Ken Trainor
It's summer, traditionally the season of "reruns." I don't follow any TV series, but whenever I see a movie I like, my impulse is to see it again. On Facebook recently, someone challenged us to name films we've seen multiple times. My list would be very long. Sometimes a film doesn't hold up on repeat viewing. But often I like it even more, and I always "see" the film better the second time around.
That applies to the stage as well. Festival Theatre's outdoor offerings this summer included Shakespeare's Hamlet, which I've seen many times before, in film and onstage. What once seemed a tale of an irritatingly indecisive prince who spends far too long working up the nerve to avenge his murdered father now seems a much richer, more complex work. This can be attributed to Festival's fine production but also to my own added life experience since last I viewed it. I never realized, for instance, how young Hamlet is. This time I could not so easily dismiss him as dithering. There are reasons for his indecision. Why did I assume it would be nobler to rush to vengeance like his foil, Laertes? Is he showing cowardice or moral courage in waiting to be sure before he takes another human life? I had more respect for his humanity.
Great drama, seen at different stages of life, and hopefully with expanded humanity, leads to deeper understanding.
It happens with books too. Every time I see the film Out of Africa, I pull out my 40-year-old copy of Anecdotes of Destiny by Isak (Karen Blixen) Dinesen — storyteller extraordinaire, played in the film by Meryl Streep — and re-read my favorite, "The Immortal Story," which was made into a film by Orson Welles many years back. An old, sick and very rich merchant in Canton, China at the turn of the last century, nearing the end of his life, is outraged to discover the existence of stories that aren't true. He decides to take an old wish-fulfillment tale told by every crewman on the high seas — about a wealthy man who pays a sailor to make love to a young woman in his well-appointed house — and make it "come true." He gets much more than he bargained for, and so do the individuals he pays to take part. A story about a story that becomes real. But reality is far too complex to be contained even by a tall tale. On this reading, Dinesen's story seemed infinitely richer than I remembered.
I also re-read Our Town, the great American play by Thornton Wilder, which he described as "an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life." The extraordinary in the ordinary. He succeeds spectacularly, in ways I did not understand as a younger man.
"You've got to love life to have life," says the stage manager during Act 2, "and you've got to have life to love life. It's what they call a vicious circle." But also a lovely circle. The more life you have, the more you love life, and the more you love life, the more life you have.
This weekend is the annual Friends of the Oak Park Public Library Book Fair at OPRF High school, a good opportunity to shed the old and stock up on the new. But some of the new reads can be "old," which is what happened a couple of summers back when I found a copy of this play. I plan to re-read it every summer from now on.
"I wanted to pile up a million details of daily living with some sense of the whole in living and dying," Wilder said in an interview about his depiction of life in Grover's Corner, New Hampshire. "I think it the business of writing to restore that sense of the whole."
It may also be the business of re-reading.
"The generations of men follow upon one another in apparently endless repetition," Wilder wrote in a preface to the play. "They are born; they grow up; they marry; they have children; they die. Where shall we seek a 'value above all price' in these recurrent situations? …
"In the last act of Our Town, the author places upon the stage a character who — like the members of the audience — partakes of the 'smallest events of our daily life' and is also a spectator of them.
"She learns that each life — though it appears to be a repetition among millions — can be felt to be inestimably precious. Though the realization of it is present to us seldom, briefly and incommunicably. At that moment there are no walls, no chairs, no tables: all is inward. Our true life is the imagination and in the memory."
Re-viewing, re-hearing, re-reading. Works of art can be revived and renewed as we enter new stages of our lives.
It's summer, the season of many happy returns.