Repetition can be good for the soul

Opinion: Ken Trainor

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter

By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

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.


Reader Comments

1 Comment - Add Your Comment

Note: This page requires you to login with Facebook to comment.

Comment Policy

Ed McDevitt from River Forest, Illinois  

Posted: July 31st, 2014 3:55 PM

Thanks, Ken, for this provocative thought-piece. It reminds me of a poem I came to love after thinking I disliked it. In our play-reading group the monthly host picks a play, casts it, has a rehearsal and presents it on a Saturday evening in her/his house. Some years ago my wife and I chose to present a reading of Edgar Lee Masters' "Spoon River Anthology." I had recently read the poem and was quite taken with it. My previous encounter with the poem was in a college American poetry class. The professor disliked Romantic poetry, and scorned "Spoon River" because he found that sin in Masters. So I read it with prejudice. We planned the reading carefully, using both the poem itself and some ideas from the 1963 Charles Aidman play based on it. The poem is a long series of statements, complaints, asides, laments, and joyous reflections by the cemetery's dead from the fictional town (based on Lewistown and Petersburg, IL). The 244 characters each speak, a few more than once, with their sense of the truth of living in their town. We chose a representative number of segments. We had no rehearsal. Upon arrival each audience member had an assigned seat on which were several poem parts to be read on cue. From my sequence plan I simply pointed to each reader when it was time for a character to speak. We used Michael Smith's song "Spoon River" as background. The plan worked even better than we thought it would. Everyone was very moved by the experience. Two years ago on a road trip through Central Illinois, on IL-97 in Lewistown we saw the sign for Oak Hill Cemetery, which we realized is the cemetery of the Anthology. We stopped despite the rain. The cemetery supplies a pamphlet identifying the graves of the poems' personages, showing both their fictional names and their real ones. We spent an hour wandering up and down the hills of the cemetery, thinking about how proud Lewistown is now of something that caused no end of controversy and pain to its resid

Facebook Connect

Answer Book 2017

To view the full print edition of the Wednesday Journal 2017 Answer Book, please click here.

Quick Links

Sign-up to get the latest news updates for Oak Park and River Forest.

MultimediaContact us
Submit Letter To The Editor
Place a Classified Ad

Classified Ad

Latest Comments