Let’s face it. If you live in New York, chances are you’ve got a bit tough skin. It’s a necessity. The inhuman speed of the place. Strangers shoving past on the subway platform. New York Post headlines blaring out from every street corner. Billboards as far as the eye can see. The hubbub, the pretension. The grit, the grime, the grift. We’ve seen it all, here in this fair metropolis. We have every reason to be jaded.
Add to that reasons why any American might be jaded. The economy going south for two years and just now creeping back up. Joblessness. Lack of health insurance. The endless dicking around in Washington and the vulgarity of the media that covers it. Horrifying acts of violence perpetrated on innocent bystanders.
And if all that isn’t bad enough, we’re smart and informed. We know that even if things get to feeling pretty okay here, they are far from okay somewhere else. Say in Afghanistan, or Burma, or Taiji, Japan where they’re still slaughtering all those dolphins. Have I ruined your day yet?
My point is there are very real reasons why cynicism often reigns supreme, in New York and elsewhere. With everything going on, some days it feels trivial or even downright irresponsible to take an optimistic point of view. But the truth is that optimism is good for the soul. Embracing optimism is what allows the human spirit to soar. Yet how can you do it when the world is what it is?
This is the very question asked by the playwright Christopher Fry in his amazing work The Lady’s Not for Burning. With outstanding humor and largeness of spirit, Fry offers characters who occupy an array of positions along the optimism-cynicism spectrum. A war-torn soldier, whose estimation of the world is so bleak after seven years of killing that he asks to be hanged. An outcast woman who believes the world is what it is and nothing more. A poetic convent girl who marvels at every moment’s new experience. A suppressive mayor befuddled by challenges to his status quo. A judge, both familiar and comfortable with methods of torture. A young clerk in love. These unforgettable people collide amusingly -- yet dangerously -- on the eve of both a wedding and a witch-burning, and what unfolds amounts to a compelling debate on the merits of life and death.
I don’t mind telling you that in the final tally, the playwright embraces optimism – but he does so without denying cynicism. It is not a Pollyanna story. Written amidst the devastation of post-WWII England, Fry’s play acknowledges, indeed emphasizes, that the world can be a very dark place indeed. But he also shows us that the lightness of the human experience will triumph if we let it. He reminds us that even in the darkness, we can still clasp hands and know that we are not alone.
As a playwright, Christopher Fry is fascinating and I look forward to learning more about him. What I know now, I love. He was a Quaker and sought to portray, in his own words, ''a world in which we are poised on the edge of eternity, a world which has deeps and shadows of mystery, and God is anything but a sleeping partner.” I mean, come on. How beautiful is that? And then there's this, from his obituary in the New York Times in 2005:
He said he wrote his plays in poetry because that was ''the language in which man expresses his own amazement'' at the complexity both of himself and of a reality which, beneath the surface, was ''wildly, perilously, inexplicably fantastic.''Don’t you feel you could use a little more amazement in your life? A little more awareness that this life, beneath the surface, is wildly, perilously, inexplicably fantastic? I know I sure do. In fact I’m downright craving it. What else could be a better antidote to the grit and grime and grift? Which is why I’m devoting the next six months of my life to sharing this play with all of you, and all of New York, and all of the world. I think it's that worthwhile.