Never Done: In the Wake
How often do you find a character in a movie, a play, or a novel who you really, truly, deeply identify with? It only comes along every now and then for me, and it just happened again: Emily from Lisa Kron's new play, In the Wake. The last time I identified so strongly with was Jessica from the movie Kissing Jessica Stein.
Those of you who know me and have seen both, can you spot the trend?
I think it's an upward trend. The Jessica Stein character was so horribly conflicted about everything in her life -- but then again, I was too at that stage of my life. What I love about Lisa Kron's character is that she is NOT conflicted. She might have a giant blind spot brought on by her middle class American socialization (and how much do I love Lisa Kron for writing a play about middle class American socialization!?) but she is not actually conflicted. She wants everything. She says as much. And she sets up a situation in which, for a while, she has everything. (No spoilers here, and this is not a theater review, so I'll stay away from discussing what happens in the play, and why.) I'm interested in the question of whether or not it is possible to have everything we want, and how class-bound the question is.
From a Mussar POV, I am most interested in how the characters in In the Wake are all thinking about the effects of individual actions on the other -- personally, politically, privately, internationally. The play explores questions of fairness, and in particular looks at the question of who expects fairness, and who doesn't. Fairness has always been super important to me -- but I have never believed that it looks the same for everyone. From my earliest years, I rebelled when someone would refuse to look at someone's individual situation, and instead just enforce the rules. (This still really gets me, and it's one of the hardest things for me about living in New York City. One of the great luxuries of growing up in a very small town is that people have time for each others' extenuating circumstances.)
So, can fairness be subjective and individuated? Or is that, by definition, not fairness? I think it can. I don't mind sometimes getting the short end of a deal if I can see that someone else gets something that really makes sense for them. I would certainly choose that over a bureaucratically-made decision that ultimately benefits neither of us as individuals. I think that real fairness between two people comes when two people agree on what best cares for their mutual and individual interests. I think this model gets exponentially harder when the groups of people get larger, which is why we rely on laws, bureaucracies, and institutions to protect us -- but I'm going to let that go for now, because what I so strongly identified with in the play was about interpersonal fairness, and not about institutional fairness. Reviewers are calling Emily, the character in In the Wake, selfish and unlikeable. I didn't think so. I found her questions bold and expansive, and found it exhilarating that she believed that one person wanting everything could lead to the best for everyone.