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A Sense of Community

lydie life sterling

People’s sense of community has changed greatly in the twentieth century. Yet there remains nostalgia for the idea of that smaller, supportive, physical community in which many people used to live and work. Reflective of this nostalgia, many dramatic explorations of community take the form of backward glances at how society used to be; some are attempts to understand and reclaim the strength of those social groups, and others are a warning about how limiting and limited such communities can be.

Inspired by the poem “Lucinda Matlock” in Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology , Thornton Wilder’s Our Town takes place at the beginning of the twentieth century. The play depicts the easy community of small-town America, as represented by Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire—the kind of town where everyone knows everyone else, and the daily rituals of milk and paper deliveries evoke a simple but rich existence. Yet the simplicity and popularity of the play make us forget its fundamentally radical style and theme at the time it was produced.

In a period when realism dominated the theater, like Bertolt Brecht’s plays in Germany and Luigi Pirandello’s in Italy, Wilder sought a different means of presentation, stripping away props and scenery to encourage audiences to pay closer attention to the cast and what is being said on stage. But where Brecht and Pirandello sought to alienate their audiences, Wilder seeks to engage them both emotionally and intellectually. With its bare stage, Our Town transcends a particular time and place, presenting a universal vision of what Wilder saw as the meaning of life, lived from day to day, wonderful in the very details of its ordinariness. Thematically, at a time when America faced despair at the peak of the Depression, Wilder offers a gentle message regarding the essential benevolence of the universe, despite the pain and suffering of life.

John Guare’s Lydie Breeze is the first in a tetralogy set in nineteenth-century America that centers on the fate of an attempted “ideal” community on the remote island of Nantucket, inspired by the verse of Walt Whitman and the desire to create a totally egalitarian society based on love rather than hatred or selfishness. The failure of this community to thrive is attributed to the misplaced greeds and passions of the individuals involved. No outside force doomed the ironically named Aipotu (Utopia spelled backwards); rather, the society’s downfall came as a result of the corruption of the people who began the community, manifest in their individual ambition, sexual jealousy, and human weakness. The play seems to suggest that, given the unavoidably flawed nature of humanity, any community built on idealistic principles is bound to fail, just as the noble dream of a true democracy in America has been tarnished by the forces of unfettered capitalism and materialism.

By contrast, August Wilson’s Two Trains Running considers the difficulties of forming and maintaining a sense of community in a beleaguered African American section of Pittsburgh in the 1960s. The play can be read as a compelling metaphor for many of the problems afflicting the whole of contemporary society. The characters we meet are by and large decent people, whose concerns and struggles are typical of those of us who struggle to survive in a world that often seems hostile to our needs and desires. The play illustrates, in microcosm, the evolution of a humanistic democracy, as the disparate personalities who come to Memphis’s restaurant gradually band together to form a unified community. More brutally honest than the idealized community of Our Town , Wilson shows greater weaknesses and strengths within his troubled social group, yet his depiction is not as pessimistic as the rotten society witnessed in Lydie Breeze . The characters in Two Trains Running may often behave as self-serving individuals, but by the play’s close they have also found the capacity to act, when necessary, as a mutually supportive social group.

Our Town offers a slice of small-town America over a period of twelve years, centered on the neighborly interactions of the Gibbs and the Webb families in Grover’s Corners, amid milk and paper deliveries, town gossip and news. The Stage Manager leads us through these people’s daily lives, sets each scene in detail to bring it alive in our imagination, and instructs various town members to contribute additional information about the town’s historical and social background. The courtship, marriage, and loss of the young couple, George Gibbs and Emily Webb, lie at the play’s center, from their early school days to Emily’s ghostly return after dying in childbirth twelve years later. As a ghost, Emily restlessly longs to rejoin the living, but after reliving her twelfth birthday comes to see that the past is forever changed by the knowledge of what is to come and one cannot happily go back, but she also gains a new appreciation of the wonder of life itself.

With no scenery or props, Grover’s Corners is vividly brought to life before us, indicating that the true spirit of any community lies in the individuals of which it is composed. Yet Wilder does not make his individuals complex characterizations but rather types, allowing Grover’s Corners to stand for any small American township. As a community, everyone knows everyone’s name and business, and together they celebrate the ups and downs of everyday life: the births, the marriages, the deaths. They chat as they eat string beans and attend choir practice.

These people’s dreams are modest, unalloyed by materialism or capitalistic designs. Ninety percent of those born in town end up settling there, even when they go to college. Dr. Gibbs is content with a vacation to visit Civil War battlegrounds every other year; their son, George, wishes to be a farmer. Mrs. Gibbs longs to go to Europe, but satisfies herself making French toast and leaving the money set aside for the trip to her son. Mr. Webb runs the town’s twice-daily newspaper; his wife spends her time canning vegetables for the winter, and his daughter, Emily, is also content to become a housewife.

Yet, despite the contented surface, there are aspects of Grover’s Corners that jar the audience. Simon Stimson, the church organist and choir director, is unhappy with small-town life. He drinks, and restlessly prowls the streets at night until he commits suicide. To make him fully representative of the type of person who is never happy, we do not learn the specifics of his troubles, but he remains bitter even in death. We also might have seen Emily as a woman with a future; academically gifted, she assists George with his homework. Yet he is the one elected class president and she his secretary/treasurer. This foreshadows her marriage to him straight out of high school to become his helpmate and wife, rather than pursuing any career of her own. But this is 1904 and Wilder is not concerned with gender issues, but with what he sees as a larger scheme.

Emily is initially restless as a ghost, wanting to return to the world of the living, but the dead mostly want to forget life as soon as possible because it is too painful to remember, knowing it is gone. It matters not that their lives may be viewed as trivial, because to them, as they lived them, they were not. As Emily relives her twelfth birthday, she becomes horrified noticing the details she missed at the time and is overcome with a sense of loss. As the Stage Manager suggests, it is only saints and poets who come close to appreciating life’s wonder while still living. But at the play’s end, while night falls, life goes on.

Wilder recognizes the brevity of human life on a cosmic scale and the commonplace fact of sadness and suffering in those lives—so much so that they are in some sense a part of those lives and what gives them shape. From the start we know from the Stage Manager that many of these people will die. Emily and George have nine brief years of marriage before he is left to mourn her loss with his four-year-old son, but the fact is, they had nine years of happy marriage. Indeed, most of the town’s inhabitants have been happy with their lives. What Wilder asks is that, along with Emily, we rediscover the simple joy of living—beyond pain, frustration, and failure—and relish the little details, because that is what life is about; their ordinariness is what makes them so special. It is a timely message for the Depression age, but its relevance has not diminished over the years.

Lydie Breeze depicts the sad repercussions of an attempt by a small group of idealists to form a utopian community on Nantucket Island. Founded by Lydie Breeze and three Civil War veterans—her husband, Joshua Hickman; Dan Grady; and Amos Mason—the community has disintegrated by the play’s start; all that remain are Joshua Hickman and his daughter, Lydie. Lydie Breeze and Dan Grady are dead, and Amos Mason has abandoned the community in preference for a political life on the mainland. With the aid of their serving girl, Beaty, young Lydie Hickman keeps alive the memory of her dead mother; her sister Gussie has left with Amos to pursue a better life. On Gussie’s return with Amos to visit her father, the community’s sad history is retold. When Jeremiah Grady appears to avenge the death of his father, killed by Joshua, it seems as if many of the original community’s mistakes are to be repeated. Truths surface, more people die, but the play ends with the promise of new bonds between family members and a reaffirmed hope for the future, as if recent actions had cleansed the community of past mistakes.

The play is an exploration of both the idealism that formed the community and the factors that caused it to break apart. In part, Guare sees the seeds of the group’s destruction in the very idealism that sparked its formation: idealism is always unobtainable given the rotten nature of people. The play uses syphilis as a central metaphor for the corruption that eats from within all attempts to build an ideal community. The syphilis is transmitted from Ned Grady, who has an adulterous relationship with Lydie Breeze, then from Lydie Breeze to Dan’s son, Jeremiah, with whom she perversely takes up after she loses Dan, and from Jeremiah to Beaty, whom he secretly seduces and abandons. The wrongful nature of these relationships is emphasized by the disease that has become part of each union. As Beaty and Jeremiah are discovered drowned together, just as Lydie Breeze had drowned herself, washed by the cleansing sea, there is the possibility that the spread of the disease (and thereby the corruption) has finally been halted.

The title character, Lydie Breeze, who had envisioned their society and named it Aipotu, destroyed her dream and herself through her misguided passion for Dan, her seduction of Jeremiah, and her own suicide, a final act of both despair and expiation for her sins. The loss of her lover and her dream of an ideal community, and the understanding that she was complicit in both, drove her to suicide. But it seems her actions live on and continue to poison the community—as Beaty teaches young Lydie to hate men and her own sexuality, and young Lydie exhibits a strained and suspicious relationship with her embittered father. Joshua had begun by believing in the possibility of Aipotu, but having both his optimism and his innocence destroyed by his own jealousy and spite, he became the self-pitying, bitter drunk we see. The intense hatred   and murder to which he was led are clearly antagonistic to the life principles on which the community had been formed. Jeremiah carries on this negative tradition in his desire for revenge, and it is not insignificant that he has made his fortune playing the monster in a stage version of Frankenstein .

Until the memory of Lydie Breeze can be viewed with love rather than hatred, no one on the island can move on. Jeremiah’s intrusion, even when he decides to ask for forgiveness, only worsens matters, as Joshua realizes the apologetic suicide note his wife had left was not intended for him but for Jeremiah. But the close of the play—with Joshua reconciled with his daughters and reading with young Lydie the inspiring words of Walt Whitman that had first inspired her mother—suggests that a change has occurred. Lydie is also given new hope by the sympathetic and kindly Jude; Gussie, too, finds hope with Lucian Rock, a quintessential American inventor whose future holds more potential than the ruined Amos Mason.

But past events stay with us, and inevitably color the optimism that emerges at the close. Even though Lydie and Gussie look to more hopeful futures, there is no reason to suspect that they will be any more successful than the previous generation; they are just as prone to ambition, anger, and deceit as their parents had been. Lydie refers to herself as blind and wears dark glasses, even though it is clear that she exaggerates her injury, presumably for sympathy. Lucian Rock is tricked into taking Gussie with him, as she bandages her eye and pretends to be her sister Lydie, with whom Lucian has declared himself, from a brief past meeting, to be in love.

Part of the problem lies either in placing one’s trust in the wrong people, or in looking with only partial vision, as Lydie pretends to do. Joshua felt betrayed by his wife and friend and has taken it out on Jeremiah, and then Dan himself. Beaty has been disillusioned into thinking it was Amos who had seduced her, when all along it was Jeremiah, yet Amos is ruined by her groundless accusation. Gussie placed her faith in the power and materialism she saw possible through Amos Mason, but she fails to see that his backer, William Randolph Hearst, only uses Amos as a front man to extend his own power and drops him at the first hint of scandal, and her too.

The whole tale has been told with an uneasy mingling of tragedy and comedy, symbolism and realism, and the final effect can be read as either optimistic or pessimistic. For Guare, nothing is ever certain. While he praises the human capacity for love and hope, he cannot dismiss the human capacity for deception, hatred, and despair. Our better nature might strive to create the perfect community, but our worse leanings are always present to ensure it will not survive.

The 1960s community of Two Trains Running is centered in a Pittsburgh restaurant owned by Memphis. The restaurant is about to be demolished to make room for a city council redevelopment project, and Memphis is unsure that he will receive a fair price for his property. His waitress, Risa, serves customers who include Holloway, a kindly busybody; West, the local funeral   director; Wolf, a numbers runner; and Hambone, who goes to Lutz’s meat market every day to demand (and fail to receive) his payment for having painted the owner’s fence. Into this group comes Sterling, newly released from jail, looking to make something of himself. We witness the interactions of the group as they learn to recognize their own individual flaws and, more importantly, how to become a stronger community.

Despite hardship, we see a potential community from the start. Although Sterling is a newcomer, Wolf, Memphis, and Holloway all offer him helpful advice, and he is served food whether or not he can pay. They “look after” Hambone and the local savant, Aunt Ester, in the same way. We also see everyone willingly donate to community causes, such as bailing Bubba Boy out of jail. But living here is a struggle, and their community is under as constant a threat of disintegration as the buildings in which they live, buildings the council wants to tear down. Even Memphis’s restaurant business has gone steadily downhill in recent years. The area’s depression is a natural reflection of the lack of available work, but it is up to the area’s residents to turn things around, for they cannot count on outside assistance.

Holloway is valuable as the community storyteller. His knowledge fills in the background details that explain the other characters. He observes the community, reporting back what he sees to improve people’s understanding of each other, and helps build a stronger community. His explanation of Risa, as having scarred herself so that men will be forced to look at her personality and not take her for granted, is very insightful. He also has a clear vision of what Hambone’s behavior signifies. He knows that Hambone fights for respect and esteem and cares little about the physical ham he seems to be clamoring for. It is Holloway who notices that Hambone is missing and takes the trouble to find out why.

What many of the other residents must learn is to accept more responsibility for their community. Memphis refuses to get involved, caught up in the loss of his property down South and unable to settle down. He is so wrapped up in himself that his wife leaves him, tired of being shut out and ignored. Refusing to display a flyer for the Malcolm X rally is an indication of his reluctance to join community ranks. By teaching him to accept his responsibilities, Aunt Ester changes his life. Demanding a high price for his restaurant, he receives it, which gives him the confidence to open up to his wife and win her back. He also decides to reclaim that Southern property. After Hambone’s death, he contributes to buy flowers for the funeral, making it a communal gesture by having the card read that the flowers are from everyone who has striven, like Hambone, to be responsible. He then announces plans to open a bigger restaurant in the area, employing a dozen locals—an even more positive gesture of community responsibility.

West and Wolf are also isolated figures. West only connected with his wife, and since her death has shut himself off completely. Making his living from deaths in the African American community, he hires white men to guard the   funeral home and repair his property. Thus, he profits from the community without giving anything back. However, he shows signs of a developing community spirit in his offer to bury Aunt Ester for free and in laying out Hambone without cost. Wolf’s name indicates his tendency to be a loner. Despite notoriety and popularity as the community’s numbers runner, he too is unable to connect with others. Wolf is alone, and no one will come to his funeral, especially not the women he boasts will show up.

Sterling has a background similar to Wolf’s—broken family, few breaks, criminal activity—but displays a different personality, suggesting that character can determine fate. Though close to death and despair from an early age, Sterling chooses life and hope. Refusing to dwell on misfortune, he speaks of himself as a lucky man, as if to counter his bad experiences. He defines himself in terms of his community, which is something Wolf lacks the courage to do. Sterling initially seems self-involved, but soon joins the community in Memphis’s restaurant, and becomes a leading force within that community.

What makes Sterling a good leader are his clear vision and willingness to share this with others. He instantly recognizes the unfairness of Memphis’s constant commands and complaints to Risa, and speaks out against his treatment of the waitress. His first reaction to Hambone is to show concern that he does not have his ham, rather than dismiss him as an idiot. He befriends Hambone and tries to help him. He is a younger, more virile version of Holloway; neither can stay silent when they see injustice and both care for others. Sterling can also help others to dream, leading them forward with his infectious enthusiasm. Having been set apart in jail for five years, Sterling wants to be involved in the community, so he encourages everyone to attend the Malcolm X rally and borrows money to contribute to Bubba Boy’s bail fund (including Hambone in his donation). Sterling recognizes the underlying importance of connection and seeks to create and maintain such connections.

Like Sterling, Risa has a good heart. She cares for others and seems able to understand them. She insists that Hambone eat, whether or not he can pay, and gives him a warm coat. She treats him as an equal, asking questions about his health and activities as if he were capable of answering more than, “I want my ham.” It is she who insists that he be respectfully buried. Yet, even she is fearful of proximity to others and this restricts her. However, Sterling insists: “You in the world” (100), and advises her to open herself up. When she and Sterling embrace, both are strengthened by their connection.

Despite his small role, Hambone is central to this community, impacting everyone. His quest represents a desire for justice, and the others need to recognize this and offer support, as a community must work together if they wish to progress. Sterling leads them by taking a ham from Lutz to place in Hambone’s casket. As the play closes, we are given a sense that this community is on the move, as Wolf reports the streets are filled with people. The previous evening there had been three thousand people at the rally. These people, as they come together at the play’s close, display the spirit to keep going, strug-   gling on despite the odds against them to claim lives of their own and a place for everyone in a truly democratic community.

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