19 October, 2010

Isn't It Rich?

A Little Night Music is an excellent musical, but it's not true. That is, it moves us most when its existential nihilism causes pain, but the supposed happiness of its leading characters in the end must, by the very nature of its philosophy, be tinged with hopelessness. It is a story that longs for eucatastrophe. We see its hopelessness in miniature during Petra’s breezy "The Miller’s Son." She sings of her inevitable marriage—whether to a miller’s son, a businessman, or a prince—but insists that, in the meanwhile:
There are mouths to be kissed
Before mouths to be fed,
And there's many a tryst
And there's many a bed,
There's a lot I'll have missed
But I'll not have been dead
When I die!
Because life is just passing by and we should celebrate while we can. The result is a stage full of fools—fools that move us, but fools nonetheless.

The entire musical, as one-woman Greek chorus Madame Armfeldt prologues, is about the follies of mankind. For someone with a deeply comic outlook on life, such follies can and should be funny (cf. Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night’s Dream), but the nihilist can only say with Fredrika, "I think it must be worth it. […] It's all there is, isn't it?" This outlook on life is nothing short of discouraging and turns hope into a mere childish fancy. So even when Desiree rescues Frederik from "renewing [his] unrenewable youth" and he rescues her from her endless series of liaisons, we can only look upon them sadly, as we might a desperately poor child waiting up for Santa on Christmas Eve. After all, "love's disgusting, love's insane, a humiliating business" and Desiree has already branded herself and Frederik as the fools in the farce that is their life. Tragic fools, whose comedic timing is on the fritz.

And yet, Stephen Sondheim has an unmatched gift for seeing truth. The hopelessness of such nihilism is impossible to miss. Each couple is struggling to choose between seeming opposites: renewing one's youth or surrendering to the effects of time, prudence or passion, freedom or domesticity, and that perennial choice, love or money. But Sondheim, as ever, holds on to the tragic metaphysic of the classicists before him, certain that we must choose between the opposites rather than live in the paradox of the Cross. But this is not syncretism or any sort of attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable. It's the struggle.

It's Pascal, it's Eliot, it's Christ.

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