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Monday, September 10, 2018

Pursuit of Happiness

WILLIAM BLAKE PUBLISHED HIS “Songs of Innocence and of Experience,” a collection of metaphysical poems with mystical illustrations, at the end of the 18th century. It has baffled and inspired ever since, and some of its fans have been inspired enough to interpret the work in a variety of media. Thus we have settings of some or all of the poems by Britten, Vaughan Williams, Tangerine Dream, Greg Brown, William Bolcom, and Allen Ginsberg, while Joyce Cary’s fictional painter Gulley Jimson was inspired to paint his own versions in “The Horse’s Mouth” (and which were created by John Bratby for the film version).

Molly Parker Myers and Brian Petti
Photo by John Sowle
Playwright Mickle Maher has followed his own inspiration even further, turning Blake’s poetry into a ninety-minute exaltation of sensuality. “There Is a Happiness That Morning Is,” in a superb production at Catskill’s Bridge Street Theatre, celebrates the language and ideas of Blake, personifying three aspects of the poet’s worldview in the form of three compelling characters.

The premise is outrageous and simple. Bernard Barrow and Ellen Parker teach at a small liberal arts college in the northeast. Bernard is a Blake specialist; Ellen also teaches the work of the poet, and each focuses on a different part of the “Songs.” Bernard has the Innocence, Ellen the Experience. And Bernard, whom we hear from first, is aburst with joy, despite the fact that he and Ellen were so carried away during a joint lesson they offered outdoors the day before that they fell into each other’s embrace. And pursued it to a carnal-enough demonstration to bring the wrath of the college’s president upon their heads.

But Bernard refuses to see the incident as anything but joyful, and, in a Blake-ean way, innocent. “Two people in love committing a murder / seems a better thing to us than were there / only one committing the same. And why? / Because a single person’s just some guy / alone. A lonely person. And all he’s done / as a single, lonely person killing someone / is make himself -- that's right -- just more alone. / But love, we know, creates a magic zone. / Lovers make assassination /
seem more a tender assignation.”

The script is written in heroic couplets, as the quote above demonstrates, which is a virtuoso commitment for a playwright in our poetry-deficient age. Maher rises to the challenge with stunning grace. Poetry is the topic, so it’s no surprise that Bernard and, soon, Ellen, are prone to surges of poetry, but where Bernard is pastoral in his imagery, Ellen is given to coarser language and a more practical sense of consequence.

Referring to Bernard’s outlook, she says, “He thinks that happiness is outside somewhere. / Outside of us, out in the dirt or air. / Something that by his devious fuckery / can be kept out by idiotic decree / and his dung-packed battlements of woe. / But Happiness has its Kingdom here, you know. / It lives and shouts and rules inside of us. / Inside, and thus / It’s not a thing to try to worm or wind / its way into the dark cage of our mind; / it's born there, it’s always been a part /
of each of us, inside our skull, our heart.”

(Which excerpt demonstrates Maher’s use of catalexis in the brief line “Inside, and thus” as well as enjambment, which runs a thought into a successive line – and the many instances of assonantal and consonantal rhymes, which, unfortunately, have become the norm among contemporary lyrists and thus have created a public unaware of the differences.)

Bernard examines “Infant Joy” from the “Songs of Innocence,” a poem fraught with image despite its brevity, as a two-day-old exults in the happiness of newly living. And why do we read poems? “We read poems so we can repeat them. / We read poems so we can repeat them. / Either alone (out loud or in our head), / or to others. We like to say what has been said.” By contrast, Ellen turns to the “Songs of Experience” to analyze “The Sick Rose.” It’s worth quoting in full:

O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

She notes, “Blake here has not so much a poem to give, / more a prognosis -- shockingly negative. / This rose’s life – a life of crimson joy, / will not just end, or fade, the word’s “destroy.” / Destroyed by this, this worm, all wrapped in night – / invisible – invisible – its flight.”

She is played by Molly Parker Myers, continuing a long association with Bridge Street, who gives Ellen an incisiveness that informs her love of poetry and, in its very different way, her love for Bernard. Although I would have liked to see her reveal her character’s vulnerable side a bit less archly, I commend her ease with the language, something we can’t take for granted in a mumblecore world.

Brian Petti is Bernard, shambling around the stage with a please-love-me look about him, anticipating by this nature what we’ll eventually learn about his background, a revelation that nevertheless comes as a surprise. And Petti, too, glories in the text.

Although the invisible worm is eating Ellen from within, the intruder becomes personified in the form of President Dean, who has demanded a public apology from his rutting academics, and who suddenly appears in the last part of the play to offer the most surprising revelation of all. Steven Patterson sports a massive beard and elbow patches as he bursts in with a manic Jim Carrey energy. He is passionately supportive, but his support is fissured with unexpected limits. His over-the-top manner is warm putty in Patterson’s experienced hands, and the character never seems unbelievable no matter how far he goes.

John Sowle admirably designed and directed the intermission-free production, which seems to go by in no time even as it wrenches us along a twisty track of emotional change – and leaves us much better equipped to find the joy that ever awaits us, per the promise of Blake. The production continues at 7:30 PM Thursday-Saturday, September 13-15, and at 2 PM Sunday, September 16.

There Is a Happiness That Morning Is
By Mickle Maher
Designed and directed by John Sowle
Bridge Street Theatre, September 8, 2018
44 W. Bridge Street, Catskill, NY
Tickets at or by calling 800-838-3006

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