A new acquaintance opened a door to some old memories for me this evening.
Thanks to the connections at CCBlogs, I found Peculiar Preacher, who turns out to be someone with whom I probably share any number of mutual friends since we both attended Baylor and spent a good deal of time in Texas. He wrote about going to see a new production of Man of La Mancha in Fort Worth and his dissent with the area theater critics about the quality and impact of the production.
My family was traveling between Africa and America (my parents were missionaries) in 1967 or 68 and we stopped in London for a couple of days to rest. My parents took my brother and me to see Man of La Mancha and we saw a rather legendary performance (I know now). It was the first time I had ever been to a stage production of that magnitude and quality. I was mesmerized by the experience and moved by the story. The Cervantes/Quixote character burrowed deep into my young heart and has never forsaken his residence there. I remember hearing “The Impossible Dream” before it became a lounge lizard anthem:
and the world will be better for this
that one man torn and covered with scars
still strove with his last ounce of courage
to reach the unreachable star
It’s hard to get a clean hearing of the song now.
My favorite character in the show was not Quixote, but Sancho Panza, his sidekick. In one of the final scenes, Quixote is dying and has allowed himself to believe his life has been a failure. Sancho refuses for that to be the last word. He begins to sing to the song to his dear friend and master, saying, “Don’t you remember? You must remember.” Quixote then revives to sing with his companion once more and then dies without taking the sense of failure with him. Such is the power of friendship.
I find myself in both men. I understand Quixote’s feelings of worthlessness when he is told his life has counted for nothing but tilting at windmills. Yes, I know the last sentence is a bit overly dramatic and I don’t know another way to say it. Part of what it has meant to be Milton over the years is feeling less than enough and always at least an arm’s length from whatever the dream might be. Those feelings didn’t consume all of my days, but they have been part of the package. I think those feelings have led me to live a lot like Sancho: I’m a good sidekick. I like being able to help those around me reach for their stars, feel like enough in their story, or simply live through to the other side of failure. Somewhere in the interchange, I get to feel like I’m enough as well.
Since I worked brunch today, Ginger and I both got to be home together tonight, each at our respective MacBooks writing away. I plugged the speakers into mine and turned on Gavin Bryars’ recording, Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, which is a classical piece built around the singing of a London street person. Here is Bryars’ description:
In 1971, when I lived in London, I was working with a friend, Alan Power, on a film about people living rough in the area around Elephant and Castle and Waterloo Station. In the course of being filmed, some people broke into drunken song – sometimes bits of opera, sometimes sentimental ballads – and one, who in fact did not drink, sang a religious song “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”. This was not ultimately used in the film and I was given all the unused sections of tape, including this one.
When I played it at home, I found that his singing was in tune with my piano, and I improvised a simple accompaniment. I noticed, too, that the first section of the song – 13 bars in length – formed an effective loop which repeated in a slightly unpredictable way. I took the tape loop to Leicester, where I was working in the Fine Art Department, and copied the loop onto a continuous reel of tape, thinking about perhaps adding an orchestrated accompaniment to this. The door of the recording room opened on to one of the large painting studios and I left the tape copying, with the door open, while I went to have a cup of coffee. When I came back I found the normally lively room unnaturally subdued. People were moving about much more slowly than usual and a few were sitting alone, quietly weeping.
I was puzzled until I realized that the tape was still playing and that they had been overcome by the old man’s singing. This convinced me of the emotional power of the music and of the possibilities offered by adding a simple, though gradually evolving, orchestral accompaniment that respected the tramp’s nobility and simple faith.
For all of our preparation during Advent, it’s difficult for us to access or replicate the desperation of the Incarnation on both sides of the equation. The second Broadway show I ever saw was Fiddler on the Roof. When the Russian soldiers come to tell the Jewish people they have to leave, one of them says, “Rabbi, wouldn’t this be a good time for the Messiah to come?” We tell the story and light the candles and sing the songs in ways that are meaningful and moving and full of good things, but rarely do we come to moments when we grab one another and say, “Don’t you remember? You must remember.” The divine desperation of the not-so-impossible dream that stands behind God putting skin on asks the same question: don’t you remember?
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.
A voice cries: “In the wilderness,
prepare the way of the LORD;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
A voice says, “Cry!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
“All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades
when the breath of the LORD blows on it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever.”
We must remember.